I have always known that every chapter in my life, even every little incident, whether good or bad, just leads to the next chapter which may be completely different and unexpected. That was how I felt about the gig in Europe. Because of the choices I made when I was younger and just starting out in my adult life, I lived below the poverty level for most of that time and never imagined that I would travel overseas. I was resigned to my lot and even embraced it. I’ve never been religious. Even as a child, being raised kind of Catholic lite, I was thrown out of Catechism class in twice. My parents were able to enroll me again for the two big sacraments, First Communion and Confirmation. I guess I “asked too many questions.” It was disruptive to the rest of the class. But although I’m not religious, I am spiritual. It’s probably more along the lines of Native Americans and Druids. I pay attention to any signs that come my way. Sometimes they’re dreams, other times premonitions. I also tend to go whichever way the wind blows. My partner teases me about being spontaneous. It’s true. I can be running a short errand and end up on some adventure or exploration for much of the day, and I usually say yes immediately to most things.
That’s how I ended up in Europe. As draining as the actual gigs were, the rest of the trip was amazing. After the other musicians left to go home or on to their own travels, we rented a car. We toured around Berlin for a day, finding Dick’s old haunts and listening to his outrageous stories about his adventures there as a young man. He even spoke a little German, just enough to get us by. I found that I understood more of what was being said than I thought I would. I didn’t know if it was because German is a similar language to English or if it came from my musical background. Musicians often have an easier time with language. In addition, when I studied classical voice, I often sang in other languages such as German, Italian and French. Either way, we were relieved to have had no trouble navigating the country. We soon headed south to Bavaria where we saw a few old castles and stayed in a motel at Schwangau. Schwan is the German word for swan. This is where the Hohenschwangau Castle and Neuschwanstein Castles are located. It is also the location of Swan Lake or Schwansee. Both castles have an interesting history.
Hohenschwangau Castle was built sometime around 1397 and sits on top of a hill overlooking Schwangau and went through many owners until finally being bought in 1832 by King Maximillion II. It was Maximillion who built the park which has Schwansee in it. His son, King Ludwig II, grew up there and later built Neuschwanstein Castle on the top of the neighboring hill which also overlooks the lake and village. Neuschwanstein Castle became the model for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. King Ludwig has an interesting and tragic story. He was called “The Mad King.” In reality, he was shy and quite eccentric. He spent his money wantonly. He insisted on only eating outdoors and wore a heavy coat on the hottest days in the summer. He often behaved in a childish way and avoided politics and state business. He was expected to produce an heir but never married and was known to be attracted to men. In the 19th-century, Bavaria was intensely Catholic and socially conservative. Homosexuality was illegal and punishable by death. The scandal of a homosexual monarch would have been intolerable, so he was deposed and later murdered.
He was a patron of the arts and was drawn to classical composer Richard Wagner. He decided to build the castle as a private residence but also as a retreat Wagner. He used his own private money rather than using public funds and borrowed an extravagant amount only to leave the castle unfinished. It is extravagant and quirky. It almost reminded me of the creepy Winchester House in San Jose, California with its staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open up into walls and useless rooms, except that no expense was spared for the construction of the castle. He was so involved with the design; he often gets credit for being the architect. On the tour, which consisted mostly of climbing up and down stairs to look at many unfinished rooms, my favorite room by far was the Singer’s Hall. The walls and ceiling were built of hollow cedar boxes to mimic an acoustic instrument, like a guitar body. It was one of the last stops on the tour and I stayed behind the group long enough to sing inside the room. It was awesome. The richness of the sound was unlike anything I’d heard before. That one room made the whole tour worthwhile. After the one night in Schwangau, we started traveling east on our way to Switzerland to stay with friends at their home.
As we traveled through Bavaria, we noticed that the area was still very conservative and Catholic. There were many crucifixes along the road, in people’s yards and churches everywhere. In one small town, we noticed an outdoor art fair, so we stopped. Some of the vendors spoke English. One of them had lived in upstate New York for a few years. He did watercolors. We had our instruments with us and thought maybe we could play here. There were no other musicians around, so we asked this new friend. He explained that we would have to get permission from the local priest who would only permit it if we did sacred music. We were stunned. We asked if he thought the priest would accept instrumental tunes. He advised us to forget about it, so we did.
The autobahn was incredible. It was a solid road with no potholes or cracks in the concrete. We saw some workers building a new road and were amazed at the outstanding construction. Everything in Germany seemed to be well-built. No floorboards creaked and no doors or windows were warped, no matter how old the buildings were. When we had first arrived at the Berlin airport, we had seen windmills everywhere. Now there were hundreds of them and yellow fields of rapeseed everywhere that would be harvested to make Biodiesel fuel. We saw these sights all along our journey through Germany. It was also clean everywhere. There was no litter, and every restroom was immaculate and staffed with attendants. I was also impressed by the hospitality in every region, and food was wonderful.
We got stuck in a traffic jam on the autobahn for a couple of hours. When there’s an accident, traffic is at a standstill until everything is cleared away. It usually involves many cars and takes a while, so people get out of their cars and socialize. We pulled out our instruments and practiced, having a great time for a while, then finally got to an exit and, looking on a map, found a way around the mess. When we were about an hour from our destination, we got lost in Eastern France for a while, driving along narrow, hilly winding roads in tiny villages. Every time we hit a dead-end, we crossed our fingers that we could manage to turn around. The borders were all open, so I had to get a photo with one foot in each country. We finally made it to Fahy, Switzerland around dinnertime. We were starved and exhausted, but we were so excited to see our friends for the first time in many years, we ignored it.
I had asked if I could do a short program at the local school. I had brought along a limberjack in addition to the mandolin. I wanted to demonstrate traditional American culture to the young students. Ursula suggested that we walk over to their neighbor’s home and talk to the kindergarten teacher there. As we approached the house, I realized that I hadn’t grabbed anything to eat and was starting to feel a little light-headed. I figured we wouldn’t stay long. The guys were back at the house preparing dinner. We knocked on the door and were told, in French, that Mama and Papa were in the cellar. I was confused but Ursula led the way to a separate underground wine cellar. Inside were benches and tables and about 8 or ten people drinking wine. When they heard that I was one of the musicians who would be playing at the house concert the next evening, they greeted me enthusiastically and handed me a glass of wine. I started to refuse when Ursula instructed me to take it so I wouldn’t appear rude. I started sipping it cautiously, but they kept toasting and cheering me on. Before I knew what was happening, I had another one in my hand. They wanted me to try their special vintages. I tried to insist on small tastes, but they weren’t having it. They were hosting the American musician and wanted to make a good impression. Then they took me into the smaller room and showed me a wooden cask of cognac from the 19th century and gave me a glass of that.
I don’t remember walking back to Ursula and Ed’s but somehow, we made it. Back at the house, Ed and Dick had wondered where we were. They had cheese and crackers and, of course, wine waiting for us. Then we had another glass of wine with dinner and fruit soaked in alcohol for dessert. I can’t believe I never got sick, but I survived without even a hangover the next day.
Ed was going to play some fiddle with us at the concert, so we spent that day jamming. After dinner, we did our concert for a very appreciative crowd who all brought snacks, and we had a nice visit with everyone after the show. Between my little bit of French, Dick’s little bit of German, a couple of interpreters who spoke English well and some of the residents who had varying degrees of English, we got to know people and thoroughly enjoyed the night. The next couple of days were spent sightseeing and catching up with our friends. Finally, on our way back to Berlin, we visited an old Roman ruin. I have always been fascinated by history and loved the entire trip. I treasured it as a once in a lifetime opportunity.