I spent this fall at the American Academy in Berlin as what one might ungenerously call a hanger-on. That is, I was there as the guest of one of the fellows (which is as close as I intend to come to discussing my personal life on this blog).
It is truly one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been. A lovely building, grounds, view–this was the view from my bedroom at sunset. We got to stay from when it looked like this first picture until it looked like the next one. Truly a place of transcendent beauty. To and of the staff who run the place, I could write ardent words, but I will let it suffice to write that I am not aware of ever having been party to a better organized, better run, and more friendly and cheerful crew of people working for cross-cultural understanding and sharing.
The mood there is relaxed, contemplative. It is the kind of place that seems designed to allow you the silence of your thoughts. The rhythm of almost each day is similar. Lovely breakfasts in the mornings, frequent interesting lectures in the evening. It put me in the mind of a song from the Natalie Merchant days of 10,000 Maniacs.
The man in 119 takes his tea all alone
Mornings we all rise to wireless Verdi cries
I’m hearing opera through the door
The souls of men and women, impassioned all
Their voices climb and fall, battle trumpets call
I fill the bath and climb inside, singing
I draw a jackal-headed woman in the sand
Sing of a lover’s fate sealed by jealous hate
And wash my hand in the sea
With just three days more
I’d have just about learned the entire score to Aida
I include these lyrics in part because I saw and heard more opera this semester than I have since my music history and later my music theory classes in high school. I was able to attend Henze’s “We Come to the River” in Dresden, go backstage, and eat dinner after with the gracious director Eytan Pessen. I saw Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz” in a theater in Bad Lauchstädt that was designed by Goethe. I saw Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” in Berlin with the sets that had been designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel around 1815. And those were only the most remarkable opera experiences! (Unfortunately, I got sick and missed La Bohème–it wasn’t tuberculosis, fortunately, but it still seemed vaguely appropriate to miss La Bohème, if one must miss it, for an upper respiratory infection!) In this way, this post seems at least in part my own version of what I think Natalie Merchant was getting at in writing “Verdi Cries.” Being exposed to amazing music in an amazing setting gets under your skin, into your bones, the stories and images come out in surprising ways, even in sand drawings.
Holidays must end as you know
All is memory taken home with me
The opera, the stolen tea, the sand drawing
The verging sea all years ago
I write this post also out of gratitude. The end of graduate school was crushing–as it seems to be for all I’ve known who finished. This major source of stress and energy that has been propelling you forward for years, and years, and years, suddenly evaporates in a rain of pomp and circumstance and it seems–confusing–unmooring. I feel that I understand now, well in advance of my own first one, what the sabbatical is designed for. My thoughts are clearer after this semester, not of vacation, but of holiday in the old sense–the days set aside to make the other days make more sense. My time in Germany, with the art of the museums, the music, the ballet gave me a re-grounding into the human race, and the beautiful modes of production and creativity that we have, and reminded me some of why I wanted to study all this beauty to begin with.
So I begin my renewed commitment to blogging my teaching experience in China with a post of gratitude for the place and the people who helped me find what feels like the strength for the road after the next bend.