Mary’s life in Europe


“Had my first grits, thanks for everything!”

Mary’s post-Christmas letter started with that heraldic proclamation. Our gifts to “our German daughter” in Düsseldorf were mailed from here in the first week of December. On that very day, she mailed gifts to us.

Our gifts were surprisingly similar. She knows how much we like the German Christmas cookies (similar to ginger snaps), and a couple of CDs for her dad, a pretty coffee carafe for me. She remembers what Haydn Dave has and fills in the gaps at Christmas. We sent them a couple of interesting year-end American magazines (Time) and some grits and popcorn that she can’t get in Germany.

If I told you we both spent above $50 for shipping a couple of boxes of grits and cookies, you probably wouldn’t believe me, and it embarrasses me to admit it, so I won’t.

She sent another gift after the first one, and we don’t have that yet. It’s a CD made by a friend who recorded a chamber concert for which Mary played as accompanist, as well as a few solos on her own.

And now that the new year is upon us, she faces her annual challenge: Where and when should she take her vacation? Will we be over there this year? And what language courses should she take to buffer her tax liability?

“Our snow is mostly gone,” she writes, “but now there are floods. Nothing important here, although between Duisburg and Gelsenkirchen the canals, or more likely the [canalized] streams have turned into meadow-lakes. It has been sort of warmish and rainy, although the temperature dropped again today to just above freezing.”

Europe, at least the western part, has really not much worse weather in winter than we have, and this was the first time since she has lived there that weather has been extreme.

“My Finnish colleague was in Finland over the holidays, with his 3-and-a half-year-old son. It was -20°C. He said it was just a matter of the right clothes, but admitted that the normal thermo underwear under pants was not enough. Someone said they have to pass a driving-on-snow exam when they get their driver’s license. Like the pilots in Alaska who have to [pass a test for short landing runways.…]”

Mary works constantly on perfecting her command of other languages because operas are written in a myriad of tongues, and singers sing in a myriad of languages. For the last few years, she has been working on French.

She sent New Year’s greetings, in French, to her favorite three French teachers (in Düsseldorf, Heidelberg and Brittany). She says she “slaved” to send each a few lines back, only to “immediately get a response saying how much my French has improved.” It cost her another hour and the constant use of a dictionary to reply.

“Tonight,” she writes, “I saw the movie ‘L’italien’ and walked home with her (the French teacher),” meaning that she struggled with listening to and responding in French.

I had a friend in high school who understood the spoken language better than I did, but I could put words together to make better sentences than she could. Talk about a struggle.

The movie, L’italien: Some of the smaller cinemas play the original version once and then show the film in German.

“I actually skipped an Amnesty meeting to go. Nice film, if typical. America has Indians and black people, the French have their Moslem immigrants. This time, a man with Algerian origins acts as if he is Italian, to his parents (who live in Marseille), boss, girlfriend, etc. in order to get a better apartment/job. You can imagine how it ends. But enjoyable.”

Back to vacation planning: “When you’ve nothing else to do, reconstruct your feelings about vacation. I have heard we are closing the [opera] house from Sept. to Dec. in order to expand and remodel the [orchestra] pit. I will still be rehearsing, just no performances.”

She feels strongly that we should come in the spring, when she can get away for several days at a time. The official summer holidays for most Germans are six weeks in July and August. If we decide to rent a canal barge, as we have done before, then late summer is better.

Mary says she finally attended a concert of the Düsseldorf Opera orchestra, “her” orchestra, in their concert surroundings, the Tonhalle, which she describes as “an ex-planetarium” on the Rhine north of the old city. “We were there on a Sunday morning, a snowy day, when the train dumped us out in Duisburg without telling us how to go on to Düsseldorf .

“Fumes from some ship going by got sucked up into the air vents of the Tonhalle. So they interrupted one piece, took a break, and waited for the gases to dissipate.

“Our Pamina [lead soprano in this year’s production of The Magic Flute] thought the performance was at 6:30, when it actually started at 3:00…and she was in Stuttgart when she called, at 12, without a proper filled-out vacation form. So she got in a taxi, they started 25 minutes late, and she arrived 10 minutes before her first entrance. She has to pay the 600-EU taxi cost herself, and I don’t know what else they’ll think up.

”I hope you get my CD soon!”

Her wish was fulfilled this morning, Monday, January 31, when the errant CD appeared on the shelf of our “entertainment center,” as conspicuous as it would if it had been on a dinner plate.

It has no doubt been there all this time.