Friday, January 28, 2011

Freiburg: Universities, Ukranians, and Ukuleles

Grimm Location

I crossed the Alps and the language went from Romantic to Germanic, along with the culture. Pan was replaced with a brown, rocklike substance that the Germans referred to as Brot but I referred to as Gestein. Airkisses and hugs fell way to more efficient handshakes and any passions for art and life were replaced with satisfaction in concocting grammatically complicated sentences and ridiculously lengthy compound words like Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit).

In Freiburg I stayed in Tree's fraternity or Studentenverbindung. Their founding documents stress music and fencing, though these activities are not encouraged simultaneously as I was disappointed to discover. They have a choir and I was forced to join as payment for invading their space. In comparison with the frat brothers I looked even younger than usual because most of the fraternity members were nearly 30. Apparently high school is 5 years in Germany and only recently, as mandated by the EU's standardizing of education, could a German earn a bachelors degree on its own. They used to be forced to also complete a masters. Despite this no longer being the case, that cultural idea remains that you shouldn't hurry through your academics. "Go ahead and take terms off because your youth will be gone when you graduate!" This whole idea of waiting for 3 or 4 years before starting college or even just taking a year off to be a bartender in New Zealand was hard for me to grasp. No one could believe that at the tender age of 22 I had already finished college. Was I some sort of prodigy or just a nerd?

Freiburg is a really cool city. It looks like it's straight out of Grimm's fairy tales. Even the McDonald's is in a quaint building that looks like it houses Snow White. The town is filled with college students, albeit old college students, and street performers that have posts on all of the corners of the cobblestone lanes. Weird African drums that looked and sounded like UFOs, South American whistles and ukuleles were performed everywhere. I guess that there is one accordion for every 3 Freiburgers, but I SCrNCed Stats so don't take my word for it.


Tree plays bamboo flute with the World Music Group Project. They also have a violin, two guitars, a trumpet, and an accordian. I really wanted to see how he would be incorporated into music from Greece, Mexico, Italy, and Romania. I attended some of their rehearsals and then began to play bass using my mandocello. I think they just let me play with them so that they could claim another nationality in their ensemble, but I was grateful for the chance. I realized that it was totally necessary to be able to understand the rehearsal language because getting things translated for you is really tricky when everyone is trying to concentrate on the music. Luckily the violin player next to me went to high school in Australia so she could translate quickly. I also realized just what a disadvantage I had in Asia. As a Westerner, or just someone who grew up watching Looney Tunes I automatically recognize pieces like La Cukaracha and Santa Lucia whereas Tree wasn't sure if these were original compositions or not.

The concert I played with them was really fun and well received by the audience of the subterranean pub. In the program I also got the best mispelling of my last name ever: Phervilinger. Even better than the fusion of the instruments was that the second half had everyone playing solos or duets to showcase a piece from their homeland. I decided to forgo my cowboy act and just accompany Tree as he played a Taiwanese classic. Other highlights were a Romanian pop song which I assumed no one had ever heard before, but suddenly the singer's friends in the audience burst into three part harmonies for the chorus and they were further accompanied by the sound of shattering glass. At first I assumed that they had broken fine crystal with their vibratos, but then I saw the flustered expression of the bartender who had been so shocked by the sudden singing directed into his ears that he had dropped the bottle of wine he was pouring onto the stone cellar floor. Unfortunately I didn't record that piece or any I was in but here you can hear a Macedonian folk tune from that night with Chinese bamboo flute! It was a rough start with the weird meter but I think the bamboo flute really fits in well.

In the second link you can hear an Italian woman sing. I love her voice and she is one of those people who seems to have been born into the wrong time. She wears dark red lipstick and smokes with a Cruella De Vil style cigarette holders. Her speaking voice is slow, drawling and lethargic, so much so that I get the feeling that if I were the one to give her the news of her mother's death her response would be a purposeful, contemplative drag off of her Cruella cigarette attachment followed by the question, "So what else is new?" I went up to complement her after the show but had to use Tree to translate since she only spoke Italian and German. She wanted to make it clear that she could sing in 16 languages, but she could only speak/smoke in two. Oh also, in the video, the reason I'm off to the side in a hole is because I was waiting to go on and perform but then I got so busy applauding I forgot to charge onto stage.

Singing in Tongues

As I mentioned earlier, I began singing in a fraternity choir. Actually they merge with a sorority to form an SATB ensemble. They were impressed with my ability to pick up the parts to German Carols. Tree knew I'm no great singer so I decided to let him remain impressed and not let on that I'd already sung Hark! The Herald Angel Sings and Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming in choirs before, in German. As far as he knew, Americans had never heard such songs before. We also were singing in Latin and English and I got to be a speech coach for the English song which was The Circle of Life.

Our director was a 26 year old Japanese-German Opera conductor-in-training. She is high energy and has a shockingly powerful voice for someone who is probably 4'10 in high heeled boots. Occasionally she would translate her instructions to Japanese for me, which I was grateful for, but usually I could follow along having managed to pick up numbers and basic phrases like, "From the top!" or "Second verse!" Sometimes I would have to point out where we were in the music to the German guy next to me. I think he needed some Ritalin.

The Chinese community in Freiburg is extremely tight. They all attend each other's concerts (most of which are Western style) and the Sinology programs at the universities in Freiburg provide plenty of get-togethers which the German students use to practice their Chinese. So I got to watch a choir of Chinese German students and German Chinese students sing songs in a choir together.

On the weekends I was also taking a train to Vienna to sing with a choir of Taiwanese senior citizens (they were in desperate need of basses). For some reason my mother was convinced that I had joined the Vienna Boys' Choir. I tried explaining that for someone who had, however belatedly, suffered through puberty this was not possible. I also explained that the average age of the choir members was around 60. Still no success.

The choir is directed by Algy, the Golden Horse Award nominated movie composer who lives in Vienna. He also plays bandoneon in two tango ensembles. Pictured below you can see him at one of these tango concerts.

In Vienna, I had to deal with two issues. The first was that the choir members would speak German to me and I would have to try to convince them to speak Chinese with me. Unlike with the assumption that I could only speak English in Taiwan, this really was an issue I had to press. Most of them were in states of complete disbelief. "No, really!" I pleaded in Chinese, "I don't understand German, you have to speak Chinese with me." Some of the suspicious ones spoke German to me just to see if I would slip up and accidentally understand it. In this choir we sang in German, Latin, Mandarin and Taiwanese. After rehearsals I always felt like I'd lost control of my tongue. The second issue was that everything in Vienna has Wiener written before it. You can buy Wiener Newspapers and read them at Weiner Cafes. Eventually I found out that Wiener means Viennese. Unfortunately I have the mental maturity of a 4th grader and this remained hilarious to me.

My Future and Her Past

During my time in Freiburg I spent many afternoons in cafes tucked comfortably away from the snow attempting to finish applying to grad schools. Of course the whole time I kept doubting whether or not I really wanted to go next year. So I decided to cut my losses, apply only for my dream schools and no safety schools. That way if I get in, it's a dream come true and if I don't get in then I have another year to teach English abroad somewhere before getting back to reality.

While applying I became desperate for conversation (read: procrastination) and ended up befriending an old Chinese lady whom I had tea with every Tuesday and Thursday at 3:30. We both chatted about our dreams. Mine in the future tense and hers in the woulda/coulda/shoulda tense. She was an extremely interesting character, nostalgic but never self pitying, elderly, but still tech savvy(she has facebook!), charming yet aloof. I told her my life story over the course of three weeks and she told me hers. She had fallen in love with a businessman in the 1950s and shortly after marrying they moved to East Germany which was friendly with Red China. And since that move, she still hasn't been back to her native China. She says she's too old to travel so far now, but she was interested in what I had seen recently. Were things really developing as fast as everyone was saying? She didn't feel she could trust a real Chinese citizen's opinions since they are always so immersed in the propaganda. The last time I met her she was hailed by some people her own age. She waved politely but continued on to my table. I felt extremely honored that she chose to sit with me. I said good bye to her and told her I felt so lucky to have heard her stories. We both gifted each other a CD before parting and exchanged a look that in my mind read, "Are we soulmates?"

A Cold Play Makes for a Green Day

One day I wondered why I never played on the street for money. There are some really talented players on the streets but there are also some really sucky ones and they all seem to get cash. Also, it would just be good practice. So I put on some flannel and played my most typically American tunes with exaggerated country twang. A crowd gathered around and they asked if I was really American. Umm. . . yeah. They seemed suspicious. So I switched it up and played a mandocello rendered version of some Lady Gaga, Green Day, and Coldplay songs. This went over better and in the end I made 45.65 euros before my fingers got so cold I couldn't create chords anymore.

See Sharp or Be Flat!

At Tree's fraternity I had the opportunity to learn fencing. Not surprisingly my fencing lessons also gave me insight as to why all of the people in the pictures of the fraternity brothers have giant scars on their faces. They told me that they practice with masks but do not duel other fraternities with such protection. At first I thought they were kidding but after one of the brothers showed me the scar on his scalp I began to take them more seriously. Also, the sabres are not the flimsy things you see in Olympic fencing but thick and heavy clunkers. The handles act as a sort of a protection because when it is swung high it acts as a shield for the face.

It is true that most Germans speak pretty good English but the people I needed to talk to everyday were usually the Ukranian immigrants working at restaurants, bakeries, and bus stations. They could speak German of course, but I could not. This forced me to order lots of things that sounded the same in English so even if I wanted a delicious looking roll, I usually ended up ordering "ein Brezel." Eventually I got frustrated enough that I began pointing games and surrendered to the if-I-speak-a-language-you-don't-know-loudly-and-slowly-enough-you-will-magickally-pick-it-up-and-understand-it school of thought.

I attended a lot of classes at the Jazz and Rock School as Tree or Suzy's guest. The topics varied from sightreading to music theory to pop music history to movie music. These last two were conducted in German but I decided to go anyway. When the professor asked which 60s artists had used the theremin in the background of their pieces I couldn't help shouting, "The Beach Boys!" Tree looked at me amazed. "You can understand this class? I don't even understand this." Since the class is primarily dates and names and all the names are familiar to me, it was super easy to follow, but poor Tree hadn't grown up listening to Oldies like me and had no idea what Motown was. I continue to be shocked at how the shared cultural history of the West makes living in Europe so much easier for me than living in Asia.

I had a similar triumphant experience in movie music class when they had a listening bee and had to name the composer for samples of movies from the last 15 years. I made a noise similar to, "Squee!" when I found out about the listening bee and forced myself into the line even though they assured me they'd been preparing all semester for this. I was like, puhhlease, I have 10 different movie music playlists on my iPod which I listen to every night before going to bed. I mentally prepared myself to appreciate this moment as I realized that I would never again have the opportunity to feel so superior. I scanned the room and was disappointed to see that only 11 other souls would share this, the highlight of my life, with me.

It started off ridiculously easy with John Williams, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, and James Horner. It progressed to Michael Giacchino, Aaron Zigman, and Dario Marianelli. With only one other dude left we had to name the director, movie and composer. I heard a 10 second snippet of Lust, Caution (a Chinese language movie) and obnoxiously pronounced Ang Lee's name with tones and did an even more despicable French accent on composer Alexandre Michel Desplat's name. Finally my opponent was given 10 seconds of The Reader but had no clue. I answered Nico Muhly winning both the competition and the hatred of everyone in the room. I was in heaven.

Up next: My adventures continue in Vienna and Christmas in Taiwan!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Five Mongolians, Two Swiss, and an American Walk into a Bar

*Special thanks to anonymous commenter who caught my errors! I called Bagen by the wrong name and misattributed his towering height to Hurcha. This was due to impaired memory from alcohol consumption. Stay aware from it, kids!

My Folk Heroes

Sitting back in the Libe at Carleton last September, I was attempting the first draft of my Watson proposal. My description of my passion for music came out dry and clinical. But when Hanggai's music came up on my iTunes, that indescribable love for folk music finally became describable. I have now listened to their album on repeat 256 times according to iTunes. I feel like that is a slightly embarrassing number, but I think it's necessary information to confess so you guys understand just how much I love their music.

Now imagine my level of excitement when I heard that Hanggai was playing in Bern, just an hour train ride from Freiburg. I found out about the concert two hours before it started. Just enough time, I thought! I just hoped that I would be able to meet them afterward to thank them for the inspiration. How lowly I set my expectations.

By the way, you should totally listen to their music at this link ( while reading the blog!

I arrived in Switzerland and somehow managed to navigate the streets of Bern to the club where my favorite throat singers were performing and convince the ticket vender, who doubted the veracity of my passport because there was no way I was 18 let alone 22, to accept my euros since I didn't have any Swiss Franks. I stood right under the stage and had just found my place when the concert began. It was unbelievably good! They sound way better live than on their album. Their concert also included pieces from their new album which I hadn't heard yet. They all wore traditional costumes from Mongolia and while their sound includes traditional instruments and traditional singing styles, they supplement this with drumset and electric bass and electric guitar. The energy was fantastic and contagious. The dry ice and blue-tinted flashing lights added to the high energy. And I was surprised because their albums just don't feature as much of the rock vibe as their live concert.

Pictured here, you can see Bagen playing his Morin Khuur, the horse-headed fiddle. Instead of applying pressure with your left hand from above to change the pitch of the string, you press up with your fingernail. I'd heard that this causes experienced players to lose their fingernails but later Bagen dispelled that myth. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Ilchi is seen here playing the Taobuxuur, a two stringed Mongolian banjo. He is the founder of the group. Originally he was the lead singer of a punk rock group in Beijing, but in an attempt to find his roots in Inner Mongolia, he traveled to his grandparents' hometown and ended up learning hoomei, the Mongolian technique for singing two pitches simultaneously. Then combining his roots and his experience with punk rock he founded Hanggai. It was hard to imagine Ilchi as a punk rocker because he nervously made quiet comments in English to introduce the songs, since all folk musicians have to talk in between their pieces.

They played all my favorites but the obvious crowd favorite was Jiuge, Drinking Song. A simple melody is repeated slightly faster everytime. The lyrics are simple so by the end the audience could sing along and shout "Hey!" together. For the encore they played it again and all drank a glass of beer between each repetition. They made it through 5 repeats before the drummer lost control of the beat. The audience erupted into even louder cheers as the train wreck came to a screeching hault.

You Are the Wind Beneath My Horse!
After the concert I realized I had missed the last train back to Germany. I planned on spending the night waiting at the 24-hour McDonald's for the morning train but just then I struck up a conversation with a young Swiss couple. I explained my plight, reassuring them that it was totally worth it. The girl, Johanna, knew Ilchi from her year abroad in Ulaanbaatar. She could even speak Mongolian. After our bonding over our experiences in Asia, she invited me to sleep on her couch until the morning train. But there was a catch, she sighed. She and her boyfriend were going to spend the evening pub hopping across Bern with the members of Hanggai and I'd have to come along, would that be okay??? For some reason I had a flash to this scene from Love Actually (see around 2:40 for an exact replica of my calm reaction to the best news of my life).

So 30 minutes after the concert I had a place to stay and an in with Hanggai! Just then, the entire band came out and began drinking at the club. Since there was a two drink minimum to get in to the place, I had already misplaced my inhibitions. I ran up to Ilchi and proclaimed in my best Northeastern Chinese accent, "You are the wind beneath my horse!" Folks, I'm not sure why that came out of my mouth. But I managed to recover and explain my whole Watson spiel. I told Ilchi I was such a huge fan and he totally inspired me to begin this travel around the world, hunting down Chinese musicians. Unfortunately in the bar lighting, away from the well lit stage, all of my pictures with the band members transformed into these blurry things.

Depositing Drunkards

Bagen and Hurcha, who sings lead vocals, heard me speaking Chinese and so I told my whole story over again. So the 8 of us headed off to paint the town red. After the 3rd stop of our progression, all of the Mongolians except Ilchi and Bagen ready to blackout back in their hotel. So the two coherent Mongolians each supported one of their bandmates but it took both Johanna's boyfriend, Rik, and me to support the massive and drunk Hurcha. He's well over 250lbs. When we got them to the lobby of the hotel and left them in the capable hands and wide eyes of the Swiss hotel staff, Hurcha suddenly jabbed me with his finger, sending me flying into the wall. "Aren't you coming to my room?" Johanna translated because he was speaking in Mongolian. "Uhh. . . no, I'm gonna keep drinking with these guys," I said in Mandarin, indicating those of us who could walk without assistance. "4.! 2! 6!" he replied in Mandarin this time. "That's my room number if you get bored! [Mongolian words]" I looked at Ilchi and asked with my eyes if I'd understood him correctly. Ilchi gave me an incredulous nod but Johanna and Bagen were both laughing so hard that they were clutching each other, tears streaming out of their eyes. "He thinks you're pretty!" Johanna managed to squeeze out between hyperventilating spasms of laughter. Somehow I wasn't flattered and I got the heck out of there before Hurcha shoved me into any more walls.

Mongol Invasion

Since it was a Wednesday night in Bern there were only two more bars still open. The first was quiet so we had amazing conversations (read: interrogation) with Ilchi and Bagen. You know how you aren't supposed to meet your heroes because they'll just disappoint you? Well, these guys did NOT disappoint me. If anything I was overwhelmed by their dedication and passion for their art.

I never get fail to be fascinated by the complicated linguistic capabilites of the tables I tend to sit at. Johanna could speak Swiss-German, Regular German, English, French, and Mongolian. Rik could speak Swiss-German, Regular German, English, Spanish, and thanks to an anthropological trip to Peru, a bit of Quechua. I claimed only English and Chinese but after a few beers I found myself speaking Spanish with Rik. Bagen and Ilchi both spoke Mandarin and Mongolian and Ilchi also spoke a little bit of English. But somehow we all managed to get our points across to everyone.

Rik was going on about how globalization and technology was making people from the farthest reaches of the earth come into contact for the first time. Because I was rather drunk I confronted him on the inaccuracy of this claim. This was not the Mongolians' first excursion into Switzerland! "They've been here before! in the 13th century, yo! After Batu Khan captured Russia, Hungary and most of Poland, he was poised to take Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy! But after a few preliminary skirmishes the Great Khan Ogedei died in 1241 and Batu Khan and all the other leaders had to go back to Mongolia to elect the new Khan. If Ogedei had just lived a couple of more years y'all could be speaking Mongolian right now!" Rik argued that the Swiss couldn't be conquered by Mongolians. I was about to concede that Europe's wet weather did affect the sinews and glue of Mongolian bows, when Johanna, who was both confused and angered by this conversation interrupted us. "But I do speak Mongolian right now!" she proclaimed, ironically in English.

He Who Travels Far

Later I found out that Hanggai is a Mongolian word from a folk legend about "he who travels far." Hanggai refers to an idealized landscape containing grasslands, mountains, rivers, trees and a blue sky. Ilchi told me that when he plays music right, clears his mind beforehand and lets the music completely surround him and enter him (he said that he was a teabag and that the music was the hot water) then he can feel that contentment and awe that can be felt from entering the legendary landscape called Hanggai.

Bagen told me that he saw me during the concert and first thought I looked a little less interested than everyone else, a little less lively. But then he realized I was just really feeling the music, really appreciating it. I always forget that people onstage can totally see the front row. But he was right, I was completely transfixed the whole time.

At one point I asked if I could see his hands because I had heard how playing the horse-headed fiddle can make your fingernail fall off. He told me this was total bullshit! Then he told me the name of the guy who started this myth and told me he had a personal vendetta against him. "If I saw him, I would not hesitate to kill him!" Sidenote: Bagen has the largest hands I've ever seen. From his palm to his fingertips stretched from my fingertips to my elbow!

We talked about music for another 2 hours. We discussed their method of composition. They always use a traditional folk song as the base, although some pieces have evolved so much that they no longer acknowledge the link in the title. They really wanted to preserve their roots and their heritage. They explained that globalization was killing these old ways of looking at the world, these old perspectives and when they die, so does a lot of ancient wisdom. Their elders were not totally happy with the rock blend they create but Ilchi says it's necessary to get heard. "We lure them in with the rock sound and then they realize that the Mongolian folk is really cool. People just need to give it the first taste!"

They told me about how rough it is to be on the road all the time. They don't always find people to speak Chinese with. And it's rough traveling all the time and only really getting a few post concert hours in each place. They told me that Mongolian folk music was often inspired by the sense of homelessness or drifting that a nomadic lifestyle entails. Sure, you take your family with you, but you lack that stability that humans crave. Now in Mongolia, a large number of people have given up this lifestyle and settled down. But in attempting to give Mongolian culture to the new generation, they have become nomads on tour. "We represent the past too well!" Ilchi confessed. We walked to the final club called "Dead End" and as we entered the final club and the pulsing dance beat made conversation impossible, I was so glad we had this chance to talk!

Swing Dance and Vomit

In lieu of conversation, we played a Mongolian drinking game. I couldn't follow it but I knew the point was that the last person to upchuck won. But I did not win. In fact I lost twice. The other highlight of the bar was that two ladies in their upper forties took turns swing dancing with me. I couldn't escape them for the longest time. Johanna thought this was funny and did not rescue me. Instead she cracked jokes about how I am only capable of attracting people twice my age.

All too soon the Swiss, a.k.a. my couch connections, were ready to go. They hailed a cab and I bid farewell to my heroes. Bagen told me that if I ever go to one of their concerts again I have to drink with them afterward again. If I do not do this and "sneak a peak" at their concert, then he said, "I will have no choice but to kill you." I noted that this was the second time he had threatened to murder someone that night. Looking at his ginormous hands it wasn't hard to imagine him simultaneously choking two people. Ilchi told me that one day I will come back and follow them on tour and write a book about the members, making them famous in the West. I told him that sounded like an awesome idea and I hoped it could happen someday. "Don't hope. It will happen." he said in his usual calm, nonchalant voice.

On the train back to Germany I marveled at not just the Swiss countryside, which I was seeing for the first time, but also my luck. I missed a train and ended up conducting an interview with my favorite folk musicians in the world. I still don't think it has sunk in that I've actually met the creators of this CD that I've listened to over 200 times. If you haven't already, listen to Uruumdush on their Myspace page!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Paris Adventures Part Two (I'm not gonna be one of those guys who writes Part Deux, ok?)

Technical difficulties delayed last week's post but double post this week to make up for it!

Parisian Dinners

So I left off last time reminiscing about a dinner I had with a couple from Taiwan, living in Paris. They busted out their fiddle and piano skills and we had a good time jamming. The dinner conversation was also amazing. Usually when I talk to people in Taiwan they can throw in some English words once in awhile, and enjoy doing so to spice up the conversation. But I quickly found that most of the native Chinese speakers I met across Europe had had their English skills absolutely obliterated by their required fluency in this third language, be it French or, later in my travels, German. The only exceptions to this obliteration of previously learned languages are Italian music words like mezzo forte.

The dinner was repeated the next week but this time they invited a dizi player to come too. He told me that he performed with a dance troupe, but besides his part, all of the instrument sounds in the dance music were not only prerecorded, but synthesized. He was very religious, enough so that for reasons I never figured out, he could not eat the cake I brought for dessert. He played dizi, shao, and hulusi pieces which I recorded and will post as soon as someone shows me what it is that I'm doing wrong that it takes over 24 hours to download a single video. I'm so helpless with technology :( After one of the hosts spontaneously accompanied him on the piano, the meal concluded with more political talk which a second glass of wine made me too sleepy to follow.


So in Paris I had found Chinese musicians who teach individuals to play by themselves. Their motives being the continuation of tradition. I had also found a musician and dancers who perform for Buddhist ceremonies and holidays. But playing flute over electronic music, despite its Buddhist routes still lacked that sense of community I was hoping for where people play together, where music acts as a form of communication.

A talk with an ethnomusicologist at Paris 8 University (which is the right translation for that University even though it sounds like 123 Fake Street) told me that this is really all I could hope to find in Paris. She suspected, but had no statistics to confirm, that Chinese in Paris were more likely to be musicians than the general population of China or Taiwan, but that the types of people who uproot and move here aren't really the kind that play in a community. Chinese who play Classical music, those are the ones that form communities. The Chinese music playeres are loners and weirdos. I suggested independent as a better term. The ethnomusicologist in question was born in the Mainland but moved to Paris when she was just 4 years old and studied Renaissance music in order to create historically informed performances. Our conversation was held in English. I decided that I didn't like her attitude about Chinese immigrants.

THE Julia Weisman!

Before abandoning Paris for a different location, I was visited by my fellow Carl, Julia Weisman! She is teaching English (isn't everybody?) to Elementary Schoolers in St. Dié (thus the amazing title of her blog, St. Die Another Day). But on Saturday she took the morning train to Paris and met me at the metro stop in Chinatown. Tree also joined us as I was to follow him back to his Rock and Jazz School in Freiburg to take some classes and have free housing in a centrally located spot while I figured out what to do next. The three of us had a blast as we bumbled around Paris together.

We first went to Tree's FAAAAVORITE restaurant in Europe. It's in Little Tokyo and the waiters always think that Tree is Japanese and tell him stuff which he doesn't understand. Sometimes I understand the basic stuff and translate to Chinese for him which sufficiently confuses everyone. But we had Julia with us today which meant that we had a French translator! I marveled as Julia ordered and effortlessly produced voiceless uvular fricatives and spewed non-aspirated voiceless plosives with convincing French nonchalance.

After we walked off our giant steaming bowls of ramen (which absolutely hit the spot after walking around in the chilly Parisian weather), we found ourselves in front of the main goal of the day (besides having fun and eating good food, of course). The goal was a store called Thanksgiving. There Julia was going to buy some final ingredients to create her Thanksgiving meal. I also wanted to go to buy Jiffy instant corn bread muffin mix because after 5 months abroad that was what I missed most. There were lots of other tempting things like cans of refried beans and tortillas. When asked what I miss most about home, I always swiftly reply Mexican food. People think I'm kidding and I'm just covering for a more serious answer like family or friends or my house but in all honesty I miss Mexican food the most. Tobasco, chili pepper and cheese are just not tastes you can get easily in Taiwan or Europe. Besides, friends and family can send me emails and keep in touch. Mexican food cannot.

Since a can of beans is about 5 euros I pass on my plans of a Mexican Thanksgiving and just stick with my muffin mix. Julia told me she too was shocked at the prices. "How can they charge 9 euros for a small bag of Ree C's Pee C's?" "You mean Reese's Pieces? Why the hell do you say it like that? It sounds like feces." She claims that I am wrong and that the original Reese pronounced his name utilizing two syllables. I maintain however that it is better to not say it right and avoid the acoustic reminder of excrement. Just like how that wench changed her name in Robin Hood: Men in Tights to the French-sounding Latrine from the original more Germanic, Shithouse.

Speaking of which, it is impossible to use a toilet in Europe for free. Restaurants and cafes have codes that are switched up more frequently than vault codes in banks. When you gotta go and you're just walking around town, it might cost you a 5 euro coffee to get in there. But hey when you gotta go. . . Sometimes I've played up the dumb foreigner act and just charged in jumping and clutching at my groin. This usually does the trick in smaller shops since they would prefer to let me urinate for free in the doobluh-vay-say than to have to clean up the mess themselves. But for larger places like McDonalds, the jump 'n' clutch doesn't cut it. Okay, end of tangent.

Hunched Over at Quasimodo's

After resting our feet in the only free seating we could find, Notre Dame, the three of us decided we needed food! We wandered through all of Chinatown until Tree had found us a satisfactory place. I like Chinatown in Paris because it seems to be mainly Mandarin speakers so I can use Chinese and not have to worry about stupid French. After very authentic stinky toufu, kungpao chicken, spicy fragrant eggplant, and egg drop soup, we went to see RED which was the only movie we could find that wasn't playing in French. The movie theater turned out to be in a really amazing walkway with festive lights hanging over our heads. Photo op! Again Paris is disgustingly beautiful.


Apparently I look super confident or probably just approachable or something because on our walk home multiple people approached me specifically and asked me for directions. I usually don't have any idea where I am and just always leave 3 extra hours to get lost, so the fact that someone mistook me for a competent navigator struck my companions and me as hilarious. Oddly though, the person who knows Paris the best is Tree, since he is a competent navigator and has visited many times while studying in Germany. So when a lady asked in French how to get somewhere, Julia translated to English, I translated to Chinese, Tree thought for a moment, told me in Chinese, I told Julia in English, Julia translated to French. I seriously doubt that the end directions were accurate, but at least we all felt useful and good about ourselves for out intended benevolence.

Crossing the Rubicon

We all crashed in a hotel room that night until our morning trains to St. Die for Julia, and Freiburg, Germany for Tree and me. Julia left before Tree and I woke up and just left a note on the bedstand. On the bedstand. Like a hooker. Why Julia, why? According to the note she is not big on good byes.

In any case, after recharging my batteries on pastries and wine, I felt ready to tackle more of Europe and to actually play music instead of just talking about it. And finally after leaving Paris this happened. Coming up in the next post: My completely unbelievable adventures with Mongolian Throat singers/Rock banders Hanggai!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Parisian Adventures Part I

Gaul: I came, I saw, I shivered

I arrived in Paris INCREDIBLY awake due to rest, fear, and caffeine. I fell asleep before take off and slept for 11 of the next 15 hours of the flight. I watched the movie Taken on the airplane. It is about a young woman who travels to Paris and is abducted by a stranger she meets outside of the airport and shares a ride with. Cool, I thought, as I decided not to take a taxi ever again. I spent the final hour of the flight drinking coffee.

I managed to haul my two ginormous instruments and backpack through the metro and to my aparthotel (a.k.a. private hostel style room plus kitchenette.) The metro is its own story. Everytime I take it I see the most interesting characters. There are miusicians that board your train and sing or play accordian, which is always entertaining. This guy was just reading a book but he still made me laugh.

I was staying in St. Maurice and the whole area is straight out of the drawings of Paris on Madeline, basically the only text I consulted before arriving in Paris. The stores in the area were all bakeries, cheese and fruit markets, or Asian restaurants. Naturally, I took a small break from Chinese food and devoured about two dozen pain au chocolate for breakfast.

My first real surprise in Paris was that people were really nice to me. I was very confused. Where are the snooty Parisians, fuming at the foreigners invading their picture book city? (Quick fact: France is the most visited country in the world by tourists.) When I approached people for directions or large chunks of brie (the latter being in markets, not just random people in the metro), they were totally courteous and helpful. On the seldom occasion where people did not speak English, my attempts at French were not mocked. I was very surprised. But for some reason no one suspected I was American (at least not to my face) and people often asked, “'Olland?”

My second surprise was that Taiwanese coats are about as effective as a silk scarf when it comes to protecting you from the cold. Before leaving Taiwan, I bought some very cheaply priced coats and sweatshirts, and I now fully understand how the people of Taipei are able to walk around in the 90 degree weather so stylishly dressed. Luckily, at the beginning of November, it was still pretty warm so if I wore 5 layers of Taiwanese clothing it was sufficient for the Autumn wind.
My third surprise was that I really don’t want anything more in the world than French baguettes and brie. Maybe it was just because I had come from a continent without ovens, but the bread in France was actually as good as all that hype. Annoying.

My first week in Paris was spent with trips to the Taiwanese Cultural Centre, the only one in Europe. I lugged both my instruments down there, not knowing what to expect. Sometimes my instruments are my only tickets in and other times they make me look like a huffing, sweaty mess of a crazy person. I got lost and asked a man for directions in English. He responded in French that he did not speak English, but did I speak German. "Non," I replied, "pero puedo hablar un poquito espanol." "Really?! But I am Spanish, he replied in rapid-fire Castellano Spanish with lisping c's and exaggerated trilled r's. So I followed his Spanish instructions to the Taiwan Cultural Centre. I was proud of myself for being able to understand that much because my Spanish is basically limited to telenovelas.

At the Centre I got contact information for three Chinese music teachers: two guqin players/teachers and a general Chinese instrument teacher. I met them all separately but the first two, in the oddest of coincidences, were both named Wang Laoshi, and both preparing to move back to Taiwan. I asked the guqin playing Wang Laoshis why they were returning home. They replied the same way. It’s too hard to live here. Too cold. Too inconvenient. I asked what initially drew them. They both replied wistfully, “A young man.”

The general Chinese instrument teacher felt much happier about Paris. She looked it too. She wore a giant fur coat and matching fur cap. She told me how happy she felt living in Paris' Chinatown. Below her apartment she shared a studio with a calligrapher. “Taiwanese overseas have to create a community. I help people here stay in touch with their roots. I make sure the children don’t forget!” Her main instrument was either guzheng or dizi, she couldn’t decide. But she also taught pipa, ruan, erhu, suona, bawu, and liuqin. When I asked her what brought her to Paris, she said, “Romance.” I asked what his name was, and she looked wistfully out the window of the café we were sitting in. “His name is Paris.”

Visitors from Freiburg

On my second weekend, the students of the Freiburg Jazz and Rock School had midterm break and this was relevant to me because Tree came to visit along with his friend Suzy from Kansas or Oklahoma (is there really a difference?). Suzy is half Korean but this is hard to discern because her hair is Hilton-blonde. Between Tree and Suzy, I felt so conservative with my naturally colored haired. Suzy greeted me with a hug and a hybrid of an accent, part southern charm, part MTV Valley Girl. The German school is her study abroad as she is a singer songwriter attending Berklee School of Music in Boston.

The three of us marched off to do the tourist thing starting with the Eiffel Tower for photo ops. We were approached by silent girls with clipboards. The clipboards said they were from a deaf academy and needed money. I reached for my wallet and then thought for a second. Something was off. They made no noises, no hand signals except blowing air kisses at people who gave them money. Hmmm. . . I told Tree in Chinese to scream like I would if I saw Snakes on a Plane. His impression was uncanny and bloodcurdling. And to my delight, the little girls’ heads both whipped around on instinct. That seemed not like deaf behavior. I sarcastically blew the girls airkisses as they fumed at Tree. They had lost customers from my mischief. Unfortunately for Tree, they didn’t realize it was my fault and he got kicked and his hair tugged before Suzy, who had fewer qualms about hitting little girls albeit scheming manipulative little girls, than Tree and me, hip checked them both to the ground. We scuttled away and up the Eiffel Tower.

The view from the top of the tower was pretty fantastic.
Paris is a ridiculously beautiful city. I keep exclaiming aloud, “Oh, so now we’re in the pretty part.” but since I’ve come to Paris I can’t seem to find any part that isn’t the pretty part. Every block looks like a movie set. Even better than the view from the top was the people-watching that could be done. Japanese tourists, all wearing the same hats and carrying laughably large cameras filed passed greasy Europeans in black socks and sandals. The latter group were all wearing matching scowls so I guessed they were Russian. I’ve had a lot of fun guessing nationalities from afar and then listening carefully to the language when the people get closer. (They were Russian or possibly Ukrainian, I can't tell the difference.)

For some reason I have dozens of photos of Tree and Suzy pointing at things and seeming really cheesy, but it's candid, I swear!

While going down the windy staircase, Suzy had a hard time keeping her skirt from flying up. Tree said that she looked just like 瑪麗蓮夢露 (Ma Li Lian Meng Lu) so we had to stop for this photo.

Aerobics at the Louvre

I declared the afternoon museum time. Tree and Suzy looked a little reluctant, but I told them that I would take them through the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay in 3 hours. But I also I told them before we did this we needed to be properly caffeinated. We went to what I call a Look-at-me! café. This is because the outside seats all face the street so instead of everyone facing each other at tables they line up like they are in class. My companions tried to explain to me that this was so the customers could look out at the street, but I wasn’t buying it. I knew it was really vanity. I also discovered that they don’t add water to coffee in France. I got all of the coffee bean I wanted and it was conveniently condensed into a minuscule cup with three thimbles of water. After I bought a round of espressos, we ran to the Louvre, thick doses of caffeine coursing through our veins.

Outside the Louvre we saw these children who really seemed like they could use some parental supervision. Way too easy to snatch these punks.

I used my Watson ID card to pretend I was an EU student and got in for free. I hurried the first-timers through the Classical Greek and Roman section. Waste of time guys! We are in France, let’s get to the Renaissance! I told Tree and Suzy to each pick one thing to gawk at in each section and then to bust a move to the next. After 11 minutes we made our way to Winged Victory. “You guys this is really famous!” I exclaimed. “Why?” Tree and Suzy pondered in unison. “I don’t know, just take pictures and look carefully. You have 4 minutes to catch your breaths!” I declared eying my watch. We hit up Venus di Milo and the Mona Lisa and while I was explaining what I remembered from my previous tour at the Louvre when I was 12, a group of Virginians began following us thinking I was some sort of official tour guide. One thing that was fun was that in the Louvre I could explain a lot of the back story to paintings dealing with Greek mythology or the Bible that Tree really didn’t get. This was fun because it was revenge for when I was in Taiwan and Tree was constantly frustrated with my lack of knowledge of Chinese Classics or Taiwanese Opera. Now I could exasperatedly proclaim, “You don’t know the story of David and Goliath?”

We left the Louvre 90 minutes after entering and were in the Musee d’Orsay Impressionist Museum with one hour to enjoy. Van Gogh’s self portrait was my favorite and I stared at it for way too long along with a hay painting by Gaughin that had so much texture, the straw stuck out at least a full inch from the canvas. I also got lost in the Degas section. This museum is so much more interesting than the Louvre.

At 5, the Impressionist Museum closed and we were outta there with all that gross Museum business behind us. We walked the Champs Ellysees and had photo ops with cotton candy, the Arc de Triumph, and some stuffed animals before getting the most menacing shaking of the finger methinks I have ever encountered from the security guard at the Disney store.

After a very long argument on whether or not this lamp in the window was a frog or a monkey (it's totally a frog, right?),

the three of us ate a way too expensive meal that was soooooooo good. I had a fight with Tree because he was convinced the Rose' wine was made of roses. Naturally we had to have a bottle to test the theory. We then were given free shots on our way out “for digestion,” the staff said as they rubbed their stomachs in unison. I showed them that I could rub my stomach and tap my head at the same time. They were unimpressed.

The Dinner

The next day I met Tree's Taiwanese friends who live in Paris. We ate delicious homemade food and then sang American folk songs with my mandocello while the couple whose house we were invading played the piano and the fiddle. The conversation turned from music to traveling to politics and I did my bestest to hang on for the sometimes completely random jumps in topic. I got applause when I explained the differences that the Cultural Revolution caused. They were nice people and the only thing that seemed different from that dinner in Paris and any other in Taiwan was that we were drinking really really good wine.

They invited me back to meet with a bamboo flute player, but because I am tired you will have to hear about that in Paris Adventures Part II!

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year's Resolution

Ahhh!!!! I did not blog in Europe. But my goal for the new year is to post a weekly blog on Wednesdays. That way I will still be blogging when it is fresh and my posts won't turn into behemeths.

Blogging the first of many catch up blogs now, from Singapore. Happy New Year!!!!