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!

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