Sunday, October 16, 2011

Serendipity in Vienna

The first year of most enterprises warrants more attention than the second. Married people are no longer newlyweds and most new hires are off probation, a freshman becomes a sophomore, a new car doesn’t smell so new, and first-time parents are now experienced in the previously unimaginable joys and challenges of putting a small creature’s needs and desires ahead of their own.  In the U.S., most small businesses fail within the first year; by Year Two, the hope of a Year Three is less a delusion and more a possibility.

And since I mentioned parents, here’s grandson #2, Ocean, in the middle of his second year of life, Reeve and Melanie at a recent opening at their gallery in Arles, and a close-up of one of Reeve's new pieces of art.

In the U.S. I told a friend, only half kiddingly, that since my dear friend Gillian had returned to Glasgow and that a new friendship is rare, that this year I was opting for social quantity rather than quality. I was intent on proving to myself that a person can change one’s nature even at 58.

One-on-one conversation in a quiet environment is as essential to me as air, but I’ve always found it difficult to talk with more than one person at a time. Among my favorite poems is one by Minnesota poet Robert Bly: “Looking Into A Face,” which includes these words: “I have wandered in a face for hours….” Notice, “a face” not “faces.”

Reeve's Art

I find it confusing to converse with more than one person. There’s too much history, too much sub-text in the room, too many possibilities about the direction a conversation takes; my focus is divided.  Talking with more than one person is like reading two books, one by Faulkner and the other by Jacqueline Suzanne, or listening to Eminem and an aria simultaneously – I break out in a sweat and my brain threatens to explode.

Keir was traveling to a volleyball tournament in Frankfurt, and since visiting team members are hosted in family’s homes, a small host present was needed.  I wasn’t feeling well, but since I had left the errand until the last moment as usual, I took the familiar walk to Gillian’s old neighborhood to a chocolate store I favor – one that makes chocolate on the premises.

I bought what I needed and while walking home, steeped in self-pity, I passed a small antique shop that I’ve passed by dozens of times but which has never been open, not once, when I’ve been in that neighborhood.

The Antique Store 

This day, not only was it open but several people were milling about, changing the window displays, chatting and enjoying one another’s company.  Ordinarily the presence of several people would have been reason not to stop, but this being Year Two, I entered the shop and began to practice my German.

And voila, serendipity. Here’s the thing about serendipity – it ain’t gonna happen when one sits alone in a Viennese apartment. And the word might have a family connection as it was coined by Horace Walpole from a tale entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip,”  and Walpole is my brother-in-law’s last name, and “Serendip” figures largely in a book by John Barth, Jim’s favorite author. Ah, coincidence….
Jim's Favorite

I was asking the clerk whether it was more correct to say Ich wohne or Ich lebe im Wien, and is so often the case, we don’t think about the subtleties of our own language until we’re asked about a grammar point or a word choice; she wasn’t sure. Then she said in German that I should ask the man just entering the shop.

A trim, dapper gentleman with the most wonderful eyeglasses and wavy hair began speaking to me in German, and correcting me, which I appreciate, and only after I had embarrassed myself sufficiently, did he reveal that he was an American.

He introduced himself as Norman Shetler, a classical pianist, who has lived in Vienna for more than 50 years.

Not only was he American, but when I mentioned South Dakota, he asked about Yankton, the town outside of which still stands the sod and log cabin built by my newly-immigrated ancestors. Those of you not from a state as minimally populated as S.D. (roughly 800,000 people) probably don’t know how frequently Americans look puzzled at the mention of South Dakota. Those forced to memorize the capital cities in their school days might mention Pierre, my hometown, which they pronounce as Peeyaire. The native pronunciation is far less hoighty-toighty: Peer.  Or, they mention Bismarck, and I have to dismiss them as dunces.

A digression. When I was teaching just outside Washington, D.C., I became aware that most immigrants or international students or au pairs think they’ve experienced the U.S. because they’ve lived on the East Coast and visited California and maybe Florida and Las Vegas. Then I introduce them to the term “fly-over land,” and tell them they know virtually nothing about the U.S., and neither do so many Americans living on the East or West coasts who have traveled the world but never bothered to explore the majority of their own country, which lies between the various coastlines.

Norman, however, has roots in Dubuque, Iowa, a charming river city on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in the middle of the U.S., which I once bicycled through, and his wife is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Jim worked as a cops reporter in the 1970s. In fact, Jim’s second screenplay, which he is now revising, is titled “Albuquerque.”

Police Reporter

Our German ended the moment we left the shop and for much of the sunny afternoon Norman regaled me with stories. His vocation is pianist, and master puppeteer, but his avocation is raconteur. This being Year Two and the conversation being not only delightful but rich in shared references, I asked Norman if he might have coffee with me occasionally so that I could practice my German. This charming man said, “How about now?” and he and I headed to Rubens, where Gillian and I had spent many happy hours in conversation with her two dogs patiently waiting by our feet.

He came to Vienna in 1955, the year the Russians finally left the city after occupying it (along with the U.S., France, and Great Britain) since the end of World War II, and when Norman mentioned the Russians there was either a moment of implied or actual disdain in his voice (or I imagined it), something I’ve heard often when Austrians mention the Russians. The Russians, enraged by the devastation of World War II, including 17,000 Russians killed in the Battle of Vienna, punished the Viennese – raping the women, destroying property, and engaging in an extreme amount of drunken crime.

The schloss where Jim works in Laxenburg took the brunt of much Russian revenge. Here are pictures of the palace as the Russians left it and as it looks now:

Schloss Now
Schloss Then

 So, Norman moved to a city still traumatized and has experienced its recovery over the decades firsthand.

Post-Russian Palace
I’m not a particularly visual person when it comes to illustrating blogs, as I’ve apologized for many times, but I do savor unusual sights. Among my favorites was a raggedy, dirty man in downtown Minneapolis I saw maybe 20 years ago who looked like a homeless and drunk Nick Nolte – a sad picture to be sure. But, he was conscientiously flossing his teeth as he walked down the sidewalk. The incongruity has always remained with me.

This came to mind because Norman painted a memorable, and much more innocent picture for me: As a three-year-old boy he was already performing - - dancing while playing the accordion – now there’s an image. In addition, his father was an actual Harold Hill ala “The Music Man,” except that he didn’t swindle swell folks out of money; instead he really did create bands.

Eventually Norman was supposed to go to Juilliard to study, but World War II intervened. His military career had something in common with both Jim’s dad and my father: Men who could type, what was considered a “woman’s” job until computer keyboards made typing genderless, were invaluable to the armed forces and typing tended to keep men out of combat zones, excellent news for a pianist.

The war ended, and Juilliard was no longer a possibility, so Norman moved to Vienna, the classical music capital reduced to rubble, and what was originally intended as a temporary stop instead because a permanent home from which he embarked on his international career.

Among the highlights of his career was an encounter with the central figure in one of my cultural memories. Norman competed at the First Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1958, a huge moment in American classical music history because a very young Van Cliburn, blew everyone away. Norman not only met Van Cliburn but also Kruschev, and, if I remember correctly, he heard Van Cliburn play and spoke of that ineffable something that distinguishes the truly great.

Now, that win might not seem so important in an age in which everybody who plays so much as Chopsticks can appear in a YouTube video, but in 1958, that triumph led to a ticker tape parade in New York City, and Van Cliburn was an instant celebrity.

That year I was only five and hadn’t yet started the piano lessons that would be hugely significant in my childhood, adolescence and college years. My dad hadn’t yet won the hundreds of dollars in gambling that meant not only did my mother get a new washing machine but the family got a piano; I think that was in 1962. I shudder to think of my piano-less life had my dad not been a lucky gambler – he always has said his middle initial “L” stands for “Lucky.” Actually it stands for Laverne, the name of a French mademoiselle who nursed my grandfather back from influenza during the First World War, a story of cow’s milk and hay lofts and….Who knows?

But, when I was 17, and had established myself as a competent, small-town pianist, Van Cliburn was scheduled to play in Sioux Falls. My parents, I suspect mostly my mother, allowed me to go to Sioux Falls to meet my boyfriend, fellow pianist Randy (later to be my husband and father of Reeve), who was in college in Iowa. The reason? To attend a concert by Van Cliburn. Trust me, in 1970 the idea of a good Lutheran high school girl meeting a college boyfriend in a city far, far away, was not the norm. But that’s not the only reason I remember Van Cliburn with affection.

I don’t remember what he played but I do remember where we sat and what it was like to be in the presence of such magnificence.

Another story of Norman’s that meshed oddly with my life is that he said a pianist from South America (possibly Peru) who was at the 1958 competition did the oddest thing. Either out of nerves or ignorance of convention (quite possible previous to cable TV and the internet), he played his pieces nonstop – no pause between them. This amazed me because many years ago I wrote a short story about a pianist, in which the pianist plays a long ribbon of music with no stops, but I would never have imagined such a thing had happened in real life. A friend called my fiction a “horror story.” That poor pianist, embarrassed as much as he might have been when he realized his error, at least left a lingering impression.

So, after a lovely conversation including a discussion about vocalists who consider their vocal apparatus another sex organ, the afternoon ended.

Norman took a blah day and transformed it into something memorable. So, perhaps that’s my first lesson of Year Two. Serendipity exists, but it needs a little help. Right place, right time, magic.