Thursday, January 10, 2013

Swimming to the Opera

I had finally arrived at the first of several glorious days off in my beloved Germany when I made a startling realization.  That being that there was something mysterious going on with breakfast in my hellhole of a hotel.  First off I had a challenge with what I believe I've already voiced my displeasure previously in regards to, that being the lack of hot water and/or milk with which to make my morning tea in this country.  This was a particular issue in this hotel.  After far too long they seemed to have gotten that under control but of course this allowed the rest of breakfast to spiral into chaos. First, the sausages were attacked.  Instead of nice thin sausage links, these odd little niblet things appeared.  They were tiny fat disclets of what I imagine was someone's idea of sausage.  Someone with an extremely poor sense of humor, that is.  Whatever, they weren't too terribly bad.  I've certainly had worse.  Then they finally took the toaster down from the seven-foot platform it was balanced on which was awesome since that meant that I could actually reach the damn thing.  Of course, this was too good to last.  This morning it had apparently dropped so low that it had disappeared entirely.  The bread was set out, presumably to be toasted, but the toaster itself?  Nowhere in sight.  And of course, they couldn't leave well enough alone with my tea.  They ran out of Assam two days ago and it has yet to be refilled.  This leaves me with Chamomile which is just not what I need to start my day.  Chamomile is soothing and makes me want to go curl up into a ball and take a nap.  Not good.  I've got places to go, people to see, things to accomplish!  I need some good strong black tea to get me up and going not some wimpy herbal that's going to lift me to a higher plane of existence.  At least, not first thing in the morning.  In the evenings, we'll talk.  Seriously, the things I have to put up with over here.  It's criminal.

Speaking of places to go and things to be accomplished, my List has grown exponentially since arriving here in Germany.   What is my List, you say?  Well, I'm ever so glad that you asked.  To borrow a recently popularized turn of phrase, it's my Bucket List of sorts. There are X amount of things that I want to do/experience/accomplish in Y amount of time.  Y being the unknown amount of orbits around the sun I have remaining (hopefully quite a few—it's a fairly long List) and X being a variable number as my List fluctuates pretty much all the time.   Some things have been on the List for a while while others get added on and checked off fairly rapidly.  Some things that I haven't gotten around to just yet but will are sky-diving, a shark cage dive (preferably off the coast of Africa), swimming in the Devil's Swimming Pool atop Victoria Falls, hiking to Everest's Base Camp (that's already being planned—can't wait!), going to Bethlehem for Christmas and there's some crazy free restaurant in China up on the side of a mountain that I'd like to hike to some day.  There's more, but you get the idea.  Some are just to say that I did it, others have a cultural or spiritual significance, but most are a combination of the two. 

Some things have been added to my List since coming over here to Deutschland, as I mentioned above.  And I hope to have them all crossed off within the span of my time here.  I see no reason why not.  First and foremost, I shall be paragliding over Neuschwanstein Castle.  Because hang-gliding has been on my list for a while and while it may take me a while to get to Kitty HawkNC to do it (yes, it has to be there.  Birthplace of flight and all that.  There is a method to my madness sometimes), I see no reason not to seize the opportunity to soar like a bird above my favorite fairytale castle.  I think Ludwig II would have wanted it that way.  Other things added are experiencing a German rock opera (I have my tickets—front row of the balcony, too!!), taking in Carmina Burana (Karl Orff!! Awesome!) with the Munich Symphony (tickets sold out immediately but as they will be blaring the music from the former Royal Residenz, I plan on planting myself outside and taking it all in) and making two climbs in the Olympic Stadium—like rock climbing but instead it's to the top of the Olympic Hall, straight up into the sky and they are kind enough to provide the hook and rope.  Cool!  Tragically, I mistimed things a bit the other day and missed the climbs.  But all was not lost!  I still managed to cross one more thing off my List.  Allow me to set the stage, if you will.

It was a beautiful if slightly hot day.  I emerged from the subterranean maze of the subway, blinking at the dazzling sun reflecting off the steaming white concrete.  Ahead of me, rising like a silver fault line up out of the ground was the BMW building (home of the car-making robots that my co-guides Goliath and The Leprechaun love so much) and to my right was the Olympic Park.  I strolled to my right, taking in the scenery as I went.  In my mind, I saw the ghosts of Olympians past striding by, banners proudly colored from a hundred different countries snapping in the wind, the roar of the crowd, the buzz of announcers' microphones, the tangle of media cable, the electric feeling of suspenseful excitement and unlimited potential outcomes filling the air.  Wrapped in my fantasy of the past, I wandered the nearly deserted avenues until I spied a grassy knoll up ahead.  Conveniently enough, it was located right next to a biergarten.  I flirted briefly with the bartender then took my beer up to the top of the knoll, enjoying the smells of the trees and the bright green grass. The turf was springy and comfortable and I folded up into a pretzel, drank my beer, breathed in the sweet air and gazed around with fascination at the layout of the Park. After a while, I pulled out a book and flipped through a few chapters.  But by then I realized that I was just dawdling.  

For I had come here for a very specific reason; to cross something off my List.  And it mattered not that I had missed the climbs, there was still one more thing to do here.  Just to say that I did it.  I gathered my things, returned my glass to the bartender and meandered over to the building just up ahead.  I grinned nervously at the lady inside, asked a brief question and was pointed to a set of stairs leading down.  I nodded my thanks, gulped hard and slowly made my way downstairs, taking my time to look at the picture of each Olympian that graced the walls and thinking again of what it must have been like to be here, competing for the honor of your country. I changed quickly, stowed my pack in a locker, wrapped the locker key around my wrist and went out through the huge glass doors.  Instantly, my nose was filled with that familiar smell and my ears were filled with the echoes of the voices of those inside bouncing like a rubber ball off the interior walls.  I realized that I had stopped, shook myself, and pressed on to the center of the room.  I climbed up on my little platform, bent down and gripped the edge.  I leaned back in a half-crouch and took several slow, deep breaths to calm myself and open my lungs.  I was vaguely aware that some eyes were on me but tried to ignore that, instead attempting to turn my focus into a laser beam of precision on the task ahead.  Okay, you're here.  It's now or never.  I took another slow deep breath, chanting to myself I can I can I can over and over in my head - my mantra for whenever I think that I, in fact, can't.  Mind over matter.

If I may break my narration for a moment, I think it's fair to mention that I don't hit this point too often.  I'm remarkably fearless about a wide variety of things (as many, I raise tigers and leopards in my spare time) but there is one thing that I am near phobia levels on and that is water.  It takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline to keep me from panicking when I am in the water.  And it doesn't matter if it's a pool or a lake or a river or the ocean.  I don't like it.  I'm not comfortable in it.  And so I push myself.  Knowing that my fear is not rational, I push.  And pull.  For example, the shark cage dive I want to do will freak me out not because of the giant man-eating fish giving me the hairy eyeball when it glides by, but because I will be submerged in the water.  But I'm still going to do it. Because I am stronger than my fears and I refuse to let my life be dictated in any way, no matter how small, by them.

And so it was that I found myself the other day with a death-grip on a starting platform, staring out at a large expanse of water in front of me and chanting to myself, hearing nothing but the bass drum of my heart pounding a war beat in my ears and the shaky adagio of my own shallow breath.  Because I was in the Olympic Swimhall and I wanted to be able to say that I had swum 100 meters in an Olympic Swimming Pool.  Because that's just cool.  I mentally shook myself, filled my lungs to bursting with chlorine-laced air, rocked back another centimeter and launched myself into the air.  I hit the water a little more awkwardly than I would have liked but threw my hands up anyway and began to butterfly towards the other end, 25 meters away. 

The butterfly didn't last very long. 

It's been a while, give me a break.  I remembered how to do it but this apparently doesn't count for a whole lot if you can't get your body to duplicate what your mind thinks it knows how to do.  Which sucks because that was my best stroke.  Ah, well.  So I settled into a lazy breaststroke until I hit the wall at the other end, turned and freestyled back.  I attempted the flip turn when I got to the other side but my brain wasn't communicating to my body again and I ended up with my head down, legs sticking straight up out of the water.  Lovely.  I righted myself and used this opportunity to catch my breath.  Okay, it's been a really long time.  Really really long.  To be honest, I think the last time I swam laps competitively or otherwise was when I was on the swim team in the 9th grade.  So it's been a while.  And I am not even close to being in the same shape now that I was then.  But I was only 50 meters in and I wanted to complete the full 100.  And the dark spots that had been dancing in front of my eyes had mostly faded so I felt ready to press on.  

I grabbed the wall and pushed off hard with my legs.  This went much smoother than my previous attempts.  I backstroked the last two laps, grateful for a stroke that let me breathe this much.  By the time I was done, I really was done.  My arms, my back, my legs and oddly enough, my neck were cursing at me in fifteen different languages and I wearily agreed with them.  I ducked under the lane ropes and floated over to the shallow end to catch my breath again and attempt to recover.  I looked around at the others sharing my space while I did so.  Over by the diving boards, there was a class learning a few complicated maneuvers with varying degrees of success.  At the very end of the far left lane, there were children learning how to jump into the deep end.  There was a little boy in a bright green bathing suit that kept staring into the water, then running to the back of the line.  I totally knew what he felt like, having experienced that "nuh-uh" train of thought many times myself while staring into the deep end.  When there was no one left, he stood there clasping and unclasping his hands, nervously shifting from foot to foot.  He backed up a step, then two, then took a deep breath and rocketed forward, splashing into the water quite spectacularly.  I was proud of him and knew 100% how accomplished he must have felt having conquered his fears.  I swam around for a little while longer then finally dragged myself out of the pool and toddled back to the locker room. 

By the way, a word of advice to anyone who goes to the Olympic Park to swim—bring a towel.  Because they don't provide them.  And it's really quite difficult to pull jeans on over a wet body.  I somehow managed to get dressed again, squeezed my suit out and stashed it in the bottom of my backpack then took a minute to weave my wet hair into a loose braid.  I glanced in the mirror and was moderately excited to see that I didn't look like I had been run over with anything made by John Deere.  I dragged my tired legs back up the stairs, waved at the woman behind the desk and headed back out into the delicious sunshine.  I treated myself to a strawberry cone and made it last all the way to the subway.  As I shuffled back to the hotel, I stopped by to see my friends at the döner shop and bought two döners, some baklava and a Coke Light.  Have to balance out all that exercise somehow, you know?  I washed the first döner down with the Coke Light and decided that there was no way in hell I could eat two of those things in a row and had obviously still been short on oxygen when I had made that purchasing decision.  I did however manage to consume two small squares of honey-soaked baklava and licked my fingers clean afterwards.  Something that good should not be wiped off on a mere napkin. And so I was able to cross something else off my List and make a nice day out of the activity. 

Next up on the List is the opera, which should be fun.  I was pissed that I was going to miss every single showing of Doktor Faust and arrived twenty minutes too late to seeTristan und Isolde.  Why on earth would I think that the main show on a Monday would be at four in the afternoon?!?!?!  Ridiculous.  I really wanted to see that, too.  Sucks.  But this rock opera should be interesting.  It's called Christ O which makes you think that it's about one thing, but the pictures for it look like Ann Rice may have had a hand in the character creation so that's clearly something completely different.  When I asked the ticket lady what it was about she would only say that it was very intense and disturbing. O-kay.  That tells me that I'm going to like it, but still nothing about the plot.  Ah, well.  I suppose I'll find out soon enough.  Plus, it's opera.  I don't think you're really supposed to understand it.

The next day I decided to shop around and basically just enjoy wandering through Munich's busy streets.  I jumped on the subway and came up right by a fruit stand, praise the lord.  Thirty seconds and one euro later I had a thin plastic container filled to the brim with darkly ripe blackberries and was contentedly popping them in my mouth in rapid succession while window shopping up the street.  I bought a few things I needed and several that I truly didn't but wanted to buy anyway (including a rather expensive perfume that I purchased solely because of the packaging.  It was pink and had skulls on it!  What more could a girl want?  Thankfully, it smells really nice) before finding a courtyard with an outdoor café.  I settled into a shady seat with a good view of the street for people watching and was delighted to find that I had finally hit the point where I could read the entire menu and understand it.  I may not be able to hold a full conversation in German but at least I can eat and shop and really, what is more important than that?  I sat back, enjoying the warmth of the day and the quiet sounds of conversation floating around me. When my plate came, I dug hungrily into the thick slices of buffalo mozzarella and bright wedges of tomato all drenched in an oily pesto that had been placed before me.  The waiter brought by a few slices of crusty bread, perfect for sopping up the remains on the plate.  I had asked for the biggest glass they had and indeed it was massive, filled to the brim with frosty sparkling apfelschörle.  I drained my glass and decided that this had been the perfect lunch.  So of course, I had to go and ruin it.  Across the way I had spied a bakery and was curious to see what fabulous chocolatey delights were hiding inside.  I walked in, drinking deeply of the sugar-scented air and spotted what I had been looking for for simply weeks!  The Prince Regente Torte.  Kind of the national cake of Bavaria. Seven layers of chocolate, biscuit and cream and absolutely massive.  It was like a brick.  I gaped at it then weakly pointed at a much smaller chocolate and nut confection that looked like it wouldn't cause quite the same amount of internal damage as the torte. I'll have to come back and get a slice when I haven't eaten for a few days and might actually be able to finish it.  At least now I know where they sell it, so that's something. 

Random observation – I wonder why it is that all German dogs look like Muppets?  They all have that kind of generalized scruffiness going on.  Odd.

Another random thought – why is it that I am thisclose to Italy yet it is patently impossible to get a decent gnocchi over here?  Luckily, the gelato is lovely but I would commit several minor crimes to get a half-decent plate of gnocchi that didn't taste like little potato bullets.

One more comment about food and then I'm done for the time being.  They've got this thing called Red Bull Cola over here.  Which pretty much explains what it is.  The tagline is "Strong and Natural" and I figure that one out of two isn't that bad on the accuracy scale. It tastes pretty much like standard cola until you get to the aftertaste which made me want to reach inside my mouth and yank my esophagus out.  It's the kind of aftertaste that makes me seriously want to read the ingredients but I have enough common sense to know that ignorance is bliss in situations like this.  Red Bull has a decidedly different taste all by itself but when combined with generic cola it gets this flavor that makes me think for some strange unknown reason of licking a moose's behind.  Not that I've ever done that, although there were seemingly endless opportunities while I was in Wyoming, but this is what I would imagine that tastes like.  Complete with hairy tongue feeling.  And I fell asleep shortly thereafter so so much for waking me up.  On the flip side, nearly a month of four hours sleep a night on average will most likely overcome a single Red Bull Cola.  But still. I have certain expectations of my energy drinks that need to be maintained.  And really, if I can't feel my heart fluttering like a caged bird inside my chest within thirty seconds of consuming one I'm thinking it's just not all that terribly effective.

But onto other things!  I mentioned earlier about going to a rock opera – Christ O.  And as I mentioned before, I was ve-e-e-ery interested to see what this was all about.  Supposedly it has nothing to do with Christ so there goes that theory.  And the white powdered head of the scary person in black on the posters was apparently not a vampire so Theory 2 was shot down.  I asked our local guide The Bavarian and he would only tell me that people have been so offended that they have walked out.  This just made me want to see it even more, which is also why The Bavarian gives me strange looks sometimes.  So when I got there, I was delighted to see that there was a small merchandise shop staffed with someone who hopefully spoke a little English.  And he did speak exactly that - a little English - but enough so that as I stumbled through some German and pantomimed a whole lot (you try pantomiming "What the hell is this thing about?" and see how far you get) he got what I was asking.  He picked up a thick book and pointed at the cover.  The title was in German but I could read the author's name loud and clear.  Alexander Dumas.  Christ O = The Count of Monte Cristo!  A-HA!  I thanked him profusely for his assistance and weaved back into the main lobby, slightly stunned from the eight thousand lightbulbs that just simultaneously lit and then exploded above my head.  I love Alexander Dumas and now felt like I knew what the heck I was going to be watching. 

I trundled up a half dozen short staircases before arriving at the first balcony where I plopped myself down in my excellent seat in the first row, nearly dead center.  Perfect. After a few moments the lights dimmed and the show began.  It started out well enough, showing in a dreamlike fashion how the soon-to-be Count was wronged by his friends and taken away from his true love, Mercedes.  So far, I'm keeping up.  But then, suddenly, inexplicably, I'm in Oz.  Or more accurately, the Masquerade sequence from Phantom of the Opera has gone to Oz.  By way of Wednesday Addams.  I really can't think of how else to describe what was on stage at this point.  It was clearly the inside of an opulent mansion, complete with curving staircase to the balcony above.  The cast was all dressed in masquerade costumes but all with a decidedly gothic twist.  I, personally, have never seen a nun showing quite as much leg or bosom.  And they were all in poisonous green.  ALL of them.  Including all the interior decorations.  It actually made me feel a bit nauseous.  And then of course, they started singing.  And I had thought something was amiss when I had heard the first song, prior to being dropped into Oz.  But as I couldn't hear the words very clearly, I wasn't 100% sure that I was hearing what I thought I was hearing.  But now, with the second song rattling the chandelier above and the voices piling over each other like a rich sundae of sound, I realized that I was correct in my earlier suspicion.  They were all singing in English!!!  I would like to pause for a moment to remind you that I am in Germany at the moment.  So this was strange stuff indeed.  And it was even subtitled in German!  High above on the proscenium arch the German words were flashed in time with each line of song.  Well.  This was certainly an unexpected development.  I get to practice my German AND understand what the heck is going on with a German opera!  Huzzah!  Tragically, the song ended and the cast started speaking.  In German now.  Oh, well.  I had figured it was probably too good to last.  I started looking forward to the next song as it was becoming rapidly apparent that this opera was only loosely based on Dumas' story.  For example, I don't remember the Count submerging a man in a bathtub, slitting his throat and then setting him on fire.  Of course, it's been a while since I've read it but I would think that sort of thing would make an impression on a young mind.  They sure did have that happen on stage, though!  God, I love the theatre!  I also don't remember Dumas writing anything about any of the antagonists strutting around in a metal-studded leather thong and strangling a prostitute with a pair of handcuffs while going at it with her.  Or shooting the other one on the roof after she (understandably) ran away.  Again, it's been awhile. 

So the opera goes on, with me thinking that I'm getting most of it thanks to my love of the original story as well as the English words in the songs.  And I really liked their take on it. It's such a dark story to begin with, going the gothic route with it is a natural fit.  It only seems natural to see the characters in leather, dragging themselves around all depressed and looking for all the world as though they are crying clove and absinthe-scented tears on stage.  And the leading man was incredible.  All of their voices were really amazing but he was absolutely captivating.  Naturally, I have a gigantic crush on him now.  Even though I'm watching him murder his way through the cast and he's all eyelinered and demonic and scary, he has a beautiful voice and really great hair.  And if I'm to be a gothic princess I need a similarly attired prince and he fits the bill.  Naturally, he's the lead singer of a German progressive metal band so I'm sure I have to stand in line for him.  But in the meantime I shall be snapping up all their albums as soon as I am able.  After the show, the cast came out to sign autographs and take pictures and after much pushing and shoving I was able to get my picture with him so that was awesome. He looks like he's going to bite my face off in the photo, but whatever.  I had a great time and wish that I was able to see it again. 

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