Merry Christmas!

15 Dec

Ok, so I don’t usually post videos on here and this is the second one in a couple of weeks but it’s marvelous! So consider this my Christmas gift to you all! I laughed until I cried and I don’t do that very often! Somehow, combined with our recent performance of Handel’s Messiah, this was the icing on the cake! There are several different versions of this on You Tube but this is my favorite.

So I give you Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus as you’ve never seen it before!

My Orcas Island

3 Dec

Ok, so this is where I grew up. Can you understand my obsession?

The video is only 2 and a half minutes long. What better way to spend two minutes?!

Handel’s Messiah

26 Nov

Part of me doesn’t want to listen to Handel’s Messiah again for at least a year.

Another part of me wants to be back on stage again and again, singing it better each time, and reveling in the fun of the moment, the gorgeous soloists, the lovely accompanying symphony.

Part of me will not miss waking up singing a different chorus every day, wondering which one it will be today that follows me around incessantly.

Another part of me will miss having the background theme songs in my dreams.

I will miss having something to challenge me musically – it had been many, many years since I’d sung in a choir and what will fill that void? I will miss seeing new friends every week. I will miss the anticipation – several decades in the making – of singing this oratorio. For as long as I can remember – probably way back when my parents sang in it when I was a kid, Dad taking the bass solo and Mom the soprano – I have wanted to be a part of The Messiah.

In 10th grade, I missed out on singing the Hallelujah Chorus because I was ill. Had I known that it was a traditional part of the Christmas program at my school (it was my first year there) then I would have dragged myself out of bed and sung my heart out (probably infecting the entire soprano section in the process).

But I didn’t know. And I’ve been bummed ever since.

If I had a better voice – and a lot more ambition – I probably would have sung it long before now, as had many members of the chorus. But as it is, I second-guessed my presence in the rehearsal room every week! But I never wanted to quit. Not once.

As we performed the songs last night – to a sold-out crowd – I tried to enjoy the moment, to soak in the music, the ambiance. I was sitting right behind the bassoons with their fabulous, pure, deep notes, which was enough to practically make me swoon. And as for the soloists – well, I closed my eyes and imagined I was in Carnegie Hall, they were that good.

I wished I was sitting next to my husband so that I could hold his hand and share the moment, but he, a tenor, was much too far away in the 70-some member choir. It was fun singing with him, though. He sings a lot more than I do so I enjoyed the rare chance to at least be in the same group with him.

Handel’s Messiah actually features in our courtship. My parents had invited him over for dinner – it was the first time he met my dad, I think, though he’d met Mom before. He came into the house and we all sat down at the table and The Messiah was playing in the background. My dad turned to him and asked him if he know what the music was.

Colin smiled and replied, “Handel’s Messiah!”

Dad smiled in return and, with his smile, told him he had permission to court his daughter.

Colin swiped his forehead and said, “Phew! I’m just glad it was a well-known piece of music!”

Dad nodded. “You got lucky, young man.”

That all happened close to 20 years ago. Last night, sitting there beneath the bright lights, felt like the culmination of that moment.

At various times throughout the concert I squinted into the crowds and found our children, sitting with a dear friend of mine, and I couldn’t wait to hear what they thought of it all.

When it was all over – after the intermission, after the Worthington Area Symphony Orchestra filled the auditorium with the marvelous strains of The Nutcracker Suite in the second half of the program and we’d sung Christmas carols (such a great entrance into the holiday season) and retrieved our coats and returned our music (a sad moment) our kids finally found us and hugged us and told us what they thought. Our youngest, at seven years old, said, “I loved it!” I asked her what bits she liked best. Without a pause she replied, “I don’t know. I slept through most of it.”

And that, my friends, is how our children keep us humble. Because Mom may be having an existential moment. But Lucy, lulled by the beauty of the music, just needed a nap.

Tunisia, 1987

18 Nov

Okay, full disclosure here: I’ve posted this basic story before. But that was three years ago and it’s timely given the season, so I’m posting it anew, with a few edits along the way. It’s like a re-run on TV that you can watch over and over…at least I hope it is.

I spent the Thanksgiving of 1987 in Africa. I can still smell the Sahara and taste the mandarin oranges.

Many moons ago, when I was 17 years old and still fondly dreamed that someday I’d be a famous opera singer, I took a trip to Tunisia with my best friend, her mother and aunt, and another friend. That’s right: five women (three of them still in high school) headed to Africa for Thanksgiving. Don’t you always think of Northern Africa when you think about Pilgrims and pumpkins? Okay, I didn’t either, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

I was living in West Berlin at the time, so really it was just a small hop south. We arrived, along with a German-speaking tour group, in Sousse, Tunisia. From there we drove to Kairouan, where we spent most of our time. From the bus window I saw a sign as we drove: “Libya, 10 kilometers” (it might not have been that exact distance but it was close). “Oy!” I thought, “That makes me a little nervous.” Quadafi was causing a bit of a ruckus in those days and I had one of those, “I’m not in Kansas anymore” moments.

Those moments continued as we began to explore the town. We ditched the tour group (as none of us spoke adequate German to understand anything anyway) and struck off on our own. I was not accustomed to shops that sold hookas as casually as if they were tea pots. Nor was my friend. “Are those lamps?” she asked, curious as to the purpose of the curvy pottery. “No,” our other friend replied. “They aren’t.” We left pretty quickly after that.

This is the Mediteranean Sea from Tunisia, though not the exact beach I was on. Photo from

We walked past that shop and headed to the Mediterranean Sea, no more than a block away. It was beautiful and almost empty, that beach. Sometimes we were the only people there. We collected tiny shells that we left in our hotel room to dry and which, by morning, had a residue all around them and on the counter beside them. I couldn’t figure out what it was. “Taste it,” my friend’s mother said, smiling, and sure enough, as I rubbed it with a finger there it was: salt. The Mediterranean had condensed on our countertop.

What I remember best is the Clementine seller. His was a constant presence every time we went to the beach. “Clementine, mandarine!” he would call with a sing-song tone, making both words rhyme. You could hear him coming from way down the shore. He would come up to us with a basket of mandarins, their tangerine-colored skins warm from the sun, and for a few cents we would buy them from him, choosing our favorites from amongst the dozens. Then he would shuffle off, calling his song to whomever could hear. Even now, 27 years later, when I buy tangerines from the grocery store, I think of that man and I sing his lilting song. I can hear it as clearly as if he were here beside me now. “Clementine, mandarine, clementine, mandarine!” I taught my kids his song and we sing it as we peel and pop the juicy segments into our mouths. Minnesota is a long way from northern Africa. But even here the memory of the soft sand in my toes, the aroma of the hooka shop, the desert heat, and the clementine-man’s song, all conspire together in my mind, leaving my mouth watering for more than just fruit.

PS – This mandarin basket isn’t my photo and I can’t figure out where I got it from. Sorry. Does acknowledging that make it okay?!

Well, How Do You Like Them Apples?

11 Nov
Too cool not to immortalize.

Too cool not to immortalize.

I headed out the door at about 6:00 on Sunday evening to bring a cup of hot coffee to my husband who was burning brush in the back yard. He’d been out for hours, and, despite the heat from the fire, I knew that he’d welcome the hot, thick, coal-black brew that I personally wouldn’t drink unless I was forced to by a fire-breathing dragon.

And even then I’d choke and gag.

I wasn’t wearing gloves – a foolish decision in the 30 degree Fahrenheit temperatures with wind gusts up to 40mph – so I held the covered coffee mug tightly and cherished the leaking warmth. Then I felt my pocket vibrate and, being the normal American cellphone addict, I had to check to see who was getting in touch with me on my lemon-yellow phone.

I reached one hand into my pocket, pulled out my phone, and saw though a haze of wind, cold, and tingling fingers, that someone from Freshly Pressed had tweeted about me on Twitter.

“What that heck?” I wondered, turning on the phone’s flashlight but not typing in my code to see the entire message. I got distracted right about then by the pitch black back yard and by my phone-holding hand which was quite cold especially when compared to my coffee-holding hand which was relatively toasty.

We have a big backyard. About 8 acres, with a meandering stream and lots of trees and grass that takes my husband 4 hours to mow, so as I traipsed back, following the glow of the fire, I forgot about the tweet I had received in my eagerness to get through all that blackness.

I reached my husband’s side. Handed over his coffee, gave him a kiss (while breathing in his smoky scent), and then said, “Oh! I think I might have been Freshly Pressed!”

“Really?” he asked in surprise. Not “I can’t believe that to be true” surprise but pleasant, “Are you sure you’re not imagining things?” surprise.

He knows me quite well.

I pressed the button on my phone, reread the partial message (“I think so, yes!” I said in a very happy tone.), coded in my ultra secret number, pressed the Twitter app, pressed “messages” and there, to my delight (and proving that I was a conclusion-jumper) it was proven to be true.

“I’ve been Freshly Pressed!”

The cows in the neighboring field were not impressed.

But I was.

Thank you so much to all of you new followers! I shall strive to not disappoint.

And to all of the rest of you who have suffered from a lack of Epiphany posts of late, I promise to do better.

I’m back!

freshly pressed

Where were you the night the Berlin Wall fell?

10 Nov

Gretchen O'Donnell:

Ok, so I got a huge surprise yesterday night when I discovered that my Berlin post had been freshly pressed! Horray! I’ll write more about that tomorrow but for now I wanted to reblog this other freshly pressed post that is also about Berlin. Enjoy!

Originally posted on British Museum blog:

Sabrina Ben Aouicha, project curator, Germany: memories of a nation, British Museum

Wach auf, Sabrina! Du musst dir ansehen, wie Geschichte geschrieben wird!

‘Wake up, Sabrina! You have to witness this; history is being written!’ These were the words my father woke me with, on a cold November night 25 years ago today. Although I was 8 years old (nearly 9) at the time, I still remember them today.

I think there are just a few events in recent history that are shared by people all over the world and become part of the human memory. I even dare to say there is one memory shared by every German over the age of 30. This can be summarised in one question: ‘where were you the night of 9 November 1989, when the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall) fell?

So, where was I? I would love to say I was on…

View original 912 more words

Chiseling Down the Wall – My Berlin Wall Memories

4 Nov

The first time I saw the Berlin Wall was the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. We had just moved to West Berlin because my Dad, who had been laid off from Pan American World Airways for 14 years, had unexpectedly been recalled…and sent to Berlin.

I remember when we got the news that we’d be moving. We’d known the assignment was to come through that day, so I’d made Mom promise to leave a message for me at school telling me where we’d be moving to. To my surprise, in the middle of algebra class, my teacher handed me a note. It read simply, “Berlin”.

Suddenly the world opened up for me. Visions of bratwurst, dirndls and Cold War spy movies filled my mind.

Clearly, I had no idea what I was getting in to.

By the time we’d moved into our apartment in the Dahlem district of Berlin, registered me for school in the US Department of Defense-run Berlin American High School, and learned to avert my eyes when walking through city parks where there were clothing-optional volleyball games in progress, I felt like I’d aged about a million years from that day in algebra class. West Berlin was not what I had expected.

It was better.

With the exception, of course, that every aspect of life was controlled by The Wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

Living in the city, going about my daily life, I didn’t give the wall much thought. But whenever a sports team or, in my case, the Drama Fest team, had to go to another West German city for a competition, we had to climb aboard the Duty Train (the nightly military train that took soldiers and their families across East Germany in the dark) with the window shades pulled, so that no Westerners could see the glory that was the DDR, the Deutsches Democratic Republic of Germany.

It was impossible for civilians to ride this train, except in the case of students like myself, so I’d come with an armload of special papers while my military-dependent friends could pretty much just hop onboard. The Duty Train was really the only way out of the city apart from flying. There were day passes available to military dependents to enter East Berlin, and as civilians we could enter the East through Checkpoint Charlie, but there were many rules and curfews required if you did so.

One of the rules was that you weren’t allowed to take any paper money – East Marks – back into West Germany. My uncle (when he and my aunt visited us one Christmas and we all went into the East) chose to be stubborn rather than spending his leftover marks. He opened an East German bank account with his ten marks…the equivalent of less than five dollars. I suppose the account still exists, though it’s more likely that the bank itself dissolved with the fall of the wall.

The gate that December.  Note the Soviet flag still flying.

The gate that December. Note the Soviet flag still flying.

Another rule about crossing into East Berlin was that civilians couldn’t drive their cars. This meant that whenever we wanted to go there – which was only twice for me – we were required to walk through Checkpoint Charlie and be scrutinized by the East German guards.

This wasn’t too big of a deal, but it took awhile, depending on whether the guards felt like opening the window or not, and on how long the lines were. Both times I visited they glanced at my passport and waved me through. Both times my mother, however, was scrutinized. She must have looked like she’d be easily intimidated. She would stand there, trying to look cross and aloof, but probably the shaking of her hand as she handed over her passport gave her away. I actually wanted to be scrutinized. I thought it would be fun. But no, they picked on Mom instead.

I disliked visiting the East. Oh, it was interesting seeing Alexander Platz and visiting the Russian-run department store, but it was a gloomy place, a gray place. The above-ground subway, the S-Bahn, gave a shrill whistle at every stop which always gave me a headache, and seeing the windows of the houses that faced the wall literally boarded up and seeing the guards with their guns patrolling no-man’s land and their guard towers and their utter disdain for us westerners was a little off-putting.

Of course, never far from one’s mind when visiting East Berlin, was the fact that you could leave…and every single person you saw around you could not. Well, they could go into the rest of East Germany, but they certainly couldn’t go into the west.

(By the way, if you ever get to Berlin today, the Checkpoint Charlie Wall Museum (Mauermuseum) is a must-see. It tells the story – and often preserves the means – of the many escapes and escape attempts that were made in the 27-year existence of the wall. There is little more humbling in life than to realize how you’ve taken your freedom for granted.)

I remember one time going to a fair and riding a Ferris Wheel that was set up right alongside the wall. Every time we reached the apex of the wheel ride we could see over the wall and into the streets and lives of the East Germans on the other side. I felt like a bird must feel. Only birds have the right to fly anywhere they choose. Even they had more freedom than the East Germans.

A hole in the wall...with the "Pope's Revenge" in the background.

A hole in the wall…with the “Pope’s Revenge” in the background.

I visited the wall several times while in my two years in Berlin. Usually we’d take the U-Bahn, the underground, to the Reichstag (now the Bundestag) and get out there, walking the short way to the Brandenburg Gate. My mother and I did that when President Reagan came to speak at the wall, in the spring of 1987. We had signed up for tickets, which we clutched, along with our passports and civilian ID cards, as we joined the line which snaked back and forth for row upon row.

There were three checkpoints along the way, all manned by West German guards. I handed my pile of documents to the first. He glanced down, prepared to wave me forward, then gave a snort. A snort which could only be called a laugh.

He looked up at me. “Gretchen?” He asked.

I nodded, confused.

Then, with another laugh, he handed me my papers and waved me on.

I shuffled forward, uncertain and a little perplexed.

At the next checkpoint, it happened again.

Papers handed over, name read, guard guffawed. Only this time he called over his friends to add a little humor to their day as well. “Gretchen!” he said, lending his German pronunciation to my name. “Ya, ha ha!” his friends agreed.

As I approached the third and final checkpoint, Mom and I prepared ourselves for the laugh fest.

I handed my documents over and, sure enough, the guard smiled and chuckled.

“It’s my name, right?” I asked. “Mein namen?”

“Ya,” the guard replied. “Das ist ein kinder namen.”*

A name for children.

Fine. Whatever. Give me my passport, please.

And then, after taking our place in the standing crowd and seeing East German guards staring down at us from the top of the Brandenburg Gate with rifles slung over their shoulders, the president appeared. When I looked back up, the soldiers were gone.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” President Reagan said. And I laughed a little, inside, at the absurdity of the thought.

Turns out I was the who was absurd. And I’m so glad.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

I was in college back in the States on November 9, 1989 – 25 years ago this month – so I wasn’t there when the wall actually opened up, but I went back several weeks later for Christmas. My parents and my cousin Eleanor (who was visiting for Christmas) and I took the U-Bahn to the Brandenburg Gate, bringing a hammer and chisel with us to claim our small piece of history. The crowds had thinned greatly from the initial days after the opening of the wall, but there were several people there, chiseling and hammering and swigging from bottles of wine.

We approached a large hole in the wall and gazed through into the former No-Man’s Land, the place of such loathing and horror in the past. An East German guard, still patrolling but unarmed, walked up on his side of the wall and smiled at us. He was still wearing his uniform, complete with Russian-style fur hat with the ear flaps folded up.

In broken German, Eleanor struck up a conversation with him and he replied amiably, smiling all the while. We were making friends with a man who, only weeks ago, would have had orders to shoot us.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

I went back to Berlin a few years ago, walked through the Brandenburg Gate, saw the renamed Reichstag and the US Embassy abutting the Gate itself, stayed in a Hilton hotel in the former East Berlin. Such decadence in the city that had been so dreary!

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012.  The US Embassy is the building to the left.

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012. The US Embassy is the building to the left.

Every moment of my time there was surreal. It was beyond fantastic to see the city I had come to love as it was meant to be. A unified whole.

PS – I know that reunification wasn’t all easy, what with broken Trabants on the autobahn and sales of pornography skyrocketing (blue jeans and bananas rounded out the top three most-bought items by the East Germans). But still, reunification brought about the ultimate end of World War II (the end of the Allied Occupation in the city) and the end of Germany’s split personality, so to speak. And while it might not have been easy, it was, in the end, Sehr Gut.

*My apologies if my German is incorrect!


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