strung out
my life as an amateur violist

   on tour: black silk shirt and slivovitz  |  # m



  The plane is levelling off. We've just departed NYC from JFK on JAL. That's Jugoslavian Air Lines (or "was" I should say). The first evidence that we are now technically in our host country -- pork smothered in gravy, pickled vegetables and a small bottle of that staple of Jugoslavian culture, the plum brandy called Slivovitz. More on that later. ;-) (Just the memory makes me wince.)  

It’s a long flight to Belgrade.  

Belgrade (pronounced BAY-o-grod by the natives) was a trip. A gray pall of diesel and WWII ruins dominated the cityscape. Our first gig was downtown at the Sava Center, right on the - you guessed it - Sava River. Over 4000 Belgraders packed the hall with many standing, although it looked like more given it’s strangely wide and shallow dimensions. A large track ran the length of what looked to be be a 75 meter stage. It must have been for t.v. cameras, although I don’t recall seeing any.  

The audience was rippling with energy. I remember getting a very cool vibe from these people. There was no pretentiousness, just an air of excitement and curiosity.  

The real fun began two thirds of the way through the concert when we were joined by Borislav Poscan, the Youth Orchestra of Belgrade. Their conductor, Anton Kolar, a swarthy handsome Serb, decked out in a big baggy black silk shirt, took the podium with a florish and a toothy grin. We would play Bolero.  

Now the interesting thing is that Bolero was not on our program. Most of us had never played it. But hey, when in Rome! My tour buddy, Glenn, picked up a saxophone (he had been playing mostly clarinet) and kicked out a smooth, sensuous solo. The spontaneity was refreshing and made for a memorable evening. After the gig a very disorganized and fragmented get-together with the Yugoslav musicians took place in the lobby. The highlight: a young Belgrader that looked *exactly* like Al Franken who seemed very eager to party with the American kids. Unfortunately we were on a pretty short leash. Gotta watch out for our impressionable young 14 year olds.  

Fast forward to... Zagreb was a beautiful old city, probably the most beautiful we saw in our travels. Its graceful stone architecture and human scale contrasted starkly with the industrial flavor of Belgrade and Lubljana. I was literally down to my last $5.00, having splurged on a gift (a musical jewelry box purchased in NYC) for my off-and-on girlfriend, Cathy (who seven years later would become my legal mate). Glenn, the clarinetist (god, I hope I’ve got his name right - it was thirteen years ago), gallantly gave me $10, an act of kindness I will never forget. I used it to purchase a fancy set of espresso cups and a small bulbous bottle of the Yugoslavian firewater, Slivovitz.  

After the night’s gig, I carefully removed a Serbo-Croation flyer promoting our concert and diligently protected the rolled, not folded, souvenir on our travels through Europe. We were housed out at a somewhat attractive barracks-like facility outside the city. I couldn’t locate which barracks housed my friends and someone was playing some obnoxious 70’s band on a boom box. Very depressing. There was only one answer. Slivovitz.  

Remember the way Orwell described the liquor in “1984”? I think he used the words “greasy gin”. This wasn’t gin, but it was harsh and kinda greasy. Slivovitz is supposed to be a plum brandy, but I wasn’t smelling plum anywhere. It burns a bit going down and packs a wallop. As a rookie in my drinking career, it didn’t take much to set me into a slow, uncomfortable hazy spin.  

I wasn’t passed out until Austria, but for dramatic effect, let’s just pretend...  

I don’t know if it was our tour guides, or the Austrian attitude, or just bad kharma, but Austria just did not sit that well with me. Sure they had these clean wide freeways and fine scenery but wherever we went the reception seemed a little cold. My assessment isn’t based on a lot of experience; I hope to go back under better circumstances some day.  

In Linz we showed up eager for to make an impression in Bruckner Hall, to find that the only tickets that had been sold were to the family of the co-concertmaster. It seems our concert producer had forgotten to advertise. Oops!  

Later that night, a group of us set out on foot to find a place to dance. None of us spoke more than a few words of German. About two hours later, it was dark and we were lost in a city 8,000 miles from home. Our harpist saved us by boldly requesting directions from an unsuspecting citizen retreiving his mail. With his assistance we made our way back, dejected and disappointed.  

We were staying at the Linz Novotel, which we found endless amusement in calling the No-Tell Motel. In an ironic (pathetic?) twist it nearly earned its newly acquired epithet.  

By now, most everyone is worn out, homesick, feeling a little wild or a combination of all three. Glenn, my friend the clarinetist, and Meghan, a fellow violist, had become quite an item on tour. Meghan, in the spirit of match-making, set about encouraging romance from a slightly flirtatious friendship that was developing between me and the harpist (who has a name, a very nice name, which I won't invoke to spare any possible embarrassment - let's call her L).  

On our second night in Linz, our group didn’t much feel like braving the elements and stayed in. Meghan slyly invited me and L to join her and Glenn in her hotel room, conveniently vacated by her official room mate.  

We’re all sitting on the bed making small talk when Meghan and Glenn start kissing and hugging. L and I are a little freaked out. We’ve only known each other for a few days and although something could have developed, it clearly needed a little more time. It was also that time in life where our scant two year age difference (me 19, she 17) bridged a certain legal barrier (maybe I would have been exempt in Austria?). I tried to play it cool and gave her a back rub. (I’m such a nerd!) She was too freaked to relax and enjoy it. I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a really sweaty, raunchy end to this little episode, but at the time, in that giddy little zone that travel produces, we had been naughty, and yes, even rebellious and that's something I'll always have.  (Geez! It’s not as if it’s a challenge to find to find porn on the Net!) 

Close call at the No-Tell Motel.  

Did I mention that Hitler grew up in Linz



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