A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

GK's Travel Diary
February 2004
Garrison Keillor describes the literary life on the road.

Berlin, p.m.—February 29, 2004

Sunday night—The Café Tocher is on Pariserplatz, on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, and here, at 11 o’clock, the American Embassy assembled a roomful of guests, Germans and Americans and some people who weren’t sure which they were, for a hearty brunch of scrambled eggs and rolls and wieners and all manner of delicacies ---- I looked for eel so as to make sure I didn’t have any but there was none to not be had ---- and also to hear the American writer read, namely me. They gave me a platform with a table and chair and microphone and glass of water, as if I might sit down and drone out of a book, but this was no day for that. So I declaimed some American poems instead, a little Dickinson and Frost and Langston Hughes and Cummings and Mary Oliver and James Wright. James was my teacher at the University of Minnesota and had a Fulbright to Vienna where he discovered the poems of Rilke and Georg Trakl, which changed his life. (The lady who runs the German end of the Fulbright program was there, I learned later.) It was great fun to stand and recite and I managed to fill an hour with this and that. And we all sang “Down In The Valley” to piano accompaniment by the esteemed Herr Frey who tossed in some Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith and Leonard Bernstein impressions. And in honor of our president, I sang a cowboy song. It being an official Embassy event, I went to pains to be non-partisan, and that was a pleasure, I must say. And there, a block from the Reichstag, is no place for an American to blather about American politics, so heavily does the cloud of history hang over the place.

Here, Kaiser Wilhelm’s parliament met through the Great War and here the democratic republic was formed after the Kaiser’s abdication in 1918. Here the first National Socialist parliamentarians appeared in the late Twenties, who came to the parliament with a calculated strategy of obstruction, aiming to make democracy ineffectual. They were elected by their constituents but they had a larger agenda and wore the brown-shirt uniform and swastika armbands to the chambers of parliament, an ominous sign of what was to come. The communist and social democratic parties could not effectively unite against Hitler and so he slipped into power and once he arrived, he conspired with his brownshirts to set fire to the Reichstag in 1933 and that fire, which he blamed on the communists, enabled him to declare martial law and suspend civil rights and begin the reign of terror. It all happened here and when you walk through the Brandenburg Gate and turn right and see the Reichstag there, you are stunned by your faint memories from high school history, the pictures of the fire and of Kristallnacht and the round-ups of Jews, memories that suddenly become sharp. Here, on these streets, walked the feuding democrats of the early Thirties who permitted Hitler’s passage to power. And from that, the whole grim story, the collaboration of the Lutheran church, the capitulation of the Army, although the nature of the beast was pretty well known.

You walk in the front entrance of the Reichstag and realize that the exterior is only a shell (from 1894) and the interior was gutted by the fire and further destroyed by Allied bombing in the war. The new interior is very open, the Bundestag chamber visible behind glas walls. You take the elevator to the roof and there you can walk up a ramp to the top of the dome, which is new from ten years ago, glass, louvered, beautiful, and which gives you a fine view of the city. We stood at the top and looked in all directions and now I am back at the hotel exhausted from the commotion and from the enormity of history that falls on you here. The Germans may be accustomed to it but I’m not. I’ll turn out my light though it’s only 7 p.m. and get up early and do some work and then go out for a last long look at the city. And buy gifts. And spend an hour in a stationery store and buy some Pelikan pens and notebooks. A guilty pleasure. It’s almost obscene, the pleasure to be taken in the purchase of paper and pens.

Berlin, a.m.—February 29, 2004

Sunday morning—Berlin has the third-largest Turkish population of any city in the world, a German journalist told me: there is Ankara, Istanbul, and then there is Berlin. He was gloomy about the future. Crime is rampant, he suggested, and the city wallows in debt and morale is poor. “We simply have no sense of ourselves as a nation,” he said. “We envy you Americans your patriotism.” And now this morning, a knock on my door and an exquisitely beautiful dark-skinned Turkish woman brings in my breakfast tray, speaking what sounds to me like perfect German. Precise, delicate, musical German. She simply is the most beautiful woman I've seen since ---- well, since I left home. Breakfast is a basket of rolls, a plate of cheese, a soft-boiled egg, and a pot of coffee. Such a luxury, to have this feast brought by someone so extraordinarily lovely. I imagine she is twenty, the daughter of immigrants, who grew up in a good Turkish home in Deutschland, and now perhaps she is working for a year or two before she goes to the university and takes a degree in political science. It will break her poor parents’ heart but she’ll marry a German and her proud Muslim bloodline will be intertwined with one from Saxony and a little brood of very beautiful, slightly exotic looking German children will emerge. One sympathizes with the immigrant parents, who must’ve grieved over their decision a thousand times ---- the agonies we endure in behalf of our children ---- and yet one can imagine that the breakfast woman might do very very well here. Our Norman ancestors who flooded over from France into Anglia were surely despised by the pasty-faced natives, but look at the gifts they brought and how they enriched the English language. Globalization is a painful process, but what is the alternative? In America, we are invaded by Hispanics and we find ourselves in a trade relationship with China that is not entirely to our liking, or which at any rate costs us heavily in jobs. In Ohio, where I was last week, the job drain is felt acutely. The President is going to have a hard time convincing Ohioans that he is turning the economy around. But how do you hold this back? Germany had a desperate dark century of nationalism that flowered into genocide and now Germans must live in a new world, and so must we all. I hope for Bush’s defeat. I think he’s the worst President since Harding, small, dull, manipulated, a man possessed of a fatal lack of curiosity and small dark impulses, a man who should have been impeached twice, the first president in my lifetime in whose life one simply finds nothing whatsoever to admire, and the loss of jobs may be what causes him to lose his. But these are complex issues and the glib solutions that a Democratic candidate puts up are not going to work, you can count on that.

Berlin, p.m.—February 28, 2004

Saturday night—Well, I did a little show in the ballroom of the Hotel Adlon tonight and I did pretty darned well if I do say so myself which I just did. A couple hundred people, about half Germans, half Americans, including Mrs. Coates, the American ambassador's wife, and various embassy people, and a bunch of German broadcasting folks and some writers and journalists, and I did the Star-Spangled Banner, "All Shook Up," some blues, some Elvis, the Bizet Habanera, and a song for my daughter, and "Home on the Range" and, doggone it, it was okay. It could've been worse. The pianist Alexander Frey played with great bravura and panache and people laughed a lot and there was even an encore. I love doing this, love it unreasonably, love to sing and play with the microphone and be dramatic in my own geeky way and let the lilacs free in the night. By George, I even sang "Dixie." And they were moved by it, even knowing it’s politically incorrect. It’s a moving song. The fact that it was a rallying song for old rednecks means nothing to me ----- I say, take the enemy's songs and make them our own. The ambassador's wife was gracious and lovely. Her husband is a former Republican senator from Indiana ----- she is from Waukegan, home town of Jack Benny. And then, voila, who should appear but Dustin Hoffman. He was in attendance, sitting up in the mezzanine. He and his wife Lisa are here to visit their daughter who is in the midst of her junior year abroad. A sweet man and very gracious to the good people around him who are naturally struck dizzy by the presence of a movie star. It's the only real celebrityhood in the world today. Everybody knows who Dustin Hoffman is ----- though Germans are used to seeing him speak German in his films ---- and this causes a sort of electricity to shoot through the room. He told me that my singing reminded him of Ted Lewis ----- the old radio crooner who did "Me and My Shadow" ---- and he said that in his desperate early years, he had taken a job briefly in Fargo, N.D., as the director of a community theater. He did not seem anxious to talk about it, so I did not press him for details.

A little brunch show tomorrow morning at the Café Tocher for the American embassy, and then a couple days of sightseeing. I am looking forward to the Monday night train to Paris. We each have a berth, Philip, Stanley, Linda, and I, and the train leaves at 9:24 and arrives in Paris at the Station du Nord twelve hours later. This is a childhood dream that one never gets over, the love of sleeping cars and the wheels going clickety-clack and European cities ---- Aachen, Brussels, Strasbourg ----- passing in the night. Planes cannot hold the same allure as the old Pullman and the cry of the conductor and the burst of steam ----- well, I guess we’ll have to do without the steam ----- and the anguished farewells to loved ones as you go off to rejoin the regiment, and so forth.

I recommend travel with siblings. It means that you're very well understood and you don't need to say much by way of explanation and the power of inference is ten times greater and there’s no need to tell your life story. They know it. Oh boy, do they know it. My recommendation to you, dear blogreader: call up your siblings and arrange a trip. You won't regret it. I tell people that I’m traveling with siblings and they look at me strangely as if this were abnormal. "So do the old sibling rivalries come back into play?" they ask. No. All your childhood disputes were over by the time you turned twenty. ---- Okay, maybe forty. By 61, you're pretty much in the clear.

No, we're not going to church tomorrow. It was discussed and we're not going.

Berlin—February 28, 2004

Saturday. A chill cloudy day in Berlin, a good day to sit in your room and write, which I’ve been doing. My brothers and sister are out at the museums, shopping at the big department store on Kurfenstendamm, going to the Cathedral tonight to hear the Mozart Requiem. Last night I started to slip off the track of Berlin time and back onto St. Paul time, staying up late late late, 6 a.m., and then getting up at 11 to rehearse for the show tonight. This used to happen to me years ago in Copenhagen: I’d get onto a Danish schedule and then start to slide and wind up sleeping from 6 a.m. to noon, like Elvis. The rehearsal is with the pianist Alexander Frey, who will accompany me tonight at the Adlon, which is putting on an American Night in celebration of the Museum of Modern Art collection that will reside in Berlin through September ---- MOMA is redoing its Manhattan quarters ---- and Mr. Frey is an American conductor and raconteur, a young Oscar Levant, Chicago-born, and an organist. He has an enormous pipe organ in his third-floor apartment in Berlin that makes you wonder what arrangements he’s made with his neighbors. The rehearsal goes like a breeze except for “Great Balls of Fire” which I really want to sing, and he wants to play, but he’s missing the rockabilly gene and we go over and over it. He’s playing beautifully all around the beat, a sort of Art Tatum treatment, and with rockabilly you really have to hit that backbeat with your left hand and stomp your right foot and make the beer on the piano jump. “It’ll be just fine!” we keep assuring each other. “I don’t have to do it!” I tell him. “No, no, no, it’ll be great,” he says.

The Adlon ballroom is set up with tables and a low stage, a Boston grand piano, two-hundred people expected, a capacity crowd, and they’ll get hot dogs and chili for supper and then champagne. Gianni van Daalen, who manages the hotel, and Marylea von Daalen, who manages Gianni, are busy supervising the set-up when we arrive for a sound check. She is a St. Louis girl, and he is a Dutchman who grew up in Italy, then in France, now lives in Germany, a real European.

I came on this trip, imagining it would be a holiday, but now work is pressing, a screenplay that’s in the works and a new book that should come out in June and the radio show and other projects, and I manage to find other things to do ---- wrote a column for a magazine the other morning, about the President and his inability to talk, which really is hindering him this election year, and the magazine seemed interested in it, and now it looks as if they won’t print it. Maybe it was too disprespectful. But it was fun to write, even if nobody ever reads it. At my age, you start not to care about publication anymore. Writing itself is good enough. Tonight I get to stand up in front of two-hundred people in Berlin and sing an hour’s worth of American songs that I love, and that’s good enough for me. All my life I've gotten to make my own pie, and sometimes it turns out to be apple and sometimes it's mud, but it's always been mine. Failure is only a problem if you failed by trying to follow somebody else's instructions. If your own pie fails, it doesn't hurt that much at all. Anyway, failure is a crucial part of life. And so I'm floundering on the screenplay, and the book, and I can't write a magazine column to save my life, but I'm still having a pretty good time.

Berlin, p.m.—February 27, 2004

Evening. The Berlin Philharmonic plays in a Moderne hall, lights hanging on cables over the stage and also curved acoustical panels that look like Danish relish trays from the 50s, the orchestra encircled by the audience. The orchestra comes on stage en masse, a classy piece of stagecraft, and then the concertmaster and the maestro, Simon Rattle, the Englishman, with a great mane of gray hair, conducting without a score, the Stabat mater of the Polish conductor Szymanowski and the Bruckner Fourth Symphony. Magnificent music and it all made me think of my violinist wife and how much she would have loved it all, the precision and the big attack of the strings, the magnificent bass section, the minimal style of the conductor who lets the players play and doesn’t crowd them. At times, in the Bruckner, the violins rocked forward and back like rowers on a galley. At intermission, a movie star sighting: Dustin Hoffman making his way through the crowd and the Germans doing their best to not stare. The crowd brought Rattle back for four curtain calls after the Bruckner, and on the third, he appeared in the horn section and had the first French horn stand for a bow and the crowd roared and also for the trombones. Trombones! Bravo.

Berlin, a.m.—February 27, 2004

Friday a.m.—A good night’s sleep and thank you, Ambien. A woman in the hotel café told me last night, “Colin Powell uses Ambien,” and with complete authority, so I reckon he does. It goes well with a good German bed, under a comforter, by an open window looking out on Unter den Linden. The street dead-ends here, at the Brandenburg Gate, so the traffic sounds are gentle. Phil and Stan and Linda come to my room for breakfast ---- rolls, cheese, coffee, boiled eggs ---- and then our German pal Joachim meets us on the street for a long amble into what used to be East Berlin and before the war, the center of the city, Alexanderplatz and the Cathedral and St. Hedwig’s, the Catholic church, and the Museum of Antiquities where the Kaisers kept the treasures they took out of Greece and Egypt. Joachim admits, a little sheepishly, that he is not so familiar with Berlin, being a country boy from the south ---- he lives in Heidelberg now and teaches at the University ---- so he keeps checking his map and passers-by ask him, in English, if he needs help. Before the Wall fell in ’91, he admits, he visited East Berlin only once, as a high school boy on a field trip, and it was so strange to him, so impoverished and “gray,” that he never returned. He was more interested in France and England and America. The streets seem empty on this chill gray day and there is little police presence, considering that we’re in the midst of the federal office buildings and the embassies. The street is blocked in front of the American embassy, and a few security men are there and also in front of the enormous Russian embassy. The buildings are brick, or stucco, five or six stories tall, functional, difficult to date, not so different in style from commercial buildings in Copenhagen or Stockholm. An old guardhouse of one of the Friedrichs, a little Greek temple, has been made into a memorial to all who have suffered in wars: inside, simple stone walls and floor, a large round hole in the roof like that in the Pantheon in Rome, and an enormous squat statue in granite of a mother holding a child in her lap. Farther, in the Cathedral, we arrive in the visitor’s gallery in time to see a parson ascend to the pulpit and read a passage from the Song of Solomon and the organist plays a Bach chorale which reverberates like water flowing. There are twelve people in this vast rococo pile, under the high dome. Across the street is the copper-colored glass and steel rectangle of the Palace of the Republic, the seat of the East German government, now closed on account of asbestos and about to be demolished. The plan is to erect a replica of the old Hohenzollern Palace that stood here until the Communists tore it down in 1950. Over the plaza, with its statue of Marx, stands the great tower built by the old regime, with a bulb at the top and a TV tower sprouting up from it. We take an elevator to the top where we look out on Berlin from the enclosed observation deck: the Tiergarten not yet in bloom, the new glass towers of Potsdamerplatz, the old nightclub section of town which was bombed to the ground and lay vacant, a no-man-‘s land with the Wall passing through it and Checkpoint Charlie, once a Cold War flash point, now a museum. We climb a flight of stairs to the revolving café above and sit down for lunch, and make three revolutions as we eat. The waitresses are quick, as are all service people in Berlin, to detect foreignness and their “Guten Tag” switches to “Good day” and they remember, through the meal, which language you represent. It throws them a little bit if an American tosses in some Deutsch, as we are wont to do, in the interest of world amity ------ toss in an “Ich mochte” or “Entschuldigen sie” ---- it flips their switch and they spiel off some German and then catch themselves. I am offered a little dish of lard and out of politeness I spread some on my brown bread and eat it. Quite salty, with little flecks of rind. Tonight we shall attend the Berlin Philharmonic, for which Joachim has snagged us some rare tickets, and tomorrow night I will do a little show in the hotel ballroom, as part of some sort of America Week here in Berlin which includes an exhibition of art from MOMA in New York. Eating lunch and looking out at the city, it strikes me that I should be sure to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of the show. Plus a cowboy song, “Frankie and Johnny,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” and Irving Berlin, of course. “What’ll I Do” and something else. And “Home on the Range” and “Down In The Valley”. On the way back to the hotel, I practice the national anthem, trying to find the right key so that I don’t hurt myself on “land on the free”. People hear this and glance at me. I am feeling ever so slightly jet-lagged around the fringes and need to lie down before the concert tonight. One does not want to make strange snorting sounds during the Dvorak.

Berlin—February 26, 2004

Wednesday—My daughter says goodbye to me in the living room, engrossed in a game of Monopoly Junior, about to put a hotel on Indiana, and my wife drives me to the airport and says a fond goodbye and tells me that on our upcoming vacation, I must promise not to work on at least three days, and into the terminal I go. A first for me: getting the boarding pass for an international flight out of a E-ticket machine ---- only difference is that the machine asks for your passport number. The NW DC10 to Amsterdam leaves Minneapolis out of Gate G-6, the same sort of gate as if you were going to Grand Forks or Phoenix, no big deal. I am going to Berlin, Paris, and London with my brother Stan, brother Phil, and sister Linda, a novel notion for us. Part business, part un-business. Going to Berlin to scout out the next Prairie Home Companion show there and to London for the publication of Love Me with side trips to Glasgow, Bath, and Brighton. A trip booked mostly by Internet, except this leg which Deb Beck at the office put together, thank goodness. The flight is full and she managed to get me a seat in row 22, the exit row.

Linda, Stan, and Phil are waiting at the gate when I get there. Our aim is to sleep over the Atlantic so we’ve avoided coffee today. I’ve been up since 4, having arisen in a hotel room in Toledo where I did a show Tuesday night. Brought a pillow along and an eyeshade and a fresh supply of Ambien sleeping pills. We are all armed with medications and intent on skipping the airline meal and dozing off and waking up in Europe. And-------

That is what happens to me. A small uncomfortable seat, but it doesn’t matter. The plane ascends, the seat goes back, the eyeshade comes on, and from then on there are only brief snatches of consciousness, a little turbulence, and then the sensation of my seat back being pushed to the upright position. The flight attendant. We’re in our descent to Amsterdam.

Thank you, Ambien. All of those wretched jet-lagged days drooping around Europe, wanting to lie down at noon and sleep for eight hours ---- gone.

In Amsterdam, we have a few hours and zip into the town center on the train and look at the harbor. And then to Berlin, an hour by air, and to the hotel near the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, on Unter den Linden. A bowl of potato soup and a phone call home and then into bed. I do a show here Saturday night, for the opening of an exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a little reading in a café on Sunday morning. An American in Berlin. I will try to do right.

Travel Diary Archives

European Book Tour 2004
Sun, Feb 29—Berlin, p.m.
Sun, Feb 29—Berlin, a.m.
Sat, Feb 28—Berlin, p.m.
Sat, Feb 28—Berlin
Fri, Feb 27—Berlin, p.m.
Fri, Feb 27—Berlin, a.m.
Thu, Feb 26—Berlin

European Tour 2001

Rhubarb Tour 2003

All Entries
February 2004

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