Closing the Immigration Circle

I’ve always followed my gut feeling, for better or for worse. The trouble is, I often don’t know where my gut is headed until I get there.

Just before I graduated from Juilliard in 1997, I cancelled scholarships and loans to attend the San Francisco Conservatory for my master’s degree in music, apparently on a whim. My parents were probably worried and I remember a serious conversation with my father in which I told him I didn’t want to go into music. He was making an earnest attempt to understand my plan, and so was I. I really didn’t know what I was going to do.

All I knew was that I felt burnt out and disillusioned with the idea of being a professional musician even before the beginning of any kind of career. What I wanted to do in music seemed impossible, and what lay within the bounds of reality ranged from unappealing to appalling.

The plans I had after graduation were like a beautiful stroll through English flower gardens that ended in a sheer cliff drop. There was a post-graduation tour with the Juilliard Orchestra to Korea and Japan and then an all-expenses paid trip to the Schleswig-Holstein Orchestral Academy for the summer, and after that I supposed I was going to keep treading thin air like a cartoon character once the ground had been pulled from beneath my feet. My father was right to be worried.

After I came back from what ended up being a much longer summer than planned thanks to an unexpected scholarship and a few travel detours, something had changed. I had found joy in music again. I had experienced a community where people were interested in making music first and earning a living second, not to mention the fact that I was still at an age when most people in Germany were only just beginning to study. This was a place where I could buy the time I needed to become a full-blooded musician and not just a professional one.

I went home to New Jersey in October, two months later than planned, and told my parents I was moving to Berlin. I studied German at home and got my driver’s license and dreamt of reinventing myself far away from the pressure cooker of New York City which I had loved so much as long as I could survive in it.

My grandfather called me from Florida and wanted to talk about my decision to move to Germany. My grandfather, an amateur violinist, was born in a small village near Lodz called Strykow; he emigrated to Belgium in 1929 and never returned, and he and my Belgian grandmother fled to New York in 1941. He lost nearly his entire family in the Holocaust and had a pathological hatred of all things German.

I had to hold the phone away from my ear for minutes at a time while he ranted. “Bad musicians in Germany…all the best musicians were Jewish…what do you want over there?…nothing but second-rate musicians…don’t understand how to produce good sound on the violin…orchestras are lousy…murderers.” I didn’t argue, I just let him carry on.

My first days, weeks, months, even years in Berlin were not an easy time. I came with no concrete plans except what my gut feeling told me to do, which was to explore the city, learn German, read, write, and give the cello a rest until I really felt like making music again. I did all that but often felt completely disoriented; Berlin in 1997 was not the open, international, welcoming, artist-friendly city it is today. For one thing, I had never seen so many war memorials or bullet-scarred buildings in my life. For another, I knew New Yorkers had a reputation for rudeness, but Berliners made them seem warm and gracious in comparison. I had few friends and no idea what I was going to do or how I would survive.

I used to go walking in the woods sometimes to clear my mind, but quite the opposite would happen; I would take the S-Bahn out to the city limits and wander into a forest. Those Brandenburg forests completely unnerved me: row upon parallel row of pine trees with no growth in between. I was in a country of rectangularly regulated forests. The sky, especially in winter, was a reliable, low cloud cover; the landscape out there was flat and drab. I would see older couples out walking and wonder where they had been when…

About a year and a half into my self-styled exile, I met Boris Pergamenschikow at a masterclass, and he just happened to have an opening in his cello class at the time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and it – and he – were obviously what my gut feeling had been seeking. Meeting him made all my irrational decisions make sense, retrospectively. I was still young enough to finish two years of undergraduate studies and continue for two more years of graduate studies with him, and it cost me nearly nothing. It was truly a gift from heaven, all made possible by the German system of higher education for all who are willing and able. Lessons with him changed the course of my entire life.

By the time I got my first job in 2001 as principal cellist of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, my grandfather had passed away at the age of either 97 or 92, depending on which story you believed. He claimed his father had registered his birth five years later, making him five years younger on his official Polish birth certificate.

Last year, I spent New Year’s Eve in Warsaw with my (German) husband and our Polish friend Joanna. We drove there in her car and took the new highway that was built in time for the European Soccer Championship 2012. On New Year’s Day, stuffed with pirogies, we drove back and were chatting away in the car until we realized that Joanna’s GPS device was not leading us back to the highway. She had forgotten to update the software, and the new highway was not yet on the map. We kept following the signs to Berlin along country roads and hoped to find it.

After about an hour of crawling along behind trucks, Joanna said there was a paper map somewhere in the backseat and I fished it out and found out where we were. In fact, the road we were on was leading us the long way to the highway. Then I looked at the remaining stretch of country road on the map and saw the name Strykow. My grandfather’s birthplace, never revisited by him, never seen by any other family member.

Strykow town square

Strykow town square

We stopped in Strykow and got out. There was almost nothing there. The word desolate does not begin to conjure the atmosphere of the place. It was not that the houses were falling apart or that there was any evidence of poverty; on the contrary, it was almost too neat and orderly. It was the sheer absence of any signs of life that made it such a sad, dry place. My husband and I had to use a bathroom and found a place called “Cafe Vegas” on what was ostensibly the main square. The door opened onto a dark, narrow cave of a room where three slot machines lined the left wall; a stench of old tobacco and sweat blossomed into the cold fresh air. One man sat in front of each slot machine; only one looked up as we came in.

with my husband David in front of Cafe Vegas

with my husband David in front of Cafe Vegas

We stayed in the town for about twenty minutes, walking around its two or three empty streets. As we drove on, I had the sensation that I was supposed to see this. Beyond the town limits, rectangular forests cropped up on both sides. Those same rectangular pine forests. That same flat, minimally sculpted landscape. Then it hit me: I was essentially living in the same place my grandfather left in 1929. He left everything behind here and I came back without knowing why.

Back in Berlin a week later, I began the process of applying for German citizenship. A clever lawyer helped me obtain an exception from the German government’s no-dual-citizenship policy to keep my American passport. It made sense to me to become a citizen of both nations, the one that received my fleeing ancestors and the one that gave me a musical home many decades later. I am the product and a lucky beneficiary of both countries, and on January 13th, 2014, I will officially become a German citizen. The funny thing is, my lawyer’s successful argument for my keeping both nationalities was based on artistic merit, which means that the German authorities value music and art as much as my grandfather once did.

I can’t help thinking that he might have been happy about this state of affairs. Maybe that’s why he waved to us last New Year’s Day.Strykow2

One Response to Closing the Immigration Circle

  1. I remember that conversation about your trip to San Francisco and also going to the land of the Buddhist enclave in South East Asia. Mom and I were worried but trusted our instincts that you will find the sane path to reaching what you long for. I always Knew you were a complicated character that would always challenge the norm like all the Cheah’s and Hersen’s so this is par for the course. Your adventures will continue to keep us hopping and wondering what is Lanie’s next move.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *