Finding friends in sad places built of rusting fences

Heinz was with us in spirit if not in body

After the most wonderful evening in the sumptuous company of David and Christina, their adorable boys, and of course my dear friend Lars, we saddled up, turned and waved, and rode into the sunrise. Okay, it was actually midday ’cause we slept in, but where’s the poetry in that!

From Munich’s splendour and culture (i.e. the waterbed incident) we headed northeast to Zeitz, where celebrations to mark the end of the Soviet era were being staged the weekend of my concert. Here as in much of Germany, The Wall remains an evocative subject. Although it fell 25 years ago, the scars are everywhere to be seen and felt in Zeitz today. After 25 years one would expect change and yes, in much of eastern Germany things have, but many feel it’s for the worse, not better. My senses were dulled at the outskirts of Zeitz by row after row of derelict buildings - once factories of the Soviet machinery employing and feeding (usually) a war weary, brainwashed and fearful populace. But what the State provides the State can take away and the Soviet withdrawal in ’89 left little behind.

Reunification created an exodus of hopeful East Germans. This city of 30-thousand was once 60-plus yet people continue to leave and you simply can’t give your house away let alone sell it. The elderly who remain can be forgiven for missing the turbulent Soviet era featuring 100% employment and many more people to mingle with on the streets (even if half of them were working for the Stasi). It’s hard for me to express how immensely bereft and hopeless I felt driving through Zeitz. I wanted to like it. I wanted to find my reason to be here. But there was no life or energy. We found only a recently renovated public square surrounded by the bleakness and lost ambition of a dark city. I felt even worse, and I grieved for this sad place. I’ve never deliberately missed a show, and I wasn’t about to start, but I wondered if I’d made the right decision. I had.

 

Didn't know whether to eat it or frame it

I certainly wasn't expecting to find OZ 

The Green Island Pub is the reason they created the phrase "an oasis in the desert"! Lars and I knocked on the door. We were sans-Heinz, who was playing with the NDR Big-band (his loss!). We were greeted by the smiling, gracious, and athletic Sandra. Andreas sent the emails received when booking the gig but clearly Sandra ran the show. She invited us into the cosiest pub I'd seen since The Merriman Tavern in Scariff County Clare. Coffee was served and after a wee tour we set up then settled down to a fine meal cooked by Stefan. The menu, which included a dish called "Fat Paul" (no I didn’t), was in German but Sandra provided a handwritten English version on A4. I liked the informality and opted for eggs and salad featuring ham hiding under the lettuce, embedded in the eggs. I didn't complain - it tasted fantastic.

There are still places in Germany that allow (even encourage) smoking. While most Irish pubs are sponsored by Guinness, The Green Island Pub is sponsored by Marlboro! There was a wide mix of locals young and old, men and women, and oddly, two Australians. The older Arnold (baker, oven businessman and grandfather) shared tales of piercing his nipples. I would rather have chatted about the Ashes or our favourite Men At Work song (a no brainer!), but I suppose even Australian men have reached the 21st century. Still, it made me nostalgic for that Paul Hogan hulk of a man.

The pub was one of only two in Zeitz with live music so by 7:30 pm it was jammed. At least I think it was. Given the smoke I couldn't see anybody but it certainly felt and sounded (insert lots of hacking and airway clearing, mainly mine) like a decent crowd. I did glimpse frequent flash photography through the haze even though I often sing with my eyes closed. Why you ask? To quote my old friend Mick Hipkiss, “Because I can't stand to see the pain on their faces when I sing."

Scrapbook bound in real Corinthian leather

Yes officer, I'm being stalked by a leprechaun with a Polaroid

Following the show a small chap in green (not a leprechaun) called Andreas, presented me with a T-shirt to sign, a poster, an autograph book, and post cards (designed by himself using pics pilfered from the internet). The Little Prince (his pub moniker), had been to every live music concert in Zeitz for the past 17 years! From each venue he added photos and autographs to a big scrapbook (five of them so far). Lars and I spent an enjoyable 30-minutes with HRH post-gig. Andreas treasured his collection of cabaret acts, tribute bands, and vocalists, and I was proud to be part of it.
 I loved the way the pub crowd accepted and cared for The Little Prince, whom one might say is special. He is indeed, taking the time to listen, photograph, and treasure something as simple as a stranger’s signature. Lars, myself and HRH made an odd-looking trio as we walked home. Andreas said he'd send a CD of pictures. I bet he says that to all the musicians!

Held hostage by an unhappy Russian homeowner with a spitting problem

That night we stayed in the home of a Russian, who shall remain nameless! I wish I could tell his story but it doesn't feel like it's mine to tell. He spoke to Lars for 15 minutes at breakfast, after which Lars looked like he needed a holiday. The poor man (the Russian), obviously not used to strangers, told Lars (the other poor man!) everything. Everything of his life: two wives, affairs, children, lost jobs, lost dreams, lost wives, him dying, violin lessons, affairs with the violin teacher (his wife, not him), building bridges (not a metaphor), Moldavia (a nurse 30 years younger than him), trips to Odessa to see the opera (1,500 km each way), stolen money (a different wife), legal battles, and almost selling his house (on the way to signing the buyer lost his money gambling).
 The smell of oil will never leave me, nor the look on his face when he heard the V-word (vegetarian). I think he actually spat. Oh, he was born in Stalingrad in ’47, not exactly Disneyland. And he once dreamed of being a concert violinist. His grandson has the same dream. Although I don’t understand German by the end I was crying like Paul Gascoigne at a World Cup Semi-final.

The Russian’s confession weighed us down and for an hour after leaving Zeitz, Lars and I hardly talked. I’ll go back if invited. Maybe I'll even try smoking, or maybe I won’t. I’d like to meet Andreas again assuming there’s not a Kylie Minogue tribute on the same night (who could blame him). And I do want to know more about this sad eastern dichotomy that has made such a big impression on my life.

Paul O’Brien

ps. Two days later,  Andreas' CD arrived in the post by First Class, just like The Little Prince himself.

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