Artist Date 116: Brundibar

Brundibar_button

I am surprised by my tears.

I don’t know why. As my ex-boyfriend D once noted with great endearment, “You cry about everything.” But today they surprise me.

Perhaps because it is not quite noon (not that tears are a great respecter of clocks) and it seems early in the day to have such an outpouring of emotion. Or perhaps it is because I have spent the entirety of this Artist Date (number 116) mired in irritation.

I am at Madrid’s Teatro Real for a performance of Brundibar, Hans Krasa’s children’s opera, re-written from memory and performed 55 times at Theresienstadt – the ghetto and concentration camp located about an hour from Prague.

I feel awkward walking to the opera – just a few blocks from my house. It is a children’s performance and I am attending sans child. My discomfort is heightened as I show the usher my ticket.

“You know this is just one ticket? One seat,” she inquires.

Yes, I am aware.

And I am once again reminded of the Spaniards distaste for aloneness. I didn’t buy into this when it was first pointed out to me by a long-time expat during my first days in Madrid. Over the past nine months I’ve become increasingly more aware that at best, Spaniards do not value time spent alone, and at worst, pity it. My Spanish students and friends confirm this.

The child next to me is sniffling and blowing his nose. I privately regard him with disdain as a human petri dish and hope not to catch whatever has taken root in his small body. The pain in my leg and hip that has followed me from California to Chicago to Seattle to Madrid announces itself. A bodyworker by trade, I roll the skin of my thigh between my fingers – burning, painful – hoping to encourage its release. I am, in a word, distracted.

The opera is performed in Spanish – which I don’t expect, even though I know there will be no subtitles. For some reason I expect it to be performed in Czech, and that none of us will know the exact words being sung. Ridiculous.

But as it is in Spanish, I feel obligated to try to understand it. If it were any other language, I wouldn’t even try. Instead I would let the words wash over me, charmed by their different sounds and tickled if by chance I know any of them.

But this is not the case. And now, my Sunday morning Artist Date feels like a work. Like a Spanish lesson.

The performance lasts about 45 minutes. The music and costumes are fanciful and the children’s voices, high and sweet. I know its story because I read up on it last night.

It is a simple tale of fatherless children who need milk for their sick mother, but have no money to purchase it. They decide to sing in the marketplace to earn money but are chased away by the evil organ grinder, Brundibar (who represents Hitler). With the help of a bird, a cat, a dog and other children, they chase away Brundibar and are able to sing in the square.

But it is only as the performers take their bows that I connect to the performance and the story. Only now that the details I learned while reading in bed push up and out of me.

That among the 55 performances of the opera at Theresienstadt was one for the Red Cross, who had come to investigate conditions in the “ghetto,” and one for the Nazi propaganda film Der Fuher schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City). That many of the Jews living in Theresiendstadt were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz prior to the Red Cross visit to make the ghetto appear less crowded and more comfortable. And that all who participated in the film were sent to Auschwitz upon its completion, and most of them gassed upon arrival.

That, according to Ela Weissberger, a survivor who played the role of the cat at Theresienstadt, the only time the children could remove their identifying yellow Star of David was during performances.

But it is what I have read on radio.cz that has moved me from irritation to tears.

“It is chilling to think that the cast had to be renewed constantly as a growing number of the children were transported to Auschwitz.”

It is this thought that runs through my head as the children take their bows, ironically on the second day of Passover – the celebration of the Jews liberation from slavery. That this cast will be renewed based upon age, not death. And I am no longer surprised by my tears.

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Further From The Flame Than I Knew

I sometimes have a one-plate rule.  Actually, it’s not even a rule, it’s just how I eat.  Except for when I don’t.  Today is one of those days.

The table at Martha's, post meal.  The pies have been put away, but my copy of "Love, Sex and Astrology" has not.
The table at Martha’s, post meal. The pies have been put away, but my copy of “Love, Sex and Astrology” has not.

It is Christmas and I am at Martha’s house with her son Louie, his girlfriend Katie, Jack and Jonnie.  There is enough food in the kitchen for triple the size of our party.  I have reloaded my plate, even though I have not finished what is on it, adding a second piece of ham and a small spoonful of macaroni and cheese, which I did not try the first time around.  I pile it on top of my salad – greens with roasted root vegetables, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pear.

The macaroni is delicious.  Made with sour cream, cream cheese, and cheddar and parmesan cheeses.  I say it is perhaps too rich, and laugh, thinking about those people who say that foods are too rich or too sweet.  No such thing.

Except for when they are.  This is one of those times.

I put my fork down.  My brain wants more but my belly says no.  Or perhaps it is not my belly but some higher-self that is constructed of painful memories.  The higher self that says don’t put your hand on the hot stove.

Trouble is, I’m the type that likes to bring my hand really close to the burner, to see how close I can get, to feel the heat without getting burned.

It is this second plate.  It is the boy I spent the night with several months ago. And, knowing he could not possibly give me what I want, and that once I am physically involved my perception gets blurry, spent a second night with him anyway.

It is my years of vain efforts to try to drink like other people.

The higher self speaks to me.  Passover.  1990-something.  I still live in Detroit and my parents are still married, but they do not live in my childhood home.  Neither do I, which means I am somewhere between 21 and 24 years old.

I am thin for the first time in my life.  Really thin.  I am rigid about my eating and exercise.  The kind of rigid that makes me not all that much fun to eat with.  I feel like I have cracked the code.  That I will never be heavy again.  That I am fixed.  I am mistaken.

My mother has made some sort of gelatinous kosher-for-Passover dessert.  It is an experiment, as is every kosher-for-Passover dessert, where chemistry and good taste are at odds in the never-ending quest to make tasty sweets without flour.

I have one.  Then another.  And another.  They are not even good but I cannot seem to stop myself.  My mother clears the table and brings them into the kitchen and I follow, secretively, wolfing down a few more.  As if anyone is paying attention.

Next I know I am in the upstairs bathroom, on the floor, trying to make myself throw up. But I cannot.  My mother asks if I need to go to the hospital.  I say no because I cannot imagine what they will do to help me.  I lie on the cool tile with my pants unzipped and wait for this feeling to pass.

I tell Martha and Jonnie this story, and that eating too much feels scary.  Which is not to say that I don’t overeat, because I do.  And today is likely to be one of those days.  But I do not eat to sickness and have not in many, many years.  The desire has been taken from me.  It is a miracle.

As is my reaching out to that dear, sweet boy only one more time.  And when the response was tepid, not returning to him, trying to convince him, or myself, that it, that we, could be otherwise.

As is my not trying to drink like other people for more than six years.  Instead, putting down the drink entirely.

I finish my plate.  Slowly.  A bit later I have a sliver of pumpkin cheesecake and one of chocolate pecan pie.  I tell Martha to cut them as wide as her finger and she does.  I am breaking one of my holiday rules.  Kind of.  I do not eat anything not homemade.

The pies come from First Slice – a not-for-profit which sells “subscriptions” for homemade meals and uses the money from those subscriptions to feed the same meals to hungry families in Chicago.  Martha assures me the pies are more homemade than if she made them herself.

I have a second round of slivers.  Am I playing with fire?

Walking home, the streets are freakishly quiet.  I am carrying a bag of leftovers – salad, ham, roasted roots, sweet potatoes – leaving the pies, and the Lindt truffles at my place setting, on Martha’s table.

I feel the snow on my face.  I feel my gut.  Satiated, but not stuffed.  I have “broken” several of my “rules,” and, miraculously, feel further from the flame than ever.