If you know my mother don’t let her read this ’til after Christmas — it’ll ruin her present. My father, who was raised a Jew, became a Unitarian as an adult, then downgraded to atheist, was nevertheless a spiritual being: he always said Christmas was about hope, plain and simple. And I believe him, especially after getting my mother’s Christmas present.
This year I learned a little lesson in hope from a man I’ve never met who lives in Germany. Gottfried Preller is the organist of the church in Arnstadt where an 18-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach came in 1703 to test the church’s newly completed organ. As parish organist, the young Bach would compose some of his earliest keyboard and chorale-based works on this organ.
Last month, on Thursday, November 20, I was driving to work and tuned in to Teri Noel Towe’s classical radio program on WPRB. I caught the tail end of an organ piece: it was Gottfried Preller playing early organ works of Bach on the very organ Bach himself played on in Arnstadt. Towe, the announcer, said that Preller’s CD, “Bach in Arnstadt,” is not available in this country but that listeners could E-mail Preller for information on obtaining a copy. My mother, who studied classical piano at the Mannes College of Music in New York (but ended up having babies instead of pursuing a concert career), is an organ fanatic. I knew Preller’s CD was the perfect Christmas present for her: I had to get it.
Once in the office (dear Boss, forgive me), I hopped onto Towe’s playlist on the WPRB website and shot an E-mail off to Herr Preller. “I would love to give this CD to my mother for Christmas (she is crazy about the organ!) Is there a way I can order it from you with a Visa card online?” Later that day I received a reply that began like this: “Sehr geehrter Herr Saxon, vielen Dank fur Ihre mail. Gerne schicke ich Ihnen die CD und freue mich uber Ihr Interesse.” Uh-oh. Now we’re in trouble. Then some more words that sounds like they might be a really good beef dish on a menu, then “Legen Sie das Geld (40, Dollar)” — phew, I got that part. Ok, what to do, what to do.
Then bingo, I got it. I forwarded the E-mail to Elaine Strauss, U.S. 1’s venerable classical music writer, who is fluent in German. I later asked her how she came to be fluent, thinking perhaps it was because her husband, Ulli, is a native of Frankfurt. She said no, she actually started learning German in high school, then later lived in Strasbourg, France, where the local dialect is a form of German, and Germany is just across the Rhine; and in Basel, Switzerland, where German is the official language and she attended lectures at the Conservatory. She and Ulli tromp through the Alps every summer and she happily talks with strangers she meets on hiking paths. She says Germans call her language ability “toll,” which means something between crazy and terrific, and they find her American accent attractive.
Elaine translated for me: “Dear esteemed Mr. Saxon, Many thanks for your mail. I will gladly send you the CD and am happy for your interest. We can do it very simply: Put the money, 40 dollars, in an envelope and simply send it to me. If the money should really get lost that also is not such a big problem. I hope I can help you and wish you a contemplative Advent and Christmas period. Best wishes, Gottfried Preller. P.S. Unfortunately, I cannot write English — only read it.”
Send 40 dollars in the mail? Can’t do that. No, no, no. It will be stolen, surely, like when a friend once mailed back my beloved moon-phase watch I left at her house — the envelope arrived, with a clear imprint of the round watch face on the envelope and a one-inch slit on the side, with no watch inside. Back onto Google: search on “sending cash overseas.” I think there must be some sort of international cashier’s check I can get. I stumble upon a post that says, essentially, to paraphrase Obama, yes, you can. “Just wrap the cash in a few pieces of plain white paper and mail in a regular business-sized envelope via registered mail (so the recipient has to sign for it).” And then, I add to myself, hope, hope, hope it gets there.
On Friday, November 28, I go to the ATM and get two spanking new $20 bills. I run my fingers across the bills, like a prayer. Suddenly, I have a memory of arranging and rearranging the six Kennedy half-dollars my grandparents got me when I was a child. There’s something about touching newly minted money that produces its own kind of thrill, even if it’s only a shiny new half-dollar coin or a crisp new $20 bill. It’s real money — the last thing you should put in the mail. Oh, well, here goes nothing, I say to myself as I hand over the envelope to the postal clerk.
Back at work I E-mail my new penpal Gottfried to alert him I have sent the cash and to please let me know when my letter — and money — safely arrive so I can breathe normally again. I hope, hope, hope for another four days.
On Tuesday, December 2, Gottfried writes: “Sehr geehrte Frau Saxon (amazingly he has figured out by this time that I am a girl; perhaps he Googled me, but he doesn’t say), die CD geht heute in die Post.” I think that sounds good; I understand “CD” and “Post.” I anxiously await Elaine’s translation: “Very esteemed Mrs. Saxon, Today the CD will go in the mail. I hope it reaches you safely and I wish you a reflective and fine Advent and Christmas time! Many greetings — and have much joy with the CD.” I’m already in love with this guy. What is it about fractured English that is so endearing? I want to hop on a plane and marry him right away. I am already there baking Christmas stollen in his kitchen. I forget momentarily that I am already married. Must work on that.
Following her translation, Elaine editorializes: “Notice how he sends the CD even before he gets the money.” Now think about this for a moment. Would an American selling his old Beatles’ White Album on eBay or Craig’s List mail it out without first getting payment? No way. But Gottfried, he trusts me. Doesn’t know me from Adam, but he trusts that I’m good for the money. What a peach.
I’m now checking my E-mail even more frenetically than I usually do. Two days later, on Thursday, December 4, Gottfried writes: “Sehr geehrte Frau Saxon, das Geld ist heute eingetroffen. Vielen Dank!” Elaine translates: “The money arrived today. Many thanks. The CD is already underway to you for its second day. I hope very much that it soon reaches you. Again everything good for you and heartfelt greetings.”
I go bananas. This is mankind at in its finest hour. The money got there, it really got there. (Sounds like Sally Field: “You like me! You really like me!”) My faith soars. This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. Not only did my cold hard cash get there without being stolen by nefarious postal workers in Arnstadt (or Newark for that matter), but a total stranger sent me a CD before he even got my money. This is Jimmy Stewart kissing the rickety newel post on his staircase at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This is the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes that day. This is yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus.
Friday, December 12: the CD arrives in a flat square envelope hand-addressed in that telltale European handwriting, the f’s and the s’s all fancy and embellished. I tear open the envelope and inside is — another envelope. And inside that another envelope. All in all the CD is painstakingly wrapped in its own little creche of no fewer than seven envelopes, each tucked into the next with expert care.
The CD is not sealed in cellophane, so I pop it immediately into my computer and crank up the volume. Then I wait, just a second or two in happy anticipation because I know what’s coming. I wait, and then — bang, boom, pow — strains of deep, guttural Bach — juicy, throaty, masculine, resonant — fill my office. I inhale deeply, as if the music is a rich, steaming broth. My little experiment worked: one small international business transaction, accomplished with two $20 bills, one extremely polite German organist, one translator, and a little hope.