Sunday, June 16, 2013

Road Trip

I don't like road-trip movies AT ALL. They usually involve a bunch of guys that get drunk and do something stupid or crazy (preferably in Vegas). Or, they involve cannibals, drug dealers or human trafficking which is probably more interesting but might have a slight surreal touch to it. After my road trip this weekend, I have to take it all back. Ending up in a wedding chapel with Elvis or meeting ET would have been less unsettling than this real road trip.

Basic coordinates: Driving from Cincinnati, Ohio to Turtletown, Tennessee (No, I am not kidding and yes, this is the real name of the "town", right next to Ducktown, Tennessee!)

Objective: Play at the Juneteenth festival in Turtletown

Main idea: Stuffing one band + family + instruments in one big van - and the fun will follow

The cast:

1. Dad
Designated driver and storyteller (even if nobody's awake to listen). Slogan: We have to find the cheapest gas station.

2. Mom
Designated co-pilot. Slogan: If things get too crazy, I'll be asleep (Have a wild guess how many hours she spent sleeping!)

3. The son / boyfriend
Gifted guitar player and indispensable because → Slogan: I won't utter more than 2 words per hour.

4. Grandma
The voice of reason. Slogan: I'll say things how they are!

5. The singer
Master of the GPS. Slogan: I don't know where I am going but my phone does.

6. The singer's wife
Taking care of the baby. Slogan: If there is one thing you didn't know about diapers, I am happy to tell you about it.

7. The baby
Best passenger. Slogan: I won't cry, I won't cry, no, I won't shed a tear just as long as you stand by me!

8. The piano player
The spiritual equilibrium. Slogan: Make love not war and if there is a problem, the Martians will come to help us.

9. The drummer
The joker. Slogan: When things go from bad to horrible and you REALLY are not in the mood for jokes, I'll tell you one.

10. The drummer's wife and rapper
Band leader. Slogan: I really try to keep up with my girls but they're just faster than me.

11. + 12. The drummer's daughters
The evil twins. Slogan: How can we blow up this van popsicle stand?

13. The guitar player
I am the lead guitarist! Slogan: Check out my disappearing act.

14. The guitar player's wife
I am the lead guitarist's wife. Slogan: I am the lead guitarist's wife!

15. Poor me
How did I get caught up in the middle of this? Slogan: Get me out of here!

16. The van
I am made for 12 people. Slogan: This is the worst trip of my life.

The fun starts at exactly 12 PM (parenthesis: we were supposed to leave Cincinnati 2 hours ago) when dad, mom, grandma, son / boyfriend and me pull up into the drummer's driveway. We look at the people inside the van, we count the people outside the van. We stare at the equipment. This is going to be a challenge. Luckily, the guitar player is driving his own car and allows us to put our soft bags (nothing hard that could scratch my guitar) into his car. Alright, we are all set, the van is packed. We are good to go. Problem: We still have to pick up 3 more people!
It is 2 PM now, we pull into the singer's driveway. Apparently, his wife and baby are coming with us, too. The baby needs his own seat. At this point, we are just glad, he is a singer and not the second drummer + equipment. We double up, people are sitting on top of each other, lying on the floor and everybody has some part of an instrument bumping against at least one body part. It is 3 PM and we are finally rolling.
30 minutes later, our first pit stop. Somebody has to go to the bathroom. Dad / designated driver shouts:" 4 minutes everybody, in 4 minutes I am starting the car and whoever is not inside, will be left behind!" 30 minutes later, we have managed to pile back up into the van. Somehow, everybody has managed to find a more or less comfortable position, the road trip has officially begun. Mom says: "Let's sing some monkey songs!" After five monkey songs, the piano player feels comfortable enough to disclose his secrets on the end of the world and the Martian revolution. The singer's wife decides that there are more interesting subjects to talk about and decides it's a good idea to share her views on breastfeeding with us. Surprisingly, EVERYBODY seems to have some interesting input on that. I am torn between listening (I am sure, once this is all over, it will make a good story) and trying to find my MP3 player somewhere between the guitar, grandma's pillow and the cooler. I wish I had packed a bottle of hard liquor instead. The baby now has something to say, too. The evil twins feel that they aren't getting enough attention in the back and start throwing Cheeze-Its crackers. I finally find the MP3 player. 7 hours later (including one 2-hour food stop - everybody getting out of the van, eating, everybody getting back into the van), we arrive in Ducktown, Tennessee. Grandma remembers the way but the singer disagrees (his GPS is telling us to go somewhere else). We decide to go with grandma (given that there is ABSOLUTELY NO SIGNAL AT ALL) and actually end up at her mountain house. Finally! Everybody is excited (mostly because we all had to go to the bathroom for the past five hours) - until we get to the front door. It is locked. Nobody is at the house (wasn't THE AUNT supposed to be here???), we don't have a key, we don't have a signal to call THE AUNT. The son / boyfriend and I are sent to the welcome center to get the keys. We are the only young ones not lazy enough to protest. We find the welcome house but it isn't a welcome house any more. A friendly neighbor tells us that it is her house now, that she doesn't have a key and that we are welcome to stop by for a cup of coffee. In the meantime, the crew has reached THE AUNT (by the way, she deserves the capital letters since SHE is the one who organizes the festival and got us here in the first place), somebody will come. When? No idea. Who? No idea. Should we wait? NO! The guitar player has made up his mind and decides that desperate times (having to do your "business" surrounded by poison ivy qualifies as desperate) call for desperate measures. With a skilled ninja move he kicks in the door.  We start a little happy dance. Too early as it turns out. There is neither electricity nor running water inside the house and what's even worse: It smells really bad. "Like a dead rat", the drummer jokes - later we find out it was actually THE AUNT'S dead dog that we have to bury but that's another story. That pushes the mothers (including grandmothers) over the edge. We are out of here. We are going back down, into "town" and staying at a motel. It is pitch-dark by now, mosquitoes are feasting on us so it's about time we get back to civilization. Us, minus our spiritual piano player, who wants to stay in the house for a private all-night-session with the mountain spirits.

The next morning, after a great breakfast (everything tastes wonderful if all you had for dinner is a microwave-hot dog from the 24-hour gas station), everybody is in a great mood. We are going to rock this festival! Once we find it. The GPS still refuses to work in the mountains and after an hour of searching, another vehicle shows up, also looking for the Juneteenth festival. Great. At least, there really IS a festival. We haven't heard from THE AUNT yet, so our mood is somewhere in between furious and hopeful. We FINALLY see a sign. The festival side is B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L! Next to a lake, surrounded by woods, a big stage, raggae music, tents and hippies - what else could you possibly ask for? Everything is wonderful until THE AUNT arrives. We all get a big hug, some story about a dead dog named "Chico", and about the last 24 crazy hours that she has had (wait, 'till you hear our story!). We are speechless and for the first time everybody is thankful for the evil twins that decide to run off into the woods and give us a great excuse to take off. The bands start to play and everything sounds good until the sound engineer decides to take off in the middle of the first set. The second band is an average 15 years old and I really wish the singer wouldn't be in the middle of his voice break. Finally, OUR band is playing. Mom wakes up again, the evil twins jump up and down and I am armed with 10 cameras waiting to take pictures. Great show, great audience, great pictures. Let's get out of here as fast as we can now! Apparently, the guitar player had the same idea because he is nowhere to be found and we are left behind with our former load, plus the soft bags. We somehow manage to find another car that is driving to Cincinnati and is willing to take some of our equipment. With a lot more space now (everybody has almost one entire seat), as soon as we are back on the main road, the whole van is asleep.
By 8 am the next morning (don't ask me how!), I am back in Cincinnati and off to bed. What a road trip!!!

Our motel in Ducktown, Tennessee


The festival site

Mom, dad and the guitar player - we finally made it to the festival

The band warming up

Camping at the festival

The band in action

Monday, June 10, 2013

To the clouds over Cincinnati

Dear clouds over Cincinnati,

I can tell that you are all doing well – and that's exactly why I am writing you this letter. Since I got to the city you have given me nothing but trouble. Don't get me wrong— you are splendid clouds. However, I am afraid that that is exactly the problem. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I have to be honest: there are far too many of you out there! People had warned me about you, but I thought they were exaggerating. They weren't!
When I arrived, you were very cold. I guess coldness can be normal when meeting somebody for the first time, but I sure would have hoped for a warmer welcome. I didn't complain (even though it was May and I was freezing) because I thought that with time you would just move on. I guess I was wrong because even though you did warm up towards me, you didn't keep your distance. To the contrary; I always seemed to have a heavy cloud over my head that pushed the heat down further and further until it became unbearable. I could never see the light at the end of the cloud tunnel. To be fair, you never said anything mean to me, but I knew this was just the calm before the storm. And sure enough, soon after that, I could see you put your heads together to come up with a new idea to get to me. You roared with thunder and flashed your lightning every time I wanted to go out: concerts in the park – canceled, barbecues with friends – postponed, hiking in the woods – muddy, going swimming – impossible. And I keep asking myself: why, why, why? Why do you have to be so mean? Why can't you just leave us alone? Why can't you let a little sunshine into my life? And why do you like hanging out over Cincinnati so much, anyway (I know it is a decent place, but come on!)? Of course, you never bothered to answer. I guess my questions were just blown away in the wind. Anyway, I could really use some space here! Maybe you could take a little vacation for the summer months? I am sure there are other parts of the country that you would enjoy tremendously. I hear Vegas is really fun and I am sure people there would be excited to see you guys! Or, what about visiting your relatives in Seattle?? Just think about it. Please don't blow me off !

Yours truly,


Thursday, June 6, 2013

To gamble or not to gamble: The Horseshoe Casino in Cincinnati

It is flashy, it is glamorous, and it is Cincinnati's latest attraction: the Horseshoe Casino.
To be honest, I don't like casinos. I usually try to stay as far away from them as possible. Don't get me wrong— I am a passionate player; cards, roulette, Scrabble … you name it, I play it! As long as there is no money involved, I do great. But this changes as soon as I start to play for money; my luck packs its bags, takes a plane and flies far, far away. Therefore, when I first heard about the Horseshoe Casino in Cincinnati, I was determined to avoid it. However, Saturday night, my curiosity got the better of me. Virtually EVERYBODY had been to Horseshoe and was just raving about it. So, under strictly professional purposes of journalistic research I allowed myself to go. And, given my game karma, I decided to set myself a financial limit. But how much should it be? It had to be bold and daring. In the end, I decided to take only one dollar. This dollar would either make me incredibly rich, or … not. Having made this decision, I walked confidently into Horseshoe— only to find myself in awe and somehow blinded by the (roughly) 1,000 chandeliers blinking and flashing and sparkling at me. It took me a while to get used to the brightness, and when I did, I realized that people were bumping into me. Actually, I was bumping into them as I stumbled around, still trying to figure out where I had landed. There was music coming from every direction and there was so much going on around me that I didn't know where to look first: at the man at the black jack table throwing around 100 dollar bills as if they were dirty wash cloths, at the lady at the roulette game gathering heaps and heaps of chips in front of her, or at the girls from the bachelorette party with horns made out of balloons on their heads. In other words, I was in the middle of a wild party where everybody wanted to have a good time and make money. Money. Right! I almost forgot that I was here to see how far a dollar could get you in Cincinnati. So here we go! Uhm … no, I guess we don't go just yet because I don't understand how any of these games work. It is all red, yellow and blue lights, computer screens and quick-as-race-cars croupiers. Everybody but me seemed to know exactly what they were doing. So I decided to try my luck with something simpler, a slot machine called “Lago di Amore”: Lake of Love. However, this machine showed me no love at all. As a matter of fact, there were no slots and I couldn't figure out where to insert my coins. Another 20 minutes went by until I worked up the courage to ask somebody to explain the machine to me. An older gentleman showed me patiently where I could feed the machine my bills (coins were two centuries ago!) and which buttons I had to press. Now I was ready. This was my chance to make it big in Cincinnati. I put my dollar bill into the machine and pressed a button. Two seconds later my balance was 40 cents. I went to the next machine, pressed the button again. 15 cents. This was bad. If I kept loosing at this rate, I'd spend a month's salary in half an hour. Then I remembered my mission: get in, then get out as fast as I could. It was definitely time to get out!
What an experience! And what did I learn from this experience? I learned that one dollar won't get you very far, I learned that it is fashionable to wear balloons in your hair, and I learned that the Horseshoe Casino in Cincinnati is not for the faint of heart.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A German on the loose in Cincinnati: Eating my first Cheese Coney

There were three things people had told me about Cincinnati:

  1. They have the best milk shakes in the country
  2. It is the city of the flying pigs
  3. People in Cincinnati are crazy about a certain type of food called “chili cheese dogs”

While number one made perfect sense (Ohio is worldwide famous for its milk cows), number two sounded a little bit disturbing (are there pigs dangling from the buildings in Cincinnati? And more importantly, were these pigs alive at one point???). Now, as far as number three on the list goes, everybody was just raving about the “chili cheese dogs”, so I knew a very special delicacy was in store for me. What I didn't know was that this cheesy dog would teach me four important facts about Cincinnati.
The first Cincy fact I was taught when asking about the “chili cheese dog” (with raised eyebrows and rolling eyes), was that people in Cincinnati NEVER EVER call it a “chili cheese dog”. The proper name is “cheese coney”. “Chili cheese dog” is just a name ignorant outatowners gave it, people that have probably never seen a real cheese coney; in other words: people like me.
Cincy fact number two involves rituals around eating a cheese coney. You cannot just go out and eat a cheese coney on the go, as a fast little snack (as I foolishly assumed). Also, it is very bad manners to just eat a cheese coney by yourself. Eating a cheese coney is a social event. You go with your family, with your friends or at least with your dog or – as it was the case with me – you take your uneducated visitors with you to experience the one and only Cincinnati cheese coney.
So here I am, finally, with a hot and fresh cheese coney in front of me. For the first time in my life I get to admire the real deal: a fresh bun with a firm hot dog in it, covered in delicious smelling chili, with a mountain of cheese on top. In my (naive) German mind however, this combination just doesn't make sense. I understand the hot dog by itself and I understand the chili by itself but why (why???) would you ever combine two types of meat? Because, and this is Cincy fact number three— because more meat is more good! Why make do with just one type of meat when you can have two? Makes sense, right?
Now there is only one thing separating me from my very first bite of cheese coney; the hot sauce that goes on top. I grab the bottle and spread a very generous amount on my coney. My friends look at me, trying to warn me – but please! I have lived in South America for the past three years and from jalapeƱo to rocoto, I have tried just about every hot pepper there is. This sauce will be nothing for me. So I confidently take my first big bite … and I am in flames! My face is turning crimson and I am sure there is steam coming out of my ears. My taste buds are numb. All I can taste is “hot”. So as much as I would like to tell you what I think of the Cheese Coney, unfortunately I have no idea what it tastes like. Which brings me to the fourth and most important Cincy fact: you should always listen to what people in Cincinnati have to tell to you; they know what they are talking about!

Monday, June 3, 2013

She's back!

It has been over a month since my last South American adventure.
What happened in the meantime? Well, I closed a chapter in my life and said goodbye to the southern half of this continent (yes, it was sad and I miss it). And I happened to end up in Cincinnati, Ohio. This will be my "home" base for the next couple of months. If you had asked me 3 years ago, in what city I would see myself living in the future, Cincinnati wouldn't have been the answer (I probably didn't even know where it was exactly). But this is how life (and in my case: love) goes and here I am. To be honest, for the past month I have been mostly sleeping, working and enjoying the fact that I wasn't packing (and carrying) my 15-kilo-heavy backpack every 3 days. The rest of the time, I was trying to deal with my culture shock. I have to admit, it hit me way harder than I expected. Sure, I was enthusiastic about being in the States for about one week: There was hot water coming out of the sink (also, there always WAS water/hot water), I finally could buy my favorite chewing gum again and the service at the restaurants was overwhelmingly friendly. BUT, soon enough reality hit me. A lot of it might have to do with being in Cincinnati. A friend from Barcelona said about the city: "It's a small town. I mean, it's like a lot of small towns that make up a big small town, but it is still a small town." I agree! You can tell that people here are just a 30-minute-drive away from Kentucky. So in my first weeks here I had to get used to the fact that it seems to be completely normal to go shopping on Saturdays and come back with a gun (that you proudly show your neighbors). I couldn't (and still can't) stand that I have to drive everywhere. Also, I had to talk to very ... let's call them ignorant ... people that couldn't tell the difference between Africa and South America. And what's even worse: Whenever somebody asked me what I thought about South America, they expected the sentence to end with "but I am glad to be back in the US". Needless to say, that I got as excited as a little puppy every time I happened to run into a Latino. And I got the impression, they felt the same way. Finally, somebody that "speaks" your language, somebody that doesn't think it's gross to greet a person with a kiss on the cheek and that doesn't think you're crazy because you have left the US (and liked it). BUT, the important part is, I found these people (not only Latinos). They might be a bit more scarce in Cincinnati but they exist. So slowly but surely, the city is growing on me.
I have also started to write a weekly column for an online magazine ( where I talk about my ventures and adventures in the city; stories that I would like to share with you here, too. So stay tuned!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

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