From Houston to Berlin and Beyond...

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Apr 17, 2010

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Flag of United States  , Texas
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)

 The Wedding Music - Die Hochzeitsmusik
Seven months ago when I was invited to play the piano at the wedding of my friend, Claudia, in her hometown of Berlin, Germany, I was moved by a sense of excitement, ebullience, and a profound honor to become part of a very important, special chapter in her life. Claudia had finished her doctorate degree in pharmacy in Berlin, and she first came to the US near the beginning of the millennium to do her postdoctoral fellowship at the premier cancer institution in the US, and possibly in the world, at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Our friendship and circle of friends grew over time. Then to hear that she was going to get married to a nice, smart American guy, Brent, made us all happy. 

The wedding date was announced seven months ago. How quickly time had flown by. As I am sitting at the airport in Houston about to fly to Berlin, I really could not tell you where those seven months of music planning had gone. Ever since Claudia appointed me to organize the music program, the real work began as soon as I had accepted to perform at her wedding. What pieces to select? How many pieces to play? How to arrange them during the ceremony? The detailed questions began to surface. After conferring with my piano instructor and good friend, Wenli, a wonderful, accomplished pianist who recently graduated with a Ph.D. in piano from one of America's elite private institutions Rice University, I presented to Claudia a tentative music program. After some revisions, we finally decided on a line-up of six pieces that would reflect her wedding in Berlin, with the majority of the pieces written naturally by German composers: Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Pachelbel. There was never any doubt of shortages of beautiful classical music emanating from Germany due to its plenteous, resplendent musical heritage. Alongside the German pieces, we also selected two equally beautiful pieces by French composers: Mouret and Lai.

After establishing the music program, I began to work with Wenli on the performace. Demonstrating the finesse of a classically-trained pianist, Wenli would first tear down my interpretative techniques in a gentle manner, only to refine and reshape them into a delicate, passionate, and emotive style of performance. The pieces have such a diverse array of interpretative demands. For example, Lai's piano piece has to convincingly evoke an intense romantic nostalgia while Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 13 in C Minor (Pathétique), with its sublime chords and harmony, has to express a peaceful, meditative, restrained passion. But after many hours of polishing up on the music, I finally felt confident and ready for Claudia's nuptials in Berlin.

Memories of a City Reborn - Erinnerungen an eine wiedergeborene Stadt
Berlin holds a very special place in my heart. This is not going to be my first visit to Berlin. It's a city I consider almost as my second home. More than a decade ago while still a first year medical student, I was lucky to receive a fellowship from the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD) or German Academic Exchange Service, to do a summer research internship in a Biochemistry Lab at the Charité Klinik -Humboldt Universität. Never having formally studied any German, I systematically sat at home with a book and tapes for three months and intensively tried to absorb the language into my head before the trip. Arriving in Berlin as a young medical student on a budget, I stayed at a small dormitory on Habersaathstraβe near Zinnowitzer subway station, five minutes by foot from the university lab, and a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate and the German Reichstag Parliament Building. In short, I sacrificed the rudimentary amenities of the dorm for an enviable zip code. 

It was also a summer experience I would never forget. Hope and change were permeating through the air. The country was then filled with excitement five years after reunification, and there were construction cranes trying to rapidly rebuild the eastern part of the city. Remnants of the broken Berlin Wall were still standing on a deserted, barren plot of land, long known as no-man's land at Potsdamer Platz. Some American friends of mine and I once went there to stealthily pick up a few souvenir pieces of the wall before running for our lives to avoid apprehension by the police. It was truly a lighthearted, carefree summer in the life of a young student. 

I also made friends with two very wonderful people, Signe and Andreas, from the lab. They helped me tremendously to settle into the city and invited me to their house for dinner. I was taken very good care of by them, and our friendship grew. Years passed, and in my senior year of medical school, I returned to Berlin to do a short spring research internship in a cardiology lab at the Max-Delbrück-Zentrum für Molekulare Medizin (Max Delbrueck Center for Molecular Medicine) and to revisit Signe and Andreas. Our reunion was wonderful, and I also made more friends during my second stay in Berlin. Then, the day of departure arrived. I had to return back to the US for my graduation from medical school in Dallas and the start of my clinical residency and fellowship in Houston. There was so much change in the air, so much excitement, and so much exhilaration. But standing at Tegel International Airport in Berlin, I knew I had to bid farewell to these wonderful friends and to the city that became a part of my life. I reluctantly hugged and said goodbye to Signe and Andreas, not knowing if one day, I would have a chance to return. The plane headed first for Paris, then returned back to Dallas. 

Many years passed. The busy aspect of growing up, called life, settled in. Now established in Houston, I have often wondered what has happened to my friends Signe and Andreas. It really has been almost 13 years since we said good-bye to each other on that pensive morning in May. I have long lost their contact information after moving down to Houston. However, when I was invited to return to Berlin for Claudia's wedding, I decided to get on the internet to search for traces of contact information of my friends. One day, I unexpectedly found Signe's e-mail address after weeks of trial and error. I immediately wrote an e-mail in German, not knowing if it was her valid e-mail address. Then, a reply came. It was truly a wonderful, warm reply from Siegne, who was looking forward to our reunion as much as me. Then Andreas wrote to me, and after some ensuing exchanges of e-mail and re-establishment of contact, they wanted to come to the airport to pick me up. So after 13 years of lost contact, our reunion would be rekindled once again as soon as I would first step foot on German soil!
Last Minute Preparations - Vorbereitungen in letzter Minute
Back in Houston, the vibrant colors of spring are now unfolding throughout the city after a bitter winter of snow and frigid temperatures. Flowers are beginning to bloom in the parks, as city dwellers, after months of hibernation, are extending their contact to the outside world. With the advent of spring comes the cyclical renascence of nature, along with its radiant colors of budding petals, its melodious sounds of returning migratory songbirds, and its sweet fragrances of iridescent roses.

The drive to the airport on this fresh spring day was rejuvenating. To fully take advantage of this beautiful, cool weather, I stepped on the pedal and cruised on Highway 59 North with the top down while the brief, magical warm spring sunlight bathed the interior of my car in a glistening glow. The weather forecast for Berlin, however, was going to be chillier with possibly a cold shower. After parking my car at the airport, I proceeded to the KLM Check-in counter in Terminal D. There was really a convoluted, long line of passengers, some with huge luggage and others with large boxes enveloped by haphazard, oversized tapes. I did not know exactly where to go, but the young airport agent standing outside the rope-line asked for my ticket. After examining it, she said pointing, "Check-in for First Class is over there, where there's nobody in line."

Pre-flight registration procedures at the KLM counter were very quick, painless, and pleasant. The young blond female KLM agent asked if I was going to Berlin on business or vacation. I elaborated that I was going there for a wedding. She then looked up, and with a sparkle in her smile, asked, "Oh, are you getting married?"

"I'm actually going to be playing the piano at a friend's wedding in Berlin," I answered

"I love piano music! Do you play professionally?", she probed curiously.

"I try to think I can, but luckily I have another profession that I'm better at," I jokingly added.    

After collecting my boarding pass, I proceeded to relax and unwind at the KLM Crown Lounge situated near Gate D8. The spacious, quiet, and peaceful executive lounge (3700 sq ft/340 sq m) offered cabins with computers and work space, free wi-fi and data-ports in every seat, as well as a smörgåsbord buffet with warm and cold food. I collapsed snuggly onto a comfortable, soft chair, and with a glass of wine in my hand, I turned my netbook on. I logged onto Google Maps to study the bike routes between Amsterdam, Netherlands and Bruges, Belgium.

Right after the wedding, I plan to fly to Amsterdam, where I will land very early in the morning at Schiphol International Airport. Then traveling by taxi, I will have to rush to the barge moored in the rustic canal town of Oude Wetering, where my bike will be waiting for me. By that time, my bike group will have already set off across the pastoral fields of Haarlemmermeer (Haarlem Lake), which might already be carpeted with blooming, brilliant tulips. I have estimated that they will have at least an hour head-start before I jump on my bike. We're supposed to meet by mid-morning inside the Garden of Keukenhof to enjoy the unprecedented floral display of blossoming tulips. On the following days according to our itinerary, we are to bike to southern Holland and cross the Belgian border, stopping in several dreamy medieval towns dotting the ancient Flemish landscape.

While zooming in and out of Google Maps over the provinces of North Holland, Netherlands and Flanders, Belgium, I jotted down notes of the country roads, intersections, dikes, and canals outside the medieval towns. I then turned on my Garmin bike GPS and tried to sync the routes and directions into the device. While biking in Provence, France last summer, my GPS was not entirely perfect, as it rerouted me and the group down the wrong path and added an extra 25 km to our distance just outside the dramatic medieval castle town of Grignan. We were lost among the vineyards and the aromatic lavender fields with no signs of life in sight. Since it was my fault misleading the group, I wanted to find a tavern and treat everybody to some good French wine. Later our charismatic guide, Virginie, jokingly called my GPS francophobic, since it could not harmonize with the French road network. 

I hope this turns out to be another exciting bike adventure through bucolic countryside imbued with postcard images of colorful tulips and giant windmills. And to linguistically prepare for this trip, I have systematically studied Dutch at home, which to anyone who already knows German or any of the Scandinavian languages, is not too difficult to learn. Dutch belongs to the Western Germanic Family, which includes German and English. Its cousin languages from the Northern Germanic Family include Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic. Therefore, there are a lot of overlapping homologies among all the Germanic languages, so proficiency in one language translates to confident learning in the other. If worse comes to worst and my Dutch is incomprehensible, I hope to be able to use either French or English, two languages I'm very comfortable with, in northern Belgium. At the end of my bike ride, I am going to look forward to meeting up with a friend of mine in Amsterdam, who is doing her cardiology fellowship at the University of Amsterdam.

So, in a few moments, my short flight across the ocean will become a long journey of 13 years to meet up with special friends in Berlin, an anticipated piano performance to celebrate the joyous wedding of Claudia and Brent, a scenic bike ride across the low countries of Holland and Belgium, an opportunity to make new friends on the bike trip, and a reunion with another friend in the Dutch capital. A busy social and active agenda, indeed.

Boarding call for my transatlantic KLM Flight from Houston to Amsterdam. I reluctantly get up from the comfortable chair and proceed to my seat 1A on the plane. With internet connection permitting, I will try to update my blog as best as I can.

Bis dann! (GER)/Tot ziens! (NL)/Cheers! (ENG)


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ashish arya on

i dont get much of a chance to read your blogs, but this time i did. its breathtaking how one man can do all this - write influentially and simply elegant, take classic pictures that make me think again if i know the bright side of houston (from my houston city-like perspective), and enjoy the world with so much of meticulous planning despite being on a busy broken-heart-healer schedule! Wish you well my friend. I know they will have to create a special category for geniuses like you, apart from the category for Einsteins and Shakespeares! Enjoy the trip...

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