My scrapes with the violin and the crushes that never go away

When I was young, I learnt to play the violin at the College of Music in Chatham Row, just around the corner from Stephen’s Green. In my later years, it was renamed “The Conservatory” but the Fergusons – staunch Conservatives – continue to refer to it simply as “the College”.

My teacher, a middle-aged eastern European was quirky and sober in equal measure. He was so confident of his methods that he invited parents in to observe his lessons.

Most declined politely: but my mama certainly didn’t. So great was her love for me that every Thursday afternoon for years she endured the hostile scratching of my bow as it glided gracelessly across the four strings to produce sounds that can only be imagined -and excused- when I explain the meaing of: intonation exercises.

Unfortunately the noble purpose of intonation exercises is disguised by their horrendous sound. You see, the thing is: to play violin, you need a pretty good ear. It’s not like piano, where you just bang on a given key to produce a sound. With violin – as with all stringed instruments – you have to find the sound. And in order to do this, you need to be familiar to the very last quarter tone, of the location of each sound on the finger board.

Intonation exercises consist of playing two given notes at once and then slowly, repeadly changing the position of one of your fingers by roughly half a tone up and down to produce a clash which resonates and aims to cement in memory the correct position of your hand. To really make them useful, you have to repeat them over and over and over again….

This level of endurance represents just one of the ways in which my mama is a hero. I could write a pamphlet on her other feats. She deserves at least a series of blogs in her honour.

The best part of Thursdays was right after the violin lesson ended. Mum and I would hurry out into the wind and rain and make ourselves to the newsagent on Camden Street where we treated ourselves to a packet of Sour Cream Hunky Dorey’s each. We kept them in our coat pockets so that we could have a look around the various charity clothes shops on the way home. Sometimes, when mum was looking at blouses in Age Action, I would sneak a crisp or two from her coat pocket, just to be devious.

When we got home, we would have dinner and then get ready for Kommissar Rex. If you know me, you know all about Kommissar Rex. If you don’t you should get informed. Kommissar Rex is a TV series about a detective and his police dog “Rex”, who sleuth around Vienna solving crimes in scenic locations. I’m an enormous fan and the actor that played the detective in my day remains my only celebrity crush. LSB doesn’t like the twinkle that appears in my eye when I talk about Gedeon Burkhard, or indeed the way, when I spotted him playing a minor role in Inglorious Basterds, I nigh jumped from my seat with excitement.

Kommissar Rex is moderately scary and featured a rather disturbing scene of a man trapped in an over-heated sauna which I have never forgotten. When LSB and I were in Vienna, I finally bought the series on dvd. One night, having stocked up on Croatian beer and strawberry cake, we knocked on some Kommissar. I was right back home again, curled up beside my mama, reaping the reward of intonation exercises.

Watching Kommissar in a hostel in Zagreb

Familienfest: Part 3

An altered version of the original article with deletions now appears following concerns voiced about privacy:

At 7.30 pm sharp the family made its way into the dining hall. I looked around, scouring the table-tops for my name card and couldn’t believe my eyes when I discovered that the seating plan was no longer arranged strictly according to age! Granted, broad generational trends had been observed: my Oma was at a table with her eldest children, and the male under 21s were placed together. But for the first time, I wasn’t beside Cousin Maximilian, who seemed to have progressed to an ‘older’ table, on the other side of the room (and this in spite of being two months younger than me).

No matter though. Any loss of identity I may have suffered from this departure from routine was immediately assuaged when I inspected the magnificent name tag that had been prepared for me by the very teenage cousins with whom I now shared my table. As you can see, my place card features an impressively sketched cartoon lady. Without schooling in German children’s entertainment, this particular choice may seem incidental. I immediately recognised the lady and her significance however. She is Karla Kolumna, a character in a German cassette series about a little witch called Bibi Blocksberg. Karla Kolumna is an eccentric and formidable reporter, who documents Bibi’s escapades and magical mishaps. My little, wonderful cousins had remembered both my fondness for Bibi and my journalistic aspirations. I couldn’t have been placed at a better table.

As soon as everybody was seated, the waitresses appeared with the starter (riveta-type bread with a selection of herbal dips). They were in traditional Bavarian barmaid attire, with low-cut diandels and had a friendly brusqueness to them. After the starter, they came back to the table with their notepads and turned to each person in turn with the question “Fish or Pork?” I was a little scared to ask them for a vegetarian option after Onkel Fritz reaction to my dietry requirements. “I’ll do it”, whispered my sister, ever a life-saver. They did wonders for me and presented me with a glorious platter of “vegetable bags”. Before we tucked in however, a glass began to clink.

Silence descended upon the room. Tante Renata got up and recited the first poem of the evening: an ode to Tante Rosemarie and a chronicle in verse of her life in Bavaria and subsequent move to Greece (like my mum, she married a man from abroad and moved to his country). The recital featured Rosemarie’s children (my cousins who had produced the nametags) teaching the whole Schultz clan isolated Greek words, which we repeated in unison enough times for the children to give our pronunciation the thumbs up.

As I was tucking into my vegetable bags (or Gemuse Taschen) I had a sudden sinking feeling: I had forgotten to pick up the bag of black sausages!.
“Do it now, quickly”, urged my sister. I took her advice and glided off toward the side door and into the corner of the little room, where I found them in a heap.

I was just in time. Dinner was wrapping up and Onkel Fritz was on his feet. Ever the gruff man in the face of ethical conceit, he had chosen to structure his speech around Onkel Gideon’s concern for the environment and in particular for energy efficiency. Gifts 1-6, which were presented by various members of the Schultz clan – including the youngest, at just under two- followed this theme exactly. Onkel Gideon received a solar-panelled radio, two metal devices which created a flame when rubbed together at a precise angle, a running jacket with the name of the house the nine Schultz children grew up in and a torch.

Onkel Gideon shows off his new running jacket


Gidi, as we call him, is a keen marathon runner. Onkel Fritz, who crunches numbers and calculates meat profits for a living (I think anyway) had managed to work out exactly how much energy the average marathon runner exerts and had weighed the bunch of black sausages to match the calories burned. I presented these to a beaming Gideon and to much applause.

Presentation of black sausages to Onkel Gideon


Pop by again soon for the Schultz Family Mass and perhaps a post- prandial trip to the Bavarian Glassman’s House.

Familienfest: Part 2

There was barely time to change out of my wet shoes after the hike, as Tante Hortensia had called for the first choir rehearsal for tomorrow’s mass to take place before dinner.

One of the most charming features of the monastery at Kistenhof is the number of amenities which are tucked behind a neat row of modest-looking doors. Without really exploring, I discovered a library, swimming-pool and church.

At five thirty-five, I opened the door labelled “church”and discovered to my dismay that I was late. The Schultz family was already gathered around the piano, singing the Schubert Mass in four-part harmony. Tante Hortensia was conducting with passion and warning that even the most beautiful music performed too slowly becomes “kitchig”. “You’re an alto like me”, whispered my mum as we found a spot behind the sopranos and in front of the tenors.

My Tante Hortensia is amazing. For as long as I can remember, she has been directing all musical operations at Schultzfest events. She is vesatile and perfectionist in equal measure. The children’s choir of ca 1997, of which I was a part, performed a song about toilet paper (aptly named Klopapier) which she accomapinied on guitar. The performance was word-and-pitch-perfect. Now, fourteen years later, in a monastery in a remote German valley, she was just as exact as then.

There was much ado about where Tante Hortensia should stand. She complained that some memebrs of the choir weren’t watching her, and that as a result, the ritardandos weren’t being observed. Certain members of the choir retorted that the person in front of them was obstructing their view. Efforts at re-positioning enjoyed some success but were hampered by the constraints of the altar.

The rehearsal concluded with the arrangement to meet for a brief runthrough at 9 am the following morning.

It was now time to dash back to our respective quarters to get ready for dinner. I leave you with a picture of my mother and me just before we entered the dining hall. More to come, depending on demand.

Familienfest: Part 1

Familienfest 2011 took place in a monastery in the middle of the valley of Kistenhof, which was shrouded in mist all weekend long. I arrived just before lunch on Saturday afternoon and found thirty-two Schultzs gathered together in the vestibule, exchanging pleasantries. I was just rounding up my small talk with Tante Lisl when Onkel Fritz approached from the side and announced that he was going to kidnap me.

He took me through a side door, which led to a small room, attached to the dining area which we had reserved. He made his way to the back corner and fumbled for a small white plastic bag. “Hier”, he said. “You’re going to hand these over”.
“ ..’Schuldigung?”, I replied.
“You are Present number 7”
“Okay…”
I opened the bag, expecting to find anything but
Several loose black sausages.
“Are these for Onkel Gideon?”
“Yes”, Onkel Fritz replied. “You are Present number 7. Make sure to come here and pick them up discreetly before dinner. You can hide them under your table until the required moment”.

It takes a Schultz to make the required leap of assumption that Onkel Gideon’s gifts would be presented in strict order according to the structure of Onkel Fritz’s speech.

“Did you know that I was a vegetarian?” I asked Onkel Fritz, who works in agriculture and would probably list meat as his pastime.
“You are?” he roared “that’ll teach you! No wonder you’ve got so scrawny!”

I slunk out and returned to the foyer, where I overheard Tante Hortensia and a nun making arrangements for the Schultz Family mass which would take place the following morning at 9.45 sharp. More of that in the next instalment but for now, I leave you with a picture of the Family hike, or Wanderung which took place in spite of inclement conditions.