Europe 2019: Mannheim

In Mannheim, we play our first festival of the trip, Maifeld Derby. It turns out to be a racetrack and the surrounding grounds. The green room is in a stable, with each band taking one stall such as would normally accommodate a horse. The bigger bands have black curtains over theirs for a semblance of privacy, and the rest of us just have the stall with some chairs in it. Other than that the accommodations are really top-notch. There are long tables with mints and some sort of fruit candy like a Hi-Chew. There’s a guitar setup kiosk, and a company called Tonfuchs has some guitars and a bass you can play. I try out the bass, which has the unusual configuration of a Charlie Christian-style neck pickup and a P-style pickup a little further back. Despite their distance from the bridge the treble is powerful. The tone control has a nice smooth taper, and between that and the 3-position switch it gets a lot of different and equally useful sounds. None of them are quite dubby enough for my needs, but it’s a beautiful instrument, with a thick but extremely comfortable neck almost like an SD Curlee. They have some great-looking Telecaster-like guitars too. Definitely worth checking out a Tonfuchs if you see one. Exploring the stable further, I find a fridge containing beer with the amazing name of Plob. There are also multiple varieties of a brand called fritz-cola, all lower case, including a maté soda and a genuinely delicious cola “ohne zucker,” which I am proud to recognize means “without sugar.” There is a meal ticket for a hot dinner and drink tickets in addition to the backstage beer. We appear to be in very good hands. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks are here, as are Teenage Fanclub, and in classic tour fashion our set is scheduled in just such a way as to prevent me from watching either of their sets. Fortunately my artist pass gets me pretty close to the little passage in front of the stage where the photographers go, and I’m able to catch a little bit of both bands before and after we play. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks in particular are top-notch. I get to hear “Lariat,” my favorite single of theirs from the last couple years, so I’m happy. I see Stephen himself around in the big backstage once or twice, and consider saying something about how much I and all my friends have loved Pavement since high school or how my first band covered “Frontwards” and it’s still one of my favorite songs or just running up to him and embracing him, but I chicken out. What do you say to Stephen Malkmus? He is probably just a nice normal guy you can say normal things to and it would be fine, right? Anyway, I don’t say anything.

The vibe on the grounds is pleasant. The weather is nice and sunny, and people are having a relaxed good time. There are a few stages, and food vendors, and a little flea market. A baby with giant noise-canceling headphones on his head sleeps peacefully. A man with a bunch of metal-looking tattoos, cutoff leopardskin denim shorts, and a Built to Spill T-shirt walks by, and I wonder what his deal is. I am shocked by the lack of litter for day three of a three-day outdoor festival. Later, when I get a drink, I will be asked for a €2 deposit which gets me a reusable plastic cup. There is a whole team of people dedicated to collecting the cups and getting them washed and returning them to the places where they are needed. It’s German efficiency in action, and I’m impressed. In general the amount of waste I see generated by consumers in Europe on this trip is a fraction of what I see at home, and it makes me ashamed. I remind myself that it doesn’t matter what we do with our red Solo cups because the five or ten biggest companies in the world will decide if we live or die in twenty years or so anyway, and I feel less guilty but not better.

Our set is under a big tent. Live sound is weird outdoors generally and under a tent in particular, but everything else has been extremely bassy so I know I’m going to be okay at least. I get a monitor, a rare treat, and ask for a little kick drum and drum sampler in there. The bass and kick sound thick as fuck. I’m really loving my old Ibanez on this trip so far, its longest tour since I got the G&L in 2012 or so. I think today calls for just a touch of the ol’ Phat Active EQ knob, just to get the party started. It feels weird to play outside in the middle of the day, but the tent is starting to fill up as we soundcheck. A father and very young son are front and center, and I can see that he’s explaining what’s going on onstage as my own father did when I was small. We can hear snatches of Stephen Malkmus’s guitar whenever there is silence. Julian reminds me of the time we played the small room at Fitzgerald’s in Houston (RIP) while Built to Spill played the big room downstairs. Ships passing in the night, or rather a ship and some much smaller type of boat. The set is a blast. I see some dancing out there. I can hear myself and the kick drum better than usual, and try some weirder fills than usual. Everyone is so busy these days that it’s usually one or two cram rehearsals before a show, so playing our fourth in a row feels extra tight. And when we’re done it’s still early. I tuck into a kind of boring but very competently executed dinner buffet (chicken schnitzel, red cabbage, gnocchi with tomatoes and basil, and meat lasagna) and get another drink. I wander around the other sets but nothing catches my interest. Eventually a consensus emerges that we are tired and would like to head out. I grab a few more maté sodas for the road. I am wired on the stuff already, but I know my future self will be very happy to see them the next time we have an early van call. Maintaining comfort on tour has a lot to do with resource management, and European promoters give you more resources than back home. Every drink or snack or toiletry you don’t need at the show or the hotel is time and money saved later.

Outside the place where we’ll be sleeping tonight, we are stuck. It is some sort of Airbnb situation rather than a hotel, and the promoter did not communicate to our tour manager how exactly to get the key from the owner. The tour manager this time around is Honza, a stoic Czech guy maybe a couple years our junior. Before the tour we debated whether to get the whole van/gear/driver/tour manager package or save a little money by just renting stuff and driving and coordinating ourselves, and I’m very glad we went with him. He is a real pro at this, expertly maneuvering our giant Sprinter around and handling the potentially overwhelming logistics of hitting eight countries in two weeks much better than I would. We know he’s a drummer when not on tour, he’s vegan, and he doesn’t drink or do any drugs. He’s a huge fan of Harry Potter and is disappointed that none of us are. He lives in what sounds like the Prague equivalent of the Silent Barn, but because this is Europe it’s subsidized by the government. He’s into hardcore, so I can’t imagine he likes Ava Luna very much, but if that’s the case he keeps it to himself. On the first night he opted to sleep in the van because our hotel room was so tiny, and even in a hotel he’ll sleep on the floor rather than share a bed with one of us, whether out of professionalism or a desire for personal space. There are one or two stops coming up where he says he’ll be sleeping in the van because he’s a little concerned about the safety of our gear, which kind of implies he would be willing and able to fight anyone who tried to break in, and I don’t doubt it for a minute.

Honza parks the van and slides the side door open, so some of us can get out and those who stay can get some fresh air. Seeing a cafe just across the street, I take the opportunity to grab an espresso. If the espresso on the block where we’re staying is good, I can get that in the morning instead of making another stop, and that’s good information. Plus a sign outside the door says it’s €1.50, a steal, and even though the maté I had earlier contains caffeine it doesn’t scratch the same mental itch coffee does. There is no one behind the counter and a handful of people at tables, some drinking coffee and some beer. The chairs are comfy but an odd height and incongruous midcentury modern design. There are some machines that look like video poker or MegaTouch. When we enter there is an exchange at one of the tables that appears to be about who’s going to get up and serve us. It feels exactly like one of the coffee shops I like in Ridgewood, like Rogner or Scorpion Cafe, where the proprietor is hanging out as much as running a business, and you’re kind of interrupting them by coming in to buy something. The woman who gets up doesn’t understand any English, but I know enough German to say what I think is “one espresso please” and get the point across. I feel like an asshole going places and not being able to communicate, especially being an American, but on this trip it can’t really be avoided. We’ll be passing through places where French, German, Dutch, Swedish, and Luxembourgish are spoken, and there’s simply no way I’m getting sufficient command of all these languages to get around without occasional confusion. I didn’t even know Luxembourgish was a thing, but it is, look it up. Of these I’m the most comfortable with German from all the 19th century lieder I studied in college, and even that is pretty minimal. I know how to say, like, “when you say ‘I love you,’ I weep bitterly” but not “where’s the bathroom?” So my strategy is to review “hello” and “please” and “thank you” in each day’s language and do the rest with cognates and gestures, and often enough someone will recognize my predicament and respond in English. It works pretty well.

The espresso is perfect. A great find, this place. If I hadn’t already gorged myself on the beers and exotic sodas and matés and sparkling mineral waters on offer at Maifeld Derby I would want to come back later to have a drink and just take it in. As it is, I’m sleepy. I was up late last night for no real reason, just watching bad TV in the hotel room in Eindhoven unable to get tired enough. We watched the show where Lucy Liu is Watson and good God was it bad, just abominably written and performed and shot, and there were also some infomercials which I don’t have to speak Dutch to know were exactly like the ones back home. All this should put you right to sleep, but it didn’t, and tonight I have to take it easy again so I can catch up. Espressos finished, we walk outside to find Becca deep into a dance contest with a gaggle of smiling children. Some music was already playing when we parked, and the kids were jumping around and being exuberant, but she’s really gotten the party started. It looks like they’re all amped up from soccer practice or something, as some are wearing matching shirts. Their parents are keeping them outside to blow off their remaining steam, and Becca arrived just in time. They are all showing off their best moves and the kids cannot contain their excitement. This goes on for a while, with the moms cheering them on. It is straight out of a movie. Later, some of them will follow her on Instagram. Honza is frustrated that we still don’t have the keys yet, but between the coffee and the kids and the music and the summer air I’m happy to just stay on this block loitering around the van indefinitely. Eventually the party breaks up and we get the information we need and the evening can continue. It’s just a few doors down, up six or seven flights of steep stairs. When we get to the top, we’re impressed. The place is huge, with two floors and a total of four twin and two queen beds, plus a couch. I briefly consider calling it a night, but I decide to take a walk first. We’re in a Turkish neighborhood, and I remember from the last trip that Turkish food in Germany is top-notch. With the help of Google Maps, I find a place half a mile away that looks good: Uzun Tasfirini. It appears to be a bakery, and not being hungry enough for a full meal I’m thinking something like a spinach pie is just the ticket. Their spinach pies look delicious in the photos. Carlos and Becca come along for the ride. If we hustle we can get there twenty minutes before it closes and get whatever they have left to go. Cutting it close, but doable.

The air is a perfectly cool-enough temperature, and even though it’s ten at night it’s still light out. This is something I’ve noticed since we landed, how the sun takes its time setting in the summer. It’s beautiful and disorienting. Our path takes us through a plaza with benches and a playground, and it’s buzzing with activity. Some kids are running around, and people are sitting and talking, some with drinks. I get a strong sense-memory from childhood, my stoop and the little courtyard outside the apartment where my friends lived when I was a kid in the Bronx. The light is the same, and how the air smells. We would run up and down the block while our parents sat on steps or curbs or lawn chairs, shooting the shit and watching the sun go down. It was an unstructured neighborhood hang for whoever was around that night, and that looks like the situation here. I savor the vibe as we walk. On the block by the bakery, a crowd has gathered, eight or ten people standing around a car. Getting closer, we see what the fuss is about: a crow on the hood of the car, at the base of the front windshield. The woman whose car it is is holding a piece of bread to try and entice the crow to move. A passerby is opening the hood to see if the movement will induce the crow to fly away. Others are trying various cajoling and threatening gestures, to no avail. It’s the damnedest thing; the crow just wants to be on the hood of the car and will not be dissuaded. Or is it stuck? It doesn’t look stuck, but someone reaches over to move the windshield wiper and see if that does something. No dice. We stop to take in this odd little scene for a minute. Is this really happening? There’s something absurd about this bird and all the attention it’s commanding. It has the power to gather a small crowd just by alighting somewhere, and its motives for doing so are a mystery to us. It feels like we are being had in some cosmic way, the bird is the setup and the crowd of people is the punchline. Anyway, people are helping and there’s nothing we can add, and the bakery is about to close, so we keep moving.

Entering the bakery, my heart sinks. The lights are on but the display is empty, save one longish piece of lahmaçun. I love lahmaçun, a flat bread spread with spiced ground meat, but it’s not what we came for and definitely not enough for the three of us plus Julian, who also wanted something. In the back I see some beautiful bread but no pies, and also no one behind the counter. Are we too late? Shit. Becca rings the bell on the counter, and two guys emerge from the back. I ask what they still have, hoping there’s some stock of pies we’re not seeing. They can’t understand my question at all, and I have no idea how to convey it in German. One guy asks a question, which I assume is asking what we want. With some reading and pointing and finger counting we manage to convey that we want five spinach pies, thinking of the little hand-sized things you might get back home. Two things start to become clear: they’re going to make our spinach pies from scratch, and said pies are easily the length and width of an adult human arm. Did we heinously over-order just now? Well, what’s done is done, no way are we getting this point across successfully. We’ll have some left over for the morning. I feel bad that they’re going to the trouble so close to closing time, and try to make it clear our order is to go. Then some other people come in and I feel less bad. They order a lahmaçun, also made from scratch.

Watching these pies take shape is captivating. The dough is flat and oblong, and the baker is distributing spinach evenly along it in a thick sheet. The spinach looks freshly chopped. He sprinkles a couple handfuls of a crumbly white cheese across each, and then pinches the sides in to form little spinach-tubes, sealed only at the ends and at a few points across their length to leave much of the spinach and cheese exposed. A giant wood oven blazes behind him. One of the other guys notices my interest and motions for me to come behind the counter by the oven to see up close. I am moved by the generosity of this small gesture. The oven is very hot, and I can’t see the whole inside but it looks comparable in size to a twin bed. The bottom is lined with rectangular slabs of stone. So it would be like a fancy wood-fired pizza oven except that it’s asymmetrical, with the fire on one side rather than in the back, and the pies placed a couple feet away from it two at a time. Halfway through, the baker uses a tool like a longer, thinner pizza peel to remove the pies and rotate them so they heat evenly. His movements are practiced and precise. It’s a pleasure to watch. I thank him and go back to the table to wait. I am getting increasingly optimistic about these pies. Apparently the Turkish word is “pide,” with obvious etymological links to “pita” and probably also “pizza.” I file that away for further research.

The guy behind the counter asks us a question we don’t understand, and fortunately someone who walked in after us can translate. Do we want to take some more food? It looks like they’re referring to the slab of lahmaçun we saw coming in. Why yes, we do, danke. Do we want some fresh bread too? Sure, why not. We are all eating entirely too much bread in Europe but that’s because it’s extra good here and this stuff will definitely get thrown out if we don’t take it. Maybe we’ll eat some tomorrow. Meanwhile, the baker removes our pies from the oven, brushes them with a brush whose purpose is unclear, and chops them into palm-sized slices with a cleaver. He loads them into brick-shaped rectangular boxes labeled “Pizza.” There end up being only four pies somehow, not five, which is a relief. Up close they are impossibly thin, and look delicate rather than heavy and doughy like a calzone. There are four styrofoam containers of what appears to be an assortment of fixins for the pies. In addition to the four pies we are given the lahmaçun I saw when we walked in, also paper-thin and chopped into rectangles, and several long loaves of a beautiful flat bread with a raised crust around the edge like pizza. It is the same oblong shape as the pie dough, but thicker and fluffier. Carlos gets a water and I take a chance on Ayar, a salty yogurt drink you always see at these places that I’ve never tried, and the whole heap is like, €30. This is as fruitful a food journey as I could have hoped for, and a way more hospitable reception than anyone rolling in twenty minutes before you close and asking for something you don’t have in a language you don’t understand deserves. The guys appear amused by our guileless fascination with everything that is happening. I wish I had the words to express my gratitude, but I can just smile broadly and say danke schoen, gute nacht. Laden with victuals, we head back to the house.

The plan was to eat in the backyard of the building, but it turns out to be suboptimal. There are bugs, and it’s now a little too dark without streetlights to comfortably eat, and I’m not even confident it’s a shared resource and not just the backyard of the people on the ground floor, who are home. We decide to go back to the plaza. It’s much more clearly a public space, and there are lights and benches and tables. There are so many people, I bet some of them might even like a snack. As we walk I attempt to use Google Translate to determine how you offer a plaza full of strangers food in German, to no avail. There’s the potential to make a faux pas, too, if there’s not enough to go around, or you injure someone’s pride, or it’s just considered a really weird thing to do. I’ve never seen someone give a stranger food who didn’t ask for it, and I don’t know etiquette in Germany generally or the Turkish quarters thereof specifically. I’m only fretting about it because there is entirely too much bread, and it looks very good, and it won’t be good for very long. But we can think about that after we eat.

The pies are transcendent. The dough is impossibly thin, with a pleasant springy texture, dotted with black blisters like a wood-fired pizza. The spinach is cooked just enough, and the salty, fatty cheese offsets it beautifully. The fixins turn out to be fresh parsley, sport peppers, and slices of lemon. I wish there were more peppers and less parsley, but the parsley combined with the lemon really does something special on this pie, adding brightness and a surprising depth of flavor. The pies are very light, and we eat two or three of them easily. The lahmaçun is also excellent, with the same thin dough and a heavily spiced ground meat topping in a thin, even layer. Unlike some others I’ve had there is no za’atar, which I guess is the Turkish take, or this place’s take. We get through most of that too. Ayar is delicious, and a perfect complement to the food. It basically serves the same function as labne, adding a creamy texture and lactic tang, but in the form of a drink instead of a dip. Brilliant.

Shortly before we finish, a group of men with beers fills up the table behind us. They appear to be in their thirties and forties, and even though it’s night and they’re out the vibe is sedate. The contrast between this place and the bellowing bro-hell of Eindhoven’s main drag at night is stark. They’re just trying to hang and take in the night air at a normal conversational volume. We confirm that none of us wants any of the bread, and Becca goes over with the big bag to offer it to them. Unable to explain our circumstances, we probably look like a bunch of dumb and possibly inebriated tourists who freaked out and bought too much bread, but regardless the men look very happy with this development and thank us profusely. Bitte schoen, I know that one too.

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