Elmau was located in a dazzling setting — its own valley surrounded by the high jagged peaks of the German Alps mid-way between the Bavarian resort Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and Mittenwald, a center for violin making. The nearest major city was Innsbruck, which like Lake Placid, has held two winter Olympic Games. Elmau was famous for its weekly concerts and festivals, as well as being a meditation center.
I lived in the basement, off the kitchen, in a room with windows looking out over the valley. Initially I had the room to myself, but after a month on the job I got a roommate, Xavier, a 17 year-old German from Hamburg learning to be a chef. He was the third chef, a position I once held at the Mirror Lake Inn working under Herb Rock. Xavier, like everyone else it seemed, couldn’t speak a word of English, but boy was he thrilled to have an artist as a roommate. I had turned part of the room into an artist’s studio with an easel, a still life display, and drawings and paintings pinned to the walls. German’s are known for their neatness, and mine was the polar opposite – which made the setting so delicious for Xavier, who contributed to the clutter with things like a tray of pears he had burned.
I often drew musicians as they rehearsed, and sold my sketches to them, their patrons, and to some banks in Munich. Aside from washing pots, one of my jobs was to be available to dance with the guests as more women than men attended the concerts and celebrations. So I was taught how to waltz.
The head of Elamu was an Italian, who had married into the family. His mother, who always dressed in black, tutored me in English. You might say I was learning to speak German with an Italian accent, more than that I was learning to speak Bayerisch — a dialect of southern Germany. Ask Vinnie or Stephy Holderied to describe it to you — not the easiest German to understand. Meanwhile, by then I had moved up to be the rounds man, the person who covered for others on their day off.
In March the downstairs staff decided to throw a party for one of the carpenters and his wife, a woman who worked the front desk, on the birth of their daughter. They got kegs of beer, lots of food, and had a rip-roaring time. Wouldn’t you know a few got arguing about something and before you knew it a fight broke out with most getting into the melee, including the son of head of the castle — a young man with movie star good looks, at least prior to the fight.
Next morning the head of the castle had us lined up. He wanted to know how it started. He was seething mad. Turns out I was the least involved so he pumped me and was getting even more annoyed by my poor command of German. Then Joseph, my assistant pot washer who knew no English except rat a tat tat, turned to me and said, in perfect English, “Naj, tell him what happened in English.”
“YOU speak English?” I said, shocked. “But, but, why didn’t you tell me, why did you say you couldn’t speak English?”
“Because you’d never learn German if you spoke with us in English.”
He was right, they all could speak English and by pretending not to they were forcing me to learn their language. As soon as the meeting was over, they all went back to German.
About six weeks later I went on a 10-day holiday hitchhiking around Austria. Upon my return, as I walked into the kitchen Xavier ran up, threw his arms about me and started sobbing. He kept saying, “It’s not my fault, and I am so sorry.” So I went to our room to drop of my pack.
My room was spotless, to my surprise. My still life, tree branches, blackened pears, easel, drawings taped to the walls had all been put away. The place was spotless, neat as a pin, organized. I freaked. I knew what had happened, Frau Schmidt, the head of the kitchen staff, had happened. My creative environment was like fingernails being dragged across the chalkboard of her mind. I exploded out the door. ”Frau Schmidt!” I shouted. I flew through the kitchen in a rage, with Xavier and several others hot on my heals. I ripped open her office door. There she was, smug. I cursed her out. I let her have it with everything I could think off.
She stared at me, jumped up, and gave me a huge hug. “He is speaking Deutsch! He is speaking Deutsch! I have know that is what it would have taken I would have cleaned your room months ago.”
Schloss Elmau in the summer