Last night, my wife and I attended a performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) by the Utah Opera. And, before that, owing to their relatively new extended hours, we were able to grab a bit of Bratwurst, Spätzle (Spätzli or Chnöpfli in Switzerland), and Rotkohl (red cabbage) at Siegfried’s Delicatessen, next door.
It was, in other words, a pleasant evening of nostalgic immersion — or sheer wallowing — in Europeanness. And I’m very much a Europhile.
(Did you know, though, that the word elixir is actually Arabic, from al-iksir? And that Gaetano Donizetti’s older brother, Giuseppe, was Instructor General of Music for the armies of the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II, in Istanbul?)
Anyway, last night’s activities set me to thinking about the debt that I owe to my San Gabriel [California] High School German teacher, Miss Lenore Smith, who introduced me to a love of things European as a whole, as well as, specifically, to a love of the German language, classical German music and German art, and general German culture.
Miss Smith was a superb teacher of German, but she also became, for me, an example of a broadly educated and cultured person. She had an undergraduate degree in piano performance and a master’s degree in German, and, during my sophomore year, she took a sabbatical to do a master’s degree in German studies at the University of Heidelberg.
Feeling that simply studying German dialogues and grammar and vocabulary would bore us to death, Miss Smith devoted part of our third year to art and architecture, and part of our fourth year to German music. I didn’t grow up in an arts-oriented family, so her classes constituted my introduction to the visual arts (Feininger, Klee, Kokoschka, Dürer, and the like) and to classical music in general. I knew the terminology for the various periods of painting and music in German before I knew it in English.
I am now, and have been ever since those high school classes, deeply interested in European painting, sculpture, and architecture, and very fond of classical music of all types. Miss Smith is partly to blame for my enjoyment of opera — something that probably couldn’t have been predicted from my upbringing at home.
She may also be responsible, indirectly, for my subsequent concentration on Arabic and Islamic culture, including the arts and humanities of the Islamic world.
I’ve long wanted to thank her, but my efforts to find her have been futile. I suppose it’s possible that she’s passed away by now; it’s certainly possible that she married and changed her name.
Which leads me to the moral of this little entry: If you feel that you should thank somebody — a teacher or a church leader or whatever — for the pivotal influence that he or she had upon you, do it now. Don’t postpone it.
Another person that I would like very much to thank, but who is very likely gone by now and who has, in any event, proved impossible for me to trace, is my old scoutmaster, George Schmidt. He taught me to love mountains and mountain trails. I backpacked most of the John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada range with him when I was eleven, and the experience changed my life.
Don’t delay thanking such people. I really regret that I never told Miss Smith and Mr. Schmidt how much I appreciate what they did for me, and how they’ve affected the course of my life to this day. I hope to do it in the next life, but would rather have done it sooner.