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Let's Confuse Each Other In German: How I Turned 30 in Paris

Photo by Phillip Trey

I knew how I wanted to turn 30 long before the time arrived. What started as an inclination to do something big, a feeling, and a desire to celebrate and have a better thirtieth than my mother, eventually became a full fledged plan. From the time my mother turned 30 herself, I’d heard the story of how she was gifted a driveway lined with black candles and a package of adult diapers from her friends. I desired...adventure over somewhat cruel gag gifts. And oddly, to be alone. To prove I could fly around the world by myself and still be happy going solo.

I’ve only ever traveled with or for someone, and the idea presented itself as a challenge to myself. The way some people may want to run a marathon or climb a mountain, I wanted this. When I was in high school, I was the type of person so consumed with self-doubt and anxiety that I could hardly go to a fast food drive-thru alone, needing to practice my order in my head over and over before trying not to stutter it out, or maybe just ask a stranger for directions, without feeling bad about myself. So, to look back and think at 30 how far I’ve come from that unnecessary fear, traveling to a foreign country felt right.

Photo by Phillip Trey

I, not unlike many others, have an idealistic view of Paris. The culture, architecture, food, people set my mind spinning with possibilities. So when I started to wade around and decide how to celebrate a milestone birthday, an image of Paris and art and music took shape. I could clearly see myself at the symphony in Paris sipping champagne and getting lost in the moment. Feeling the music and letting it comfort me over getting older. Also, the whole thing seemed kinda fancy and unique.

This fantasy took over and I slowly started telling others what I was planning, without actually planning anything. Then, about two months before my birthday, I committed, cashed in my skymiles and began to plan for real. I started with the day of my birthday, and fanned out with my itinerary. Serendipitously, the Philharmonie de Paris was performing on my birthday, a Monday even. For a mere 25 euros, I bought a very nice seat to a performance titled “Lab.Oratorium.” The website read, “In his last work, Philippe Manoury explores the diversity and multiplicity of sound in the age of the modern concert hall.” Beyond that, I didn’t care. I was set on going and didn’t need to know anything more about the actual event.

Photo by Phillip Trey

My Airbnb was an adorable 6th floor walk up in the 11th arrondissement and helped me feel like I was truly in Paris, not just in a hotel, and the creperies and boulangeries everywhere certainly helped too. When the day of my birthday arrived, I wandered Paris close to the Marais district. I befriended an Australian ex-pat at a café, shopped for Parisian fashions, and felt grateful for my impending evening at the Cité de la Musique concert hall. I couldn’t stop smiling. From daydream to reality, I was here.

The venue itself is very impressive. As I approached the silver and abstractly geometric building, with sharp angles jutting out in different directions, both alien and futuristic, I couldn’t help but wonder about the melding or possible disconnection of acoustics and aesthetics the building served. Inside had a similar effect. The seats and balconies almost seeming like waves ebbing and flowing around a theater-in-the-round style stage. I sipped champagne and snacked on dark chocolate and chips before taking my seat.

Quickly, I learned I should’ve researched the show more. My experience in the past with the symphony is the classics – Beethoven and Bach and the like, mixed with maybe one or two newer pieces. “Lab.Oratorium” it turned out, was more on the experimental side.

Philippe Manoury is a French composer and has worked, studied, and taught all over the world. A review about some of his other work shares, “Philippe Manoury hit[s] the right mix between shallow and deep, melodic and dissonant, placating and strident, stasis and progress, simplicity and complexity.” The performance overall was very interesting, it just...didn’t match my fantasy.

Photo by Phillip Trey

The show began with two actors, a duo that narrated the entire thing. I knew I was going to France, and I speak a little of the language. I did not, however, expect to go to the symphony and hear actors reciting German the entire time, nor the opera singers that would randomly appear throughout the auditorium to be singing in German. Two screens on opposite ends of the room did offer subtitles for the German, but they were only in French. So while listening to the story of the actors and trying to decipher the French subtitles, I quickly felt the bubbles of my champagne and became overwhelmed. I hardly even noticed the music of the orchestra, which proved both melodic and dissonant.

My fantasy of the music being the focus was replaced with actors yelling, feigning death and thrashing about, while the orchestra played panicky and extreme. It was like watching an action movie at times, the tense story and music heightening that feeling. At one point the actors brought props onto the stage on pedestals: a shoe, a life vest, and a few other seemingly random items. Later they tore and tossed paper around the stage.

I honestly had no idea what was going on until towards the end I read the word “immigrés.” Immigrants! The whole thing started to take shape. The props, for one, made more sense. The whole performance dealt with the trauma of immigrants. When trying to research and prove my theory right, I quickly found all reviews of the performance were in French and often behind a news subscription paywall. No surprise. From what I could gather, though I was right when I read (via Google translate), that Phillip Manoury “does not hesitate to seize the tragedy of the migrants.” So while I don’t know the whole story, I pieced together some sort of gist.

I’m sure it reads like my recounting of the evening is negative, that I hated the show, but the truth is I loved it. I was doing what I’d dreamed of. The reality didn’t match the dream entirely, but that’s alright. I wanted a symphony and got a German play/ opera of sorts instead, but I was exactly where I wanted to be. Having an adventure and doing something alone. Something terrifying and exhilarating. Something at one point in my life I never could have imagined actually doing. Proving to myself I could.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

Turns out, you can see the entire thing for yourself on Youtube! Check out "Lab.Oratorium" recorded in Cologne, Germany below.

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