Hello, my name’s Don. I’m an American living in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where I teach, ride a bicycle and go to the opera.
I became an opera fan at the tender age of fifty-one. That was the year the Frankfurt opera house re-opened, after a long closure due to a fire. That was also a Mozart year, the two-hundredth anniversary of his death, and there were numerous exhibitions about him, especially in Vienna.
Mozart’s operas were played even more often than usual that year, and it happened that I saw three different productions of The Magic Flute within a few weeks of each other. I found it fascinating that the stage directors could make three very different shows using the same words and music, so I started reading up on opera and attending more often. Fortunately there are five opera houses within a 50 km radius of my house: Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Wiesbaden, Mainz and Gießen.
The final nudge came a year later when my textbook publisher started sending me around Germany on weekends to present our books to groups of teachers. My presentations were usually in the afternoons, so in the evenings I was free to see a performance at the nearest opera house. Germany has eighty-three opera houses, of which I have been to seventy-one thus far.
(See my post Seventy-one opera houses in Germany.)
Cycling is something I’ve been doing off and on since I was about five, but I hasten to point out that cycling for me is primarily a means of transportation, not really a sport and certainly not a business. I have never owned or worn any article of clothing made of lycra, so I’m not that kind of cyclist. In earlier years I used to take long bicycle tours around Europe, but today I cycle mainly in cities. I’m a great fan of urban bike sharing systems such as Vélib’ in Paris and Vélo’v in Lyon.
For me cycling is also a great time saver. I find I need one or two hours a day of moderate exercise to stay healthy. I also need one or two hours of transportation each day to get to destinations in different parts of the city. On a bicycle, these are the same one or two hours.
I grew up in a house that no longer exists. It was in a city called Evanston, Illinois, which is the first suburb north of Chicago on Lake Michigan.
Evanston is no doubt a lovely place for those who fit in, but I was relieved when a scholarship from Columbia enabled me to escape and enjoy my four undergraduate years in New York City. After that I spent a year in Bern, Switzerland, followed by some time in Paris and an extended bicycle tour around Spain, Portugal, France and Germany.
As a draftee in the U.S. Army I spent a year in Vietnam, followed by some more travel in Europe and then a stint as news director of a listener-supported radio station in Berkeley, California. (See my post Mitterrand and the Panthéon for an episode from that period.)
I started teaching part-time while I was a student at the Goethe-University here in Frankfurt. As a Vietnam veteran from the U.S. Army I was entitled to educational benefits under the GI bill, but just before my first payment arrived the US dollar lost nearly a quarter of its value against the German D-Mark (due to the “Nixon shock” when the dollar was taken off the gold standard), so I had to look around for an additional source of income. I found it at the Adult Education Center of the city of Frankfurt, known in German as the Volkshochschule (VHS) — literally “the people’s university” — where I was taken on as a free-lance English teacher for evening courses.
Little did I know, when I started teaching at the VHS, that I would go on working at the same institution in various capacities for the next 48 years. After my studies I was given a full-time teaching position at the VHS, and later I served as head of the English department for many years.
At age 62 I joined a team at the VHS that introduced a new database system for planning the courses, allotting the rooms, enrolling the students and paying the teachers. My role in this database project was to train the staff, write the user handbook and serve as a troubleshooter when people got muddled — which they often did because computers at that time were new and terrifying to staff members who couldn’t imagine running a school without huge drawers of index cards.
Also at the Volkshochschule I have been teaching a German-language opera appreciation course called Opern-Gespräche since 1999, and a similar course in English called Frankfurt OperaTalk since 2002. Both of these courses were still going strong until they were abruptly ended by the coronavirus lockdown in March 2020.
After retiring from my full-time position I went on teaching at the VHS on a free-lance basis, so essentially I had come full-circle and was working the same way I did when I was a student several decades before.
My wife and I have three children and three grandchildren — all of whom can decide for themselves if they want to have any sort of internet presence. (So you won’t see much about them here.)
For over a dozen years I was an active member of a travel website called VirtualTourist (aka VT). By February 2017, when VirtualTourist ceased to exist, I had posted 3,290 tips/reviews about 124 destinations in 12 countries and had accumulated 1,007,692 page views, according to the statistics provided by the site. My largest page, entitled “My Paris: not only operas and bicycles . . .”, consisted of 435 tips/reviews, 1849 photos and five travelogues. I have backups of my VirtualTourist material, and I intend to use a small fraction of it as the basis for updated blog entries here on my own website.
In addition to reading each other’s tips and pages, we VirtualTourist members also met (and still meet) in person at VT-meetings all over the world. I have attended such meetings in Karlsruhe, Antwerp, Bacharach, Frankfurt, Paris, Bonn, Aachen and London, among other places.
Over the years, thirteen visiting VirtualTourist members came with me to performances at the Frankfurt Opera here in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
VirtualTourist was a highly successful website until the summer of 2008, when its founders made their fortunes by selling it to TripAdvisor. I met the founders earlier that summer at the big VT “EuroMeet” in Karlsruhe, Germany, but of course they didn’t say a word about the impending sale. After being sold, the site went into a slow decline as its social function drifted over to Facebook and its software, dating partly from the 1990s, became increasingly outmoded and couldn’t be made to work properly on the new tablets and smartphones.
Like a number of other websites, VirtualTourist had a system of ratings, rankings and awards that seemed childish to outsiders but provided entertainment and even motivation to those of us who were directly involved. For the record, I eventually got up to number 18 in the ranking system. I was pleased when my Paris page was chosen as the “Best City Travel Page” of 2012 and especially when I was voted “VTer of the year” in 2015 — though now that the site has gone out of existence these honors have lost what little significance they once had.