Monday, January 4, 2016

Gina

Gina, June 2001

In the morning of the 30th of December 2015 I was sitting at the gate at Düsseldorf Airport on my way to Scotland to enjoy one of the happiest days of the year when I got the message that my beautiful friend Gina's cancer tortured body had given in. Her heart had stopped beating. She was only 49 years old. 

The message did not come as a surprise. Gina had stage 4 ovarian cancer for 7.5 years at this point. I also know a bit about cancer and could read the frightening signs for quite a while already when a common friend informed me around Christmas that it would be any moment now (Thank you, dear Diana, for messaging me - it meant a lot to me). 
So I knew. But I also knew that knowing means nothing. It cannot prepare you for the cold hand that is clenching your heart when it happens. It cannot stop the feeling of emptiness that opens up around your soul. There is no way around but just one through it. 

Of course in a moment like this the first reflex is hiding. You want to be alone and cry and think about the person trying to get hold of the fading memories buzzing around your brain. You do not want to go on a fun trip. But then again ... if there was ONE fitting way to celebrate what we had and what had brought us together then it was traveling, seeing friends, seeing the favorite band and just ... LOVE DEATH AWAY
Everyone who was with me might now understand even better how happy I was when the Biff opened the night with "The Captain" and allowed me to sing along the finishing line that is also tattooed on my arms from the top of my lungs into the cold Scottish night. 

But I do not want to just talk about cancer and death. That is not who Gina was and not who she was for me. Let me introduce her to all of you a little bit more:
Her name was Gina DePalma and for many years she was the pastry chef in Mario Batali's Manhattan Restaurant Babbo. For the European ones ... the guest list there holds name like Bono, David Bowie, Matt Bellamy and many, many, many more famous and rich people ... just to give you directions that this is not your "around the corner pizza place". In her profession she was a super star - just google her name and see all the articles that were posted about her last week. She also received the James Beard award (like the Oscar just for chefs) and many other awards. She released a wonderful cook book, worked on a second one, wrote a part of one of Batali's book and articles for several websites and her own blog.
She was smart and had a big heart. She was opinionated and honest. She loved her family and friends, her cats, her work, she loved traveling, Italy ... and she loved music. A lot. 


Gina and I were friends since the late 90ies. Back in the days I was a student. There was some crazy thing coming up called "the internet" and I thought I better take a class to figure out how that works. So I did and while my co-students had trouble to understand what an attachment is I figured out how search engines (Alta Vista at the time) work and I typed in ... the name of my favorite band. OF COURSE I DID and it was "The Black Crowes" and boom .... a whole new world opened up - a  website and a miraculous thing called "Message Board" filled with crazy people just like me. People who would go to gigs together, trade tapes, share band related news. That was the day my friends started to live in my computer ... my still to day friends Jason and Sanae, who I met on the site as well, will remember our early days, when we were chatting from the computer rooms of our schools.
One of the people I met on this message board was Gina. We became friends, wrote long emails and soon it was not just about music and bands but our lives. I know that many people still find it weird when people meet each other over the internet but see .... we are all just human beings. Yes, some people might pretend on the net to be someone they are really not, but just like always in life that does not carry you far. You won't make real friends that way. But if you are yourself, if you invest in your friendships, when you make the effort to take it past the net .. it can be all real. 


It was so real that my family together with Gina organized a trip for me to visit her in New York as my graduation gift. It was supposed to be for the double headliner show of Jimmy Page & The Black Crowes and The Who at Madison Square Garden. Sadly that never happened because Jimmy Page had to cancel due to back problems. I am still heartbroken about this. 
We postponed the trip to the next tour which was The Tour Of Brotherly Love of The Black Crowes & Oasis in 2001.  We did see the show at the Radio City Music Hall. To be honest .... I have seen better Crowes shows and Oasis were the most boring band I have seen all my life, BUT ... that does not matter. 
What matters was the whole trip itself. I was in my 20ies and I had not much travel experience at that time and I had never been to the US before. You can imagine how excited, nervous, scared I was to fly all alone to New York to turn a computer friendship into a real life one and ... I mean .. NEW YORK! 

I am absolutely terrible with memories. One of the main reasons for me to have this blog is to write down memories to not lose them. I am a very "now and here" person and have trouble looking back even if I really want to. But that week in New York .... I still know almost everything about it. 

I remember that we shared a giant pizza the first night we spent in her apartment on Long Island - directly at the beach - where she lived at that time. I freaking loved that beach - I guess more than she did, but she needed a break from Manhattan for a little while. I remember having my first ever bagel for breakfast and taking a long walk along the waterfront with her and how bewildered she was that I went bare-feet in the sand. 
I remember how she kicked me out of bed at 5 am the other day because the Empire State Building platform is best right after sunrise and ... how right she was. I remember walking around the Uptown skyscrapers with her and having a hot dog at the corner of the Central Park. I remember how much we LOVED watching the polar bears diving into the pool at the Central Park Zoo. 
I remember when she showed me the East Village and where she had lived in exactly the house that is on the front cover of Physical Graffiti. I remember how she took me to China Town to eat weird stuff at a crazy busy Chinese place where all the high scale chefs would go for food late in the night after their shifts and how we went for my first "real" american burger down in Greenwich Village. 
I remember me hanging my head out of the car to look up to the tip of the World Trade Center only months before the towers came down at 9/11. I remember us driving back to Long Island one evening and me climbing around in the car because behind us the sun set and put the skyline of Manhattan on fire and in front of us over the salty emptiness of Long Island and the sea a huge silver moon was rising. It is to date one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. 
And finally I remember very well the day we cruised around on Long Island checking on tattoo parlors until we found one that was neat and clean and had nice folks with very decent books with great designs who would take walk-ins. A guest artist from California called Corey listened to us how we described  the guitar tattoo we both wanted and designed it for us. He then put on "Amorica" by The Black Crowes and I got the tattoo in black on my left upper arm and Gina got it in red. The same design. A bond that never breaks because a tattoo will never go away. I am so glad we did because it stays with me still now that she is gone. We celebrated the big event in the evening going for dinner in a fancy sea food restaurant and laughing about our awkward moves with our sore, wrapped up arms.

That trip changed me. I did not even realize it then, but when I look back now it very much was the starting point in the process of becoming the person I am now and formed the way I live my life. The Hogmanay celebrations only hours after her passing are probably the best possible proof for it. 


After the trip our friendship went on via the internet before it somehow faded out a bit as it happens often when life moves on. We never forgot each other or completely lost contact though. When I one day learned she had moved to Rome I wrote her and invited her to come to Munich so that I could show her my place now that she was so close (compared to New York). It never came to it because not much later she was diagnosed with this terrible cancer and had to stay in the US for treatment. 

Thankfully I had the chance to see her again. I visited her a few years ago in her apartment and we could even go for a longer walk together and chat and simply hug each other and enjoy being together in person. We also went for dinner the next day and it was fantastic. Great food, great talks - like the over 10 years between my first and second New York trip never happened. The following year I saw her one more time. She was in remission and even went back to work for a little while. We went after her shift together with my friend Gabrijela to a restaurant and talked about her second cook book and our travel plans and all kind of other things happening in our lives. Although she was tired after work she was very lively and I keep that picture of her talking with her hands describing recipes for her new book in my mind. 

My last email from her is only a few weeks old. I had told her about my plans for my future which are in the end also inspired by her and her decision to make her dream true to go to Rome. I wrote to her about my upcoming big surgery and how scared I was. I also told her that I had made the decision for the surgery together with my docs to not only solve of a long running health issue but also to get rid of the significantly above average chance to develop a certain type of cancer.
She wrote back immediately and encouraged me so much. She told me that I do the right thing and that I would be totally fine and even better than before and that I should not worry. It helped me tons. I read her email again right before I went to the hospital. And she was right ... it was rough, but now I am fine, the health issue is gone and so is the bigger than normal risk to get seriously ill and it is fantastic. She left me on a high note doing what she had done for me so often - encouraging me to be brave and strong and do what is best for me. She was very good with that. She really was. 


Thank you for listening and reading about a person that most of you never met and now can never meet. I would be very happy if you would take this as an opportunity to hug your friends and tell them that you love them and think a moment about the footprints they are leaving in your life. 

Wiser Time / The Black Crowes 

No time left now for shame
Horizon behind me, no more pain
Windswept stars blink and smile
Another song, another mile
You read the line every time
Ask me about crime in my mind
Ask me why another road song
Funny but I bet you never left home

On a good day, it's not every day
We can part the sea
And on a bad day, it's not every day
Glory beyond our reach
Seconds until sunrise
Tired but wiser for the time
Lightning 30 miles away
Three thousand more in two days