Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: May 2011

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Waist expansion

I like a good diner, I do, and in the last two weeks I've managed to visit a few. It's a tough gig.
Dr Jazz in Webster Grove is a terrible name for a sweet little old mom 'n' pop place that is more of a soda fountain than a real diner. But it has booths and stools at the counter and at the lunchtime we went they were doing a special, which was a cheeseburger with the cheese of our choice (I had pepper jack and Lucy, Swiss), fresh-cut fries and a proper milkshake, all for $6.99. The burger was juicy, the fries still had their skins on (delicious) and my shake (just vanilla ice cream wazzed with milk) was frothy and refreshing. I was very happy.
The City Diner is a twenty minute walk from our digs and has all the trappings of a 50s diner; formica tables, two-tone leatherette booths and a checkerboard floor. It's not actually that old but it's menu is authentic (meatloaf is its specialty) and at weekends it stays open 24 hours. We've been twice. The first time I tried a St Louis oddity - fried ravioli, which is as it sounds. Crispy, deep-fried ravioli are served with a marinara dipping sauce. It's not bad. I wouldn't order it again and I've yet to understand why tomato pasta sauce is called "marinara" as there's not much that's marine about it, but there you go. I also had a slice of rhubarb and strawberry pie "a la mode" (with a scoop of ice-cream) which was very, very good. The pastry was crisp and the filling not too sweet or gloopy.
The second time we went I had the blue plate special, a grilled chicken sandwich which was nothing to get excited about. The waiter, hearing my English accent, brought malt vinegar for me to slosh on my fries. But I didn't use it. So there. Lucy's tuna melt wasn't very good at all. Not much melting going on for starters, so even though it's a jolly enough place and the service is good, we won't be in a rush to go back. It's pricey for a diner too. $2.25 for diner coffee? Mm, no.
Now the Courtesy Diner, of which there are two branches, is more my speed. It's the real deal, small, with the griddle just behind the counter in full view of the customers. Chilli ($3.95 for a small bowl) sits warming in a pot and comes served with oyster crackers and a pile of shredded cheese. It's open 24 hours, though biscuits and gravy are available only between 11pm and 11am. Men with cowboy hats perch on the counter stools and the waitresses are perky, brisk but always polite. For a late breakfast yesterday I had a short stack of pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon, each item arriving simultaneously but on different plates. We had to wait for five minutes before we could get a seat but as soon as eleven o'clock struck, the place emptied. I'm not sure if that was because people had to get back to work or because the biscuits and gravy curfew had started. I'll have to go back and figure it out over some steak and eggs.

Route 66 passes about one-and-a-half miles south of our digs and we drove along a few miles of the old road the other day. It's not called 66 anymore. It shifts from 30 to 366 and then it disappears into the 44 freeway. But they still have signs telling you you're on the old "mother road". Even though most of the old businesses along the road have gone, I think you can still get a flavour of the old route just by the way it undulates like a gentle, tarmac roller-coaster. They wouldn't build a new road like that anymore. There's the odd, old bowling alley ("with Cocktail Lounge") that I'm dying to explore, if nothing more than for a Big Lebowski moment: "a fine sarsaparilla for me and an oat soda for The Dude..."
We stopped at a St Louis landmark on Route 66: Ted Drewe's Frozen Custard, which has been going for over 75 years. (Fellow Brits: frozen custard is what we call ice-cream, which is, er, usually frozen custard.) At a large roadside shack you can buy a mind-boggling array of flavoured "concretes" - their name for frozen custard blended with, say, M&Ms, chocolate chips, banana, Oreos... you name it. Concrete refers to the consistency. You're not buying mush and your server briefly inverts the open cup to demonstrate its solid texture. You can also buy various sundaes including a banana split that looks quite incredible.
On a warm evening, such as when we dropped in for a large Heath bar concrete, the place is humming with families and groups of friends. They take their custards back to their pick-ups and cars, where they slurp and chat under the Ted Drewes neon sign while the traffic drifts by on America's most famous road.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

We're all crap at this

Earlier today a soprano friend of ours tweeted "Too many notes, too little time!" To which I responded "Better than not many notes, too much time." She's busy and to reinforce her excitement I reminded her that she's far better off than many of her fellow singers in having lots of work. Lots of singers don't. I'm not working at the moment either, but that isn't a problem. Nor did it provoke my response. I have savings, my outgoings are low and my wife is bringing home the bacon. And I've been doing the singing lark for a very long time. I'm not worried.
I suppose I was saying to her "Be grateful and don't moan about being too busy." Don't get me wrong. I know she tweeted what she said because she is genuinely concerned about having too little time to learn a lot of new music, but I'm sure she's thrilled to be busy and as the saying goes "be careful what you wish for..."
Another friend of mine, a globe-trotting bass who moans to his agent if he has two weeks off, texted me last year with "At Heathrow. Just back from New York. Off to Tokyo in the morning. What a life." I texted him back with "Just done a pee. Need to do a poo. What a life". He called me something rude after that.
But the more I think about it the more I realise we all do it. Twitter and Facebook are awash with remarks like "Crazy busy at the moment!" "Knackered!" "Rushing to catch a plane!" I'm as bad a culprit as anyone. We're always trying to assert how much we are in demand, how much we are liked. We never, ever say "Having a tough time of it at the moment. Really worried about my future. Can anybody help?" We NEVER, EVER say anything like "Having a few vocal problems which I'll have to sort out before my next job."
We've all fallen victim to a salesman culture in which we are constantly trying to impress everyone. We try and impress our friends, we're desperate to impress our parents (even after they have died) and we're even trying to impress our children.
What the fuck is that all about?
Of course I understand, as an addicted impresser myself (you have to ask yourselves why I write this blog don't you?) that anyone mad enough to be a freelancer in the arts knows the score. People don't like failure. They only want to hear about success. They don't want to have rumours floating around about flaws and insecurities.
Isn't this all a bit bonkers? If social media have a proper function shouldn't they be places where we can at least be honest with our FRIENDS? Do we really have to spend so much energy on showing off to people who shouldn't really give a toss, and who, let's face it, privately roll their eyes whenever they read yet another posting on how fabulously your career is going? As Gore Vidal said: 'It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." Ghastly though that is, I bet we can all identify with it a little.

The burning question for me is this: When did we all become so insecure that we have to expend so much energy asserting how fantastically secure we are?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Oh for cluck's sake, not more?

I knew this would happen. No sooner do I mouth off about the quality of chicken than I have to start backtracking on what I said. This is not to say I have eaten some good chicken since I last blogged, but I will admit that my implied generalisation - which repeated pretty-well every prejudice that Brits have about America - that the produce over here is all tasteless pap, was unfounded and unfair. You can buy just as crappy food in Britain as you can over here. I've seen awful meat and poultry on the shelves of all of Britain's supermarkets, with the exception perhaps of Waitrose. I'm just irredeemably smug because when I'm at home I get to buy all of my meat from local farmers.
That smugness got a good slap across the face when we went to two farmers' markets yesterday. The first, and by far the biggest, is a covered market in Soulard, just south of Downtown. As soon as we parked the car and wandered the streets I got that sensation, that bumping on the skin, when you realise that this is a place where you could actually choose to live. The houses are Victorian redbrick, as are the pavements. There are trees and inviting pubs and coffee shops. The market itself has been going since the 18th century and is made up of two long galleries, filled with stalls. It was a Saturday and the place was humming. A stall was selling good-looking Bloody Marys - too early for me - and was doing a roaring trade. I was already on a high because I'd just been given a taster in a smokehouse across the road called Bogarts. It is an offshoot of the very popular Pappy's Smokehouse and if the one barbecued rib I tasted was anything to go by I'm going to have to make some frequent trips. The rib was fleshy and beautifully moist. It wasn't dripping with sauce, just a thin layer of glaze on the top, and the smoking enhanced the flavour rather than smothered it. It was without doubt the finest piece of barbecuing I have ever tasted. Bogarts only opens at lunchtimes from Tuesday to Saturday or I think we would be there tonight. Pappy's is also closed on Sunday evenings, more's the pity. Both places close when they run out of food - as they always do; as simple as that, so we'll have to go early.
The market was strong on fruit and veg, less so on meat, and not much good at all for fish (but then we are a very long way from the sea). I would call it a general market rather than specifically a farmers' market, though a good few of the vegetable sellers were bringing produce from their own farms. But if you lived in the neighbourhood you wouldn't have much good reason to go anywhere else for your food.
The second market we visited was in the middle of a nearby park, Tower Grove. These really were home producers and by the time we got there at about 11.30 many of them had already sold out. An interesting distinction from an English market was that anyone who was selling meat had it in freezers rather than fresh, and I can see some sense in this. For one thing it was extremely hot yesterday, but more crucially they don't have to worry about what to do with unsold stock. Still, I'd be reluctant to buy a frozen chicken, even if it were free-range. Freezing mushes up the texture. And the things are always so wet. A good chicken should be dry when you cook it, not sopping wet. When I've bought chickens over here in Wholefoods, even their poshest ones have been hermetically sealed in thick plastic bags, sloshing around in water. Contrast that to a chicken that has been hung in a butcher's. Not a drop of water to be seen.
I digress. The Tower Grove market was very good. One man was even selling "English bacon". I quizzed him about this and we quickly established that it's back bacon, American bacon being universally streaky. He'd sold out. He does do "cheek bacon" though, which I must try. It's a bacony form of Bath Chaps.
As in most farmers' markets I've seen in the States, everything was generally on the pricey side. I think it's worth it, ultimately, but whereas I like to think of farmers' markets as a way of farmers cutting out the middle man and retaining all of the retail price for themselves, sometimes there's a danger that producers will overstep the mark so much that we're into the area of "boutique food", designed to appeal to people with more money than sense rather than people who just want to buy decent food straight from the people who grew it. There's a store I visited today called Local Harvest. It claims to source as much of its food as possible from local producers. They have two labels which you can find on some products. One says 150 and the other 300, and each refers to the maximum amount of miles something has travelled. Quite apart from the fact that I don't consider 150 miles to be exactly local, I could see very few items which carried the stickers. Most of the stock, I'm sorry to say, was stuff you'd see at any health food store. Their strawberries, albeit organic, came from Driscolls, the largest supplier of soft fruit in the USA. A bunch of three small beetroot, with the leaves still attached (which I often use instead of spinach), was $3.99. That's about £2.40. For one portion of beets. As well as thinking that's just taking the piss, it highlights another problem with food pricing over here. Everything gets rounded up to the nearest 99 cents. So a producer comes along with a bunch of beets that he wants to sell to the store for $1.50 (still more than I pay for a good bunch of local beets at home). The store then doubles the price in mark-up, but rather than sell them for $3, it rounds the price up even more to $3.99. Well, that's just bonkers and cynical. But they all do it.

These gripes aside, it's good to know that the movement towards decent produce is as strong here as it is at home. I despaired of ever buying free-range pork here as most pigs are raised in enormous sheds, but no, you can get it. Restaurants are springing up all over town which boast of their local sourcing. Some are even getting into the nose-to-tail movement. All power to their free-range elbows.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cluck cluck

I made Arroz Con Pollo last night, a sort of chicken paella. I've made it many times before. It's easy and tasty. Well, not last night it wasn't. We got all the ingredients at a local supermarket, Schnucks. It's generally a good store that caters well for the local community and which takes care to stock foods that appeal to every ethnic background. We bought onion, garlic, green peppers, short grain rice, tinned chicken broth, fresh plum tomatoes, paprika and chicken thighs. Nothing odd, no funny spice mixes, no pre-packaged shortcuts (except for the broth I suppose). I cooked it up as I always do, frying the chicken first in olive oil, then the vegetables and paprika, adding the stock then rice... I let it rest for ten minutes before serving. It looked good but tasted of nothing. The chicken was awful with no flavour whatsoever. We had looked for a free range bird but in vain, and this was the best we could do.
I wish I could say I'm surprised, but I'm not. Just very disappointed. The very strange thing is that the rest of it had no flavour to speak of either. The onions, garlic, peppers, paprika and broth had achieved nothing. It's no wonder that Colonel Sanders has to lather his chicken in a gazillion spices, a ton of salt (sugar too II'll wager) and breadcrumbs then deep fry it, because without all the extra crap the meat itself would taste of nothing.
I wonder how many Americans, or Brits for that matter, when they say "it tastes of chicken" actually know what chicken tastes like?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mr Creosote rides again

For foodies, a quick run-down of eateries so far...

Crown Candy Kitchen is a candy store cum soda fountain cum diner which opened in 1913 and which hasn't changed dramatically since. There are only a few booths, more like tiny wooden cubicles, and if there are more than four of you, you might as well head elsewhere. Likewise if you don't like queuing for a table you might as well head elsewhere. The extraordinary thing about this is that Crown Candy is in a pretty desolate corner of town, north of Downtown. Millions of dollars have just been spent by the city in at attempt to rejuvenate the area and nearby there are lots of old stores that have been spiffily renovated but which currently stand empty, waiting to be occupied by boutiques and art galleries. Personally I wish they were becoming shops that actually serve the immediate neighbourhood, like bakeries and butchers, but that doesn't seem likely.
Anyway, the fare at Crown Candy is basic stuff but good. I had a Ruben, which is a toasted corned beef sandwich with sauerkraut and thousand island dressing. The beef is what we Brits called salt beef rather than the stuff from Fray Bentos. The sandwich came with chips (crisps) and a long, salty pickle. However the main courses are merely the prologue to what Crown Candy is really about. Sundaes, shakes and malts (basically a milkshake thickened with malt powder - Ovaltine?) are the reason you can't get a table. I would have had a malt if my birthday-boy heart wasn't already on a sundae. At 24 fluid ounces (one-and-a-half wimpy American pints) each their malts are massive. They have a challenge that has stood since 1913: if you can drink five malts within half an hour you get them free. Only an idiot would try that which is why the bloke off the ludicrous US TV show "Man vs Food" has attempted it. I have no idea if he succeeded and frankly I don't care. As I wrote on this blog back in August, the idea that the enjoyment of food is to be had solely in stuffing as much of the stuff inside your face as you possibly can is so revolting that the show's presenter should be struck down with the heart attack he so richly deserves.
I had the Crown Sundae and jolly good it was too. Two scoops of excellent homemade ice-cream of my choosing, topped with chocolate fudge sauce, pecans, whipped cream and a cherry. I surprised myself by choosing the cherry ice-cream - not normally a flavour I'd plump for - but I'm glad I did as it was very, very good, the cherries large and, well, fruity.

Shaw's Coffee in The Hill, from where I blogged yesterday, is a real find. There is a large roaster right in the middle of the cafe and when they have a roasting session, as they did yesterday afternoon, the doors are flung open and the street fills with with the smell of the the hot beans. Lucy met me after her rehearsal and we wandered down to Amighetti's, an Italian cafe and bakery that is something of a local institution. I couldn't resist the spaghetti with meatballs - as good a barometer of an American-Italian eatery as anything - and for seven bucks got an enormous portion that I couldn't finish, quite. There were four meatballs nearly the size of cricket balls. But they were very good, and every time I said "that's it I'm done" I found myself having another forkful a couple of minutes later.
Despite my distended belly we couldn't resist wandering into their bakery shop after lunch and buying a couple of cannoli "for later". We ate them today and they were much better than you get from Roma in New York, the pastry lighter and the ricotta less cloying.

Finally I have to mention World's Fair Donuts, just east of The Hill. It's an old nondescript looking place, barely more than a shack, but it's charming and, dare I say it, quaint. But not in a self-conscious or deliberate way. Apparently the same people have been working there for the last 30 years or so and they open at four in the morning. It might sound silly to say it's nice to meet a donut seller who's passionate about his work but that's the impression he certainly gave when we stopped for a glazed ring and a glazed-cake. There was an old biddy in front of us who had stepped out of an old Lincoln with Arkansas plates - perhaps she had spotted the shop from the freeway and told her husband (a Vietnam veteran - it said so on his licence plate) to pull over for a box of treats - who was umming and aahing about what to chose, and the server described each nut in turn with what I can only call good old-fashioned courtesy and patience. My glazed ring, perhaps not the most original of choices, was superb. Much better than a Krispy Kreme. It was firmer and less gratingly sweet. I'm going to have to go back. Apparently the buttermilk donuts are to die for and how can I resist a "fried pie", the size and shape of a small pasty, filled with jam or custard? I adore these old businesses and would happily pay over-the-odds to give them my custom, but you get two top-notch donuts for a dollar and who can argue with that?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Zing zing zing went my heartstrings

This is my idea of a good trip. The biggest factor in that is that I'm not here to work; Lucy is. It isn't that often that I'm free for the duration of one of her jobs, or vice versa, and more often than not we'll spend weeks thousands of miles apart. I could have stayed in England, watering the garden, being a Saddo and pottering about at home, but it seemed infinitely more sensible to come to St Louis and have, you know, a married life.
Lucy is singing three cameo roles in John Adam's "The Death of Klinghoffer" for the Opera Theatre so it's not as if she should be rehearsing a great deal, nor does she have the pressure of a major role to worry about. Unlike most companies the Opera Theatre doesn't work downtown but out on a university campus to the west of the city. They perform four operas, all in English, over about a month and that's it for the season.
The other thing that makes this a good trip is that I get to explore a new city. So far I'm liking St Louis a lot. And by the way, for those of you who think it's pronounced Saint Looey, it isn't. It's Saint Looiss. Despite the song from the movie.
And talking about the movie, let me tell you a little about our digs. The fees are not generous here. Not by any means. But there are willing hosts who will put you up rent-free for the duration, and that makes a substantial difference to the take-home pay. Now normally I would run a mile from such an arrangement. I like my privacy. But first off, this isn't my call (not my job) and secondly, on this occasion the toast has landed butter side up.
If you have seen "Meet Me In St Louis" you'll remember that Judy Garland's family lives in a sizeable Victorian villa in a leafy suburb. And so it is with our hosts. This makes them sound grand but far from it. Nor are they intrusive in the slightest and, more remarkably, they seem more than happy for us to potter about the house as if it were our own. We are more restrained than that, but any day now we'll take advantage of the swimming pool and hot tub knowing that they'll be very pleased we have. We have a huge bedroom and our bathroom is, I think, as old as the house. It is panelled with marble and has a massive claw-foot bath. So, all-in-all not bad.
Since we've been here we haven't watched one second of television. In America that is absolutely extraordinary. I've been in houses where the TV is on pretty-well all day, jabbering in the background. There is one in the house but I haven't seen it yet. Best of all, even if the TV were on I'm very sure it would never be tuned to Fox News.
So, so far so very good. There's a singular absence of anything to moan about or which could lead me into a state of scornful apoplexy. I'm typing this - and I'd look a right poseur if I were the only one doing so - while sitting outside a thoroughly lovely coffee shop in The Hill, a sort of Little Italy. The coffee shop used to be a bank and while it is sad that this clearly used to be a neighbourhood with a main street of bakers, butchers and greengrocers, it still has maintained a cultural identity that is charming and interesting. There's a wonderful deli next door and nearly every corner has a tempting Italian-American eatery that makes Manhattan's Little Italy look corny and fake. I'm enraptured.
To get here I walked through a couple of miles of old suburbia. Neighbourhoods change dramatically from block to block and occasionally I felt very conspicuous by my Anglo Saxonism. But, without wishing to sound preachy, the world might be a happier place if we all learned to walk through each other's neighbourhoods and care a little less about our cultural and ethnic differences.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


I'm a good packer. I make no bones about bragging about that. I have sought ways over the years to whittle down my travel necessities to a tidy minimum. Advances in technology have helped enormously. Sixteen years ago, if I was going abroad for any length of time, I would pack in my suitcase a small Canon printer and a fax machine. It seems extraordinary now, but back then email was in its infancy. We had no home computer. Who did? Who had a mobile phone? Barely anyone I knew. Who had a laptop before 1995? Back then, they were the preserve of the very rich or high-flying businessmen.
I did have a Psion organiser though, packed with 128kbs of memory. It was a nifty gizmo that could fit in a jacket pocket. I could type documents on its clamshell keyboard, which I then printed and faxed. The Psion could do basic spreadsheets too and if you held it up to the mouthpiece of a telephone it could tone-dial phone numbers in its address book. That seemed just so cool at the time. The more I think about it, the more I realise it was a truly advanced gadget. Palm Pilots came along, touch screens became all the rage and Psion stopped production, but if someone produced a similar-sized device with everything that such a gadget is capable of now, it would probably sell like hotcakes.
Why all the faxing? Phone bills were always a massive part of the expense of being abroad. I used to spend many hundreds of pounds on phone calls during every opera job I did. It was just something you had to do. There were no cheap phone cards, there was no Skype. There was rarely any competition between phone companies too, so prices were high and there was nothing you could do about it. International phone calls were simply very, very costly.
So when faxes came along it wasn't hard to see how you could save a lot of money by replacing a fifteen-minute conversation with a one-minute fax. A printer and fax machine (which cost about £100 each) could easily pay for themselves in the course of one job. When I moved into new digs, the very first thing I would do was unplug the phone and replace it with my fax machine. Then I'd find somewhere to set up my printer. The mileage of cables I needed for all this staggers my mind today.
I always dreamed though that a time would come when I wouldn't have to fill half my suitcase with office equipment and now... Well it's easy, isn't it? Except that luggage allowances have also tumbled so the pressure to miniaturise and cut weight has stayed the same. Gone are the days when I could bring a folding bike as well as my suitcase. After years of carrying around a laptop (as well as, in the early years, an external modem and all kinds of adapters) I'm not even doing that anymore. An iPad can do everything I need.
No, there's no doubt, I'm a good packer. I like to steer well inside the weight limit. The missus, not so much. It's the toiletries I reckon. I'm packed in 20 minutes. The missus, half a day. Toiletries again. And then, when we get to the airport hotel, she repacks all over again. Or so it seems. It's possibly a Mars vs Venus thing.
And so it was today. Unfortunately she felt the weight of her bags compared to the weight of mine (damn!) and on the quiet I have become encumbered with a vast 2 kilo score of "The Marriage of Figaro", a raincoat and a large bag of electrical stuff. All hers.
I addressed the Figaro issue. Didn't go down well. I was rewarded with a look. So now I'm a luggage mule who's in the doghouse.
She is en route to St Louis via Washington DC whereas I, going most of the way on Virgin airmiles, am travelling via Chicago. I've just got to remember to slip the bottle of cologne she had me buy for her at Terminal 3 into my checked luggage when I get to Chicago or I'll have to negotiate it through security before my connection. I have no liquids in my hand luggage at the moment. See? Good packing that is.
Now the only issue left is: if I post this will she ever speak to me again?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The economy option

Two days ago I shared a photo of my hotel room in Berlin on Facebook. It's a small room, about 8' wide, with a single bed, a desk, an armchair, a sink and a cupboard.  And a small welcome pack of gumi bears on the pillow. 
I posted the photo asking friends to hazard a guess as to who was paying for my hotel expenses; me or the promoter of the concert. Plenty of people cracked jokes about the size of the room (and the gumi bears) but no-one actually took the plunge and guessed. Or if they did, they didn't say so. 
It isn't the easiest call to make. Some promoters are more generous than others and in these straitened times the five-star treatment on concert trips is less likely. But I'll come clean. I booked the room. 
Berlin is rare amongst European cities. Normally when you're booked by an orchestra (but not an opera company) they cover your travel and hotel but every job I've done here has paid a "global" fee from which I have to pay all my expenses. It's also the same in the States, in my experience, but I'm no expert. 
Now call me a cheapskate if you like but I have never seen the merit in spending a vast percentage of fees in needless expenses. It's a bad business strategy. Surely the point is to take home as much of your fee as humanly possible? And people who say that business expenses are "tax deductible" are, well, wrong. Business expenses allow you to reduce your taxable profit, not the tax itself. £1 spent on expenses isn't £1 saved in tax. Not by a long shot.
But that's niggly stuff. The broader picture is this: there's no point in earning a living as a singer if you blow everything you earn on hotels and travel. You're just feeding an insatiable beast. That's fine if you have nothing else in your life except flying on planes and sleeping in hotels but, nope, that's not for me. I have other fish to fry and the less I spend in expenses on the road means the longer it is before I have to go on the road again to top up the piggy bank. Of course it's not quite as simple as that; that makes me sound like some sort of medieval troubadour, but the principle is the same.
So, I never let my agent book my travel because they always budget far too dearly. I do it all myself and I delight in finding good deals and interesting places to stay. And this hotel - though it's really a small "pension" - is no exception. The room may be small and sparse but it is as clean as a nun's conscience, the staff are lovely and best of all, including a decent breakfast I'm paying only €38 a night. The pension - it's called Hotel Modena - is on the second floor of a "belle epoque" style house at the very poshest end of Kurfürstendamm, Ku'damm to the locals, and is surrounded by loads of fancy shops - Prada is on the corner - and fun restaurants. It's a great area. 
I'll stay here again, though probably in a room with a bathroom (though I've had the one down the hall entirely to myself) next time, if there's a next time. There's no telly but that's something of a bonus and with free wifi, who needs it? It'd all be in German anyway...
And now to wander the boulevards in search of a good dinner-for-one. 
Here's a link to the hotel's site

Friday, May 6, 2011


I already know I'm a loony magnet but now it seems I'm an obvious target for con artists too. 
I'm just wandering along the side of the Philharmonie when a car pulls up next to me and the driver leans over and winds down the passenger window. I assume he is in need of directions and in my best German I tell him I'm English. 
"Ah eenglish! I am Italiano, from Milano."
We continue the conversation in mixture of Italian and English, though he's doing all the talking. 
Well, you'd never believe it but this guy, very smartly dressed, has just finished a fashion fare in town and not only that but this friendly and total stranger wants to give me two leather jackets! Free! 
"You know Emporio?"
"Er, no..."
"Emporio Armani?!"
"Well, yes..."
The bag he is showing me doesn't say Armani anywhere. Just Emporio. 
He takes out the jackets and my first thought is "yuck". The black one looks plastic and the other, a suede job (antelope? Is that what he said?), doesn't look much better. He tells me to feel them. I'm not convinced but I'm no expert. He's pointing at labels and telling me they are exactly my size. He puts them back in the Emporio bag and stuffs its handle in my hand. "They are present for you!" 
Oh yeah?
"I just need to ask you a leetle favore." 
Here it comes...
"I was in casino in Potsdammerplatz (he has a leaflet from said casino and I'm thinking "why would you have that?") and my credit card, five thousand euro, he is feeneesh. Basta. I need to buy da gasoline to get back to Milano. Look!" He points to the petrol gauge but I can't see it and besides, he has switched off the engine. 
Ah, so that's the scam.
I release the handle of the bag containing what I am now absolutely convinced are two five-euro jackets, look at my watch and exclaim that I'm late for a meeting. I walk away while he yells something which leads me to think he isn't my newest, bestest mate anymore. 

Monday, May 2, 2011


I have nothing to learn.
Well isn't that going to need a little clarification - and as that is a rhetorical question I'm going to deliberately omit a question mark. Nope, that doesn't look right at all, so here's one to put things right? Oh crap, this is just getting worse. I'll start again.
I have nothing to learn.
By which I don’t mean that I have become some paradigm of knowledge acquisition, a Master of Technique, or a guru; someone who has learned it all, whatever “it” might be.  
I mean that, normally, I have a pile of music on the top of our upright piano (which fancily calls itself a “bungalow grand”, don’t you just love it) which is waiting for me to tackle. But I don’t. Nada. I have no new repertoire coming up (and more on that anon) so there’s nothing for me to learn.
 “To learn” has broadly two meanings for a singer. First it means to note-bash; to painstakingly work over and over on a piece until you can perform it with the score, probably for a concert. When I was younger I used to spend an awful lot less time on this process, relying far too much on the sight-reading ability I had acquired at King’s and also, I have no doubt, being an awful lot sloppier. My sight-reading has grown rusty with age and lack of use, not to mention my short-term memory, so I am a gazillion times more fastidious in my studies these days. Besides, when you are young all the repertoire is new. There’s just so much new stuff to learn. I have the luxury of revisiting old repertoire these days and can afford to spend a larger portion of my time on the new stuff, such as it is.
Also, and I’m not alone in this, I have much less trust in my brain and body than I used to. If I am not thoroughly prepared for a gig I know I will be overwhelmed with anxiety. I have lost all of the bravura and ballsiness of youth. It isn’t fun, I can tell you. I need to spend an awful lot more time in preparation so that I can feel comfortable in performance.
The second meaning of “to learn” is to memorise, which cannot be done without the first learning process; though that is a moot point, given the number of us who perform stuff from memory complete with fat fistfuls of mistakes, the result of poor preparation. The trouble is that once you’ve memorised something you’ve learned badly it is incredibly difficult to correct the errors.
Memorising is a fantastically boring process that is also becoming increasingly difficult as I get older. I can still remember huge chunks of roles I memorised in my twenties but something I committed to memory two years ago has all but faded into a dim mist. Getting it back is like coaxing a frightened cat out of a tree. It takes time and immense patience. As well as a tin of tuna and the fire brigade. If only. At least that would be fun.
So, I have nothing new to learn or to memorise.
I’m sure there are some people out there thinking to themselves “Well why don’t you learn a new role just for the hell of it?” Quickly stifling the voice inside me squeaking “What? Are you kidding? Unpaid?!!” (not that you’re ever paid to learn a role I might add, just to perform it) I would answer that this would be like moving to Lewes. I should explain. There’s an old superstition amongst British singers that if you seem to be “in” with the Glyndebourne Festival the last thing you should do is move to Lewes, the nearby town, because as soon as you do, Glyndebourne will stop asking you back. It’s a variation on Sod’s or Murphy’s Law. And so, as soon as you decide to learn such-and-such a role because it seems like a good thing to do you just know that you’ll never get to sing it. Well that’s my rationalisation and I’m sticking to it. Besides if I went to all the bother of learning a role I’m not booked to sing, the chances are that by the time I am booked to sing it I will have forgotten the damn thing and it will all have been a colossal waste of time that I could have better spent doing something else. Like writing this blog! See?! Wouldn’t that be a terrible price to pay?
Or it could be that I’m just far too lazy. And if this whole hour spent composing this post has done anything at all, it has now given me the idea that I should really prove myself wrong.
I have everything to learn.