Haiti - An Inauspicious Start 7/30

In the two weeks prior to leaving for Haiti I admitted to anyone who would listen that I was having some reservations about the trip.  More than one of my friends thought I was more than a little crazy for going to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to volunteer for two different music camps.  Upon getting my five vaccinations and picking up my anti-malarials, I could see their point.  The biggest blow to my perception of my sanity came when the taxi pulled up at 3:30 a.m. to take me to the airport.  Only someone not quite right in the head would book a plane ticket so early.

Transferring planes in Miami I noticed a woman in front of me with a violin case on her back and asked if she was going to Jacmel or Cange by any chance.  It turned out she was, and so I met the first other volunteer of the trip!  I felt more secure knowing there would be someone else waiting for a ride with me (turned out it was a really good thing, because she could recognize Janet Anthony who was waiting there for her while my ride to Cange was not!)

Disembarking in Port au Prince, my fellow passengers and I funneled through a long series of hallways and then on to an un-air conditioned bus.  Despite the heat, the bus looked pretty much like any other airport shuttle (plus about fifty more people than usual.)  We pulled up to the Customs Center and a small group of men in yellow Western Union t-shirts began singing a lively tune accompanied by the accordion.  Welcome to Haiti!

The Immigration Center/Baggage Claim area has the spartan look one expects from third-world countries.  Directly outside awaits a mass of people who make their living carrying bags for travelers.  They are a little pushy, but I held my ground firmly as I waited for the violinist, Bonnie.  She appeared with another volunteer (Lisa) and Janet (she's the woman who gave me the information about volunteering in the first place.)  Janet paced the line of people while placing calls in Kreyole to try to work out a ride for me - at least as far as the Holy Trinity Church in P au P that has a year round music school and runs the camp at Cange.  

Like the neighborhood around it, the Holy Trinity complex showed earthquake damage but men worked on rebuilding part of it and it felt clean and safe.  A community of people live and work within the church compound, sharing the space with free range chickens and cats and protected by armed guards at the gates of the high perimeter fence.  "Tout suite" takes on a different meaning when you hear it every ten minutes for four hours...  Fortunately a charming young man had taken it upon himself to try to teach me some Kreyol (a hopeless task I'm afraid) as well as practice his English while I waited.

My chariot to Cange appeared in the form of a large green diesel pickup truck loaded with bananas and other supplies for the camp.  So loaded, in fact, that there wasn't room for my suitcase.  It followed in a car that left much later.  (Didn't end up getting my bag until about 11:30 p.m. after having all but given up on it for the night)

We wound our way through the streets of Port au Prince - an experience that defies description, but I'll do my best.  Much of it is very hilly, sort of like San Francisco but after a nuclear blast.  Pot holes require four wheel drive  to navigate.  Although Haitians drive on the same side of the street as Americans do, they don't seem overly concerned about lane lines and when no oncoming traffic presents itself as many as four cars width will all go in the same direction.  Pedestrians, Taptaps, feral dogs and cats, goats, wheelbarrows, and motor bikes add to the confusion.

Three types of dwellings line the streets: multi-leveled brightly painted buildings that may or may not show earthquake damage; shacks constructed of corrugated tin and other found materials; and tents.  Street vendors peddle their wares in front of the houses and next to rivers of plastic bottles.  Those who have nothing to sell lounge in the shade on pieces of cardboard (or in one case cardboard on top of an old spring mattress frame) trying to stay cool.  There's a pervasive odor of outhouse and garbage, but the people are clean and well-kept.

 About forty minutes outside of Port au Prince my driver pointed out a new concrete housing complex intended for the displaced.  I asked if people were unhappy about the distance from the city proper but he didn't have an answer.  I'm not sure how economies develop but it seems to me that it would be hard for people to do anything but hang about if they are removed from the potential of work.

Our trip took us up into the mountains and through the beautiful countryside.  We arrived in Cange during a torrential downpour and pulled up beside the rehearsing orchestra.  Safe and sound, I ate my dinner (porridge) to the sounds of Shostakovich and wondered what was in store for me.

Abu Dhabi wrap up

It's been nearly 6 months since I returned from Abu Dhabi which I suppose is more than enough time to reflect on the things I saw there.  About a month ago I went to a comedy show by the Persian comic, Maz Jobrani which (although hilarious) is only worth mentioning because he asked the audience what the last country they had visited was and I responded United Arab Emirates.  He then riffed on the general decadence of the country and used a phrase that I used a lot when I returned, which is that UAE is the "est country."  (See, I'm funnier than I thought...)  Meaning, everything has to have an "est" at the end of it: biggest, tallest, fastest, (gaudiest...)  And it's really true.

The produced spectacle can distract from some things that are less obvious.  Although I'm never keen on anyone being told what they can and can't wear, all things considered women are treated very well.  Non-Emirati women can walk down the street in mini-skirts with relatively little fear of getting accosted.  If a woman runs into trouble with a man (usually a visiting Saudi) the authorities will do something about it and generally take the woman's side.  Emirati women have more freedoms than many other Arab countries and (knock on wood) it looks like it will stay that way.

UAE has every modern Western convenience you could ask for.  Despite that, their world view can be very limited.  The lucky ones travel, but many in the more remote areas never leave and misinformation can lead to biases.  More importantly, the culture struggles to maintain its identity in the face of Westernization as well as the influx of foreign workers.  It will be interesting to see how the country continues to evolve over time, I'm glad I got to see it at this stage!

And now a word about toilets

I know those of you who have read about my other trips have been waiting for some commentary on the toilet situation and you know how I hate to disappoint :) Anyway, with the exception of a propensity towards Trumpian oppulence they really are rather unremarkable in the UAE. However, a few notes:

Every hotel room has a bidet. I only start with this observation because several hotel rooms also have what every public bathroom has had which is a hose with a kitchen sink-type sprayer next to the toilet (presumably for bidet-like purposes.) I have to admit, there have been several bathrooms in the States that I would have liked the opportunity to hose down before using so I must say I'm a supporter of this addition to women's restrooms. 

Yesterday there was an entire row of squatty potties at a truck stop. No, I have not been brave enough to use them... We had a long enough drive without me smelling like pee the whole time in the event of a miscalculation. 

So there, my work here on toilets is done. Incidentally, it would be best not to ask about the toilets in Haiti...

Million Street

I set my alarm extra early this morning so that I could sit with my feet dangling in my own private pool while I read the New Yorker. It was totally worth it. Our performance at the University was pretty close to the hotel so we were totally relaxed about leaving and didn't actually check out because we knew we could come back. Our performance and talk was again a men's-only affair and once the students were reminded of the rules (no cell phones, no talking) they were just as good of an audience as any of the others so far. Many of the students were quite anxious afterwards to have their pictures taken with us, which admittedly does help boost the ego a little bit. 

The school also graciously provided a really beautiful lunch during which we got a chance to speak to two of the students. One had absolutely perfect American English (quote: "Good times") and spoke to us about pop music in general (Q: Is there Emerati rap? A: Yes, but I don't condone such things) and explained the Emerati higher education system. His friend advised me to stick to English when I tried to say "thank you" in Arabic, a request that I'm happy to oblige but really, what's more culturally sensitive?

Following check out Susan and I raced down to the beach in a golf cart just so that I could say I dipped my feet in the gulf. The warm water and soft sand made me wish we could stay for another week but of course thats not why we're here. I felt a twinge of guilt when I saw the van already loaded and waiting for us but everyone was good natured and we set about our trip to the "empty zone." Empty indeed - several hours of desert as far as the eye can see. The sand shifted from an orangey color to almost white and then something in between the two with irrigated palm trees lining the road. 

The Empty Zone is the part of the country in which racing camels is a really, really big deal. A good camel can go for upwards of a million dollars US. For this reason, they call the street where the camels are raised and housed "Million Street" and we passed it on the way to our new hotel (we also passed a helicopter pad.) Suddenly we saw them not too far away and clamored to get out of the van - camels! The sleekest most beautiful camels I've ever seen (and who would think to ever call a camel beautiful?) The closer the camels came, the more pictures we took - to the point that their riders started taking pictures of us!

Our new hotel, Tilal Liwa is literally situated in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by sand dunes. It's like being at the beach without any water. Tomorrow we do our final performance of the tour, this time for women. 

Rotana Cabana

The problem with being busy is that so much happens before you can write about it and then you don't know where to start. Monday morning we played a concert for the Men's Campus of Zayed University.  Generally colleges here have men's and women's campuses, and more women attend than men. We were also told that the women would generally be better audiences, but in this case they were really engaged and just generally warm and welcoming. After Katherine's debut on Summertime, one of the men actually shouted "that was great!" from the audience, which is pretty darn cool. Unfortunately, as we were walking to the van following the performance I noticed that the heel on my shoe was broken and hanging by a thread! Nooooo! I had no choice but to go the the mall that's attached to our hotel (yes, really) and buy a new pair. 

Monday night we played a very well attended and well received concert under the auspices of the US Ambassador to UAE at the Intercontinental in Abu Dhabi. Prior to the concert several of us were interviewed by both American and Arabic journalists about our mission as a group and our impression of UAE. I had to be honest and say I thought it was a complete spectacle... The biggest! The fastest! The tallest! The most expensive! The heaviest!  But I was also honest when I said that so far every Emerati that I've met has been really well spoken and nice. A little too nice sometimes, it became hard to enjoy the fabulous food at the reception following the concert. Never fear, though, where there's a will theres a way and our intrepid heroine managed to stuff herself with several platefuls of savory nibblies and a few too many desserts. 

We reluctantly (and with bleary eyes) checked out of the Beach Rotana on Tuesday morning and began the drive to Al Fujairah where we played a master class/concert for a co-ed group. The men arrived later than the women and I had a good chance to study the abayas pretty closely as we all waited. Stravinsky said limitations breed creativity, and I would say this crowd was an excellent example of that statement. It's amazing what you can do with all black (or mostly all black) and oh the shoes and purses!  My favorite moment came when the women in the front row were asked to move back so the men could sit there (ostensibly because the women are shy and generally don't want to sit in front of rowdy and potentially obnoxious young men.) One woman looked up sweetly and said, "but we can't see from the back" and they all held their ground. It was pretty awesome, and I told them so. The one on the end just winked at me. 

A several hour drive later found us in Ras Al Khaimah at the Cove Rotana. Holy smokes. My room was on the water and had a private swimming pool on the deck. The resort is so massive you need golf carts to get you anywhere, it's quite a sight. A girl could get used to this life!

NYU Abu Dhabi

This morning we met our "handler" from the Embassy down in the lobby of the hotel and he took us over to meet the Ambassador and be briefed generally about what to expect in our tour in terms of venues, customs, and audiences.  Overall it sounds like U.S. diplomatic relations with the U.A.E. are very strong and it was nice to hear that most people here are just as appalled with the behavior in the area as we are.  On the flip side, it sounds like there's a lot of misinformation about free speech and what laws are European (specifically French) versus what laws are U.S.  Just as we group the Middle East together, it sounds like they lump the West into one big scary culture.  It reinforces the danger of massing people, even by country, into groups rather than seeing them as individuals.

The U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi looks like a battleship - an observation I made before hearing it called the Titanic.  I guess it is supposed to look like a sand dune.  Regardless, it is certainly imposing and impressive if lacking in a little friendliness. The Ambassador himself believes very strongly in the use of cultural events to help educate people here without making pro-democracy statements that can be offensive to the local government.  There are about one million Emeratis, but eight million people live in this country, so actually locating and targeting the native population is very challenging.  For this reason we are mostly playing in universities that are only (or mostly only) open to citizens.  In at least one place there is a high likelihood that we will be the first Western Classical music performance ever, or at least in a very long time.  Pretty cool.

The exception was tonight's performance for NYU Abu Dhabi - a brand new branch of the famous NYU in New York.  Out of fewer than 150 students, over 90 countries are represented.  Very impressive.  The music program is small, but the kids are keen and there are non-music majors who are active in the music program which is great.  Several of them played quite beautifully for us prior to our concert which was also a treat.  They were a warm and enthusiastic audience and made a great start to the tour!

One of the students, a composer from Mexico City, allowed me to sightread one of his compositions for flute and piano after the performance.  The piece switches between 10/8 and 9/8 (counted 3+2+2+2) and put me on the spot to do it, but it was totally worth it and a charming piece.  We also ate dinner with the students, which gave us more time to talk.  

Tomorrow we play for a university in the morning, and then prepare for the big concert through the Embassy in the evening.  Rumor has it that there will be press and possibly a T.V. station so no pressure ;)  Supposedly the U.S. Embassy to U.A.E. has twitter and facebook accounts that they will be posting to, so check it out!

The Luxurious Life of Musicians

I had a premonition that Abu Dhabi would feel particularly surreal after my experience in Haiti, but frankly I did not do my research and now feel that I am living a life of luxury for which I am unprepared. For example, the Embassy sprang for the Club Floor of the hotel. For the uninitiated, this means free breakfast, free cookies, fruit, and non-alcoholic beverages all the time and free booze and nibblies at night. In fact, I am typing this post from a couch on the club floor that overlooks the inlet and several construction sites that characterize this city. Not too shabby. 

After one day here, my (possibly unfair) assessment of Abu Dhabi is that it is reinventing itself as a young Las Vegas without the gambling but with all (or more) of the shopping. I've never before been to a city that obviously has a history but one which isn't evident anywhere except in the echoes of traditional Arabic architecture. I estimate that for every finished building there are two with cranes. We also passed several that are in various stages of being torn down. 

This morning Susan and I were disappointed to find out that we were not included in the day trip to Dubai (which we probably could not have afforded anyway) so we proceeded to fill our only free day with seeing the sights of Abu Dhabi. We hit the five big "must-sees," two of which were shopping malls (or souqs which basically means market) and one was a hotel and shopping mall. When you step out of the air conditioning, you are immediately hit with a very humid and hot blast of air that never abates. It is so humid that when we emerged from the airport last night and then again when I went on my balcony this morning, my glasses fogged up for a minute or so in a reaction opposite to that which happens in Chicago in the winter. A result, we were told, of a change in the seasons that also causes a "fog" over everything. 

For this reason and fear of it becoming even hotter, we decided to visit the outdoor Heritage Village first. The Village purports to be a representation of what life was like before oil money, and the demonstration of traditional crafts (weaving, pottery, glass blowing, etc) are by far the most interesting part. Following our tour of the Village, we had trouble catching a taxi, and were quite charmed and grateful to receive a ride the nearby mall tourist trap by a pizza delivery man! Although the mall had some incredible high-end shopping, we opted to go to the Central Souk instead. Fortunately the mall had several taxis to chooses from to get us there. 

The Central Souq seems to focus more on traditional items such as beautiful silk and wool scarves, rugs, pillow covers, traditional jewelry and others, but it also contains several stores with evening gowns that would appear to defy many of the local dress customs of which we were warned as well as luxury jewelry and watches. The store keepers were so earnest that we started to avoid going in, because they pulled nearly everything off the shelves to tempt us! An incredible series of wooden latticework turned out to be the primary draw of the building. The attention to detail and commitment to quality is unparalleled in the States. We enjoyed the cool and dark interior after the scorching au of the morning. 

After a brief break back at the hotel, we journeyed to the Grand Mosque in a hotel car (oh luxury!) for the 2 o'clock tour. We passed the Mosque last night in the dark, but it was even more stunning during the day. Completed in 2007, it holds 1,000 people in each prayer room and is comprised of granite and marble from all over the world. Yellow and white gold leaf as well as Murano glass and Swarovski crystal were also common building elements. Clearly, no expense was spared on this building  I was very impressed with how cool the white marble was under bare feet, even when it was in the sun - much cooler than the carpet that lined the bins for our shoes. Susan and I were the only women in our group who were not required to borrow abayas for the tour which made me feel particularly culturally sensitive :)

Following the tour, we went to a 7 star hotel called the Emerites Palace for a food-coma inducing high tea. The menu included a selection of canapés, savory mini pies, sandwiches, scones, traditional Arab and other cakes, and lastly a warm chocolate hazelnut desert. The hotel itself also contained a shopping mall (suprise suprise) and was located on a stretch of property so regal that when we passed it earlier I thought it an actual palace. My mistake I guess. 

Tomorrow we meet the embassador and have a concert/master class for NYU Abu Dhabi. Time to work!


Penina is one of those amiable souls that makes everyone feel she has been their friend forever. It was quite sad to have her leave us this morning, so Kay and I managed to convince her to come out to breakfast with us before Kay's bridge climb. I do feel that I made a friend and am hoping to convince her and Cam to come visit Chicago in the not-too-distant future.

The sky was blue, but the weather was cold and windy today when we left the hotel. (We later found out that winds were gusting at 78 km/hour) As I saw Kay off for her Harbor Bridge climb, I morbidly wondered what I would tell Elliott if she got blown off! I took the opportunity to walk 20 minutes across the bridge and around the North side of the bay and experienced a neighborhood that had the hills of San Francisco and the iron-work of New Orleans, it was pretty cool.

On the walk back I went up one of the pylons (the towers at the corners of the bridge) and got to see the view from there - not quite as adventurous as Kay, but not bad considering the wind. After Kay's triumphant return (she highly recommends it, btw) we bummed around a street market for a bit and then took a ferry across the bay to Manly Beach, which is actually on the ocean itself. Despite the temperature and the winds there were many people surfing - crazy. Heading back to the hotel, we stopped in the Botanic Gardens and saw giant fruit bats (!) hanging from the trees before meeting up with Katherine for dinner. (Incidentally, Katherine was able to see a production of Our Town at the Sydney Opera House - not bad!)

It was tough to only have one free day in a city as fabulous as Sydney, but I feel like I at least got a taste of several neighborhoods and not-to-be-missed opportunities. Tomorrow morning we have enough time to walk and see the inside of the Opera House before checking out of the hotel and coming home! (Did you know I will time travel tomorrow? I will land in L.A. several hours BEFORE leaving Sydney!)

Sunrise Sunset

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 o'clock on Friday morning, seagulls (who were, I'm convinced, privy to the information that I slept with my balcony doors open to hear the ocean waves) decided to initiate a civil war amongst themselves complete with horrifying battle cries. As I lay there trying to decide if it was worth getting out of bed to close the doors, I realized that the room was gradually getting lighter and lighter. When I went out onto the balcony, the sky was pink and purple and blue - I got to see my sunrise! (also, don't be too jealous, but saw some whales as well)

The concert the night before was disappointing to say the least... We ended up being an unpublicized opening act for a trombone recital. Not to be immodest, but when you are used to playing for packed venues and foreign dignitaries, starting a concert with 5 people in the room can't help but feel like a bit of a let down. By the end of the concert the trombonist's audience was there and seemed to be very receptive to us and Katherine blew them out of the water with her rendition of Glitter and Be Gay.

Wollongong was lovely as a resort town, but we had to push on to Sydney where we did a masterclass for a University Woodwind quintet in this really interesting former church space. After enough of a break to start enjoying the amenities at the InterContinental (!) we played a concert at the Consul General for the United States' house. Other prestigious members of the audience included the Consul General for Korea and his family as well as the playwright Edward Albee. (!!)

Although we were all feeling the fatigue of several performances in a row, it was my favorite performance in terms of my playing because I feel like I got the closest to what Elliott wanted. The only slight fly in the ointment was when the Consul General's cat wandered into the middle of the room during my solo (Fugace.) We weren't formally introduced, but I have decided his name is "Thunder" since he effectively stole my thunder. Mr. Albee, however, was quite taken with him and was seen carrying him around the reception afterward.

As is Trio Chicago and Friends tradition, Elliott and Marlou treated us all to a wrap-party. This one was held on the club floor of the InterContinental where the service was spectacular and the view of the harbor was even better. I will admit to a sense of relief that all the performances were over, but apparently I was too transparent: at breakfast today Kay commented on how happy I looked the night before.

The Mighty Gong

There is a coastal town two hours North and East of Goulburn named Wollongong. To get to sea level, the always capable Penina had to navigate our large passenger van down a fairly treacherous cliff with switchbacks and the whole bit. I was disappointed to leave the free internet at the Best Western in Goulburn, but the weather in the Mighty Gong (as some of us have been referring to it with much amusement (and by some of us I mean mostly me and sometimes Penina)(and by amusement I mean mostly mine)) is fabulous with blue skies and rolling ocean waves.

We had just enough time to leave our bags at the hotel (ocean view thank you very much) and get over to UOW (University of Wollongong) where Katherine, Kay, and I were slated to do a masterclass. Being that it was a class full of singers, Katherine really led the class (however, true to form, I chastised one singer for not standing up straight - hmmmm anyone hear that before?) The kids were great, followed by a lovely lunch with Alexi (Public Affairs Officer for Sydney) and Lotte (vocal instructor) and a stroll up to tonight's venue which was through the Wollongong Botanic Gardens.

Those of us doing the morning's masterclass begged out of this afternoon's masterclass and enabled ourselves time to check into the hotel and make a beeline for the beach! This view of the Atlantic makes it easy to see why so many artists paint the sea: the colors; the motion; the texture. Being surrounded by such an expanse of it makes me wonder if anyone ever really does it justice.

Although the water is quite chilly, even as I write this from my balcony (!) there are surfers and swimmers. A casual stroll on the beach reveals the washed up carcasses of Blue Bottle Jellyfish which, from our understanding, are not deadly but are excruciatingly painful (one story recounted from Bill Bryson was of a man who was screaming even while unconscious from the pain.) We stepped gingerly around them and remarked that people would even want to risk going in at all. The surfers were even more fascinating because I had never really seen any up close. They looked like the boards were slippery pumpkin seeds that the ocean was trying to hold onto but couldn't without loosing grip and popping them up.

My plan for tomorrow morning includes waking up to see the sunrise from my balcony - I can sleep three days from now when I'm on the plane!


Our concert last night was at the Goulburn Regional Art Gallery amidst a 30 year retrospective of the Australian artist G W Bot. "Bot" got her nom de plume from the French phrase for Wombat which is le Grande Wam Bot. It was an interesting show - partially because the work was so varied, and the gallery served it well. Additionally, the acoustics were very flute-friendly so I was happy.

Australia's oldest inland city, we were told Goulburn is also the most intact (mostly because there has been no money to tear things down and build new.) It's a cute town, and we were treated to lovely meat pies for lunch and totally respectable Thai for dinner.

After the concert, a woman who has lived her whole life in Goulburn came up to me and told me about the first time she heard a live orchestra. She said that she was absolutely floored and sat there the whole time with her mouth open. Frankly, I can't remember my first live orchestral experience. It must have been in kindergarten at the latest, because I remember taking field trips to the Symphony as a kid. I was a little jealous that this woman had such a powerful memory and was so affected by the music, but of course the downside is that it happens in places where live music is few and far between.

Today is a very, very full day. Two masterclasses and a concert in fairly rapid succession in Wollongong (pronounced "wool-en-gong" as we keep being chastised about.)

On the Subject of Toilets...

Some might say I have an unnatural or unhealthy obsession with the commodes in other countries. To those people I would say, "You'd be surprised by what a country's bathroom says about their culture." I'd also say, "Don't knock it 'til you tried it."

Japanese toilets are pretty tough to beat: they warm your bum on a chilly morning; they can provide a recorded flushing sound for the pee-shy; some will literally squirt you where the sun don't shine. Australians are much more practical about their thrones... For the most part, they look like ours, except that they have a half-flush and a full-flush option, since water is such a problem here.

My two main, non-music related, missions here were to see kangaroos and toilets flushing counter-clockwise. Kangaroos? Check. Toilets? Sadly, a no go. All of the toilets I have encountered have just flushed the water straight down! No swirling around the bowl for these Aussies. Never you fear, however, I will find a regular flushing toilet before the end of this trip and report back on its magnificence post-haste.

Last night we played for a full house at the Wesley Music Center in Canberra. The hall was designed by an acoustic engineer and was a spectacular space to play in. A local radio station recorded the concert and will broadcast it at some later date, which is kinda cool. Unfortunately, I feel victim to the pressures of the recording and possibly some jet-lag and had the hardest time concentrating. I've had to play in some tough situations (Carnival of the Animals for three hundred screaming kids, anyone?) but it's hard being so far out of my routine. Stuff just doesn't work the way it's supposed to. Something I will have to get used to if I want to keep doing these types of gigs, though.

Afterward we all celebrated at a Turkish restaurant - who would have thought Canberra would be such a culinary capital? I guess it's because there really isn't any true native Australian food (at least not any that they want to show off.)

Today we head for Goulburn for the night, where we'll play at the Golburn Regional Art Gallery, hosted by the Mayor of Goulburn!

Embassy Row

Our first concert of the trip was today, and what a doozy. Rebecca Bleich (the wife of the American Ambassador to Australia) hosted a gathering of spouses for the Diplomatic Corps that included our concert (in recognition of Columbus Day) and high tea. I have to admit the adrenaline ran high for me today - but the things that worried me most were the little things that can so easily go wrong: forgetting a cut; turning too many pages or not enough; not switching instruments in time. Somehow, I survived (as performers always seem to) and I don't think I was even shaking too much. How different it is to play for 50 or 60 people of such prominence! What I didn't know at the time is how warm and enthusiastic they all were. In particular, the Ambassador's wife from France was very helpful in trying to arrange for us to get to France in the future, and the wife from Thailand kept taking our pictures.

The American Embassy in Australia is a colonial-style building built in the early 1940s, with dental-molding around the ceilings and hard-wood paneling. The ground floor has several pieces of Aboriginal art on loan from an Australian woman, and we all remarked how glad we were to have seen the exhibit yesterday so that we knew a little of what we were looking at. The Bleichs have a dog (Lucy) and a cat (Kit Cat) who made their appearances early in our rehearsal. Before the concert, Kit Cat singled me out as the only allergic member of the group and planted herself beside me and stared at me until a staff member hauled her away. It's a lovely house, huge house, surrounded by lush gardens and security that would make me think twice about trying to enter if I wasn't invited.

Mrs. Bleich was a wonderful, gracious hostess and as a thank you gave each of us a small Aboriginal painting on canvas. I know it is something I will treasure always and will remind me of this trip whenever I see it. (More immediately appreciated was the tray full of sparkling wine she brought out afterward)

Our liaison for this portion of our trip is a woman of Samoan and American heritage named Penina. Last night Penina and her boyfriend Cam were responsible for taking us kangaroo hunting (for observation only, jeez!) and a lovely Italian meal. Penina has spent her day today shuttling us back and forth, taking our pictures, and again taking us to dinner. She has been so kind to all of us, and I felt that she was especially supportive of me being the "newbie" and made a point to congratulate me after the show.

Although I recognize that it is part of the job description to smile and make nice with people, I feel like there's a difference between being cordial and being genuinely interested in the people you're talking to and enjoying their company. So far, the people I've met in Australia (both Australian and otherwise) have been some of the more genuine people I've ever encountered. It's comforting to know such a place exists.

Flora and Fauna

There is a tree near our hotel that looks for all the world like it's the "Whomping Willow" from Harry Potter. (Except that, as far as I can tell it's a conifer, not a willow) Every time I walk past, I expect one of its branches to grab my ankle and hoist me into the air. The other trees here are far less menacing and several of them are some type of eucalyptus, including many of them who shed their bark rather indiscriminately.

Since October is spring in Australia, flowers are blooming everywhere. Their version of a dandelion is this tiny yellow daisy that peppers the grass along the side of the road. We have also spotted azaleas and what I think were magnolias. Katherine stopped at this one bush that was full of little lavender flowers and quickly made a face: pretty but smelly.

A big, big chunk of Australia is uninhabitable desert and, with the exception of some rain forests and cities very near the coast, water is a fairly precious commodity. The grass is unquestionably scrubbier than were used to in the midwest and most of the trees seem to have smaller leaves with a compact surface area (or have needles which also seem to be shorter than I'm used to seeing).

Last night we were taken to the top of Mount Ainslie, a nature reserve and focal point for the city of Canberra. Apparently Burley Griffin designed the city with it in mind. When we called it a mountain, our guides scoffed the compliment off with the usual self-deprecating comments that it seems Aussies apply to Canberra. However, to our flat-lander eyes it was a very, very big hill and we were surprised to see crazy people running up it. The view of the city was indeed spectacular, and you could really see the "National Mall" way that the War Memorial, Old Parliament and New Parliament were all lined up.

This was lovely to see and we were about to be satisfied with just that when, low and behold right below the retaining wall we were looking over, there were 4 kangaroos! Just hanging out and eating grass in the manner of all extremely cool creatures who know they're cool and don't need to make any effort to seem more so. The closest one appeared to have something in her pouch, and we were surprised when a lady who was walking her dog passed not 10 feet in front of the 'roo and received no reaction. This prompted us to scurry down to get a closer look. The 'roo proved to be an excellent model, but truly seemed to care less that we were there.

Just now I was woken up by a bird outside my window whose song sounded a lot like a moderately complicated cell phone ring. The bird calls here are almost constant and many are quite pleasant. One, however, sounds like a whiny three year old saying "Ma!" and invariably whenever we hear that one of us turns around to located the distressed child. The birds don't just sound pretty, they are pretty - so far our favorites include a blue and red small parrot and the black and white magpie. Yesterday at Flouriade I saw a pair of black swans with their babies, but they weren't as good of models as the kangaroo and I didn't get a good picture :(

Today we will have our first performance, a concert for the spouses (wives) of the Diplomatic Corps and the Ambassador's residence!

Why Canberra?

Embassies follow a normal Monday-Friday work week, and for some reason they appear to be pretty rabid about sticking to that. So, we had the whole day off today!!! Katherine (soprano) and Kay (piano) and I decided to meet up at 11 to check out some of what the city has to offer. However, I ran into Elliott (violin) and Marlou (viola) on my way in from my run this morning and was suckered into rehearsing at 10am. There's no such thing as a free trip to Australia.

Our first order of business was to go to the Floriade - the city's premier tourist attraction. Floriade is a spring festival (yes, it is spring right now) where they plant many many tulips and other flowers in beds in the park near the man-made lake and then have booths where you can buy crafty things and fudge. Today was the last day of the festival, and many of the flowers were past their peak, but it was a pleasant way to spend the morning.

Much like D.C., Canberra's streets are set up like spokes in a wheel. By heading down one of these streets we were able to check out the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery. The Portrait Gallery would likely have been more significant to us if we were Australian, however, the first gallery contained portraits by Jenny Sage that were done in encaustic and of particular interest to me because of my father. The National Gallery had a large collection of Aboriginal art that we enjoyed very much. The National Gallery also has a very nice sculpture garden and we made it just in time to see the fog sculpture by the Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya that is only on for 2 hours a day. It was super cool. (New! Mom found this link to the sculpture garden, thanks Mom!)

Tonight we go in search of 'roos!

In A Sunburnt Country

As I write this, it is 3:06 am, yesterday. Before I left, a student's mother gave me the Bill Bryson travelogue about Australia In A Sunburned Country (thank you Katie B!) which I began reading shortly before taking off out of O'Hare and am now half way through. Mr. Bryson says "For me there was no January 4. None at all. Where it went exactly I couldn't tell you. All I know is for one twenty-four-hour period in the history of earth, it appears I had no being." For me, that day is October 8th. Sorry, Nora.

The flight from ORD to LAX and from LAX to Sydney and from Sydney to Canberra was as uneventful as a four hour + fourteen hour + four hour layover in Sydney + one hour flight - one entire day could be. When we passed through customs in Sydney the Soprano (Katherine) in the group was asked "Why Canberra?" This question was echoed by our cab driver a few hours ago as well as several other locals whom we ran into today.

For those of you who don't know - the main purpose of this journey is as a member of the chamber music group Trio Chicago and Friends (not sure if I'm a "friend" or not - I think so). Trio Chicago goes on approximately four trips a year as "Cultural Ambassadors" to foreign countries. In the past, these countries have included (but are not limited to) Botswana, Paraguay, Sudan, Thailand, and China. Australia is by far the most Western country the group has been to and I'm not quite sure what we can offer that the Syndey Opera House can't, but I am trying not to question too loudly. The group has a regular (and highly accomplished) flutist that could not make this trip and that's where I come in. We are in Canberra to start with because it is the capital of Australia (who knew?) and the location of the American Embassy. We will be here for four days, during which time we will play at the Ambassador's residence, conduct a workshop for students, and play a public concert of American classical pieces (Candide, Porgy and Bess, Caravan, etc.)

So, that's why WE are in Canberra. The why of the locals asking about Canberra is a little more complicated... Canberra is a young city. Somewhere around the turn of the last century it was decided that Canberra would become the capital city. They started with a blank slate, and eventually picked a student of Frank Lloyd Wright (Walter Burley Griffin) to design the city (nevermind the fact that his wife did most of the heavy lifting and that Griffin ended up leaving waaaay before the project was completed). The result is a city compared a lot to Washington D.C., but with even more green space and not all that much else to it. It's just not a tourist trap. In fact, it is so not a tourist trap that everyone seems to need to apologize for it.

Thus far, Canberra has seemed very nice. We are in an open-up-and-say-awesome hotel (glassed in marble shower anyone?) very near all the big buildings. Following check-in and a shower, we located a local micro-brewery that had a fabulous stout and respectable fish and chips. Tomorrow I look forward to a day of sight-seeing, and I've been all but guaranteed that I will see kangaroos (!!!!!!!!!!!) The internet is very expensive here, but I will do my best to keep you all posted.

Heartful Touring

Outside the Heian Temple there was a tour bus with a lot of Japanese characters on the side of it and two English words: "Heartful Touring." At first I smiled at the awkward phrasing and then I started thinking about what it meant to "tour heartfully." How would I remember this trip? Besides a suitcase full of music and the new skin showing through in patches on my hands, what was I bringing back with me from Japan?

I learned that Japan absolutely fits the stereotypes and is exactly what you'd expect (super clean, very densely populated) and the architecture is like something from a picture book. And yet, there's no way to be prepared for how close together the houses are or how green everything looks.

I was interviewed by apprehensive twittering Japanese school children on assignment to practice English three times. (Turns out, many of them list sashimi as their favorite Japanese food too)

I learned that I can communicate pretty well with smiles and single word questions. The Japanese, apparently, appreciate a good set of teeth.

I learned that United Airlines food is truly heinous. They are also stingy with the water.

I learned that bullet trains look kind of like cyclops with the lights as their single eye. They also don't feel that fast, but they are.

I did not learn how to use a "squaty potty." And that's okay with me.

I learned the difference between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

I watched Confessions of a Shopaholic, Last Chance Harvey, and Duplicity. I napped during the Pink Panther 2 (twice!) and Paul Blart, Mall Cop. (I also could have watched Confessions on the way back too, but I thought sleeping was more worthwhile.)

I learned that sometimes it takes the Japanese commitment to history and master teachers to preserve French music traditions.

I learned that Japanese students really respect their teachers and bow before all their classes, even if they're sitting behind desks.

I learned that no matter how hard I try, I cannot figure out which tickets go in which order when trying to go through the turnstiles in Japanese railway stations.

I almost learned how to slurp loudly enough when eating soba noodles. I never quite mastered it to be truly polite (thanks, mom, for all those years of yelling at me to chew quietly and not inhale my food!)

I learned to appreciate the Chicago ban on public smoking, especially when the "no smoking" section of a restaurant was just one table without ashtrays.

However, after taking the el for the first time again, I learned to appreciate the Japanese restraint on public urination!

I can now recognize the flavor of the "beefsteak plant" in all its incarnations, including a special version of Pepsi.

I can catch a fly with my chopsticks, while blindfolded. Just kidding. I need to see to catch the fly.

I learned 31 pages of new music, and relearned 19 pages. (not including Suzuki Book 1)

Above all, I spent time with some amazing people who profoundly touched my life. I haven't found a non-cheesy way to say that, but, I think I did tour with my whole heart. Fully.

Me and Mrs. Ishii

Sebastian's back (left) and me taking picture (right)

Sebastian at our last meal in Kyoto

Heian Shrine

On our last day in Kyoto, Sebastian wanted to sit and do some work at a small temple where several poets are buried (Basho among others). It was plain that he needed some time to himself when he didn't need to worry about whether I was bored or not, and I was happy to let him go. After breakfast we went in search of bento boxes for our separate lunches (no luck - too early) and I followed the canal North to the Heian Shrine while he went onto Konpuku-ji Temple.

The Heian Shrine is boardered on all four sides by main thoroughfares in Kyoto. Between the temple and the city lies a bigger garden than any I've been to in Japan. Within the garden walls, it is easy to forget that you are in a modern city until you encroach on the outermost perimeters and can hear the traffic noise.

Whoever designs the Japanese gardens in the States have really done their homework. Generally, the composition (particularly the zen fore-middle-rear ground idea) is spot on as far as I can see. However, there is definitely something different about being in a garden that was designed in the 1940s and one that was designed in A.D. 881 (with koi that I'm sure have a pedigree akin to "The Daughters of the American Revolution")

Truthfully, this trip is a wonderful opportunity to spend some precious quality time with my brother, but there is something to be said for sitting and being with your thoughts for awhile. When you are constantly sharing with a companion, it can be difficult to actually reflect upon your experiences.

Get Lost!

Monday was the first day in Kyoto that Sebastian and I did not get completely turned around and end up walking blocks in the wrong direction. It took us more than two days to figure out that somewhere around 2pm (dubbed "the witching hour" by Sebastian) our brains turn to mush and we can't be trusted to make sound directional decisions. Therefore, we tried to plan ahead and be somewhere contained and relatively harmless between the hours of 2 and 5 pm. I, for one, don't feel too bad about it, since we've been averaging close to 6 hours of almost solid walking before reaching that point.

One deterrent to accurate navigation is an abundance of discrepancies between the tourist maps, the actual street signs, and the fact that many of the maps don't include the Japanese characters (which Sebastian can more-or-less read since a chunk of their characters are borrowed from Chinese) and most of the smaller streets don't have street signs at all. As we learned en route to our second ryokan, even the taxi drivers don't really know their way around. (In that instance, he spit us out the cab with the equivalent of "it's somewhere around here," leaving us to wander up and down the street for about 45 minutes with our bags before finding a person who could actually help us with directions - a rickshaw driver)

Only once did we get so hopelessly lost (and grumpy) that we hopped into a cab and paid the six bucks back to the ryokan just to get our bearings. I'm quite sure that if we kept going the way we had we would have ended up somewhere south of Bermuda (though I like to think that reaching the shoreline from inlad Kyoto would've given us a small clue.)

Prior to the witching hour, however, we have done smashingly well and even managed to stay more or less on task and on the map. Sebastian is an expert globetrotter - the type of guy who has his passport number memorized and had to get additional pages put in that passport. He is also great to travel with, as easy going as I think I am (we'll see if he agrees...) and we both are happy to indulge the others whims to check out side streets and intriguing drive/pathways when the opportunity presents itsled (as long as it's before 2!)