Euro Tour #3 Follow-up Snippets

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I came back from my third Euro tour on December 2nd and got sucked into the cyclone of kids and freelance work and a steady bed and pillow. During my decade (plus) on the road between 1997-2008, this is what I craved: Consistency. A solid home. A routine. A family. But recently, after resuming some bi-annual touring, I admit that I come back home from tours with mixed feelings.

You see, after about a week on the road, my body gets back into the habit of sleeping enough. It’s also so familiar: the rhythm of travelling for music. I feel so at home on the road. The regularity of stages in new cities, the consistency of songs that vibrate in my throat and fingertips–it’s like a homecoming in itself.

But, when I’m away from my physical home in Beijing, I miss my children like a desert misses water. I come back to fill my arms with them and their laughter, their voices, their smells, their needs, their whines, their daily demands on my energy and time and I’m at once enormously grateful to be home and ineffably exhausted within two or three days. The spin-out of contradiction takes me by surprise every time. My bones, weary.

So, I blame the swirl of parenting life for the long blog silence post 3rd Euro Tour. Nevertheless, looking back, there are several moments worth recounting and I’m going to do that here in snippets. I hope these will give you a glimpse of the diversity of adventures I have been so lucky to experience.

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TIENGEMETEN (Nov 18, 2018)

We are standing at a bus stop, Yoav and I. The surrounding terrain is Dutch farmland in deep greens. Occasionally a car passes us. An elderly gentleman on a bicycle with a big basket pedals by, too. He greets us with a wave and some words in Dutch. The day is crisp and cold but as sunny as a child in a good mood. The keyboard we rented (and just lugged up the hill from the bus transfer stop) is standing up on its narrow end and casting a long shadow across the quiet road. The windmills in the distance are spinning. I’m blocking myself from the wind in the little enclosure of Plexiglas that surrounds the bus stop. Yoav is shooting a short video from the sidewalk. Where’s the bus?

Yoav is my keyboard player from Israel with whom I have worked, musically, for the past three years in Beijing. He’s moved to London now and we met earlier today in the Rotterdam train station. I’m so grateful he could make this trip to accompany me for my biggest (and first) show here in Europe on this tour. I flew into Amsterdam from Beijing yesterday and despite the swirl of equipment and keyboard rental and negotiating public transportation, I’m somehow beating any jet lag with pure adrenaline. We’re in as good a mood as the sky.

We soon discover that the bus we need isn’t coming on a “zaterdag” (which Google helped me read as “Saturday”—it took me a good twenty minutes to even attempt to read the Dutch signage). We have to flag down a different bus and the driver who turns out to be a blond, voluptuous bombshell. She kindly stops. We explain our situation. She sees our gear and urges us in from the cold. We have a ferry to get to just 5kms down the road before 5pm and it’s nearly 4. The gear is too heavy to lug on foot and so this has suddenly become a balancing act of kindness and trust with my lack of Dutch and the driver’s limited English, but it is all accomplished with a smile. She helps me dial the cab company. She talks with them on my phone and explains that she will take us to the closest stop from the ferry where her route will pass. This is the gift of Dutch hospitality once again—and it won’t be the last time.

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The ferry, when we finally arrive, is expecting us. However, they’re expecting a car and are surprised to see us emerge from a taxi. I had expected we could catch a taxi on the other side where the ferry docks, but then I am told that this island we are performing at the following evening has exactly TEN residents. Tiengemeten is its name. Of course, there’s no taxi service! I have to shyly phone the organizer and ask him to pick us up and he readily agrees, surprised. The next day, he tells the whole audience that he’s amazed that this mother of two has negotiated flying across the world and then Dutch public transit to make it to their little island without a vehicle. The audience laughs as I stand side stage, exposed and blushing.

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Theirs is a beautiful venue with fully professional sound, a lovely small inn upstairs to house us, incredible food (and they’re so patient with my various food issues—thank you!), and a full house of really attentive, interested and lovely people. Two sets and a standing ovation later, I am so grateful to have made the trip. It’s an afternoon show and so dinner happens after the show is over and they even prepare delicious Chinese food as the theme of the evening. I am in bed before ten. Dreamy.

On the Monday morning, I wake at dawn and take my body outside to run the quiet island. The mist is hovering over the many little lakes I pass. White-bottomed bunny rabbits scatter before me. Several deer look at me like I am a bland intruder before skipping off. Fingers of frost crawl across the puddles on the narrow road and large flocks of geese collectively call in the morning with their announced launch from the waterways in perfect formation. When I’m tired, I stop, turn around and gasp. I try to photograph the sunrise but my phone just can’t capture its perfection and so I just stand there, gaping, huffing from the run, happily held captive in the steam around me.

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LEEUWARDEN (Nov 21, 2018)

I’m not usually the right act to book in an Irish pub, but I’ve accepted this show in Leeuwarden, Holland because it’s important to make contacts, learn the market here, … try. They have accommodated us in a renovated old jail.

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Gab and I look at each other. A jail? We aren’t sure what to expect. Are they going to lock us up at night? I giggle about that. He’s a bit of a “shy guy” in life and so I think to myself that he doesn’t really need any more “solitary confinement”!

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He has joined me on the road and Yoav has gone back to London. Gabriel is my guitarist with whom I have done the most work this year, musically. We have even written some songs together. He wasn’t available for the gig in Tiengemeten because he was coincidentally playing in London on that night—funny that Yoav came from there to meet me. It was like they replaced each other in a game of “swap geographies.”

Gab played at the “O2” arena with a Kazakh pop star named Dimash. So he went to London as the first guitar player and kicked some ass for a huge audience first. Then he switched places with Yoav to complete the rest of my (little) tour with me. Our first gig together is at this Irish pub to a chatty crowd that is used to live music being in the background. And, as I mentioned, we are staying in a jail…

Has he been “sentenced”? (more giggles) Sentenced to a tour with Ember Swift…? (big clang of metal door slams shut… mwah hah hah!)

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The gig isn’t much to talk about (though thanks for this review, Richard!), but the jail is absolutely amazing. Fully renovated cells and it looks just like an old-fashioned prison from the movies. Double rows of upper and lower cells, central interior courtyard, big brick buildings looking suitably formidable and menacing. This place has it all.

These accommodations are definitely my favourite on this tour, by far. I would return to Leeuwarden just to stay in that jail again. Who knew it would be so fun to pretend to be a criminal?

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We are standing on a subway platform in Cologne, Germany. Everything is moving just a bit too fast. Our anxiety is on high alert. We’re heading to board a night bus for Prague at the long distance bus station attached to the airport. Worried we have missed the correct train, our brows are crunched. The subway system in German is confusing us. We look like lost puppies.

We played last night at a little venue called The Kulture Café Lichtung and the show was fun—I especially enjoyed the next band that played the rock room downstairs called Annie’s Style. Their energy and youthful enthusiasm made me remember what it was like to be starting out in music. And their tunes were great! While Gab dozed on the upstairs couch near the stage we’d just performed on, I watched their show grinning like a teenager. Later, a guy in the bar bought me a beer and chatted me up (always nice for the ego). When I mentioned I had two kids at home, he told me I didn’t look old enough for that. I clinked his glass rather too emphatically in response to that compliment. A mom needs her glass filled once in awhile, if you know what I mean. Right on cue, he bought me another drink.

But the couple of drinks last night don’t explain the current anxiety about these trains. A different consumable does: space cakes. Yeah, we are guilty. We bought some “baked” brownies on our transfer in Amsterdam…

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…and realized they ought to be consumed considering we’re no longer in the legal area for such entertaining edibles. Little did we know we’d become puppy-like and freaked out. I am so worried we are never going to make that bus…

That’s when the two Chinese women walk by. Picture us standing with all our gear. We’re looking up at the information monitors again and again to verify that we are going to board the right subway train. The entire platform is filled with commuters and a dull buzz of German spoken around me, thick in my uncomprehending ears. But these two Chinese women—as though it has been planned—stop right beside us and debate about whether they are on the right platform, what time they have to arrive somewhere, where to stand etc. Everything they say in Mandarin is crystal clear in my thirsty ears. Then they pass by and continue walking and it seems as though they have occupied a bubble of time that still hangs frozen before us. Gab and I look at each other.

“Woah,” we say, in exact sync.

Woah is right.

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PRAGUE (Nov 23-27)

Prague is a storybook city filled with castles on every corner, towers that seem to touch the skies of one’s imagination, decorative architecture from a time of great thinkers that can’t even be processed fully after passing by buildings for the tenth time. That is about how many times we walk certain streets. Four days in Prague and more than 10,000kms of walking a day. We know that city now, in all its glory.

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We are heading to an open jam tonight. We walk up the hill from our hotel with guitars on our backs and we have no idea what we’re walking into. The venue, just ten minutes away by foot, doesn’t even have a sign outside. How Gab found information about this place online is beyond me. The guy at the door sees our instruments and tells us that the fee is lower if we play and it includes “free vegan soup.” I smile. There’s a welcome that suits me.

The room is called Zizkovsiska Gallery and it’s filled with a collection of people who remind me of the bar scenes in the early Star Wars movies. Everyone is so distinct.

There’s a woman in a striped Cheshire Cat long-sleeved shirt that is under a 1980’s puffed-sleeve prom dress. She has drawn on a full unibrow with markers on her face. She grabs the mic several times to fake lyrics and wail as a “singer” on stage while the band jams behind her. What she lacks for vocal talent is made up for in some pretty good dance moves.

Her friend also dances in front of the stage wearing a shirt the same colour as her creamy skin and it’s so tight that at first I think she’s wearing nothing. Her breasts, braless, are perky beige masses that flow with her movements, some of which remind me of an old-fashioned clothes pin—the wooden ones with the springs—the way she hunches her back over and lifts her legs to her chin, each in turn. I keep expecting she’s going to snap herself.

Do we jam or not? This is the question. We watch for ages before we decide to go for it. People have greeted us and acknowledged our instruments, but it’s not a place for prearranged songs. I am not much of a jammer, but I decide to paint on my own unibrow of confidence. I stand on that stage—the only woman to strap on a guitar—and start a riff from one of my songs, make up some lyrics, let the bass player shift the groove and enjoy the camaradie of Gab up there too, always making everything sound better with his touch on the strings.

And the place lights up. We capture everyone’s attention. I feel the energy wrap around us like we are being welcomed into the freaky fold of Prague’s underground culture. The owner pointedly tells us to return in two days for their actual open stage.

And, we do. There we meet more characters:

The violinist: the super intense, classically trained, very self-critical prodigy whose music is so well-executed in a space that, by definition, requires little to no precision. He’s so distraught by what he feels to have been a poor performance that he apologizes to me directly, expressing shame, staring at his shoes. I am perplexed by this display so I compliment him, of course. Suddenly, he reminds me of a glass bottle stuck in a plastic ball pit; bound to be injured by clueless kids, but they’re at risk, too, if he shatters. Someone’s gotta fish that bottle outta there!

And there’s also a guy with the most amazing skullet I have ever seen. Several dreadlocks dangle down the full length of his back and his proud bald head reflects the stage lights. He’s a mean trombone player, too!

After our song, the owner offers us our own show in May. So, we take it. The next day, I write him an email thanking him for being so receptive and welcoming. He writes this back: “It warms my heart that you enjoy our space & the astronauts there within.”

That makes me laugh.

…And that is how the Czech Republic got added to our tour zones for 2019.

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NIJMEGEN (Nov 30, 2018)

Why am I so intent on this little town? Each tour has included it. I want to do more shows here. I have fallen in love with this little city and I imagine myself back in Nijmegen every time I go to Holland.

I don’t know why. Yes, it’s cute. Yes, the people there are always so gracious and kind and welcoming. Yes, there’s always a perfect latte, or meal, or conversation, or moment of reflection here in this town. But these exist elsewhere, too.

Nijmegen.

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One of the hosts of the lovely, warm house concert party—a member of the organization called ITATI—helps us get to the train station the next morning. Maarten wakes up early the morning after the show, drives to our nearby Air BnB and picks us up in the dewy 8-am light, helps us load our equipment into the back of his car, drives us all the way to the train station downtown… and then parks, comes in with us and helps us buy the right tickets before waving goodbye to us at the turnstiles.

Dutch hospitality.

Thank you so much.

Nijmegen, I have a crush on you.

(Can a person have a crush on a town?)

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So, there you have it: five little snippets of what remains in my brain a month after this tour. I will hold them like precious memory marbles until May when more will be created and added to the bowl of road experiences rattling around in my head.

Until then, thanks for reading.

~ES

Euro Tour #3

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