Category Archives: Reporting from #fillintheblank

Aquitaine Central

La vie bordelaise est composée de beaucoup d’arrondissements très intéressants. Chacun a son ambiance particulière car le gens préfèrent rester avec ceux de même métier et de même nationalité. Mais souvent, les gens de tous les quartiers se mélangent dans la rue Saint Catherine le samedi après-midi. Il ne manque ni les riches ni les vagabonds. Les magasins de vêtements (haute-qualité sont complets, même McDonalds et FNAC. Pour les restaurants il y a Café des Arts à côté du cours Victor Hugo ou le Thai Box Minute et Mezzo di Pasta pour les goûts plus cosmopolites (mais pas trop cher). Puisqu’il y a toujours des gens le samedi, tous les artistes apportent leurs affaires là-bas avec l’objectif de rameuter le maximum possible de public. Vous trouvez des peintures, des musiciens, et parfois des jongleurs, donc ce n’est jamais ennuyeux là-bas. La vie bordelaise est intèressante pour sa variété culturelle, son climat, ses rues vivantes, mais sa plus notable caractéristique ce sont les personnes qui habitent là: sympathiques mais réservées, cultivées et pui ont le sens de la terre—ils sont inoubliable!

The Welder’s Torch

It is one of those nights where everything was supposed to happen and in spite of your best intents, the evening still turned out dull. The musician’s playing is unconvincing inside of a dank and cavernous auditorium. The director is underwhelming, mounting an impenetrable enthusiasm for a work that deserves no such credit. The audience is lukewarm and dodgy, dressed in their typical after-work street clothes and ready to go home for the night. After the concert the fog in the night can’t even commit, playing as a dark and wispy entertainer who forgot how to be wispy. And then the bullet-shaped blue and white tram in a mostly gun-free society pulls up, so the musicians had might as well get in and go home to cap off such a colorless night.

“Hey Jacob, why did Hitler kill himself?” my Israeli buddy inquires. Pulling out his handy smart phone he rattles off some of the best Jewish jokes he can download. I purse my lips and think about it. I even take jokes too seriously tonight. “Because they sent him a gas bill!” he cackles. Yanir continues to rattle off a few more politically incorrect jabs as the train rolls along. Prochaine arret: carnot-mairie de Cenon . . . Cenon Gare . . . Jean Jaures. A boring electronic message passes across the sign in the front of the tram car—Monter sans titre de transport, c’est frauder! “Merde,” je pense. I smile and acknowledge another musical colleague, the Spaniard across the walkway. “Que opinas del concierto?” I ask with forced enthusiasm.  She doesn’t appear too much more impressed with the evening than I was, but forces a friendly reply.

Prochain arrêt: Thiers-benauge. My friends are now practicing their French together, making fun of the unimaginative night and the conductor who pretended he didn’t drop his glasses off the podium mid-performance even though he really did. As we pull into the station, I see arms flying. A few people standing around watching. Fists clenched. There is an issue here, and two men are about to go public on my boring night. The doors open and their words and sweat and pride and pissed-offness spill into the tram. Their coats swirl around in the dress of a violent black and blue dance as they join the multitude of onlookers in the mostly gun-free society.

When I was a boy in some Jesus Camp Kansas City church, I remember being brought to sit and listen to numerous Sunday School lessons about all the Christian martyrs. The Apostle Peter died upside down on a cross; he insisted he wasn’t worthy to be crucified like his Lord. St. John was banned to an island of seclusion—probably for talking too much. John the Baptist had his head cut off in a jealous mix-up between a king and his step-daughter. Usually the lesson would move to modern times to point out the common people around the world who are killed for their beliefs. The message, however, was always consistent at the end: Would you die for your faith? Would you stand firm and not waver in the moment?

Certainly, this is one of the silliest questions humanity could ever ask, nearly on par with “How do you remove a club soda stain?” and “Why don’t black guys get white tattoos?” Its saving grace, however, comes when we really are placed in those moments of reckoning where a decision must be made and there is no choice in between. That is when an individual’s true colors come out and he shows the content of his chatter.

When Americans travel abroad, it is difficult to keep a low profile. We barely speak English, much less any other language. We tend to talk too loudly in group settings. . . well, any settings. We wear baseball caps and flashy gym shorts in public. Our fate and identity is often sealed before we even realize it. Once recognized, people tend to have opinionated reactions. We are either their new best friend, knighted with the privilege of being their new English teacher (bad idea) and Hollywood connection (worse idea) or their greatest jihad enemy, the central problem to global warming, and a snobbish religiously imperialistic globocop. Nevertheless, living in France is one of those few places in the world where traveling abroad as a Yankee can be a real asset. We share much in common culturally. Americans have burgers and fries. The French have wine and cheese. Life is not so complicated after all. There is a strong economy which promotes creativity and diversity. Americans and French alike insist on speaking the mother tongue and look down their nose at those who cannot or will not. They both export great musical traditions that have influenced and entertained people around the world. Most importantly, both France and America have maintained an openness to foreigners. This cultural diversity has fostered a youthfulness that keeps innovation flowing and avoids stagnation. Blacks, Whites, Arabs, Asians, and Latinos all live under the same flag, and although they might not always like it, they are better together than they are apart.

There are certain kinds of truths learned about one’s own country that only come from time spent traveling abroad. A tourist will vacation for a few weeks a year gawking and photographing their time away in a brazen effort to impress their friends with trinkets and tales upon return. They are happy to sample an exotic flavor and remain in the same breath entrenched in their comfortable lifestyle. The traveler, on the other hand, will hold his culture up to the microscope, take out his scalpel, and wait. He watches to retain only the best of what he sees and relentlessly juxtaposes his country of birth with his location of choice. Little by little, he cuts away the weak qualities of his homeland, embraces the strengths of the new, and grafts in the changes as he sees fit. Eventually with time, the sense of homeland washes away until there is simply a life lived for the richest risks and greatest opportunities it may bring. The traveler loses his responsibility to a land and blind homage to a faith and becomes a nomad. Home becomes his tent, his suitcase, his friends, and his memories.

So there they were, going at it as if Armageddon was at hand in that blue and white bullet tram. Their fury filled the area quickly; the walls pressed in to embrace the violence. A French woman weakly screamed and backed away hastily—her large black leather purse made it hard for her to move nimbly, especially in her pink high heels. People were circling around to watch. There was no time to think, only moments to respond. Just then, the man in the black jacket pinned his arms at his side, grabbed from behind the back. He flew into the crowd and away from his enemy, unceremoniously landing on the floor. My friends parted more or less like the Red Sea for him, gawking at this strangely lackluster night gone wrong and this man squirming his way past them on the floor toward the nearest exit. As he got out to circle around the window and renew his barbaric dance, the doors began to close. Pounding and spitting and swearing filled that ridiculously ammunition-shaped tram in a mostly gun-free society as they said their last goodbyes. An Arab woman with running blue mascara stood by sadly watching the two as they parted into the wispy night.

Łódź: Saxophone Face-Off!

Performing music in the 2nd International Saxophone Competition in Lodz was a learning and listening experience. I was the 7th player of 39 in my age group of performers who had come from as far away as Los Angeles and Tokyo. We arrived with hopes to win concerts and prizes. In the end of course, most people won nothing except a lot of fantastic memories and pianist fees.

Musically, I learned the value of playing with excellence, and how playing perfectly can be more important than playing with heart in a competition. I’m not convinced this is a good lesson, but it is the reality of the system. Also, obligatory repertoire is often poor music designed to see if contestants have the stamina to keep up with the rest in a manner as clear as possible. On the other hand, pieces can be chosen to revive lost repertoire or premiere new music. This is reality. After this competition, I’m convinced there are some pieces which may be better lost to history.

Politically, I learned that staff pianists will almost automatically play better for native contestants than foreigners, American or otherwise. It’s unprofessional, but they have the power simply by the fact that we’re on their territory. Also, the most complete player doesn’t always win, especially when saxophone teachers feud—students can get backhanded by matters out of their control. With that in mind, I still happily leave my congratulations to the final winner Xavier Larsson, the kid really played fantastic! The rest of us will get another chance.

Some people say there are competition musicians and concert musicians. You’re amazed by the competitor, but can never get comfortable and enjoy their musical offering. Leonard Bernstein always said he would rather hear an imperfect performance played with heart than a flawless mechanical interpretation. For my part, I want the best of both worlds: a musician who can play clean and also with fullness of depth. For me, this is the most elusive and rare of musicians and my own personal aim.

In spite of having planned the last six months of my life for this saxophone olympics only to have made a quick exit in the first round, I’m reflecting on the best. I met fantastic people, lived like a crazy man, made my personality loud, enjoyed every moment, and left no stone unturned. Travelling to such a contest always leaves room for risk. No matter the result, you must choose to be content with yourself as a musician and person. The very act of trying is a musical upgrade on your abilities. When it’s time, people will start to notice.

Tonight, I close with the words of American comedian and actor Kyle Cease speaking in regards to risk and reward in life. His words, of course, extend way beyond a saxophone competition to life in the normal world. I humbly offer them with the wish that you find the ideas as meaningful as I have.

Seriously, if you want anything, all you have to do is show up. Do what you do, and it will happen. Stop trying to get it. That is cutting corners. That gets in the way. Just do your thing. You keep doing what you do, and you can have anything. Only work on what you can do, and let go. Enjoy doing it in that moment. Stop monitoring while you are doing. Results will show up when its time. Also, the results will be bigger than you can imagine, which is why you should stop deciding how it will go. Want the ultimate career? Become the best in that field. People will notice. Want the ultimate life? Allow. Stop thinking you are in lack without that thing or person. Just create. Don’t know how? Good. Just start. It will answer itself. Just start. That’s it.

Location: Łódź

The more I read about the city of Lodz, the more I discover one could nearly write off the 20th century as a historical gaffe. Yes, Lodz is no stranger to difficulty and development, transformed by industrialists and investors from all over Europe who built factories there throughout the 19th century. By 1914, it served as the most densely populated city in the world at 34,400 people per square mile. The special chemical nature of its water supply allowed it to house the largest textile industry in Europe. It carried the dubious distinction behind Warsaw holding Europe’s second largest ghetto (and most productive) during World War II. As part of the Polish communist state, it saw its private factories nationalized and individual fortunes disintegrate. Finally, in 1990, as the Berlin Wall was falling and the USSR was disintegrating, Lech Walesa became the president of Poland in the country’s first free elections since the end of WW II. Again, life for people in Lodz suddenly got much more complicated. It saw itself restarted by a new regime, and of course, capitalism. Its corner into the Russian market was shattered. Its population was cut down, and its economic stability faltered. Although the country’s overall GDP exceeded pre-communist levels by 1995, 21 years later I still feel like I am walking into the aftermath of a meltdown.

zloty 3,80-€1 was the exchange rate I got at the Lodz airport, the obvious detail I noticed walking out of the international arrivals terminal. For a split second, I felt I had won the lottery. Finally, an exchange rate that plays to the $ instead of taking from it! As my taxi driver took us into the city, I quickly realized why living was so cheap here. I was no longer in the scenic lands of Western Europe, but rather in post-Communist Poland, a hauntingly real image of the not-so-distant-past. Lodz is a scary city at first. You see the run-down buildings, the brick scars on the sides where the concrete has worn away. There are skinheads on the street, mostly passive alone but intimidating in groups. I’m pretty sure most of the tram cars have not been replaced since 1980. When the driver wants to change tracks, he has to stop the tram, get out with a steel rod and push the guide to change his direction. Although the occasional skyscraper pokes its head through the rubble, the ghetto caricature remains—that is, unless you take into account the occasionally neo-gothic architecture. At times covered in grandiose archways and soot-blackened goblins, this city has no lack of striking architecture. It’s something where Jay-Z might walk past Harry Potter on the street—if only there were black people in Lodz. The only non-caucasian people I saw the whole time I was there were the Japanese saxophonists I met at the music competition we had travelled to participate in. Honestly, the beauty of this city never really meets the eye; there isn’t much to see until you start meeting the people. Only then does one begin to discover the richness offered here.

The Polish generally seem to be divided by generations more obviously than many countries I have visited, simply for the fact that most people older than my age don’t seem to speak much English. As a foreigner, that can be quite the challenge as Polish bears 0% resemblance to the Romance languages most Americans grow up studying. Being so dramatically different, Poles somehow manage to speak English with clearer accents than most foreigners I have met. I found it odd sitting in settings where at times nearly everything seemed American-influenced, but with a foreign tongue twist. I found Polish people to be quite friendly, free of grandiosity and excess. They are generally conservative in conversation and lifestlye, probably due to being ±88% Catholic. This is easily the most religious country I have visited in Europe, I could feel it in the air. People will go out of there way to help you, taking time out of their work to make sure your need is met, something I cannot say for many places in the world I’ve been to.

Lodz is rebuilding itself. There are shopping malls and restaurants installed in places formerly holding dilapidated factories such as Manufaktura, one of 19th century Jewish philanthropist Izrael Poznanski’s most notable creations. There is Leon Schiller’s National Higher School of Film and other academies, which foster a burgeoning student population. There is even music, a worthy endeavor in the city the great Artur Rubinstein hails from. I find a cultural renaissance happening in Lodz, in the midst of a global crisis which never really touched Poland in the first place due to its comparatively weak economy (think USA and Eurozone) and in spite of a generally uneducated public. I like this city because I see its citizens working to rebuild anew that which was destroyed by a myriad of obstacles—there is resilience here! Take the time to check it out if you ever get the chance, but take a taxi at night.

26 things I am thankful for on my 26th birthday, 26 November 2011

1. Google and Facebook and Skype. Without them I am completely disconnected from my favorite people around the world.

2. ScubaPro Regulators. They give people gills!

3. A Government. For all their mistakes, they still beat anarchy. Now if we can just learn to compromise…

4. Selmer Saxophones and Rico Reeds. Enough said.

5. A €2.50 bottle of Bordeaux red wine. There is really nothing comparable for the price.

6. World class composers. Now if we could just find a few more who will actually write for saxophone.

7. Generous people. I gratefully rest upon the shoulders of those who came before me.

8. Religion. Take the best, leave the rest.

9. Family. Without them, what do we really have in life?

10. Airplanes. It used to take 4 months to get from New York to London.

11. the Summer. #freezinginBordeaux

12. Friends. A true one sticks closer than a brother.

13. Ping-pong. The ultimate test of bachelor dominance.

14. Willis Hallman. My great inspiration in life.

15. American Football. It’s addictive and a great excuse to get muddy on a rainy day.

16. Education. Without critical thinking, we would be a lost cause.

17. Passports. They are gateway passes to the whole world!

18. Courage. To travel. To dream. To love genuinely.

19. Fashion. It’s amazing the things we will wear to get noticed.

20. Books. Hemingway, Orwell, Twain.

21. iPad. That silly little tablet is changing the world.

22. Music. It keeps people sane, or pushes them over the edge. Either way it is icing on life’s cake.

23. Spices. Paprika, Cumin, Cinnamon. Now wonder they used to drive world economies. Now I must learn to cook with them.

24. Hot Showers. Never take this for granted. It’s a luxury.

25. Women. They either make me very happy or or very miserable. Usually both at once.

26. Life. It’s a gift and a responsibility. Use it!

A World Without Plastics

After a nightmare 26-hour bus ride with the Alsa company, I finally made it to Bordeaux, France. Fortunately, when I made it there I found plenty of time to find myself inspired by two musicians, one of whom I met a few months ago thanks to a Google search and Facebook connection. Here are two people who make music for themselves and in their own way instead of catering to an academic system or predefined musical role. Imagine for a moment a young promising saxophonist who just graduates at one of the strongest conservatories in the world and is considering his next career move. Paris is calling. Amsterdam is booming. The United States is always an exciting option. Everyone wants a teacher who studied with Jean-Marie Londeix. What does the young artist do? He figuratively sells everything he has, rents his own flat to serve as his studio, and hounds the Chopin of saxophone composers to share the workspace with him so they can build a musical partnership. It reminds me of when the man found a treasure in a field and then went to sell everything he had so he could gain access to that field and get his treasure. That´s what these two men have done: left all the other distractions for seconds so they could access their ultimate goal of creating internationally-acclaimed classical music. It brings to mind how Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington were joined together. Their combined musical approach was a greater sum than their individual efforts alone. One would finish the other´s phrase and their ultimate connection redefined the way the world appreciates jazz today. In a significant manner, that is what is happening in a small wine-dominating people-accepting community just north of the Pyrenees.

In Bordeaux I found two men who actualize the words of Goethe for my life, “Treat a man as he ought to be and he will fulfill his potential.” They live in a world where anything less than pure excellence is simply unacceptable, as they quickly and generously showed me. Once a person takes the chance to interact with others who operate on such a plain, it is hard to go back to the same old ways. It brings about the birth of a new standard and a belief that truly anything is possible.

Crossing the border by bus between Spain and France is an immediate contrast for one simple reason: plastic bags. They don´t exist in France. Not in your convenience store, not at the supermarket, and not on the side of the road either. Once you get used to the inconvenience of only buying as much food as you can carry, you start to notice how things look different. The trees appear richer with greener greens and fuller branches. The fields appear healthier as if they have a new ability to breathe. Add that with rich rolling hills and the majestic wind turbines that occasionally occupy the view along the A-10 and you have a beautiful country that shines out without needing to travel to the tourist equivalent of a Roatán or Iguazu.

The amazing thing that you learn from visiting any new country lies in the moment you begin to understand the differences between you and all the other people in the world who live in a way apart from yours. They might speak a different language. They might consider duck liver a delicacy. They might not use plastic bags, and they might even make music in a unique and excellent way. At the end of the day, you come to realize that different can work too. Different is not always wrong. You might actually learn something from different. That´s why I admire Christian Lauba and Richard Ducros as two men who made a concious decision to do something different than the others around them and dedicate their work to creating fantastic music. Every day that their music is played around the globe realizes a testament to their efforts. How can you not be inspired by that?

Madrid and Midwest America: A Comparison and Contrast

Life in Madrid is in certain ways the same as life in Kansas City or Tulsa. People like to go out to eat and socialize. The bar or cervecería (from cerveza which means beer) functions as an important gathering point for adults of all ages. We rally around our favorite soccer team, Real Madrid, although it has a cross-town rival to contend with named Atlético Madrid. You will see people in the Metro who dress up nice and carry Bibles going to church on Sunday mornings.

Madrileños (people from Madrid) also worry about the economy and get upset and blame the president for their problems. Many people are upset with the government. They are concerned about Gadafi and Libya to the point of sending fighter jets across the Mediterranean to support the rebel cause. They honk in traffic and can drive agressively. They love the outdoors and enjoy hiking, even skiing in the mountains surrounding the region. Speaking of skiing, they have malls as well, one of which has an indoor ski park. Certainly, our Midwest equivalent would be the Rockies.

Spaniards enjoy music of most kinds from jazz to classical to techno to contemporary. Just about all of the fine art institutions and music groups are supported by the government, no Sam Brownback free enterprise music foundations here. Most Spanish musicians I talk to say the greater public could care less about classical music and jazz. I had a conversation with a music critic who told me until very recently you could get a Spanish doctorate in history without ever studying music or knowing who Monteverdi was with the first great opera, Orfeo. That said, I see a greater esteem for the arts than I do in my own home. Maybe it is symptom of ¨the grass is greener on the other side¨ syndrome. Techno music is hugely popular, and is the music of choice in discotecas. Justin Bieber is imported with gusto, but I can´t say the same for Jay-Z and rap. He is replaced by a strong Arab sub-culture here with hookah bars (not to be confused with hooker) and Ragheb Alama.

That said, the contrasts are much clearer to point out. Spanish politicians do not debate. They insult. Here´s how a chamber discussion will show up on TV: The news anchor on the government station will quickly mention the given issue at hand before the scene scrolls to the chamber, kind of like previewing a scene before a movie. The speaker of the PP, which is the Spanish version of the Republicans, will say something blatantly derisive about the way President Zapatero is leading the country down the drain, to which his associates may or may not cheer and applaud. Then Zapatero will get up and speak into his own microphone (all the figureheads have their own microphone) and point to a statistic talking about how bad things were before his party took control. The izquierdistas will smile and nod and cheer even more loudly while Zapatero wags his finger in the air. The President always has the last word.

Madrileños also love to go on walks. There is a huge abundance of parks in the surrounding area. Since summer temperatures can top 40 degrees celsius now is the perfect time of year to take advantage of the cooler spring season. Being one of the largest cities in Western Europe makes Madrid a de facto tourist destination and you will often hear people speaking English on the streets. It is a melting pot city full of people from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Morocco, Yemen, and America.

My particular neighborhood is quite odd. Definitely outside of the main tourist center of the city, it has the ambiance of a 1979 urban metro area. Admittedly, I have no idea what that would feel like being in my mid-20s. But I find it odd and slightly alarming the way people dress. Teenagers love to wear Converse with suspenders. The pony tail is still cool for guys. And the mullet, oh my goodness, the mullet. That has got to be the single worst hair style known to mankind. There is one particular professor that dresses in a green jacket with gray pants and cat-eye glasses, something I swear he got the idea for wearing out of my mother´s high school yearbook. If it wasn´t for the locutorio (internet café), things truly would feel like a time machine in this neighborhood. Mind you, the center of Madrid is quite modern with all the trappings of a cosmopolitan city. But I´m willing to venture that there are many more districts like mine where all the neighbors go and buy from the butcher and the baker for their food, the locally owned hardware store for odds and ends, and the jewelry store for their new watch battery. Walmart does not exist here. That took me a while to get used to.

Spain simply has not developed as much or in the same ways as the United States. People still operate with an authoritarian attitude in the workplace. There is little concept of a teamwork atmosphere. Some people I know would lay that at the feet of Franco and the dictatorship he wielded over Spain for a large part of the 20th century. Spain simply was not open to change and outside influence in the sense of competitive innovation and creative designs. Maybe that is just a Silicon ValleyWall Street concept. Now Spaniards live in a world where 1 of 4 people are drawing a welfare check and 20% of the population is effectively unemployed in a largely socialist system.

Spain is also unique in the way it operates in regards to matters of faith. It is officially a Catholic state, but one has to look deeper than the name. Coming from the Bible belt of the Midwest, I see very little spiritual or faith based influence here in the city. As I said before, it´s not to say I don´t see people who may go to church or read a Bible on the Metro. What I see is that the vast majority of society operates in a paradigm in which God does not exist and Catholicism exists on a similar plane as Greek mythology is understood for Americans. Ralph Waldo Emerson said the religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next, and that is what I see happening here. People here are more interested in Dan Brown and the DaVinci code than going to mass on Sunday. We still have the Holy Week and Easter. We have school holidays in honor of a patron saint. That is where it ends and the rest of life begins.

The differences between life in the Midwest US and Madrid are not clearly understood at first. You are in a new city and trying to soak everything in, make sure you don´t get ripped off, working to learn the bus lines, streets, and Metro system that connects your part of the city to the rest. You speak the language badly and making it from point A to point B is a minor success. It is only after you spend the time to listen to the people and their concerns, understand the news broadcasts and relax in building friendships alongside a group of people with whom you have little more in common than being at the same place at the same time that you begin to understand life in all its intricate details. And in doing so, you begin to understand your own self a little bit more.

Pantomimes, Polar Bears, and Mince Pie

Just got back from a visit with my extended family in the London metro area. When was the last time you shared Christmas with your Grandma’s sister’s family? It was an experience quite relaxed considering how well I knew them before. I had visited for a few days back in 2006 en route back to the USA, but this trip was a bit more extensive considering we all stayed under the same roof together for a week in the middle of the holidays. With any family, that kind of trip can get heavy but I must say we pulled it off quite well.

The most traditional thing we did was attend an English pantomime. Pantomimes are a strong Christmas tradition in the UK, and they are geared towards kids. The audience (adults too) is encouraged to interact with the characters on stage, usually in the form of cheering for the hero and hissing and booing the villain. Other common characteristics include the hero being a man character played by a girl actress and lots of jokes pertaining to current events (for example, Kate Middleton and Prince William). We attended the classic “Aladdin.” Although I’m not sure what it had to do with Christmas, there were many flashing lights, disco ball, scene changes, smoke and special effects, and cheering kids. It great fun and I thoroughly relished the opportunity to cheer and boo at the actors on stage. For all the fun and games, they were actually quite professional.

I went with Holly to the midnight mass on Christmas Eve inside a centuries old Anglican church. Outside it looked like the perfect scene for a Hollywood ghost movie with ghoulish tombstones and eery shadows cast by torch-like white lights outside against a cool mist. Inside, about 25 people gathered to sing Christmas songs and listen to my great-uncle Dan Mullin preach about Polar Bears and Jesus. He described how both seem so cute and cuddly when they are born as they pose in Coca-Cola commercials and mangers, but went on to note how much we shy away from them when they get older. They become stronger and more dangerous, capable of making us react and respond—not nearly as easy to control. Father Mullin reminded us that the baby Jesus came to change people’s lives for all of time, not just to pose for nativity scenes. It was certainly a unique way to celebrate Christmas, I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to take communion (a rare sacred moment in this whirlwind life) and read Luke 2:1-20 during the ceremony.

I spent a lot of time checking out surrounding cities such as London, Berry, and Cambridge. So much of it reminds me of the US and home compared to where I am now. Still, all I had to do is wait for people to speak and the accent snapped me back to where I was. My nephew of some sort once removed had a few laughs at his American uncle’s expense for his Midwest accent. Sausage and mash, fish and chips, mince pie, all of the food was great. The very fact that I didn’t have to worry about getting my own food was fantastic; I’m such an illiterate bachelor cook. Played a little bit of saxophone Christmas music and enjoyed some folk jamming with Heather on the ukulele. Worked often at keeping Scion in line and entertained, no small feat for a 10-year-old kid with more energy that he knows what to do with. I played lots of Moo; Bill Hallman apparently inspired Myrt the last time she was in the states to the ways of this slightly addicting die game. Saw some really good drama movies such as Juno, Walk the Line, and MacBeth (Shakespeare!).

No matter where I am in the world, my family is fantastic company. Thank you Mullins!

Marruecos, first-hand account

Tangier, Morocco catches me off guard because it is merely an hours flight away from Madrid. If I get on a plane in Kansas City and fly for an hour, I’m going to see something pretty similar to what’s in Kansas City. Similar people, same language, same food (but inferior barbecue), slightly different terrain. Madrid and Tangier are a world apart. Best for visiting in the summer, Morocco is to Spain what Mexico is to the US: a hot, slightly exotic getaway to a land where you can barter with merchants, the currency exchange is around 10:1, and you stick out (badly) like a foreigner if you have blonde hair.

A dynasty of thousands of years, Morocco is the worlds largest exporter of phosphorus and is known around the world for its excellent cuisine. Phosphorus is a homeopathic mineral used to treat circulation problems, hypertension, insomnia, and exhaustion. The herb stores in the Medina marketplace are high in variety and quality, certainly an exciting moment for anyone who pays careful attention to an organic lifestyle or enjoys cooking in general. The Taijín plate is a meat dish cooked in a clay pot. You have the option of chicken, meatballs with cheese, beef, or lamb. The pot is the key because it cooks very hot without allowing the juices from the meat to escape. The result is a rich, highly flavorful package that will burn your tongue quickly if you aren’t patient. The green tea they serve is the best I have ever had, bar none. They put mint leaves about 1/3 full in a teapot and heat. And serve. And delicious. And I should mention you can eat like a king in Tangier for 8 or 9 dollars.

The highlights of Tangier are the beach next to the port, the countryside along the coast, and the Medina. On the north coast, there is a hole where the surf has cut a massive opening which you can check out thanks to YouTube:ércules. Legend has it that Hercules slept there before completing his twelve legendary feats, and now the Moroccan coastline will never be the same. This area of the African coast is especially noteworthy because lies in the area where the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet. The highway along the coast reminds me of the NW coastline at Washington Slagbai National Park in Bonaire for its height above the coastline (120 feet on average), it’s busy hills, and sheer beauty. Obviously, the Moroccan coastline is a significant area of the world to control for its gateway to the rest of the Mediterranean. The Medina is an open air market filled with all sorts of living room antiquities, shoes, purses, jackets, pirated pop music and Hollywood movies, and pesky wanna-be tour guides. The market is an oddity because it doesn’t distinguish in the street style (most only large enough for pedestrians and the occasional motorbike) between the market area and the residential area. You quickly get the feeling that you are in an ancient urban labyrinth.

Many of the restaurants along the main drives have a single row of tables facing the street filled with men drinking tea and watching all the people who walk by. No women do this at all. In fact, there weren’t very many women in the streets in general. I realized I was definitely not in Kansas anymore when I slightly interrupted a Muslim convenience store clerk who was praying to Allah between sales. This is a socially conservative culture like many Middle Eastern countries. Unlike Spain and other Latin American countries, public displays of affection are frowned on too. Often I found myself approached by people wanting me to buy their package of chewing gum or anything else they thought I needed (apparently chocolate means drugs too).

What can I say about Morocco? I never felt like I was in danger as much as I felt like I was checking out a world completely alien to anywhere else I have been, much less the US. I barely got a glimpse of a millennial country in a few days but I will say they are people who deeply value their faith, want to have a place in the world market, have a thinly developed middle class, and know how to cook like nobody’s business.

The Parade In Spain

Today is the National Day of Spain. It culminates what has been a four day weekend celebrating people and different cultures with an overarching emphasis the contributions of Spain in the world. On Sunday they had a grand parade where each Central and South American country had a chance to bear their flags, play their traditional music, and celebrate their heritage. Naturally as an American, I think Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Rose Bowl Parade. Take a moment to reconsider with me how parades are presented.

The obvious difference is there were no floats. Not even one. The closest thing to a float would have been the cart they rolled along with each country group that contained a couple stacks of loudspeakers and maybe a DJ with a laptop. Surrounding this sound cart were dancers dressed in traditional clothing. Each group would come by with a white banner announcing their country and at least two flag bearers. The Uruguay group got a little excited with their flags and brought a third enormous flag that would hit you if you got too close, just to make sure we didn’t forget them after their stellar 4th-place World Cup showing. The Cubans were the most exciting. They had enthusiastic and talented dancers who knew how to get the crowd going. The Dominican Republic were well color-coordinated to fit the red, white, and blue of their flag. The Peruvian girls walked around with unopened wine bottles on top of their heads; some stacked two on top as if to say, “Hey look at me, I’m young, beautiful, AND graceful.” Beauty definitely has some different aesthetic between cultures. The Ecuadorian dancers had what looked like mini tents on top of them with bananas and meat and maybe some onions draped down the sides of the tent. I think they were supposed to be animals. My Ecuadorian friends were not impressed. They said that the group only represented the traditions of the sierra in Ecuador and not that of the coastal people.

Which, of course made me think about American Democrats and Republicans, Spain and the Basque Country, Canada and Quebec, Israelis and Palestinians. Seems to me like national boundaries often are like awkward marriages where it’s too expensive to divorce so the couple decides to live together, but in different bedrooms (thank you Brian Snyder for that brilliant analogy).

Anyway, it has been a four day weekend. I’m very ready to get back to the conservatory and started my regimen of practicing again. Lately, it has been two hours in the park just trying to maintain—time to get back to work!