How can I keep from singing?

Since performing in the chorus line of the village production of The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of seven, I have secretly/not so secretly harbored the desire to pursue a career in show biz…a rockette…Rizzo inMunchkin 19891
Grease…Dorothy…to be honest I’d have been happy singing in the chorus line forever… !
Now I’m no Rachel Berry (well duh, of course I love Glee) so realistically this dream was never going to be my reality – also the thought of auditioning brings me out in a cold sweat – but I can hold a tune.

It has only been since moving here though that I came to realise what I
enjoyed most about my brief dalliance with ‘the biz’, was singing. I dabbled in choir at primary school, winning an actual competition with our Joseph medley! This continued at secondary school. I even scored a solo singing MJ’s Ben, much to my sisters’ glee…see what I did there. So when a friend mentioned that she had found a choir that didn’t require auditions, and that joy of all joys they were running a summer programme called ‘Broadway to Beatles’, I signed up sharpish, along with said friend and another for good
measure – strength in numbers and all that!

Despite its glorious headline I knew we wouldn’t be recreating scenes from Glee, Pitch Perfect or Sister Act 2 (some of my favourites). I also figured our age would probably tip the average, but to be honest I didn’t care and nor did my partners in crime. Cut to our very first rehearsal and my predictions on demographic seemed spot on, though with the surprising (to me) addition of a sprinkling of under and slightly over 40 year olds…well of course if we loved to sing why wouldn’t others our age(ish), duh! So, we’re each handed a stack of sheet music (eek hadn’t had to read music for about 15 years, turns out it’s not quite like riding a bike!). Irrational fear sets in, what if everyone here is a professional musician, how am I going to sing from sheet music (I mean they do it in Glee but as we’ve already established I ain’t on that level), what if I actually can’t sing…! Then ‘boom’ I’m taken right back to being seven again – violin lessons, Saturday music school, ballet lessons in the drafty village hall – because in to my vision enters a woman. The kind of woman who commands attention just by entering a room. The kind of woman who, with just a ‘look’, can silence a room of 40 plus cackling adults with too much to say, and one who reminded me exactly of my old ballet teacher, the original school ma’am! Tall, slender and immaculate, though minus the orange hair and lipstick! She would be our leader, and though something about her scared the shit out of me (possibly her ability to tell grown women off without a second thought), it weirdly made me feel comfortable, I liked her immediately.

After a very American style round of introductions – where you live and how long you’d sung with their choir (some for over 25 years!) – we got to singing and started to make our way through the summer repertoire. Beatles Medley (no problem), All That Jazz (mini fist pump), You Can’t Stop the Beat (awesome –  always wanted to learn all those lyrics) then horror as I realise our formidable leader is talking about solos…! Now had this been a choir in the UK I’m pretty sure at this point, even if you’d thought ‘yup, I can nail this’, heads would have been lowered and eyes averted or at the very least you’d wait to be asked, because you’re British and you can’t possibly claim that you’re good at something, especially not in front of people. But this is ‘merica ya’ll and in ‘merica shit goes down differently. Hands were raised, people stepped forward and said they’d give it a try, wait, what!? It was so refreshing to see such non-arrogant confidence – and they were really, bloody good!

Anyway back to our rigorous rehearsal regime! It became clear pretty quickly that there was a reason our formidable leader needed to be, well, formidable. Because trying to keep 40 plus people (particularly women) focused for two hours of rehearsal is much like herding cats. As soon as we would stop singing conversations would begin, and because the majority of our merry band were over 65 what they thought were subtle, whispered exchanges were in fact rather loud ones. This was all met with hilariously cutting comments and quite frankly ‘looks’ that could turn milk – from our leader. Ever the goodie two shoes, and because I’m able to converse in whispered tones, I managed to avoid her wrath! I also came to realise that she had incredibly high standards and was notoriously hard to please. Now whilst this provided us with many amusing moments listening to feedback and remarks, that bordered on insulting, it also meant that we started to sound really bloody good. Summer progressed, as did the confidence I had in my ability to sing (mainly due to the fact that I wasn’t asked to leave), and before we knew it we were in the throes of performing to our ‘warm-up’ audiences at residential homes in and around Marin (very rock and roll!). It was amazing to see the affect our singing had on these people and hearing all their compliments afterwards.

Inevitably the day of the BIG concert rolled around. I’d expected to feel nervous but for some reason, knowing I was singing with others, meant no sweaty palms for me, no siree, I was actually excited!  Excited to sing and excited for our friends to hear what we’d been up to for the past ten Tuesday evenings. Knowing the high standards that were expected of us meant that we were all pretty determined not to let our leader down. The performance seemed to be going quite well, the applause seemed genuine, She even smiled a few times but what happened during our final song – a wonderfully happy, slightly cheese song, entitled Why we Sing – I most certainly wasn’t Singers Marin 1expecting. Tears formed in her eyes as she was conducting…whether they were because we’d made one too many mistakes, the fact that it was all over or our beautiful singing I’m not sure but she was clearly moved, and the fact that we had made that happen felt pretty incredible.

Since this first session we subsequently signed up for the delightfully named ‘Holiday Singers’ which I was desperately hoping would involve some sort of victorian costume and a lantern on a stick…it did not…it was dead Christmassy though! We then decided in January to join the slightly more hardcore ‘Wings of Song’ the repertoire for which scared me to death. I didn’t know any of the music so would have to learn everything from scratch…oh yes, I forgot to mention that we have to learn ALL the words and music off by heart! We also took part in a choir festival in Berkeley where we joined other groups to form a choir of 180 and workshopped with a Grammy Award winning conductor no less!

Now I’m not a miserable person, I’m generally pretty upbeat and feel fortunate to live the life I lead but it hasn’t escape me that this singing lark seriously affected my mood – it made me feel so happy, uplifted and content. And it turns out that’s not just coincidence, it’s actual scientific fact that singing makes you happy, and it doesn’t end there, the benefits seem to be endless. On that note I’ll leave you with some words of hilarious wisdom that were bestowed upon us by Alice Parker at the choir festival previously mentioned (turns out she’s a bit of a big deal in the world of choral composing!). She explained that she was absolutely certain war would end and the world could live in peace if only, at the first sign of conflict, the countries involved would immediately swap children’s choirs!!

 

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A Tale of Two Cities – London meet San Francisco

A short time ago it was put to me, by an LA taxi driver, how great it must have been to have moved from London to San Francisco, because he imagined the two cities were very similar… . I found myself nodding along, as you do, but then I checked myself and half said half shouted ‘NO!’, a little too abruptly. He looked a little frightened, and I quickly scrambled to explain myself, apologising for my less than polite outburst, as only a Brit can. But I desperately wanted him to know that, while it was great that we were able to make the move to SF (ish – we live just outside), the two cities, and the people that live there, in my opinion weren’t similar at all!

We left London after a fairly long stint, slightly exhausted and frazzled by the monotonous commute, endless grey days, the cost of living and lovely but grumpy people always ready to give you hell for no good reason whatsoever! We had fallen out of love with it and we certainly weren’t making the most of being there. We completely took for granted all of the wonderful things that make it unique.

We arrived in San Francisco’s Bay Area very ready for change. A change in pace, lifestyle…weather. What we found was exactly that. We carved out our own Californian life, and we’re probably a bit healthier, a bit more positive and a bit less likely to give someone hell if they were to accidentally bump in to us! That said, each time I’ve visited London since leaving, it has surprised and thrilled me – I have got the love back!

I guess this must have been why I was so determined to make sure that my LA taxi driver knew what set the two cities apart…in my opinion. So I’ll explain to you some of what I explained to him, though probably slightly more eloquently and in a less shouty voice. First things first though. I love them both. I love them both in different ways and for different reasons.

London

  • Art – In spades. Museums full of the stuff, literally bursting at the seams with archives so extensive that there will never be an end to what can be seen, and the best bit is it’s FREE.  I cannot express how fortunate we are in the UK to have so much exposure to the arts. Whether that’s seeing it in museums. FREE museums. Or being taught it at school. I recently found out that art isn’t a ‘required’ part of the curriculum here in California – what a shocker!Vass Land London Private View  David Hockney Arrival of Spring
  • Fashion -A fellow British immigrant once described walking through a bar in SF only to be looked up and down by a group of ladies who smirked and giggled at her outfit – a pretty average high waisted skirt, heeled boots etc.  She noted that they were all wearing what seems to be the standard uniform of skinny jeans and converse, and they made it pretty obvious that they were not too impressed that she had dared to push these boundaries. Now, people are usually pretty friendly here so I wouldn’t say that this is typical behaviour, but it kind of illustrates my point. To ‘dress-up’ here is not the norm. It’s acceptable to wear your gym clothes to a restaurant and a heel is rarely seen (possibly on account of all the hills!). Anyway, I totally took for granted that London is so cutting edge and accepting when it comes to fashion, and that it is accessible to pretty much everyone. That even the high street stores have their runway ripoffs. That it is ok to experiment and that it is ok to try something new without being ridiculed.
  • Public Transport – I used to whinge about tube strikes, the central line, late buses, cancelled trains but now…oh how I long for the Piccadilly line and the number 38 bus!
  • NHS – perhaps more of a general UK thing but, I miss it. The freedom and security of being able to see a doctor with no self-diagnosis necessary…priceless…literally. And knowing that, at said doctors appointment, you won’t run the risk of paying for tests or medication that you don’t necessarily need.

SF (ish)

  • it doesn’t feel like a city – well not as I think of a city. It feels more like a town or a group of conjoined villages, all different in their own way. It doesn’t have the same massiveness of London or New York. It doesn’t have that, sometimes slightly, lonely/exciting feeling that you could get lost at any moment. It’s more gentle, laid back, quiet. Kind of like a beginner city…I hope that’s not taken as an insult…it’s certainly not meant to be.
  • landscape – It’s amazing. This city, seven-by-seven-miles, and at the tip of a peninsula. A writhing ocean on one side and a turbulent bay on the other. A city whose limits include rocky islands surrounded by great white sharks and a prison perched on top of an island. A city built on hills so huge that, when looking back at it from the bay, you double take gobsmacked that the skyline in front of you is actually real.
  • location – I don’t think the number of truly incredible places that we’re lucky enough to have on our doorstep will ever get old. From giant redwood trees, stunning stretches of coastline and the rolling hills of wine country to the lake and mountains at Tahoe, epic landscape of Yosemite and mysterious Farallon Islands.Farallones
  • innovation – I’ve come to realise that the tech industry and Silicon Valley (just a few miles south of SF) is met with the same ‘love it or hate it’ attitude, by locals, as Marmite. My feelings are mixed. Perhaps because I’m not local and so have the advantage of seeing it from both sides, without the emotion. That said, one of the things I do love about living here is the thrilling feeling that something’s always on the verge of being discovered!

So this is how I see it right now, after living here for just over two years. I do wonder whether I’ll feel the same a few more years down the line…I’ll keep you posted!

 

Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies

WCinco_de_Mayo,_1901_posterith a move from London to California came a whole new calendar of  holidays. One of those is today ‘Cinco De Mayo‘ – ‘5th of May’ in Spanish.  Now you don’t actually get the day off but they make a bit of a song and dance about it…literally.  In the US Cinco De Mayo is a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage though the day actually commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Right, that’s the history lesson over for the day (phew!) though you can read more about it here if you’re feeling particularly studious.

IMG_20150504_151327258Anyway, as with most holidays, I usually get most excited by their inevitable relationship to food. So when He told me they were having a bbq at work to celebrate and that everyone had to bring something I felt that was my cue to get on Pinterest… .  I wanted to avoid anything high profile as I’ve come to realise that people are quite particular about their Mexican food here and didn’t want to cause Him any unnecessary embarrassment by getting it wrong, so I thought I’d try my hand at something sweet. I’ve made these Mexican Hot Chocolate Cupcakes before but I needed to make something that would stand up to the sunshine. That’s when I hit upon a recipe for Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies – genius! Granted, they are by the very un-Mexican Martha Stewart (with a few of my own tweaks) but they are very addictive and pretty easy, considering my aversion to baking.

For those of you that are interested here’s a link to the recipe I used and below are the things I did slightly differently.

  • I used 1 cup of white sugar and 1/2 a cup of soft brown sugar in the cookie dough mixture.
  • Double roll the cookie dough to give a bit of an extra kick.
  • If you like the idea of a little more spice, sprinkle the remaining sugar and spice mix over the top of the baked cookies, once they’ve cooled.
  • For those that don’t measure in cups this article with conversions from cups to grams is pretty handy.

Enjoy!

 

Friendtrips

Point Lobos State Reserve California

You spend years forming friendships, people come and go, so by the time you hit your 30’s the bunch of misfits you’ve naturally selected over the years are friends for life…they’re not going anywhere.  Then you go and move half way around the blinkin’ world and find yourself without…no-one to go for a drink with after work, invite for dinner, go for brunch, girls night, play rounders with in the park(!).  So you start from scratch, take a deep breath, and put yourself out there hoping that some of those you meet aren’t complete nobbers!  Two years on (literally to the day) and we have thankfully met some great people here and made a few friends.

So, when one of these new found friends decided to up sticks and move to NYC, explaining that she planned to drive there – oh sure it’s only 3000 miles (actually her chosen route was over 4000 as it turned out)! – and invited me to join her for the first leg of the journey I wasn’t going to say no.  It felt like a big deal, her leaving, so to mark it by doing something big (ish) seemed a fitting way to say goodbye, for now.

Our road trip began in Monterey at the patio bar of the InterContinental hotel which was all Bloody Mary’s, white wine spritzers and chat about whether the guy playing the acoustic set actually had ‘the voice of an angel’ or whether in fact it was his dazzling smile that we were wow’d by! That night we ate at Hula’s, a brilliant place with the most amazing fish soup I ever had – seriously if you ever find yourself in Monterey go there, and then prepare for the food coma that follows!

Day two and we drove, Thelma and Louise style, to Point Lobos for a ‘hike’. I say ‘hike’ because I have come to realise that in California ‘hike’ is used to describe pretty much any type of walk and that ‘hiking trails’ are usually clearly outlined paths (sometimes paved) that just happen to be in an area of natural beauty. I will therefore describe our jaunt that day, slightly less dramatically/American, as a walk. This aside it was completely beautiful. The ocean was the colour of blue Gatorade and the views incredible – apparently “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world”.

cinderella motel hollisterDay three we headed inland, towards Sequoia National Park, via Hollister. I’m not sure what we expected from Hollister but apart from a few cool old buildings it seemed a bit dead.  We did however come across The Cinderella Motel which looked uhmazing! Complete with Cinderella dolls lined up in the window, a small model carriage out front and themed rooms we thought it would have made a wonderfully tacky overnighter!

General Sherman Tree Sequoia National ParkWe finally arrived in Three Rivers, just outside the park, and headed straight in like a couple of tourists in our shorts and t-shirts – neither of us thinking to check the weather.  As we drove higher and higher the temperature dropped lower and lower and on seeing the remnants of the last snowfall we started to worry that we perhaps hadn’t quite dressed appropriately. We would not be deterred from our mission however, to see the largest tree in the world.  Sure enough on leaving the cosy confines of the car we were greeted by a freezing blast of air and scrambled to put on whatever clothes we had, which caused a ripple of stifled laughter from some other, better equipped visitors! Another ‘hike’ led us towards the afore mentioned tree – The General Sherman.  As we approached it really didn’t look that impressive, we were all like ‘I’m sure I’ve seen bigger at Muir Woods‘ and ‘there are definitely bigger ones in New Zealand‘ blah blah.  What a pair of complete morons, as if some scientist had got the measurements wrong! Anyway, as we arrived at the base we both fell silent (finally!), it was an absolute beast, you had to practically lean at a 45 degree angle to see the whole thing. Needless to say we took loads of photos, none of which really capture its true size but hopefully these give you some idea.

Day four we head south, through more of the park and on to Bakersfield. Not the most inspiring place on paper but we made the most of it.  Home to the worlds largest shoe (apparently) and The Kern County Museum.  Kind of a living history jobby with a whole village of historic buildings, from dentists to jails, that depict the life of early Californians. We thought it was pretty cool…not sure what that says about us! Our home for the night was the recently renovated Padre Hotel, the newest but oldest hotel in Bakersfield, which first opened in 1928. If you find yourself passing through, I’d definitely recommend a stay.

Day five and it was further inland towards Las Vegas. We power through, amusing ourselves by looking for weird and wonderful things to see along the way. Then we see a sign for Peggy Sue’s Roadside Diner, quickly google it and decide ‘we HAVE to stop’. If, like me, you feel you grew up in the wrong era you will love this place. It’s a totally legit 50’s diner. So with great joy I perched at the counter telling myself that, though not totally out of the question, it was pretty unlikely that at any moment the entire place would break out in to a Grease style song and dance medley – can you only imagine! It was all I could do to remain cool, desperate to order “a double Polar burger wit’ everything and a cherry soda wit’ chocolate ice cream” (Grease ref. for those not in the know), I settled for a hamburger and coke!

Worlds Largest Thermometer Baker California

After all this excitement our journey continued towards another roadside gem…The World’s Largest Thermometer, in Baker. After prancing around taking a few pictures and venturing in to the gift shop for a chat with a giant vulture we were pretty giddy which, as it happened, was set to continue because on leaving Baker we happened upon the Alien Fresh Jerky store…only in America!

Some time later and we see Vegas on the horizon. A drive down the strip to see The World’s Largest Coke Bottle (of course!) would mark the end to this first leg of her journey and my departure.  And so after five glorious days of sights seen, world’s largest’s visited, burgers eaten, margaritas drunk and 650 miles driven, we bid each other farewell (sad face).

 

 

where to begin…

Since moving here we’ve managed to cram in a whole heap of stuff – I should have started this baby ages ago – so to bring things up to date I thought I might do a bit of a run down of some of the highlights! Imagine it kind of like one of those cheesy end of year tv specials but without the ad breaks.

One of the lures of moving here was that we would live only 20 minutes away from this (left) and three and a half hours away from this (right). The novelty hasn’t worn off yet…I’m not sure it ever will.

Coachella = Awesome…that is all…2015 tickets are booked.

So after surfing here for almost a year, in freezing cold Norcal water, we decided for our honeymoon we wanted to try surfing in warmer waters. Hawaii seemed like the obvious choice but when our surf instructor, turned friend, affectionately referred to as ‘surfer Dave‘, mentioned he was headed to Costa Rica and that we should join him, we were sold!

Camping on the Sonoma Coast. Totally seduced by the idea of flinging open our tent flaps to be greeted by these views.

We pitched our tent on the edge of a cliff.  Needless to say as our eyes drank in the amazing view they were also slowly blinded by the bucket loads of sand being whipped in to them by, what I’m certain could only be described as, gale force winds! Note to self, next time pitch better!

Yosemite is an incredible place, it literally looks like the set of a prehistoric movie. We were totally in awe and can’t wait to go back, though perhaps not in September – 107F made for a pretty sweaty few days.

We have come to realise that the US loves admin – fact. So after completing endless forms, medical tests, retina scans, fingerprinting and after proving that our marriage was not a sham…our Green Card arrived!

hardly strictly bluegrass San Francisco

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – we were told it was one of the things you have to do in San Francisco before you die…we now know why. Highlights included St. Paul & the Broken Bones, chips (fries, if we’re going all American) dipped in vanilla milkshake and ‘special’ strawberries. We took the visiting parentals along too, they loved it!

 

I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to armistead maupin tales of the citybooks and have been known to forgo meals in order to finish a particularly compelling story. So when a fellow immigrant recommended Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City, I was instantly hooked and busted through the whole series. If you’ve not read them then do it, now! Turns out it was also made in to a miniseries AND he’s just released the final book in the series, oh joy!

Beach Blanket Babylon San FranciscoBeach Blanket Babylon is a San Franciscan institution and ‘the longest running musical revue in theatre history’  no less.  I’d wanted to see it before we even moved here. ‘Spectacular’ is one word I’d use to describe it and ‘awesome’ another. Even the very skeptical male company, convinced to join us with the lure of Italian food and wine, thought it was ‘bloody brilliant’.

 

So many lovely things and many more besides.