finland

Helsinki, Saint Petersburg, Napoli & Beyond

(Before my memory fails me completely, I want to try to finish my account of the 2017 Europe tour. Shortly after my last post (way back in February!), I left for Japan, and the blog fell by the wayside. But it’s never too late for now!)

Selfie in front of some rainbow stairs leading up from a beach in Morocco.

Selfie in front of some rainbow stairs leading up from a beach in Morocco.

December 10

After Malmö, Sweden, the next stop on my whirlwind tour was Helsinki, Finland. After a short train ride and a short plane ride and another short train ride, I wound up at Helsinki Central Station. I wandered around in a stupor, wanting to make the most of my one day there but feeling too exhausted to do anything. I had written down several sights I wanted to try seeing, but they were all too far away. I wouldn’t have time to see them before the show.

In the end, I decided the best idea would be to go for a walk.

I walked through Kaisaniemi Park, admiring the public art and withered roses. The Botanical Garden appealed to me but I couldn’t find a way in.

Botanical Garden as seen from Kaisaniemi Park. I stuck my camera through the fence to get an unobstructed view.

Botanical Garden as seen from Kaisaniemi Park. I stuck my camera through the fence to get an unobstructed view.

Then I went in a store called Music Hunter and got my dad a vintage button with “Great Balls of Fire” on it along with a piano, flames, and little flashing red lights.

I found the front of the Botanical Garden and realized you had to pay to get in, which wouldn’t have made sense for how little time I had. Instead I spent a long time loitering outside and watching a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. I’d only seen a couple of them once before, in Oregon, where they’re rare, so this was an exciting encounter.

My camera died and I guessed it was time to move on.

At Elisavet’s, preparations for the show were underway. It ended up being a huge potluck with tons of people from the Couchsurfing community and beyond — including Rhienna Guedry and her partner, who are also from Oregon.

I wish I had written about this sooner or taken more notes so I could say more about it! I played an hour or so of songs, and everyone was so kind. But the details are a blur… I do remember that I ate very well, and that the keyboard was a nice one.

December 11

After a few hours of sleep, I had to slip out quietly and head back to Helsinki Central Station. From there, I boarded the train that would take me, like Lenin before me, to Finland Station in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Fast forward past a fairly uninteresting train ride in the dark, followed by a nerve-wrecking border check, and bam, I arrived!

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Ah, Saint Petersburg. For so many years I’d longed to visit you.

And to be honest, it ended up being a mixed bag. Too much time zone hopping and too little sleep had left me frazzled, and the absence of anything resembling normal daylight took an additional toll.

I was also starving.

Fortunately, I had lots of rubles from my show in Kaliningrad, and I knew how to use them.

I took a cab to Veggie Box, a tiny vegan eatery in an adorable village of (apparently stackable) boxes stuffed into some sort of alley/courtyard situation.

On the way to the venue, I saw Moscow Station, Nevsky Prospekt, and the monument to Aleksandr Pushkin. A tunnel-ish passageway led me to the courtyard where Etobar (literally “this is bar”) was located.

The bar at the end of the tunnel.

The bar at the end of the tunnel.

Etobar was a cool, jazzy sort of place, though they were playing a strange twangy version of the Scissor Sisters’ “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” when I arrived.

I got acquainted with the bartender and a guitarist named Anatoliy Garkin while I waited for my show time. It was fun speaking Russian with them — I felt fairly competent, which was nice.

Evgeny, the person who organized this show for me, arrived from work a little after I started. The show was going well until I was in the middle of “The Sound Narrows”.

I wrote this song when I first met Adam — my partner of almost 6 years, if you’re out of the loop — and I was feeling especially homesick and sentimental at this point in the trip. So it was particularly jarring when my heartfelt performance was interrupted by a man who came up, laid a hand on my shoulder, and told me to stop.

“Блюз играешь?” he slurred rudely. (“Do you play blues?” with the informal “you”.)

I gaped at him, speechless, and he took the opportunity to push me off the piano bench. He sat down, struck a chord, and began to croon an old blues classic — “Let It Be”.

Anatoliy, whom I had met earlier, made a beeline to this usurper of the stage and confronted the man. Nevertheless the man persisted, and when Anatoliy tried to remove him by force, the man spun around and the microphone toppled over. I backed up to the bar and watched anxiously as they pushed each other around. The mic was down but the merch table still hung in the balance.

In rushed the manager, who broke them up before it could come to blows. In the midst of this, I met Evgeny, who assured me that it would all be okay, and the man was just drunk.

Once the man was back in his seat, the manager approached me and ordered me to go back and keep playing.

My jaw dropped again. “Is it safe to?” I asked Evgeny. (The manager had already zipped away.)

Hesitantly, I returned to the piano and resumed playing, but I sang timidly, almost in a whisper. It was a huge relief when I finally made it to the end of my set.

A more pleasant memory from the evening was when a woman came up to me after the show and thanked me for playing, telling me that it was her birthday and my show had been a wonderful birthday concert. She handed me one of my Incredible Distance postcards, where she had written a sweet note. I still have it, and I’m still grateful when I read her kind words.

The next two days were spent exploring Saint Petersburg. One enormous highlight was the former residence of the great poet Anna Akhmatova (see her work “Requiem” — I haven’t read this translation, however). Perhaps most special of all was the chance to see the angel in Palace Square and visit the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum.

When I was 13 years old, I was hugely into Scholastic’s Dear America and Royal Diaries series. Carolyn Meyer’s Anastasia introduced me to the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution. The next year, I got my nerdy little hands on an advance reading copy of Gloria Whelan’s Angel on the Square, and that “absorbing saga” solidified my interest in all things Russian. To see the angel on the square, at Christmastime no less, was a childhood dream come true.

The angel on the square.

The angel on the square.

December 15

After three days in Saint Petersburg, I met up with my friend Jack in Italy. We trekked around Rome for a day, saw everything you’d expect us to see, visited some Catacombs, then headed to Napoli, where we ate the most amazing pizza for basically every meal. (In between meals, I scarfed down many of Italy’s shockingly easy-to-find vegan croissants.)

On the morning of my show in Napoli, we took a trip to Pompeii, which was incredibly cool. (If you go, I do recommend taking a guided tour, just because they can tell you so much about what you’re seeing. When you guide yourself — at Pompeii or anywhere — it’s too easy to skim the placards or brochures and miss lots of not-to-be-missed things.)

An ass that won’t quit, no matter how great the catastrophe.

An ass that won’t quit, no matter how great the catastrophe.

I started writing my song “Pompeii” — the first single from Look at the Harlequins! — years and years ago, probably around 2010. (I have so many song ideas that I just haven’t gotten around to…) I guess visiting Pompeii got the old song fragment floating around in my head again, because it was one of the next few songs I wrote after all my winter touring.

The stage is set. Which pillow would you choose?

The stage is set. Which pillow would you choose?

Back in Napoli, Jack and I found the venue (after finding more pizza), which was a sort of community center. This show was organized by Luca of the Napoli Couchsurfing Group. He put together such a special event, and I had such a lovely time with everyone. There were so many sweet moments… Getting to speak Russian with a woman named Regina who was visiting from Venice… performing “Limits” with Jack in the audience (I wrote the song after Jack stayed with me and Adam in Eugene — it was the first song I’d written in three years)... everyone snapping along to “Sparkbird”…

The evening came to a close, and that show in Napoli ended up being the last one of the tour, though others had been planned. From Italy, Jack and I went on to France, where my show in Marseille turned out to be a logistical impossibility. Instead, we visited museums. We hiked through the Calanques National Park. We found a park with a pond full of nutria.

We parted ways there, Jack heading back to London and me going to Morocco. My shows in Morocco also fell through, in part because I fell in a huge hole — but I should save that story to tell at future shows.

I ended up back in London, where the tour had begun nearly a month before. I went to a vegan Christmas market, had my first London theater experience (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), and ate a Christmas eve pub meal with Jack and his family.

I stayed Christmas Eve at an airport hotel. On Christmas morning, I walked from my room straight to the airport, then sat on a bench writing a few last postcards before boarding my plane back to the US. When I arrived ten hours later, it was Christmas morning again.