Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Big cream taxi: On tour with The Monochrome Set in Holland and Germany - Part 2

Not even mid-December, and Santa has had enough of Xmas!
So Christmas has been and gone since my last post...I didn't agonise about the turkey nearly as much as in previous years, and it was surprisingly succulent all the way through. It did take me ages to get everything together, mind, and Truffle could have been...ahem!...a bit more hospitable to my guests, but on the whole things turned out fine.

Then today has been spent replacing blown light bulbs and troubleshooting a myriad of stains and dirt: from mud on a bike to spilt wine on the carpet (my overexuberance while watching an Agatha Christie), to adhesive marks on a lamp, tea stains on a door, and sundry food splatter on pretty much every kitchen surface. And on a favourite top...So you can readily imagine that writing Part 2 of my tour report was preferable to soldiering on with a panoply of futile solvents, including 'Still There!' (aka Vanish) and surgical ('God help me if I was actually ill rather than just removing glue') spirits.

As in Part 1, I shall stick with the thematic format...

Seat number Sudoku

One of my jobs as 'Logistics Manager' was to marshal the troops on the exact spot of the correct platform where our train was going to pull up, thereby minimising aimless walking around railway stations encumbered with gear and luggage. With everyone in one place, I then proceeded to call out the numbers of our seat reservations, so that if our party got split up during the inevitable melee of boarding the train, we would all know where to aim for. The act of committing these seven numbers to memory became known as 'seat number Sudoku', which we agreed was a helpful plank of our collective dementia-deferring strategies.

Leipzig Hauptbahnhof

You can whistle for Bachpfeiffen

One of the more unusual missions with which I was entrusted on this trip was to track down a box of Bachpfeiffen - a chocolate speciality from Leipzig in the shape of organ pipes! As the name suggests, they are a tribute to the composer Bach, who worked in the city and is buried in the Sankt Thomas Kirche. The singer had the bright idea of getting some to give as a birthday present to the keyboard player, whose instrument is after all an electronic relative of the organ, and whose birthday coincided with our visit to the city. A spot of googling fetched up two outlets for this chocolate novelty, both in the old town. I secretly briefed the taxi driver to make a detour to the more accessible of the two shops en route to the station, and, with the singer a few steps behind me, I hurtled in, breathlessly demanding that the two sales assistants produce their Bach-themed wares at the double. My urgent, panting request was met with a look of disdain and the curt explanation that Leipzig's most celebrated souvenir had been discontinued 18 months ago. Well, so much for the Tourist Board's website being bang up-to-date.

Source: Geschenkkorb-laden.de

There was a further chocolate-related disappointment later in the trip...here is the singer, off duty in Hamburg and looking every inch the Milk Tray Man, minus the all-important chocolates! I daresay you could cadge a cigarette off him, but that's about it.

Assorted closed things

This complete dearth of Bachpfeiffen leads me neatly on to my topic of 'closed things', starting with the railway station in Holland where we were headed on the first day. It is a suburban stop in Utrecht called Zuilen, and has the advantage of being bang next to the venue. The Belgian national rail company had, moreover, sold us seven tickets to this specific destination. In hindsight they may have done so out of mischief, as Zuilen station is currently closed, not unlike Mornington Crescent tube station in the 90s. Anyway, that realisation prompted the first of our many requisitions of a big cream taxi...

Source: Wegenforum.nl

Later, on the band's day off in Hamburg, we trooped en masse to the seaside - I hesitate to call somewhere so cold a 'resort' - of Blankenese. There would have been serious shopping potential in the many festive-looking gift shops, however, owing to their luxuriously long lunch breaks of up to three hours we ended up buying nothing and taking silly photos by the sea instead.

The bass player doing a fine impersonation of The Invisible Man

Before I went away, when I mentioned where I was headed to friends, most would immediately pipe up: 'Ooh, all those Christmas markets!' And sure enough, that was one of the aspects of the tour to which I was most looking forward, not least for their excellent Christmas shopping opportunities. Ironically - and most tantalisingly - we did not manage to make it to a single Christmas market in any of the six towns and cities on our itinerary. Or rather we made it to one moments after it had shut for the evening, and to another while it was still closed in the morning - but comprehensively failed to coincide with any markets during their opening hours.

By way of compensation, in Weikersheim the band decided to stage a nativity scene of their own, in which the Three Wise Men offer the baby John Paul gifts of gold (a bauble nicked from a nearby unmanned market stall), 'He's Frankincense', and fur.

Gnomes a gogo

We may have been foiled at every turn in the Christmas market department, but we didn't go short of gnome statuary on this trip - in Weikersheim at least, dotted around the Lustgarten (sic).

There were even one or two 'personalised' gnomes: a drummer for the drummer, and a lady gnome who was clearly empathising with me over the fact that I had left my phone charger in Hamburg.

Incestuous intra-band device lending

So yes, much to my alarm I left my phone charger plugged into the wall of my hotel room in Altona (that's room No 3 for anyone keeping scores). I need not have worried though, for having gone over to the dark (as in Android) side, there were now about five people in our party who had compatible chargers, and I ended up borrowing one off Dave, the husband in the husband and wife merchandise team. Meanwhile, the singer had pulled his phone charger out of the wall, but accidentally left his adapter behind, so I lent him one of my two adapters for the remainder of the trip. And lastly, the keyboard player lost his mouse somewhere along the way - which he had been using to programme special effects during the gig, I infer - and was delighted to borrow the one I was using with my netbook. On the last day, somewhere between Cologne and St Pancras, devices were duly returned to their rightful owners.

Dry ice in the house

I have just googled 'dry ice' to check that it IS dry ice that creates those smoke effects on stage, and learnt that there are in fact many ways to skin the 'theatrical smoke, fog and haze' cat, not least the fact that there is so much more to the effect than mere smoke. Dry ice is commonly implicated in the creation of 'low-lying fog', certainly. Anyway, I just wanted to explain that right from the first gig in Holland there were joking calls from band and audience alike for this theatrical fog - though I can't tell you exactly how they termed it. As you can see, sometimes people got more than they bargained for, and it was hard to discern the band members in the resulting pea souper!

"There are offers on everything green"**

A highlight of the tour for me was the striking light show at several of the gigs, most memorably in Frankfurt.

I told the club owner afterwards - who had personally done the lighting - that I hadn't seen anything so impressive since Genesis at Knebworth in 1978. ;)

Speaking of fetching colours, the keyboard player with his coordinating stripey jumper proved to be an interior stylist's dream at this restaurant in Hamburg.

While at the Roter Salon in Berlin, a wonderfully retro function room within the famous Volksbühne Theatre, the red theme was rigorously respected.

Courtesy of Caryne Pearce

It was also at that gig that one of the venue staff laughed at the description I gave of my role on tour. I used the German word 'Gefolge', which roughly approximates to 'retinue'. "That's very good", he said. "Say that, as it is a step up from 'entourage'. Entourage may just be hanging around, while retinue are there by appointment."

Source: Alex 1011 via Wikipedia

(** For the benefit of those not familiar with the band's music, this is a quote from the title track of their new album, Cosmonaut.)

My big red big cream taxi shame

While on the subject of all things red, and in case I have given the impression that I acquitted myself uniformly well throughout the tour in the fulfilment of my duties, I have to confess that this was not at all the case. For on the morning of the second day I let the side down so spectacularly that I still cringe to remember the incident in question. It all came down to my having two phones with me: one with a SIM card that had automatically switched to continental time, and one (my old iPhone) that is Internet-enabled, but still resolutely on UK time. So having ordered a taxi for us all for 8.20am, I proceeded to set my alarm for 7.20am...on the wrong phone. Accordingly, at 8.20am the next morning I was woken by the reception ringing to tell me my taxi was there (she drew a diplomatic veil over the additional presence of five members of our party, all packed and ready in the foyer - the sixth having taken it upon himself to bang on my door and politely inquire where the hell I was!).

In five minutes' flat, I was dressed (in last night's discarded clothes I hastily scooped up from the floor), and packed and downstairs - unwashed, unmade up, dishevelled, with mad bed hair and a sense of mortification so deep that it lasted well into the next day. We didn't miss our train at least, and some time later the bass player amiably remarked that he had appreciated the delay, as it meant he got to stand in the warm hotel reception that little bit longer...

A word on perfumes!

Well, the truth is that although I took about 10 different perfumes away with me, I ended up only wearing four: Mona di Orio's Tubereuse (a curious choice you might say for cold weather, but it seemed to hit the spot), Dawn Spencer Hurwitz's Cimabue (I drained my purse spray, boo!), Aroma M Geisha Noire, and Amouage Journey Woman (for the journey home...).

Beyond satsumas...

As the tour wore on I began to grade venues not so much by their food - though we had some lovely meals along the way - but by their tea making facilities. To be fair they all measured up pretty well, even if you had to rummage in the tea bag selection to find the classic yellow Liptons under all the more or less 'out there' herbal stuff. But the first venue in Utrecht comfortably took the tea station prize!

Two of my favourite foods from the tour would have to be a pumpkin-flavoured hummus and a honey and salted almond Ritter chocolate square. Yes, I did manage to get hold of some chocolate eventually!

And I have good memories of the wine too, from a rather special black Riesling - who knew there even was such a thing?! - to the very drinkable house red on offer everywhere we went...

Next up - a New Year's post of a kind - just not the usual kind!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Big cream taxi: On tour with The Monochrome Set in Holland and Germany - Part 1

I realise that this is the time of year when it is customary for perfume bloggers to publish Christmas Gift Guides featuring a tempting selection of fragrant things, followed by a retrospective post about the year's releases and/or discoveries. I feel so remote from the perfume scene these days that I doubt I will be doing either of those this year, although I do have a few perfume reviews in the pipeline. For even in this becalmed plateau stage of my hobby, a few of the more persistent perfume houses manage to cross my path with their new launches, some of which - I am pleased to say - genuinely stir my slumbering mojo!

Yet in my own small trend-bucking corner of the blogosphere, the event that is still on my mind - more so even than the upcoming festivities - is my recent trip to Germany and Holland with The Monochrome Set, this time in the slightly ramped up (but still essentially nebulous and ineffable) role of 'Logistics Manager'.

The tour has stayed with me because it was the most intense and full-on of any I have been on. Every day felt like a week, and I was so wired all the time that sleep proved chronically elusive.

And normally while away I keep a daily record in a little notebook of amusing incidents or observations of band life. Sure enough the notebook came out with me, but for the entire ten days of the trip this is all I managed to jot down...!

So rather than adopt a chronological approach as in past years, I will go with the thematic format I used to adopt for write ups like this one of my overseas business trips, back in the day.

But first a word about the title (with apologies to Joni Mitchell)...basically, because we were travelling around by train and staying in some out of the way places not readily accessible by tram or bus, we ended up taking a number of (to my mind quite extortionate) taxis: all of these vehicles were of the people - and gear - carrier variety, and all without exception cream in colour.

Source: Taxi 730101

Rum hotels

Now I know that on their travels some readers may stay in reliable hotel chains like the Hyatt and the Marriott - and even in one or two of comparable quality not ending in ''-tt' - as I used to myself on work trips to the States, say, but sadly that is not my reality now - or even that of the band's every once in a while. For example, I spent the first night before we left London in the amusingly named Beaver Hotel in Earls Court - the sort of place where you are unfeasibly excited to find a plug socket in your room, and where there is a very real risk of meeting a man with an enormous paunch and wearing only his underpants on the way to the shared bathroom.

Source: Tripadvisor

The balance was quickly redressed by an Ibis in Holland and a business hotel in Leipzig - even though it was so far out of town it may once have been technically in Poland - before things took a dive again in Berlin. Although my ill-defined role as Logistics Manager related mainly to booking train travel, I also made a couple of hotel reservations, one of them at the Easyhotel in the Mitte district. It was close to the venue, modern and cheap. I still haven't fathomed in what way the hotel was easy, mind you - for the punters at any rate. The rooms were so tiny that when lying on the bed your feet were practically in the shower, and the complete lack of space around the bed took me right back to childhood caravanning days.

The difficulties of negotiating our 'easyrooms' in Berlin paled into insignificance, however, compared to the dizzying array of malfunctions that awaited us in the Stadt-Altona Hotel in Hamburg, the choice of the record label this time, who one can only infer must have enjoyed preferential terms. To give you an idea of the inherent unsatisfactoriness of this accommodation, I had three different rooms during my two day stay, while the merchandise team and the bass player had two each. We built up a comprehensive photographic record of all the snagging issues we had found, and it became a competitive sport to wave our camera phones around, as we bigged up our own rooms' shortcomings: "But I had more clumps of fluff on my (weirdly sealed with gaffer tape) air vent than you did!" "Ah, but I had actual rust spots on my radiator, not just an inaccessible knob!", and much more in that vein.

My inaccessible radiator knob in Room 2 of 3

Within the overarching category of 'rum hotels' there should perhaps be a sub-thread on the lack of full - or even three quarter length - mirrors in the rooms almost everywhere we went. I took it as a sign from on high not to be so vain as to wish to see if my hastily donned outfits worked as an ensemble, but over time it did lead to a slightly disembodied feeling from not having seen my reflection below shoulder level since leaving England.

Rum toilets and graffiti

Regular readers will know this as a well worn theme of past tour posts, and the selection of graffiti-strewn conveniences on this trip didn't disappointment.

Hafenklang, Hamburg

Not to mention those facilities featuring unexpected pop art:

The ladies' toilets in DB's, Utrecht

While at NAUMANNs in Leipzig there was a Waterhouse in the Water Closet.

Source: Caryne Pearce

The toilet theme really did have legs...here is some (consciously?) amusing signage from a Russian restaurant in Berlin:

Oh, speaking of graffiti, we were back in the same venue in Frankfurt this year where the singer had made his mark on the wall on our previous visit - one of the more wholesome examples of self-expression on the wall, it must be said.

So obviously he had to have another crack this time round...Take 1 reads, with the merest soupcon of numerical irony: "1) This is my second attempt at graffiti. I find this far from unsatisfactory." Then Take 2 reprises his tone of British understatement: "2) I have returned. I am not entirely displeased."

Passive smoking

Between the higher proportion of Germans versus Brits who are smokers - especially in Berlin! - and the fact that half the band are also prone to lighting up, I did an awful lot of passive smoking while away. So much so that I really feel it qualified as active smoking. I didn't actually inhale directly from a cigarette at any point, but I did agree to hold one for the singer very briefly while standing in the doorway of the club in Cologne...under a red light. Let's just say that I shan't be doing that again, as I think the pose I unwittingly struck may have given out quite the wrong signal to a passing local.

Source: Caryne Pearce

One of my roles as Logistics Manager was estimating in advance whether the stops some of the regional trains made in small country halts were long enough to enable the keyboard player and the singer to nip onto the platform and have a quick puff. So I would get off first, scurry along the platform at full tilt to find the conductor, and put the question to him. On one occasion, the sight of him having a smoke with the driver gave me my answer right there. On another, the singer was asleep when the all-important fag break window hove into view. The keyboard player immediately hopped off when I told him he had 13 minutes, but I let the singer sleep on. I checked with him later and he would actually have preferred to have been woken up for the express purpose of having a cigarette. Which I didn't see coming either.

And it wasn't just the people who smoked on tour - it turns out that that these dancing bunnies from Berlin - who have featured in action in previous tour posts - also like a crafty ciggy at the end of the night.

Mould growth

Aha, not what you may understand by 'mould' - the heading refers to the steady progress I made with my knitting of a scarf commission for a friend. Because the wool was cashmere and inherently furry - as well as being a sort of bluey-green colour - we  had no sooner left St Pancras when the bass player observed that I was knitting 'mould'.

From that point onwards, my handiwork was known as that, such that people would encourage me to "get another row of mould done" before the next stop, type of thing. Despite the joshing, I carried on undeterred, while also acquiring excellent night knitting skills in the tenebrous venues where we spent many hours waiting around before the gig. I am pleased to report that the scarf - fashioned in five countries in the face of great provocation and ribaldry ;) - is finally finished and on its way to its new owner.

The satsuma rider

On arriving at a venue for a sound check - even though dinner is often catered in within the hour - it is usual to provide a band with a spread of food on which they can ravenously descend - or graze ad libidum through the course of the evening. In German, this buffet literally translates as 'arrival snacks', and the name stuck. Right from the first gig in Utrecht - possibly for seasonal reasons, or the perception on the part of the promoter that your average musician could succumb to scurvy at the drop of a hat - we clocked the inclusion of a crate or bowl of satsumas everywhere we went. Even though no one had specified it - J-Lo and the anti-clockwise-stirred cup of coffee-style - this fruity leitmotif came to be known as 'the satsuma rider', and we all took to stashing them away for the journey. It was rare in fact for someone to have fewer than five on their person at any given time, and I even found a couple that had snuck into my wash bag.

Part 2 follows shortly! (NB There will only be two instalments this time, notwithstanding the length of the tour, on account of the paucity of my note taking mentioned above. ;) )

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

'Use it or lose it!': Travalos succumb to sub-post office syndrome

Danaus's Daughters ~ Source: Wikipedia
I am just back from a nine day trip to Germany, the run up to which was so very hectic that I uncharacteristically didn't have time even to do one of my quick 'Bonkers is off on tour again'-type posts before I left. Nor did I finish my work project in time, so I ended up spending the first couple of days of our journey across three countries typing up my remaining interviews on a clatter of trains (I use the word advisedly), that were more or less prone to sudden unexpected lurching manoeuvres.

I originally intended to publish this post before I went away, as it was prompted by the perfume selection process for my trip. In my state of general disarray, however, I didn't get beyond writing the first two sentences. But 'I have started, so I'll finish', to quote Magnus Magnusson on Mastermind. There will additionally be specific tour-related posts to follow. And one on the bathroom(!), which was a step nearer completion today. Just a step, mind. And one or two on perfume, before I get too off-topic to warrant the moniker of perfume blogger.

Can it really be nearly two years since my last post about Travalos? I do seem to have the urge to write about these handy travel receptacles from time to time - completely unprompted by any commercially driven poke from the manufacturers, I hasten to add - and today (for which read 'about a fortnight ago') is another such occasion.

I decided to wear Diptyque Volutes edt at the weekend (whichever that one was - w/e of 26th November at a guess), and reached for the Travalo rather than the full bottle, only to find it was almost empty. I did a slight double take at this, as I didn't remember using it very much, not even 4ml's worth. I got the bottle out and duly refilled it, before something prompted me to examine the fill levels of my other half dozen or so Travalos.

To my surprise they were all empty, with one or two exceptions. As with the Volutes, I couldn't remember draining them dry, or even wearing them at all lately, ergo the only explanation had to be that dreaded sword of Damocles which strikes terror in every decanting perfumista's heart, namely evaporation...the same mysterious chemical process by which ex-Mr Bonkers' beer glasses famously used to empty.

And when you stop to think about it, the Travalo is after all a container with a permanently exposed hole in the bottom, the very hole which enables you to just sit it on the atomiser of your perfume bottle and pump up the perfume without the added faff of having to remove any cover or top. Or bottom, to be anatomically correct about it.

Shades of Tiny Tears...?

If I may myself briefly lurch from Damocles to Danaus, the Travalo principle neatly illustrates the Greek myth of Danaus's fifty daughters, who were earmarked to marry the fifty sons of Danaus's twin brother Aegyptus - against their father's wishes - and I can't speak for their own. Hold on, would that not be a mass nuptial of first cousins? - but moving on...this is ancient history, after all. So anyway, at their father's behest, 49 of the women killed their husbands on their wedding night, and were condemned "to spend eternity carrying water in a sieve or perforated device. In the classical tradition, they come to represent the futility of a repetitive task that can never be completed." Much like the Myth of Sisyphus indeed, but involving a leaky bucket rather than a rolling stone.

So if anyone is not already familiar with the phenomenon of the evaporating Travalo, I hope this post will serve as a timely reminder. 'Use it or lose it' as they say of sub-post offices, muscles, foreign language skills, inkjet cartridges, and sundry other other items that need to be in regular service not to wither on the vine. But I will stop right there at the mention of vines, for that way lies yet another Greek myth - of Tantalus and his tantalising bunches of grapes - which perhaps have a tenuous relevance to the topic in hand in the sense that you reach for a Travalo, and another and another, only to be serially disappointed.

Oh, if anyone could use a Travalo (in gold) that had Chanel 1932 in it, or one (in pink) that once housed L'Agent Provocateur L'Agent, drop me a line, and it is yours. You know I don't believe in washing the blessed things.