Welcome to:  Melanie Tells You Exactly What to Do and Just Where To Go. 

Why are you here?  Probably because Melanie told you to come here.  And what to do to get to this site.  And you listened!  See, things are already going well!

Who is Melanie?  Classical singer and co-host of the Savvy Girls Podcast.  And I’ve heard that she is clever and witty and delightful.  At times.

How did this website get here?  Because it is -32 outside, and I’m bored.  Reason enough for a website, right?  And besides, it’s such a delight to be able to write about something that isn’t knitting related (Sorry, knitters!  You know I lov… lik… erm, am fond of you), and I just could not resist.

What’s with the title of the page?  Well, because it was suggested as a joke, and I happen to think that it is a brilliant idea.  At least, as long as the cold weather holds.

Now, let the ranting begin…



On the Way to Karlovy Vary


Even the flowers think it’s a good day to be in Karlovy Vary…


I’m writing this now from a ‘Student Agency’ bus, somewhere between Prague and Karlovy Vary, where the International Czech Film Festival is being held, starting this weekend.  And although I’m not attending it in any official capacity, I have two friends involved in organizing the festival (or aspects of the festival), and they invited me to tag along and see what it’s all about.

International film festival, with adorable Audrey Tatou and other movie stars in attendance?  Sure!

Potential for crazy advantures? Absolutely!

This bus is quite full – it’s actually an extra bus, added because all of the other ones heading to Karlovy Vary sold out long ago, and I was lucky enough to hear about it about 3 minutes after it was added (it took only 10 minutes to sell out).  So it’s full.  The guy beside me isn’t smelly (which is fantastic, because you never know, here in the Czech Republic.  I’m getting awfully familiar with the soupy odor of deodorant free men and women…).  No, he isn’t smelly, but he is sleeping.  On me.  I mean, I probably do make a nice pillow, but it isn’t exactly the most comfortable situation.


Ah, well.  Overseas adventures.

The past few days have been interesting.  It’s been cold and rainy here, and for once (for once!) I was extra careful.  I didn’t want to get plague.  I always get plague here.  And I’m so tired of spending the entire summer after a trip overseas gasping and coughing, and…it’s scary.  To be that sick, and to be alone in a strange country (although I do quite well).  But this year…I determined I wouldn’t get ill, and I didn’t!  Yet… I’m still not convinced it won’t happen, but I’m being careful.

So.  The past few days.

I went to see a Jacques Brel ballet.  Fantastic seats.  I love that a night at the theatre can be had here for about 200 crowns ($10).  People love theatre and music because they can actually go and see it.  The cost isn’t prohibitive, like it is in New York.  Unfortunately, the artists are paid less as a result, but… $10 for front-row balcony seats at the National Theatre… so great.  The show was wonderful, too – it was extremely interesting to see how the Brel songs – which are not dance pieces – were interpreted.  I learned a lot…

Otherwise, I’ve been seeing friends.  Going for coffee at the mall with Anna, going for drinks on a boat with Alice.  Going to the blind café with Ester.  Yes.  The blind café.  It’s a really great concept – a café – so, drinking in the dark – run entirely by blind people.  The proceeds go to supporting programs for the visually impaired, and even though there wasn’t a lot of choice, beverage-wise, it was a lot of fun to sit in the dark, chatting and drinking tea.  In Prague.  With a friend in Prague.

I love having friends overseas.  I love that this trip to Prague has been rich and it’s been full, and I haven’t gone to one tourist attraction.  Oh, I did – plenty – other trips, but I love that this time I spent performing and seeing friends, with Prague as a wonderful backdrop to it all.

I wish I hadn’t been so tired, though…

Jetlag.  Still.  I think at this point it can no longer be called jetlag, but rather a very broken internal clock.  I admit, I’m pretty well acquainted with 4:00am in general, but more from an it’s-shamefully-late-at-night perspective than the beginning of one’s day.  I’m so tired.  I’m so tired I feel like I’ll always be tired.  I walk through the Old Town square or by the Charles Bridge, and instead of wondering about what the city used to be like 500 or 800 years ago, I fantasize about being tucked into a warm, cozy bed.  (Oh, wouldn’t that be so nice…)

But no.  No bed.  I’m going to the film festival, and it’s going to be amazing, and I’m going to wear my tiara all wee…oh.  Guess what?  I have a tiara.  Two, actually.  I bought them at the mall the other day – and matching ones for Anna and Ester, too.  Because – well, why not?

In the past few years, several of my friends have gotten married.  And I’ve gone with them -some of them –  as they’ve compared veils and jewellery and have stared wistfully at tiaras, all girly and sparkly, and usually costing $150 or more, and they would muse if it was worth it, to just wear on the one day.

I don’t want a wedding dress.  I don’t care about any of that, for me.  But I did envy my friends their tiaras…

And so, when I found a bunch if tiaras at the mall here (I was looking for props for my knitting show, which I’m performing next week in Luxembourg) at the very back of a discount rack, marked down from 960 crowns ($45) to 60 ($3), I decided to have some fun.  And it has been fun.  Wearing a tiara makes each day better.  And it makes people smile as they pass by.  And…well, why not.  And if it can make things cheerier for my friends here too…

The bus is meandering through the rolling Czech countryside now, past fields of corn and villages.  It’s beautiful…

When I was about 3, I remember going for a walk with my mum and dad, to the park near our street.  It’s now surrounded by a highway, but back then there was a little playground, a large field and a hill, which (I believe) comprised the city limits of St. Albert.  Well, I remember climbing the hill with my mum, and I remember her pointing to the distance.  To the next field, and the next.  And she said that there – right there – was the country.

Now, I was a very smart little girl, but THE country and A country are confusing concepts for any 3-year-old.  I remember feeling so lucky, that another country was so close to our house.  That adventure was just down the street and through a walkway.  Sure, to get to other places in Canada we had to take an airplane, but if I wanted to go to another country, well, I knew exactly what to do.

The fields we’re passing now – green and rolling, sometimes yellow with canola – look very much like the prairies of Alberta.  It’s hard not to feel like I was right, so many years ago.  That I did it.  I did it!  That I crossed the mysterious threshold dividing the hill near my house with THE (A?) country, and  now, here I am in Eastern Europe.  Three-year-old Melanie would be as excited as I am now, to be here.

Or maybe I just need sleep…


Czech Lessons

I’ve been in Prague several days now, and I’ve learned some interesting tidbits about the culture and the country, that I didn’t know before.  And as it is pouring this morning and I doubt there will be many new adventures before tonight’s concert (aside from a quick trek out to check on the swelling Vltava River), I thought I would briefly share these tidbits here.

1- Červánky – Google  translates this word as ‘Dawn’, but according to my local friends, it is not in fact dawn, but the pink clouds in the evening sunset.  Pronounced ‘Tchair/van/ki”, it’s a beautiful, poetic word, and it just shows that English – while a dynamic and complicated language – doesn’t have everything.

2- Pálení čarodějnic (Witch Burning Day) – Now I actually knew about this a while ago, as I was in town for the event in 2009.  It’s basically Czech Hallowe’en, held on April 30th each year.  With dancing and drinking and bonfires.  And a little custom that isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article.  From what I’ve been told, in the more rural parts of the country young men go from door-to-door around their villages.  And the maidens greet them at the door and give them a drink of some local drink.  But the thing is, if they don’t offer a drink quickly enough, or in an acceptable manner, the young men get to ‘beat’ them with a stick – or maybe a broom?  It’s all in fun, and it’s definitely more interesting than draping oneself in a bedsheet and going out to score free candy

3- Cemetery Customs – Okay, I admit, I find this one a bit odd.  Apparently,  historically in the Czech Republic (and, I assume, many other European countries), coffins are stacked in a grave – for a family, say, there can be 12 or 13 coffins, one on top of another.  My question was, of course, what if the initial hole isn’t dug deeply enough?  Well, that’s easy.  Just dig everyone up, make a larger hole, and stack everybody in there again.  The contents of the older coffins are transferred to ossuaries and put back in, to save room.  Makes sense, I guess…  (It’s a different story with the Jewish cemeteries… the dead cannot be disturbed there, so when more room was needed – because often Jews were prohibited from expanding their graveyards – coffins were put on the ground, and the ground was built up around them).

But that isn’t the odd part.  What seems really strange to me is that here – now – cemetery plots are bought on a 10-year contract.  After that time, of one’s family cannot (or does not) pay the upkeep, everything can be dug up, uprooted and carted away somewhere, to reuse the plot.  Not sure if I like that.  In fact, I really don’t like that.  In fact, I think it’s kind of shameful that people don’t even get a place to rest after they’re dead, without being dug up and carted all about…  But anyway.  Different places, different customs.

That’s all!  I love that different countries still have their own customs and ways to do things – that globalization hasn’t become completely all-encompassing.  Yet.  And I love that I I have local friends to explain and expound upon these customs, instead of just reading about them in a tour guide.  And I love…well, Prague.  Even on this rainy morning, it’s beautiful here.

Now if only I get a huge audience at my concert tonight…



Mocking the tourists…

It’s been a few days since my last update, and I’ve been…well, living in Prague.  Not too many adventures, and really, that’s just fine.

Because adventures are great and adventures are fun, and I’m sure there will be plenty upcoming, but to get the true measure of a city…you have to live it.  Go grocery shopping.  Read a book on the lawn near Karlovy Most.  Watch the moonlight shine on the Vltava.  Wander the streets away from the main square.  Meet friends at a cafe – not to see the historic cafe, but to see the friends.

I’ve been to Prague several times now, and it’s really nice not to have the pressure this time to See and to Do.  Because I’ve been here before, and I know (hope) I’ll be back, and…in the end, I’m having significantly more fun than if I ran around clutching a guidebook and snapping photos of each building with a plaque on it.

So.  The past few days…  I’ve been prepping for my upcoming concerts.  Sleeping – or rather, not sleeping.  This whole jetlag thing is making me crazy.  I’ve given up trying to sleep any later than 5, and instead I try to get to bed early.  Which is not really working, but it’s a good idea, at least.  It’s so strange.  My body is usually pretty attuned to time (I can usually guess the time within about 5 minutes’ accuracy) and after a day or two, my inner clock usually resets to local time painlessly enough.  Other trips.  Other years.  Ah, well.  I don’t have plague yet, and if I can avoid getting it for the rest of my time here, a little jetlag is nothing to complain about.

What else… I learned to make fried cheese.  Went for a 23km bike ride with my friend Ester.  Walked around Old Town with my friend Alice (she pointed out all the former brothels to me.  Umm… thanks, I guess?)  Went for Czech beer with my friend Jan.  Walked and walked and walked around the city.

It’s been quiet, it’s been fun, and it’s been exactly what I needed.  And tonight…I’m singing in Zlonice!  Hurrah!



Concert in Dobris


Posing in front of our concert poster…

Today was my first concert – in Dobříš, just 40 kilometers South of Prague.  We headed out at about 4 pm, and up until that point, I spent the day working on projects in a cafe, eating cheese and bread in my flat, and trying to conserve whatever energy I had for the evening.

When my friend (and concert organizer) Petra showed up, and she, Alice (pianist) and Annitchka, one of her friends and I piled into the car, and we headed out.

It was fun driving through the cobblestone streets of Old Prague.  It was fun sightseeing from a car.  Except, for most of the trip I was busy writing and running through (with much help from Annitchka) introductions – in Czech – for all of my songs.  A last-minute addition to the concert.  Do I speak Czech?  No.  I can understand it, a little, and I’ve learned several vitally important Czech words (Like křeček – pronounced Kr/dje/tcheck – which means ‘hamster’).  But I don’t actually speak the language.  However… I mean, no reason not to start in front of a room full of native Czech speakers, right?  And so I spent the car ride running over and over and over my little speeches, while my very patient friends offered suggestions and encouragements.

The concert was in the old Dobříš synagogue  – well, not all that old, considering the other buildings surrounding it.  I’ve been to many Czech towns with old synagogues, and most of them have been lovingly restored to performance spaces or art galleries or meeting halls.  But not synagogues.  Never synagogues.  And it’s sad, because there’s no need for a synagogue in any of these provincial Czech or Bohemian towns.  Simply because, there are no Jews left there.  Not a one.

This synagogue was built in 1906, and is now the town’s cultural center.  There was an American movie being screened downstairs, to be followed by a Q&A session, and then my concert.  Alice and I unpacked our things, ran a few songs, and then grabbed Annitchkawe ducked out – we still had 90 minutes before the concert – for a bit of sightseeing.  There was a castle, with 17th century-style French Gardens.  I haven’t been to France a lot, and I really wanted to see the gardens.  So we walked through the town and to the castle, but the guard was just locking up the gardens for the night.  This wouldn’t do.  We were there!  We wanted to see the hedge maze!  And really, one sleepy guard was no match for three charming ladies, and he let us slip inside for a quick look.



After ‘playing tourist’ in the garden, we headed back to the synagogue to get dressed for the concert.  We passed several town message boards on the way, and on each one was posted a notice (or two or three or five) for the show.

The concert went wonderfully.  I sang well, Alice played well, the audience loved the Czech songs and the Piaf songs, and seemed to enjoy everything else.  We did two encores, and were presented with gorgeous bouquets – that’s one thing they do fantastically here: bouquets of flowers.  And what girl doesn’t like getting flowers?!

As it happens, these bouquets were ‘wedding bouquets’ – I think because of the calla lilies – and so then Alice and I needed to take a bunch of pictures, as Accompanist and Singer, posing with our wedding flowers.

We all went back to the castle for dinner – at a restaurant in the candlelit courtyard – and then we drove back to Prague.

And now it’s 6 am.  And I’ve been up for 2 hours…  But maybe it’s worth another try to get some sleep…




Jetlag Monster



It’s clearly lunchtime…right?

It’s morning here in Prague.

Well, not exactly.  It’s four in the morning here in Prague.  And it’s hot.  And I’ve been up for a while.  About 40 minutes ago there was a terrific thunderstorm, with bursts that echoed the ancient walls of the Jewish Quarter of Prague.  And then it ended.  And it’s hot and it’s humid and I don’t understand why my jetlag is this – well, jetlaggy.

But never mind.  It’s time for a quick update, as it’s been over 2 days since the last one.  The thing is, there isn’t much to write.  I’m in Prague.  I’m staying in a friend’s apartment near Staroměstská station.  I’ve spent the past two days alternating between napping and exploring – revisiting most of my old haunts around the city, and with the weather at 35 degrees (That’s high 90s for you Americans), I’ve been trying not to melt.

So – maybe just a few highlights?

– Prague Cafes: Like Budapest, there is a history of Cafe culture here, and there are so many great places to get a drink and a biscuit.  To sit at a table and watch the people go by.

– Orchestra:  The night I arrived in Prague, my friend Ester and I decided to go for a long evening walk.  We passed the State Theatre – a beautiful art-deco building  where Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was being performed, and she  offered to sneak me inside – through the stage door – so that we could have a peek of things.  In New York we would have gotten in so much trouble!  But somehow we got away with it, here…

-Rehearsing with Alice:  My accompanist for the concerts here is so talented, and this year, we rehearsed in the apartment where I’m staying.  As we ran the songs and arias, the phrases were punctuated with the clop-clop of horses on the cobblestones outside, and several times tourists and local passers-by paused outside the window to listen to the music.

-Night Swans:  I went out last night with my friend Jan, and on the way back, I stopped at the bridge near Staroměstská.  Not the famous Charles Bridge, but the next one down.  It was hot and it was still, and I stood for almost an hour on that bridge, leaning on the stone side and thinking.  Thinking and watching the lights from Prague Castle and the lights from Charles Bridge shine on the water and the reflection of the moon on the water, and all of a sudden a group of swans floated by, murmuring swan-like to each other, following the moon path on the water. And as they passed, a sudden breeze – the first one in days – came up, and it felt so wonderful and it was doubly wonderful to be on that bridge, surrounded by so much beauty.  And swans.

There will be more adventures.  Later today I’m singing my first concert of the tour – in a small town about an hour out of Prague – and there will be lots to report.

But for now…maybe a few more more minutes of sleep?  Or perhaps a snack…

Currywurst Confusion *or* From Berlin to Prague


I wonder if it comes with Lederhosen…

It’s early afternoon on day 2 of this trip, and I’m sitting in a train compartment somewhere between Berlin and Dresden, on the way to Prag/Praga/Prague (depending upon which language one is speaking when referring to the city).  But I’m using them all, because by the end of today I’ll have at least tried to communicate in all three languages, and that…is why I love travel.

I mean, it isn’t the only reason.  I love that I’m sitting on this train, sharing my compartment with two Germans (a student and a businessman) and a young Aussie couple (backpackers heading to Prague for the first time).  I love that one of the Aussies just took out a half-litre of mayonnaise from her small backpack to spread on her sandwich – she’s backpacking across Europe with her boyfriend and pretty much just the clothes on her back…and a large bottle of mayonnaise.  It makes me wish I had my accordion along for company (although mayonnaise weighs less).

I love that by tonight I’ll be sitting in a café or a pub somewhere in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, having dinner with my friends.  I love that I have friends in Prague.  In Prague!  And that there are people there who are excited to see me.

I don’t feel that bad about going on a bit and not writing a detailed update, because there isn’t much to update, yet.  And besides, I tend to ramble a fair bit when I’m tired.  And oh, am I ever tired.  The Jetlag Monster has attacked, and despite valiant efforts I only managed to sleep 3 hours last night.  That afternoon nap yesterday was probably a mistake…

Anyway.  Update.  So I got up just after 5, and lay in bed listening to the birds and the traffic until the breakfast room opened at 6:30.  And for a free breakfast, it was fantastic.  I mean, for any breakfast it was great, but considering it was free…  I was too tired to really eat anything much, but there was tea and lots of fresh juice, and bread and nuttella.  And so I sat there for quite a while, nibbling at my toast and watching people come and go.  And even though I had my computer out, several people came over to talk to me.

The first was a member of an NGO (who was being strangely secretive about which NGO it was).  The guy talked.  And talked.  And TALked.  At first I pretended to be interested.  Just to be polite.  And then I stopped pretending.  And then I stopped looking at him at all.  And finally, I picked up my tea and my computer, and moved to a table across the room.   The next person whp stopped by was the hostelier, who stopped to discuss the architectural style of the mouldings in the dining room.  Then a German policeman.  I didn’t ever think I’d be exchanging early-morning pleasantries with a German policeman in a hotel in Berlin!

After breakfast I tried to nap.  Tried and failed, but tried nonetheless.  And at one point, while I lay in bed in a pool of warm German sunlight, the bells from the church across the square began to ring.  Really ring.  I don’t mean a kitchy bell-song, or some tepid chimes to mark the hour.  These bells were bells.  Thick and deep and rich.  A tapestry of sound.  It was exquisite.

But no nap.  And the morning was getting on, so I headed out to explore.  I walked about 2 miles to the Holocaust memorial, which was also right by the division-point of the former Berlin wall.  Aside from a few wall-chunks and a long pinkish pole raised above the streets that – I assume – runs across the city to show where the wall had been – there’s nothing remaining that shows the complete division of the two sides.  Strange to think that the fall of the wall didn’t actually happen all that long ago.  I remember being in school and hearing about it, and thinking “Someday I’ll go there.”  And – there! – now I have.

It was getting close to noon, so I took a bus back to my hostel, grabbed my gear and rode the S-bahn to the Hauptbanhof, where I found my platform, caught the train, and here I am, a third of the way to Prague already.

So.  My impression of Berlin:  To me, it seemed like a typical Western European city.  With the same shops, the same rail system, the same vibe to it.  Perhaps I wasn’t in the right part, to get a proper sense of Berlin.  Hopefully I’ll have more of a chance to explore it in a couple of weeks.  There was one thing, though, that was notable about Berlin.  One thing that I’ve not seen anywhere else, and that is immensely confusing to me:

Currywursts.  They’re everywhere.  I assume they are… bratwursts with curry sauce?  Maybe?  But on every corner there seems to be a currywurst stand.  I mean, I like curry as much as the next girl, but when I think of ‘all things quintessentially German’, curry doesn’t exactly come to mind.   What’s next, Pretzel Sushi?

Oh, I think we just crossed the Czech border…





Postcards from Europe – Day 1: Berlin


Ich bin ein…very, very late connecting passenger…


I’m in bed.

Oh, I’m finally in bed.

Never mind that the carpet in this hotel room has seen better days, or that the curtains are spotted with mysterious stains.   Or those few long brown hairs I had to pick off of the comforter (actually, that was pretty bad, but I’m pretending they were mine).  It doesn’t matter.  I don’t care.  Because the bedsheets in this room are crisp and white, and I’m lying in bed listening to the sparrows chirp their joy of this sunny Berlin afternoon.

It seems to me, lying here, that I spend a lot of time listening to sparrows.  The last time I was in a bed – almost 2 full days ago – it was just past 4 am, and I was being serenaded by a particularly energetic New York sparrow, who generally seems to favour the tree branch directly outside my window for her earls-morning vocal warmups.

But I’m not writing this blog post about New York, or about sparrows.  I’m in Europe!  I’m in Berlin! And as I don’t have time to send a bunch of similar email updates to friends and family and neighbours and podcast listeners, I thought I would keep this blog, instead, for the duration of my trip.

And so.  To begin.  My flight from New York JFK to London Heathrow left at 7:30 pm last night.  That meant that I had most of the day to panic about last-minute details.  Now, I like to think of myself as a consummate traveller.  More than that, I like to brag that I’m a consummate traveller.  More than that, 6 years ago I wrote a book (which sold well and received excellent reviews) about how to be a consummate traveller.  And thus – officially – I do not panic before a trip.  Usually.  It’s just that I’ve been so busy lately.  And aside from learning (most) of the music I need for concerts and events, I haven’t really given the prep for this trip much thought.  And then, all of a sudden, it was an hour before I had to leave for the airport, and I had to pack and wash my hair and…there may have been a tiny bit of panic.

But I got out and I got on the plane – a British Airways flight.  It was quite full, and as I was settling in, I noticed that everyone sitting around me seemed to know each other.  Quite well.  They were of assorted ages – all British – and I was wondering what sort of tour group this could be, who seemed to enjoy each other’s’ company even after what appeared to be a lengthy bus tour around America.  That is, I was wondering until the pilot came on the PA system to welcome the British Rollercoaster Club onto the flight.

Yes.   The Rollercoaster Club.  Or society.  Or something.  The specifics don’t matter.  What’s fascinating is that there is a group of people – 1500 strong – who travel around the world, trying out different rollercoasters.  (And I thought knitters were crazy…)   These coaster-lovers had just finished a 3-week tour of America, and even though their vacation was ending, they were still having a great time: flinging their arms in the air as the plane started to move, chatting loudly about the highlights of their trip (The Cyclone at Coney Island was a general favourite), and I was so intrigued that while we were waiting for the inflight entertainment system to reset, I interviewed one of the members for the podcast.  She had a lot of great rollercoaster stories, including one about a European rollercoaster that has been used for…umm… well, the rollercoaster version of the Mile High Club.  And she told me about the parks that she’d visited, and about the fact that 18 couples have met and married in this rollercoaster club.  Like OKCupid, at 120kms/hour.  I was delighted with the whole thing.

The flight wasn’t long (5.5 hours), and wasn’t too eventful.  The Asian Vegetarian meal I’d ordered was pretty bad (usually it’s lots better than what everyone else gets), so the flight attendant I’d befriended at the beginning of the flight set me up with crepes (with a fancy plate and all) from first class.  Pays to be nice, when one is traveling…

And later in the flight, the rollercoaster woman came over to talk to me again.  I had mentioned during our chat that I’m a professional actress and singer and that I tour several shows.  Well, she was intrigued and she explained that she works for a theatre that produces shows, and she took my business card and promised to contact me.  Hmm… networking at 30 000 feet…

The flight arrived late.  So late, in fact, that there was a British Airways agent waiting at the door of the flight to personally escort the 15 of us connecting to the Berlin flight to our gate.  (Well, I’ve always wanted my name on a sign…)  We had 20 minutes to cross an entire terminal and pass through security again, and so the gate agent…got creative.  He led us away from the airtrain and into a concrete basement lit by eerie purple fluorescent lights.  One long corridor leading to another long corridor.  And we trotted along for almost 15 minutes, a short cut to our flight, and through a part of the airport that other travelers seldom get to see.  The gate agent kept sending updates about exactly where we were, and since I wasn’t in any hurry to get to Berlin, I had a marvelous time with it all.

We arrived at the gate – just in time (although in the end the flight was delayed an hour on the tarmac), and…our seats had all been given away.  Luckily, the flight wasn’t full, and we were given new seats.  While one gate agent was sorting that out, the gate agent who had led us through the tunnels got a bit overly friendly with one exhausted, panting traveler.  This exhausted, droopy, panting traveler.  No idea why.  It wasn’t as if I looked anything but a mess.  My hair was crazy and I was wearing leggings (I know… fashion disaster…but I’d put them on for the plane and hadn’t had time to change back).  I had just trotted for 15 minutes pulling a rolling bag and wearing a backpack.  I may have come up with a few clever quips as we went, but I don’t think they warranted the gate agent offering to put me on a later flight so that I could have lunch with him in the BA staff room…

Obviously I didn’t stay behind, and just over 2 hours later (well, closer to 3 with the delay), we were landing in Berlin.  I got some Euros from an ATM, walked outside, and found a bus that would stop within 2 blocks of my hotel.  Perfect!  A 2-Euro airport transfer!  When I got here the room wasn’t yet available, so I left my bags, walked to the Banhof (train station) and bought my ticket for tomorrow (it was half the price of buying it online), had some sketchy noodles, and now…. I’m back.  In bed.  And now that I’m all caught up…

I’m going to nap!  G’night world!

Oh, but first, a funny story:  When I went to pay for my room (which was only 50 Euros including breakfast, and in a fantastic part of the city), I asked the guy at the front desk how I should pay: Cash or credit card.  He said it didn’t matter, but that if I sang him a song and it was good enough, I could have the room for free.  Obviously he doesn’t realize what I can (and will) do, and he was pretty embarrassed when I took him up on the bet and he had to sheepishly admit that he was just joking.  I promised to sing him some Piaf before I check out tomorrow morning.

I love travel.  And adventure.  And brief encounters with random people everywhere (seriously?  Rollercoaster club?)

Three Photographs


…No digital display on this camera…


I’ve always had a thing about photography.

There’s something magical about a captured moment – an instant in a life, a tangible stopping of time.  The right photograph can communicate the essence of a person in a way nothing else quite can.

Getting a photo taken today isn’t a big thing – with digital photography, taking 50 or even 200 photos in the course of an event isn’t considered excess.  Everyone can be a photographer, and anyone a subject.  On my Facebook page alone, I have over 1200 tagged photos.  1200 moments in my life frozen and uploaded and on display, for anyone who’s curious (or creepy) enough to go through them all.  In addition to that, there are thousands of other photos I’ve taken that are saved on memory cards or computer hard drives, and back at home in Canada, I have boxes and albums full of printed photos.  The capturing and cataloging of a life.

But all this is a relatively new thing.  A hundred and fifty years ago, photography was still new.  The concept of ‘fixed smiles’ put on for photos didn’t yet exist.  Getting one’s photograph taken was a luxury – something that would perhaps happen once in a lifetime, or wouldn’t ever occur at all.  The way photography has changed the world is a fascinating topic, and one that I’d very much like to delve into in a future post.  But today, I want to write about photographs.  Three photographs, to be specific, that I bought in an antique store in rural Georgia.

I had traveled to Atlanta to go to Stitches South, a hugely popular knitting event.  I attended as a member of the press, and after a weekend of interviews and networking and much, much wool, I took an extra day to drive through the countryside around Atlanta, poking through shops for antique treasures.

I bought a hat.  I bought a vintage toiletries case to carry the CDs I sell after my shows.  I bought a few interesting-looking pieces of sheet music.  And then, in one store, I found a dusty pile of old photographs.

So many photos.  Fragments of hundreds of different lives, abandoned for strangers to sift through.  These were not casual snapshots, either.  There were pictures of soldiers in uniform, grinning rakishly.  Of faded grandparents standing beside their faded homes.  Of wide-eyed babies, in lace gowns and frilled bonnets.  Hundreds of moments, abandoned.  Forgotten.

It felt wrong.  I wanted to rescue them all.  And yet… what did I need with a bunch of old photos?  I barely have a home myself – much less the room needed to properly display each one.  I started to put them back into the large crate where I’d found them, pausing to look at each photo, to see each person who had lived and died and left behind…What if this was all that was left – the measure of a life – just this thin white piece of paper.  Imprinted with an image.  The souvenir of a life lived.  In a dusty crate in a pile of other photos, with a price scrawled on the back of each one.

I put the pictures back, one by one, except… there were three that I couldn’t put down.  Three photographs that I just couldn’t leave behind.




I think of her as “Mary Ingalls”, like from the Little House on the Prairie books.  I would date this photo at about 1880, when the real Mary Ingalls would have been 15.  Of course, as any reader of children’s literature knows, Mary became blind in her early teens, but in many other ways, the two girls are similar.  Both had long blond hair, both dressed impeccably, wearing corsets and hats to keep their figure trim and skin pale.

This Mary is utterly gorgeous.  Her features are delicate and her hands are small.  She has pierced ears and wears a cameo around her neck and a jeweled fastener in her hair, all signs that she lived not on the prairies of the American West, but somewhere considerably more settled.  The masses of hand-crocheted lace tied to the front of her dress shows that she was fashionable and likely of the class that did not need to spend her day toiling through household chores.

She seems like good girl.  she probably went to church, walked in the park on Sunday afternoons.  Taught Sunday School.  Behaved herself generally, which I would have found very difficult, had I lived back then.  But there’s something about her expression – perhaps she was a painter, or wrote songs for her little pupils, or wrote poetry about the sunsets in Rome, while carefully hemming linen sheets for her hope chest.This Mary looks like the sort of delicate pretty girl that men would flock to, and I hope she had a happy, full life, with children and music and love throughout it all.



There’s something almost painfully bittersweet about this photograph.  A little girl – probably around 11 or 12 – looking right into the camera.  Her hair isn’t twisted into braids or twined in a bun.  She isn’t wearing corsets or bonnet.  In fact, aside from the frilled lace collar, there is nothing in this photo that traps this little girl in her time.  This photo was taken around 1900, but looking at the child, she could have lived fifty year earlier, or later, or could be living right now.  It’s rare to see a photograph where the subject is so raw.  All eyes and hair and soft curve of cheekbone.

At the time that this photo was taken, Physiognomy – the assessment of a person’s character from their outer appearance – was all the rage.  And even though it is currently considered rather a humbug pseudoscience, when this little girl was a little girl, it was considered valid science.  Looking at her firm yet distinctly feminine features, her eyebrows – one straight and one quirked slightly – signals that she is intelligent and inquisitive.  Kind, funny, generous.  A delightful girl.

I think of her as Nettie, from the character in Rose Wilder Lane’s book, Free Land:

“She was too thin, she was  young, with a wildness in her, playful and awkward, like a colt’s.  Her mouth was fine and clear, with a quirk at the corners.  A man could not be blamed for knowing that some other man, some day, would kiss that mouth.”

I wonder what sort of life she had.  I wonder what she should have said, if she could have seen the world today, known that some other girl in New York City was thinking of her and was fascinated by her.   This is the kind of daughter I would like to have – determined, strong-willed and smart.  My Nettie.


Elvira Cox Metcalf.  This photograph came with a name, written on a slip of paper tucked between the photograph and the cardboard frame.  Elvira.  Picture taken in 1914.  Elvira reminds me of… me.  Dark eyes.  Wavy hair.  A bit rumpled, even on this special occasion.  The photograph isn’t in the best condition – there are spots on her clothes and face, but Elvira is still pretty.  Not the delicate, ethereal beauty of Mary, or the elfin charm of Nettie.  No, Elvira looks like a capable girl.  And a bit sad.

She isn’t pale, like many Southern woman.  Was she in Georgia working as a governness or a maid?  Or perhaps a schoolteacher, come down from the North?  She looks like she could be Spanish, but her name is distinctly American.

She looks nice.  Like someone I’d like to know.  I admit, I did Google Elvira, to see if I could find out more about her.  I was a bit worried about what I’d find – after all, I’ve looked at the photo so much that I feel like I know her, and what if her life hadn’t been a good one?  I did find a fair amount about other Elvira Coxes, but not this one.

Whoever you are, Ms. Metcalf, I think we would have gotten along.  I would have loved to talk with you – with you and Mary and Nettie and everyone from all of the photographs.  Just to let you know that someone was thinking of you.  Years – perhaps decades, or even a century after you died – a girl from Canada was thinking of you, wondering about you and wishing you well.

I wonder if I’ll be that lucky someday.

Rainy Day Bird


…Pretty roomy hand-igloo, by New York standards…

There was an unexpected guest in my apartment today.

I found her under a tree, on the way home from the grocery store.  I had been out most of the day, and was exhausted from an almost sleepless night spent editing podcasts and making lead sheets for my upcoming studio session.  I’d just spent over an hour on a crowded train.  The late afternoon was windy, and the heavy drizzle of the day had just segued into a proper rainfall.  To put it simply, I was cold, frustrated and tired.  I just wanted to get home, change into pajamas and take a hot bath.

And then I saw the bird, under a tree near the corner of a busy intersection.  She was small and brown and feathery, with sodden wings and a scraggly tail.   Shivering from the rain, with her heart hammering against her chest as she huddled into a miserable ball of sparrow.  So small and insignificant that most people walked right by her without even a second glance – likely they thought her merely a leaf, or another piece of garbage.  But I tend to notice the details around me, and so I saw her, muddy and dripping, huddling cold and alone against the spindly tree trunk.

Now, I know a fair bit about birds.  When baby birds fall from their nests, it’s best to leave them be.  If a person’s scent gets on a bird, the mother will abandon their young, and a well-meaning gesture can doom the baby bird to starvation.  But this bird – although young – wasn’t a baby.  Her beak was still yellow around the edges, still curled into the wide, baby-bird frown.  But she had feathers and her wings and tail had grown in.  She was in no shape to fly, and was clearly in distress.  And besides, it was about the time when the streets customarily filled with dogs, out for their evening walk.  The bird couldn’t get into the tree, and if I just walked away, it would surely be eaten or harassed to death by a pampered Upper West Side pooch.

So I did the only thing I could do:  I scooped up the little bird, tucked her inside my sweater, and brought her home.

This wasn’t the first time that a member of my family had rescued a bird in distress.  There was Migo, a young bird that my sister found in the park in Argentina.  Migo became smitten with my sister, following her around her Buenos Aires apartment and darting across the room to steal food from her plate at mealtimes.   And then there was that green budgie that my mum spotted in the tree near our home in St. Albert.  We managed to coax it down and capture it, and even reunited it with its owners (who seemed less than stunned at how amazing it was that their errant bird survived his suburban odyssey).  There was that -50 degree day in St. Albert where one of the sparrows at the bird feeder was too cold to fly, and we brought him inside to thaw off for an hour.  And when I was singing in Vermont, I cared for a young robin that had been hit by a truck.  I kept it warm during the night and even managed to get it to a wild bird sanctuary, despite the petty objections of the horrible fellow-singers who were being billeted with me, who threatened to throw both me and the ‘filthy animal’ (it wasn’t!) out of the house.

But back to this little bird.  I brought her home, and my sister and I pampered her – wrapped her in a washcloth, gently toweled off her feathers.  We purloined some cat food from the upstairs neighbours, and fed the little bird a mixture of tuna and mashed banana.  She sat on our laps and dried off, growing fluffy and sleek.  The little bird was fearless, pecking at our fingers to get at the banana mush and cheeping when she wanted more.

After an hour the rain abated somewhat, and we took the bird back out to where I had found her.  As we approached the corner, the little bird suddenly became incredibly excited, cheeping and chirping, her eyes wide and shiny.  There were so many sparrows singing – so many birds, really – but the baby sparrow had heard a familiar tweet.  Suddenly an adult sparrow flew at us, scolding us loudly.  The baby called to her mama, and the adult sparrow landed on a scaffolding pole about a foot away, and started to screech at us, wings raised.  Of the millions of birds in New York… of the hundreds of sparrows on this street… Somehow the baby had found her mama.  She tried to fly, but she couldn’t get up into the nest.  We set her on a low tree branch, and watched as the mama sparrow hopped to the branch just above, encouraging her little bird to hop up-up-up.  But the baby couldn’t figure it out.

We thought the baby might be bolder if we weren’t there, so my sister and I left the birds and went back home.  But when we checked later, the bird was still on the low branch, calling and calling and getting wet all over again.  So we picked her up and started to climb the scaffolding, to get her higher in the tree.  A businessman was walking by, and he stopped to see what we were doing.  We fully expected a lecture about ‘vermin’ birds and illegal scaffolding gymnastics, but instead he climbed up beside me, took the bird from my hand, and deposited her in a sheltered shelf, a lee between scaffolding and tree.  Where her mama could reach her, but where she would be hidden from view and would be sheltered from the rain.

It’s been a few hours now, and I don’t know if the baby sparrow is still out there.  If she’s warm and well-fed, if her mother is still fluttering around and encouraging her, or if she’s given up and gone back to the nest.  I know, it’s one bird out of a million million birds, but… I’m still lying here and thinking of her.  Hoping that she’s safe.

It was nice – for a few hours this evening, at least – to have a little pet.  Something that was warm and sweet and mine.  That I could love, that I could care for.  I’ve missed that.  It felt so nice, tucking the shivering bird inside my sweater, and feeling her slowly grow warm and calm.  Feeling how she trusted me.   Being needed by someone, even if it was just a little brown sparrow, lost in the rain.

Often I spend so much time making grandiose plans or working at minutia that ‘must’ be accomplished, and it’s hard to measure if I’m actually being successful in all the work I do.  Especially in New York, where standards of success are dauntingly high.  But in that moment – by the tree, in the rain in the late afternoon – none of that mattered.  Not my career, not the work I had done or that I still had to finish.  The most important thing was to rescue one baby bird.  And so I did.

Now if I could only find a gerbil in Central Park…



…Just toss over that cup of sugar…


New York isn’t generally what I’d think of as a friendly city.

I mean, people can be friendly.  Sometimes. When they’re not busy pushing past on the street or elbowing their way onto a bus.  Or rushing for the subway train – arms and shopping bags swinging – heedless of anyone else on the platform.  Or in line at Starbucks, or at the opera, or in the grocery store, rushing and rushing and snapping and… let’s just say, I’ve been the target of some extremely colourful language in New York.  And even though I generally get along with people here, every interaction is a bit of a crapshoot.  And while over the years I’ve amassed a small collection of friends in this city of 11 million strangers, I’ve never felt a sense of community, a sense of neighborliness in this busy city.

When I first moved to New York, I rented a basement apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, which is nothing like hipster-y Williamsburg or Park Slope.  There were no hipsters to be seen in Flatbush.  In fact, there were no hips to be seen in Flatbush, because pretty much the entire block where I lived was populated by Hassidic Jews, wearing shapeless dresses or black gabardine overcoats.  Now I’m Jewish, but… I grew up as a member of the token Jewish family in St. Albert.  We were the only ones.  We celebrated all the holidays and I had a Bat Mitzvah, and I think that people in St. Albert felt we were pretty darn Jewish, but in Flatbush – well, by their standards I was not only a bad Jew, but I was barely considered a Jew at all.  I didn’t dress modestly.  (Gasp!  Bare elbows!)  I dared to go grocery shopping on Shabbat.  And even worse, I didn’t make regular monthy trips (or any trips, for that matter) to a mikvah (ritual bath) and was considered by my landlady, her children and the potential subletters who toured my apartment before I left for summer vacation to be spiritually and physically unclean.   (I’m serious.  One guy even said – in front of me – that he’d have to ask his rabbi if he’d be able to sleep in a bed that an Impure Woman had occupied).   I absolutely did not fit in.  After all, I was 24.  Unmarried.  Living independently.  Wearing pants.  Pratically a harlot, by all the neighbours’ standards.  It was a long two years.

Next I lived in the dormitory of a private music college on the edge of Harlem.  I felt a bit old to be living in a dorm, but I’d never had that experience in undergraduate school and had always wondered  what it would be like.  And I figured it was my once chance to try it.  Dorm life was…fun.  I soon became friendly with a group of musicians living in my hallway, and we would meet for late night sushi feasts on the floor of the hallway between our rooms.  We made all sorts of mischief in the dorms (I admit, most of it was my idea), and it was a good (if precarious) mix between privacy and social time.  I was surrounded by a nice bunch of people (mostly instrumentalists on my floor – too busy with practicing and rehearsals and concerts and gigs to be snarky), and we got along well.  We were fellow-students and colleagues, but not neighbours.

After I graduated, I lived for a year at International House, which is a residence hall for students and young professionals.  The rooms were alarmingly small, with the goal of encouraging the residents to spend the bulk of their time in one of the well-appointed common spaces in the building.  Creating a sense of community in a large city is laudable, and International House is a special place.  However… I can only do so much ‘community’ before I want to crawl in a hole somewhere and hide.  Preferably with a book or three.  Luckily for me, my room was located in the very top of the building, beside an elevator shaft.  It was a floor removed from any of the other residents.  The constant sound of the elevator made me want to scream sometimes, but it was worth it, to have the solitude.  I even had my own little fire escape.  And even though it was absolutely forbidden, I would often climb out the window and onto the metal fire-escape landing, bundled up against the late-night wind blowing off the Hudson as I basked in the rare silence of New York at rest.  I knew several other musicians living in International House and often ran into people I knew in the cafeteria or the entrance hall, but the imposed sense of community made me so desperate for solitude that I spent most of my time alone.

Next I lived in a succession of apartments, scatted on the West Side of Manhattan from Harlem to Washington Heights.  Some were nicer, some shabbier.  But they were all multiple-person dwellings.  Sometimes 2 housemates living together, sometimes 4.  Once there were 5.  Sometimes these places had a common area, but often they were comprised of several bedrooms, a small kitchen and a shared bathroom.  Strangers living shoulder-to-shoulder.  Melanie living shoulder-to-shoulder.  Once again, I had seek out moments of quiet.  Moments of stillness in a city that is never still.  There aren’t many places where one can be alone (or have the sense of being alone) in New York City, and a small apartment stuffed with eccentric housemates is not one of them.  My housemates were usually friendly, often congenial.  But for a situation like that to be successful (at least, for me) we all had to retain a sense of remove – a distance from one another.

My situation is quite different now.  I’m living with my sister in a brownstone in the Upper West Side, on an affluent street in a bright, roomy apartment.  I have a private bathroom.  (Which is, somewhat ironically, almost the exact size of my former dorm room at International House.)   There’s a kitchen, a living room, a den and a dining room, and with just one sister as housemate, the space seems palatial.  There’s a balcony, a doorman to collect packages, and, for the first time, I have actual neighbours.

To be honest, I’m actually kind of shocked about how well my sister and I get on with our neighbours.  The bonding began through my sister’s dog, Kefira.  The family (parents and two children) upstairs have a dog and a cat (Bobo and Lola), and the couple across the hall are dog lovers and would always greet the dog through the door as they left for work in the morning.  We would meet on the street in front of the building and would chat while Kefira-dog sniffed and capered around us.  That led to the upstairs neighbours asking us to cat-sit, and for them to dog-sit for Kefira-dog in return.  One weekend the family upstairs was out of town and my sis and I ended up taking a rather last-minute trip to Atlanta, and so we asked the couple across the hall if they would care for the dog.

It’s been just over a month since then, and somehow my sister and I and her little dog have made our building into a community.  The upstairs neighbours are knitters, and both the mom and the daughter pop over all the time to get pattern ideas and to show off their finished projects.  Kefira-dog listens for Bobo’s bark as he goes out for walks, and often when he returns home, she gets so excited that we let her out of our apartment and she rushes upstairs for an imprompu playdate.  We hold the spare key to the upstairs apartment, and the kids know that if there’s ever a problem, they’re welcome over here.

And as for the couple across the hall… they’re smitten.  Kefira-dog is smitten, too.  She waits at our door each evening when they come home, and even though they try to sneak into their apartment (it’s turned into a game), she hears their footsteps (often before they are even in the building) and she howls and cries until we let her out for a visit.  The couple holds the spare key to our apartment, and they ‘kidnap’ the dog for several hours each week when we’re out (or sleeping), leaving funny little notes on our door (often ‘from’ the dog).  They stop to chat several times a day, and seem to be endlessly amused by the sallies that go on just across the hall from their quiet, staid apartment.  They’ve even taken to calling us their ‘girls’, and they pop over to wish us good night each evening before they go to bed.  It’s utterly charming.

And the neighbours have gotten a lot friendlier with each other, too.  Before they only nodded in passing, but last weekend the wife from upstairs and the wife from across the hall and I sat on the stairs for over an hour, just talking.

Now, even the Upper West Side isn’t perfect, and not everyone in this building is wonderful.  The family who  lives directly below us snubs us so clearly that when we cross paths outside, they will turn their faces away and cross to the other side of the road to avoid contact.  The other family downstairs looks right through us when we greet them.  Well, you can’t win ’em all, I guess.  (And luckily, those two apartments have a separate entrance so we don’t see either downstairs family often).

But for the most part…the neighbourliness that abounds in this brownstone is a wonderful thing.  We’ve swapped wool, electric fans, cookies, houseplants and advice of all sorts.  The other day, the woman from upstairs actually said that she wished we could all just keep our doors open all the time, so it would be like ‘one big sorority’.  For my sister and I, it’s like having the extended family we didn’t ever really possess, growing up.  And for the neighbours (the ones who don’t hate us, that is), I think we bring a sense of fun, a sense of adventure and possibility to their busy lives in New York.  We’re quirky.  One night we’re at the opera, the next we’re picking sheep feces from an unprocessed fleece in my sister’s bathtub.  Anything can (and does) happen when we’re around.

And for me – well, there are several things about this city that I love, but also several that are really, really trying.  And being alone in such a big place has always been hard.  Casual interactions are amusing, but it doesn’t make a place home.  And even though New York will never truly feel like home, being surrounded by such delightful, caring neighbours make each day a lot friendlier.

And they haven’t even complained about my accordion playing yet…