October 4, 2010

Road Songs: Night Train

Night Train by Brown Recluse

This song stands at number one in my traveling playlist. (Click on the song title to give it a listen.) That doesn’t necessarily make it my favorite song, but it makes it my favorite for starting a new trip. It’s cheery and sweet without being obnoxious or overtly sugary. It’s simple and lovely.

When I first heard it, I honestly couldn’t help but bob my head along to the opening bass line. I’m already smiling like an idiot by the time the piano and horns come in. The first time it came on while I was in a car, everything that was happening on the other side of the window seemed to perfectly match up to the music. Bike riders, trees, birds, other cars, traffic cones, everything. It gives a sunshiny day a natural soundtrack, and makes rain days a little brighter. That’s how impossible it is not to imagine good things happening to this song, and that’s exactly what I want when I’m going some place new.

(WARNING: According to Google Instant, Brown Recluse is a spider, and for some reason, there’s 929 video results on the internet. Do not, do not, do not click on brown recluse spider images. Your eyes will hate you. Luckily, this hasn’t deterred me from liking Brown Recluse the band, but I can’t say the same about Google.)

October 2, 2010

Flashback: The John Butler Trio

We listened to a lot of music on our Eurotrip, but the culminating event was undoubtedly the Optimus Alive!08 Festival in Lisbon. We heard about some kind of music thing from Australian backpackers who were on the train with us from Madrid to Lisbon, but we didn’t realize the scale of it until we saw the billboard outside of the train station. It announced Bob Dylan, Rage Against the Machine, Neil Young, The National, Ben Harper, Vampire Weekend, MGMT, The Hives and just about everyone else you could think of. But for my best friend, Irem, and I, only one name stood out — The John Butler Trio.

His album “Grand National” gave me one of my favorite songs of all time: “Daniella,” a funky, sexy tribute to his wife. (Listen here.) Besides having the honor of being on my “Favorite Songs Ever” playlist, I instinctively put on “Daniella” whenever I’m on a plane or get into a Shanghai cab. It never fails to put a smile on my face or get me singing and dancing, which is pretty much the criteria for getting on my “Favorite Songs Ever” playlist. It’s just a wonderful song written by a man for his wife. It’s a song you want to jam to, while secretly hoping that someone’s writing a song like this about you too. Unfortunately, the Trio didn’t play it at Optimus Alive!, but they did play “Zebra.”

“Zebra” was the first John Butler song I ever listened to. It introduced me to this bluesy, country twang, sometimes reggae-inspired jam band genre that later made me love Dispatch and the Black Keys. And when I heard John Butler play “Zebra,” I was screaming by the opening note. People turned with raised eyebrows and looked at me, but it really didn’t matter. Come on! It’s Zebra! And it was amazing.

We got to the concert at around four, and after making the rounds and checking out the other booths, we decided to head to the still pretty empty stage area and wait for John Butler. They weren’t scheduled to play until around 7.30, I think, but we didn’t want to risk ending up in the back. The only other people there were dressed all in black. They’d been standing there in the hot sun since the gates opened, waiting for Within Temptation, a goth-rock band following the Trio. They made it very clear that they weren’t moving for nobody. So instead we joined them. By the time the first act, a ska-folk-gypsy big band, was done, the audience had filled the space completely and we were locked in. We had forgotten to get drinks or food, but I had danced so hard to the other band, I asked the kind woman in front of us for a sip of her water. I’ve never asked a stranger that before or since.

Around a quarter to six, an announcement was made that Nouvelle Vague, playing before JBT, were stuck at the airport and wouldn’t make it. Instead, the John Butler Trio had agreed to go on early. Yes. Irem and I were a little disappointed to see that John Butler had cut off his beautiful signature dread locks. “It’s not the real John Butler,” we whined. But as they opened with “Treat Yo Mama,” maybe the only twangy rock song that makes me want to start recycling, we quickly realized that this was definitely the real John Butler. And he’s amazing.

“Zebra” was their closing. Every single person was singing along, which is easy because it doesn’t have that many real words in it. It made me understand why Woodstock 1969 was so special. It truly was music bringing people together. I wrote in my travel journal that night that walking to the gates of Optimus Alive! felt like our holy pilgrimage, and that I only wish it was annual. Irem and I have been to quite a few concerts together, and there’s few things as cathartic and scream-singing with your best friend. That’s what John Butler was, combine with the awe of seeing one of your favorite artists do what they do best.

I found a video of the festival on YouTube, but excuse the poor quality:

Here’s the real video for the song:

Sadly, I lost my camera’s memory card, so none of us have pictures or videos of that night, although many were taken. I found this video from the festival of Shannon Birchall’s solo on the bass, and Michael Barker’s drum solo. It gives you an idea of the musical genius we witnessed. When Michael Barker threw his sticks into the crowd, this very very tall, very very scary Scandinavian guy behind us caught one. We asked if we could have it, but he refused, saying that he’d sell it on eBay later. He didn’t even know who John Butler Trio was! We didn’t press it, though, because earlier he’d yanked a drunk girl by the hair unto the ground because she was pushing her way to the front. He apologized profusely, but still, a very very scary guy.

While I was watching the video, I thought to myself, “You know, we were pretty close to the stage. Couldn’t it be possible that you can see me in this video? I was wearing my red shirt that day!” So I looked, but it was harder than I thought: Red was popular.

But then! Was that me?It could be! But even though that person’s wearing red, I don’t think I had my bag with me that day, and their hair looks darker. Also, I think that’s a man.

September 30, 2010

Road Songs: Gap

When I listen to this song, I play out a specific scene in my head. It’s so vivid, I might have just stolen it from a pivotal episode of 90210, but I can’t be sure. But basically:

There’s an argument, there’s accusations being made. There’s bags being packed, and “I’m leavings” thrown around, with “Go aheads” thrown back. Somebody shakes their head and says, “I can’t do this anymore.” There’s a single tear, nodding and an “I tried.” There’s a final turn-back with a goodbye, and bags being picked up and taken to the bus station. There’s a sigh, somebody boards the bus, and this song comes on. Somebody stares out the window. Then there’s a montage. It’s pivotal.

I don’t usually create weird emotionally abusive relationship fantasies around songs, but when I’m traveling, particularly on long bus, plane or train rides, my mind wanders. It’s hard for it not to, especially with this song and its “Please don’t go” lyrics.

My best friend turned me onto The Kooks senior year of high school when she fell in love with them. In loooove with them. But she had good reasons. Their folk-infused rock always provides a fitting soundtrack for a new trip. A little angsty, but like it’s saying, “Let’s go.”

September 30, 2010

Travel Tales: Advertising

There’s an article in October’s National Geographic Traveler magazine called “Read All About It” by Daisann McLane. She writes, “As I read local newspapers, I realize they’re in the same category as public squares: the heartbeat of any great place.” You can tell a lot about a place by its heartbeat. I haven’t gotten in the habit of reading local newspapers yet, unless I’m looking for listings or event details, but if reading the paper is anything like McLane describes it, I ought to try it immediately: “Reading the local paper is like roaming backstreets without a plan…It’s a wonderful way to get lost in the place.” Alright, you’ve talked me into it.

I’ve always found an effective, if somewhat lazy and uninspired, way of getting to know a place’s character is through the commercials on TV. Every time I go back to Germany, I look forward to seeing the new ads. I know in the day and age we live in it’s hard to avoid advertising, but it’s actually gotten to the point where I find it refreshing to be around completely new and unfamiliar advertisements. I know that’s a little depressing. Don’t get me wrong, I find nothing more revitalizing than turning off my phone and computer, but the commercials in a new place can also give you a peak into what’s going on in that city or country.

Commercials are like mini movies only nobody’s subtle about the product placement. I’m pretty susceptible to advertising. That Google one from this year’s Super Bowl made me cry. Then I went out and bought five Googles.

This one aired in 2004 in Europe. It didn’t make me cry, but it made me feel conflicted about my family.

There’d be a big divide between me and my Dutch cousins if I knew there were ads like this on regular rotation in Germany. It’s a good thing I don’t own a TV. Or live in Germany.

September 29, 2010

Travel Tales: Red Eye

I’m a big fan of Christoph Niemann’s Abstract City Blog, and although I’m a little disappointed that he hasn’t posted in a while, it’s some consolation that his last entry was Red Eye. (You should also check out his other posts, Haunted Household and I Lego NY.)

Niemann’s Red Eye documents the journey from New York to Berlin, with a stop over in London. Specific locations are irrelevant, though, as he could be illustrating any international flight, I would argue, regardless of duration.

I actually prefer red eyes or very early morning flights. The airport is usually quieter, there’s less of a hassle to get there because you often don’t need to factor in traffic, and it’s a wonderful feeling knowing that you could be going to sleep that night and wake up in another country. Travelers Notebook has also compiled a list of reasons why red eye flights might be better.

The truth is I don’t like flying. Or, really, I don’t like airplanes. I love airports, and I’ve never been afraid of flying, but I just don’t like planes (and not only because they make my hair flat, but it does have something to do with that). Christoph Niemann was absolutely accurate in his flight depiction, especially with the peanuts. I’m a firm believer in checking the obviously empty bag a few times because I honestly could have sworn there was at least one more. But there never is. Maybe that’s why I don’t like flights. I lose all depth perception and sense of time. I’m always surprised when I wake up from a satisfying nap and find out we still have six hours to go. Naturally, I can’t get back to sleep after I’ve made this discovery. And then there’s that airplane smell.

Airports, on the other hand, are a dream. Aside from allowing for fantastic people watching, I never get as much reading done as I do in airports. I look forward to fairly long layovers, four or five hours should do it, where I can set up camp and just relax without having to rush to my gate. Singapore Changi Airport is hands down my favorite, and was also voted 2010’s World’s Best Airport by the World Airport Awards (they’re somewhat of an authority on the world’s airports). Of the 10 Best, I’ve been to nine, unfortunately I haven’t made it to Incheon yet. I don’t think I could vividly recount my experience at each of them, as the trips were all family vacations when I was the between the ages of five and 17.

I don’t know why I’m being so tough on flights, maybe only for the sake of argument. If it hadn’t been for a return flight from Boston to Shanghai via San Francisco, I never would have flown over Alaska and taken this picture:Thanks for saving me a trip to Alaska, United Airlines!

September 27, 2010

Flashback: Miracle Fortress

Poetaster by Miracle Fortress

After I graduated high school, my friends and I went on a one month backpacking tour of Southern Europe. Starting in Istanbul, we took a train to Athens, but suffered a minor setback when my best friend was asked by Greek border patrol to kindly return to Turkey. It was 3 am, and the official noticed that her visa wasn’t valid for another 24 hours. As reasonable as any border patrolman can be when dealing with an 18 year-old girl at 3 am in the middle of nowhere, he told her to get off this train at once, stand on the opposite platform, next to a tack board plastered with Missing Persons posters, and wait for the next train to take her back to Turkey. No amount of in-plain-sight money counting or wink-winking could convince this guy to just let her stay in Greece. Our friend accompanied her back and they caught a flight to Athens the next day, meeting the rest of us at the Acropolis, where I was contracting a violent case of food poisoning.

Leaving Athens, we took a ferry to the tiny island of Corfu where we had the glorious sun-burnt beach vacation we all desperately needed. (My best friend almost experienced another immigration complication when a few people in our group wanted to go to take a boat to Albania for the day. Luckily the kind ferryman informed her beforehand that her EU visa was only single-entry and should she enter Albania, she would be forbidden to return to Corfu.) From Corfu, we left Greece and took a ferry to Serranto, Italy, which is when I took this picture.

It was an overnight ferry that was scheduled to leave Corfu at 6.30 pm and actually left at 11.45. We couldn’t afford a cabin, so instead we made ourselves comfortable on the deck, on top of our luggage, wearing every long-sleeved long-trousered piece of clothing we had packed. It was freezing, but we tried to get some sleep. I woke up around 4 or 5ish in the morning, put on my iPod and watched the sunrise. The sky turned that shade of pink the moment “Poetaster” by Miracle Fortress came on. It couldn’t have been timed better. I might have actually shaken my head because it was too perfect. It has that new beginnings, everything’s going to be okay, we’re heading into the unknown and it’s awesome feeling to it. It’s ideal for a sunrise.

I put this song on whenever I get on a plane, too, but it doesn’t have the same effect as when you’re watching the sunrise from the deck of a Greek ferry as your friends are lying all around you approaching hypothermia. That’s magic you can’t fake.

September 25, 2010

Road Songs: New York’s Not My Home

Many a bus ride to New York, and back from New York, was spent staring out the window with this on repeat. For me, it’s the quintessential roadtrip song. Believe me, nothing cheers up the view of Connecticut more than this. I feel very profound when I listen to it, like I’ve just decided to leave my closed-minded family behind to finally go out to Hollywood and be in pictures. I’m going to be a big star!

That’s how this song makes me feel. Kind of sad but kind of hopeful. I had never seen footage of Jim Croce before and was completely surprised by his amazing ‘stache. I hadn’t realized how Wes Anderson-ian this song is. I don’t think it’s been in one of his movies yet, but oh boy, how it should be. Especially with Maury Muehleisen quietly providing gentle harmonies in the back. These guys were so ahead of every hipster I go to school with.

September 24, 2010

Watch Mariana kill on the piano

Not literally, of course, but she’s really good.

When she was 10 years old, she watched her mom play a Chopin piece on the piano (she remembers the melody, but not the title). Mariana applauded when she was done, and her mother asked her if she’d like to learn. No, no, it’s so hard, she said. No, no, you can do it, said her mother. So she gave it a shot.