2012 has been the most wonderful, extraordinary year: dramatic, scary, sad, stimulating, heart-warming, nourishing… I could go on. Unbeknownst to those looking in from the outside, for too long my world had been ruled by quite negative forces – frustration, fear of failing, a general melancholy - and I needed a kick to wake me up and push me into finding the guts to change. Events in my life during May* offered me an opportunity to do this. An opportunity to rekindle whatever it is that makes me feel alive, to have adventures, to explore through fresh eyes, to thrive on being alone. An opportunity to fall in love with life again. An opportunity to learn to be happy.
And so, bound tightly to Harpsichord Row, my music travelling with me, I spent six months exploring this path, rebuilding my confidence and challenging ingrained ways of thinking. As I prepared for my Autumn tour dates, playing a series of gigs started to take on a deeper significance, almost like I was proving to myself that not only had I made it through seemingly dark times into the light, but also that I could survive on the road by myself as a solo musician and have a great time in the process. I suppose my one ‘rule’ if you like came to be that there’s no such thing as a bad experience if you can learn and grow from it. A bit cheesy but it has helped me no end. That is where I found myself in November 2012.
It is with this journey behind me, and an exceptionally small amount of sleep, that I hazily set out on my first ever tour abroad, my Dutch Tour. As familiar but unmistakably flat foreign landscapes flashed past me during the days that followed on train after train, I scribbled in a journal. This is the very edited version with photos.
Saturday 17th November // UK to Utrecht, The Netherlands
Rushed, very tired. Train to London 10.28. Multitude of mixed emotions. Excited – prospect of travelling alone to somewhere new. Slightly stressed as a lot to carry. Unsure how I will manage. Big suitcase with clothes & loads of CDs + guitar + handbag + other extra shopping bag of bits. I had to stand for the 55 minutes to London – very crowded, tinned sardines. Verging on panic attack + fighting off sleep deprivation
Eurostar 12.57 to Brussels. Ate: M&S Wensleydale and Carrot sandwich. Read a little. Slept a little. TIRED. Arrived Brussels 16:08. Wandered through station in a daze. Toilet. Cup of tea. Waiting. Train to Rotterdam Central 17:20, populated with drunk men. #1 – sleazy Dutch version of Ed from Twin Peaks. Soft white leather loafers/trainers. Stank of alcohol. All over the place. Fidgety. I watched his reflection in window as he slowly raised his hand to his nose and then quickly and violently plucked a few hairs from his nostril. #2 – well dressed, probably very friendly guy in his late 30s. Also stank of alcohol. Had to move my guitar so he could sit down but he offered to put it next to him. Decided I would rather balance it on my knee – lack of sleep making me paranoid. Again watched reflection in night window. Task of untangling headphones was momentous for him – untying knotted spaghetti with jelly hands. He got up to go to toilet. Went through glass doors. Could see him waiting, starting to dark out. Was he going to be sick? Train swung round corner. Too drunk to stop himself being flung into the door – head first. Too drunk to be embarrassed. Train arrived Rotterdam. Ran to different platform, just made it in time onto 2-storey intercity to Utrecht.
Finally arrived Utrecht around 8pm. Met by Pete and Florian at station. Walked with bikes to Pete and his girlfriend’s flat where I was staying two nights – sort of communal living space. Loved it. Potato/endive/cheese bake thing for supper (Stamppot!!). Whole evening, indeed day, felt like bit of a dream. A few friends of Pete’s came round, Utrecht awaited. Rode on back of bicycle (thanks Rolof!) bumping over cobbles, street lamps turning the drizzle to glitter, winding along beside canals & grand buildings. Exhilarating. A cafe-bar, bursting with people, friendly, familiar, steamy windows. I didn’t want my usual wine, felt I should try something more Dutch, a white beer appeared for me. Very tasty. Five of us sat in at a table in the far corner. Chatted, took in the experience, Saturday night in Utrecht, people next to us singing Dutch version of Happy Birthday to their friends. More bicycle backy time and on we went to a cellar bar near the canal – crowded, lots of drunk people, I was starting to flag. 7 hours sleep over 2 nights was clearly not enough. Home we went. Asleep by 2.30 am.
Sunday 18th // Utrecht
Woke at 10.15, lazed in bed until 11 enjoying the sounds of a foreign city. Breakfast in the spacious colourful shared kitchen – cereal + nuts + yoghurt. Yum. Then not long after some bread and cheese for lunch. Afternoon tour of the town courtesy of Pete. BEAUTIFUL CITY. Fell in love with it a bit. Text to friend, “I’m being treated very well, kind of forgetting I’m here to play some gigs. Enjoying absorbing somewhere new. Wandered round Utrecht this afternoon, very autumnal. Lots of canals and bikes. Had a few moments I loved – wandering into the main old church (Domkirk) to find haunting atmospheric music being played by group of elderly musicians, walking through a little parade of floodlit trees which have this icey tinkly bell like music coming from them, really special. Also bought a print, listened to a live jazz band and drank hot chocolate with cream, which made me laugh a lot as the word for whipped cream is ‘slagroom’. Found this very amusing.” More delicious food for supper – Pete’s homemade pizza.
Print of Utrecht // Domkerk // Slagroom // Pete’s Homemade Pizza
Monday 19th // Utrecht – Groningen // Gig #1 Wishfulmusic Houseconcert
Dragged myself out of bed. Late breakfast with Pete’s girlfriend Sanne. Good chats. In afternoon drifted around Utrecht by myself. Found Danish shop called Flying Tiger that I liked. Bought notebook and some kids’ felt-tip pens. Been doodling. Happy. Train to Groningen – by myself but Pete coming to gig later.
Arrived at venue for house concert at about 5.45pm. Trek from station felt very long as bags heavy. Street homely, quiet, residential. Lots of trees. Up steps to a darkened little porch containing two front doors. Rang on 62B. Waited. Could hear voices. No answer. Started to feel nervous. What if I was at wrong house? Door opened by Eva – beautiful & eloquent, exuded youthful adventure. She welcomed me into their home. Small almost round living room/dining room taken up with a homely circular table, tiny kitchen off to the back. One wall covered in film/music posters. House live in by Eva, David and Ben. OMG Dutch people really do speak brilliant English. We sat around the little round table and chatted for maybe 30 minutes. Then Laurens and Wouter who run Wishfulmusic Groningen arrived. Momentary nervousness as room filled up – not so confident in large groups of people but all okay after few minutes chat. Very friendly. Laurens bought food and David cooked it. Stamppot!!! My new food joy. This time it had mashed potato, chopped curly kale, butter, vinegar, seasoning, bacon (or pretend bacon in my case). Big like.
The gig. House very smoky. Felt like something from the past. Everyone smoked. My clothes must stink. Made me nostalgic for morning after night out clothes smell. Had some liqueur – Schnipperbitter – to help soothe my throat and camomile tea (thanks David!). Gig itself- v intimidating at first. People so close all I could see were faces, incredibly intimate, I couldn’t find a neutral spot to look at so had to shut my eyes. Warm appreciative audience. CDs sold. V enjoyable chats round table afterwards. Taxi with Pete to Laurens house – cat called Rubble but in Dutch, is it ‘Puin’? Slept in living room. Was lovely to cocoon myself in sleeping bag. Sleep 2.30
Wishfulmusic Groningen House Concert // Image © Annaleen Hulshof 2012
Tuesday 20th // Groningen – Nijmegen // Gig #2 Café Camelot
Woke up to the view of a silver birch tree’s nearly bare silhouetted branches dancing gently against silver grey sky. Rushed to get ready to leave. Walked with Pete through Groningen to station. Bought delicious sandwich from organic food shop ‘Pure’. 6.95 but worth it. Bread was deep brown, seedy, slightly nutty. Pesto, cheese, roast aubergine, pepper, tomato, some lettuce, mayonnaise. Yum. Tea from shop in the station. Ate sandwich on train. Hurried goodbye to Pete at Zwolle as I changed for Nijmegen. Strange to think that when I arrived we were practically strangers, then 72 hours in each other’s company, now a friend. Our paths won’t cross again on this tour due to a trip to England, but very much enjoyed hanging out. Thank you Pete for all the time and effort you gave to organising this musical adventure. See you for Tour 2 next year I hope! Later that day…
Nijmegen was an experience. Bed for the night at ‘Extrapool’, an experimental arts centre/social living kind of place. I couldn’t wait to arrive as I knew I had my own room and had heard good things about it from Jess Hall who also toured here recently. Wandered along slightly run down street that in my imagination could have been a little seedy. Building was number 5, the start of the street 163. My heart sank. After what seemed like an age I made it. Red. Printing. Big letters: Experimental Art Performance. After ringing on the bell and waiting a while the door was eventually opened by a slightly dishevelled grey-stubbled looking 50-something man who looked at me in a vague, disconcerting manner as if I’d disrupted him from deep creative thought. Managed to get out of him that this was the correct place but he didn’t seem to be expecting me. Had a brief moment of mistrust (too many horror films) as he ushered me inside and up several flights of minimal, functional stairs. All okay though, warm welcome awaited. Up more stairs to the top floor. Bedroom – two cabin beds. inside the cabin decorated with flyers printed in the workshop and a giant cut out of either a car or a horse. I decided on the horse bed. Bathroom = big shower. Positively luxurious after not washing since the previous morning & travelling all day. Had shower, ate some fruit, got ready for gig.
The gig. Well. What can I say? My evening at Café Camelot was bursting with lessons & reminders. 1) Check necessity of early arrival times – arrived 6, ate, very brief problem laden soundcheck at 9. 2) Next tour take own sound engineer. 3) It is possible to play guitar and sing with a drum kit pushing into your back and a stage piano crushing your knees. 4) Friendly helpful people are a godsend – thanks Nick & bar staff. 5) No point worrying about not so friendly slightly unhelpful people. 6) Every cloud has a silver lining if you look for it. 7) Pumpkin and stilton make for a good pie, especially when served with mayonnaisey chips. 8) I love house concerts. Maybe one in Nijmegen next time? 9) Any audience chatter at gigs in England is like a pin drop compared to in Holland. 10) Prospect of a warm bed and midnight text messages makes a chilly walk home through floodlit wintry foreign streets a little bit special.
Ah, it was all absorbed and fed my soul a little.
Wednesday 21st // Nijmegen – Groningen // Gig #3 Jazzcafe de Speighel
Sightseeing in Nijemegen before train back to Groningen. Searched for historic centre but discovered that it had mostly been destroyed during World War Two. I did find a few old streets curving away from Stevenskerk (church) towards the wide low river however. Fishermans’ cottages. An antique/trinket shop with severed dolls’ heads balanced in the window. Children’s fairground roundabout, music box music. Ingredients for an atmospheric film-noir.
Early afternoon. On way to station found myself lost amongst streets of grand 19th houses, would have been happy to stop and stare for a while but bags and guitar too heavy, bit achey, couldn’t wait for seat. Starting to realise how back and forth my tour is – next time I must give Pete more time to organise shows so we can plan a more practical route.
Arrived Groningen about 5. Problems using left luggage, slight concern about retrieving bags. Cup of tea in station Starbucks – read, relaxed. Wandered into town, over the river, past the museum (on a little island?), along Folkingestraat to Grote Markt, shops closing, dusk. Time to kill. Wanted to leave guitar at Jazzcafé de Spieghel but not yet open. Ended up in a comforting familiar surroundings of a department store – V&D’s. Large restaurant on top floor – perfect to linger alone, space for luggage, choice of food vast, open till 8. Good. Then to the venue, open but I was still early.Very warm welcome from bar owner Jan. Cup of tea. Chats about his dogs, the bar, his brief love affair with a girl in London many years ago.Time to get ready. REAL PIANO. Can’t convey what it felt like to sit down and play, to feel the sound reverberating in this great shape in front of me. Miss that with digital pianos. Instant calm within me. Then SHOCK. No one to do sound – all down to me. Hmm. Recording and mixing in a studio is quite different from live sound, especially your own, but muddled through. Gig itself very laid back. Chilled audience. Noise not as bad as Café Camelot but still some murmuring. Enjoyed playing nonetheless. RELIEF. Laurens (putting me up for the night again) arrived towards the end of my set. Beer and wine time, chatted about Wishfulmusic Groningen, Lauren’s work at ‘International Pop Underground’ music venue Vera, his ambitious plans for the future. We ambled back through maze of streets, past the canal, through a park. Late night chats about music, sharing favourite sounds, discovering new gems. Then time to sleep. So tired, travelling catching up with me. Woken throughout night by the cat miaowing. Memories of living with Tamara and her cat Mr Scrunch over summer. Decided I definitely prefer dogs.
Thursday 22nd // Groningen – Utrecht // Gig #4 Cafe Averechts
Woke to sunlight behind silhouetted tree again. A pleasurable view. But a bit grumpy this morning – need a hot meal, the internet and some caffeine. Farewells, thank you Laurens for everything – the house concert, a place to stay, the music sharing, for collecting me from the gig. You always remember the good guys.
Amble to station through town via park and canals and a café and a few shops, a bead shop – drawers upon drawers of hundreds of trays of colourful beads. As my old friend Lucy would say ‘oomch’. Then supermarket Albert Heijn – bought pepernoten, cheese, blueberries. TRAIN AGAIN.
Arrived Utrecht late afternoon. Starbucks – again. Tea and muffin. Spilt boiling tea water on floor and hand. Told staff in case someone slipped on wet. Think they were pissed off. Was beyond caring. So glad to finally meet Joanna Weston who I was going to be staying with and playing that night’s show. She’s an English musician who moved to The Netherlands a few months ago, wonderful voice, great songs, lovely person. On way to her flat we bumped in to Sanne, Pete’s girlfriend. A familiar face in an unknown city, warming. Had planned to see her and few others later at gig anyway but was good to catch up beforehand – helps with gig build up. Chilled at Joanna’s place she shares with boyfriend Nick and guitarist Herjo. Great space. Temptation to move to Utrecht is growing. Supper. MACARONI CHEESE. Hot meal. Fabulous. And a hot shower. Extra fabulous. Off to gig. Excitement.
The gig. Ah. Just great. Café Averechts. Apparently run by volunteers, such a good vibe. Filled with friends of Joanna & band. Welcoming. Buzzing chatter during songs but audience still appreciative, sold lots of CDs & had great feedback. Joanna’s set vibrant, could happily have danced, fun, entertaining. Mmm. An excellent night. More farewells – doei doei Sanne, thanks for letting me stay in your home, for guiding me to the station, for coming to the show, for promoting my CD to the Random Man!! Back at Joanna’s, fell asleep passively stoned, immense relief that I’ve nearly made it to the end of the tour unscathed. Slight sadness too but already planning next adventure.
Friday 23rd // Utrecht – Westerwijtwerd // Huiskamercafé Westerwijtwerd
Joanna, Nick, Herjo – thank you for making me feel so welcome in your home, wish I had been less toured-out so I could have stayed up chatting. Utrecht – I have fallen in love with you and shall most definitely return. As I walked to the station to continue on the penultimate leg of my journey with the rain drenching my clothes and puddles drowning my suitcase, the streets started to feel familiar and homely. I can’t help wondering when I’ll return – under what circumstances? And what new adventures will I have had by the time I do?
Boarding the train to Groningen one last time. Names I now recognise. Amersfoort. Zwolle. Assen. I arrive. Rush to find stop for Bus 61 to Middelstum trying not to panic as I drift round the bus station in circles. Then all okay. I wait, perched on the bus stop bench with my guitar on my back, my suitcase by my side. The minutes pass, teenage lovers opposite are prolonging their goodbye, arms and legs bound together, mouths joined. Or maybe they’re just cold. It suddenly feels like Winter and I remember I’m now in the far North of this country. Bus arrives and I meet my first grumpy Dutch person… lo and behold.. the bus driver. I say Fraamklap but I must say it wrong. Oh well. Nearly there, my last show.
I watch the information screen on the bus obsessively for fear of missing my stop. I worry about retrieving my suitcase from where i’ve rammed it between seats. I worry about meeting Katrien at the other end. Again… it is all okay. The city gently filters away into fields – farmland and canals. It’s time to get off. Air is fresh, a chill, animal smells. Katrien, friendly and bubbly, picks me up in her car and off we go to her Huiskamercafé. The Huiskamercafé Westerwijtwerd. AH. THIS IS WONDERFUL. Another warm welcome. 19th Century red brick building – straight into the stone hall that was once upon a time the blacksmiths – breathing in the history. I meet Thomas, K’s husband, and they show me round the house. I love it. They bought it a couple of years ago to renovate over time, slowly. In the room next door to the blacksmith room is the Huiskamercafe – the ‘living room cafe’. (Originally the husband of house would forge and wife could offer food and drink in room next door). K & T open their modern take on the café at weekends to serve hearty homemade food – a large table seating maybe 12 people, a few smaller tablesand a REAL PIANO… with candle brackets. Rush of excitement and history and warmth and everything. In the kitchen two dogs to entertain. Mischievous. One – a croissant and pepernoten thief…
We eat. I prepare for the show. Sliding doors separate my room for the night from the living room. I sit here and drink sage tea. My pre-gig wonder drink. Voices fill the Huiskamercafé. Foreign voices, brewing, getting louder, nerves creep in. Time to begin… and where do I begin? The evening was a most amazing experience, a real pleasure, a special and memorable last night of the tour. Audience were so open, we chatted between songs, about my ancestors’ stories, about my stories, about Oxford, about creativity. I performed in two halves, a mix of guitar and piano songs and as I did I started to realise something. THIS is what playing music is about. It’s about sharing and meeting new people and exploring new boundaries and developing a two-way relationship. After taking my final bow and selling plentiful amounts of CDs – many people buying extra for gifts (thank you thank you thank you) – we sat around the great table drinking wine and talking into the night. Here’s a little of 1784 & Harpsichord Row:
Saturday 24th // Westerwijtwerd to UK
As I hurried to leave for the bus, the start of my journey home, a lady who had been in the audience appeared at the house. She was possibly the lady who had had tears in her eyes during one of the songs, I’m not totally sure. But here she was, desperate for a couple of CDs as I was about to load my things into Katrien’s car. Truly a fitting end to my tour – what more can a musician hope for than to emotionally connect with someone through music, to have a lasting impact?
Suitcase lighter, heart richer. Full of experiences and stories and memories. Bus to Groningen, road snaking along misty morning fields. Train to Rotterdam, change to Brussels. Eurostar. London. Oxford. 12 hours after leaving – home.
Thank you everybody who helped make my trip to The Netherlands such an adventure, particularly Pete who organised the whole tour – I quite honestly can’t wait to return. And whilst I’m at it, a HUGE thank you for all your support during 2012 – for spurring me on to finish Harpsichord Row, for your encouragement, for picking me up when I was down, for listening, for buying CDs or downloads, for reviewing, for coming to gigs, for giving me gigs, for taking the time to come and chat to me – the list is endless.
VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR WISHES TO EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU.
Bring on 2013.