Saturday, January 28, 2012


A two week tour of Europe at seven months pregnant? Sure, why not...?!

hey--it's me! on the Tube!
We began our tour in England, where as you can see they have very cute pregnant logos.   I had been invited to teach and perform with Girls in Trouble (in trio incarnation, with with the remarkable David Freeman on drums) at the Limmud Conference, an unparalleled, all-volunteer festival of Torah study, late night discos and political debate.

 Needless to say, over two thousand British Jews studying, dancing, and drinking Guinness for a week--at this case, at the University of Warwick in Coventry--deserves its own blog post. For now, I will just say that it was an incredible experience for all of us in GIT; the love flowed along with the Guinness, and I am profoundly grateful for the help, support, loaned body pillow, borrowed guitars and drums, and the amazing energy of the Conference, which Aaron and I carried with us for the rest of tour.

After a couple nights staying with our dear friend Nina in London, we flew to Turin to start tour with a night off on New Year’s Eve, during which we wandered downtown from our hotel, noticed a stream of people flowing towards a central square, and ended up celebrating with what seemed to be everyone in Torino. I must say, they know how to decorate a town center in Torino-- 

nice hat, Hartman.

and New Years in the streets is pretty awesome without open container laws.  Each group of friends had their own champagne bottle and plastic cups, and toasted 2012 as a massive Italian big-band played on the square.

Torino just after midnight, 1/1/12.  A little hard to see how many thousands of people are celebrating.

The next day we were picked up by Roberto, who (not to be too melodramatic) I will forever think of as our angel. Roberto is a fantastic musician, a classics grad student, and a friend of Monique, our Italian booking agent. When he heard we were planning to travel by train, he offered to drive us for the first week of our tour – AND to host us on a day off at his parents’ house in a small town – AND to set up an intimate house concert, which turned out to be magical and one of our favorite nights of the tour. Roberto ended up also translating, sourcing an emergency electronic converter for us, doing sound, and becoming a close friend. I only hope we get a chance to repay some of his extreme hospitality one day.

There is a really awesome community of artists and friends in Roberto's small town.  A musician-designer friend cooked dinner for all of the performers in the kitchen and we all ate together, family style,

delicious risotto and vegetables for all the musicians in Roberto's family's kitchen before the show...

before we all headed up stairs for one of the best nights of tour - the other groups performing included a harp duo (during which the baby was kicking delightedly), and a theater artist-songwriter who lent me his loop pedal because I didn't yet have a converter, and whose lyrics made everyone laugh hysterically and made me kick myself (in time with the baby's kicks) for not speaking Itallian.

Duo of beautiful harpists, apparently the baby's favorite music yet, based on kick counts.

After the house concert, we slowly worked our way from Torino to Florence, with Roberto our angel at the wheel of his Fiat, and Zorba (which somehow became the baby’s in-utero name) dancing away inside me.  Awesome things: the food of course, and the sometimes shocking roadside restaurant decor;

Aaron and Roberto at a random restaurant by the side of the road in Central Italy

the wine and coffee (which in Italy even pregnant women are encouraged to enjoy, in moderation of course, don't send me angry emails);  the afternoons walking around old cities, even the ones we weren’t playing in – Bologna, Ferrara; and meeting up with friends (Henry and Francesca!) for an afternoon of coffee and castle-ogling.

the moat in Ferrara

Not-awesome: coming down with a serious cold and not being able to take real medicine for fear of hurting wee Zorba.

This cold actually began on our last stop in London, but by the third day of Italy tour it had fully taken effect, and taken most of my voice with it. Being sick on tour is never fun, but it was especially depressing not to be able to sing except for a few notes in my lower range. Despite lots of homeopathic Italian-pharmacy treatment, I struggled with this the whole time.   But, while I was frustrated that most of my voice was not really working and I had to rewrite all the melodies within a five-note very low range, at least we never had to miss a show.

 We continued traveling south, played close to the Leaning Tower of Pisa

I may be about to sneeze on you, but I am still really psyched to see this leaning tower I've always heard about.

and, a few nights later, a couple blocks away from the Duomo in Florence (so we got to do a lap around it after the show, all lit up at midnight!)

We also played at a bar called Die Hard;  we noticed on the way there that whereas most of the venues wrote "2 drinks per person" on our drink allowance, the owner of that one had written "Drink until the alcohol is gone."  We discussed what that might mean.

It all made sense once we arrived.  Throughout the evening Aaron and Roberto were strongly encouraged to try a variety of increasingly performative shots, culminating in the grand finale, in which they had to take a mouthful of one liquor, to dip a finger in a shot of something else, light that finger on fire, and put the flaming finger in their (own) mouth to extinguish the fire.  I was very glad to use Zorba as an excuse to avoid that particular cultural experience.

pyrotechnic mixologist. great cook.

We bid a sad farewell to Roberto in Florence and continued on to Rome, where we played at a lovely club called Le Mura and got to have dinner with our friend Rachel.

By the end of that night I really wasn’t feeling great.  We had a day off the next day, and were desperately trying to find a place where I could sleep late.  The excellent sound engineer, Paolo, turned out also to be something of an angel and took us to his family’s house north of Rome, where he lives, at 2:30 am.
We ended up staying for two nights so I could rest and recuperate, and meeting his parents, who took great care of us. Paolo’s mother actually turned out to be a professor of American literature who loves twentieth century poetry, so we had some great conversations.  I tried to repay at least part of their generosity with a fireside fiddle concert the second night, and the gift of our albums. 

The next morning, Paolo took us to the train station and we did the seven-hour ride (comfortable compartment! Mediterranean out the window almost the whole way!) down to Sicily. The train itself actually rolled onto a large ferry and crossed the Strait of Messina, and then dropped us off in Messina, where we were met by a lovely group of people who took us out to traditional Sicilian food.

 I thought of my Grandpa Al, who had taken a semester off of college to work on a Merchant Marine ship. They were docked in Italy, and on off-hours, he would walk with his fellow sailors through the streets of a town draped in swastika banners. Still, it came as a surprise when World War II was suddenly declared, placing the American ship in enemy waters. They had to turn off all their running lights and motor as quietly as possible out of the notoriously dangerous Strait of Messina, escaping both notice from the Italians, and shipwreck on the rocks below and to either side.

We, however, were quite comfortable taking the (fully lit, very safe) ferry back and forth between Messina and Reggio Calabria, where we played at an incredible restaurant and performance space called Locanda I Tre Farfalli. We joked with them about starting a branch in Brooklyn; I would happily eat their fried eggplant every night.

Zorba looking out at the strait of Messina, where my grandfather sailed maybe 70 years ago.

After two weeks of coughing, we figured it might be prudent to go to the doctor, so we stopped by a hospital near where we were staying in Messina. How did we spend an hour there and then sneak out rather than looking for a doctor with a stethoscope? Well…
  1. The ER people sent us to Building F, where the elevator doors opened and the first thing we saw was a man lighting a cigarette in the hallway.
  2.  Even the doctors we found in the smoky hallway couldn’t figure out what the paper from the ER meant. They banged on a couple doors and finally produced a nurse who seemed equally confused.
  3. This somehow ended with me and Aaron sitting in a small room and a doctor looking in my ears (fine) and then taking a long black plastic tube, rinsing it in cold water, and coming at my nose. No, per favore, dottore! They seemed amused that I wouldn’t let him stick this unsanitary tube in my nose.
  4.  Finally they shrugged and moved on to the throat exam. A nurse brought a small silver dish with a cottonball, squirted something on it, and set it on fire with a lighter. The doctor held a dentist’s-mirror-looking-implement in the flame for a while, wiped it off, and stuck it in my mouth. Throat fine.
  5.  But he couldn’t listen to my lungs because he was an ear, nose and throat doctor. Only pulmonologists had stethoscopes. I would have had to go back to the ER, explain again that I had a cough and wanted someone to listen to my lungs, and get another reference, to who knows where.


It seemed more dangerous to hang around that place than to just continue on (and I really was doing fine, just wanted to be safe) so rather than return to the ER, we headed down to the bus station, glad to have a clean bill of health for my throat and ears at least. We boarded a bus, passed Mount Etna--which had recently erupted although I could see no trace of it--and finally reached our furthest south stop, Catania. Aaron had been excited for Catania since we first learned we were going there, and I think it was my favorite stop of the tour. We played at a space which had been an opulent theater but was destroyed by bombing during WWII, and had been largely empty ever since except for intermittent use as rehearsal space. A group of artists recently took it over, basically squatting in it (as an art-space rather than a living-space), and, entirely unpaid, have poured energy into creating this incredible theater.

Teatro Coppola=awesome.

When we played there, they had had a full month of performances, with all donated labor (performers, sound crew, the women sewing stage curtains when we arrived) and all proceeds going to the theater renovations. It felt like a sacred space, with a lovely audience who felt like friends somehow.
The next day we walked around beautiful Catania a bit, admired the famous elephant-obelisk statue, and then went to a local studio so I could record some violin on a song in Sicilian dialect written by Cesare Basile, who took care of us in Catania and is a legendary local (and touring) musician as well. I’ll let you know when it’s released this spring, I am very excited to hear the rest of the songs.

the engineer setting up mic's.  really cool hand built drumset in the background.

So. Adventure complete (and the cold was, happily, proclaimed harmless by my Brooklyn midwife who had no problems locating a stethoscope despite not being a pulmonologist). Grazie mille to Monique, Roberto, Paolo, Cesare, and everyone who took care of us on the road. I wonder if the baby will come out with some sort of affinity for Italian food and culture – I wouldn’t be surprised. I guess we’ll just have to return with him/her and see.


  1. Great story! Glad to see happy faces in that last picture.

    1. Kaya Stern-KaufmanMarch 10, 2012 at 4:58 PM

      Such a pure delight to read of your adventures! and now on to the biggest adventure of your lives...
      B'sha'ah tovah!
      We are thinking of you and sending love-
      Remember deep belly breathing.
      Kaya and Zushe