Monday, 26 September 2011

Smelly Neighbour

OK, she's bonkers, she's fine, really, but when you come home and find that your place stinks of cat when you don't even own one, then you know something's awry. She has seven up there (so to speak), along with a couple of dogs, some rabbits and some birds. Mrs. F did spread some balsam on the wound by reminding us that she was, actually, incredibly quiet, which is true. For my part, I chewed over the concept that in this country, where rights take continual precedence over responsabilities and duties, it appeared to be impossible to reasonably 'expect' two complementary qualities from one person i.e. that they respect your personal space and don't stink like a warthog. Our compensation for the fact her insanitary, reeking, third-floor personal-therapy zoo is deemed acceptable is because she doesn't wake us with rap 'music' at 3am or impromptu, midnight flamenco classes. Were she to, we may be permitted to reflect on the fact that she didn't smell like a third-world sanitary installation. Nice trade-off, eh?

Is it like this everywhere? Or just the street where I live?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Delightful skin conditions.

We moved to Toulouse in October, 2004. In December of that year my fingers started developing cracks which then refused to heal until the weather improved, making for long winters, pianistically speaking. This irritating little condition then disappeared for a few months before, apparently for no reason,  rearing its head again and staying a little longer and spreading a little further. This pattern continued for a couple of years before getting serious, so I finally decided to have it looked at by a dermatologist. By this time I'd heard every possible medical explanation, ranging from conventional medicine's catch-all concept of treating the symptoms and not the cause to homeopathic calls to purify yourself from the inside out, preferably to the accompaniment of a CD of New Age music, available from the receptionist at €12.99. My eczema attacks became longer and more violent until I was finally prescribed neutral soap, a moisturising cream and a pot of cortisone to keep my paws on the straight and narrow, at least until that particular bout was over. I remember playing Carmen with the fourth finger of my left hand curled up against my palm, completely useless, and simplifying Meistersinger almost to the level of Peter Rabbit Plays Richard Wagner. I was told it was linked to my recurrent hay fever and that, basically, nothing could be done. I had to live with it and go through these periods when they chose to descend. Fine.

My current bout of eczema started in February of this year. I remember having it when I started yoga in March and cortisone and a Mapuche aloe vera compound cream helped me through my stay in Santiago de Chile. It had eased off considerably by the time I started in Bayreuth in June and strategically-timed bouts of cortisone kept the door bolted until I got back to Toulouse after my private concert in Leipzig on September 7th. After that, my hands exploded, literally. Within two days they looked liked something out of a horror film: my fingers went dark red, brown and green and cracked open, oozing a vile, toxic discharge which needed to be mopped up every fifteen minutes or so. At the same time, the skin around my eyes became inflamed, swelling up and giving me a false, neanderthal brow whilst covering over half my pupils. I looked like a cross between Fu Manchu and the Elephant Man and only ventured out with sunglasses, even when it was raining.

I made an appointment to see an acupuncturist who also specialises in homeopathic remedies. It was a good visit and he prescribed a modest dose of natural medication. The next day, a colleague grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me to his favourite magnetic healer, who immediately diagnosed my problem as me not wanting to play the piano any more and wishing to return to conducting. Apparently that's why I could no longer see nor play scores. After some prodding and poking he also suggested a few domestic issues which could be addressed and, before leaving me pensive and profoudly depressed, prescribed a shopping list of homeopathic medicine which left my local chemist gleefully planning a week in the Bahamas.

Rightly or wrongly, I just added this new round of medication to that prescribed by the acupuncturist. Seeing my hands immediately getting worse I contacted the acupuncturist and asked for an emergency appointment. To his credit, he saw me that same afternoon. Mrs. F and I cycled off to his surgery, where I sat in the waiting room with my sunglasses on and my arms folded, just so as not to frighten anyone else in the waiting room. After a few minutes I felt peculiarly sick, so stood up and made my way to the loo. The next thing I remember was being seized by the doctor and manoeuvred to one of his acupuncture couches. I'd blacked out at the door to the loo, my blood pressure was in the basement and now he was there binding my arm and pumping air into the reservoir. It didn't take long until I was feeling OK, so I also told him my dick had started itching awfully that lunchtime and would he mind having a look. The swelling was apparently due to the cocktail of incompatible pixie-dust I'd been swallowing in good faith and that it would go down very quickly. Later that afternoon, in front of this same computer, I checked my spam folder and found something I'd never received before: a mail exhorting me to increase the size of my member. Maybe the doctor sent it.

Anyhow, the acupuncturist said I was to stop the homeopathic medicine immediately and referred me to a conventional dermatologist - who would take me between patients - to get some good old white man's medicine. Cortisosteroids and antibiotics were the order of the day, then we could see about the natural treatment later. We turned up at the dermatologist's surgery and were seen almost immediately. The doctor's first words upon seeing me were "Fucking Hell" ('Oh, putain!'), a bizarre sort of compliment, if you like. He prescribed me a course of treatment which could fell a rhino at 600 yards: Silver Nitrate, Scrubs, Corticosteroids, Antibiotics and Cortisone Cream, just so that I can be pianistically up and running again by tomorrow. Once we've successfully masked the real problem an umpteenth time I'll be able to go back to the acupuncturist and find out exactly why my hands refuse to work every few months. For the Tibetan-trained healer it was clear: I'm not happy in my job. Whether or not that's true I don't know, but it certainly doesn't feel it on a superficial level: I work in a great theatre at a high level, have regular, challenging avocational pursuits, am with my children every day and live in a very sweet flat (although too small) in a beautiful city. Billions would kill for that, and I realise it. OK, I do miss conducting, but not on an everyday level. After being a lazy shit all through my teens and twenties I still marvel that top grade classical institutions want to keep me on their payroll. The last thing I conducted, other than my choir, was an opera in 2009 which, despite the complications involved and the knife-edge final few days when everything looked like imploding, was probably the most satisfying musical venture I've experienced in recent years, maybe ever. The subsequent studio recording was complex and time-consuming, as was the editing, but the only stressful aspect was making sure I wasn't late for the theatre after a few hours in front of the mixing desk. Let's be realistic, though: these projects don't grow on trees and my family needs to eat. Unless Stadttheater Khatmandu comes 'a-knocking with the offer of a conducting post, we're here for the foreseeable, and if the magnetist's diagnosis is correct, then my next challenge will be making peace with my decision to stay planted in front of the ivories.

So here I am, stabbing away at the keys with hands blackened by silver nitrate and rendered quasi-immobile by cortisone and my own frenzied friction attacks (which I'll have to stop, but hell, it's difficult sometimes). My digits should be up and running sufficiently to bash through the organ part in Tosca tomorrow afternoon, then there's the prospect of a much lighter October where I just have a lot of university English tuition here, and a wisdom tooth extraction around the middle of the month. By that time I should be having needles stuck into me, too. So this year, as I slide naked down the razorblade bannister of life towards my fiftieth birthday, will be all about trying to patch up what can be saved of my existence before the countdown towards my free bus pass starts in earnest. Maybe this is the beginning of a mid-life crisis, but I feel just as upbeat and optimistic as I normally do, occasional rants aside.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Flying's no fun, anymore.

To anyone who regularly stepped on an airplane in the 1990's, the next statement won't come as any surprise: Flying is no fun, anymore. There.

Between Santiago de Chile, Germany, England and the Czech Republic, I've had a pretty airborne summer. Of the thirteen flights I've taken since May 22nd, eight were delayed, some of those causing me to miss connecting flights. Thinking back to the halcyon days of the early to mid-1990's when I flew almost exclusively Business and First Class, I can't remember so many planes taking off late, or maybe I just didn't care, sipping on a G&T in a real glass in the Senator Lounge with a Dunhill between my lips. Now I don't smoke anymore and the increased democratisation of air travel has led to scores of frequent flyers with grimy trilby hats and carry-on live chickens in cages, all of which has led me to believe that flying is now a mug's game. I've already written about the comatose Swiss in and around Zurich Airport but let me recount what happened earlier this week when I was scheduled to fly to Leipzig to give a private concert for a luxury car manufacturer.

My concert was due to start at 8.30pm in the Presidential Suite of a new, five-star hotel in the centre of Leipzig. I booked a flight out of Toulouse which would, after a change in Frankfurt, plunk me down on the outskirts of J.S. Bach's home town at 2pm, leaving me six full hours to rest, have a trip to the spa, practise and generally prepare for what was not an insignificant appearance. I checked in online the day before and got to Toulouse Airport early, just to be on the safe side. The first thing I saw was that our flight was delayed a full hour, endangering my connection in Frankfurt. The girl on the desk informed me that there was no problem, as the connection was also delayed. OK, I though, getting to Leipzig at 3pm instead of 2pm is no big deal. All flights out of Frankfurt were apparently delayed that day. Were they f***.

We landed in Frankfurt at 1pm, the time my connection was meant to be leaving, and, in the absence of any kind of information board whatsoever, I legged it to Terminal A, only to find the flight Frankfurt-Leipzig had just left, presumably the only flight leaving on time from Frankfurt that day. The next was at 5.15pm. If all went well, I'd be at the hotel two hours before curtain up. Faced with four hours to kill in the land that time and taste forgot, I set off to find a sushi bar. The Japanese noodle bar, Mouschmousch, is actually pretty good, more enjoyable if you've decided there's nothing you can do about your fate and just accept your karma that day. Needless to say, the 5.15pm to Leipzig was also delayed and I ended up landing in Saxony at 7pm, arriving at the hotel a mere hour before the recital was due to begin, still needing to have a quick rehearsal with the singer, sit down for a few minutes' rest and get changed. I was so tired and concentrated when the concert began that I played liked a God, even if I say it myself. When you know there'll be no safety net if you lose concentration you force yourself to go that extra mile during the real thing. The audience benefits, believe me. My one regret was not having the time to check out everything the hotel had to offer, so I had to make do with salivating over the broschure on the flights back, which, needless to say when you have no pressure on time and no appointment to catch at your destination, all left and arrived on schedule.

Flying is now as ordinary and bland as waiting for a National Express Coach to take you to Peterborough. Songs like Come Fly With Me belong to a bygone era, when a seat in the sky was, for many people, the height of distant romance, not evocative of a Ryanair short-haul where you have to pay to watch Gerard Depardieu piss on the carpet. No; flying is now on a par with regional rail travel; too many people do it; there's no room or space left, delays are the norm and services cut to lower prices to enable even more peasants to buckle up and enjoy the still-free, crappy Languedoc wine. I paid a handsome price for my last trip and still had my drinks out of a plastic skip; not so many years ago, Lufthansa still gave you glasses.

All over the world, there are Centres of Approximate English (CAEs). These locations are called airports. I can appreciate the desire to make English the global lingua franca, but, for God's sake, do it right. It's not a difficult tongue, but once you've heard or read the suggestion to 'Speak to our staff who will advice you' or 'Change your ticket against a rail pass in case of cancellation', you feel like shouting 'For f***¨sake, we have very little grammar! The only difficulty lies in the pronunciation, so please stop trying to make us all sound like José Bové'. My favourite experience was at Frankfurt Airport on the way back, where I had a three-hour layover before my connection to Toulouse. Peckish around noon, I decided to have some potato wedges. My server was called Niko and, according to his badge, 'spoke' Greek, German and English. I started out in German and, unable to understand him, tried English. Both to no avail. Bear in mind that these are two languages I really do know my way around. I decided his badge meant that he was able, with either German, Greek or English facial expressions, to give an approximate impersonation of an obscure Amazonian dialect. In the end, I just pointed at the potatos and proffered him a €5 note. They'd clearly sat on that stainless steel slide for the best part of Angela Merkel's last term in office and tasted dull and nondescript. At least there was an Audi A7 Quattro to coo at and salivate over in the concourse afterwards.

My biggest gripe with all this flying nonsense is the half-hearted attempts by the airline companies to still give you the impression you're special, that you're part of a privileged airborne club. You're not, so they should really stop trying to kid us. Special these days is flying your own plane. As in all walks of life these days: when 'service' is ubiquitous and mediocre, the real luxury is DIY.