Tuesday 26 March 2013

March Adventure

For my New Year's resolution, I promised myself that I would undertake a new adventure at least once a month.  This didn't have to be something as dangerous as swimming with sharks or parachuting out of an airplane.  I just wanted to make sure that I exposed myself to new experiences, new people and their lives.

In January, you may remember, that I went and visited the Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit in Loughton, Essex.  In February, I participated in recreating Michelangelo's Florence Pieta at the Mall Galleries in London.  I was Mary Magdalene!  This month, I volunteered our family home as a base for a semi-finalist in the Windsor Festival International String Competition.

When I first volunteered our services, I imagined it would begin and end with a clean bed, a warm shower, and a few hot meals.  I had no idea that we as a family would become so emotionally involved.

During the week of 11 March, we were told that Meng Feng Hsieh would be joining us and would be arriving at Heathrow airport on 18 March for us to pickup.  We knew nothing more about Meng Feng.

A quick google search revealed that Meng Feng was a he, that he was 23 years old, that he was from Taiwan and after studying in Singapore from the age of 16, he was currently in his last year of study in Zurich.  We also learned that he played the cello.  By watching his numerous YouTube videos, we quickly concluded that he played his cello very well indeed.

We subscribed to his YouTube channel, liked his fan page on Facebook and sent him a friend request on Facebook along with an introduction message.  We know knew what he looked like but weren't entirely sure about anything else than he was allergic to shellfish and didn't eat beef.  We didn't even know if he spoke English (although given that he studied in Singapore and Zurich, it was a fair bet that he did).

Armed with his name written on a sheet of paper and an image of his face from Facebook seared in my brain, I awaited his arrival at the airport.  He was easy to pick out as he was the only one carrying a cello on his back.  I should have guessed!
We chatted easily as I lost my way to our house from the airport, Terminal 5 and I having never met before.  Meng Feng hadn't slept well the night before so he crashed as soon as we got home.  This is going to be a breeze, I thought to myself as I prepared our dinner for the evening.  We took Meng Feng to St George's Chapel to attend Evensong with us and listen to Sebastian sing with the choir.  Meng Feng was very impressed with Sebastian which impressed Sebastian which impressed the hell out of me.

We then attended a small but perfectly formed drinks reception that evening sponsored by the Windsor Festival at the McDonald's Hotel.  We met some of the other host families and their corresponding competitors.  It was a friendly and jovial atmosphere.

That night we shared our evening meal with Meng Feng.  He fit into our family like pair of custom made leather gloves.  He laughed with us.  We shared stories.  He told us about his family and how he had gotten into the competition.  He told us about his studies and his dreams.  He told us what the competition meant to him.  And slowly but surely our hearts melted and we fell in love with him.  And he with us.

And then he went upstairs to the room we had designated as his rehearsal room (aka Sebastian's bedroom) and he began to practise his cello.  And our world tilted ever so slightly on its axis.  We stopped tidying up the dishes and listened.  We sat down on the sofa and listened.  Abigail went to bed and fell asleep to the beautiful music Meng Feng made.

It is hard to believe that just a young man and a cello can have such a profound effect on the lives of this ordinary family.  In that moment, I knew it was our job to do everything possible to make his dream of winning this competition come true.
Tuesday was spent rehearsing.  I am not just talking an hour or so.  I am talking about playing all morning.  Then practising for an hour with his pianist.  Then practising several hours in the afternoon.  We took a brief break to attend a reception at The Guildhall in Windsor hosted by The Worshipful Mayor of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Councillor Colin Raynor.   Then back to practising.

Our home was filled with beautiful and passionate music.  Our neighbour's homes were filled with beautiful and passionate music.  Our hearts were filled with beautiful and passionate music.

The next day dawned early for me.  I was up at the crack of dawn, showered and dressed, ready for the big moment.  At 2:00 pm we arrived at the McDonald hotel and the designated rehearsal room which was exquisitely furnished with everything and anything a person could need before a moment like this.

Meng Feng was the picture of poise.  I couldn't detect a single nerve, not a wobbly finger, not a shortness of breath.  I on the other hand was a bundle of nerves.  My heart felt like it was going to beat our of my chest and my stomach felt like a 1000 butterflies had taken flight.  I asked him if he was nervous.  He said no, because nerves wouldn't help.  I asked if he knew what his competition was playing.  He said no, because it wouldn't change what or how he played.

We walked across the street to The Guildhall.  The place was packed but I had a perfect seat.  Meng Feng took to the stage and played Bach, his first piece.  I held my breath through the entire thing.  It was exquisite.  then he played Beethoven.  My knuckles turned white and I became dizzy.  Then he played his piece de resistance, an emotional roller coaster of Dvorak.  My eyes filled with tears as he finished.  My applause hurt my hands.
I was so proud of him!  He couldn't have done it any better.  I had felt every note, every string, every movement, every beat, every breath.

That evening we took Meng Feng to see Abigail perform in her school play, a very modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet.  She was brilliant with the comic timing of a professional.  Meng Feng had become a member of our family and was along for the ride.  He applauded Abigail the same way I had applauded him.

Late that evening at 9 pm, we made our way back to the Guildhall.  All 8 semi finalists had finished playing,  the juries votes had been tallied, and the results were in.  The first name was announced.  And then the second.  I reached over and grabbed on to Meng Feng's hand.  The third name was announced.  None of those names were his.  I blinked.  Did the jury not hear what I heard?  Did they not feel what I felt?

And then I witnessed the joy of others and I knew this was part of competition.  Meng Feng knew that he had given his best.  When I asked if he was OK he told me, yes, he had another competition to start thinking about the trouble was I didn't.  Meng Feng hadn't made the finals and I was angry.  I wanted to hit someone.  Instead I waited until Meng Feng had wandered away and I shed a few tears into my husband's shoulder.

On Thursday all competitors visited local schools and talked to children about being a professional musician. I watched the children St Bernard's School in Langley become mesmerised by Meng Feng's playing.  They asked great questions and he gave great answers.  He talked about how he loved playing the cello because he felt he could express every one of his emotions through the instrument.  He talked about the sacrifices he and his family have made for him to reach this level.  He talked about the dedication, single minded focus and commitment it takes to play at this level.  He talked about the physical scars on his hands and chest that practising and playing for hours leaves on his body.  He talked about the poverty of being a musician.  He talked about his dreams of bringing beautiful music to the world. He talked about being thousands of miles away from his family since the age of 16.

I dropped Meng Feng off in Windsor so he could do the tourist thing and see around the castle and town of Windsor.  The pressure of the finals was off and he could enjoy himself a wee bit.  So the next day I took him and another competitor from China into London.  I drove them round all the sites showing off this glorious city we call London:  Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, The Tower of London, London Eye, Westminster Abbey, etc etc etc.  Being musicians they wanted to see Wigmore Hall and so we did.  We stopped in at Bishop Instruments and the Chinese musician got to have a go on a Stradivarius violin that is several hundred years old and worth twice as much as my home.  The bow she played it with is worth 3 times as much as my car.  I could barely breath.

Never before have I felt like I have been in the presence of such promise of the future.

That evening we attended the final performances held in the majesty and splendour of the Waterloo Chamber in Windsor Castle.  We were honoured to be invited to the Governor's home for drinks and canapes afterwards.  Our children were well behaved.  They didn't spill anything on the priceless antiques or ruin any of the paintings of historical significance.

The next morning as I lazed about in bed, I reviewed the order of the day in my head.  It had been planned out with military precision.  I had to have Abigail at the school by noon to rehearse her ballet show that would be performed that evening at 5 pm.  Then I had to drop Sebastian off at 1 to rehearse the Passiontide which would be performed that evening at St George's Chapel at 7:30 pm.  Then I had to head to the airport by 2 pm to drop Meng Feng off by 2:30 pm to catch his flight at 3:30 pm.  Then back to school for the ballet show, then a quick dinner out with the husband and then the Passiontide.  No problems.

Right up until about 10 am when Meng Feng checked his airline ticket and we discovered that the schedule the Windsor Festival had provided me with did not reflect the time indicated on his airline tickets.  His tickets said that his flight had been at 7:30 am, which we obviously had missed.  We tried calling the airlines but due to the unusual snow fall, the wait time on the phone was over an hour.  So Meng Feng packed up everything.  I rushed him and his belongings to the airport and said a hasty goodbye hoping he could get on the 3:30 flight.

I raced Abigail to the school and dropped Sebastian off at the same time.  I took a shower and waited.  Sure enough.  At 2:30 the phone rang and British Airways had been unable to get Meng Feng on the 3:30 flight but had confirmed his place on the 7:30 am flight the next morning so back to the airport I went.

Some might say this was destiny.  The ballet had been arranged so that each dancer could have 4 members in the audience instead of the usual 2, which meant Meng Feng could join us.  And, more importantly, I had accidentally bought 2 extra tickets to the Passiontide concert and we had only been able to resell 1 of them which meant we had an extra one.  Obviously, the gods of the fate had decided that Meng Feng was going to be here and would be needing this ticket.

We watched Abigail give a serene and elegant performance in the ballet, Peter and the Wolf.  After a quick bite to eat, we watched Sebastian give a professional and breathtaking performance as a chorister singing strong in a larger choir of over 80 adults in celebration of the Christian holiday of Easter.

We collapsed into our beds emotionally exhausted.  My husband had the task of getting Meng Feng to the airport by 5 am on Sunday morning to catch his flight.

As I lazed around resting on Sunday, my mind drifted to what a joyful and wonderful experience the week had been.  I never dreamt our family would have grown to have such fond feelings about someone who just a few days prior was a complete and utter stranger.  I never would have thought I would have children who would achieve so much at such a young age.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

I picked this book up based on a effusively glowing recommendation from fellow (but usually absent) book group member, Moray Barclay.  We had read the author's previous book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist to great acclaim.  I loved that book and usually, although not always, if I like one author's books with so much passion, I like other books of their.  Notable exceptions include Ian McEwan (Solar, among others, sucked), John Grisham (he's lost his edge), Dan Brown (all down hill from DaVinci), and Louis de Bernieres (should have never written another book after Captain Corelli's Mandolin).

I still am not sure how I feel about this book.  Similar to his previous book, I was never sure where the story was going or even what was happening as it was happening.  Unlike the previous book, nothing came together in the end.

Maybe I'm complaining for all the wrong reasons.  This isn't a happy book.  It tells a depressing story of unemployment, duplicity, loss of self esteem and identity, and ultimately loss of hope.  So when I finished reading it, I didn't feel any better for having read it.  When I read The Reluctant Fundmentalist, at least I felt that I walked away with an education.  This book just made me feel complete and utter despair, which might just be the point.

This book has the same laconic style of writing as his other novels.  Things happens quickly but you feel like you are watching it all in slow motion.  You can see the crash is going to happen and you are hoping for redemption at the end but life isn't like that.  And one thing Hamid does very well is not mess with the brutal reality of life in Pakistan.

I like reading books that are about subjects that I don't get much exposure to.  One of the reasons The Kite Runner is still one of my favourite books of all time is the fact that I had never heard that story before.  It was truly original.  I feel the same way about Moth Smoke.  

I gave this a 3 out of 5 stars.  This would be an excellent book group choice. In fact, please please please, would a book group pick this up and let me know what they think about it?

Monday 18 March 2013

The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

This book wins the prize for having the longest title of the year.  It also wins the prize for the book whose title I can never remember correctly.  But none of that matters because if you ask anyone who reads if they've read the "one-hundred year old man" book, they will know exactly which book you are talking about.  And they will, in all likelihood, have read it.  And it is a distinct probability that, like, me, they will have found it an entirely entertaining experience, as did I.

In a series of highly improbable but no less hilarious coincidences and happy meetings, a man with not many days left in his life, enjoys his remaining days and enlivens the lives of a few other no less deserving eccentric characters who cross his path.

Even more remarkable is the astonishing Forest Gump like influence his past had on key events in history spanning the entire globe and affecting just about every significant international crisis along the way.

This book was fun because it allowed a bit of a reminder of my history over the lasts 100 years whilst I was laughing out loud to the hysterical situations this mild mannered individual found himself in and then dug himself out of.

I gave this book a 4 out of 5 stars and would recommend this to anyone over the age of 45.  Any younger and the history lessons might just fly right over their head.

Friday 15 March 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I understand this is the debut novel from Gillian Flynn.  I can only say, I hope she writes the next one quickly because I can't wait to see if this is a one off.

I was completely mesmerized and captivated by this story. I couldn't put it down. I was tempted every 20 pages or so to jump to the end and read the last 5 pages. I just had to know how it ended. I resisted the temptation and am very glad I did.

I hated both the main characters, Nick and Amy, so much so that I wanted them both to come to a sticky end.  But the same way you slow down at the scene of a road traffic accident, I just had to keep reading.  How was this all going to end?  Who was going to win the ultimate battle of the psychopaths?

In the immediate aftermath of finishing the book, the ending spoilt everything that came before it. I'm not going to give it away and I have tried and tried to come up with a better ending. I don't have a good suggestion although I have to say it would have been anyone but the one it got.

And then I slept on it. And now I realise it was the perfect ending. For the perfect psychopath(s). I wouldn't change a thing.

As for Flynn's next novel, will she be able to match the wildly unpredictable and clever ending.  Or was this the most original idea she will ever have?  I'm hoping for the former.

I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars and highly recommend it for books groups.  Ours were evenly divided between those who loved the ending and those who hated the ending.  No punches were thrown.

Thursday 14 March 2013

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This was one of  book group choices for February, which is quite fitting given that we had freezing temperatures and a wee bit of snow during the month.  I picked both the books for February so I might be biased here but live with it.

I really enjoyed the language of the book.  Ivey used everyone of the sensory perceptions available to bring that harsh landscape to life.  I could hear the snow crunching under my feet as I traipsed through the forest.  I could feel the snow on my face as the brutal winter broke.  I could smell the decay of autumn leaves as summer came to a staggering halt. I could touch the feathers and the rough clothing.  I could taste the monotony of the first sparse winter meals.

I got lost in the beauty of the challenges faced.  But then I got lost in the story. 

I loved the characters of Jack and Mabel.  I even loved their names.  I thought the speed of the plotting was very well done despite the descriptive language.  I couldn't stop reading.

And then it all ended.  And that's where the troubles began.  We had a lengthy debate at book group about whether the entire book is a fairy tale or is Faina a real girl.  If she is real, how does she survive all alone.  If she isn't real, how does she get married?

Seldom does a child bring a couple together, usually because the first years of a child's life are difficult on a marriage   But if that child came to a marriage at a later age, could she really bring them closer together?  Or would that have happened anyway out of necessity in the harsh reality of the Alaskan wilderness?

I like the book if I imagine it as a fairy tale.  I like it a lot less if it is not meant to be a fairy tale.

I give this book 4 out of 5 stars but with a strong recommendation for book groups.  There is a lot to discuss.