Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Found Sound Nation and the Lucerne Festival, August 2011

August 22, 2011

For the next three weeks, Found Sound Nation is leading a series of projects in collaboration with the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland.

The School Project: a music-writing workshop (using found sounds and audio technology) at a school in Nebikon for 10 boys between the ages of 15-17, and their teachers. Our goal is to give the kids an opportunity to discover their own music, connect with one another, and engage in a fun learning experience.

On Thursday, August 25, we’ll host a party at the “Buvette,” which will include a presentation of our work with the boys, and live mixing of sounds created by the people who stop by the party.

As part of the Spotlight program of the Lucerne Festival Academy, Found Sound Nation will continue over the next two weeks with a street studio project, in which anyone can come off the streets of Lucerne to record and mix sounds in our mobile street studio. The sounds will be posted to our site and/or Facebook page periodically as we mix everything together.

Found Sound Nation and the Lucerne Festival: School Project Day 1

I'm thrilled to be in Lucerne, Switzerland, where Found Sound Nation was invited by the Lucerne Festival to lead a series of projects, including a song-writing workshop for a group of teenagers in Nebikon. This iteration of the Found Sound Nation crew includes Chris, Jeremy, Elena, myself, and our newest member and videographer/musician/projectionist/all-around-awesome-guy Temujin Doran.

August 23, 2011

Accompanied by Johannes Fuchs (the Education Director at the Lucerne Festival), his girlfriend Katarina, and his assistant Melanie, we trekked over to Nebikon from Lucerne this morning at 7.30am. Saddled with musical instruments, audio production equipment, and big ideas for connecting with 17-year old Swiss boys through music, we arrived in Nebikon to the smell of cow dung and the site of marvelous green hills.

The school – which we're told is new and exclusively for students who have been held back in school due to behavioral and social challenges – stood behind the train station, and we were greeted by one of the lovely teachers, Marie-Louisa. After setting up the room (a Zoom here, two laptops there, a projector here, an XLR there), we met with the four teachers who would participate in the workshop alongside the students.

While we had planned to include teachers and staff as much as possible (we encourage everyone to be a participant in our workshops and not merely observers), we hadn't anticipated the challenge this would cause in creating a safe space for the students. We began the day in one room in a big circle: 10 boys between the ages of 15-17, 4 teachers, 3 staff members from the Lucerne Festival, and 5 Found Sound Nationers. Already, there were more adults than students.

Chris and Jeremy began with a warm-up of a game they call Toma Toma, in which one person spends one minute making and recording any sound they'd like for an audio track, and another person builds on that track by creating one minute of his own music. And so on and so forth, until we've recorded multi-layered tracks that can be considered musical vignettes developed as a group. While some of the students participated right away, others were reticent to approach the mic, and we wondered if this was a combination of fear of “performing” in front of peers (it was their 2nd day of school), inhibition to “perform” in front of their teachers, or simply discomfort with working in a setting that was being led in English with German translation (my once-fluent German going to waste in the midst of Schweizer-Deutsch dialect).

We managed to record a few short tracks during Toma Toma before breaking for lunch. Over lunch, we re-assessed our strategy and decided on another approach to invite the students to feel freer to create some meaningful material that they felt they owned.

The strategy was as follows: we'd split into four musical stations and four groups of students, accompanied by a teacher. Each group would have 30 minutes to work at each musical station to create and record music that they liked. In one room, Tem worked with the groups on a piano. The lyric-writing station was led by Elena, a teacher, and Melanie. Jeremy and I developed melodies with the groups (with two French horns, melodica, ukelele, and voices), and Chris worked with the groups on creating beats. At the end of the day, we all came back together to hear the clips that we'd created. Feedback from the day? The students loved the beat-station the best (unsurprisingly; it is exceedingly cool).

(Tem plays the Uke)

What surprised us was the variety of songs that the boys came up with. One student wrote angry lyrics about smoking drugs, envy of brand-name clothes, and wishing ill upon his enemies by explaining that when he has a house with a garden, he'll stick them in the backyard as a little garden gnome (which, although a hateful phrase, couldn't help but be slightly amusing coming out of Switzerland). Another student wrote a moving text about death. Yet another student wrote a heartbreaking love song that was easy to put a melody to, and which we all pleasantly had in our heads the rest of the day.

We look forward to another workshop tomorrow, in which the students will choose which tracks to put together for a full song. Out of nothing, appears something beautiful and bedeutungsvoll.

(Note: this blog will be re-posted to the FSN website with more photos and videos of the students.)

Found Sound Nation and the Lucerne Festival: School Project Day 2

(CONTINUED from Day 1 of Student Workshops in Nebikon)

August 24, 2011

The sessions began today at 8.30am. The students and teachers piled into the large room right on time, and ready to go. It's always fascinating to see the change that people go through once they understand this musical process. Instead of feeling tentative, they're eager to dive right in and create. Already, we noticed that some of the boys sat next to each other, put their arms around one another's shoulders, laughed and joked together like old friends (when they were strangers the day before).

We began by listening to the tracks that Chris and Jeremy had cleaned up (compressed, etc.) the night before (until 3am). For the most part, the students were happy with what they heard. I think that hearing the music they'd written gave them confidence to make more and better musical decisions, and they seemed eager to get to work, developing and combining the tracks into actual songs.

Two of the groups stayed with Chris, Elena, and Melanie, while two of the groups came with Jeremy, Tem, and me. We spent the next two hours re-recording vocals, overlaying additional instruments, adding some extra beats, until finally we had four really great tunes.

But even more remarkable than the music that emerged this morning was the feeling of camaraderie that enveloped us as we worked together. The boys cheered each other on when they heard something they liked; they respectfully listened quietly when we were recording someone; they listened to playbacks huddled together like a team. They trusted Jeremy, Tem, and I not to tell them what to do, but simply to support whatever musical decisions they wanted to make.

There were two examples that really underscore this point about the transformation of some of these young men. I should preface this by saying that we're fully aware of the complexity of using the word “transformation” when it comes to a 1.5 day workshop, and that whatever we noticed might only be a temporary uplifting of moods. Still, there were two moments that highlight what makes this work so damned rich for all of us.

The first example is of a young man, who, on the first day, was totally hyperactive and on the border of being “out of control.” He demanded to be the center of attention, and while he was basically a good kid, he overshadowed the others and made it difficult for them to participate in the music-making. By the second day, as the boys began to bond with one another and form friendships, the unruly one began to settle down. He somehow realized that his opinion wasn't going to trump the decisions of the group, and he patiently waited while others recorded and developed their tracks. He was brilliant at beat-boxing, and seemed happy to bring his skills to the table to enhance the beats of the tunes. I loved watching him soften, becoming aware that it's OK to be part of the group, and not always “on.”

The second example was in regards to the shyest boy of the bunch, and perhaps the one with the worst self-image. Before I continue, I should explain something about myself: in working with children, I am always attracted to the most difficult one, and I find myself drawn to include the kid who sits in the back of the room stewing in his misery and self-loathing. I'm not sure why, but this has always been the case. So it's no surprise that I noticed Michael* (name changed for protection) sitting deliberately further away from everyone in each of our sessions. He made no effort to participate. When we were in the small groups yesterday, I began to understand that he is deeply self-conscious and angry. In that session, I had tried to include him in multiple ways, but continually failed. However, I noticed one thing: he would mutter to himself under his breath, and somehow I understood his voice and the German to know that he was making comments on the music. Things like, “that's not the right beat for this song,” or, “that needs another melody.” He was making musical decisions to himself, without wanting to actively participate.

Today, while we were completing the tracks, we were asking everyone to give us text they'd written that we hadn't used yet. He handed me his text but insisted that he didn't want to use it. When I asked why, he said it sucked. I offered to work with him on developing it if he didn't like it, and asked him some questions about what he didn't like. He wasn't cooperating in the conversation, so I asked him to come to a corner where the rest of the group couldn't hear us. I explained that we didn't have to use his text if he didn't want to, but that we were here to help him make music that he liked. He replied with, “Es ist mir egal” (it doesn't matter to me at all), and “kann ich einfach sitzen und nicht mitteilen?” (can't I just sit and not participate?) Here, I “outed” him by saying, “I don't believe that you don't care. I've overheard you yesterday muttering your opinion about the music under your breath, and I believe you have many opinions about the music. So, what do you think? What would you do with these tunes if you could do anything?” Aha! It was here he snapped (in a good way!) and said, “well, actually, yeah, I don't like the beats you chose to use today, but I loved some of the beats from yesterday that we made. One of them was one of the coolest beats I've ever heard, and I'd like to hear that one again.” Later, Jeremy and I ended up finding the beat he was referring to and including it in a song, and while Michael continued to sit in the back of the room quietly, he smiled when we all listened to the track later and he recognized the beat that he'd chosen for it. Perhaps not the most glorious "teaching moment" on my part (although I was secretly very proud to have conducted our whole conversation in German), but a minor success with a boy who probably rarely gives himself an opportunity to feel proud of his accomplishments.

By the end of the day, we all gathered in one room to listen to what we'd created together. It was fantastic! And the best news of all: the teachers are going to arrange for the students to come to Lucerne for our party at the Buvette on Thursday night, where we'll present the boys' work and explain the project to the public.

While we may not see these boys again after Thursday (or at least for a long time), we hope that they'll walk away knowing that they created and owned something that is exclusively theirs.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

TEDxNewYork moves to Saatchi & Saatchi!

As some of you know, I "inherited" the facilitator/curator role of TEDxNewYork earlier this summer. TEDxNewYork is an independently organized TED event, and our format is simple: we meet weekly, watch a video of a TED talk, and then discuss it for 40 minutes within a diverse and dynamic group of New Yorkers. In the TED spirit of "ideas worth spreading," we share our ideas with each other in a mighty little NY community.

Currently, TEDxNY has a team of moderators, including myself, Gina Bria, Christine Hart, and TEDxNY founders (and licensee) Don McKinney and Chel O'Reilly.

We have some exciting news: TEDxNewYork is moving to Saatchi & Saatchi! The world-renowned creative communications company has graciously invited us to host our salons at their headquarters on 375 Hudson Street. We send many thanks to the team at Grey for all of their support over the years, and will remember our salons there fondly.

If you're interested in getting involved, or if you have any questions, please write to

Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday, August 12, 2011

TEDxNY Salon: August 12, The power of the body to communicate

Today, our guest facilitator Gina Bria chose two shorter videos, which we watched back to back (Ron Gutman's "The Hidden Power of Smiling", and Julian Treasure's "Five Ways to Listen Better"). We enjoyed comparing and discovering the powers of our bodies to communicate. When we left, many more people were smiling at each other. What can you change to become more attuned to your environment, to connect more with others?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

On Writing for the Createquity Fellowship: July 2011

This spring, I wrote for as part of the site's inaugural Fellowship. Our charge was simple: write at least two shorter blogs, and two longer blogs, about topics that interest you. One of the longer blogs needed to be a piece for the Arts Policy Library, to read, summarize, and analyze arts policy literature.

When I learned that I'd received the fellowship, I already knew two topics that I wanted to explore: El Sistema, and jazz audience engagement. I was also interested in learning more about the No Child Left Behind Act, and why schools in the U.S seemed to be suffering under its law. As for the Art Policy Library piece, I was curious about Catterall's work, and eventually read "Critical Links." Ian David Moss, the fellowship and site director, wrote a nice culminating piece about the Fellows' writings.

Here's what I didn't know: how unbelievably long it would take to research and write these pieces. I'm generally a slow writer, but this was ridiculous. Part of the painstaking amount of time I spent on each piece (besides the El Sistema blog, which took maybe an hour to draft) came from a feeling of inadequacy to write about certain topics with any authority. Furthermore, it was hard to balance my inclination to write in a professional tone for this prominent blog, and my interest to not write something that was unreadable in its dryess.

I was happy to recently stumble upon Andrea Sachdeva's research report for the 2009 20UNDER40 book, in which she describes this very same feeling of inexperience among other young arts practitioners. (Disclosure: I had submitted a chapter to the book in 2009, proposing an idea for a Teaching Artist international exchange.)

The initial "Call for Chapter Proposals" for the 20UNDER40 anthology... solicited innovative ideas about the future of the arts and arts education from forward-thinking arts leaders under the age of 40. In considering my own thoughts about preparing a chapter proposal for the anthology, I began to feel that my youth and inexperience made me woefully unqualified to have a voice in the conversation about envisioning the future of the arts sector... [My] colleagues echo[ed] my uncertainties... Evenutally, the concept of 20UNDER40 had stirred up so many raw feelings within the field that project director Edward Clapp was compelled to write "This is Our Emergency," a widely-distributed essay addressing the startling phenomenon of young leaders' feelings of irrelevance and self-doubt that was based on countless emails he had received and conversations he had engaged in with under-40 arts practitioners who repeated the same sentiments."

The good news is, we're not alone! But the even better news is that leaders like Edward Clapp and Ian David Moss have paved the way for some of us to practice writing and hone our style as we develop our ideas about the future of our field. We need not feel intimidated by more experienced arts practitioners and writers; instead, we have a platform to ask questions, discover, and take risks. Writing for Createquity was one of the scariest and time-consuming projects I've ever done, but it also was one of the most important in helping me build confidence as a writer, arts professional, and questioner of the world around me. Many thanks to Ian for this wonderful opportunity. I look forward to cheering on the next class of Createquity Fellows.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

France trip, July 2011

Friday, July 22, 2011

It's always such a pleasure to arrive in Paris. The more often I come, the more I love it. Arriving in Europe feels like coming home.

I watched the Bill Cunningham documentary on the plane ride over and kicked myself for not asking him anything about himself when sharing the elevator with him and his bike so many times at Carnegie Hall. Must remember to look up that woman I see everywhere (Lois Apfel or something, with the huge glasses?)

Practicing, stretching, getting ready for a night at the Sunside with Matt and Baptiste Trotignon. Bill's docu inspired me to put on bright green pants, gold chain with beads, high heels, and red lipstick. It is Paris, afterall...

Before the gig, we enjoyed a delightful meal at Le Hangar, a tiny French restaurant tucked away behind a cobblestone footpath. Starter: Haricots Verts with Parmesan cheese. Main: Dorade, prepared beautifully.

Gig was great. My dear friend Mando came, and it felt like home, catching up and enjoying the music with a soul sister.

Saturday, July 23.
Trip to the Centre Pompidou. Like the first time I went, I was rather underwhelmed. Maybe it's because I just wasn't in the mood for large canvases with paint splashed on it (only original/provocative/whatever the first time it's done), or a string of small Christmas lightbulbs hung sparsely on a wall. Really? The expansive, bright pink shower curtain with yellow designs was fun and made us laugh, but the only real highlight on the 2nd floor for me was the Beuys exhibit of a completely dampened room with felt walls and ceilings, and with a piano in the middle of the room. I loved the quiet, the pressure in the air. Anyhow, the view from the Pompidou is spectacular, of course, and I got my artistic fill by walking up to the next floor and feasting my eyes upon the Matisse, the Kandinsky, and some woman whose paintings I really loved. The usual suspects, but once again, they made me happy.

Dinner: a fantastic restaurant recommended by Jerome, called Le Pré Verre. Delicious lobster and mango appetizer, followed by a glorious fish. Dessert was ridiculous. Maybe the best of the vacation: a molasses ice cream and this deathly chocolate torte. I can still taste it. Wine: a lovely Petit Chablis with a cool label (hand holding a grape).

Another show at the Sunside, so much fun.

Sunday, July 24.

Train to Lyon, car rental, drive to Vienne, where Matt has played a few times at the jazz festival. The town was pretty quiet, but posters everywhere reminded you that a jazz festival took place not long before. Vienne is a charming city on the banks of the Rhone river. After dumping our stuff, we went for a long walk through the old Roman town. Tried seeing the stage where the festival takes place, but when we had to pay, we decided against it and continued walking up a steep hill road, near the cemetery, and then through a cute street called “Chemin des Amoreux.”

Ended our walk by looking at more ruins. Went for a run along the river, then enjoyed a spectacular dinner at Le Verre en L'Air.

My meal included the best gaspacho I've ever had (and I don't generally like gaspacho) with a whipped goat cheese topping that looked like whipped cream. The main course was a Fondant de Julienne with a pureed bean topping and “sauce mouclade.” Basically, the chef ground up and pureed a fancy fish and then shaped it back into a rounded form that looked like pate. Really creative, unless of course you're an LA Jew like me, in which case it tasted and looked disturbingly like Gefilte fish.

Tons of cheese after the main course, followed by the other highlight of the evening (after the soup): a crème brulee infused with fresh mint. Probably the best I'd ever had. The wine was perfect with the meal: a 2010 Alain Paret Viognier.

Monday, July 25.
Cote Rotie wine tasting! Domaine Clusel-Roch, where a charmless young man in dirty clothes served us several wines at about 10am. I love this about the French wineries: you can tell that the people who run them are really like farmers, and that the estates have been in their families for ages. These are people who know their land inside and out, and who tend to wine as if it were their children. We went home with several bottles.

This was followed by another couple of places (one was a wine store and I fell asleep in the car). On our way to Chateau de Fontager, we stopped in a gas station cafe, where Matt noticed an All Blacks teddy bear on the wall. (All Blacks is the New Zealand rugby team.) Turns out the owner is a huge fan, and he ran to the back to bring us a picture of himself holding up a little baby in an All Blacks onesie (his grandson). He sent us across the road for a tasting of Cornas and Condrieu.

Arrival at Chateau de Fontager, a very cool and very large chateau on the way to Tain l'Hermitage. Cute, funky rooms. Could have spent a couple more days there lounging around the pool, if the weather were nicer.

Dinner in Tain l'Hermitage at another ridiculous restaurant. 4th gourmet meal of the trip, hooray! No wine for me, as I was all wined out from the tastings.
My meal:
Starter: black spaghetti with calamari
Main: Filet du Merlu (a nice fish over tasty veggies)
And for the best part of the meal: Vacherin a l'abricot bergeron en verrine, which translates roughly to “creamy fresh apricot mouth-gasm with crumbly moist goodness on the bottom."

Tuesday, July 26.

10am, trip to Valrhona chocolatier. Jennifer goes a bit crazy with the myriad of samples around the store and gorges on truffles, and all manner of chocolate pieces imaginable. She ate for her own pleasure. She ate for her sister, who couldn't be there. She ate for her mother, whom she knew would appreciate it. Then she ate some more for herself. She left not wanting to eat sugar ever again.

Of course, then we arrived for a degustation (wine tasting) in Cornas, at the tasting room of Alain Voge (my favorite of the places we tasted). Lovely wines, need some time, but yum.

Driving to Uzes, beautiful vines everywhere. Amazing fort on the top of a hill (Chateau de Crussol) jutting out over a steep cliff. Shall we see it? Absolutely.

Turn around and drive up, park, walk up beautiful path towards an old Roman fortress. I do a headstand, to see the top of the world from a different view. Like children, we climb around the old walls, peering through old windows and wondering who used to live there, what they saw when they looked down at the valley. A beautiful day.

Lunch in Montelimar, where we couldn't stop singing “Savoy Truffle” by The Beatles. Underwhelming town, though we did stop briefly at the huge pink nougat factory. Lunch of cheese and bread, and some veggies, sitting on a stoop and ready to leave.

Arriving at the Best Western hotel in Uzes around 7pm. Straight to see our friends Clare and Olivier at Olivier's aunt and uncle's place off a tiny street in seemingly the middle of nowhere (aka Saint Quentin de la Poterie). Lovely home, built entirely by Denis (the uncle). This 83-year old man could be a character out of a movie, like Louis Defunay. We played a good game of petanque, in which my trusty teammate and coach Denis continuously stood in first position, pointed downwards, and insisted, “La! La!” to indicate where I should through the ball. It never went there. Nonetheless, he seemed a proud coach when once or twice I accidentally tossed the ball to a relatively good location.

Denis and Jeannine didn't speak English, nor did Olivier's 89-year old grandmother. But we enjoyed a terrific meal of tomatoes from their garden (with the best pepper I've ever had, and local olive oil), an omelette for us veggies, a gigantic plate of probably the richest and tastiest cheese I've ever eaten (the Roquefort! The Camembert! The hard goat's cheese!), dessert, and a nice Cote Rotie from 2004 but tasting like it was from the 80's. I particularly liked the Poire eau de vie from my birth year, 1981. It was handsome and smooth and perfect.

Wednesday, July 27.
To the market in the morning with Clare and Olivier. A feast for the eyes in herbs, olive oils, lavender sprays, fruits, veggies, and specialties like walnut spreads from a monastery (sold by a nun with missing teeth).

Lunch at Olivier's grandma's. Everything was so fresh, so full of taste.

A game of tennis between Olivier and Matt at our Best Western courts, with Clare kindly hitting the ball towards me and my feeble attempt at hitting it back. A little yoga on the courts, and it was time to go. Back to Denis and Jeannine's for a good-bye, then Matt and I headed back to the lovely old city of Uzes. Wandered around, poked our heads into stores, wine cellars, art galleries, simple dinner of pizza and salad (NO MORE rich food).

Thursday, July 28.

Jennifer practices horn in the car while Matt hits some balls on the court. Drive to Pont du Gard, avoid the 15 euro parking by parking on the street and following some French people down a path. It was a much longer walk than we'd expected, but beautiful, with old stone arches in ruins throughout a vast forest. Sunny, open skies, gorgeous light, shrubbery everywhere. We walked and walked until finally: WHAM. A huge perfect arch-way structure, constructed by the Romans, right smack in between two hills, totally unexpected. It was magnificent, especially how it crept up on us out of nowhere.

Drive to Arles, arrive in Trinquetaille at the home of Rosalbe and Thierry (and their 10-year old son Yihmbert). Emra, our friend with the house in Quissac with whom we were meant to stay, had her water shut off, so she took us along with her to her friends' place. We had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be the most wonderful turn of events. We fell in love with the Italian, red-haired, prominent-featured Rosalbe and the good-natured, music-enthusiast husband Thierry. They hardly spoke English, so the evening rolled out in a mess of Italian, French, and English, with Emra and Matt at the helm of translation. It was one of those evenings that only happen when unplanned: sipping rosé in the garden for what felt like hours, eating a delicious meal prepared by Emra, moving to the sofas at some point to continue chatting, my having had just enough wine to grab a guitar and sing Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, and some of my other favorites for everyone. Matt and I sang a rendition of “Tea for Two.” We were awash in Gemutlichkeit: a warmth, a deep love for the evening and the company.

Friday, July 29.

Lunch with Emra in Arles, a very cool old Roman town. We fell in love with Arles. Its winding Roman streets, its colliseum, the fragrant air, the sleepy Rhone, the little square that wasn't a square at all but a random shape where Matt really wanted to enjoy a Rosé. We ambled slowly through the tiny streets, drunk with the sun and the perfect air, the scents and sounds of a quiet French town in which most of the residents were on holiday.

Finally, we made our way back to the house. I went for a run in some fields behind the house in a developing community with new houses and new concrete cul-de-sacs. No idea where I was, just ran and ran. After, we joined Rosalbe, Thierry, Yimbert, and Emra at an outdoor Mexican/Columbian concert along the river, where we had a terrific time getting plastered on the Clusel-Roch Rosé and dancing wildly to the music. It was truly a blast, and the out-of-focus pictures that were taken that evening are testament to the wine. We managed to get home, only to raid the fridge of cheese, and then eat a full wheel of camembert, followed by half a log of goat cheese (which literally tasted like the grass the goats had eaten. It was so damned good). Awoke around 4am pondering the amount of cheese I had just consumed.

Saturday, July 30.
Matt and I leave for the south. Glorious drive, passing a gigantic flock of birds on huge rocks near Aix-en-Provence. The light cast the most incredible hues across the valleys of vines and fields. Arrive in La Londe, right by the sea. A sigh of happiness. Stayed in the crappiest hotel, but it didn't matter. Went directly to the sea, where I read my book for a long time while Matt and Baptiste did sound-check.

Ate thick, savory octopus and couscous, with sides of other seafood salad in the Jazz a La Londe crew tent. Drank a rosé. The light couldn't have been more perfect: a golden red, a photographer's paradise. Baptiste Trotignon trio played on the adorable little festival stage, with the sea as the backdrop. We were wasted afterwards, went back to the hotel and crashed.

Sunday, July 31.
I insisted on driving to the beach once more to see the sea before going to Quissac. So we did, drove really out of our way, but it was probably the highlight of our driving trip. Tiny driving paths through Provence vineyards, the light shining spectacularly in that special Mediterranean way, and arriving at a beach that could be out of a novel (Fort de Bresancon). Apparently, Nicholas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni have a summer home around there. We feasted on delicious Pyrenees de Brebis cheese (again, like eating the grass that the animals ate), fresh apricots, Reine Claudes (little plums), radishes, carrots, and yummy fresh bread. It couldn't have been any better.

Drive to Quissac. Another fascinating experience. We really had no idea what to expect when Emra told us she'd bought a huge villa that was basically unlivable, and that she and her kiwi boyfriend were trying to fix it up. All we knew was that it was in the middle of nowhere, that it was huge, and that there was currently no water. We drove and drove, through tiny roundabouts, through tiny villages, through fields of Languedoc vineyards, through sunflower patches. We kept driving. Finally, we pulled up a path where a gigantic grey stone house loomed in the distance. “That can't be it,” Matt said. “Yes it could be,” I replied, “and I think it is.” Indeed, we had reached Mas de Figueroa.

First, we went to the town to play some tennis (super fun). When we returned, I played Bach cello suites in the vaulted room (best acoustics I've ever heard for horn).

Then we ate dinner in Emra's garden. We slept in a vaulted room that used to be where the wine was made, and you had to walk over some planks that covered two 10-foot-deep wells in order to reach the floor where our air mattress lay. Some of the planks were missing towards the front, leaving a gigantic gap that you could easily fall into if you lost your footing. The only light that came in was from a tiny window, which looked out onto beautiful vineyards and trees.

She showed us around the “house,” which hadn't been lived in in 30 years. It was huge. They'd turned two of the rooms into a very cute living area.

Monday, August 1.
Drive to Argeles-sur-Mer, stop first in Bouzigues, a beautiful tiny town on the sea, for their famous oysters. We ate oysters and mussels that tasted like we'd pulled them directly from the sea.

Next stop: Carcassone, a very cool and annoyingly overcrowded Medieval town. We wandered around for a bit, then got tired of the tourists and left.

Tried wine at a winery in which the winemaker used to work for one of the most famous Burgundy wineries. He was arrogant. The wines were nice, though. We bought a couple of bottles and left.

Next: the beautiful beach near Narbonne. It was about 6.30pm, and I went for a dip in the sea. Vast sandy beach, lovely hills nearby, perfect weather. Game of frisbee.

Arrival in Argeles-sur-Mer, a hilarious town close to Collieure (where we'd hoped to stay but couldn't find a place). For every time we'd wondered where all the locals had gone in the towns we'd visited, we decided that they'd all ended up here. There were thousands of French people everywhere, poorly dressed and enjoying their holidays on the beach. The hotels were pink and kind of crappy-looking, and there was terrible techno music pumping from the bars. Kitschy beach stores were open late for buying plastic jewelry and t-shirts. But somehow, I loved it. It was such an incongruous place for us to end our holiday, and something about the festivity in the air was contagious. We ate mussels and salad, then wandered around the mini theme park. Laughed at some of the rides, rode one called “Tron” which had nothing to do with the movie, but was like if the Star Wars ride at Disneyland were a car race instead.

[Things you could win at the casino]

Tuesday, August 2.
Drive to Barcelona! So very excited to see this city I'd always wanted to see. We got to the pension, dumped our stuff, I practiced a bit, and then we ran off to the Sagrada Familia, the huge Gaudi cathedral. It was breathtaking. I literally became speechless when I walked out of the subway, turned around and saw it. The facade looks like it's melting. The gargoyles are animals like lizards and snails, because he wanted as many images of nature as possible protecting the church. Huge colorful balls stood atop the turrets. It looked like something out of Disneyland, only it had taken 50 years for just the facade to be completed. We walked all the way around, marveling at it. One day I'll return to go inside and spend the day admiring the details.

Then a long walk up a steep hill to the Park Guell, a huge park with Gaudi everywhere. Apparently, it was meant to be an artist's community, and a place where the wealthy could have their homes, but instead it became a park protected by UNESCO. Quite spectacular. We were in the best spirits, if not a bit tired.

For dinner, we pigged out at a tapas place, where the portions were much larger than we'd thought they'd be (octopus, cuttlefish, potatoes, bread, garlic mushrooms). The highlight was the two bottles of cider that we drank. Incredibly full, we managed to walk through the gothic quarter, through Placa Real, and through another square that Matt wanted to show me from his 5 weeks there in 2007. I loved the city, and look forward to returning again to explore it further.

Wednesday, August 3.
Leave on Swiss Air after a perfect vacation. To top off an already amazing holiday, we had business class seats. To quote Matt upon arriving in our seats with massage and bed functions: “Ah, it's good to be home!”