The strange and wonderful story of a choir in a back alley

I was drawn to the sound during a street fair one autumn evening a few blocks from my house. I followed signs that beckoned down a short alleyway between two three-story brick Victorian houses. My neighborhood is full of these houses, defined by them, “twins” built in pairs in the 1890’s with an alley between each pair. The narrow corridor was shadowed and the sound grew louder as I approached a dark back yard. The sound was voices- eerie, joyful, jangling, ancient, insouciant singing. At the very back of the yard, under fairy lights, and wearing something on their heads, women were singing. I was intrigued by the music and wanted to learn more when I found out that it was a community choir.

The first time I showed up for practice, I was stunned. My head was spinning. My ears rang. There, in front of me and all around, was a cacauphonous sea of sound, words in a foreign language, crazy gypsy rhythms, random high pitched yips. We were in a small apartment in another Victorian twin. I squeezed myself between the singers, kitchen counter and refrigerator and, desperately consulting the sheet music in my hand, became part of the 15 or so ladies belting out Serbian lyrics.

Gradually I became more comfortable with the songs. The rehearsals were part punk rock band, part language lessons, part wine and snacks and conversation, and always the chest-voice roar of dissonant chords. I sang in a performance and donned the headgear I had noticed that first time- a plastic flower crown.

I wanted to learn more about this intriguing music. I have not been able to find out very much yet. What I gathered so far is that it is folk music from eastern Europe, sometimes called Slavic or Balkan music. One song, Izlel ye Delyo Heydutin which happens to be Bulgarian, was sent into space on the Voyager spaceship in 1977. Lady Gaga, not to be outdone by aliens, discovered the music and used Kaval Sviri for her documentary and on her Twitter account in 2017. There is a 2012 documentary called Balkan Melodie about Marcel Cellier, a Swiss ethnomusicologist who researched and produced this type of music in the 1960’s, notably the women’s choir called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. I haven’t yet watched this film, but I have seen a video of that group on the Johnny Carson show. And you can, too! I also plan to visit a music library I know of to see if I can learn more about the history of this music. Stay tuned, because this music has a hold on me and I will be finding out more! In between rehearsals, of course.

Some of the choir at a performance last month


International spas, and my first Korean scrub

I have been in the healing waters of a Budapest health spa, had Thai massage in Bangkok, enjoyed the Russian banya in St. Petersburg and also in Southampton PA, and now I have had a scrub at a Korean spa in Philadelphia.  I love me some spa time, but the typical US establishment is a luxury out of my price range. Maybe you can relate. Luckily, I live in a large urban area with enclaves of immigrants who have a more prosaic idea of spa-type services with prices to match. The Korean place is my new favorite.

What is it about semi-public nudity and hot water that discomfits the average American? I am willing to bet a large portion of standard variety US citizens come from a cultural background where basic, not luxury, spa culture is the norm. Yet we do not have such public facilities as a common city service as one might see in Asia and Europe. Sweden and Japan may be different in many ways, but their citizens know how to sweat in the city baths. Saunas and sweat lodges and healing waters have been used by regular people all over the world into prehistory, why stop in the US? I, for one, am pleased to continue the tradition.

The Korean spa was almost empty of visitors that Tuesday morning. The employees, who did not speak English to each other and addressed me by a number, were there, of course, but almost no one else. I had been there previously with a friend and a coupon I had found online. We each had a massage that visit, and it was a vigorous and emotionless affair. On rare occasion, I have been pampered luxuriously at high-priced spa establishments in the US and I have been offered tea along with my choice of soothing music and aromatherapy fragrances. There are often health forms to complete and a discussion with the massage therapist beforehand. The Korean spa had none of this- rather I was called by number and treated as bread dough being kneaded or perhaps laundry that was being washed by hand. There was no-nonsense squeezing and stretching and turning and some light chopping with the side of the hand. It was a trifle rough, the way I was manipulated and handled by the indifferent staff, which is not to say it was a bad experience. 

The scrub was similarly devoid of new age, touchy-feely, overly precious ambiance. I was face down, buck naked, on a table covered in rubber. There was a similar table to either side of me supporting other women going through the same ordeal. A woman in what I thought was a red bikini poured warm water over me and got down to business. She had on her hands a type of mitten with loofah material on the palm side. She scrubbed every part of my back, arms, legs, hands, feet. Then she did it again. There were more buckets full of water, then I lay on my side for more scrubbing. Then in my back for even more. Then the other side. This went on for nearly an hour. 

Over time I noticed two things. One- the lady was wearing a matching bra and briefs in red with some lace. This was not a swimsuit, she was scrubbing people in her underwear! There was something really excellent about that. The other scrubbers were similarly attired. Two- there were bits of grey lint or something on the table. It gradually dawned on me that this was my own skin being scrubbed from my body. It occurred to me that I had probably not been scrubbed like this since I learned to bathe myself at some point in early childhood. 

Towards the end of the experience, the lady in underwear communicated that she could wash my hair. Why not? I agreed to that, it happened, and then I was told to sit up while she manipulated my arms and head in Thai style massage moves. Then I was sent on my way. I spent most of my time in the women only area so I didn’t even have to wear clothes unless I wanted to- bliss!

Similar to the Russian spa in the Philly suburbs, this spa also has a sauna, steam room, and hot tubs. Unique to the Korean spa are two hot rooms, one featuring jade and one clay, where one lies on the floor and absorbs the healing minerals. There is also a sauna-type room with wooden benches and pink Himalayan sea salt in large pile on the floor. The air is said to be a healing therapy in this room. 

I can’t get enough of this stuff, especially in the cold winter. I can spend hours at this place- there is even a gym and a lounge area. It feels exotic with all the Korean being spoken and the atmosphere of the different rooms. It may not be Budapest, which has maybe the best spa I’ve ever been to, or Bangkok, with its super low prices on facials and reflexology and massage, but it is much closer and just as luxurious to me. I’ve been spreading the word to friends and co-workers, but I’m often encountered with skepticism as people share with me their fears of infectious disease, being naked or seeing others naked, or whatever. I say, relax, give it a try, it has worked for millions of people for perhaps millions of years over cultures and countries. Try your local international spa, be it Laotian, Latvian, or Lebanese. Sit back and breathe the heat and steam as it mixes in the atmosphere with that of the ancients and the present day enthusiasts of health and relaxation.

Ohio, December 2017

White out! There was a lot of snow in northeast Ohio this year. While approaching the OH/PA border we got a frantic call from my brother who was in the area of Ashtabula, Ohio. Police were giving out tickets for driving due to the snow emergency. You weren’t allowed to drive at all! We were south of there, fortunately, and I didn’t have to make contingency plans for our route. In fact, there was no snow falling until later that day, and the roads were clear for us in Lake County. Later, I looked up the photos for Erie, PA, which had gotten almost six feet of snow that day. Wow! It has been a while since I have done that kind of driving so I was grateful. But I did tempt fate the next day when we went to Chapin Forest to go cross-country skiing. That’s when I got the photo above, as the snow raged during our 20-minute drive back. 

Chapin Forest has beautiful trails and a cozy ski rental shop.  We hadn’t been here for a few years due to lack of time and/or snow. It was wonderful to ski while thick snow fell. It was also wonderful to warm up by the outdoor and indoor fires.

Other than that, we just hung out with family and did some shopping and not much else. It snowed every day and then we returned to more snow and cold on the east coast. I love it! Here are some more pics from the snowy Ohio woods.

Holiday Panto and NYC, December 2017

The school free players pulled off a Sherlock Holmes panto! And then the Fantastics went to the Big Apple for an overnight trip! Hooray for December!

The cast and most of crew, Rhoda Dent the Mouse and Watson:

This rip-roaring panto included a cheese-infatuated pirate called Cap. Regina DeFromage played by Fiercely, a large mouse, a chorus of pirates (who also served as swordfish, among other things) including the twins, Cleverly as Watson’s fiance Mary, political jokes, a Messy Scene, a rhyming villain Moriarty, and our hero, that character of short attention span and long deerstalker cap, Sherlock Holmes.

Moriarty camouflaged to look like a chair, panto brochure drawings by the actors, swordfish:

What’s a panto? Here’s my brief description and someone else’s longer  one. We’ve done several of these British holiday traditional theater productions and they are so much fun. 

Then we went to NYC.

We helped Cleverly escape from school early and piled into the wagon, bound for a rental apartment in Brooklyn.  We stayed near the Myrtle Wycoff station in an Hispanic neighborhood. I love renting an apartment rather than staying in a hotel-which we couldn’t afford anyway- because you can pretend to live there and don’t feel so much a tourist. We bought tamales on the street and churros ($2 for six!!!) on the subway. I chatted with locals in Spanish. We hopped on the subway and went to Grand Central Station, which is gorgeous.

Subway churros and Grand Central Station:

We saw the Saks Fifth Avenue light show on the building and also the holiday window displays, which never disappoint.

We stopped by 30 Rockefeller and had an amazing dinner at a Thai restaurant called Sticky Rice near Chinatown. Then it was back to the apartment in the subway, which isn’t underground on this route, rather we had a great view of the city as we crossed the bridge back to Brooklyn. We watched some TV and I took a luxurious bath back at the apartment.

The next morning we had breakfast from the local vendors and lounged a little in our comfy place, then packed up the car to drive back to the City. Mr. Fantastic had tickets to an undisclosed event he has been telling us about, or really not telling us about, for a while. It turned out to be the Downtown Abbey exhibition! Here we are at the bell board:

We had gotten hooked on DA while we were traveling after we had found the series on DVD in China somewhere. It helped to have something we all enjoyed during long train rides and the like. And now we were able to see some of the sets and costumes, which were meticulously designed, museum quality really, in person. 

The dining room, below:

The twins got a little bored, but we enjoyed it overall. Then we had lunch, falafel from food truck, on a bench in Central Park. We found a playground nearby. It was warm enough to enjoy being outside.

We caught a few more window displays, including my favorite, Bergdorf Goodman, and walked around a bit more. Then we drove back home, stopping en route to get Cleverly an outfit she needed for her school choir performance that night, to which we barely made it on time. School gets in the way for us homeschoolers! But the trip was wonderful! Two more shots from New York:

Thanksgiving, bikes and dim sum and veggie turkey, 2017

Thanksgiving! Or, as I like to think of it, The Best Day to Bike in Philly! There is an early morning parade, finished way before noon depending where you stand to watch, and biking is the best way to get there for us. And the biking is fantastic. It’s usually a cold, sunny, dry day and there is almost no traffic. 

The kids have gotten better at biking and our destination is clear. Once we reach the Art Museum, which is the end of the parade route, we can bike towards the start of the route and stop anywhere we like. Too crowded? We move on. Marching band performance? We can stop and watch. 
We met Mr. Fantastic’s brother and family and went to Chinatown, the best place to hang out on holidays because everything is open for business. The 10 of us had an amazing dinner, then went our separate ways to cook and eat a second, more traditional dinner. Well, if you consider tofurkey traditional, since we are all mostly vegetarian. 

This year as we arrived at the parade The Wheelmen caught my eye. They are the local representatives of the national organization for antique bike enthusiasts. One of them (that guy on the far right above) made my day by allowing me to get up on the Ordinary, also known as the Penny Farthing, also known as That Old Bicycle With The Giant Front Wheel And Tiny Rear Wheel.  I was thrilled beyond belief! I was also creating a giant bruise on my inner thigh, which I would notice later, from the act of hoisting myself up on that strange vehicle. Worth it.

The cousins were happy, the Chinatown restaurant was superb, and the day was lovely.

We walked back past stunning City Hall, the tallest masonry building in the world yeah Philly!! There is a craft market this time of year and even a carousel. Here is a tile and a fish spout detail, the view of the tree from inside the plaza, and the central plaza.

 Then we went home and cooked and ate, just us fantastic six. Each of us cooked something!

Allegheny River, PA and Hocking Hills, OH, October 2017

My brother planned a 20-mile, two-day packraft extravaganza. Just the two of us! The weather was a question mark but as the date drew closer, things looked good. It turned out to be unseasonably warm and just as gorgeous as one might imagine in the hills of northwestern Pennsylvania in the autumn. We were paddling on the great Allegheny River.

Photo by Jonathan Tressler:

That’s me above! Yes it was that beautiful and that peaceful. We met in an area called President Village in Tionesta, PA where there is a semi-public boat launch. It is closed one day a month and there is a small fee, honor system style. It was an adorable, quiet group of houses next to the river. We would end here and start upstream near the town of Tidoute, PA.

Photo by Jonathan Tressler:

The packrafts are so easy to inflate and Jonathan had everything so well organized that it was easy getting started. We also could handle a lot of weight since we weren’t hiking. Our campsite and food therefore were kind of lush! But first we had to get there. 

Photo by Jonathan Tressler

The West Hickory launch is part of the National Forest. It has an adjacent parking lot and we were the only car. We inflated, lashed packs to rafts, and launched. The river flowed at about two to three miles an hour, and we paddled when we wanted to go a little faster. We quickly passed under this bridge and floated by Tidiuote. There are many narrow islands in the river, some privately owned but many, like parts of the river itself, are preserved for recreation in the Allegheny National Forest. The Forest, by the way,  is over half a million acres and makes up most of northwestern Pennsylvania. We paddled a bit less than halfway back to Tionesta and stayed overnight on one of the islands. Here’s the launch where we started and part of our camp:

The camp photo really doesn’t show how nice our site was. We chose a picturesque island without nearby houses, we had a gorgeous night sky with no light pollution, and it was quiet. No one else was on the island, nor did any other watercraft pass by. I imagine the area gets more crowded during summer months, but these were two weekdays in mid-October and we had the river almost entirely to ourselves. As for the camping, I slept in a camping hammock with a sleeping pad and pillow. Jonathan brought chairs, a table, even a radio! By the way, he had camped in the area before and he even knew a good radio station- 92 Gold- which played an unexpected mix of 70’s to 90’s pop music. We set up camp and he made an amazing jambalaya for dinner. I slept like a baby… in a cradle… held up by large trees sometimes swaying in the wind.

The next morning we were enshrouded in a gentle mist. I had seen the low-lying clouds early the day before while driving and now we were in one! After a few hours, we could see the blue sky above but the mist at our level was thick. We had a very lazy morning partly by choice and partly for safety, since boats would not see or hear us if we paddled in that fog. Breakfast was coffee and tea, leftover dinner, and stroopwaffles, yum! We filtered river water for drinking and packed up the gear. Other photos from that morning:

Photo by Jonathan Tressler

Photo by Jonathan Tressler

We paddled five or so hours that day back to the president village launch. A hurdle towards the end was bridge repair, which limited passage under the bride and brought debris we thought might puncture the rafts. We portaged around the bridge then got back to paddling. It was another stunning day and I enjoyed relaxing and watching the scenery pass by.

The evening was approaching as we reached the launch. We deflated the rafts and packed it all up to go back to my car, and then to lake county, Ohio about three hours away. 

Later that weekend, I visited friends in Columbus, Ohio. We decided to take a day trip to Hocking Hills in southeast Ohio. We walked part of the Buckeye trail there, which includes over 1,400 miles as it makes its way around the entire state. Hocking Hills is a forested portion of the trail and has impressive rock formations as well as gentle Appalachian beauty.

I was so happy to be with longtime friends and hiking on a gorgeous day!

Dedicated to Jody, gone too soon. You are a part of every trip and a part of my soul forever.

I’m not a food blogger, but…

Without much fanfare, I decided to quit white sugar about four months ago. I just got tired of eating it several times a day, supporting the unethical way it is made and the harmful effects on my own body. But it’s always been my favorite vice. And I do cheat on rare occasions, like when Fiercely made crème brûlée from scratch a few weeks ago. Anyway, I’ve been worried about the coming cold weather and hot chocolate. I’ve been experimenting with maple syrup and cocoa. It’s great! And I made whipped cream sweetened with maple syrup, too. Bliss on one of the first chilly days of autumn. Also, we have a good supply of honey since we have a bee hive at a friend’s property a few miles from here. I’m hoping that will help with my cold-weather baking jaunts.