Friday, August 24, 2012

Whine, Whine, Whine.....

I recently related this story to one of my colleagues. It's totally true, and I believe it is a lesson in how some of us, especially yours truly, tend to take things for granted. And it's also a lesson in how yours truly is a spoiled baby.

San Sebastian, Spain
Back to 2006: I was on a tour with the Mingus Big Band in Europe. We had three concerts booked. The first one was in San Sebastian, which is in the north of Spain. The second was in Almeria, a sunny coastal town in the southeast of Spain. The final concert was in Nantes, a rainy place on the western coast of France. Obviously, we flew from New York to the first concert in San Sebastian. If my memory serves me correctly, we had to leave San Sebastian a few hours after the evening concert to drive through the night to Almeria. We were told that we had a "nice" tour bus.(In this case, 18 one- way airline tickets from San Sebastian to Almeria would have been ridiculously expensive.)

Now- "Tour Bus" in my previous experience usually meant a bus with actual "bunks" for people to sleep on, not to mention a toilet on the bus. (Some tour buses even have lounges and televisions.)Well, the bus that pulled up to the hotel was not at all a "tour bus" in the sense that I had been accustomed to. It was pretty much a normal bus, sort of no frills, with no toilet. The driver insisted that the seats could be reclined enough to sleep. I recall that about five of the seats could be arranged so that someone could awkwardly lay down and try to rest. The other seats were extremely uncomfortable. Maybe if you were driving from Port Authority to Newark Airport, it would have been fine. But this was very unpleasant; not only did most of the seats recline about as much as a marble column , but they were covered with some weird itchy fabric that some Spanish bus designer in the 1970's probably thought looked really cool.

I had a really bad feeling about this impending bus trip.  I knew that the inability to lay down vertically, plus having to worry about bathroom stops to accommodate 18 people, meant that I and the band would not get anything resembling a good night's sleep. Plus, I hadn't slept on the flight from New York(I normal can't sleep on planes) so I was already extra jet lagged and extra cranky. ( And to be fair, I wan far from being the only one in the band complaining!)After a lot of dramatic complaining and wondering if Dave Holland's big band( they were also playing in San Sebastian) had a better bus than we did(ha!), 18 of us reluctantly and somewhat angrily boarded the bus for our more than 10 hour trip to the south of Spain.

At this point, some people reading this might say, "Hey, I toured with (insert Ghost Big Band name here) and all we did for three years was travel on buses like the one you're describing."  Indeed, I aware of the fact that, although I have paid a substantial amount of dues on the road and as a working musician in general, I have avoided many of the indignities (extended cruise ship gigs, touring with low paying Big Bands, playing in the New York subway) that other musicians have. ( I did work in food service in the 80's, but that's another story....) Also, I think if you are are a teenager, or in your twenties at least, any kind of travel is exciting, even if it's slightly less comfortable than you would care for. I was in my late 30's at this point in the story. Also, I'm a white suburban soft spoiled American crybaby.

Almeria, Spain
We arrived sweaty and sleep-deprived in Almeria the next afternoon. We checked into a hotel by the beach-although no one was interested in anything beach related; everyone wanted to try to sleep before the concert. Fortunately, after this concert we would get a full nights sleep, so that, finally, we could be somewhat rested. However, the next day would include a 24 hour drive from, yes, the south of Spain to the Northwest of France. After the concert, I went right to my room; I didn't want to waste any moments that could be spent in an actual bed. That night, I dreamed that the science fiction concept of teleportation had just been invented, making it possible for Scotty from the USS Enterprise to beam the Mingus Big Band from Almeria to Nantes in a matter of seconds.

The next day, I got up, had breakfast, and walked around the Spanish beach town. The crappy Mingus Band bus was scheduled to leave in the mid-afternoon. I was somewhat in denial about the impending full day bus ride. As lunchtime approached, I started to wonder if there was a way out. How much would booking a last minute flight cost? How would I even arrange this? Would anyone at the front desk of the hotel speak enough English to help me? I was beginning to be of the mindset that I would pay any price not to have to sit on that dingy, sweltering, crowded, toilet-less bus for 24 hours in a row.

It turned out that there was an alternative. A train was my way out; actually, three trains to be exact. I would have to take a 3PM train to Barcelona, then an overnight train from Barcelona to Paris, and then another train from Paris to Nantes. The overnight train had a private car with a bed. Well, actually, the completely private cars were sold out. I would have to share a room and  a bunk bed with a stranger. I decided that having an actual bed, AND access to a bathroom, even with an unknown roommate, would be far superior than that godforsaken bus. So, with a clearly better alternative, I gathered my bags and hailed a taxi to the Almeria train station.

I plunked down a wad of Euros and boarded the train from Almeria. I made it to Barcelona easily. I was a little nervous; I've traveled in Europe alone, but I had never strayed from an band itinerary out of the need for comfort. Part of me wondered whether the other musicians would think I was some kind of "diva", liked I needed to "travel in style", or something. Maybe they thought that I believed I was "above" traveling with the band. Honestly, I just wanted to sleep, or at least not feel like crap for 24 hours. And I was spending my own money. I was just hoping that some unforseen snag, like getting on the wrong train, or a train breaking down (it's happened to me in Spain before), or some other problem, would cause me to miss the gig in Nantes. I tried to stay optimistic while I waited in the Barcelona station for the overnight train to Paris.

Finally it was time to board for Paris. I found my compartment. A young man, my roommate for the evening, was already in the compartment, moving some of his things around the small area. He said "Hello" in what was clearly English, and also with what I detected to be a slight Southern accent. I said, "Oh, you are American?"

"Yeah, I'm from Atlanta. What brings you to Europe?"

"I'm a musician. I'm touring with a band."

"What band? What kind of music?"

"It's a jazz band. You probably never heard of them. The Mingus Band."

" in Charles Mingus?"

"Wow, that's right. Yeah"

"Yeah, I'm into a lot of different music. Is the whole band on this train?"

"No......see, I'm taking this train because, well, it's a long boring story......we were in  San Sebastian, and we had to ride on this crappy bus to Almeria, and then they wanted us to take the same bus to Nantes, which is a 24 trip.....I just didn't want to be on that bus for 24 hours, so I splurged and took this train on my own. That bus was so uncomfortable. Uhh......what brings you to Europe?"

"Well, I'm in the Army. I've been serving in Iraq for a year and I have 6 weeks of leave time."

At that moment, I felt like the worst person in the world. Here is was, complaining about a bus, and this young man had just come from HELL. I've had the great fortune of getting to travel, for free, all over the world, mostly in pretty decent circumstances. And only because I can noodle around on the piano. There's musicians way more talented and accomplished than I who never get to even tour Europe. I've been extremely blessed. I've earned a living playing Jazz music since 1990. And all I can do is look the gift horse in the mouth. I wanted to smack myself right in the face. I was certain that this young infantryman had seen death up close more often than he would care to admit, much less been in situations much worse than a moderately substandard tour bus.

Serving in Iraq for a year, he says. Just my luck. I felt like a complete schmuck.

I haven't had so many interactions with anyone serving in Iraq (although my cousin Cordis served as an Arabic translator), so I thought this was a great opportunity to hear about what's really going on in Iraq. I invited the young man, whose name was John, to the dining car. We had a nice conversation, although John didn't want to talk about Iraq so much. He seemed pretty calm for somebody who had essentially just come from the front line(not that it's a front line as in Normandy Beach, but still.....). What I gathered from John was that the War in Iraq is very different from what we think it is. And that a few days before coming to Europe, his convoy had been blown up and some of his regiment had been killed. Other than that, he seemed to prefer to talk about music, or anything else besides War. I also got the feeling that he was not a fan of George W. Bush. He had come from a military family; although he was not totally gung ho about it, he served because everyone in his family had served.

I think I sent John a few emails after that trip, but I didn't stay in touch with him. I wonder if he made it out of Iraq. I think about him often; meeting him really made me put my life in perspective. Anytime I feel a huge whine coming on, I remember that experience. Most of the time, your life could be a lot worse than you think. Sure, it's normal to complain every now and then, but I try to keep it in check.


  1. Great post George!

    I need to stop whining too!!!

    Captain Sassypants™

  2. Great post -- enjoyed it. Your blog is great -- I'm new here but already am a fan! Keep writing!

  3. Hmm, you wrote:

    "I was just hoping that some unforseen snag, like getting on the wrong train, or a train breaking down (it's happened to me in Spain before), or some other problem, would cause me to miss the gig in Nantes."

    I know, sometimes a slip is not Freudian...


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