Alison Fujito: Tour Begins!

No matter how far in advance I try to plan and organize, preparing for a three-week Pittsburgh Symphony European tour always seems to end in a frantic and disorganized rush.

Packing for any trip to another country can be pretty involved, even if you’re not planning to play nine rehearsals and 11 concerts in three weeks, in five countries (eight cities!). There are some odd little additional details that come with being a musician. Of course, we pack our instruments (most of which travel separately from the orchestra, in special padded trunks that fit several instruments at a time), but our suitcases might look a bit different inside than what you’d expect to see in a business traveler’s suitcase.

For instance, we need to pack the music we want to practice in the hotel room. This may include personal practice parts for the music that we will be performing on tour, or music we’re preparing for other performances, solo music we just want to learn on our own, or even scales and études. And sometimes I get nervous about putting my own music (which has all my fingerings and markings AND written comments and suggestions from past teachers) in a suitcase that’s going to go bouncing around Europe without me.

If you’ve ever watched luggage come in on the baggage collection carousel, you can attest to the fact that it certainly does bounce, and sometimes, it gets lost. Several orchestra members had to gate-check their carry-on bags on the final leg of our trip to Vienna, and as of this writing (four hours post-flight), they haven’t seen them since.

Not something I want to risk with music that I spent hours marking. So I make photocopies of whatever I’m bringing to practice. True to Murphy’s Postulate on Prophylactic Preparation, I haven’t lost a suitcase since I started doing that.

We also need to pack a music stand or a reasonable substitute. I use an iPad stand, which takes up way less suitcase room than a traditional music stand, and usually fits in front of the TV in most hotel rooms, removing a possible distraction from practicing. But the traditional folding wire music stand can be multi-use item; I’ve stood it up in the hotel room bathtub to and used it to dry my laundry! I always pack laundry detergent, but when I’ve run out, I’ve found that hotel shampoo is a decent stand-in for laundry detergent.

Yes, professional musicians practice with metronomes (are you listening, music students?)–and there are several excellent options on smart phones. I like the “Tempo” app by “Frozen Ape.” (I did NOT make that name up–isn’t it great?) No more hunting for batteries in the middle of a practice session, or wondering if you forgot your metronome in the last hotel room!

Unlike most vacationers, many of the PSO members had to plan for their children starting school the very day we left on tour, which makes for very awkward timing, very sad moms and dads on the plane leaving Pittsburgh, and overwhelmed–but totally–heroic spouses left at home.

My oldest just started college two days before the tour, and my being out of the country provides for a convenient excuse for him to go off the radar. (Michael, if you’re reading this, text your mom and let her know how you are doing!) See, I can still embarrass my kids, even from half-way around the world!

But there’s a reason for that. It’s currently 8 pm. on Monday night. I’ve had 2 1/2 hours of sleep since Sunday night, and I’m definitely a bit punchy from trying to stay awake while jet-lagged. And the reason I’m trying so hard to stay awake is, THIS IS CONCERT TIME FOR THE NEXT THREE WEEKS. We need to be totally awake and focused at 8 pm. And not punchy. Can you imagine how Shostakovitch’s 5th Symphony would sound if played by a bunch of punchy, slap-happy, jet-lagged musicians? “Whoa, were those 16th notes? Well, well, didn’t THEY go by quickly!”

Nah, that wouldn’t do. So right now some of the punchy, jet-lagged musicians are staggering around in a desperate attempt to stay awake. Most of us ate dinner at the proper Austrian dinner time, even though our stomachs didn’t think it was anywhere near dinner time, in order to stay away from our beckoning beds, and in order to get our bodies switched over to Austrian time as quickly as possible.

And speaking of meals, that’s another interesting planning challenge faced by several of us, who due to varying diagnoses, are on gluten-free or other restrictive diets.

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, and barely, and an increasing percentage of people have been diagnosed with varying health problems caused by ingesting gluten. Some people have classic allergic reactions, some have an inability to digest it, some have celiac disease, which is a cascade of unpleasant autoimmune reactions resulting from gluten ingestion. The “cure” is to avoid eating gluten. Entirely. Which wipes out bread, pasta, most cereals and most fried foods from the diet, as well as a few other things. Very easy to do when preparing meals at home, more difficult when eating out, and a big headache when flying on various planes to different countries.

Things have certainly improved for gluten-free folk; go to the grocery store, and you can usually find gluten-free bread, pasta and frozen pizza, which is a mostly wonderful thing, although I suppose you could raise a valid argument that those things aren’t particularly healthy for anyone. Most restaurants will serve you salads minus the croutons, and burgers without buns, to better accommodate you.

But flying on an airplane? That can get very tricky. Meals are prepared and packed elsewhere before being placed on the plane, so most of the airlines do not handle gluten-free requests well, though they are definitely making an effort. Packing one’s own food to take on an airplane is tricky, as things like peanut butter are considered a “gel,” and yogurt is considered a liquid by security officials, and they get confiscated at the security gate (I know this by sad experience).

As luck would have it, for the flight to Paris, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Dr. Fotios Kompouras, one of the PSO’s tour doctors, during the long flight from Pittsburgh to Paris–and he, too, is gluten-free. We had a good chuckle over the “gluten-free” meals served on the plane.

We were both served a surprisingly decent chicken/rice/vegetable entree, clearly marked, “Gluten-free Meal,” which certainly seemed gluten-free–except it was served with wheat crackers.

Breakfast on the plane was a bowl of Honey Nut Chex, some milk, a banana–and a gluten-containing granola bar.

I was thrilled to discover some REALLY lovely gluten-free salads at, of all places, the Paris Airport snack bars. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, the French are pretty well on top of all things food. At any rate, I had one of the nicest meals I’ve had in a long time, in the snack bar, and I even found gluten-free chocolate-covered rice cakes, which I took with me on the final flight to Vienna.

And a good thing, too. The meal on the flight to Vienna consisted of pre-made sandwiches–definitely NOT gluten-free. The flight attendant informed me that “special” meals could only be ordered for flights more than 3 hours long. And this is where planning comes in; we need to bring food with us, just in case, especially when we are traveling on the day of a concert. It’s a bit tricky to find packable, gluten-free food that does not need refrigeration, and that does not have serious mess-making potential. And that is not unpleasantly, um, fragrant (so canned tuna, for example, is out).

So far, the best I have come up with is:

  • trail mix
  • cheese sticks
  • vegetarian sushi, like kappa maki (cucumber rolls)
  • bananas and clementines

Vienna is actually wonderful if you have gluten sensitivity. Some of the bakeries serve wonderfully decadent, flourless cakes made with ground hazelnuts, that just happen to also be gluten-free. And there are “Reformhaus” stores (basically, health food stores with AMAZINGLY HUGE selections of gluten-free products) all over the place, as they are apparently very popular over here. I couldn’t resist buying some gluten-free cookies and some gluten-free knackebrot, which looks like it will travel well.

There used to be a lovely little cafe only a few blocks from the Musikverein, called, “Cafe Sinfonia.” They had a huge sign in front, proclaiming, “Gluten-free Essen!” (Gluten-free Eats!), but unfortunately, they closed since last time we were here. Pity. They had FABULOUS gluten-free schnitzel! Hopefully, we’ll see more of that kind of thing happening.

All this talk of food should be making me hungry, but it’s not. I’m too tired to be hungry, which is a VERY rare thing for me!

Tomorrow is technically a day off, but practically all of us will be picking up our instruments (which traveled separately) and then PRACTICING!


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