Walk and Roll

Strolling and 'strolling'!

Strolling and ‘strolling’!

On Sundays, Belgians walk. Along routes clearly marked by colored stickers, in lengths of 5 kilometers (3 miles), 10k, or 20k; old people, young people, families, walking groups; organized as most everything Belgian in a French version and a Flemish version—Belgians walking.

Founded in the late 60’s, Marche Adeps could not be a simpler, or more wonderful, idea. A quick look at the website for this coming weekend shows more than 10 locations to choose from, in Wallonia alone. That means that on a Sunday in late October, there are probably 2 dozen places organized for Belgians to get out and walk.

Not too long before he's walking on his own.

Not too long before he’s walking on his own.

The routes are laid out in advance by volunteers: you simply head to the welcome point, pick up a paper with directions, and begin to walk. In general, the color-coded stickers along the way make the xeroxed instructions unnecessary. You walk along through a town, along a path, through fields, in a forest, in suburbia, and keep an eye out for the red, yellow, or blue stickers that correspond to to the length of your chosen walk.

The blue stickers lead us on our 5k walk

The blue stickers lead us on our 5k walk

The walks loop back to the starting point, generally a restaurant or a school cafeteria, that offer a special Marche Adeps menu: how great is a walk in the country knowing at the end you can have the famous tarte au riz–delicious creamy rice-filled cake– or boulet frites—meatballs and fries—or a fantastic Belgian beer.

On Sunday after finishing a little home-improvement in the morning, we leave the house just after noon, drive 20 minutes, and arrive at the Moulin de Broukay, a former mill and activity center–including a summertime jazz festival–that serves as our starting point. The Marche Adeps website has a ‘stroller friendly’ icon, so Steph, myself, and the not-yet-one-year-old Felix park the car, and walk and roll toward the welcome-table.

Somehow the sight of a guy and his horse pulled up to the first table at the restaurant does not compute, and I neglect to get the photo. But there are horses and riders all over the place, and people on bicycles, and a range of ages from infants to upper 70’s, as we follow the blue stickers on our walk.

Not a lot of room for bicycles....

Not a lot of room for bicycles….

The stroller-friendly walk begins flat–along one of what Stephanie tells me are a famous and well-organized series of interconnecting bike paths in the Dutch/Belgian region of Limburg–passing through fields with corn and cows, and then a small village, before turning up a significant, steep, not friendly, hill.

Félix first en-COW-nter!

Félix first en-COW-nter!

At the top of the climb, the walk continues on a farming road, and the gravel and mud seem at points downright hostile. No matter, on a beautiful, clear, October afternoon, the fields give way in the distance to a massive quarry, and even the electric towers seem majestic.

grid

If you look at the map, Bassenge sits on several borders: at the divide of Flanders and Wallonia, the two largest parts of Belgium (don’t forget Brussels—capital of the European Union, or the small German-speaking region) and within a few kilometers of Holland. This only matters when you say hello to people along the way: you might speak French, they might speak Dutch—and if they speak Dutch they might be Belgian or Dutch–and while it is a little confusing how to say a simple hello, no one seems bothered.

In a country that is largely urban, you are never really very far ‘off the grid’. When I drop Félix at his Belgian grandparent’s house, the nuclear reactors of neighboring Huy loom large a mile away across the river; a walk through the idyllic countryside means that fields, cows and the power infrastructure share space.

No one in the family even notices the reactor towers anymore!

No one in the family even notices the reactor towers anymore!

We walk past a small store specializing in potatoes—the Belgians love their potatoes fried, but in general, they just love their potatoes and have access to a great variety—with all the varieties named. In utero we had dubbed the fetus ‘bintje’ after the first ultrasound convinced me Steph was carrying a potato; a friend in Brussels immediately emailed a list of potato varieties, and so before he became Félix, he was just another potato.

Belgians love their potatoes, in many varieties....

Belgians love their potatoes, in many varieties….

Anyway, nothing spectacular, just a well-organized walk in the Belgian countryside on a beautiful day, with a shared plate of boulet-frites and a couple of delicious beers, as the bikes, horses, and afternoon walkers pass by.

Boulet-frites and beer for us, and bananas (ok, and frites) for him!

Boulet-frites and beer for us, and bananas (ok, and frites) for him!

Kinder-crap.org

the overwhelming joy of shopping...

the overwhelming joy of shopping…

None of the obvious huge themes of new parenthood—the decision to conceive, the passage of our child through the birth canal, the quest to ensure his dual citizenship, certainly not the meaning of becoming a father at age 47—has approached the full-on, months-long, mind-numbing, all-consuming, ridiculous quest to find the perfect set of wheels for my son.

Googling—initially a modern wonder, then a verb, a time-sucking vortex, and now something future psychiatrists will add to the diagnostic manual– begins pre-birth with the realization that the new family member will need transport. The three-in-one systems (bassinet, car seat, and wheels) that allow you to bring baby from the hospital to the car and through to age four without ever having to actually touch the ground are as large as our Toyota Yaris, and as expensive as a dental implant. We consider alternatives.

Our first trip to a baby store, mid-pregnancy, has me and my world-traveling wife stumbling out of the car in that most familiar of places, the suburban strip mall. We are there to ‘take a look’ at the gamut of ‘baby-needs’: crib, mattress, playpen, chair, bottles, clothes, etc. We share a desire not to overburden our little guy with stuff, but even the bare-minimum seems to include a changing station, with corresponding pad and covers, something to carry the baby, maybe some diapers…

I find myself feeling like a creepy guy in a porn shop as I sidle up, trying to appear disinterested, to the hunky mannequin who sports the baby-carrying device; am I whistling and saying ‘heh heh heh’ as I undress the dummy and begin to wrestle the impossible set of straps and connectors? Stephanie browses while I try to hide the fact that I am hopelessly tangled, panicking and humiliated. The mood as we get back into the car is depressed and nearly suicidal.

The store becomes a symbol to me of the sleazy, manipulative, preying-on-sentimentality marketing targeting parents. In each of the stores we visit over the coming months, the feeling upon leaving is just as greasy as when you visit a car dealership, or try to change your mobile phone plan. The profusion of sweatshop junk dyed pink and blue and sold as loving necessity makes our heads spin. ‘Kinder-crap.org’ becomes our household reference for baby stores and baby stuff in general.

Probably the most cynical business we encounter is the post-birth photography cartel. A photographer barges sweetly and repeatedly into our maternity room on Félix’ first days of life, on day three staging a photo session. Months after birth we find ourselves in a local hotel conference room staring at a coffee-table book—multiple, hideous, digitally-enhanced variations on exactly 8 photos. The photos are sweet, our baby is cute, Stephanie appears in one photo looking like a trauma victim, and the photo of sleepy-daddy-with-baby features prominently and repeatedly, guaranteed to yank at the heart-strings of any decent wife and mother.

The nice saleswoman coos over our baby as she shows us the variety of ‘first photo’ products—mugs, t-shirts, magnets, mouse pads, etc. All we want are the digital files— I guess it’s what anybody wants—only available with the purchase of the hardcover book. The saleswoman admires the cute photos with us and tells us that the company, which works all of the hospitals of French-speaking Belgium, has recently picked up the contract for the whole of France as well. Or did she say Germany? At any rate, the child-photo refrigerator magnet business is booming.

Again, the baby biz takes me to a porno-place, with my semi-nude three-day old son as the object of desire—the images packaged to induce a glandular response. Only we are not reaching orgasm, we are reaching for our credit card: daddy, ready to walk away from a $300 ransom on my own child’s images, takes one look at dewy-eyed mommy, and knows all is lost. We carry Félix in his used car seat, along with the coffee table book, back to the car.

The car seat—’maxi cosi’ in French denoting both the popular brand and the object, much as ‘kleenex’ works in America—is more than 10 years old, bought cheap from one of Stephanie’s colleagues. Buying a used car seat is our initial response to the world of child-transport, in fact the car seat is old enough that it can’t really fit any of the stroller-car seat combos that are being marketed to us. So we avoid the set of mega wheels that will fight the grand piano for space in the living room.

My incessant googling about baby-transit turns up a web site proclaiming the stroller, the bassinet, and the rocking-baby-seat all ‘mother substitutes’ which basically subvert the natural placement of baby-against-mommy’s-skin. The dogma is heavy but the site reinforces our basic desire to avoid the child-sport-utility-vehicle. We determine to carry Félix around for more or less the first six months, until he can safely ride in a small, old-fashioned, stroller. Thanks to my sister Rachael, we have a trio of used strap-on-baby devices—and instructions for how to use them: a front-carrying device with buckles, a sling with fabric and a ring, and a huge piece of white fabric apparently not meant to be worn at frat parties.

Something about his weight, and Stephanie’s imminent return to part-time touring, increases both frequency and intensity of my stroller-googling. I spend hours online obsessed with which strollers are good for the cobblestones that line my walk down into town, which strollers fold up well for car transit and air travel, three wheels vs. four, lightweight vs. heavy-duty, small wheels vs. large, pneumatic tires vs. solid plastic, suspension systems or not, which strollers for jogging—no worries!–which for all-terrain, which are available in Europe for reasonable money, which ones I might have to wait until my June trip to America to try/buy…

not far from a breakdown!

not far from a breakdown!


And then there are the reviews, in English, French, and German. I alternate between Amazon.com, Amazon.fr, and Amazon.de, and a british site called Mumsnet, trying to decipher–as is the way with all things bought online–whose experience as stated in the customer reviews might actually help me make a better-informed decision. Youtube is filled with stroller-demos, and I watch more than my fair share of amateurs and professionals extolling, cajoling, folding, and unfolding.

One parent excoriates a stroller company for incompetence and neglect, describing an accident in which she falls on the stroller, causing her kid to get cut in two places and the bending the stroller frame. Some parents take pride in having had one stroller through multiple infants, at least one parent claimed to have gone through more than half a dozen top-of-the-line strollers for her one baby–for what I calculated to be a stroller budget of easily more than $3000—some people just want to use the reviews to express anger about the universe, and some to express their love. Some of the reviews actually offer thoughtful stroller analysis.

We visit another baby store and try some models, and there is one brand that seems good for price, maneuverability, and reputation. More googling at home finally leads me decide on a German-model, lightweight but with bigger wheels, and a youtube demo that has us nearly peeing in our pajamas late at night in bed. I am ready to order the German stroller when I stumble across a page of reviews: ‘wheel fell off’, ‘stroller collapsed and baby folded inside’, ‘brakes don’t work’, ‘front wheel stopped turning’, and the consumer kiss of death–‘you get what you pay for’.

On the Sunday before Félix turns four months old, Stephanie introduces me to a fantastic Belgian group which organizes walks of 5, 10, and 20 kilometers all over the country. At a meeting place/cafeteria, you pick up a set of directions, but our 6 mile-trek is so clearly labelled with stickers that we never need the paper. It takes us from the town of Huy up an incredible hill—the ‘wall of Huy’–that is the centerpiece of a famous annual bicycle race (la Flèche Wallone). Wearing Félix up the small mountain for an hour-and-a-half before handing him off to Steph, I came home weary with an aching back, and resume my desperate googling.

Tuesday dawns and I announce to Stephanie that we are going to check out a couple of baby stores, again, for strollers. Depression overcomes her, but she relents, and after feeding the baby, and ourselves, we head back to the very first store, the ‘scene of the crime.’ A super-informative salesman recommends a model we have liked, has one in stock, and sets it up for us to try. He has three children, they have all used these strollers, and no doubt that this is the right model for us.

My bad French leads him into an anti-American rant for the ages: Americans have so many liability issues about strollers, alcohol, and hot coffee that there is no liberty left. He has no use for strapping kids into strollers, either, and sardonically imitates children unable to even take a step unassisted. Sure, his kids have slipped out of the stroller, but as he says, ‘only once’. I ask for, and do not receive, a discount based on his anti-American bias. Folded, the new addition fits perfectly into the small trunk of our Yaris.

Hours later we wheel the slumped, strapped, smiling Félix around like we have been doing it forever. I gleefully roll the mid-sized, 4-way suspension wheels over lousy asphalt and brick, up and down a few curbs. A walk the next day takes us off-road, over grass, dirt, and the steep cobblestone street that leads downtown. In the stroller, in the living room, the kid takes the longest nap of his short life, and we celebrate. Kinder-crap.org, to the rescue!

sometimes everything works out exactly as it should...

sometimes everything works out exactly as it should…

Félix’ Navidad 2013!

Not only tap dancers and families but the rest of the modern world descends on Barcelona for New Year's!

Not only tap dancers and families but the rest of the modern world descends on Barcelona for New Year’s!

If the Christmas ‘shitting log’ defecates a t-shirt for your infant son, and the hostess of the party explains that the figure on the shirt is a boy who gets eaten by a cow, and farted to freedom, you suspect your Spanish may be rusty, and then you realize you’re in Barcelona. In a culture where a figure taking a shit—the caganer–is an official part of every nativity scene, it only stands to reason that every child’s beloved Patufet is rescued from inside the cow by feeding the cow enough fibre to force the little man’s evacuation.

My trip here begins for the third year in a row with the Molins’ family celebration of Nadal (Christmas), highlighted by the most Catalan of rituals: the children beating the shit out of the Tió de Nadal (Christmas log, also called the Caga Tió, or shitting log)—a piece of wood which has been fattened up with nuts and dried fruits in the days before Christmas so that it will bountifully poop out presents for the family. The kids gather around the log, beating it with sticks as the family sings the Caga Tió and after the gifts–hidden under a discrete bolt of fabric–are gleefully distributed, the kids return to the bathroom to clean the imaginary shit from the sticks, while the grownups dutifully reload the log with another round of presents. When the presents are gone, the kids remove the cloth only to find a roll of toilet paper.

Mireia Font, friend for more than 20 years...

El Timbal’s Mireia Font, friend for more than 20 years…

More than 20 years ago I stumbled into Barcelona to teach a tap workshop at El Timbal, fell in love with the dancers, the city, the food, and Catalan culture. Between classes that very first year, a brilliant contemporary choreographer threw me on the back of his motorcycle and blasted me up to Montjuic to look over the city while eating lunch and having coffee. Over the next 8 years I taught 10 sweaty, intense, loud, hilarious, 2-week-long workshops, and deepened my love for the place and the people. Three years ago as my marriage was dissolving I met a woman who would become my second wife, and now we are here with our two-month old baby Félix. It is a city that occupies a profound spot in my heart and my experience of the world.

The brilliant David Batlló, taking time out from working on his new show.

The brilliant David Batlló, taking time out from working on his new show.

The young dancer Guillem Alonso–who connected me with that first workshop–grew up to become a brilliant practitioner of tap dance, a successful world-touring artist, and founder of one of the largest schools for tap dance in Europe. My workshop this year at Escola Luthier is not the biggest I have had, but the beginners are sweet, the intermediate group brings a great enthusiasm and work ethic to the room, and the advanced class conquers my ‘High Heelberman‘ ragtime dance in three sessions, rocking the room at the end of the third class with clarity, hilarity, gusto, and a cameraderie notable even after 25 years of teaching.

Self-motivated tap dancers work it out while the teacher sneaks around taking photos...

Self-motivated tap dancers work it out while the teacher sneaks around taking photos…

If the lyrics to When You’re Smiling suddenly involve something about ‘making pee-pee’, you know you’re in Catalunya. Dixieland is alive and well, as the Gumbo Jass Band plays four family concerts in the Caixa Forum auditorium. A one-hour workshop before the concert pays off in more than 50 kazoo-wielding kids joining the band at concert’s end to sing, riff, and, fantastically, improvise together on Saints Go Marchin’ In.  Coincidentally, three kids bring their horns which match the band’s front line—trombone, clarinet, and trumpet—and the trombone is actually as tall as the little guy who plays it. My Catalan is good enough to know that the lyrics to Baby Won’t You Please Come Home have also been abandoned, to reflect the fact that kids hate spinach, but love macaroni (Macarrons), sausage (Botifarra), and dessert (postres).

In Barcelona in 1993, tap dance was already well established. My classes were full of professional dancers with excellent abilities, starved for the chance to take something like a company class. There were musical theatre dancers, concert dancers, dancers who mixed contemporary dance with tap, dancers who had been child-stars: in short, an active, healthy, vibrant tap scene hungry for input. The Méndes brothers, Rafa and Lluís, were just beginning their 20 year run of original productions with percussionist Toni Español in a company called Camut Band, and I remember seeing that first show–a macho, funny, intimate, conversational take on tap involving dancing on huge drums, djembes, kitchen tables, and ribald theatricality.

Ho hum, another casa de Gaudí...

Ho hum, another casa de Gaudí…

So seeing Sonoritats, the new show from Camut Band, 20 years later, is quite a treat. Two musicians, six exceptional dancers, and one singer—who I last saw in my tap class 15 years ago!–come together to create multi-dimensional soundscapes, involving tap dance on metal sheets, a wooden stage, electronic platforms, a moving set of stairs, modern dance, live vocals with some electronic tricks, keyboard, drum set, homemade electric bass thingamajig—apparently the subject of the singers doctoral presentation–percussive clay pots, and astro-turf.

The most beautiful and surprising moment of the show involves Guillem with accomplished dancer and choreographer Sharon Lavi dancing soft shoe on the strip of artificial grass which stretches across the front of the stage. Behind them, two dancers–long-time pro Maria Bossy and exceptional newcomer Estefania Porqueras—move silently and rhythmically, accompanied by piano and drums. The moveable staircase serves alternately as dance space, tableau, set for the clay pot solo, and spot for a wonderful solo from Sharon.

You know you are in Catalunya when the greatest sand dancer—one of the finest tap artists—of the modern generation takes a turn on plastic grass. Guillem’s solo uses the sound of the plastic grass with a decaying delay effect, and turns into a duo with Toni Espanyol playing the homemade bass-thing. Tap dance on artificial turf with the drummer playing a bass which looks like a quadruple-long shoe box? That is an image that I won’t soon forget.

Camut Band's new show, Sonoritats, a feast of sights and sounds

Guillem Alonso atop the stairs in Camut Band’s new show, Sonoritats, a feast of sights and sounds

Everywhere we go, we lug Félix, who experiences at barely 8 weeks old a number of firsts: his first tap classes, music concert, tap dance show, Catalan Christmas, escalator ride, moving walkway, security check, airplane ride, tapas restaurant, subway ride, and meeting some of my favorite Barcelona people—the brilliant ball-bouncing tap dancer David Batllo, and dear Mireia Font who hired me for all those years in a row—along the way. He doesn’t really scream until the car ride home from Brussels airport, so we stop and feed him, and at home he spends about an hour totally inconsolable, before falling asleep.

We have spent two days in feverish preparation to import as much Catalan goodness as possible back to Liége, buying three types of manchego, chorizo, ham (pernil ibéric), tuna, bread, turrón, red wine, brandy, assorted vegetables as we get home on when all stores are closed, and ¾ of a kilo of my real obsession, pimientos del padrón. Little Félix freaking out cannot ruin our feast, and we take turns holding and carrying and calming him as we enjoy the tastes and memories of the wonderful week.

The only tragedy was we couldn't bring it ALL HOME!

The only tragedy was we couldn’t bring it ALL HOME!

I am upstairs in the bedroom working up a rage at the stupid fireworks outside my window, which have gone out of control, and getting ready to go tell those kids to shut the f**k up, when I look at the clock: 00:08, or 8 minutes into 2014. We missed it! I shout downstairs to Stéphanie, ‘we missed it,’ and she calls back, ‘missed what?’ We laugh and enjoy a moment that new parents everywhere can surely understand, and the new year is that much sweeter with the little man coming along for the ride.

Luggage, or baggage?

Luggage, or baggage?

The guests were stuffed, but we were not. Another gig in the books...

Lambs to the slaughter

The guests were stuffed, but we were not. Another gig in the books...

The guests were stuffed, but we were not. Another gig in the books…

41 days into new parenthood, my wife and I find ourselves sitting under a taxidermy deer head—she pumping breast milk to relieve her engorged jugs while I hop up from time to time and shuffle. In the tiny German-speaking section of my adopted homeland–not far from where Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg intersect–we are waiting for a dessert-course appearance at Vincent’s surprise 60th birthday party. She pumps, and I jump, and I notice that the stuffed doe was bagged by the birthday boy, when he was 13 years old. Something about a hunting lodge, the fabulous catered dishes going upstairs to formally-attired guests, the collection of BMW’s parked outside, my wife’s constant reminders that it is VERY late at night, and the realization that we are perhaps just the latest in a long line of trophies makes me think: we should have charged more.

For my first gig as a resident of Belgium, all the usual hassles provide comfort: the tap mats are stuffed into the car along with red tuxedo, matching red tails, green kazoo, rhinestone-studded ukulele, vintage plastic bowler hat, flat tap shoes and heels, suspenders, bow tie, screwdriver, headlamp, sheet music, low-residue vinyl tape, and various other neuroses.

Discomfort comes from the unusual elements of packing-for-the-gig: our baby, Félix–snug in his car seat with chic Ikea blanket keeping him warm—as well as diapers, wipes, and the invaluable child-carrying device given to us by my sister Rachael. Most unusually my new in-laws have loaned us a plug-in car refrigerator to cooly transport the buckets of expressed milk for the 20 minute drive to their house, which makes me feel like I am couriering transplant organs. Only the next day, after mustard-colored slime explodes from his anus, will we realize: we forgot a change of clothes.

Being out of cellphone range the first time you leave your baby is tough, but our child is perhaps in better care than our own: Stephanie’s parents raised four kids, and have helped bring up 10 other grandchildren, and so between her mother’s lifelong expertise and her father’s MD there is nothing that can come up for young Félix that they are not equipped to handle. Stephanie’s main concern is that she has left enough milk—which arrives cool even though I forget to plug the organ-donor-fridge into the car outlet–for our little man is in his second official growth-spurt.

My infant in his 6-week growth spurt resembles some combination of a werewolf and the Incredible Hulk: a grunting, growling, snarling, wrathful milk-snorting beast whose bulging arms, head, hands, and legs expand so quickly that buttons seem to pop off his onesies in real time. For 36 hours he has been crying and demanding more, a savage little thing whose body has clearly kicked into cartoonish overdrive. Driving home after the gig we make an over-under wager on how much he has consumed in the 6 hours we’ve been gone.

Rehearsing with an infant: a new challenge indeed. On Monday we are able to get the kid to sleep all the way through our one-hour living-room rehearsal, Steph at her grand piano and me on my tap mat. On Wednesday we play a few tunes together before getting to the repertory, but when we begin the actual rehearsal it is over: the kid is up, and demanding contact, so I scat 20 minutes of choreography while Steph plays through the arrangements. By Friday when the kid won’t sleep at all we rehearse in shifts: I dance through all the material for an hour or so while the werewolf feeds, and then cradle the little beast in my arms while Steph works through the music one last time.

The 30-minute show consists of old, faithful, wonderful repertory. We open with Pete Nugent’s classic Breezin’–with eternal gratitude to Nancy Howell for remembering the dance for 50 years–chosen because it is the same age as the birthday man and also such a beauty. Add the chic plastique bowler—thank you Thelma Goldberg, I did actually ship the damned thing in a container to Belgium—for Doin’ the New Low Down, chosen because the guy loves tap dance and what is tap dance without the double salute of Honi Coles paying homage to Bojangles? Lose the bowler and add the red tails for Paul Draper’s Tea for Two—set on me 20 years ago by amazing mentor Dean Diggins—because it is the most beautiful dance I know.

Grab the uke and launch into my Ukulele-One-Man-Band. Funny, stupid, and swinging, with some whistling crowd participation, it is the off-beat in the middle of the set, and a piece I can always rely on. Take off my black knee socks, change into heels, and roll my red pants up for for High Heelberman, set to Stephanie’s gorgeous playing of the Mississippi Rag. Finish in the heels with a quick, flashy, buck and wing dance as taught all those years ago by the late, great Joe Stirling.

The set is designed to degrade slowly: elegant suit and styles at the beginning, with simple costume elements to keep a crowd’s attention. Moving into the ukulele piece which wavers in and out of control and finishes with a full minute of horrifying kazoo work. Getting into further disarray with pants and sleeves rolled up, sockless and in the character shoes for the ragtime, for my most relaxed and stylish dancing of the night—thanks to another amazing teacher, the late Boston legend Sue Ronson. As my appearance unravels, the dancing improves.

Now, for better or worse, I filter my gigs through Stephanie’s professional lens. Performing with the planet’s most popular orchestra in venues of 5,000 people or more for the past 16 years, she travels the world not only with three pianos but with her own piano tuner as well. In her world all elements of performance are carefully controlled, every detail from the touring set, lights, incredible soundscape, in-show live video crew.

In her world it is common for her to drive to nearby Maastricht at 8am on a Saturday, load into a bus which drives the orchestra to an airport, shuffle into a plane for a flight to England or Germany (or Manhattan), take a private bus to a television studio, play a few tunes for the lighting rehearsal, then again for the dress rehearsal, and later the actual recording, travel back to Maastricht, and drive home sometime around or after midnight. As she keeps reminding me all day long, she has never had a gig so late at night. And I keep saying, what about the 14 hour days where you play one tune?

In my world? Birthday man’s children deliver loving and rich appraisals of their wonderful father as we change into costumes onstage behind the flimsy curtain—while simultaneously a pair of DJ’s set up equipment for the after-party, the cocktail pianist breaks down her mic and amp and departs, a photographer snaps a quick shot of me with no pants on, and a drunk couple makes their way past us to exit for a smoke. With all the action in front of the curtain it is impossible to set up the tap mats and I will have to make friends with the very slippery floor. The tributes to the deer-slayer get longer and then comes an incredibly cute video of his children and grandchildren set to Singin’ in the Rain.

Feeling so clever, I grab the umbrella from my backpack—yes, I live in a rainy rainy place—and we make up a walk-on step. Which never happens because the tributes, including Vincent’s hilarious monologue about the decrepitude of aging—go on and on past midnight, when a very nice introduction from one of his son’s about the ‘rare treat you are about to see’ brings us on.

There was a time when a drunk guy whistling off-key for four minutes, then leading his drunk table-mates in a sing along to my kazoo piece so loud and random that I actually abandon my own act, would have ruined my night. But I have to give the birthday crowd a lot of credit: as the set goes on into the ragtime they are all telling the drinker to shut up—which he does—and by the end of the buck and wing they are on their feet and screaming for an encore.

Having slashed a number from the set as showtime kept getting later, we are ready. It is my first time ever attempting Carnell Lyon’s Kansas City Rhythm in high heels, and proudly I must say my legs look great, I don’t fall or even stumble, and I am pretty sure no one else noticed that little rhythmic spasm in the third step.

Mid-set, someone places a huge bottle of water on the stage, and thank god because I am sweating like a pig. We walk our stuff back around the building and settle in under the deer head, to change clothes before driving home. Load the car, pack the fresh bottle of lait maternel into the organ-cooler and actually remember to plug it in. We laugh as Stephanie recalls telling the crowd that we wouldn’t go on too long, because we left the baby home alone. Someone in the crowd shouted back, ‘that’s horrible!’

Returning chez grandparents at 2am, grandmother Liliane looks fit and content, and most amazingly, Félix is sleeping like, well, a baby. I win the wager on how much milk the petite sasquatch has consumed, but even I am shocked at how little: after two days of steroidal binge-feeding, he took half a bottle and conked out. We trundle up to the guestroom, the little monkey wakes up for another round at the breast, and by 3am we, and our little trophy, are all asleep.