Sunday, 27 April 2014

Weird things about Venice

So we're just back from four days in Venice. Someone asked me today, "Did it live up to your expectations?". Actually, I'm not sure what I expected, but it was certainly a singular experience.

Venice is built in the middle of the sea

It's one of the oddest places that I've seen humans live. It seems so dangerous to build big stone buildings on top of basically nothing in the middle of the sea. And to have open water everywhere so that a stumble could lead to falling into the sea. Odd.

Venice is super-touristy
The main island has blocks and blocks and blocks of shops selling masks, glass things and fridge magnets, leavened by gelato stalls and restaurants selling pasta and pizza.  There are men trying (and failing) to sell splatty-balls (see pic below), thrusting roses on passing women and attempting to sell horribly bad knock-off designer bags.

Murano must have hundreds of glass shops selling basically the same stuff, just rows and rows of them. I didn't buy any glass, but we did have an okay pizza sitting beside a canal.The crowds and queues weren't too bad over Easter weekend - evidently things get worse in summer.

Why is Lido mostly abandoned buildings?

I haven't been able to work out why the middle of Lido island is almost all abandoned and derelict buildings. TripAdvisor reviewer Elizabeth described the place neatly: "Abandoned buildings with broken windows are interspersed with beautiful hotels. Expensive ice cream sundaes are served from cafes with rusty chairs. Huge forlorn Art Deco buildings along the beach side make you want to cross the road in case the zombies start to wander out.

The abandoned mansions on Strada dell Ospizo Marino in the north east of the island are like something from a war-torn country. It's a photographers' dream if you like to capture faded glory as piles of bricks, rusty gates, broken windows and rubbish adorn what were once fine buildings.

Elsewhere on the island ugly concrete blocks of flats sit next to pretty parks and waterways. I found the whole experience hugely unsettling yet more interesting than Venice itself."

If you do visit Venice, I highly recommend staying on Lido - it's cheaper and much calmer than the main island. I really enjoyed going back to a bigger island and what felt like solid ground and room to breathe after the crowds and craziness around San Marco.

The Doges were dicks!
Visiting the Doge's Palace, we were overwhelmed with the opulence and the hubris of the whole thing. Various Doges inserted themselves into paintings of Jesus's birth, the crucifixion, the Last Supper as well as commissioning paintings showing the various rulers of the world submitting to them. The scale and magnitude of decoration was so over the top, I can see where people like Versace got their inspiration from.

During the reign of the Doges, they developed more and more elaborate forms of government, including secret police and anonymous denunciations by slipping notes into the mouths of faces on the wall (see below. Then the last Doge just gave up when Napoleon came calling.

Venice makes it seem reasonable to spend 45 Euros on a mask

 I could post dozens of photos of the various types of mask, they were amazing. And 45 Euros is a very mid-level price for a mask - some of them went up into the hundreds. I got beautiful black wire swirling design with blue and green glitter and my husband got a traditional black, red, white particoloured mask with a long nose and gold trim. We have no occasion to wear these and they were tricky to pack but it just seemed to be a good idea at the time...

In summary
So would I recommend visiting Venice? Hmm... I'm about 50/50. I guess it's somewhere that one should see, but I'm certainly not yearning to go back. I think I'd generally prefer to visit some more ordinary Italian cities but Venice was a unique holiday destination with plenty of bits to enjoy. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Packing for Venice in Spring

Packing for Venice in Spring

Packing for Venice in Spring by eleanorbirdy 

So we're going to Venice in a few days and I'm a little stressed. Oh noes, First World Problems! (wrings hands)

Still, I'll have a little whinge and if you get fed up with me, by all means click away.

I booked this trip about six weeks ago and promptly did nothing else to prepare. We have flights and a hotel but we are only just now sorting out all those details like how are we actually getting up to Gatwick airport and from the airport in Venice, what are we going to do, how are we going to afford to eat while we're there and what on earth are we going to pack!

We've got a night in London and four nights in Venice with a carry on case each and nothing else. I'm a bit concerned 'cos that's quite a lot of clothes needed and very little space to put them in. We will need to do some washing in our hotel sink.

After a bit of research into packing for Venice it seems that comfy shoes are key. I'm going to suck it up and take my joggers - at least the blue goes with my cobalt blue jeans... My black boots can do for formalish wear as well as walking during the day and in case it's hot I'll take some (reasonably comfy) sandals.

Rain protection is also a theme so I'll take a light trench coat and an umbrella.

I'm taking the maxi dresses as I still don't feel like getting my bare legs out, but I'm sick of wearing tights squeezing me around the middle. And they can be dressed up for evening events if needed. 

So what do you think of my packing - any suggestions? You've got a couple of days to give me all your tips then I'm off!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

How to sing like a (talented) pop star

I've been in an intense phase of listening to music lately and I've been noticing again some points where singers sell themselves short. I thought I'd share some tips in case you're an aspiring singer or you just want to kick ass on karaoke night...

1. Take singing seriously
This is my number one bugbear; people saying, "Oh, you're so lucky you can sing!" as if years of singing lessons and practice have nothing to do with it. Yes, people have a greater or lesser amount of natural talent, but there is a LOT of craft to learn with singing too. Take time to learn the craft from an expert teacher. Practice.

If you can't do a really good job of singing and playing an instrument at the same time then pick one to focus on. I think it's not good enough for a lead singer to be a great guitar player and a slap-dash vocalist. (Of course there are many highly successful examples of exactly that, but it irritates me a little).

Elton John is a brilliant example of someone who can sing beautifully while playing an instrument.

 2. Hit the notes
Learn the songs until you are 100% of where every note is and what it takes to get there. Don't scoop up to (or just under) high notes. Don't meander vaguely around the notes thinking you're being all R n B. Pick (or write) songs in a comfortable range so you're not straining to hit notes that are either too high or too low.

As documented, I love Franz Ferdinand with big love, but Alex gives a great (or not so great) example of scooping up to just under the note around 3:49 when they go into "I feel love" in this clip.

 3. Give notes their full value
 You don't need to sing long notes all the time, but stop somewhere logical i.e. at the end of a bar. Don't just trail off vaguely 'cos you can be bothered or you're running out of breath.

4. Think about when to breathe
Generally, don't breathe in the middle of a phrase. PLEASE don't breath in the middle of a word! A breath is like a pause in the flow of ideas; it can highlight something or switch up the rhythm. Practice and good technique can give you enough breath to deliver thoughtful musical phrases as you sing. Adele has interesting phrasing and impressive breath control in this song, especially in the chorus around 1:26 when she carries on over first line into the second line to keep the energy going.

5. Put attitude into it (but be genuine)
To entertain people you need to demonstrate emotion in your voice, whether that's heartbreak or a cocky confidence. You can use all sorts of stylistic tricks to keep things interesting and express your musical ideas, but don't overdo it. Sometimes simplicity is best.

Also, I think it's nice when pop singers use their actual accents instead of merging into some form of faux-American accent. Missy Higgins makes her strong Australian accent charming (quite a thing for a Kiwi to admit!) and I love Paolo Nutini singing in a Scottish accent.

 6. Communicate the words
If you've gone to the trouble to write lyrics (or choose a song with lyrics you like) then make sure the words are clear. Put tiny spaces between each word. Spit out your consonants (more than you think you need to) and be clear about differences for example between 'd' and 't'. Try saying 'The tip of the tongue, the teeth and the lips' with exaggerated mouth movements to limber up.
What next?
So if all this has inspired you, something you could think about is joining a local all-comers choir. If you're a beginner, look for one with no audition and no requirement to read music. There are plenty of choirs like Bristol's Riff Raff Choir who sing a range of stuff including pop and rock.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

What to do with your legs in spring?

Spring want list

As soon as the weather changes in England, I tend to find myself suddenly needing to change my wardrobe (and often being unprepared). I did snap up the floral cardigan above from ASDA. I thought it looked quite cool for a reasonably cheap garment from a supermarket. I've worn it several times already and I certainly feel 'springy' in it.

I also really need some smart-casual light weight trousers. I really liked the look of the patterned ones above from H & M and I did buy them (with a voucher for 25% off) but they really are too tight for office wear at the moment. They're a black and pale pink pattern which I think would be pretty flexible for matching with other patterns as well as a range of plain coloured tops. I'm torn between using them as a reward for losing a few more pounds and thinking that actually, they've got so much stretch that they'll never look appropriate for work. What do you think?

Last summer I got some cheap white flats and worn them to death. I think a better quality leather pair from Clarks would be a good investment. They are a bit expensive, but they'd be good for weekends and more casual work days. And I may be getting old, but I like the comfort of Clarks too.

Another thing that I seem to be constantly searching for is shell tops or blouses with short sleeves in non-creasing fabric. I know some people don't like polyester, but I love the fact that it's so quick to dry and doesn't need ironing.

The final thing I've been in desperate need of so far this spring is pale patterned tights to wear with my skirts and dresses.  I think I must be the only one who likes these sort of tights as I spent Sunday afternoon scouring the shops to no avail. I finally managed to pick up a few pairs in TKMaxx. I like patterned tights as they don't ladder as much as 15 denier sheers. Also, I like to hope that the patterns distract the viewer's eye from my less-than-fabulous legs.

So, can someone explain what to do with legs in spring? Just keep wearing black tights? Switch straight to bare legs? Wear nude stockings? Give me some advice here...

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Thin White Duke look

Since coming to England, I've come up with a theory... you can often tell if people are English by looking at them.  One common look for guys is what I call the Thin White Duke look. Hair is mousy blond/ light brown. Face is angular and may be longish or squarish with a definite nose. Hair cut is floppy. The best examples of this look are thin as well.

For example the original and the best: David Bowie

Then there's my current hero: Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand

And his older cousin (not really, but still) Brett Anderson from Suede


And Matt Bellamy from Muse looks rather similar too (if you pick the right photo)

Moving from music to acting, I love Arthur Darvill (from Doctor Who and other things) and think he's a version of the Thin White Duke thing...

Obviously these guys don't look like twins or even brothers and some of them aren't fully English by birth, but do you see what I'm talking about? And (sigh) aren't they cute?

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Pain and gain

sun shining through the clouds Is the pain worth the gain? 

This is a somewhat philosophical question inspired by the British weather. As we’ve moved into spring, the weather has suddenly changed, going from cold, grey drizzle to warm sunshine. The plants are taking the opportunity to burst out in leaves, buds and flowers and today I feel the same way. As I unfold myself and bask in the sunshine, I wonder if the months of dark, cold and rain are worth it for the euphoria that this first burst of sunshine brings?

On the balance, I’d say yes.

Now, let's widen that question out. There’s a concept developed by Pavlov called negative reinforcement. This means that people are more likely to do something that results in the pleasure they feel when something unpleasant stops happening, for example muting noisy TV ads.

Does this mean we should expose ourselves to unpleasant things for the relief when they stop? Generally not, though getting back to the weather, it can be nice to go out for a stomp around the countryside in cold rainy weather then come back inside to get warm and dry. But we can certainly work on keeping that heightened sense of joy and relief.

I find after a 'flu, on that first day when I’m actually feeling better I am  bursting with joy and optimism because it’s so nice not being sick any more. I have generally been feeling perky and bubbly for the last couple of years because my previous couple of years were pretty hideous. I guess difficult times can have the positive side effect of resetting our expectations and encouraging gratitude.

So, what do you think – is the pain worth the gain? Or would you prefer a more even keel with fewer highs and lows?