Follow one crying eye on


What was I thinking? This is utter madness!

Thus hums my tiny mind, as I compulsively throw every summery clothing item I own into a suitcase a size larger than originally intended, along with several changes of black performance outfit in a sealed bag in case of I-don’t-know-what-kind-of transit spillage disaster.

How could I have thought that learning seventeen choral pieces plus a mass setting would be a good midsummer activity? It has dominated my waking hours – and that of my housemates – for the past four weeks. Not only that, but travelling at antisocial times of day (yes, another stupidly early start – do I never learn?) in peak holiday season to a country where the temperature is unlikely to dip below 30 degrees C (I don’t like the heat), to spend a week with a bunch of talented singers most of whom I’ve never met who have being doing this for years. Although I sing regularly, I have done very little choral work in the recent past, and never to the exacting standards of the Cutty Sark Singers, who have now taken an un-auditioned punt on me in order to boost the Tenor line for their annual one-week choir tour in Italy. Indeed, all they have heard is a phone recording of me singing in a pub garden, and it is perfectly possible that my voice has been confused with my vocal partner on that occasion (yes, E, that would be you!) But, nothing ventured, nothing gained eh? 

My new black A4 folder containing the music over which I have pored so diligently, slots carefully into my old work rucksack, never to leave my side for fear of losing it in any apocalyptic airport baggage fiasco which may occur. If I lose it, I may have to use someone else’s spare copy, which would be catastrophic because, amateur that I am, I have used highlighter pen to ensure I can always follow which line I am supposed to be singing – ‘supposed’ being an important element of this statement. I am, in fact, wondering how I will hide this shameful fact from my fellow choir-members. Funny how I obsess over this, whilst worrying far less about the complicated travelling arrangements ahead of me.

I realise I am erring on the side of exaggeration; in fact, a strange calm has settled inside me and I am just going through the motions of panic to keep up appearances. (Weirdly true.)

The improbably named Zedcarz car appears exactly at stupid o’clock and I am pleased to see it is a smart Mercedes, with rather lovely interior mood lighting. Somewhat despite myself, I am already enjoying this ‘not-going-on-the-bus-it’s-too-early’ luxury and continue the theme through to the BA lounge which I have once again somehow justified to my bank balance and my failing eco-creds. As penance I walk, in splendid isolation and humming one of the trickier pieces, through the underground tunnel to the Heathrow Terminal 5 B-gates for my flight to Bologna, rather than take the crowded shuttle. Of course, this is not a penance at all but a joy. I have never yet met another person down here and my step-count ticks up nicely. (Saddo!)

I actually think there is something wrong with me. Lack of headache and such clear-headed cheerfulness as I am experiencing is ever-so-slightly unnerving. Heading for a fall perhaps?

Aside from a small bird-strike incident with the plane ahead of us, which requires a change of mind about our own imminent landing and an aggressive power up-up-and-away for an additional sky circuit of Bologna, the journey passes uneventfully and, rather than fret over what the accommodation will be like at the villa or whether I will be able to remember any of the notes I’m supposed to sing, I allow myself to read a large chunk of paperback when I’m not gawping at the Swiss Alps out of the window.

Emerging finally from the tiny Macaroni monorail (properly called the Marconi, but everyone I spoke to on tour independently chose the pasta version), the link from airport to Bologna Central Rail station, the heat hits me and I hope that the six minutes estimated to walk to my hotel will actually be shorter. It is. Five minutes later I am persuading the nice man on Reception to find me a room which is ready (it is not yet midday) and he very kindly does so. The same man allows me to stay until 1.15pm the next day too – ‘exceptionally at no extra cost’ – I decide I like Italians.

Bologna colonnades

I sit in my room and wonder whether I should practise my singing. I decide that it’s too late for that now, and set off on my usual random stomping around the sights of a new city. After all, this was partly the point of arriving a day early – that and a grace day in case of strikes.

My favourite Bologna chemist sign

It is so hot that I fear I will not get far, but am pleased to find that Bologna is the capital of colonnades and everywhere I wish to go has a sheltered walkway with impressive pillars and cracked terracotta paving. It’s all beautiful, even the tired bits, and I manage to catch a few snaps and grab a snack for late lunch in a delicatessen with street tables – convincing myself that I am properly in the Italian vibe (current offspring speak for mood or atmosphere) because I have chosen to eat something with artichokes in it and I can remember the Italian words to ask the waiter for the check (‘check’ being, annoyingly, the ‘English’ word used for ‘conto’ in my recent Duolingo lessons instead of the correct word which is ‘bill’).

No perambulation of a new city is complete without a stop in a supermarket or corner shop. I make the splendid discovery of an Aldi, which I plunder for biscuits and bottled water – startlingly adding up to less than 1 euro which I only realise when I have already proffered my credit card! Ridiculous. I seek out other more authentic Italian food shops but still only buy crisps and chocolate, albeit at higher cost than Aldi. I’m tired, and old habits die hard.

On the morrow, after a successful investigation of the hotel breakfast arrangements and another brief stomp around, I trundle back to the train station. The train is packed and there is nowhere to put my medium-sized suitcase. Several different people assist me – kindly and wordlessly – and I end up forfeiting my booked window seat in some kind of swap for my luggage. My disappointment at lack of view dissipates rapidly as it transpires most of this leg of my journey – to Florence – is underground, so I plough on with my paperback.

I change at Florence, which is hotter than a hot place, and the second train is just as punctual, but much less busy and with better views.

I have been corresponding on What’sApp with A, the multi-talented choir group member who: makes all the villa bookings; tells us what we are singing and what we should wear; provides a Spotify list and folders if required; coordinates arrivals and departures etc (and will at some point send me a conto/bill/check for the week when she’s added everything up). She is waiting on the platform at Terontola-Cortona station and greets me in a business-like fashion as I stagger to her car with my luggage. My friends have referred to her as Big A. She is tiny. I realise that this is not just a title given because there is also another A, a child of one of my friends who has attended every one of these longstanding tours since babyhood and was inevitably known as Little A, but a typical British joke (possibly the next thing to be ‘woked’).

As we pull into the villa grounds, and I marvel at the scale and beauty, I suddenly focus on what Big A is saying. ‘You’re sharing a room with B; I assume that’s ok?’ What??? B is an old friend of mine, for sure, and we have shared a few things over the years but… Has he agreed to this? Is he aware at all? What do I say to Mr J?

I confess that my other old friend (S) on this tour did ask me, weeks ago on WA, if I would consider sharing with B. My response, I now realise, may have been misleading. I recalled a boozy evening in our early twenties where several of us all crashed out in one room after a party – and replied that ‘it’s years since I shared a room with B lol.’ It appears this has been taken as acceptance. I had wondered in advance – indeed wondered out loud to some non-singing friends who were now eagerly awaiting tales of nocturnal B and bossy Big A. Oh dear. Note to self – don’t try this throwaway humour again without sending a qualifying sensible and incontrovertible follow-up, and don’t make a joke of it if it might actually come true!

Fortunately, as I stutter apologetically, Big A is immediately understanding and admits to having been surprised at the suggestion, and she steams into action changing the handwritten notes on doors replacing me with someone else (a man) to sleep alongside B and freeing up a delightful mezzanine space for me – which I transform, over the course of the ensuing week, into what can only be described as a TIP! To be fair, the apparently capacious wardrobe taking up about a third of the space on this mezzanine level is half stacked with thick, heavy and entirely unnecessary (in August) blankets, has no hanging rail and precisely one ancient coat-hanger tucked behind the blankets, so is next to useless. The lighting is also exceedingly poor up here, so grubbing around in cupboards or suitcase is tricky – much better to leave everything on the bed or floor where there is a chance that what little light there is will reveal its whereabouts. Also, draping towels and larger clothing over the banister rail provides a little privacy from the room below.

Others arrive. There are 24 of us in total. Three are good friends of mine, a further two I recognise from my university days although they don’t remember me, another I thought I would recognise but don’t (and he definitely doesn’t know me) and Little A, the youngest daughter of my good friends S&J, I have met a few times before so I set to to try and learn everyone else’s name. 

Glorious al fresco evenings
Wine tasting

The week begins with the first of seven outstanding communal suppers, a great deal of chat and even more alcohol. These musicians can certainly drink.  At this point, I decide I will avoid alcohol completely, on the basis that the blurb on my latest headache medication advises against it, and I really don’t need to drink to enjoy myself. (This is true, but …) I hold strong this first evening as a headache gathers anyway without the help of any addictive substances – a fact which encourages me to ignore my rule on five out of six later evenings. On the last evening I am congratulated by our resident wine-merchant and sommelier J (who knows me well from our recent walking holiday) for my ability to abstain or at least drink a tiny fraction of everyone else’s consumption. I’ve always thought this made me a lightweight, but I realise that in fact it may genuinely be something that people admire these days. Who knew? (Or perhaps in fact he was just teasing me – but I’ll take it anyway.)

As for headaches, I largely banish them by taking a strong cup of coffee to bed with me each night – drinking half before going to sleep and the other half cold on waking up in the morning. This sounds ridiculous, but I am convinced it helped.

Rehearsals, of which there are three scheduled before our first performance, are initially terrifying. We never sing through an entire piece – apart from the mad and tricky one which lasts less than a minute – and it is assumed that we know all the notes. Well, I do know all the notes, but it’s taken a while. Thank goodness for preparation. It is fairly clear that two of my fellow Tenors are pretty much sight-reading – although they have sung several of the pieces before. And this is how they work. Precisely what I was worried about for myself; years of experience and training are not easily caught up.

A brief note on the Tenors. We have one ‘proper’ Tenor (who stays up longer than anyone else, probably drinks as much as or more than anyone – see more below – but has a glorious voice) and the other who is a professional Baritone singing ‘up’ (he sang in the Coronation earlier this year and, knowing I would be singing with him, I had spent much of the service scanning the choir to see if I could make him out, without actually knowing what he looked like). Little A – currently a Choral Scholar at Cambridge, singing alto there – is the third member (I am fourth I guess, although will sing Tenor 1 just to confuse you) and this means that we are 50% female, a fact pointed out quite proudly by our choir leader as being surprising and unusual. Given that Little A is no more than twenty years of age, I refrain from my usual Tena Ladies joke and simply smile.

My voice is hardly going to feature alongside these three, and in one sense this makes me feel better. I only need to avoid obvious mistakes, rather than try to be outstandingly brilliant (which of course is what I had been aiming for originally – haha). I have decided I will just quietly (or moderately loudly) blend with the rest of them.

I opt also to blend sartorially, with the men more generally, by wearing black instead of the ladies’ ‘long, single-coloured non-strappy dress – any colour’ which, despite even briefly entering a local Kingston bridesmaid shop (!!!!), has proved too complex for me to procure in any case. In the end, for Mass we wear Sunday best (on a Tuesday, which is mind-blowing and turns out a bit scrappy imho) and although I wear one of my black outfits for the first evening concert, I am persuaded to wear a light blue midi-length strappy sun-dress for the second one – thus proving that dress codes are just there for the breaking and that flattery will make me change my mind every time. (But don’t push it!)

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Whilst the villa is not overly luxurious, it has indoor space suitable for rehearsals and, most importantly, sports a restaurant standard kitchen which allows chef R (husband of Big A, and a key member of the gang, as well as singing Bass) to create some stunning dishes with the help of all of us on chopping, stirring, serving etc duty. I have never eaten a better risotto, and discover the delights of bread stew on leftovers day (this was likely a version of ‘ribollita’ – I have just looked this up but it is a Tuscan speciality, and R was trying to produce local dishes wherever possible, so that’s likely correct). My friends told me in advance that the food was good, but I did not expect such a standard. R is not a chef in real life – I think he’s a retired teacher – but he may have missed his calling.

I delight in the somehow carefree and almost other-worldly atmosphere; it is a strangely relaxing week. Yes, I have to rehearse, yes, I have to help in the kitchen and yes, there are people I barely know all around me, yet the schedule rumbles on and I fit around it with almost no mental effort, other than the musical effort which is specific and all laid out for me to follow. I am tied to the villa by the rehearsal and meal schedule and can’t go out exploring, so my usually itchy feet are becalmed (apart from their numerous insect bites). Having no independent means of transport helps on this front too, although for the concerts there is always a space in the back of someone’s car for me – usually squished up against others companionably and taking turns to sit in the middle seat, with no clue where we are but somehow confident that we will get there and glad of the air-con. Our glorious soprano soloist doubles as Navigatrix in the co-pilot seat and encourages us to guess which number road we are on at any given time, whilst – for some reason in French – she acts as rally co-driver for our cheerful Second Soprano chauffeur who seems unfazed by pretty much anything. To the carefully modulated cries of ‘Continuez, continuez!’ we five ladies hurtle to and from the venues, with barely a care. And to reiterate – the aircon definitely helps.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Cortona – where we sang on her feast day

Our first performance is a Mass in Cortona for Ferragosto (Feast of the Assumption). This is slightly seat of the pants stuff because we are only loosely briefed by the Priest beforehand. He is very jolly, but clearly on edge due to the presence of the Bishop of Arrezzo, and an ever-growing congregation, in his church for this feast day Tuesday morning. We muddle through, taking our cues in the Mass mostly correctly, and only slightly blot our copybooks by causing the congregation to break into spontaneous applause with our ‘Biebl’ (the final anthem we have chosen, with splendid soloists – see attached99EF79EF-86A5-4423-9B89-3758E4C2D039 small video), rather to the Bishop’s distaste (the applause, not the singing, we hope). He forgives us though, and even speaks a little in English at the end of his address, to anticipate our future heavenly joy ‘up in the sky with Mary’ – a phrase we will inevitably repeat to each other for the rest of the tour.

Concert venue at Montepulciano – Il Tempio Di San Biaggio
My Tenor buddies in the evening sun at Montepulciano

The second concert location in Montepulciano is sublime and the concert goes well. We are rewarded with a beautiful sunset and a conveniently located bar, before returning to the villa for yet another splendid meal.

It is a long time since I have sat around in a swimming costume, but the heat entices even this usually body-ashamed damsel to disrobe and spend time in and around the generous pool. At one point the day after our first concert, I even loll on the steps for the best part of an hour, half submerged, to debate with my fellow Tenors how it was that on the previous evening all four of us had somehow managed to miss a key Tenor entry, leaving a complete silence and our comrades in confusion, but then all four of us miraculously recommenced our singing together precisely one bar late. We decide it simply added to the tension of what was already a very slow and atmospheric piece, the audience would never know any different and our colleagues had by now, incredulously, forgiven us. I am simply relieved that I didn’t attempt to start up on my own, and we all agree (sure, they are humouring me, but once again, I’ll take it) that it proves how much of an instinctive musical team we are. Time for another couple of lengths of the pool to knock some of this nonsense out.

Not yer actual Pope

The heat is relentless. All week, we are above 30 degrees and often with little breeze. The evenings are blissful; eating, drinking and chatting al fresco, sometimes until 3 in the AM, with no need for a cardigan, is fantastic. On just one occasion the temperature gets to us.

Our second concert is in Citta della Pieve on Friday early evening. On arrival at the Duomo, we find that even the stout stone walls are insufficient to cool the interior, and our rehearsal is meltingly exhausting. My fellow first Tenor is feeling lightheaded and we seek out extra-large bottles of water for him. After a concerted aqua-glugging session and a brief sit-down on the priest’s throne before the audience arrives (“I’d make an excellent Pope!” – the non-Catholics among us tend to agree, but it is perhaps unwise to encourage him), he rallies and we’re off.

Part-way through our first set, I realise that ‘il Papa’ is straying from the beat and swaying more erratically than usual. I catastrophise – is he about to plummet off the side of our altar steps perch? I’ll then be the sole Tenor 1 or, even more likely, follow suit (I have a black-belt in copy-fainting) and join him sprawled in the side aisle. I look steadfastly at the conductor and sing a little louder to cover. His Holiness somehow rallies and we reach the interval still upright. Aqua-replenished, we complete our performance to a standing ovation, followed by much congratulation, a quick change and a dash to the nearest bar.

We’ve made it.

And despite a few (hopefully unnoticeable) slips, I too have made it to the end of my week unscathed and happy. The risk has paid off. I have not embarrassed myself. I may have been the weakest musical link, but I may not have been,* at least not by too great a margin, and I’ve had a truly wonderful time. As you see, I have been lured into hyperbole and begun to use words such as wonderful and glorious – believe me, ‘fantastic’, ‘life-affirming’, and ‘splendiferous’ etc are also lurking at my fingertips. 

On another level though, it is just a huge great big relief`!!!!

I have no idea if they will ask me again. It would be nice to think so, but it doesn’t really matter.

View at Cortona
View at Montepulciano


Post script: Back in the UK, it seems that Mr J has had a somewhat different holiday, sailing in sometimes ‘exciting’ waters off Cornwall, sharing a tiny cabin with an old friend and coming home unencumbered by sticks of rock, pasties, or fillets of Cornish mackerel, but nursing instead his first-ever dose of Covid.

So not only did we holiday apart, but we have just spent a further week avoiding each other at home. 

*there may not have been a weakest link at all. I am most certainly not suggesting that someone else was the weakest link.







Follow one crying eye on