Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Internet + Classical Music: Perfect Frenemies

People over the age of 25 might remember the pre-internet days when music enthusiasts were forced to drive to a record store and hope against hope that it would have what they were looking for.

Classical music lovers were left with even fewer options than popular music enthusiasts - often peeling through thick dusty catalogues to order recordings from Europe only to wait 6 months for them to ship, often at extreme cost ($70 for one CD was not unheard of). If they didn't have 6 months to wait? No problem, they'd just buy the recording of whatever potentially crappy performance of the piece was available - that is, if any was available at all.

Can you imagine such limited access to information? I hardly can, and I was there!

I still remember a moment when I was a classical music nerd in high school and Tower Records (whose passing was the poster-child for the end of the record store world) finally got in my long-awaited copy of Baroque English composer Henry Purcell's opera, "Dido and Aeneas." I triumphantly arrived to collect my obscure treasure, only to be met with great confusion by the cashier because Dido, the now world-famous pop artist, had been in the store that very day signing copies of her pre-stardom debut album.

"She's not here any more," the cashier stated with confusion.

"How can that be? Someone called me today to tell me the CD was in."

"Well, there are tons of CDs over there, but you missed her."



"Dido, the ancient carthaginian queen?"



Dido the pop singer who sings longing songs of lost love
Dido the baroque opera character who sings longing songs of lost love before operatically committing suicide

This entire interaction might as well be as ancient and unknown to the teenagers of today as renaissance-era printing presses were to me in 1997, despite my interest in 17th century music.

These days, the explosion of music on the internet, especially YouTube, has thrown the entertainment industry into a tizzy as they try to figure out how to make money in a post-CD era, but the impact that this has had on the accessibility of classical music is particularly interesting and is, in many ways, extremely positive.

15 years ago, the top classical record houses were still kings. They decided who got recorded performing what, and when they didn't like a particular composer or artist, it was virtually impossible for an average person to access that content at all. Entire sets of beautiful obscure art songs and unusual instrument concerti remained uncovered like ancient treasures languishing under the desert sands, cut off from modern listeners and performers until tools for mass-discovery and recording could enable them to be unearthed and shared with the world. Enter: The Internet.

Those tools came with the internet, especially with YouTube, completely revolutionizing access to a vast library of previously hidden cultural treasures. Now when I want to perform a new piece, I can simply search a fragment of the name on YouTube and within moments I am presented with numerous recordings from across the world - from professional to amateur, from mid-century greats to recent college productions.

While exuding excitement about the wonders of the internet feels like an activity that became outdated in about 2001, the introduction of Broadband, Fiber and other fast internet services, combined with the amazing crowd-sourcing renaissance on social media, has made the last few years a truly revolutionary time for classical musicians. Suddenly, with the click of a button I can compare the same piece interpreted by Anna Moffo, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Nellie Melba, Renee Fleming and dozens of unknown fledgling artists. I can compare the great conductors of the 20th century to unknown grad students. With a simple Google search I can download public domain sheet music, and find translations and interpretations equal or better to those I used to dig for days to find in the Stanford University libraries. All for free...from my my pajamas.

What this means practically, is that these internet resources have created a democratized opportunity for musicians to understand and interpret music at a new level. It has enabled even amateur scholars and enthusiasts to have access to work that was previously limited to PhD students and industry insiders. It has enabled new markets and audiences to grow and discover content that would never have made it through the politics of the traditional recording industry.

YouTube was founded just 9 years ago, and since then, the world of internet-based music and video has exploded into the primary challenger to cable and entertainment giants who seemed like unstoppable bastions of modern culture just 10 years ago. Imagine what this renaissance and unprecedented democratized access to cultural materials will mean for culture in another 10 years, assuming that a ruling against net neutrality doesn't bring it screeching to a grinding hault. I'm excited to see (and terrified of the alternative)!

In the meantime though, we must deal with the problems that such a quick renaissance has posed, including the virtual collapse of the classical music recording and performance industry. Many excellent musicians who would have made fabulous careers in 1950 must make their primary livings through other careers, thus leaving the professional performances and recordings to a shrinking population of extremely poor or independently wealthy musicians who can live without making a living from their art.

In this musician's opinion, this has led the overall quality of classical music performance to suffer accordingly, and the audiences who have traditionally funded such endeavors are agreeing and investing their money elsewhere - we've entered an uncontrolled and dangerous snowball effect for the future of classical music appreciation and performance. Yet, who can blame the audiences, who now have better access than ever to Maria Callas as Tosca and Carlo Bergonzi as Scarpia? Who wants to sit through a mediocre modern performance when the divas who defined this music are accessible for free with just the click of a button? Surely a live performance has a magic that can't be captured in a scratchy recording on YouTube, yet is it magical enough to warrant the $150+ price of most major opera house tickets these days? Most audiences say no, and most importantly, young audiences aren't convinced. And it is these young audiences who hold the future of the industry that defined entertainment for centuries in their smartphone-occupied little hands.

While this is sad in many ways, I must point out that the music industry, even the classical music industry, can hardly be considered an innocent victim. This industry tightly controlled world access to cultural heritage, and now that access is in the hands of the 2.4 billion global internet users. World music is enjoying a renaissance as internet platforms have enabled an unprecedented discovery of global culture, previously confined to extreme local niche status. Suddenly, new performers don't have to play the industry games, and they can be free to go wild with direct access to their potential audiences. While the monetization models for direct funding are still in their infancy, I have confidence that within 10 years those too will be developed, and then imagine the access that we will have to an unprecedented variety of innovative musical performances.

In the meantime though, while one door closes we must make sure that the next door remains open. We must make sure that even as the traditional industries breathe their final breaths, classical music survives. Young people must be exposed to it and encouraged to perform and appreciate it. Net neutrality must keep access to the cultural resources of YouTube and other platforms available for the culture-seeking masses. Young nerdy high school students must be able to explore, perform and share their art in this brave new world.

If we let this new cultural renaissance shine, and the dawn has already come, then when we least expect it, an entirely new industry will emerge like a phoenix from the ashes, ready to thrive within the new golden cultural renaissance of the internet.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Re-Education of Miss Cocoton Barksdale Dogsalot

My husband and I recently adopted an adorable rescue dog from the SPCA:

Meet Coco
Having grown up with two affectionate cats, I have only ever had a passing interest in dogs. Sure, some were cute at the dog park, but I knew (vaguely) how much poop would need to be scooped and how much time would need to be spent walking, feeding and training them. Vacations would become more difficult to plan with dog-boarding a consideration, and who knew what other mysterious challenges would come attached to an adorable little bundle of furry love.

Yet, as I browsed Craigslist, the SPCA and Reddit, intrigued yet trying to resist the cuteness, I felt an inexplicable pull towards these cuddly creatures. One day, a little 6-year-old perma-puppy stared back at me from the SPCA website and I snapped. Within minutes I was on the phone with the SPCA asking about history (she had none) and yet despite that ominous fact, within hours I was petting her at the SPCA and within another hour with paperwork signed, I was wandering a pet store with my husband and shell-shocked dog buying her a bed, toys, a leash, a harness, treats, a crate...etc. 

So what was it? What drove me to commit to spending time, money and love for the next 10 years on this little fluffy creature that I hardly knew? I truly couldn't explain it. But, I learned, science can.

The science of human/dog bonding
It turns out that interactions with dogs, even looking at a cute dog, can release Oxytocin in humans- the same neurohormone that is responsible for humans bonding with their newborn babies! (articles here and here). 

Taking a moment to absorb that fact...

Cuteness evolved
OK...This got me thinking about an old episode of This American Life (here) about a guy who was getting over a medical condition and therefore was on bed rest for an extended period of time. He had the idea that rather than watching old bad reruns on cable, he'd rather watch continuous video of cute puppies. During his efforts to pitch this idea to the 1990's media moguls, focus groups showed that many viewers preferred to watch puppies over TBS or CNBC. The idea wasn't successful at the time, but the internet wasn't far behind, and one could semi-seriously argue that YouTube and Reddit are basically modern successful iterations of the Puppy Channel. I will admit, that I am an avid consumer of both, and a solid stream of adorable puppies is never hard to find.                                                                                                                                                                    
But, the most fascinating thing to me about this element of human behavior is that dogs, not just puppies, can elicit this type of response in humans. Certainly most baby animals have an element of heart-tugging cuteness; adorable tiger cubs, sloths, lambs, baby monkeys, piglets and thousands of other creatures can evoke a response that their adult selves just don't seem to be able to muster. So, what it is then about dogs that enables a 6-year-old pomeranian/chihuahua/papillon to tug at my heartstrings so much that I bring her wide eyes and shedding coat into my house?

It turns out that Science has an answer to this too! Over time dogs have evolved (with the help of humans applying eugenics) to appeal to a wide range of functions and human aesthetic tastes. Because humans have bred them to meet our needs, including our need for companionship and Oxytocin, we have created varieties of dogs who can fulfill those needs. To a certain degree dogs must be the perfect representations of the variety of cuteness tastes in human culture - for every person who thinks a German Shepherd is cute there is someone who thinks a pug is cute. 

There are, of course, other reasons to breed dogs - such as for hunting, rescuing, farm-work, etc. Yet, even within those categories, one could argue, ugly dogs were not as likely to be bred as the cute ones. This is even more true in the 20th and 21st centuries as working dogs with a function other than cuteness are becoming less important along with traditional agriculture and hunting. 

The BBC made a fascinating documentary on the "secret life of dogs" (here), and a similar one for cats (here).

Sometimes very cat-like, Coco likes to hang out on the couch and occasionally block typing
Beyond the science
All we know about Coco is that she was found wandering by the side of the road about 2 months ago. She wasn't spayed and had no identification microchip or collar. She was picked up by the Humane Society and held for a month while they waited for her owner to claim her. When she wasn't claimed, she was sent to the SPCA where she was evaluated and determined to be adoptable. There, they spayed and microchipped her, gave her vaccines and then marketed her on their website to find an owner.
It is truly hard for me to envision what this period of her life was like as she sat alone in a kennel after a surgery, surrounded by bigger rescue dogs and a revolving door of strangers, hoping that one of them would take her home.

Despite recognizing the obvious anthropomorphisation problem, when I think about it, I still feel stressed in a similar way to when I hear about terrible things happening to my friends. Knowing that my attachment is based on a neurohormone helps me understand why such a reaction would occur, yet it doesn't change the reaction, it almost makes the experience more fascinating.

We have now moved into a new stage of Coco-ology, observing her change as she comes to know her new environment and people. For the first few weeks that we had Coco, she was the model of dog behavior. Extremely affectionate and cuddly with us, remaining quiet, docile, and easy even with strangers. 

Coco likes to hang out with us, even while we make loud noises
But, (cue dramatic music), by the third week of our relationship, her true colors began to show. She remained affectionate with us, but became uneasy with strangers and started barking hysterically at the doorbell. We consulted specialists in rescue dog behavior (straight out of "Best In Show," I know...) and instituted behavior modification techniques like giving her treats when strangers were in the house, which while seemingly counter-intuitive, is apparently a well-proven technique for preventing anxiety barking.

It turned out that Coco was beginning to exhibit common rescue dog behavior in which as she became comfortable with her new home and less afraid of imminent death or abandonment, she began to communicate her discomfort with mundane things. From her perspective, she finally had a doorbell to bark at. From our perspective, our silent docile dog had begun to bark and immediate action needed to be taken to prevent a yapping pocket piranha from emerging. Making her life with us sustainable for us was a must, and ignoring or excusing the behavior just wasn't an option.

Coco longingly waits for the rain to subside as she obediently sports her new raincoat
Yet, with the jumps for joy at our returns home, those soulful brown eyes staring back at us, and the pink soft tongue gently licking our hands, taking her back to the pound was immediately off the table. Instead, overnight, we became dog psychology amateur experts and I started dreaming about dog training. Oxytocin is a powerful driver.
In the end, the same survival cuteness that has endeared dogs to humans for thousands of years has taken hold of us and whether we want to or not, we are hooked on helping this little fluffy creature have a good life. In the process, despite the challenges, the sense of pride and happiness at saving this little lovebug is making it worth it.

Hopefully, the adventure of reining in Coco's barking and helping her share her adorable cuteness with a wider range of strangers will be a short one, followed by a happily ever after for all of us. Somehow though, I suspect for her, that happily ever after is already here.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Chasing Snowflakes

Beautifully warm San Francisco sunset yesterday
With all the national attention on the polar vortex, I'm feeling confused as I sit back and relax on my deck in 72°F January sunshine in San Francisco.

It might sound like I'm gloating, but despite the comfort, a part of me is longing for the coziness of sipping hot cocoa by a glowing fireplace while the freezing wind and snow blow wildly outside.

Glühwein stand at a magical Swiss "Christmas Market" in Chur, Dec. 2013
I'm longing to warm my hands and my stomach with a spicy Glühwein while awaiting with shivering anticipation the oozing, bubbling, stinky raclette that will emerge any moment from the adorable mini-chalet of a Christmas Market in a twinkling medieval Swiss alleyway.

Dramatization of Grandpa's cow story from the Montana winter of 1930
I'm longing to experience cold so cold that I can thrill future generations of my family with stories epic enough to stand by my grandfather's winter on the ranch in Montana in 1930 when, as he tells it, it was so freezing that he had to brave frostbite to rescue the cattle who were frozen solid to the ground... and he liked it! 

Sure, it's great to enjoy a warmth warmer than San Francisco's July while continuing to live in blissful ignorance of what exactly a snowblower is and why it has such a big blade if it is simply for "blowing snow." (A friend from Wisconsin kindly informed me that "blowing" is not a literal description of what this contraption does without a single "that's what she said").

Yet, my adventurous side feels a little sad and a little left out of this epic polar vortex that nearly every news channel and everyone on Reddit has drooled over for the last two weeks. It's like standing on the sidelines for the big game that people will be recounting to their grandchildren for years to come:

"In my day, we had such a bad snowstorm that it knocked out the internet!" 

"No internet! What! And...Mommy, what's snow?"

"It's that fluffy, cold white substance that used to fall from the sky back before the ice caps melted..."

"Oooohh. Weird! did you live without internet?"


When I mentioned at Christmas that I wished I knew what it was like to feel -15°F temperatures, my parents (originally from Ohio) laughed and said, "that's because you haven't."

They are probably right, but I also must point out that without such an experience, I can never join the machismo club of recounting cold-weather war stories..."I remember the time when it was so cold that my snot froze in my nose, my eyes froze shut, and then I dug out the wrong car!" 

It's not like I've been held up in California, wishing for cold while basking by the beach. No, with the noblest of adventurous intentions and the luckiest of external circumstances I was able to put my travel where my mouth was and made it to Switzerland and Chicago in December.
Enjoying Christmas snow in Zürich, 2012

This is the story of what came to pass:


Zürich, I thought, would be a sure win, since last year I went to Zürich in the first week of December and experienced tons of fluffy, beautiful, christmasy snow and an entire city enchanted by the cuteness of it all, despite the fact that they get to live with such cuteness every year.

Sadly (for me and not the local Swiss), this year it was warmer in Zürich that week than it was in San Francisco! But, never fear, I had a plan....

Zermatt transportation
With a smooth and civilized three-hour train ride hardly conceivable to those used to riding BART, my husband and I were on the other side of the country in the Southwest corner of the Swiss Alps. We were in Zermatt, the epitome of all that is wonderful about Switzerland in the winter -  unbelievably quaint horse-drawn sleighs and children being pulled down the streets on sleds, miles and miles of meandering pistes by the Matterhorn where skiers can pull over for a glühwein, and even a full-blown "glacier palace" at the top of 12,000 feet of silky-smooth, death-defying, architecturally marvelous funiculars.

Magical Zermatt at twilight
Yet moments after we walked 300 feet into the side of a mountain and took a sleek glass elevator up to the lobby, the innkeeper lamented that they could hardly stay in business with so little snow. It turned out that this year they were running ski pistes based on leftovers from just one storm in November. They had never seen it so warm in December - they were worried that all of the snow might melt before another storm. Sigh. 
The view from 12,000 feet

A place to scurry, the outdoor winter hot tub in Zermatt (2012)
But the bright side was quite bright (and sunny). We saw amazingly majestic views of the Matterhorn as the sun set and rose over the crystal clear mountains. We walked inside a glacier and slid down an ice slide. We drank swiss beer and ate bratwurst overlooking the clear 12,000ft peaks. We sipped crisp white wine from the world's highest vineyard and learned that fondue doesn't always come with cheese as we bewilderedly dipped chunks of raw meat into boiling water with a side of mayonnaise, the "house special fondue."

And finally, we sat outside in the hot tub, scurrying down the wet stairs afterward in the 25°F temperature...Standing wet in a bathing suit outside in 25°F should count for something.

An unexpected fondue - the "house special" of
raw lamb, boiling water and 5 kinds of mayonnaise

But I knew the truth - I knew that with a few feet of fresh snow, it could be the most wondrous winter wonderland in the world. I knew, because I had planned this quest having been to Zermatt on my own last year, when almost like a Jane Austen character, I lost my glove...while sneaking out the back of a pub to avoid a 75-year old Swiss movie-star/ former ski olympian from the 60's and his groupies who told me that he was "very gentle"...

And so, with unusually majestic views of the Matterhorn but no machismo cold stories, the quest continued! 


With Switzerland in a warm spell, I set my sights on Chicago.

It seemed like a good bet. My husband and I had a wedding to attend on December 28th and as I sat in California on Christmas compulsively watching the temperature fall in Chicago on, my anticipation grew. The snow fell, the forecast dropped...record snow on Christmas! Yes! Chicago would be epically cold! 
50°F at the Bean, wearing parkas anyway because it's all we brought

Now, with the polar vortex, it may sound like I finally achieved my objective and had the snot frozen out of me. Yet, for better or worse for the people of Chicago, on December 27 and 28, 2013 the weather was epic....epically 50°F (10°C)!

I noted that in cold weather climates the weather often bounces wildly in winter - a fact that my Californian self had never thought about before. I had kind of envisioned a dark, gloomy solid 4-month block of snow across the Midwest and East of the US every winter. Wasn't that what we were avoiding by living in California?

The Chicago River steaming on the last day of our trip at
5°F (-15°C) before it refreezes
While contemplating this newly discovered fact about my world, I spotted more than one balding middle-aged man wearing shorts and a parka on the magnificent mile. I watched wistfully as officials had to run the Zamboni at the Millenium Park ice rink every 20 minutes because all of the ice was melting. The ice that had dutifully encrusted the Chicago River during the Christmas freeze cracked and melted like a truck-stop slushie on a hot summer day. I felt silly in my parka (the only coat I packed, which seemed like a good idea at the time), wearing it open and sweating amongst schools of college sweatshirts, short dresses and open-toed high heels. 

On our last day, just as the polar vortex took its big breath before its grand aria, the temperature dropped to 5°F (-15°C) with a wind chill of -10°F (-23°C), which is nothing to sneeze at but wasn't quite cold enough to make my eyes freeze shut. But, the river began to refreeze, the streets emptied out, the wind began to blow, and no one was wearing shorts. 

As the steam rose from the Chicago river, a communal atmosphere magically emerged in which every poor, freezing soul on the street looked upon her fellow walkers with a new set of eyes and a nod - for the first time since I arrived in this foreign land, perfect strangers communicated with a subtle acknowledgement - "We're in this freezing mess together." 

As my husband indulged my need to walk around for miles to see how long it would take for me to decide that it was so cold that it was in fact worth paying 3x in real estate to live in California, I swam in the crisp, dry air, reveling in the "Little House on the Prairie" fellowship that brought people together through mutual suffering against nature's whims. 


In conclusion, while I am not convinced that I would continue my love affair with the cold if I was forced to face it for many months every year, I'm also not yet convinced that it is the horrifying dragon that my California upbringing has made it out to be as I have watched from afar as the vortex overtakes unsuspecting Easterners like a sequel to Sharknado, ruthlessly knocking down their powerlines and stealing away their lifeblood internet.  

In the end, we managed to squeak out of Chicago the day before it was so cold that flights were delayed and cancelled, the day before the polar vortex made its official entrance. Had we sat in the Chicago airport for hours dealing with the weather mess, I would likely have formed a different opinion. However...

While many would consider us lucky, including the logical side of my own brain, I still feel sad that I didn't get to be a part of the communal togetherness of facing the epic cold alongside millions of others. 

Instead, I will continue to live with the hope that someday, when I least expect it, my snot will freeze and I will fight frostbite in my fingers to dig out my car with a novel shovel I will wield for the first time like Frodo wielding his sword as he runs unsuspectingly into battle. I will pull the string of the terrifying snowblower and figure out what that horror-movie blade does other than...blowing. 

And on that day, I will not be the only one standing back and sighing in wonder at the shit-show that nature can hurl, and it will be awesome. It will be epic.

And from that day forward, if I'm lucky, my story will have a place alongside Bessie's frozen hooves and my grandfather's frostbitten fingers of the epic Montana winter of 1930. 

Until then though, I'm going to enjoy the comfort and ease of my California sunshine. 

More winter magic from Switzerland - 2012 & 2013:

Sunset at the Matterhorn

10 minutes later 
Snowy vespas in Zurich

Crazy ice bar in Zermatt 
Snowy Zermatt in 2012 
Winter evening in Zurich 
Snow adds a new feeling to art in Zurich

Banhofstrasse at Christmas, Zurich
Swiss Alps near Visp
Real snow on the Christmas tree in Zurich

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Tale of Two Weddings

I recently experienced the pleasure and pain of planning not one but two weddings across two continents. 

One was a secular American affair at a classy museum with round tables and a catered dinner amongst Rodin statues, the other a three day long affair with folk traditions and only 20 guests, all staying at the familial estate of some friends in the countryside of Cognac in the West of France:

San Francisco Wedding
Cognac, France Wedding

Both weddings were awesome, but in many ways represented opposite approaches to the wedding conundrum. So many people struggle with the question of how to make this important event more meaningful, that many fall into the trap of spending a lot more money than they initially planned in order to achieve some sort of vague target of wedding perfection.

From my unique experience, since it is not every day that one couple has two weddings on two continents, I have a few recommendations to couples out there who are struggling to figure out how to make their own weddings feel more meaningful without spending more money. The good news is: it's definitely possible!

The American Wedding Experience
Before I get to the good news, I have to talk about a few of the challenges that we faced while planning our American wedding, because they are quite common and I hope that every bright-eyed young couple can learn from our mistakes. 

For our California affair, the primary objective was to host an event for friends, family and co-workers who wouldn't be able to come to France. It was important to me to have a father-daughter dance and food that wasn't terrible, but beyond that, I was relatively flexible. "That should make this easy and cheap," I thought. Ha! So naive...

First, there were the logistical challenges... 

We naively chose a museum as the venue because it had a relatively low venue rental fee and we thought, "there's beautiful art, therefore we won't have to decorate and that will make it so easy!" True, we didn't have to decorate it too much compared to say, a barn, but FYI to anyone considering a museum as a wedding venue: it's not worth it. 

They had an unbelievable number of unpredictable policies, many of which were not specified in the written contract at all and were instead only communicated verbally just days before the wedding by the rude rep who was proudly demonstrating her position of power in her third week on the job. To name a few: no live plants, no open flames (meaning no food warming devices even though the museum itself had a cafe), all vendors had to be approved (including photographers, florists, cake deliverers, etc.), invitations had to be approved by the museum, insurance had to list the museum's board along with a long list of other related organizations (too many characters for the major insurance company's form to accommodate so they had to get an actual underwriter on the phone to make an exception), despite the ceremony start time of 6:30, a bastille-esque spiked metal gate was closed until exactly 6:30 to prevent on-time guests from "sitting early," and last but certainly not least, handicapped guests needed to be escorted by a security guard to the bathroom. 

Our caterer, one of the very few who was allowed to cater at the venue at all, laughed when we told her that we thought a museum would be easy. "It's hard to find a venue that's harder to work with than a museum," she stated nonchalantly as she charged us almost twice as much as average because her company had to set up an entire external kitchen outside by the dumpsters thanks to that museum regulation that banned open flames in the building. 

Museum wedding: A beautiful space, but not worth the pain

A couple key takeaways here: 

#1) Don't have a wedding at a museum or anywhere else that considers your wedding a nuisance to their core business. 

#2) Before choosing any venue or vendor, talk directly to clients and vendors who have recently worked with them on a wedding - they will tell you what is not surfaced by online reviews. Despite good yelp reviews, we had to fire our wedding planner a week before the wedding because her presence was detrimental (communicating our requirements incorrectly, not forwarding contracts, etc). Afterwards we realized that her online reviews were padded with reviews from her friends and other vendors. Don't let this happen to you! Ask probing questions, talk to other customers, and expect that the sales rep for the venue or vendor will not give you honest answers.  

Then there were the creative challenges....

In addition to the logistical issues, we also struggled to figure out how to make our wedding ceremony itself meaningful enough to represent how we felt about each other. We discovered early in the process that despite weddings in movies, pretty much all American wedding scripts on the internet are religious in one way or another. After sifting through script after script, we ended up writing the ceremony ourselves and then sharing the script with our officiant, one of my music professors from college, who also added a few details of his own to the ceremony. We agonized over who we should have officiate, due to our secular beliefs, and ended up choosing a professor because in lieu of being attached to a religious institution, we felt like music and academia were more meaningful to our lives. 

In the end we pulled from random traditions that we thought sounded nice and chose our own readings from Neil Degrasse Tyson, Einstein, and Shakespeare. The difficult museum regulations and the resulting increased cost led us to personalize other aspects of the event by making our own paper crane decorations instead of using flowers, ordering "special event cakes" not a "wedding cake," and hiring my mom's friend as our photographer (who did a pretty amazing job) instead of a pretentious San Francisco artist. 

By starting early and working with a photographer who was a family friend, we had time to play with non-traditional pictures... 

"Special event cakes," each customized to represent a place we've traveled together. This cost less than half of the same type of cake as a "wedding cake" from the same bakery and was infinitely more personal.

 The space did meet one of my primary objectives- an awesome father daughter dance. Having enough space to dance can be a difficult constraint when finding a venue because it eliminates many restaurants and smaller spaces from the list. Be sure to ask any venue about hidden costs, and ask for references to former customers who can corroborate whatever info the rep gives you. 

A bouquet of white roses, white calla lilies and purple thistle, created by my wonderful bridesmaid, Shirley. 
Dress by Marchesa

 We did a "first look" before the ceremony in a public area near the museum so that we could have all pictures done before the guests arrived, allowing us to make the most of our 5 hour American wedding sprint. 

We snuck this pic in at the end of the night while everyone was leaving. 

Overall, it worked out and fulfilled the criteria that I originally set out to meet, albeit with higher stress and more money than we had planned. That said, the one takeaway that I cannot ignore is that at the end of the day, I hardly remember the event at all!  

Despite the amazing pics, from the beginning of the ceremony until the end of the reception was exactly 5 hours which absolutely flew by. My husband didn't eat any of his excruciatingly expensive meal, and the thirty minutes of dancing passed by in a blur. 

And so, in contrast, I present exhibit B - the French wedding.

The French Wedding Experience
(And what you can use from it to make your own wedding awesome!)

For the French wedding, our friends and family from California, Europe and Asia converged on a beautiful old farm (400 years old to be precise, and built on the ruins of a Roman villa that is over 2,000 years old). We spent the entire weekend together imbibing and enjoying each other's company and it was awesome. My memories from this weekend are vivid, deep and wonderful.

While we were extremely privileged to have such a wonderful family and home hosting us, there were many elements that can be applied to any wedding, anywhere in the world. And, if you want to have a French castle wedding, that too is possible. My husband and I actually know another American couple who rented a castle in France for their wedding, and they had a very similar story, extolling the virtues of getting everyone to a beautiful place where they can spend ample time together enjoying each other's company and the amazing food of the French countryside.

And so, finally, here are some ideas and borrowed cultural traditions that made my French wedding awesome, that you can easily (and cheaply) do yourself!

1) Tying the knot (literally)

Our French wedding was officiated by my friend whose family hosted the event. He flew from his current residence in Singapore back to France for the occasion and did an amazing job! In about 10 minutes, about one hour before the ceremony, we created the entire program together. 

He had recently been to a South Indian wedding, in which it is a tradition for the bride and groom to be bound together by ribbon throughout the length of the ceremony. This creates a very clear and meaningful visual representation of the joining together of people, and it only requires some string or ribbon. When rings are exchanged the rings take on the symbolism of the "tied knots," bringing additional lasting meaning to the rings. 

2) Seven Vows by the Fire

Another South Indian tradition that we included was the Agni fire ceremony. In this ceremony the fire is the "witness" to your vows (as are your friends and family who are watching you), which even to my agnostic self, made them feel more significant. The couple (while still tied together), walks around a fire seven times, each time stopping to make a vow to each other. 

Since we hadn't pre-written our vows, we had to come up with them on the spot and our friends and family got to be a part of the process, which made it very personal and fun. Seven vows is a lot, so it also allows you to cover a spectrum of big things and small things. Since it's awkward to walk around while tied up (especially in a wedding dress!), you already have to support each other, which adds to the symbolism.

We used a candle in a moroccan lantern to reduce the risk of setting my wedding dress on fire :). 

3) The Dance-Off

Another fun Indian tradition that we incorporated was the dance-off. The men escorted the groom to the altar in dance, and the women escorted the bride. Together we reached the altar in a big Indian dance-off (in our case to music performed by a local French folk band from the local region of Charente) and the ceremony started with a lot of excitement and fun energy. 

At the end of the ceremony we finished the dance-off, with everyone dancing together from the ceremony to the reception (which was about 30 feet away). Even people who were not normally comfortable dancing in public had an awesome time, and the ice was broken for an entire day of dancing.

4) Pièce montée

Europeans have a lot of fun local folk traditions that add color and meaning to any wedding, and the French are no exception. One of my favorites was this local French tradition, in which the bride and groom serve sweet puffs of dough held together by caramel (displayed in a tower called a Pièce montée) to each person at the reception. As they work their way around the room, the bride and groom personally thank each person for participating in the wedding. Because the puffs are sticky, it is funny to watch the bride and groom attempt to give out the pieces, requiring them to display teamwork :). 

5) Wheelbarrow race

This is definitely one of the best. It was a local tradition for the groom to push the bride from the place where they originally met to the location of the a wheelbarrow. This made sense logistically back in the days when people married other people within their tiny villages, but the tradition symbolically lives on, even for people like us who met across the world. 

The French family created a "bridal wheelbarrow" with white pillows and streamers and my new husband pushed me around the farmyard on an obstacle course with people wearing hats (buckets, technically) that listed different places that we'd traveled together. This was a very difficult task for my new husband to achieve and he succeeded fantastically. At the end though, the tables were turned and I had to push him! I hardly got a few inches...

This tradition was hilarious and wildly entertaining for all involved.

6) Teach everyone how to do a local dance

The local charenteuse band taught everyone a traditional folk dance. The folk music was fantastic and very easy to dance to, and when they showed everyone the moves, it was another way to include people who otherwise would not be comfortable dancing. This was a great way to bring people together with a new shared experience. 

7) Interactive entertainment

Because our reception space was relatively small (in the area where the estate had formerly made its wine), we had the band sit at our banquet table with us! This actually made it very personal and fun, and they ended up singing folk songs and teaching the group the words. They even did the blues and many people at the banquet participated with their own verses. It was another way to make everyone feel like they were a part of the action, which was a huge benefit of having such a small group.

8) Everyone gives a speech!

This one was another one of my favorites. Because there were only twenty guests and we had lots and lots of time, everyone gave a speech! This made the entire experience really personal and it helped break the ice between people who didn't know each other outside of the context of the wedding. This would obviously not work with a large number of guests, but for twenty people it was perfect and made the event much more personal and meaningful.

9) The Slipper kick

Everyone's heard of the bouquet toss, but I present to you the...slipper kick. Another local French tradition, it's pretty much exactly how it sounds. Each guest has an opportunity to kick a slipper as far as they can. The symbolism has something to do with the man's...slippers (something scandalous that wasn't fully explained because the winner's 7-year old daughter was present...). This was another way to get all of the guests involved in a funny activity that would make them feel comfortable just doing fun, relaxing activities together. 

10) Last but not least - spending lots of time together! 

Our French wedding lasted from Friday night until Monday morning. It started with a welcome reception and dinner on Friday night. The actual ceremony happened on Saturday afternoon, followed by the fun events described above. Sunday, with all of our guests, we went to the beautiful medieval town of St. Emilion, a grand cru wine region in Bordeaux, followed by another final dinner together on Sunday night.

Having so much time together really allowed us to enjoy every moment, without the crazy stress of pushing through a tight wedding schedule. When it rained on our wedding day, we just waited until it stopped. When we wanted to decorate the arch the morning of the wedding, my groom and I went to the local flower shop and bought beautiful flowers that we then also used for the bouquet and boutonniere. People from three continents had time to get to know each other, build friendships, and relax enough to have a fantastic time, and the funny local folk traditions really helped create the open atmosphere that enabled everyone to feel like a part of something special.

If you don't want to incorporate any of these fun traditions, I would say that my one key takeaway is that no matter what you choose to do, give yourself enough time with your guests to enjoy it and to remember it. 

And for that, you don't need a crazy budget, you just need to find the right place and the right people, and allow yourselves to enjoy being together!

Have questions or comments? Leave them in the comments section and I will answer them!

Subscribe for more blog posts celebrating the extraordinary of the ordinary at home and abroad!