Experience

Solo Travel: Expectations vs. Reality

2016-04-18_232314723_1DBA3_iOSBooking a one way ticket to New York City at the end of February is probably one if the biggest leaps I have ever taken in my life. Clicking “buy” on that first ticket was both exhilarating and absolutely terrifying. I think my heart skipped around in a my throat for at least two hours afterwards.

A couple years ago, when I first toyed around with the idea of traveling solo, I picked Edinburgh, Scotland as my first destination. It seemed like a no-brainer given my fascination with castles, medieval times, and fairy tales. Planning a trip to Scotland felt like dipping my toes into the warm, inviting waters of the solo travel world. Booking the ticket to New York felt like diving into an icy lake naked and blindfolded.

When I started telling people about traveling to New York City, I usually received one of three responses: You are so brave; the city is dirty and smells horrible; the people are rude. I should point out that I was not completely oblivious to the ways of the city when I booked this trip – I did spend eight whole hours there last year – but these responses still had their way of eking their influence into my expectations of my first real experience in New York.

Expectations Vs. Reality

  • Expectation: The city smells.
    • When every person you talk to tells you that the city reeks of urine and garbage, you can’t help but wait for your senses to be accosted the most terrible of smells.
  • Reality: Only a little bit.
    • When you have that many people crammed into such a small land area, there are going to be smells. However, there most certainly was not a constant barrage of horrible assaulting my nostrils. I actually remember one corner specifically that had a gross odor to it right in Times Square. Unfortunately, I had to walk by it often, but other than that I don’t really remember anything smelling that bad. The thing most jarring to me was the piles of trash on the sidewalks waiting for pickup when I rolled into the city on a shuttle about 11:30 at night.
  • Expectation: The people are rude.
    • In the city that never sleeps, people don’t have time for tourists or anyone who gets in their way to wherever they are going in a crazy hurry.
  • Reality: Just the tourists.
    • Seriously, the worst people I encountered were the tourists – hands down.  I tried very hard to fit in as I wandered the streets, and I think that it worked 2016-04-22_000855683_BEDC0_iOSfor the most part. I was hyper aware of common courtesy and even researched a few of the things that people in New York find annoying so I could avoid being one of THOSE people. Maybe that helped my case. But honestly, if tourists tried half as hard as I did, there would be a lot less rudeness in the city. The New Yorkers that I interacted with were all friendly (with the exception of the homeless man who turned nasty when I wouldn’t give him a dollar.) The tourists, however, were another story entirely. I really tried to immerse myself in the New York culture while I was there, avoiding for the most part some of the more touristy attractions. My venture to the top of the Rockefeller Center was probably the most touristy thing I did, and I came away from it appreciating the view, but hesitant to ever visit such a touristy spot again. As the sun set, the Top of the Rock became exceptionally busy and every single person vied for the best view of the city at night – regardless of who they stepped in front of or pushed out of the way. Attempting the apply the concept of common courtesy was completely moot, because the second you stepped back from the person in front of you so you weren’t breathing down their neck, someone else squeezed right in front of you. The idea of waiting patiently for your turn at the edge might has well have been a pipe dream. If you weren’t on your toes and ready to jump in the second the person in front of you left, you completely missed your shot. I honestly started to wonder if any of them were really taking it in or if they were part of some greater scavenger hunt where they just needed one crappy snapshot to prove they were there before racing off to the next location. I mean, really, once the sun went down it wasn’t going to matter if you waited 2 minutes or 10 – the picture of the city was going to look just the same.
  • Expectation: There are people everywhere.
    • Back to the idea of so many people being crammed into such a small space, you expect there to always be somebody around, especially 2016-04-20_125804900_9FA3F_iOScoming from somewhere where you can hop in a car and drive for twenty miles on a dirt road without seeing anybody.
  • Reality: Yes, there are a lot of people. 
    • Being based in Times Square, there were a ton of people. But, there are still moments when you are almost alone. I think this became one of my biggest fascinations with the city. Even the the middle of the hustle and bustle of a million people, moments stand out where there was no one around. Even half of a subway car captured in a photograph can suggest solitude. There may have been a dozen people behind me, but in the photograph there are none. Wandering through central park was really no different than hiking on a trail in the mountains back home. People were around, but not in the mobs and swarms you might expect, unless you were in Times Square.
  • Expectation: It is always loud.
    • Oh the infamous taxi horn. The sound of traffic, the constant swarms of people.
  • Reality: The City is loud.
    • I had barely been in the city for ten minutes before horns were sounding car to car like some bizarre symphony. I expected it and had to giggle because the horns for the most part are completely pointless. Honking at the person in front of you when the one holding up traffic is ten cars away really isn’t helping anybody. Aside from the incessant honking, the city also has a drone – a low, industrial hum that never breaks. I didn’t mind either sound, accepting it immediately as the ambiance of the city, kind of like crickets when you live in the country by the river.
  • Expectation: I will have the time and energy to write in the evenings.
    • Wasn’t the whole point of this trip to focus on my creativity, in particular my writing? And since I planned on being back at my hotel room fairly early in the evenings, I should have plenty of time and energy.
  • Reality: Travel is EXHAUSTING.
    • I really really kicked myself for not investing in a pedometer before I headed to New York. I know that I walked miles upon miles every day, even with my unlimited subway pass. I also didn’t account for the sensory overload that comes with traveling, not only in general, but alone. Without a second pair of eyes, my sense were constantly on high alert, keeping track of my surroundings, belongings, and whereabouts while still taking in the sights and sounds of the things around me. Even though I made a point to take my time going wherever I was going, I still had a checklist of things I wanted to see. By the time I returned to my hotel each night, I could barely stay awake long enough for a quick phone call to my husband back home. The couple of nights I did set to writing, I experienced technical difficulties on my iPad that caused me to lose nearly all of what little writing I did get done,  so I came back from traveling with negative writing accomplished. It’s a month later and I am just getting around to this post – which I decided to write on about my third day in NYC.

Expectation: Solo travel will be an incredible, eye-opening and confidence building adventure.

REALITY:  Absolutely.

There is a certain amount of pride that comes with pushing one’s boundaries and levels of confidence. I has always been easy for me to make excuses not to do things, but once a plan like this is in motion, there is no room for excuses. Stepping off the plane at JFK put me in an instant independent mindset knowing that I had no one but to myself to rely on, both in points of adventure and (if there should be any) trouble. It was kind of like flipping a switch. While having that switch flipped proved exhausting, it was also freeing. The ability to plan each day on a whim and take as much or as little time here or there led me from Times Square to The Cloisters in the northern corner of Manhattan to the2016-04-21_162527143_50737_iOS Staten Island Ferry all the way south, across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset and even to a castle in the middle of Central Park.  This trip as a whole went off without a hitch, and though I didn’t have a set schedule, I did do a lot of research ahead of time which allowed for me to skip around the city and group together points of interest as needed. My unlimited metro card became my personal tour guide, dropping me here or there and leading me down streets or through areas I wouldn’t have ventured without the need for the next closest subway station. And mostly, this first solo travel opened my eyes to how much there is to see in the world.

I started this venture thinking that New York was a crazy place to go on my first solo trip, when in reality it was probably one of the best places I could have gone. Part of that came from dipping my toes into the city for a few hours last year. Even though we weren’t there for long, it was enough to get me my bearings and avoid being completely overwhelmed when I went there on my own. The city forced me to test myself. There was a definite moment of “take a deep breath and just do it” when I dropped into the first subway station and purchased my metro card. By opening myself up to the city and the experience, I found the most difficult thing do was decide where and what to eat. And if I am honest, I was pretty okay with living on coffee, granola bars and some kind of egg concoction for breakfast. When I splurged on my last day in the city, the waitress did look at me a little weird as I ordered Gnocchi with a side of onion rings and a lemon drop martini at this little Irish pub. But hey, you only live once, right?

 


A note of perspective:

I am not typically one to put a lot of hype into my Montana roots, but it plays into the intimidation factor of taking my first solo venture to somewhere like New York City. Aside from maneuvering between the airport and my hotel, I spent approximately 5 days in Manhattan with my hotel base just off of Times Square. Manhattan is just about 23 square miles of land and home to about 1.6 million people. I live in Montana, which has a total land area of about 147,000 square miles. That makes my home state 6,391 times bigger than the city of Manhattan. And Montana only has a population of just over a million. The “city” I live in has about 40,000 people in a slightly smaller land area than Manhattan (roughly 19 square miles). We drive everywhere and have a public transportation system less than a decade old that I have never used. I grew up in the country on 5 acres where spare time was passed riding bikes with my best friend (now husband) up and down the 1/2 mile road to our neighboring houses.

Experience: Metal Rock Opera, Part II

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Have you ever had an experience where even though a plan is in motion, it doesn’t seem real? Like, you are sitting on an airplane and it feels like you could just as easily be sitting back at your desk in the office and not flying to New York City for your first solo travel endeavor? That’s exactly how I felt two Thursdays ago. In fact, I didn’t even get that little feeling of excitement and anticipation in my stomach that I always get on the edge of something exciting until I looked out my window as we started the descent into JFK.

And seriously, who wouldn’t feel a little giddy if this was the view from the window?!

Once the plane landed, things transpired as a normal person would expect them to. Get off the plane, find the shuttle, and go to the hotel. I realized about ten minutes after I checked into my room (which got a free upgrade from a closet with a twin bed to a legit room with a window and a queen size bed!) that I really hadn’t eaten anything all day besides airplane pretzels and Taco Bell before my first flight out of Bozeman. Food was essential, and a minor sleep sacrifice seemed reasonable in exchange for a couple chicken nuggets, my first view of Times Square at night and a glimpse of the marquee for probably my most anticipated concert of all time.

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Here is the thing about Avantasia: obviously I think they are amazing, but they are not very well known in the US. Leading up to this trip, any time someone asked me what was doing in New York City, I responded simply with, “a concert.” That, apparently, is not a good enough answer and I would then preface my lame explanation with, “You haven’t heard of them.” I have yet to meet someone aside from the people standing under the marquee with me that actually recognized the name of band.

So, even though this concert was in New York City I knew that the people going to this show would be the die hard fans. I already had an idea that people were flying in from all over the country to see  Avantasia. Some people even came from other countries. I assumed that such devotion would lead to a pretty early queue to make it into the venue. I set myself up front, alone, at about 8:15am determined to be the first in line and on the rail for the concert.

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I remained alone for a while, save the people that used that particular entryway  to smoke cigarettes and make phone calls without getting run over by those passing through Times Square. A few people gave me strange looks, most completely ignored me. Part of me felt a little crazy and strange, to be honest. Even though I was sitting in Times Square in New York City, outside THE concert venue, the whole thing still didn’t seem quite real. Having resisted the urge to put in my headphones and jam out to Avantasia all day for the sake of preserving my phone battery and being camped out under the marquee, literally nothing acted as a persistent reminder as to why I was setting myself up in Times Square for 11 hours. If I paid close attention, I could occasionally see the reflection of the marquee in the windows across the street, but there wasn’t really much point in staring at that.

An hour and half alone gave me enough to make friends with the street cleaner that passed by five or six times sweeping up garbage and cigarette butts. And by friends, I mean a quick nod of acknowledgment that yes, he was still making rounds cleaning the street and yes, I was still sitting on the sidewalk just off Times Square.

My first concert going acquaintance came in a Venezuelan man who flew in from Florida. We greeted each other with a high-five and a “fuck yeah” for our determination to be first into the venue. Lucky for this guy, he had already seen Avantasia at Wacken Open Air, the biggest heavy metal festival in the world. I acknowledged that he had a leg up on me in fandom status and had 13006675_10156830666435287_7432879613658605274_ncome equipped with a special edition album prepped for autographs from the band which he was determined to acquire. He didn’t even have a hotel room for the night. He literally came from the airport to the venue and would head from the venue straight back to the airport. That is some crazy devotion.

A third devotee showed up not long after that, and we spent a good part of the morning and early afternoon bantering about the bands we had seen and music we liked. It was a good way to pass the time, but things still didn’t get real for me until half the band showed up. With little risk of losing my first-in-line status, I followed my comrades down the sidewalk.

Here’s the thing: I am not prone to fan-girling. I have never met anyone famous. I don’t even know how to handle a situation like that, because one has never been presented. As we approached the band it was immediately clear that the stars of the group were not present. I recognized one person in the group of 6 or 7 that had shown up. As my line companions posed for pictures and collected autographs, I hovered on the edge for a few minutes and then retreated back to the queue. I realized that I couldn’t justify bugging somebody for a picture or an autograph when I didn’t know their name.  It only seemed fair.

However, if I had been standing in the vicinity when Tobias Sammet walked up to the venue, it might be a different story. As I explained this realization to another line-mate who had also returned to the queue, we both agreed that Tobi (we had been waiting in line long enough at this point to consider ourselves on first name basis with the mastermind) was the one to meet. Without him, Avantasia wouldn’t exist. If he showed up soon, I just might get a little fan-girly.

The band’s arrival set the venue into action, and barriers appeared to separate the concert goers from the masses of people wandering Times Square. Honestly, this is when I really really decided things were real. With barriers in place, I was officially without question the first person in line for the concert of a lifetime. Also, being female, I was severely outnumbered by those lined up at that point for the concert.

I tend to get a little rambunctious when I am excited for something, and it became a subject of entertainment and even respect that I would be the first one in the door. Being my first experience of waiting in line for hours to get into a concert venue, I really enjoyed the camaraderie that grew between the small group of us that had been there all day. Strangely enough, time didn’t start to crawl until we were within a couple hours of the concert. I started to get antsy.

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As the line grew, we passed the final hours discussing music – favorite bands, past experiences, anything we could come up with to keep us distracted, including fending off those looking for the line for The Lion King. This was a minor source of irritation as The Lion King on Broadway is kind of hard to miss.

As the number of questions about our reason for lining up grew, I was consoled to know I wasn’t the only one who got frustrated trying to explain what band we had flown across the country to see. I had a good laugh when the street cleaner from earlier walked back and realized why I had been waiting outside on the sidewalk all morning. Even he didn’t connect the giant marquee over our heads to the reason we were lined up on the sidewalk. Though I suppose if you spend a lot of time in that area you problem get a little numb to the different events and venues.

The last hour waiting for the doors to open was brutal. Nearing the 11 hour mark of the day, the energy of the crowd was palpable. More of the band trickled in and when Michael Kiske (of Helloween) arrived, fans returned to the line in ecstasy having just acquired a photo or autograph. I still waited for Tobi, but with the line nearly at capacity and having been moved around the corner to create more room on the street, I wouldn’t be able to see when he appeared. Not to mention he would be swarmed. I resigned myself to not getting a photo or autograph, but I was completely okay with it. I knew I would be standing feet from him for the next 3 or more hours.

My earliest line companion returned to the queue not long before the doors opened having successfully acquired all but three of his desired signatures. I was impressed with is persistence, and his excitement for entering the venue equaled mine as he would be second in the door.

When the doors finally opened, my heart jumped into my throat and I floated through the door on a cloud of excitement and disbelief. First down the escalator (the venue is underground), I rounded the corner to a completely empty venue and had to resist with every ounce of will to not run at top sprint across the floor to the stage. My feet settled into a weird gate somewhere between speed walking and skipping as I knew the crowd was not far behind me, and when my hand touched the rail front row center, the entire 11 hours of standing outside became 150 percent worth it.

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Did I mention the band planned to play for 3 hours? Without any openers? I had set myself up perfectly for the concert experience of a lifetime and I could hardly contain my excitement. Those of us that had made the rail exchanged similar excited sentiments and chatted up the photographers that were filling up the photo pit right in front of us. If nothing else it made the time go faster than staring at the giant red clock I could see behind the curtain stage left. The damn thing was like a beacon crawling time.

As the lights finally dimmed and the intro began, deep guitar riffs and heavy drums vibrated in my chest, tension and anticipation building like a thunderhead. From behind me, a few voices yelled A-VAN-TAS-IA, clap clap, clap clap clap. More people joined on each syllable and the chant overpowered the throbbing intro. A-VAN-TAS-IA. A-VAN-TAS-IA.

Drummer, keyboards, base guitar, lead guitars, backup vocals, each took their places on the stage as they brought the opening riffs of Mystery of a Blood Red Rose to life. The screaming, chanting, jumping, fist pumping excitement quadrupled as Tobias Sammet appeared center the stage… “We’ve played our roles in our passion plays…” I could have died at that moment and been content. Every plane, van, midnight chicken nugget, hour of lost sleep and hours waiting in Time Square had culminated in that very moment and I was on top of the world.

This show marked the second time (the first being Anaheim, CA a few days earlier) that Avantasia had ever played on American soil, and I was there – front row center. It was the first and potentially last time I would ever see them live. It was most definitely one the the absolute best moments in my life.

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Avantasia Mastermind Tobias Sammet.

The energy of the band and the love with which they performed outdid any band I have ever seen live – and I have seen many. Tobi spent a lot of time chatting with the audience, cracking jokes and telling stories about the band and the songs. He treated us like old friends, teasing the seated concert-goers in the back of the venue about mistaking the show for a Broadway production and asking if those on the balconies to the sides would be handling the follow spots. He shamelessly promoted their newest album, even snatching up my line-mate’s signed special edition to show the crowd.

As the night progressed to the 2 hour mark, Tobi commented on how most bands would be on the way back to their hotels at that point. Not Avantasia. They committed to playing a three hour set, and they weren’t even beginning to look tired. Tobi’s awe with the crowd’s enthusiasm became more apparent as the night wore on, and the band admitted they hadn’t known what to expect from the crowd in New York City. Before the end they promised they would absolutely be back on the next tour. If that was the impression we left on their second ever show in the USA, I’ll take it, though I would travel the world to see them perform again.

I tried to ignore the giant red clock off stage left counting down the time until the show might end, trading it’s time slowing abilities for time travel. After an interlude of metal lead by the guest artists, Tobi returned to the stage with bad news. Apparently the venue had a very strict curfew and they were pushing their time limit, but they hadn’t finished their set yet and they were determined to give us what we came to see. Without delay, they launched into “The Story Ain’t Over”, which is not only one of my favorite songs, but so true. The story of this concert will never be over for me or the people in the crowd who came from all over to see them.

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Tobias Sammet and Oliver Hartmann

As soon as the band left the stage, the crowd erupted in chants of A-VAN-TAS-IA. I screamed for their return, voice cracked and throat sore, both fists in the air. The end had come too soon, but they still had an encore. The enthusiasm of the crowd guaranteed an encore, time constraints or no. When the band returned, the crowd lost it. Even as they took up their instruments, Tobi kept glancing backstage before finally turning to us to announce their finale. He explained that if they don’t meet curfew, the band would be fined. And he would pay the fines, because they were sure as hell going to finish their show. As the music picked up Tobi turned off stage, animatedly check the time on his watch and flashed a middle finger to the giant red clock and the man pointing furiously at it. That, friends, is devotion to your art and your fans.

The encore brought all 12 members of the band forward as encores do, showcasing their talents and bringing them all together for the final song of the night. As the lights came up in the venue and the band hustled off stage, Jorn Lande made his way from one end of the stage to the other, grasping hands of his and the band’s fans. I even succumbed to temptation and stretched my short little self up there too. Why not?

Stage empty, crew in full swing of tear down, I lingered in disbelief. I had just experienced the best concert of my life. The people around me were already reliving their favorite moments from the show and raving about its awesomeness. I raved to myself, because I’m just not that social of a person. My first line-mate and I did have a moment of joint revelry though. Even having seen them before, he was blown away by this show.

As I stepped onto the escalator and rose from the depths of the Playstation Theater in New York City, I knew that that show and experience would be with me for the rest of my life. Neck sore, ears ringing, voice nearly toast, arms bruised from hanging on the rail, I made my way slowly back to my hotel. I have never connected to a band as much as I connect to Avantasia, and to have seen them live – something I NEVER thought would happen in a thousand years – was beyond a dream come true.

PS. My line mate successfully acquired the remaining three autographs after the show!!

 

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Michael Kiske and Tobias Sammet

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Amanda Somerville

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Sacha Paeth

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Eric Martin

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Ronnie Atkins

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Herbie Langhans

 

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Jorn Lande

 

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Tobias Sammet

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I’m there! Front row center!!! Photo Credit: Avantasia via Facebook

 

Experience: Metal Rock Opera, Part 1

… A somewhat long-winded introduction to my love of Avantasia and the once-in-a-lifetime concert experience of the first leg of my NYC 2016 #writinginspirationvacation…

 


 

When I found out that Avantasia was going to be in New York City the weekend that I would potentially be in New York, I could barely contain my excitement. It is also the one thing that made me seriously consider making the trip if I didn’t get the writing residency I had applied for. I have been following the band for about 8 years, and knowing that they originate in Germany and have very little following in America, I assumed (and resigned myself to the fact) that I would NEVER see them live. When you make a list of bucket list bands, there are just some that will always remain on that bucket list.

Eight years ago I stumbled across the video “Dying for an Angel” by a group I had never heard of featuring the lead singer of The Scorpions. I love The Scorpions and moreso the uniqueness of  Klaus Meine’s voice, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong.

The video blew my mind. It had a solid rock vibe, a good beat, harmony – I couldn’t help but tap my foot and try to sing along. Avantasia became my new obsession. After listening to a few more videos, I realized that this band, founded by Tobias Sammet in 1999 encompassed essentially everything I loved about music from the epic soundtrack type orchestrations to 80’s hard rock. They had ballads, rock epics, radio tunes. I couldn’t find a song I didn’t like.

I am pretty sure I have subconsciously decided they have to be played enough to make up for the time lost the first 21 years of my life not knowing them, to have them so engrained that they were to me another Beatles or Eagles. My husband can attest to that amount of obsessive listening.

Avantasia is a project band, meaning the majority of the songs are collaborations with other artists. Even Tobias Sammet has his own band Edguy (who I also love), so when Avantasia comes together for a new album, it is quite a feat, and you can guarantee it is going to be epic. Tobias Sammet is a musical genius. He writes all of the music for Avantasia (by the way, the Avantasia playlist on my phone is nearing the 8 hour mark). He sings, orchestrates, organizes – he is by far the mastermind of this incredible project. Songs have included guest artists Klaus Meine, Dee Snider, Alice Cooper, members of Warrant, KISS, Twisted Sister, Queensryque, Within Temptation, Nightwish, and many many others. From early on, Helloween front runner Michael Kiske has been a regular as well as Ronnie Atkins and Jorn Lande.

Just the list of guest artists is impressive. Then you start listening to the music. I still find myself closing my eyes when certain songs start to play and sinking myself into the melodies. The music pulls me in, sparks my imagination, warms my soul.

When I started expanding Better to Pretend from a short story to a full length novel, the addition of music to the story surprised me. I didn’t realize until I started working on that piece how much of myself could translate into a character. Jenna is not me, by any means, but parts of my own life and personality definitely shine through her character. When the idea of creating this connection of music I between her and the male lead transpired, I pictured her similar to me – classic rock roots and a stubborn aversion to new and modern bands and genres. I decided she would have a band obsession, straight down to the giddiness of being close to the stage and making eye contact with the lead singer. I created a band called Love and Lace, and they became my creative interpretation of Avantasia and Edguy mixed with my favorite 80’s hair metal.

At first, I thought it was a fun, minor detail of the story that I would enjoy because I knew the secret. Then Jenna’s love of music became her solace, the thing she could turn to when the world came crashing down. Certain songs could keep her afloat in a sea of desolation, disappointment and misery. My connection to the music of Avantasia seeped from my soul onto the page and into my characters.

I believe things happen for a reason (see Inspiration: Fate) and it was undeniably a crazy, fateful, serendipitous string of events that led me to New York City last Thursday, not only on my first solo travel endeavor, but my first solo concert and first trip (hopefully of many)  geared towards research and working on my novels so long postponed by irrelevant excuses.

After a whirlwind 36-ish hours in NYC, I hopped a train down to Marlyand to visit a dear friend of mine for a couple of days. As I settled in for the 3 hour train ride, I put my headphones in and shuffled my Avantasia playlist, the previous night’s concert still so fresh in my mind that I could have been there all over again. Now, two days later, I still feel the buzz of the experience (and I’m still listening to the playlist on repeat). But after two days of good company, good food and good booze, I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on the experience adjusting my mindset into creative mode for the remainder of the trip.  Now, as I sit on the return train to NYC, I can’t wait to share in more detail the concert experience. Look for it in the next post (since this one is already over 900 words….).