Day 14: Last day in Toronto

So we arrived at the last full day of the tour with everyone still happy and in one piece – as one of our hosts said, if no-one’s died then you’re doing well.

Last night’s snow had completely cleared by the time the choristers headed for Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. The aquarium nestles under the CN tower which, thanks to the thick mist, looked like a mere stalk (we’re assured the top bit is still up there). The boys adored the aquarium, particularly the tunnel where sharks seem to swim right over your shoulder under the Dangerous Lagoon. Lunch was had at a pizza restaurant around the corner where the boys enjoyed their last feast of North American proportions. Some of the senior boys sang to the staff, and – by now on a roll – performed ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘Yesterday’ to a delighted but baffled audience on the subway afterwards. As you can see from one of the pictures above the boys were sustained on their journey to the airport by light snacks provided by their generous hosts. We were slightly alarmed at check-in when one of the sharks from Ripley’s seemed to have stashed away in one of the choristers’ bags. Dr D got a light mauling, but he’s doing fine now.

Time until boarding: 40 minutes!

Day 13: Concert in Toronto

The choristers began their concert day with a trip uptown to the Ontario Science Centre. This afforded the chance to test their wits against six floors of interactive exhibits, although they were very sad to find that the shop had closed. Better than any shop was the small pile of frozen snow found outside when we exited, which immediately lured the boys in to throw, kick and sculpt. There wasn’t much of it left by the time they finished but there was time for a few selfies before it disappeared.

We battled the Sunday dim sum crowd and managed to secure tables at a nearby Chinese restaurant for lunch. Wave after wave of enticing food appeared (there were even vegetables), which was just the right thing to energise the choristers before the final rehearsal of the tour at 3pm. As with Davidson we have visited Grace Church before (2011 and 2014) and have good musical friends here. It was a delight to be joined for part of the programme by the excellent church choirs, who sounded in very fine voice when we heard them rehearsing this morning. It was a bittersweet experience to share supper with them… we have enjoyed many delicious meals as church guests over the past two weeks, and this will be our last.

There was just time for some basketball in the gym under the church (why isn’t there one of these under the cathedral at home?) before the choir’s final performance. This went down a storm to a packed church, who were even kind enough to cheer as the choir came on for the second half – what a great welcome we have had here! We are delighted that the choirs at Grace are coming to sing at Christ Church in August, and look forward to welcoming them to Oxford. Huge thanks go to Rob, Stephen and the hosts for making the final leg of the tour work so well for us.

As we all departed snow was falling thickly. If this continues through the night we may end up with drifts so deep that not even a chorister can kick through them. It could be an interesting final day!

Day 12: Minneapolis to Toronto

Our final morning in Minneapolis was spent at the Mill City Museum which – as a temple to the Minneapolitan flour industry – might not initially seem the best way to spend an hour or two. Any apprehensions were soon dispelled as the choir found themselves riding up and down a grain elevator (pictured above), gazing over the only waterfall on the Mississippi and finding out quite how explosive flour really is. Our visit to the museum was made even better by the busy farmers’ market outside where (true to form) the choristers immediately located plate after plate of free samples. After sausage, bread, kale and micro-greens they hardly needed their excellent lunch at the Midtown Global Market, and before we knew it it was time to head for the airport.

The antics of Air Canada made our transit through the terminal much more exciting. They first refused to check the group in under one credit card (necessitating a grumpy and laborious transaction for each of us) and then bumped Mrs Darlington and matron off the flight. After a tense stand-off things were finally resolved at the gate, and everyone climbed onto a tiny and distinctly crumb-filled aircraft without needing to resort to stowing away. We touched down in Toronto as the sun was setting, then spent a good hour passing an interminable series of desks giving and receiving small pieces of paper. The authorities must have decided they liked us as we were eventually allowed into the country.

A car accident held our coach up on the freeway (sound familiar?) and we seemed to spend an eternity taking the scenic route through Toronto’s outlying neighbourhoods. Our patient hosts were, however, waiting to greet us when we arrived at Grace Church, and we were very glad to be on our way towards the comfort of Canadian homestays. Tomorrow: our final concert day!

Day 11: Concert in St Paul

We’re becoming rather blasé about the depredations of the weather, so when we found a blizzard blowing this morning it put no dampener on plans to set off for the Mall of America. It’s the largest mall in the US, with a theme park, an aquarium, cinemas, shops and restaurants spread over 5.6 million square feet. The choristers’ financial reserves are dwindling, but they hunted dollar bills from crevices in their bags and fanned out in search of bargains. When the bus collected us at 2.30pm it became apparent that most purchases followed a theme, as the radiant boys exhorted each other to write with electric shock pens, wound invisible wire around ankles and brandished electrically-charged chewing gum. Essentially the choristers are well on their way to becoming Bond villains, and I recommend that anyone coming into contact with them should stay at a safe distance.

Some of the loveliest occasions on a tour like this are the moments when we get to meet other musicians. The choristers arrived at Hamline Church this afternoon for a rendez-vous with members of the North Star Boys’ Choir, a delightful group known for its roots in European vocal traditions. The choirs sang to each other and had time to chat, although there was nearly a diplomatic incident when one of the Christ Church boys asked for an autograph and proffered an electric shock pen…

After rehearsals (and the presentation of some rather eccentric gifts to Dr Darlington) we sat down to a seemingly endless spread of delicious food kindly provided by our hosts, which provided the necessary energy for the evening’s concert. Fuelled by a dozen kinds of cookie the choir was in terrific voice – and particularly glad of Hamline’s generous acoustic, since the concert is to be broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio. Very many thanks go to John and Joanne Wahlstrom, Matt Mehaffey, Mark Johnson, the Minnesota Boychoir and the whole community here at Hamline for looking after us, for making us feel so personally welcomed and for ensuring everything has gone so smoothly. We’ve had a lot of fun in the Twin Cities and can’t believe it’s nearly time to go!

Day 10: Exchange day with the Minnesota Boychoir

We spoke too soon about the snow. Early in the morning our hosts dropped us off at Hamline Church, with familiar white stuff swirling in the wind. We keep being told we’ve brought these unseasonal snow showers with us – it was much the same in Chicago – and this is baffling, since we’re quite sure it was hot and sunny when we left Charlotte…

The choristers, undaunted by the chill, poured off the coach at Como Park for an energetic session of running, throwing and catching (and falling over), which functioned as the warm-up to their high-octane day at the Waterpark of America. We were very glad to be joined there by some of our hosts from the Minnesota Boychoir. As well as providing flumes, wave machines, surfing and body-boarding, the Waterpark gave us the most surreal dining experience of the tour yet: the opportunity to eat hotdogs at picnic benches whilst clad in dripping wet pool gear, with water lapping at our feet.

Late in the afternoon the choristers travelled to Concordia University, where they were met by the gentlemen of the choir and many more members of the Minnesota Boychoir. We were delighted to have the chance to hear this thriving group perform, as well as getting to meet them socially over dinner. The Christ Church team responded by performing Parsons’ ‘Ave Maria’, and the choristers joined Boychoir members for music games and further singing together. (Countless friendships were quickly forged over the tentative sharing of freeze-dried ‘astronaut’ ice cream – a talking point if ever there was one.)

We’re incredibly grateful for the outstandingly warm welcome we’ve received from the Minnesota Boychoir and their director, Mark. There’s such passion for music here, and we immediately felt very much at home. Thank you!

Day 9: Chicago to Minneapolis

We left Chicago this morning in the pouring rain, waved off by our lovely hosts in La Grange and feeling that we’d definitely experienced the full range of weather that Lake Michigan could throw at us.

There’s a limited amount that can be said about our 8-hour coach trip to the Twin Cities, other than that we made it here in one piece. We saw swathes of rural Wisconsin that probably aren’t on the average tourist’s itinerary, passing places with evocative names like Black River Falls and Elk Mound (plus the Ho Chunk Casino, which seemed to be advertised every few miles). There was a thrilling moment somewhere around Wisconsin Dells when the coach WiFi password was discovered… every gadget came out and there was a flurry of connection with the outside world, though the signal gave up the ghost before too long. Alternative entertainment was offered by the capricious air conditioning system, which appeared to have two settings: tropical and arctic.

Slightly cramped and bent we emerged from the coach at our destination at 5pm, although one or two of the boys seemed to have developed Stockholm syndrome and were by this stage difficult to eject from their seats. We were given a superb welcome at a reception in Mendota Heights, where a lavish supper awaited us. The fulsome salad bar allowed the boys to make amends for nutritional sins committed over lunch at the rest stop (and an adapted ‘five a day’ list has been agreed for choristers on tour: burgers, fries, pizza, milkshake and cookies).

After eating as much greenery as we could manage we were spirited away by our charming new hosts, already feeling well on the way to recovery from the epic midwestern journey. It’s not even snowing here (yet)!

Day 8: Free day in Chicago

The choir spent today at large in Chicago. True to the weather ‘rollercoaster’ promised on TV yesterday, the day started surprisingly brightly despite the crisp, cool temperatures. The boys set off for the Museum of Science and Industry, giving the Form 8s the chance to do some Common Entrance revision on the coach (parents please take note).

In classic chorister style our first priority was the museum shop. So enticing and varied was it that the boys spent nearly a full hour shopping before even laying hands on their museum entrance tickets, having bounced, thrown, squashed, worn, shaken and prodded pretty much every item on display. The MSI seemed endless, and – other than a short break for lunch – the boys were kept in perpetual motion between floors of interactive experiments, becoming a sort of scientific exhibit in their own right. They created tsunamis, stroked therapy robots, shaped tornadoes, watched chicks hatch, got lost in a mirror maze and – probably the highlight of the day – visited the museum’s Nazi U-boat, U-505, dramatically captured in 1944 complete with Enigma machine and codebooks.

Late in the afternoon we headed to Millennium Park to visit Anish Kapoor’s ingenious Cloud Gate, a mirror-like sculpture that enabled the narcissists among us to take selfies with Chicago skyscrapers in the background. Slightly chilled from the al fresco photography the boys took refuge in a nearby restaurant, where they warmed up by eating ice cream (it seemed to do the trick somehow). For dinner we were hosted by the generous congregation of St Paul & the Redeemer in Hyde Park, where the combination of deep-dish pizza, apple pie and root beer has undoubtedly given us the energy we’ll need to cope with tomorrow’s long drive to Minneapolis. North Star State, here we come!

Day 7: Concert in La Grange, Illinois

Refreshed by the home comforts of a night with their hosts, the choristers hit the busy streets of Chicago this morning. Once delivered into the city centre the boys were narrowly prised away from the ‘Rock N Roll’ McDonald’s on Clark Street (supposedly once the busiest McDonald’s in the US), and instead climbed on an open-top tour bus for a two-hour trip around the city.

Our tour guide had scarcely finished describing the way in which Lake Michigan funnels arctic air south before a violent flurry of snow sent the choristers fleeing from their open-air seats. Some retreated below; a few braved it out up top under a screen which afforded stunning views of the city whilst giving a little protection from the elements. We felt very stoic and British as we sat looking over the choppy green waters of the lake as freezing mist rolled in. No major architectural sight was missed, and the boys took delight in spotting buildings destroyed by the Decepticons in a certain film beloved of the boarding house.

After being dropped back underneath the golden arches we soon found ourselves in the warmer surroundings of Portillo’s, a Chicago institution, where we fell upon hot dogs and juicy Italian beef sandwiches in kitsch surroundings. Another local delicacy popular with the boys was the Cake Shake, a milkshake made from chocolate cake, and after such hearty fare it’s a wonder that they managed to walk back to the coach under their own steam.

We returned to La Grange for rehearsals in the picturesque surroundings of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where the spectacular stained glass and flattering acoustic drew particularly favourable comments. Our superb hosts treated us to a supper of pizza (cut into squares, another Chicago culinary tradition) before tonight’s concert, in which the choir was once again joined for part of the programme by local singers. The audience was terrifically appreciative, and we’re extremely grateful for the warm welcome we’ve received here – which balances up against the snow falling outside!

Tomorrow’s weather forecast? Falling temperatures…

Day 6: Davidson to Chicago

The choristers set off for the shores of Lake Norman to make the most of their last morning in North Carolina. The setting was so beautiful and the sky so blue that we could hardly believe how fortunate we were to be there.

The interests of a Christ Church chorister are nothing if not varied, and after splitting up into groups the boys spent several hours:

– playing volleyball (who needs a net when you have a log?)
– posing for photos
– listening to the radio
– catching up with social media
– geocaching (when one of the senior boys found a log-book in the undergrowth)
– playing baseball
– inventing new games, such as ‘wet sand vs. dry sand’ (too complicated to explain here, but I was assured that ‘sometimes the dry sand loses’ by a small chorister who hurled a handful into the lake by way of demonstration)

We picked the gents up on the coach and were waved off by Lisa and Jane, who have looked after us so marvellously. The short flight to Chicago passed in no time… however our exit from O’Hare was significantly slower than hoped due to a car fire that trapped our coach in a traffic jam.

A rather tired and hungry choir reached Emmanuel Episcopal Church at around 9pm, where a throng of homestay hosts were ready to meet us. A small breakaway group of boys and men were spirited away by the coach to stay at a nearby hotel, where delivery pizza and free cookies (yes – free cookies!) were exactly what was needed to help us recharge before we take on the Windy City in the morning…

Day 5: Concert in Davidson

This morning began with that tour staple: room inspection. Despite their luxurious surroundings the boys managed to summon up the spirit of Spartans, presenting not just neatly tidied rooms but also every item of concert gear on display in order to check for creases. Before lunch there was time for a dip in the hotel pool, which became the back-drop for many rounds of Underwater Jousting (about which the less said the better).

Unable to believe our luck with the weather, we set off under azure skies to a Mexican restaurant a little way from the church. Luckily the waiters could hear us coming, thanks to the impromptu close harmony singing springing from the senior boys, and we were soon tucking into burritos in the sunshine. The ghost pepper hot sauce (‘more than one drop is suicide’) was carefully rationed by staff lest unfortunate side effects occur this evening.

After a quick game of Frisbee on the idyllic lawns outside the church it was time to shift gear and do some tough rehearsing for the evening’s concert and live broadcast. The choir were joined by local singers, brass and timpani for part of the programme, and the church was filled to capacity by an extremely appreciative audience. Tired but exhilarated, the choristers clambered onto the coach afterwards and returned to the hotel… there was just enough time to potter in their kitchens (and possibly tinker with their coffee makers) before lights out.