Once upon a time in America

Barb Jungr's tour diary.

Toronto. Photograph: Getty Images

The first sign of change is evident straight off the plane into JFK in the seemingly endless queue of sleepy-eyed travellers snaking from the Immigration Hall. At my cubicle the delightful official Elan explained (after quizzing my visa, “Are you an opera singer? Lots of opera singers have your same kind of visa”) that the lines were due “to Obama”. I look bemused. Didn’t we hear about the cuts? Elan and his team have had all their overtime scuppered and now have to take an extra day of unpaid holiday every fortnight. He can’t wait for the summer and the tourists to arrive. “This place will be crazy then,” he smiled, “someone will probably go postal.”

My TV morning news reveals that the refuse issue in Queens is reaching catastrophic proportions. But you don’t need to be in Queens to see that litter has increased exponentially. I saw my first rat yesterday at 5pm running down the subway line at 49th street station. No one paid it any attention. It was quite a small rat, as they go.

Meanwhile the landscape of the city is changing fast. In Hell’s Kitchen, rebranded as Clinton, where I am staying, the young upwardly mobile professionals are in evidence, slowly heterosexualising the once rainbowbannered area. Beware, jerk chicken, Whole Foods is coming to Harlem.

***

We are stranded at the airport. The snow that threatened us the past two days has conveniently arrived the morning of our flight to Indianapolis. By Norwegian standards, this is nothing. By Newark standards, however, we are “on indefinite hold”. Tracy, my accompanist, told me she had once spent a night here in similar conditions and “we had a fun time”. There’s nothing to worry about, she says, “I have cash, there’s food”. If I eat another sandwich, I will have to buy an extra seat on the plane.

***

Looking out on to “the Circle” from my hotel window in Indianapolis I see the most cars and traffic – almost a jam – that I have seen here since arriving. I had begun to think that most of the city had been spirited away by some elemental force but they are all out, in swish polished cars, driving about. To where? To what? I head downstairs to the third-floor Crystal Terrace, where I am about to sing Dylan’s songs to my audience with the war memorial commemorating the civil and other war dead towering behind me. I can’t wait to get to “With God on Our Side”.

Walking down the concourse at Indianapolis’s new airport, before our flight back to Newark, Tracy and I are targeted by an elderly man with a good line in chat. I order a bagel from the Copper Moon Coffee stand. “You’re going to New York and you’re ordering a bagel in Indianapolis?” he quips. “I’m from London,” I reply, “my bagel standards are probably lower than yours.” Across the aisle on the plane, I learn that Gordon was a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge in 1962, and we while away the journey chatting about everything from The Wire through the Profumo affair, Beethoven’s Sonatas, Downton Abbey and Austen to our favourite cathedrals. Mine is Lincoln; his Durham. “I knew you two looked interesting,” he says, as we part company.

***

Toronto looks much as it did in many early Cronenberg films; I feel right at home in the grey, slight snow falling, and we are checked into the cleanest hotel – I’m in Shivers! There by the door is an antiseptic hand-cleaning dispenser so you can get rid of all your lurking invisible germs before you even check in! Hugh’s Room, where we are playing, is the kind of venue I wish was in every town. Staffed by handsome young people, male and female, in black, obviously. Great vibe and packed to the gills when we play with people who love jazz! They queue afterwards to say hello, polite, generous-hearted, warm people.

Back to New York for Joe’s Pub, the barroom music and cabaret space in the legendary Public Theater. It’s my only New York show this trip and my fingers are crossed. And we’re packed, they’re lively and chic and I finish my mini tour on a high at a Broadway diner with friends, before heading through the icy winds to the subway. Tonight, it’s too cold even for the rats.

***

I return to freezing London and rehearsals for a song cycle by my friend Robb Johnson about his grandfather’s experiences in the First World War. We travel to Ghent to record it – I’m happy to visit my beloved Jacques Brel’s flatlands. Most restaurants are closed for Easter and the small city seems quiet. Apart from the music-making, which is intense and joyous, Ghent is glorious for the baguettes our producers bring us on their daily lunch run and the breathtakingly beautiful Van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altar panels in St Bavo Cathedral. Back in Pimlico I find spring has arrived with a welcome party of daffodils and a squirrel in the communal garden, and on the Thames in the morning sunshine, a solitary swan.