Saturday, March 28, 2009

L.A. wedding at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel

Wow, I never thought this day would come. My six year older brother Urban has gotten married to a lovely American girl called Julia, also a talented musician, just like him. The whole family – my parents, sister, husband and three kids – flew to Los Angeles, California to attend the big event this past weekend. Also my boyfriend flew in from London.

I had been in Chicago for meetings through work for a few days so luckily I had already started to get used to the time difference between Europe and the US. We were staying at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Downtown L.A. over the weekend. This is a five-star hotel. Granted, the hotel foyer, reception halls and lounge areas have all the splendour required (have a look in the hotel photo gallery) – designed in Spanish-Italian Renaissance style with sculpted columns, hand-painted frescos, Rococo-style furniture, nice wooden or marble floors with thick carpets, bronze details, crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling etc, but I was not impressed with the hotel room. This was quite basic, would have needed a good make-over with repainting and touching up of skirting boards, more stylish furniture and refurbishing of the bathroom.

The dress code for the wedding was ‘black tie’ so I had to get an evening gown and managed to find a beautiful, midnight blue, strapless satin dress in Chicago last minute. However the zipper on the dress I tried at Bloomingdales was broken so I had to order one over the phone from storage in Minnesota and have it shipped directly to the hotel in L.A. There was not much room for error… I already knew the dress was too long even with high heels so I had to find a tailor close to the hotel to shorten it the day before the wedding. Phew!

I also desperately needed a pedicure and manicure and also wanted to get my hair done before the rehearsal dinner on the Friday. In the Guest Services binder in the room there was a pamphlet for the Visage salon on the ground floor. I called and talked to someone called Mindy and decided to walk down and have a chat with her about the arrangements. Originally from Vietnam, she was a little hard to understand at times. Although she had lived in the US for thirty years she had a very strong Asian accent. She turned out to be a lovely, helpful and very professional lady and I couldn’t have been in better hands – I can recommend anyone who needs to attend a fancy party in Downtown L.A., may it be a wedding, a red-carpet gala or some launch party, to make an appointment with Mindy. She doesn’t look like a million bucks herself, but I was very pleased with the service she gave, the foot massage, my nails looked fabulous and I really liked the hair-do with romantic curls she suggested would be suitable for my face shape, my particular hair quality and for the occasion, so I made an appointment with her to do my hair also for the wedding next day.

The wedding rehearsal was held in the Bernard room on the ground floor of the hotel where the wedding ceremony was to be held the day after. There was a temporary stage where the ceremony would be held and we all rehearsed walking in and out, being seated, where the bride and groom were to stand, the musicians be placed etc. The bride’s maids had made a “bouquet” of the gift wrapping materials and ribbons from the wedding shower which was then used as the bridal bouquet during the wedding rehearsal. I don’t know if this is an American tradition or just an idea they had – we don’t have this custom in Sweden anyhow – but I found it a little endearing and silly at the same time, which I am sure was exactly the purpose of it in the first place; an internal joke between the girls.

After the wedding rehearsal, there was the rehearsal dinner in the hotel restaurant, held for ca 40 of the close family and friends, which included the bride’s maids and groom’s party. There were a number of spontaneous speeches – I saved mine for the wedding reception – and Urban and Julia handed out gifts to the people in their wedding party and the parents to thank them for all their love and support and for making it all possible. I had understood from Shan, Julia’s mother, that you’re supposed to dress up for the rehearsal dinner, but there was an odd mix of family members in suits and dresses and friends in jeans and a shirt or even t-shirt and shorts! Hey, this was in L.A. after all, where supposedly anything goes!

On the day of the wedding, Frank and I had breakfast with Urban and our parents at a dodgy Asian-slash-Mexican food court on 5th Street past Pershing Square and on the left-hand side of the street from the metro entrance. Here you have a few options during different opening hours, over-the-counter serving from El Come-Come, Casa de China and some other name of the Mexican burritos / tapas counter next to them from which we got our breakfast pancakes, omelettes and beans.

Specimens of “America’s finest” came and sat at the table next to us. One of them congratulated my brother to his upcoming wedding, showed us the identity discs he had around his neck and claimed to be in the military soon going back to Afghanistan, however he and his companion looked like homeless and dirty crack heads, not proud US military, but who knows what war does to people. Sweden as a nation has fortunately not been to war in almost 200 years.

After this, my boyfriend and I hurried to Macy’s for last-minute shopping of accessories for the wedding. At first, I stopped at the jewellery shop in the entrance hall of Macy’s department store, saw some beautiful necklaces and innocently asked the clerk how much they were. I was dumb-struck when he said “$15,000” (I didn’t realize I was looking at some really precious stones – the store didn’t look that fancy after all and wasn’t located where I would have expected these kinds of gems) and quickly had to tell him that it was a little over my budget that morning… I got a silvery evening purse, a beautiful necklace and earrings within my own price range from Macy’s own jewellery department instead. With these necessities taken care of I had to hurry back to the hotel again to make my appointment with Mindy.

I almost completed and refined my speech as much as I had time for with my laptop on the lap while Mindy was curling and spraying my hair and had to redo my toe nails because I had messed them up the night before when putting on my shoes. In the end the speech never was completely finished, but I knew it was too long anyway and that I would have to cut it down, so by leaving some room for “winging it” on spot usually helps in that department. My Mom and Dad came down to help me out with some details on the finer points of the speech where my memory failed me from childhood, and Mindy agreed to do my mother’s hair after she finished with me. Then I had to hurry back to the hotel room, get changed and ready for the big event (don’t know how the bride herself manages to get ready in time – I guess by months of planning and not waiting till the last minute with things…). I printed the speech and the tweaked song lyrics of the traditional Swedish song Värmlands-visan (well, I couldn’t very well sing that he’s taking a bride from Värmland in the first verse!) in the Business Center of the hotel last-minute and was able to rehearse the song a couple of times with the professional pianist just before the guests arrived.

Guests in their pretty evening wear mingled on the sidewalk outside the hotel and in the ground floor lounge area and bar before the ceremony. Some of the wedding pictures were taken before the ceremony, some after. I was stunned to see my mother in a beautiful red dress – I’ve never seen her more radiant – and my sister and nieces all dressed up in long dresses and my Dad, brother-in-law and 12-year-old nephew in tuxedos. I’ve never seen any of them so handsome. Guess it takes an occasion like this to bring it all out. You can see a picture of me and my boyfriend to the right.

I had butterflies in my stomach since my speech was not exactly well-rehearsed and I felt a little intimidated to sing during the ceremony with the room full of (normally) critical musician friends of Urban and Julia. I had to calm my nerves with half a glass of wine in the bar just before the ceremony…

It was a beautiful, stylish and funny ceremony in the Bernard room at the Biltmore. The room was dressed up in white-covered chairs, golden waist-high pillars along the aisle with flower arrangements on, a white carpet sprinkled with rose pedals leading up to the stage where the wedding ceremony itself took place. All the wedding guests were seated but Urban and the close family, maids of honor and groom’s party walked down the aisle as part of the start of the ceremony. My sister and I were led down the aisle by one of Urban’s close musician friends, Michael, who claimed it was a dream come true to have two Swedish redheads by his side. Ha-ha, bless him. Then we all waited a few moments for Julia to walk in with her mother Shan and their close family friend Phil. Julia was a beautiful bride. The guitarist played and sang very nicely as she came in and walked “on stage” with Urban, who stood up front waiting for her with proud sparkles in his eyes.

Shan recited a Shakespeare poem during the ceremony and I made it through my song decently after a little shaky start. The microphone was placed in front of the guy officiating at the wedding, so I had to walk up on stage, round Urban and Julia and then face them and the rest of the room.

The funny elements that made everyone smile or even crack up, including the bride and groom, were one of the floral boys dropping a shoe as he walked in, Julia having forgotten to bring her card with personal wedding vows – they each read their own, personally written vows to each other which of course made most people in the room wipe the corners of the eye – and had to rely on the wedding coordinator to bring her the back-up copy, and then finally she dropped the ring when it came down to putting it on Urban’s finger. My new sister-in-law may be a little crossed with me now for revealing all of this so shamelessly on a public blog, but it’s all part of a good, fairly-tale but down to earth wedding story and I love it! It all effectively broke the ice and made for a fabulous wedding reception afterwards.

The newly wed walked out to Scottish bagpipes – apparently Julia has some Scottish blood in her – which was a quite cool ingredient in the whole wedding mix.

The reception was held in the Gold Room with group seating at round tables, a big dance floor and a stage where a jazz band was playing during the evening. I think the first couple up trying the dance floor while waiting for the newly-weds were Shan and Phil. Urban and Julia eventually walked in, again accompanied by the Highland bagpiper (wonder where they found him?) and onto the dance floor, where the jazz band took over from the bagpiper and started playing a slow foxtrot, "Twenty-Four Little Hours". The happy couple performed a little dance routine and looked very cute indeed.

After this, Urban and his bride took place “center-stage” at a separate table facing the stage and the five-course meal could begin. In a very organized fashion, there were of course a number of speeches throughout the evening, including those of Shan, my Dad, the best man Clark – in kilt to honor his Scottish-Canadian heritage – and myself.

Following me was Susanne with her “back-up vocalists” in the form of her three kids. They performed a rap song entitled “The Urban Beat”, I believe, with Susanne rapping the verses, telling a story about Urban, his two lovely sisters, some things that happened in childhood, how he moved to the US, met Julia etc, and the kids doing the “beat-boxing” and went “Um Urban, Hey Urban!” or something similar in between – absolutely hilarious! I laughed so much I can hardly hear what they are rapping on the video I shot.

It was a very nice and stylish wedding reception. I had great fun and enjoyed the speeches, music, dancing – it even included the traditional Jewish folk dance called Hora, which was good fun – and cutting of the wedding cake and all that. The wedding reception finished fairly early (think it was around midnight) so then there was an after party in a hotel suite that someone had rented.

I wish my brother and his wife all the best for a long and happy marriage!

USA All-Star Nationals
Located next to the big Staples Center, home to NBA basketball, the L.A. Convention Center hosts many different conferences and events throughout the year.

The day after the wedding, my sister and her kids wanted to go to L.A. Convention Center to watch the big cheerleading competition, USA All-Star Nationals. I was quite curious of this piece of American culture so I decided to come along. What perhaps surprised me the most was that there were so many boys in the cheerleading troupes. I thought cheerleading was for girls, but I guess these kinds of competitions have gone beyond the provocative wiggling and waving with pom-poms in the cheerleading section at a football game.

During the USA All-Star Nationals there were large teams competing in different age classes, from 7-year-olds or so to what looked like college kids. They flip flopped across the stage in rondats and salto mortals, threw each other up in the air, built pyramids, girls balancing on one leg in the air, striking different poses, while two to three team mates held them steady by the foot only. There were some poses and tricks that formed part of every troupe choreography, so these tricks seemed to be part of what everyone were to be judged on.

You can see one example of choreography in the video below. There were troupes that were more advanced, distinct and synchronized, but all in all, all contestants were very impressive athletes. Since we didn’t know anyone, we didn’t stay for the prize ceremony and handing out of trophies so we don’t know who won.

If you’re a fan or know anyone who happened to be competing on March 14-15 in L.A. you can buy the competition videos here>>

After the USA All-Star Nationals, we were dying from hunger, so we quickly settled for dinner at Denny’s, the American chain diner’s.

Barbeque in Venice
On Monday after the wedding, we were all invited over for barbeque at the house of Urban’s childhood friend Crille, wife Malin and baby daughter Mika in Venice. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I had of course forgotten sun block so after a couple of hours in the sun I had already gotten burnt, way before we walked down to Venice Beach to watch all the weirdo’s and could buy some sun protection cream in a store.

My 12-year-old nephew Jonathan (soon to be 13) likes skating and had borrowed a skateboard from Crille, so I headed down towards Venice Beach with him and my niece Emelie to shop for sunglasses and watch other skaters. Jonathan is not so advanced yet so he got some friendly and brotherly advice from more experienced skaters who were practising jumping and sliding tricks on the steel bars along the board walk. He could have stayed there for hours and hours. 14-year-old Emelie (turning 15 this fall) and I shared some moments of laughter at a – well, how can I put this – older nerd on inlines who desperately tried to get my attention by skating on one leg. He did the same “trick” over and over again, and each time he passed, he glanced at me and smiled. Emelie was cracking up already after the fifth time, but after twenty or so it started getting ridiculous. He mostly looked like a dog getting ready to pee against a tree….

My parents and also my sister, her husband and kids were staying in the US altogether some 20 days, I think, so both Jonathan and Emelie were after this convinced that they would want to move to L.A., one to bum around I guess and the other to “become famous” – unclear with what but she likes singing… My oldest niece Angelica, who’s 17, thought L.A. was cool enough and that it was nice to get away from school in the middle of the semester, but she probably also missed her horses back home.

We finished the day with a burger and a beer together with the whole family and Urban’s friends Clark (best man at the wedding) and wife Alexa at the Whaler on the corner of Washington Boulevard and Venice Beach.

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Before I flew back to London, I visited the Walt Disney Concert Hall, located on South Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. and only 10 min walk uphill from the Biltmore, giving your bum a little bit of an exercise while walking there. Designed by Frank O. Gehry and opened in 2003, this large metal building is made up of more than 6,000 panels of stainless steel.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is one of four buildings of the Los Angeles Music Center and by far the funkiest. The building is beautiful with many different shapes, curves and interesting angles, with the sunlight reflected in the metal surface.

It's located next to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. When I was there you could sign a guestbook for Esa-Pekka Salonen (the one who conducted the "City of Dreams" concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London that Frank and I attended recently), whose year as Musical Director here is coming to an end.

You can take an audio tour for free around the Walt Disney Concert Hall and its garden and listen to some of the details of the construction and design work, why the carpet has a playful and colorful Lily pattern (in honor of the biggest private donor Lillian Disney) and from what spot you can see all the way to the Hollywood sign in the far distance.

The building of the concert hall cost altogether ca $274 million and was partly funded by Lillian Disney, the widow of Walt Disney, who donated $50 million as a way to give something back to the community in this city of entertainment.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

The trip to California came to an end and I’m back in the London drizzle... But stay tuned for upcoming excursions.

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