A Journey Into European Puppetry

Czech Music

The Joke and the Joker

Silva & BG
With Silva Morasten (in black) Gela Kandelaki (next to me) and the rest of Budrugana Gagra.

First the joke. You might not see the humor in it. But I do.

I came to Georgia to work on a doll and puppet museum. But recently I have realized that it would be an impossibility. I don’t wish to elaborate. But let me compare it to an event that occurred several years back in Alaska.

I moved from New York City to Haines Alaska. In Manhattan I lived somewhat close to Chinatown. And so I availed myself of the many flavors of Chinese groceries and cuisine. On the other hand, Haines is probably one of the few towns in North America without a Chinese restaurant. One summer day I heard a rumor that a Chinese takeaway place had opened up in an RV park near the edge of town. So I expectantly drove over to sample the wares. Pitiful. That’s all I will say. And I wondered why? The chef was Chinese. He seemed to have woks and knew what to do. But soon I was told the reason. The RV Park owner had brought the chef to town, like an indentured servant. Then he prohibited him from using Chinese ingredients. The owner actually bought the ingredients himself for the Chinese chef. And you can see him lingering over a food supply catalogue on the phone withe the dealer. “Okay so fifteen number 10 cans of that sweet and sour stuff with red food dye. Oh and what’s the cheapest rice you have?” Ad nauseum… The place closed in another two weeks. The RV park is now a field used for storing pipes by the state road crew. And that’s that.

Read between the lines and you’ll figure out what happened to me here.

Rock heads

Sculpted Rock Head near the village of Sno in the Caucasus.

And the joke? It’s not on me. It’s with me. So yeah Gravity From Above is stalled. My work in museum Georgia has dried up. Far too much cash has flown the coop. But you know what? I’m in Georgia. And had I known half of what I know now I would certainly have stayed in Alaska. But I can’t help feeling that this ruse, played upon me by God no doubt, got me here.

Rock Wall Sno

The rock walls of Sno, where we spent a peaceful memorable night.

Recently my dear friend Silva Morasten and her boyfriend Honza stayed with me. Several things happened then to really renew my sense of purpose here in Georgia. Summer quite frankly had been tough. I expected it. But the heat drained me. (Next year time in the mountains. The museum work evaporated. Finances got wobbly. (I finally solved that by applying early for my retirement money. Which I still won’t get till the end of November.) Computers broke down. Etc. etc. But more than anything else a vague sense of failure hovered directly over my head.

On the good side I did get a temporary residence permit. Which isn’t going to last too long, but will look good next time I apply. And even if I don’t get another right away I can stay here if I cross the border once a year. So I’m not worried about getting chased out.

Gergeti

One of the Holiest places in Georgia: Gergeti in the High Caucasus Mountains.

But with my friends here we drove up into the mountains and I finally had a chance to really get out of the city. I discovered this singular little village called Sno made out dark moody and very sharp rock walls. I walked into the Caucasus briefly, enough to give me a sense of mystery and enticement. I drove through the lush vineyards of the Alazani valley. Silva had a chance to sing her gorgeously dark songs at a museum. (To hear her music follow this link.) I also took Silva to meet my friends at Budrugana Gagra. And seeing them again reminded me of what I love most about Georgia. Likewise a trip to watch Erisioni practice had the same effect. I also stopped in a couple of times to see Giorgi Apkhazava’s work on his little theatre. (I have a whole interview that I need to edit and upload here!) And Giorgi was quite kind to me. And these people were all a part of what energizes me about being in Georgia. And so having resigned the museum project today I feel lighter already.

And so I am laughing at my great fortune, a fortune not connected to the local currency.

This is one of my first videos on Georgian Crossroads (Watch it & Subscribe.)

And another thing, back in February, when I was informed about the actual ‘salary’ I would be receiving I immediately realized I needed to get something together to staunch the pecuniary wound. I also felt it should be something that would grow, not some stopgap measure. And so I started a couple more YouTube channels. One for my ideas – The Anadromist. The other for my observations about Georgia – Georgian Crossroads. It was a wise decision. For even though the income from them is a slowly increasing trickle, that trickle has allowed me to breathe easier. More importantly I have found a few people receptive to my curious investigations. And the truth is I have been sitting on far too many explorations that need to finally see the light of day.

Hey if you are here for the puppets you should watch this.

And so with all of this in mind, I recently found myself watching Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix giving an astounding performance. And as I watched it I realized I was present for a moment in film history likened to Psycho or Star Wars. That is a complete game changer for the direction of cinema. Psycho opened American filmmaking up for what would eventually be the New Hollywood of the Seventies. Star Wars opened the door to the unfortunate blockbuster era that has enveloped us ever since. But Joker is something different. Joker, an extremely dark realistic vision based on the Batman villain. It has become a roaring success at a time when the hollowness of the mainstream world has become almost impossible to ignore. Also it wasn’t lost on me that the Joker is a clown, at a time when scary clowns have surfaced as a source of fear instead of fun. Which is quite ironic considering how devoted this age is to the teleological concept of Fun. I also saw the connections to Punch, the smiling psychotic hand puppet. And so I felt compelled to make a video on the subject. Not a review, but a search for the origins of this mythic imagery historically and presently. So I present that here for your consideration.

But there are other subjects I have dealt with on my new sites that might intrigue you as well. Particularly one series on Time and the other on How We Got Here.

And you should just watch this no matter what your motivations!

Anyway this has been a report on my activities here in Georgia. Deep gratitude to those who have helped out. And I hope to add more substance to these pages soon.

Byrne in Juta

On the dirt road behind the village of Juta.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

October 11th 2019

Support me through PayPal. Hit this link here. It will be appreciated!


A Personal Approach To Traveling

With Dimitri & Biserka

Making new friends Dimitri Jageneau and his mother Bisirka at the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet in Brussels.

 

“Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion.”
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Travel. An entire industry worth 7 trillion dollars globally is based on travel. Millions of gallons of ink have been spilled over the subject. Can anyone even estimate the number of websites dedicated to the practicalities of traveling the world. Planes, trains, car rental, hotels, resorts, beaches, national parks, entire economies based on tourism, and on and on. Retirees travel by cruise ship or RV. Twentysomethings rediscover the old hippie trail. Extreme skiers travel thousands of miles to bolt straight down vertical mountain ranges. People travel to across the seas to see churches, shrines, cities, museums, rivers, deserts, and even to visit family. Travel is for many a substitute religion. But travel is also a practical effect of living in world that is more enclosed than it ever has been before. What seems truly at the back of beyond anymore? I live in a small town in Alaska. It takes at least two days to get here from most places in the U.S. What takes that long anymore? And even this isn’t off anyone’s beaten track. Massive cruise ships dock here at least once a week in the summer. There are travel books describing everything… or so it seems. So why on this increasingly shrinking earth would I want to add one more syllable to what can be readily discovered on Lonely Planet’s site or Wolters World on YouTube?

Prague Musicians

The Bohemian Bards in Old Town Square in Prague. I didn’t merely toss a coin and politely listen for a few minutes and leave. I waited till they were done. I talked to the man playing the double necked guitar. I asked about the music. How they came up with the idea for their unique style of Czech medieval rock. And bought their CD.

 

Well it turns out there is something that can’t be found. And that is advice on how to graduate from tourist to traveler and to finally what I would call a visitor. The tourist to traveler part is easily discovered through someone like Rick Steves, who encourages his readers and audiences to get beneath the facades of tourism, (all the while promoting his tours). You can find lot’s of good suggestions about traveling out there. Yet I’ve noticed something over the years. All of the suggestions are essentially about the introductory stages of travel, few if any of these remarks are about the actual reason for travel. If traveling is supposed to ‘broaden your mind’ by exposing you to other cultures and all you do is take vacations and journeys on well worn trails what can you learn? What will challenge your perspectives? Genuinely. Most people go away for a couple of weeks. Even Rick Steves for all of his backdoor philosophy really doesn’t suggest staying any longer. Mark Wolters is a bit better having actually lived abroad in various countries. But still his advice is still always for the initial stages of travel. So if you’ve been a traveler as I have been these folks really have little more to give you after exposing you to the practicalities and idiosyncrasies of countries you may not have been to before.

Street Boutique

Women’s clothing sold on the streets of Tbilisi.

But, as any regular reader of my Gravity From Above project has probably surmised, my journeys are on quite a different order of experience. And occasionally people have asked how I managed to get so far inside the culture. Not just meeting a few locals, but really starting to see out from the perspective of those cultures. Of course I do have an ace in the hole here, puppetry. But while that’s a clue, it’s not the answer to the question. So I thought I would share my own personal philosophy on travel with you..

First: Real travel isn’t about movement. Ever since I took my European journey back in 1978 I discovered quickly that simply passing through a place was not as satisfying as staying there. I was going to L’Abri in Switzerland. I had many questions about my life. It proved to be a zone where some answers could be found. But like many younger people I also planned to travel both before and after my experience there. I started traveling through England, which I enjoyed. But soon I saw that simply traveling, staying on the move going from youth hostel to youth hostel was quite a pain. I wanted to absorb what I was experiencing. And so I went straight to Switzerland and stayed in the Lake Geneva area for nearly ten months. I sold back my Eurail Pass at a loss because I realized quickly that endless movement was NOT the way to find what I had come to find. My life was completely altered not by travel but by becoming a sojourner. It was eleven months in one place that was life changing. And when I returned to America I was no longer the same person.

Bathroom PRoducts

Even household products can raise a few odd thoughts.

 

Second: Travel with a Reason. As in my first major travel experience I learned later that if you want to be affected by what you experience travel with a good reason. Vacations. Rest. Relaxation all have a point. But that is not what true travel is about. You need to go somewhere for a reason. It can be a personal reason. Or it can be an intellectual or creative reason. But there must be a purpose to what you are doing. So I thought about returning to Europe again in 2005. But why should I go? I had a couple of ideas. I knew I could take a 3 month leave of absence. I had two major interests that I could pursue: World War II and Puppetry. I’ll give you one guess which one won. I did travel from place to place, but always with an aim to learning about puppetry. And that journey, as in my earlier one completely reoriented me. And obviously you can substitute anything for puppetry: Cooking, genealogical research, Baroque art, following a favorite author’s life.

Porcelain Figures

Porcelain figures in a store in Plzeň, Czech Republic.

Third: Meet people who know something you don’t. Now this could be done simply by meeting anyone who knows their country better than you do. But I’m actually suggesting something more radical. On my trips to Europe to explore puppetry and interview puppeteers I am granted access into the country which is never given to the tourists and travelers walking the streets. This is especially true in a place like Prague. My knowledge of history and culture has expanded far greater than it normally would have. So much so that when I meet Czech folks in America they are always surprised by how much Czech history I know.

Marionette Carving

How a marionette is carved. In Plzeň, Czechia.

Fourth: Study the culture in different ways before you go. I have met many twenty and thirty somethings who travel to Asia or South America in the last 20 years. And oddly they rarely talk about the culture they have visited. I suspect they are meeting folks like themselves wherever they go: Drifting semi-nomadic travelers, who know the cheapest countries to spend a season. Great beaches. Loads of recreational opportunities. But do these places have histories? Languages? Customs? You’d never know. I met a friend once who told me that she was going to Japan. Have you read much about Japan? I asked. Oh no! She said she just wants to be surprised. Absurd. How can a people travel without having some sense of where they are going? And yet it happens all the time. The world opens up the more you prepare to meet it.

 

Without some knowledge of the culture the things we see as we travel can easily become senseless amusing random objects.

Fifth: And maybe the most important principle. Go back to visit the same places. There is a strange idea that you shouldn’t repeat yourself. Truthfully you don’t see anything the first time you visit a place. I’ve been to Paris seven times since 1987. I have friends there now. I am just beginning to feel comfortable there. I’ve started to get some idea of how the city is arranged. Though there are still places that I’ve visited that would be hard to find again. To think that you know anything valuable about a country, a city, a people after a cursory visit is frankly ridiculous. But people act this way all of the time. Many years ago it was clear that the way people consumed reality was changing. But now? People don’t even leave home when they travel. They take their devices with them. They stay ‘connected’ to their social media at all times. They stay in their bubble of unreality. I’ve watched people stepping off the gangway here in Haines Alaska, one of the less frequented ports of call in Alaska. And as they do their gaze is firmly fixed on their palms and the devices in them. Why even travel?

Sapling Moss

This is the Alaska you will walk right by without seeing while on tour.

Sixth: Leave your bubble. The real goal of travel is to challenge one’s perceptions of the world. And I don’t mean what people do when they speak in condescending admonishments about the need for diversity. That kind of person rarely makes a good visitor to another country. Because they take their notions with them to insulate themselves against the actual otherness of the real world. Traveling with a group of likeminded folks from your own country is a perfect recipe for never seeing a country and remaining in your own cultural bubble. One or two folks is ideal. One person obviously escapes the bubble most easily. Two can as well if they give themselves time apart.Whether it’s black humor in what we are now ‘supposed’ to be calling Czechia, which I still will call the Czech Republic. Or the crossing the street through swirling traffic in Tbilisi. Or witnessing Guignol shows in Paris or Lyon. None of these fall under the category of obvious tourism. And yet by comprehending these things my world is enlarged. And my life back in Alaska is enriched and appreciated for being unique in it’s own way.

 

Entering into the life of people on the streets in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The goal is to graduate from tourist to traveler and then again to visitor, which assumes much more familiarity with what you are seeing. It’s a commitment to another place and people that takes time and effort. But the rewards for doing so, as I have discovered, are far richer than any other form of travel. To end up inside another culture looking back at your own world, that is where the depth is.

My friend Silvie Morasten playing the piano for me in the Plzeň train station. The recording is rough (the camera was vibrating on the piano) but her voice is haunting. This was one of the highlights of my 2016 exploration. Unimaginable had I not found ways into her culture.

There is much more to it than what I’ve written here. But this will do for an introduction. If this was interesting to anyone I might write more of my travel philosophy when I get back from Europe in 2018. Let me know what you think.

Next time I’ll pass on my itinerary to you so that you can follow me on this next iteration of our Gravity From Above journey.

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska
9/23/2017

You can find out more about Morasten here.


2005 Journey into European Puppetry #6

131-drak-bagpipes-byrne

With DRAK in Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic

Journey back in time with GRAVITY FROM ABOVE to read about the journey that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the sixth part. More will follow shortly. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)

I stole my way into the Czech lands by train. I arrived at the obscure town of Chrudim, looking for the Muzeum loutkářských kultur Chrudim (The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim) in the heart of its medieval core. Passing the central plague monument I eventually found the museum located in the Renaissance Mydlář building. (Follow the link below.)

via Journey into European Puppetry #6 | The Anadromous Life


Czech Puppets and a Song

Damsel in Glass
A Damsel in Glass at the Plzen Puppet Museum

My last few days in Prague were spent battling a fever and it’s various symptoms. On a day when I still felt I had a bit of strength left I went on a morning walk up Hradčany hill with Wang Jue. Our stated goal was to look for Jan Švankmajer’s Gambra gallery/home beyond the castle complex. Sadly it seemed shuttered. Closed for ‘technical reasons’ read some internet search engine. I hope Mr. Švankmajer is in good health. We ended up exploring the rooms of the Strahov Monastery, with books made of wood and a dried baby dodo bird. (Described elsewhere.) And ended up with some authentic Shanghai style food in a little hole in the wall. But soon my sickness made it clear I needed to rest and so I bid adieu to Jue and went to the hotel to rest.

Gambra Gallery
Svankmajer’s Shuttered Gambra Gallery on the Prague Castle Hill

There were people I wanted to see still, but the fever raged on for the rest of the day producing a sleepless night. All of Saturday was given to recovery. I wanted to be in good shape for my final trip to Georgia. I had to get out once though to find food and exchange a bit of my dwindling currency to pay off my bills before I left the city. Sunday morning I stayed in late as well. Finally that afternoon I felt almost good enough to go out, scrounge up some food and go to the David Cronenberg exhibition called Evolution in the Old Town Square at the Prague City Gallery – House at the Stone Bell (Galerie hlavního města Prahy – Dům U Kamenného zvonu). I’ve followed Cronenberg’s work ever since stumbling into the climatic scene from The Brood in a 42nd Street grindhouse in New York City in the very early 80’s and having my eyelids peeled back by the experience. This show contained many of the strange props from his films including some prosthetic beings that could only be called puppets.

Cronenberg Puppet
One of the Puppets used in David Cronenberg’s films.

Finally it was time to leave the Green Lobster and to get myself to the train to Plzeň to visit my friend Silvie Morasten a Czech artist and singer, the same friend who had helped me interview Švankmajer back in 2012. After the hour and a half ride Silvie greeted me at the train station. She had hoped to have some sort of small concert while I was visiting, since I’d never really heard her sing. European train stations had recently start leaving pianos without casters and seat chained to them so that anyone could play the piano and no one would steal it. As we walked off of the platform she said let me play you a song. Before I could even get out my good camera or recording equipment she began to play. I managed to get out my feeble little camera and set it up on the piano to capture the song. Even with the sound rattling because I had forgotten about the piano vibrations the video gives a flavor of the moment. And what a moment it was. She began to sing a haunting tune, accompanying herself with chromatic minor chords that filled the train station, turning it briefly into something far beyond the mundane. Silvie has an unusual voice low in register yet sharp and clear, with sad emotion in her words. People walked by at first not really paying attention. But a few slowly realized what was going on. They stopped. And I stood there realizing that this was one of the defining moments of my journey as the mournful words of a Slovenian poet drifted through the echoing hall with Silvie’s own music illustrating the mood, changing the dreary station into an epic denouement on the journey thus far.

The next day I went into Plzeň (Pilsen birthplace of Pilsner beer) to the Muzeum loutek (Puppet Museum). And I was actually very much impressed since it was the home of many famous Czech puppeteers including Josef Skupa, Gustav Novák and Jiří Trnka. And in recent years Plzeň has been home to the Theatre Alfa. All these were presented well by the museum. The stand out display was the automatic puppet theatre of Karel Novák, which featured a parade of puppet automata marching out in a line and performing.

Automated Jester
Automated Jester Juggling

Finally after much good discussion my time with Silvie was up and after a final morning concert at the station she let me go. I just couldn’t depart while she was singing this eerily beautiful music. The train was late, but it didn’t really effect my departure time. After a couple of hours I made it to Prague only to discover that my month long metro pass didn’t cover the train’s bus to the airport. But I immediately hopped aboard the metro and jumped off at the appropriate stop to catch the city’s bus to airport, which my pass did cover. And there I met Eti, the English puppet student from the workshop, who was on her way home. We had a vivid discussion about puppets, meaning and indeed the use of these homely little things to perhaps aid the people of our age to touch reality again. And with that the Czech Republic disappeared behind me, new friends made, old friends met, puppets seen, and puppeteers primed for the future filming of Gravity From Above. And after my Lot jet deposited me for an eight hour stopover in the Warsaw Airport I finally boarded a plane mostly full of Poles to arrive at 5 in the morning in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Trnka Puppet
Slender Jiri Trnka Puppet at the Plzen Museum

But THAT is a completely different story

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

4/4/2012


Czech Devils for Children

Czech Devil

A little devil and the problem of drinking too much Czech beer at a children’s theatre festival in Prague.

So my French marionnettiste friend Paulette Caron dropped into Prague for a couple of days on her way to play at Greek puppet festival. And Nina Malíková gave us free entrance to a theatre/puppet festival for children at Divadlo V Celetné (The Celetné Theatre). We braved the swarm of students of various ages to see a play called ‘Kapela jede! aneb Není pecka jako pecka’ (The band rocks! There is or isn’t a pit.) We were give a couple of the last seats in the crowded house. The lights were lowered and the raucous students came to a point of stillness. And then the play began.

Beer For Children
Actually this the end of the play when our friend looks at the beer and says ‘Enough is enough, time to get back to life.’ or at least that’s how I interpreted it. The kids understood…

Now imagine children’s theatre? Really what do you expect of the stage and the puppets? Do you see bright little muppety glove puppets singing songs? Do you see cute faces and happy performers? Well what about this? The scene opens on a bar. Oh oh! We are already a thousand miles from any performance for a mixed group of children, anything you could imagine in “age appropriate” America. This wasn’t France either. A man lies with his head resting on a mug of beer. This IS the Czech Republic. A bartender stands in a darkened corner. A cleaning lady walks in. There is some sort of maintenance man as well. They go through the motions of waking up through a precise set of motions all of which results in the man with a new glass of real beer and his head sleepily falls into it again. Lights out. Lights come up again on the same scene and a repetition of the exact same motions, only slightly faster. Lights out and up again on the exact same scene now playing in manic speed. And eventually in all of this the first puppet appears, a small red devil. Evidently this is Czech Hell. And the devil is there to show our beer swilling loser something. Now in the end some much needed Czech moral appears, thankfully not AA, but certainly not pro-drunkenness. Along the way there is a surgical operation deep in black humor of full-sized devils pulling out the man’s diseased liver in a near Grand Guignol performance. Not only was this not a children’s show in America, it was getting a little to sketchy for the American adults. (‘Really! Hmph! I come to the theatre to be entertained!) But the Czech kids ate it up. And considering the drinking and car crash statistics perhaps the devils’ warning was crucial. And it was a great theatre experience.

Liver Operation

The Devils operate.

Later I introduced Paulette to Nina Malíková, former Editor in Chief at Loutkář, the oldest puppetry magazine in the world, and they were able to converse more easily in French than English. One of the things we discussed was the fact that puppetry was being swallowed up more and more by a puppetless media theatre, exactly Jurkowski’s fears. And it wasn’t that puppets couldn’t exist in different environments. But I sensed that technology itself was part of the problem. There was just so much of it.

Divadlo S + H

Divadlo S + H in Prague.

That evening we dropped in on the Black Light Theatre’s show called Antologia, which did contain elements of puppetry, but were put on for the tourists. Black theatre is a technique for lighting in such a way that figures dressed completely in black are invisible and able to cause objects to float or spin without any obvious support. It was a collection of mildly comic skits and clever effects. Black theatre had drifted over the years from real absurdity in the best sense to coy inoffensive humor. There was something quite Czech about the whole thing that I wanted Paulette to absorb. In her own words “I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would.”

S + H

Spejbl & Hurvinek about to go on a wild ride.

The next day we took the tram out to the Dejvice section of Prague to the Divadlo S + H to encounter Spejbl and Hurvinek the classic puppets originally created by the brilliant Czech puppeteer Josef Skupa. Hurvinek is the rascally son and Spejbl the thick-skulled father. (Spejbl & Hurvinek were actually arrested by the SS in World War 2, along with Skupa himself.) We were there to see a production loosely called How Mr Spejbl dusted ‘Jak pan Spejbl prášil’, which is also a play on words for the Czech version for Baron Munchhausen. And it was a crazy trip with Spejbl turning into a Munchhausen-like figure taking Hurvinek and co. from one fantastic scenario to another, including a trip to the moon. It was fascinating to compare the Czech children’s responses to the show and compare them to the children at Guignol shows. The Czech kids will laugh at pure words devoid of slapstick. Yet will often be very quiet until a time for laughter. French kids go nuts during the more frenetic parts of a Guignol show. French children will also talk back to the puppets. One gets the feeling that the French enfants are learning to be critics, while the Czech děti are developing a kind of absurd humor.

The Fish

The Fish that swallowed the Spejbl & Hurvinek cast of puppets.

The last of the shows I saw with Paulette was an unusual Buchty a Loutky gig entitled Pět ran do čepice (Five rounds into the hat) on the larger stage of the Švandovo Divadlo along with the Czech prog rock band Už Jsme Doma. We stopped up at their crowded studio above the theatre before the show. Paulette by this time was beginning to get a sense of the very different puppet world in the Czech Republic. The Buchtys made us feel at home. The performance was done as a contest to have the audience of children vote for the best creature, mostly puppets, to join the arguing creatures, who were also the band Už Jsme Doma, to settle a bet. Or at least that’s something of what I was told. Again another example of absurd Czech humor for the kids. After Buchty a Loutky’s Marek Bečka tallied the votes at the end Vit, also from the Buchtys, came out in his polar bear costume and stole the election. A few of the Už Jsme Doma tunes were left stuck in my head.

Gold Moth

Vote for the Moth! Buchty a Loutky with Už Jsme Doma.

In two days we watched four puppet plays. Only in Prague would this be normal. And the least interesting performance cost the most and was done for tourists. Real travelers who want to experience puppets should use a bit of skill in locating real Czech puppetry. But if you do you will be rewarded. My suggestion? Head over to the Švandovo Divadlo (Švandovo Theatre) and see Buchty A Loutky, even if it’s one of their children’s shows… But more about B + L next time.
Polar Vit

Vit as Polar Bear wins the vote!

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

29/3/2016


Finding Prague through the Maelström of Tourism

Here are musical cousins the Svankmajer’s Monkeys in his Punch and Judy

So I arrived back in Prague staying at a cheap hotel, that confusingly goes by two names, in the Smíchov district. I received a couple of separate messages from two erstwhile Haines folks who wanted to get together with me that evening. One, Blair, was only a river guide for one season back in 2005. He’s now married to a Czech girl and has been in town a little while. The other, Shawn, has been circulating in the guide world in Haines since at least the time I moved there in 1996. Most recently he’s been working in heliskiing, those trips into the jagged mountains to drop well-heeled skiers down the untouched vertical slopes of the Chilkat Valley. Shawn has more than a touch of the jaded about him by his own reckoning. Prague, with its millions of tourists, reminded him a bit of Skagway on a five ship day. He’d already had his big Euro-experience in Munich having his wallet, laptop and soul gobbled up by Oktoberfest. But in fact flying under the radar as he does, he was none too worse for wear.

Blair met us at the Jan Hus statue and knew of a place to go for beer and food, a real Czech hospoda called LoKal. The place was jammed with over a hundred Czechs in a smokey cacophony of conversation and laughter. Blair bought us a round of their unfiltered beer on tap as we waited for a table. An affable Canadian girl, Carmen, sitting alone, gave without to much difficulty to Blair’s pleading. And soon the four of us were talking and sampling things from the menu, including the infamous Moravian cheese, which I should warn all cheese fans has the weirdest aftertaste of any dairy product I’ve ever tried. It is cured evidently on rotten beef, or something like that. I would say you get the picture, but you probably don’t. I ate more of the headcheese. Finally I bid them all adieu as I wandered back to my hotel to get some rest after my first day in Prague. How odd to come back to Prague to meet people you know from Alaska.

With a few erstwhile guides from Haines in a hospoda in Prague

The next few days were for getting reacquainted with Prague as I waited to find out about my interviews. There was the endless parade of tourists to just get around, in more ways than one. And the endless means of bilking them out of their euros, pounds, dollars, pesos, yuan, rubles, francs and yen. Yes the endless trinkets, the shiny glass baubles, the bad authentic Czech art, the ripoff money exchanges and, of course, the truly inferior puppets made in the Balkans to sell to the euro-rubes.

But what really struck me this time was the shopping malls. In Krakow, Berlin and now Prague I found huge, sleek, 21st Century malls feeding a hunger for all of the same crap you can find in any American shopping Mecca. There are food courts, cinemas and franchises that certainly are replicated around the world now. All the big American movies were here. The most frightening aspect of traveling now is that you can feel that you haven’t actually gone anyplace at all. And these malls are not for the tourists.

At a Mall Near the Old Town Square in Prague

I was getting antsy to find the real Prague away from all of this bling and glitz. I knew it was here but I just had to search it out.

I’ve been to Prague a couple of times before. I know my way around. This time I bought a month pass and just hopped aboard anything that moved my direction. Mostly I was using the trams. Speaking of shopping, I did have some things to look for while I was here. There were a couple of musicians I wanted to seek out on CD, some visual material on DVD. I am loath to download things if I can get a physical copy. So I found a CD by Radůza, an accordion playing Czech singer I’ve listened to for years. Then I looked Jana Vebrová, also an accordion playing wench, but much more abstract and intense. I lost out on that. But I would continue to hunt around. Sadly it seemed not much of the kind of Czech puppet animation I was looking for on DVD was to be found. Trnka, Barta, all seemed unrepresented, though they had recently re-released Švankmajer’s feature films.

I met my previously online only friend Silvie. She is a multi-talented Czech who sings and paints and we finally bridged the virtual barrier by hanging out at a café for a while talking into the late evening. She’s been quite helpful in trying to get me an interview with Jan Švankmajer. (But there are some kinks there! More on that in the future.) I also met Eliska, a guide to an alchemy museum. An interesting discussion about reality in the 21st century was forthcoming. (Hint: Being an Alaskan is a real plus over just being from America for starting conversations.)

From the “Museum of Alchemy”, I believe this is supposed to be Faust getting pulled up through a mysterious hole in the ceiling. Though it looks like one of his friends is Nosferatu…

Which reminds me… there are the sites and exhibits and other things. And what about the puppets? Yes there was an alchemy museum and a museum of haunted Prague. These were just little tourist traps. But the kind I like: Weird mannikins and homunculi, strange dioramas, odd facts, the past faked with dummies and puppets.

One dried Baby Dodo Bird coming up!

Then there is for me one of the most interesting places in Prague, the Strahov Monastery Library, which besides having a fascinating book collection also has some truly peculiar curiosities in their old cabinets and shelves. And if you really look at the unlabeled items on display, if you get down on your knees and survey the ground level, if you pay attention to what is in front of you you you might see a dried baby dodo bird, books made of wood, a portrait made entirely with seeds, if Švankmajer hasn’t investigated this place carefully I’d be really surprised, and objects that defy any obvious classification. This is indeed the Prague I come to find.

A Mannerist Portrait Made of Seeds at the Strahov Monastery.

I finally found one DVD featuring the strange animated art of Karel Zeman at a small hole in the wall establishment connected to Kino Světozor, the art film theatre. An intelligent Czech girl named Lucie, helped me navigate around the riches of Czech Cinema, giving me more than a couple worthy opinions, and restoring my faith in the small specialist store of over mega monsters. (But still no Jana Vebrová.)

Finally I went to see a puppet show over at Říše Loutek, which is also the National Marionette Theatre where they show the classic Czech puppet version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni every week. (There is another inferior Balkan version in town, watch out!) The title of the children’s show was Kašpárek in Hell. For me that’s a promising title. And it was enjoyable. But alas Kašpárek as seen better days. He was now just a little rascally hero. Not the sarcastic truth telling fool of the past. Nevertheless the devils in the piece were worth a watch. And who better to start my Czech puppet shows with than with Kašpárek, the quintessential Czech figure.

Kašpárek in Hell at Říše Loutek. A fluffy little adventure for kids.

But ironically the real puppetry display was over at the Czech Museum of Music. They had a serious exhibition of mechanical musical instruments and automata. Many of these creations from the last three hundred years were marvels of ingenuity. There were player pianos, barrel and pin band organs and various humanoid puppets and animals… including cousins to the puppets that Švankmajer used in the opening scenes of Rakvickarna (Punch and Judy or The Coffin factory). Engrossing.

The Strange Musical Puppets at the Czech Museum of Music

More and more I was seeing Prague through the tourists. I didn’t mind them anymore. Let ’em wander. Maybe some of them will actually begin to see the statues on the Charles Bridge or be tempted to stroll off down a forgotten corner or a twisting alley, and there are more corners here than there are tourists. I felt at home in this haunted city.

Just turn away from the tourists and walk down this alley…

Oh yeah… I almost forgot. After going to one CD store after another, no one had the Jana Vebrová album. Finally I saw one more place off the tram out of way. I found it again later. I looked through the racks and didn’t see it. Finally I asked. There was a pause… Yes! They had it. What can I say… A moment of victory and worth the effort to find.

Byrne Power

Prague, Czech Republic

18/10/2012