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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
You can find out more about Morasten here.
Preparing the ‘stage’ by putting the puppet in water at a Buchty a Loutky show in Prague.
How did GRAVITY FROM ABOVE begin? Read about the original journey that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the seventh part. One more to come. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
Meanwhile Prague was calling. I had been traveling for a couple of months through Europe, visiting friends and hunting down puppet theatres in Europe. The entire time I had essentially been making a Fibonacci spiral towards Prague, the heart of puppetry in Europe. Švankmajer, Skupa, Trnka, Faust, Don Giovanni, Kašpárek, puppetry as history complete with heroic martyrs.
via Journey into European Puppetry #7 | The Anadromous Life
Whatever you do DO NOT eat any psychedelic gingerbread cookies this Old Witch might serve you. Especially if you are named Hansel and Gretel!
Wang Jue from near Shanghai found me through the video of my lecture on Puppetry as Antidote Art. (Evidently there’s not that much done in a serious manner about puppetry on YouTube.) She’s a composer, whose main task at the moment is to find a way to make avant garde music for children. Quite a task when you really ponder the idea. Anyway she had convinced the Chinese educational authorities of her proposal to make music from objects, somehow puppetry fit under that rubric. So she was also exploring the world of Czech homunculi, though for very different purposes than myself. She found me through the usual internet means and thus met me at my first Buchty a loutky (Cakes and Puppets) performance, a children’s piece called Norská Pohádka (A Norwegian Fairy Tale). She was accompanied by three students who were taking part in a two week puppetry workshop. We met after the show and I introduced them to B + L, who were glad to see me again and happy to meet a few future puppeteers. Radek, Vit and Zuzana were performing this particular piece, which did indeed feature Vit dressed up as a polar bear. The story involved a girl trapped by weird creatures in the fjords with dreams of a polar bear who is actually a prince, or so I understood it.
Children playing with Buchty a Loutky’s set and features from a Norwegian Fairy Tale.
After the show Jue, the puppet students and I ambled towards what felt like a communist era eatery where the food was cheap, plentiful and bland, served in a smokey cafeteria style. We discussed puppetry and I told them to come back to see Buchty a Loutky’s Psycho Reloaded, their demented take on Hitchcock’s Psycho. (Sadly they all missed it.) Each of them seemed to intuitively grasp the need for puppetry to speak tactile reality into the abstract virtual present.
Trapped Puppets at the B + L Studios
I showed up a couple of days later at the Buchty studios where Marek and the gang greeted me warmly. (I suspect it makes a difference that I keep coming back.) And they allowed me to wander around the take photographs and watch as they began work on a new piece. They joked at the beginning as they sat around, saying “This is often how we work.” Don’t be fooled. They have created dozens of shows over the years, traveling around the country and beyond, once getting in trouble in Canada for some un-PC Czech sort of thing. The Czechs don’t really get being PC. If you have a culture largely based on dark humor much of what you do is going to be problematic in a friendly politically correct place like, say, Canada. And you wonder why I don’t dive too deeply into North American puppetry?
Buchty versions of the classic Czech Demons
The next Buchty a Loutky event was entitled Pět ran do čepice and involved the Czech rock band, Už Jsme Doma. I went there with French puppeteer Paulette. (I covered this in the essay immediately preceding this one.)
Composer Jue & Marionnettiste Paulette meet at the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square in Prague
And then next night I ended up at some weird place called Cross Club, that reminded me a bit of the old New York City club Gargoyle Mecanique on Avenue B. Only it was much much bigger and so labyrinthine that I arrived at the Buchty a Loutky’s Psycho Reloaded ten minutes late because I got lost in the building. And I knew I was in trouble when I entered a room with five young dudes standing around Clockwork Orange droog style in old 19th Century Oom-Pah-Pah garb. Fortunately I had already experienced Psycho Reloaded before, back in 2012. And had taken a few shots, though I didn’t waste anytime getting more. Nevertheless they had actually dedicated this performance to me and I was lost in the old building escaping the Czech Sousaphone Society upstairs. Certain aspects of the show seemed crazier, then again this was NOT a children’s show… ever. But by the time you get to the big reveal that the dead mother is actually a stuffed weasel… okay let me say that again… that the dead mother of Norman Bates is actually, indeed literally, not exaggerating, this is a real taxidermy project, a dead weasel… It doesn’t matter too much that Norma has fallen in love with Marion Crane, who is still alive, as is Arbogast… well if you know Hitchcock’s Psycho you probably realized by the time that two of the Buchtys dressed as Mother start stabbing each other with violins while Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho shrieks are set on a loop, that this was a comic version!!!
Marek and Vit struggle it out before the Bloody Curtain in Psycho Reloaded
After the show Radek gave me a DVD copy of his new puppet film Malý Pán (Little Man), which proved to be a minor masterpiece, and which I’ll review separately in May. I helped Marek, Radek and Vit load the Buchty-mobile and then, after an animated ride through the parts of Prague tourists never see, was dropped off, in the same near to Nerudova Street, where I was staying. I said my farewell’s Radek, who wouldn’t be in my last show with them on Sunday and then trundled up the cobblestones to my temporary abode, the Residence Green Lobster.
Hansel on Gingerbread Cookies
Finally on Sunday afternoon, my last official day in Prague, I returned to the Švandovo one more time for my 4th and last B + L show, Perníková Chaloupka, the Buchty version of Hansel and Gretel. Their version spends quite a bit of time with the woodsman father before the kids go traipsing off towards the gingerbread house and the evil old lady. But when she does appear? Watch out. She’ll feed you sweets… But oh my don’t eat them.
Life After Gingerbread Cookies???
After the show I bid my fond farewells to Zuzana, Vit and Marek, promising to return yet again and hopefully with a real film crew, and disappeared into the evening; satisfied that I had gotten the most I could get out of my time in Prague for this edition of Gravity From Above. I had wondered if I really needed to go back to Prague this time. In truth, once the ball started rolling I was busy everyday.
Zuzana, Marek & Vit Rehearsing a new Buchty a Loutky show.
But there are a few more Prague stories next time and a little side trip to Plzen before I depart the Czech Lands. Won’t you keep reading and maybe even share these glimpses into Europe and puppetry with your friends?
More of our Buchty a Loutky visits can be found here. And here. And even here.
Tbilisi, Georgia (Just wait till I tell you about Georgia!)
April 1st 2016
The 2016 Easter Market in the Old Town Square of Prague
On the day I crossed the border into the Czech Republic from Germany things seemed to loosen up in a way they hadn’t since the beginning of my 2016 trip. It’s hard to explain. Czech’s can have their problems in the world. But there is a sense of things being relaxed in way that France, Scotland, England, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany are not. Not that the Czechs are like the Polynesians or the Caribbeans. They certainly don’t have that tropical insouciance. It’s just that the rules, if they are at all known, don’t seem to always apply. I didn’t have a train ticket to cover the stretch of track from the Czech/German border at Děčín to Ústí nad Labem (about a fifteen minutes travel). I also wasn’t really concerned about it, not like I would have been in Germany. And sure enough the conductor didn’t come to punch my ticket until after Ústí.
Being my fourth time in Prague, my arrival at Residence Green Lobster in Malá Strana (the Little Quarter) below the castle, the Hradčany, went off smoothly without event. I was back in Praha now for ten days. At first it seemed like I might have too much time on my hands. In the end I was scrambling to get everything done, and due to an unexpected fever near the end I had to simply give up on a few things.
Irish Setter show at the Prague Easter Market.
After a stroll over the relatively uncrowded Charles Bridge, which can be an absolute cattle crossing, I walked into the Old Town Square, passing the booths being set up for the Czech Easter Markets, and found the only truly reputable currency exchange in Prague. As a rule you should only get your money directly from a banks ATM. Generally when in Prague you have to be extremely cautious about currency exchange rip offs. Once in 2005 I was taken badly by a dishonest shop advertising CHANGE. I looked into it and discovered that this situation is epidemic in the city. They have dozens of little tricks to weasel bad rates out of you when you think you’re getting a fair rate. You literally can’t win. It’s like three card monte. But the place called EXchange.cz on Kaprova Street is indeed reliable. And so I took the euros that I had and turned them into koruny. And then after buying a month long transportation pass I was ready to start circling Prague ca. 2016, a deal for effortless travel around the city and even to the airport.
Hand Painted Wooden Easter Eggs
Things to do: There were plenty. Among the first was to make contacts with various friends and acquaintances. There was Nina Malíková from Loutkář (Puppeteer) Magazine, Radek from Buchty a loutky (More on them in coming updates.), Eliška whom I met working at the Alchemy Museum in 2012, Nina who translated my interview with Jan Švankmajer in 2012 and Jue from China who was a composer who had found me online and realized I would be here where she was studying. Not only that my translating French puppet friend Paulette was going to drop by for a couple of days on her way to puppet festivals in Greece. So lot’s of communicating needed to get done. I also saw that there was an interesting Czech horror film, Polednice, or Lady Midday, about the Czech legend of the Noon Day Witch, that screamed to be seen. Plus there was music to locate, films to hunt down on DVD and of course puppet shows to see.
A strangely Muffled Character from Mucha’s Slav Epic at the Prague National Gallery. This is just a tiny fragment of the whole.
One thing I did early on during my Prague sojourn was to visit Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic at the Galeria Narodowa w Pradze (Prague National Gallery). (Mucha is pronounced moo-kha – the ch is like the ch in Bach.) This massive undertaking by Art Nouveau artist Mucha was made in his later years and tells a poetic version of the great moments in Slavic history. It had recently arrived in Prague after years of wrangling. And when I say massive I mean it. Twenty immense painting take up a room the size of an airport hanger. Being part Polish and Ukrainian myself I could only feel the passion Mucha must have felt trying to impart a sense of the importance of the Slavs beginning millennia ago as a tribe out on the Steppes.
Nun on a Tram
Another thing that always strikes me about Prague is the fascinating street performers and music particularly clustered near the Old Town Square. One man did and absolutely brilliant performance as puppet baby with a swazzle in his mouth for good measure. The swazzle is a device put in one’s mouth during a Punch and Judy show to give the voice a high pitched humorous rasp. In fact more than one living statue had added this accessory, which I had never seen in Prague before. Then there were the guys doing an Indian levitation trick. They just sat still seemingly impossibly hanging in the air. Musically I made one exciting discovery of a Czech musical unit called the Bohemian Bards, who played Scottish war pipes, a double necked acoustic guitar and an African drum while doing Medieval inspired dance music and Czech folk songs at a breakneck paced. I immediately bought their CD and talked to the guys between sets.
The Bohemian Bards getting down.
And they played during the Easter Markets which I soon discovered happened everywhere in the Czech Republic and featured Old Czech Ham roasting on spits, painted wooden Easter eggs, special cakes, honey wine, hot wine, very salty cheese, thick sausages on grills, local students dancing and even an Irish Setter competition, among many other possibilities.
The Old Levitation Trick
Many discoveries were made during my time in Prague. Polednice, turned out to be a quality Czech film with favorable similarities to the Babadook. I discovered excellent Czech Baroque and folk music in the stores. Several satisfying local meals were digested. And I discovered in a Czech mall, to my horror, that images from 3-D cameras could be fed into into a 3D printer to create miniature versions (idols?) of real people… which had many strange implications.
Puppet Baby! There’s a full grown man in there.
But most importantly it was a time for puppets.
Chopin Airport Warsaw, Poland
Waiting 8 and ½ hours for a plane to take me to Georgia.