I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it was seen as being an obscure subject, especially since I wanted to narrate parts of the trip that had little to do with puppetry as well. This was the journey that cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. My short one day visit to Charleville-Mézières was the first crux of the journey. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will take six posts. Enjoy!
“One of Those Days”
March 23, 2005
I spun around instantly. All of a sudden I realized that I didn’t have my coat anymore. And that was terrifying news. My coat’s secretive zipped compartments, in lieu of a money belt, contained my money, credit cards, passport and rail pass. If I didn’t find that coat soon the trip would be well over. With adrenaline coursing through me I picked up my weighty black backpack with my one good arm, thrust my broken braced wrist through the strap and picked up the rubber handle of the other pack while my eyes darted to and fro. The sweat was instantaneous.
It wasn’t exactly an auspicious commencement to a day that didn’t have much promise attached to it as I scanned the Gare de l’Est: perhaps le plus louche train station in Paris. Although I would have to admit that the sleaze factor was far below that of, say Frankfurt, Germany. And neither of these locales would even register a blip on the old American sleaze-o-meter. In America I could be fairly certain that my coat would be in another state by now. Memories of one night waiting at the Baltimore bus terminal, heck any Greyhound bus station in the U.S. of A., are far more indelibly tainted with apprehension than any time spent in any train station in old Europa. Nevertheless, that being said, I wouldn’t want to take a stroll around this vicinity at two in the morning on a Wednesday looking for the nearby Gare Du Nord. Fortunately for me it was only about 09:45 and most of the station’s shiftiest denizens were probably just getting tucked into bed with a comforting bottle of vin table. Well most of them but not all, I did glimpse a few suspect insomniacs in one of the darker recesses of the building. I frantically and physically retraced my immediate past quickly hitting the points like a silver ball in a pinball machine. Bingo! There was my coat. I had taken it off at a stand-up table where I had consumed some narcotic pastry. Evidently the French edible had fully put me into a trance state so deep that I would be willing to sacrifice my whole journey for a seductive combination of flour, butter, salt and sugar. This could never happen in the Czech Republic. But now I had lost my comfortable seat and was forced to stand for the next half-hour as I waited to find out which voie the train to Charleville-Mézières would depart from. Inauspicious indeed.
“You ever have one of those days?” Yeah I know it’s a cliché of the highest order. But we all say things like that: “It’s just one of those days.” And that’s how I was beginning to feel about this one. I had arisen at 7:00 AM and had left the Hotel St. Andres des Arts around eight. The sun was shining a little too brightly for this March morning and I was already beginning to regret wearing my wintry dead-moss-green coat. As I rode the Metro from Odeon to Gare de l’Est I tried to remember everything I could about my day’s destination. I was attempting to find the Institut International de la Marionnette (Marrionnette is the French word for puppet.) in the twin towns of Charleville-Mézières in the Ardennes region of France. The guidebook information was spare. I had no map of the town. (This was 2005 and I had no cellphone yet.) I did not know where the Hotel Les Cleves was located in relation to the train station. Therefore I had no idea what kind of brutal walk I might have to endure with my hefty packs. Nor did I have any idea where the institute might be vis-à-vis the hotel or even the town for that matter. My attempts to contact the institute via email had produced one reply, which had told me to write to the email address of a woman who never replied back. On the town’s French language website I had discovered that there were going to be student mid-term performances, although I would be arriving only in time for the last of three days worth. I knew precious little about the school. I was just hoping that this might be interesting in some degree and accessible. In other words, I was going into this situation nearly blind. Thus I didn’t hope for much. But I took my chances rather philosophically. At worst I figured I’d be in another French town, with yet another medieval center and a fair possibility of obtaining some species of decent cuisine. Still it wasn’t the best recipe for a sojourn. And nearly losing my coat didn’t put me into a buoyant mood.
My qualms seemed to be confirmed a little later on when I read that our train would not even be completing the route to Charleville-Mézières. There was an ominous little note on the board saying something about a bus continuation from Rethel onward. I was not too surprised therefore when we were asked to get out of the train and to transfer ourselves to two waiting buses. A poor Japanese fellow, who spoke neither French nor English, wandered back and forth between the two buses like a comedian from a silent film. I tried to point him in the right direction, either bus, and he eventually chose the opposite bus from me: a sage move no doubt. As we moved through the undulating French countryside we passed the railroad workers out on the trackers who had blocked our passage. Within a half-hour we arrived at the Charleville-Mézières Gare.
At the station I vainly searched for a local map. As I stepped outside I noticed an enlarged fiche with a good-sized map of the town. I studied it. It turned out that of the two towns of Charleville-Mézières I was in Charleville; I never did get to Mézières. There was Hotel Les Cleves about three blocks off, though I did not see any listing for the institute. I started off across a narrow green park in the general direction of the hotel, until I saw the streets, those baffling European streets. I skulked back to the little billboard with the map on it. I studied it much more thoroughly. This map problem would dog me through much of my trip. And it’s not that I have trouble reading a map. I don’t. I collect maps. I’m an excellent map-reader, well at least an excellent American map-reader. But American towns generally don’t have four or five streets all crashing into one intersection at cockeyed angles. American maps generally don’t list alleys the size of two car driveways as destinations. Maybe it’s just a lack of subtlety on our part; I wouldn’t want to speculate. But finally I felt I had interrogated the map’s graphic particulars long enough to stake my claim to a course of action. I hefted my debris two blocks up the main drag. The street names being europeanly obscure, of course, I then ventured upon one rue that seemed to be the appropriate place to make a left-hand turn. Eureka! Not only did I see the hotel but also just above my head was a friendly white sign shaped like an arrow pointing my direction and stating quite clearly, “Institut International de la Marionnette”. Voilà, two birds with one stone. Maybe it wasn’t “one of those days” after all.
As I waited for the maids to finish with my room I realized that it was nearly 3 o’clock and that I should get myself out into the town to locate the institute. This would be the only day I would have to observe any of the student presentations. I left the hotel casually without bringing my camera or my little digital audio recorder. I assumed that whatever would be happening wouldn’t occur until the evening. I stepped out onto the street again and soon saw another reassuring sign pointing the way for me. Yet as I tried to follow it I wandered around for several blocks seeing nothing that resembled an institute for puppets. At last I admitted defeat and retraced my steps back to that sign. Aha! European arrows point at things slightly differently than American ones. Once I adjusted my route accordingly I marched up the street two blocks and then saw another sign pointing right. I turned. No doubt I’d found it. Before me stood a large golden figure of a marionnettiste buried in the side of a wall.
(Next section: A Procession of Puppeteers)
16 / 6 /2020
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
And so I stepped onto the České dráhy train bound first for Berlin then to Köln (Cologne) then to Paris. I would arrive back around 8 in the evening. At least that was the plan. We arrived at Děčín, the last Czech station before Germany, where we were informed that everyone had to exit the train. Deutsche Bahn, the German railways, had decided to go on strike. But only for two hours. Strange. How nice of them to ask for more money to show they weren’t being appreciated enough. I mean I personally appreciated the gesture. As I’m sure the rest of Germany did too as all trains were sent into a tizzy of lines and confusion. I tried to figure out which way to go next. Two hours changed everything. Yes eventually the next train from Prague to Berlin came by two hours later. But now none of my connection would work at all. And when I did arrive in Berlin I was delayed again. Another hour. So whither Byrne? A train to Dusseldorf then another to Karlsruhe through Strasbourg, France, a TGV into Paris. which allowed me to walk through the Carons door about 11:45 that night after a metro and bus ride through the dark streets. But at least I had made it back. I came very close to missing that last Strasbourg train, which would have delayed me until the next day.
The next day it was time to visit Paris. Something had happened while I was gone. Paris was in the middle of the most serious popular revolt since May of 1968. People wearing yellow safety vests, les gilets jaunes, were protesting Emmanuel Macron’s fuel taxation policies. But it wasn’t just that. This cauldron had been boiling for some time. I had actually seen Macron back in Charleville-Mézières about a week and a half before I left. Well I didn’t see his face, but from above him in the International Institute of Puppetry I did see his hands on the other side of the limousine waving at folks on the street. But I also remembered something from that day as well. There were gilets jaunes in Charleville too. They were just beginning their protest. But the gendarmes had shoved them off out of the way before Macron entered his car. Now Paris was erupting, particularly on the weekends, with anger from all across the political spectrum from far right to far left, with many apolitical workers in between. I was curious as to what I would find when I returned to Paris.
And so the next day I wandered out to find out what Paris looked like. I had spoken with the Carons’ house guest Ugo Jude who had given me the idea that gilets jaunes had moved to the fringes of the city during the weekdays. So I didn’t expect much in the way of activity. Nevertheless I decided to venture out. I arrived near the Opera and decided to walk towards the Champs-Elysées. I began to noticed a few windows with cracked glass every now and then. Then I would see a large piece of plywood in another window. I passed Galeries Lafayette, the most extensive and chic department store in Paris. Next door was Printemps, another huge classic French department store. And at first I was struck by their elaborate Christmas windows because they featured puppet automata. But then I looked again and noticed that instead of glass their windows were huge sheets of plexiglass, with glue in the middle holding them together. And I could guess why. A pizza restaurant had broken glass. Clothing stores had been attacked. Every bank from there to the Champs-Elysées was boarded up completely. The police and military presence was everywhere and toting serious ordnance. They were ready for whatever came next.
Eventually I arrived at the Champs-Elysées. I slowly made my way up the grand boulevard. More boarded windows. Stores with freshly glazed glass. And people were out shopping for Noël. In fact if you didn’t know better you would swear it was a normal day. Only the gendarmes with their guns, the broken windows and the darkened skies made it feel different. I didn’t go all the way up to the Arc de Triomphe. I felt I knew what it would look like. The weekends had already become ritualized protests. But most people were talking under there breath about a Sixth Republic. Would this movement overturn Macron’s globalist technocratic agenda? Winter was coming and it was hard to say. People don’t like to protest during the holiday season. But no matter what, this was yet another sign of Europe’s fraying political situation.
The next day I had an appointment to meet Aurelia Ivan again this time for our official interview for Gravity From Above. My friend and translator Julien Caron was unable to come because he had acquired the local Europe illness which had been circulating in Germany and the Czech republic as well. I had felt a sting in the back of my throat, but my immunities must have been strengthened by the four various colds and fevers I had picked up on my last trip. Aurelia wanted to meet at the cafe of the La Halle Saint-Pierre, a museum dedicated to exhibitions of art brut (outsider art). The museum was located between the seedy Pigalle district and the gleaming white domes of Sacré-Cœur, and that seemed just right.
In spite of not having a translator we had a warm meeting and a very good interview. Aurelia, originally from Romania, had been living in Paris ever since she graduated from ESNAM in Charleville in 2005. I had kept an eye on some of her projects over the years. She has also been teaching courses of practical puppetry at the Sorbonne. Aurelia is obviously a woman with many ideas. We discussed the direction of her work as well as her thoughts about the nature of puppetry. At one point she had commissioned an android to be made for a show where she asked essentially what we are doing to ourselves. She certainly understands the tactility of puppetry, charmingly refusing to type out the name of her shows on my laptop, which I had brought with my translated questions. She did that not to reject technology, she certainly uses computers. But to maintain her contact with the physical world. And she definitely understands, as so many puppeteers do, that we are losing out connections to the material objects of this world. After I had finished asking her thoughts we talked a little longer. At one point she looked at me and then realized that I had already formulated answers to many of the questions that I had posed. She smiled broadly. I admitted that I didn’t simply want to say it myself. I wanted puppeteers to say what I knew they already felt for themselves.
Yeah I know what I think. We are heading into dangerous times. And not for the usual political reasons. It’s because we are living in the abstractions of technology and our screens. And if we don’t turn back to the real world… reality will come for us.
At last it was time to say farewell to Aurelia, to the Carons, to Paris, to Western Europe, and to travel by plane to Georgia. It would require the usual 9 hour wait at the Warsaw Airport so that I could arrive in Tbilisi at 5:30 in the morning. I spent that time writing. Reflecting. This journey to Europe had been a diet of many potent memories. But now all bets were off. I really had no idea what to expect next. What would happen when I arrived in Georgia… to stay?
December 30th 2018
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It occurred to me as I was arriving by train at the Aigle Gare looking for the bus up to Huémoz Switzerland that it was pretty much exactly 40 years since I first arrived at this same spot to find this remarkable Christian institution called L’Abri (the Shelter). During the current two weeks I would be here I would certainly be crossing the threshold of that anniversary. Yet I couldn’t check it exactly since my journals were buried in a storage unit back in Alaska. And just as certainly the Rhone Valley did not look the same on this day as it did back in 1978 when I first set eyes on Suisse, being so mesmerized by the effect of the bus ride ascending endlessly, it seemed, up to arrive at what was then an unknown future. The weather now was unusually hazy on this warm mid-October day obscuring both the valley and the great line of mountains usually dominating it. Curiously enough that first journey was also the last time I bought a one way ticket to Europe and did not have any clue about what I would find when I got there. Ever since I have always had well planned trips with distinct return dates to return to my American life. But that time, like this, I was stepping into the unknown. And that journey was ultimately responsible for this one in dozens of ways.
Since I had last visited about a year ago in 2017 I didn’t have any specific set of emotions to bring to my own table this time. Last year I was coming off of an emotional time, having just moved all of my belongings into Storage Unit 3. Last year I had pains in my heels from recurring bursitis that dogged me through most of my Western European trek last year. Last year felt like an act of assertion that I had much more to do in life. But this time we would see.
I arrived on a late Sunday afternoon. No one official seemed to be around. But I had a fairly good idea that I would be staying in Chalet Les Mélèzes again. A student, a dancer as it turned out, named Heather showed me the way. Eventually Steve Bullock found me and everything was confirmed. I was sleeping in exactly the same bed as last time. And Sunday dinner was at 7pm down at Chesalet. Per-Ole and Amelia were preparing the meal and I was introduced to more students. I was particularly glad to run into L’Abri’s tech worker, the Dutchman Folkert, who liked to give long rambling retellings of famous books. (Later in the week he would unspool half of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.) Word got around that I was the ‘puppet man’ and was introduced to Julie a puppeteer who had brought her own carved Czech style marionette named Peter, who was treated as a celebrity by Per-Ole and Amelia’s young children. P-O read Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s Nightingale after the meal. It was as if I never left.
I was due to give two lectures while I was there. As I told students the subject of the first, Texture, I tended to get inquisitively puzzled looks. What would I say about that? What would anyone say about texture? And in fact that was exactly the reason for my choice. Last year while visiting the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières I gave a presentation on Gravity From Above and the work achieved so far. I contended that puppetry was an antidote to much of the contemporary sterility in the design and ambience of the age. And I particularly contrasted the texture and tactility of the puppet with the flatness of the screen. That caught the attention of a few of the folks there. I had assumed that puppeteers were well aware of the contrast between the smooth modern surfaces and the rougher features of the puppet. But in reality not much thought had gone into it. As I searched the archives of the Institute I found very little on the subject. Maybe a book on fashion. Then as I extended my search I discovered very little indeed had been written on the subject at all. And as I pondered it I realized that the the transition from a deeply textured world to the flat junky plastic textures surrounding us at every step had largely been accompanied by no fanfare whatsoever. No one realized what they were getting rid of when they moved from, say, natural fibers to synthetic or from wood to vinyl siding. And so I had decided to dig a bit more deeply into the fallow ground. The lecture went well sparking several thoughtful comments that helped me look in new directions.
But my second and related lecture on the Need for Beauty was even more provocative. As I assumed it would be. Especially the hot and touchy subject of human beauty. It was my contention that we had created an increasingly ugly world with art, commerce and philosophical underpinnings all joining in. And the worst culprit of all being kitsch, all of that cute cuddling tacky shite that seems to infest our lives at every turn from household decorations to geekdom. I quoted Andrei Tarkovsky concerning beauty in art, Jordan Peterson on how true beauty is actually frightening. And then there was this quote from Roger Scruton’s book Beauty – A Very Short Introduction : “Simply put, kitsch is not, in the first instance, an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith. Kitsch begins in doctrine and ideology and spreads from there to infect the entire world of culture.” Indeed I think the hottest part of the talk is when I mentioned that there must be a connection between appearances and the interiors. I think many people have been so conditioned to say that everyone is equal that to point out the physical beauty of a person was tantamount to saying that such obvious disparities could only be a form of bigotry. No one said as much, but the thought hung in the air. Per-Ole, an artist himself, made an astute observation that beauty just might be found in the truth behind those appearances. And later as P-O and I discussed it we both agreed that it was a thorny and needed subject for discussion.
I made the rounds meeting old friends Richard and Karen, Gian (A friend for 40 years!), Greg and Lisby, Steve Bullock whom I had met once before. Katrina and Aaron were new workers. Katrina I had met before, since she was Gian’s granddaughter, and was glad to spend more time getting to know her better. Her husband Aaron was a welcome addition to the mix as well. Marnie from New Zealand was also a new worker lending a bit of Kiwi pizazz to the affair.
I was impressed by the students. I was a little curious about how the polarizations of modern life would be reflected by them. And fortunately the answer was very little. They seemed largely open to discussion and only a couple of times did I hear any vaguely political or partisan language. And even then not with the kind of vehemence one finds in other settings. Though I suspect if one scratched the itch too much it might bleed. But most of the current crop of students I think had been affected less by the rhetoric of the times than by the desire to transcend it. I had good conversations with Paul, a Brit with Ghanian roots, Kate, a Dutch/American cellist, Melody from Germany, Tasha from Australia Dukjoo from Korea and especially Folkert. It was also excellent to come across another writer with similar interests in Lee Pryor, currently a ‘helper’ at L’Abri. And I had a heart to heart talk with Per-Ole before it was time to leave.
I did take my favorite cogwheel train ride from Bex to Gryon with Paul and Kate. Then ambled along in fine discursive form until we arrived in Villars where we sat outdoors at a patisserie sipping tea and eating opulent desserts. And I joined most of L’Abri on an outing up to Bretaye at 1,806 m (5925 ft) by another cogwheel train, where we all shared a simple picnic by a small glacial lake on the last nearly summery day of the season. Snows descended on the higher elevations of the Grand Muveran and the rest of the Alps the next day. Eventually it was American Halloween, which was celebrated in the casual guess-what-I-am style common in many US colleges. Jack-O’Lanterns were carved. We even had two young trick-or-treaters with bags coming through the students quarters. And I had a chance to show a few short European puppet films for the curious.
Eventually it was time to drift down to Aigle on the 9:07 bus and as I waited a few souls saw me off in fine L’Abri style. And as I rode the sharp winding road down to the Rhone Valley floor I pondered upon this visit. It was a memorial of sorts to my many treks back to this place over the years. And it was the first trip to Huémoz that I took knowing that my home was not ‘back there’ somewhere but ahead of me. The next stop was back in Charleville-Mézières in France where I had been granted a month long residency. But first I would have to sling shot my way through Paris briefly again.
More to come.
The Centenaire of the Armistice of 1918
And hey! While finances are not a problem. I’ve been looking more seriously at the cost of the few film rights I’ll need for the film. Let’s put it this way. Every financial gift will help. I still don’t know the status of my support from the International Institute of Puppetry. But I suspect I should have made the budget higher than I did. Also I have a medical bill that has managed to surprise me and follow me. Again PayPal is a great way to send me contributions. And thanks to the gift (you know who you are) that recently came through as I’ve been traveling. It really helps.
I had been watching Erisioni practice their singing and dancing for nearly two months, taking photos, shooting video, when Otari Bluashvili, the company manager, invited me to travel with them on a short tour into the nearby rolling mountains to watch them perform a partial show at a retreat center called Bioli. This would be a chance to see them in full costume, which thus far I had not had a chance to witness. The date, March 24th, the last weekend of my three month sojourn in Georgia, it would be a good final event to end my stay in Tbilisi.
I arrived in the early afternoon at the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue. Dancers, singers and musicians were milling around. There was good natured vibe to the milling crowd. But not everyone was there. Several dancers were not needed because the performance area was not that large and the show only half as long. A car had arrived and the performers were taking the traditional Georgian garments and carefully placing them in it, especially the women’s dresses. As I looked around I noted Irakli the dancer and Irakli the garmoni (Georgian accordion) player, Toko and Lasha, a couple of the very high voiced tenors, the dancers Nina, Gvantsa, Neolina and Mari were there. Also present was Levan the male choreographer, Eka the women’s choreographer, Shermandi the choirmaster, Otar the manager and Jemal the Chief Conductor, who was really the head of the organization, whom I remembered from the original Georgian Legend DVD, where I first learned of Erisioni.
Eventually a massive white modern bus pulled up and we entered, all forty or so folks. Several dancers and musicians had to stay back since it was a small show, otherwise the number would be over fifty. I sat near the front and looked back on the troupe, took a few photos and we drove up into the rolling mountains south of Tbilisi to Bioli a ‘Medical Wellness Resort’. The mood on the bus was like a high school field trip. They hadn’t done a show for a while so it was a chance to get out into the world again. The journey covered about 15 kilometers and took about a half an hour, all up hill, as we ascended from Tbilisi’s 450 to 760 meters (1,500-,2,500 ft) to Bioli’s 1,200 meters (3,930 ft). At last the sign for Bioli emerged along the road and we drove down their dirt road to a rather futurist looking set of structures.
The Erisioni folk seemed to know where they were going so I tagged along. The women were give a large golf cart vehicle to travel in. I entered the domed main building. Evidently tonight’s performance was to be punctuation for a business awards ceremony of some sort that I never did fully comprehend. But I wasn’t there for the proceedings, except as it pertained to the Erisioni troupe. Before changing into their costumes they practiced briefly in order to ascertain their ability to move. The performance space was actually small considering the expansiveness of the dances. Sophiko Khachidze and Tornike Gelashvili danced gracefully in their street clothes. Others moved around them. It was tight but it would work.
I then followed the performers into the back dressing rooms, which of course were far too small for so many people. But no one was complaining. Every dancer, singer and musician had traditional clothes. This was the first time I had actually seen them wearing them. The clothes were expensive and needed to be protected from excessive wear. So rehearsals were always done in their black dance garments. But now for the first time I was seeing the Georgian finery I had seen in videos and photos. Most of the men wore variations on the chokha, the distinctive coat with cartridge sleeves lined across the front. These now mostly carried ornamental cylinders. Male dancers however usually had several various regional costumes to change into during the course of the evening. The women’s dresses were even more elaborate, often featuring regal caps and flowing veils. They too changed during the evening to represent the regions of Georgia. All in all quite the sartorial spectacle.
Another interesting aspect was the makeup applied by the women to emphasize their eyes, heavy eyelashes and strong cosmetics. This of course was to communicate across the distance from stage to audience under hot lights. And when they did this they became almost unrecognizable transforming into ikons of Georgian culture, as did the men in their way, shaggy wool hats, swords, special boots for jumping on their toes, etc. Fascinating to observe. Before the performance we ate some lobiani, a flat bread filled with beans, a light snack for energy but certainly not a full meal. But soon it was time.
They went through a couple of songs then paused for presentations and awards. This continued through out the evening. Their were several professional photographers and videographers there. I left them to capture video of the show. They were much more aggressive than I. And besides I was interested in something else. I care more about the personalities and their process to become these incredible dancers and singers. And so I turned my camera mostly on the backstage between numbers, the quick changes the tired bodies and the characters of many people who were, even without language becoming friends. All the time I couldn’t help but feel honored to be with them as one of the crew, not merely as this guy from the outside, from another country.
When the entertainment was over I looked down the undulating hills to lights of Tbilisi glowing from a distance. We drove back in the dark, Somewhere in the back a few singers were singing a song together. And everything was good.
In two days on Monday I went into the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue to say farewell. I wasn’t sure if I would film or not. But I did. There were Turks there who wanted to see them for a tour. So I had a chance to watch the full performance one more time. This may have been the best show I had seen yet. And I was much more able to follow their movements with my camera. Although I am still kicking myself, because although I was able to follow the sword dance perfectly, and thought the footage would be my best. I then looked at the camera, I had forgotten to press record. I shook it off and captured the finale. (Which can be seen here.)
At the end, before everyone left, I asked Otari to allow me to say farewell to the troupe. He spoke and more than fifty pairs of eyes looked at me. And I realized how meaningful this experience had been and how in so many ways I had become close to these musicians, singers and dancers who put so much into their art. I tried to speak but choked up. And they loved that! They burst into applause. I tried to speak again and it proved quite difficult. And again they cheered and clapped loudly. Otar at one moment leaned over to me and said “They think you are one of us.” It was because I had shown deeper emotion. Finally I told them how much it meant to spend time with them and that I was actually going to be moving to Tbilisi within a year. And they applauded rhythmically for some time. I was overcome with joy.
Before leaving I managed to get a few photos of all of us together. And then as they left I received many kisses on the cheeks and not only from the girls. I had gone past being a stranger and was warmly embraced in a farewell gesture that I have never experienced before. I felt privileged to spend time with this incredible collection of musical artists. When they put on their costumes they became mythic representations of their culture. But you know I think I prefer watching them in rehearsals because then I see Tornike Akhalaia spinning like a top and landing on his knees and springing back, Lika Tsipuria practicing her delicate turns over and over and Lika Chikhelidze dancing like a swan, Shota Gongadze effortlessly cool as he struts out to dance and play the drum, the male singers shaking the walls with the force of their sound, choreographer Levan Kublashvili suddenly breaking into a dance just because the music strikes him. I am impressed to see them practice because I see the humans behind the mythic symbols of Georgia and I am amazed to be counted as a friend.
But I was hardly finished with my farewells to my friends in Georgia. I will finish this story next time.
So I took the Ouibus to Lyon. Buses are the cheapest way to travel in France, though I much prefer the train. But in the interest of economy I booked with an official SNCF spin off called Ouibus (Yes-Bus). Entering or leaving a big French city like Paris or Lyon is a start stop affair that continues for several kilometers before or after the actual city. Don’t plan on getting anything done during this period. And I do mean simple things like using the bus’ toilet. I nearly cracked my skull open as we entered Lyon on the highway to the beginnings of the start stop scenario. But I was greeted by the friendly face of Paulette Caron who would be my host for five days in a small apartment not too far from the old town and the Guignol theatre where Paulette performs.
Now interestingly the fact that Paulette lives in Lyon now and performs with Compagnie Coulisses at the Théâtre Le Guignol De Lyon is indirectly related to our last visit to Lyon and the help she gave me as a translator for my interviews for Gravity From Above. So now that she is performing for a small contemporary troupe of guignolistes in Lyon has something to do with our friendship, which goes back to my 2012 journey.
But before what I could see what she was doing I was asked to help document a more traditional Guignol show by a related troupe, who works out of the same théâtre, Compagnie MA (pronounced like the name Emma). And so the second day I was there I went down to the theatre to take photos and shoot footage backstage as the show was happening. Which involved moving like a dancer to stay out of the way. But they trusted me to do it so I did. Now as the show continued I noticed something different. The middle school aged kids in the audience weren’t reacting the way French kids normally do. No shouting, no talking back to Guignol. Only one outbreak of laughter. To me the show seemed ridiculously funny at times. And yet…
But it turns out that they were German students on a field trip to understand French culture. And the only time they laughed was when one of the puppets said ‘Ja wohl!’ once. Nevertheless they were very appreciative at the end and eagerly went backstage, a Lyon Guignol tradition, to look at the puppets.
Then I was allowed to watch Compagnie Coulisses practice their show Monsieur Choufleuri, an Offenbach Operetta farce done with both live actors and and opera singers. The opera singers weren’t their for the rehearsals. There is a pecking order here and puppeteers aren’t on top. But the puppets were mirroring the opera singers and so could practice without them. I would watch a full show the next day.
While I was staying at Paulette’s apartment I soon discovered it was like waiting at a bus stop with people getting off and on visiting often. I stayed in the living room on a couch that opened up and I claim about a meter’s worth of space for myself. The view from that room was antique cliff face and ancient stairs going to who knows where. The view from toilette was one of the nest I’ve ever had. Though predictably the actual mechanics of throne was as funky as I’ve ever encountered in France. My theory, the French care about food on the way in but don’t make a big deal about it on the way out. We Americans are just the opposite.
While there I spent more time enjoying the company Paulette’s friend Simon. Then there was Alexandre-David, who’s occupation remains a mystery. Then came the girl they kept calling Mary, but who was clearly Marie. She came as I was sitting alone writing in the living room. I heard the door opened. And I knew that she was due to arrive. Paulette said that I would like her. And indeed I did, from nearly the first moment when I emerged from the living room we started a conversation by turns and funny and meaningful, which is decidedly not finished. Then there were the people at the theatre, Paulette and Simon’s family members. And one things struck me again was how physical the French were. Than touching each other and talking was as natural as breathing. And it was curious to me that while there was the presence of the usual technological suspects, at least among these people you rarely saw it interfere with real life. (And if you are one of those folks who say things like “But what is real life?” you probably don’t have one.)
I finally got to watch the entire Monsieur Choufleuri complete with opera singers. I wasn’t exactly sure how I would take the light operetta. But surprisingly I was thoroughly engaged. And somehow transported back to the 19th Century when this was a real night’s entertainment for the bourgeois. The music was far catchier than I had expected it to be. Offenbach is known mostly for the Can-Can in Gaiety Parisienne. And so except for one problem it was an immensely enjoyable evening.
And that one thing was this: Somewhere, most likely back on Paris Metro on a stainless steel pole that I was forced to hold for far too long, I had contracted a bug. It’s first manifestation was as a very occasional dry cough. But by the night of Monsieur Choufleuri, it had become a full blown fever. So weak was I by the time the play was over that I simply begged out of the post show gathering and walked home. I trudged up the stairs. My joints ached. My head throbbed. I was bone tired. And when I arrived near the top of the dark twisty stairway I discovered that the key was not not under the mat. But I was too drained to walk back. To sick to even concentrate on typing Paulette a message on my dumbphone. And so I sat there for 15 minutes before Alexandre-David and a friend arrived to let me in. I would have stayed there hours if needed.
The night was feverish and then sweaty. But curiously the next morning Marie, who knew that I was ill, chose to kiss me on the cheeks rather than worry about contracting the grippe. And I thought the French are so entwined with each other that no wonder so many died in the Black Death. Seriously though I was moved by that.
I spent the day exhausted and slept. I didn’t eat anything until around 6pm and the it was just a couple of eggs. I did trudge off in the morning briefly because I needed to go the bank and also get plenty of liquids. And cold peach tea was the thing my body was most grateful for. Looking back I think it had something to do with the loss of electrolytes in my system. But whatever it was, nothing has ever tasted as good as cold bottled peach tea did.
Eventually it was time to leave. I enjoyed my stay in Lyon. And as always it was deeply meaningful to spend time with my good friend Paulette Caron again. And to make new friends through her. Even with a fever. (Sadly the photos I took of these new friends were accidentally erased.)
I felt well enough to travel to Switzerland and so I left early in the morning towards the Swiss phase of my journey.
Written on board La Superba in the Mediterranean on the way to Palermo.
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
Besides revisiting Nicolas Géal I also had made a friend in Dimitri Jageneau along with his mother Biserka at Théâtre Royal du Peruchet and so I decided to take a bus out to see them as they performed a play based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child from The Jungle Book.
So I say I decided to take a bus. But finding out how to get there was really a work of serious deduction. Brussels’ bus and tram lines have baffled me before and in both of my trips out to Peruchet this time I was completely stymied. I wasn’t taking the method I had last year, because I couldn’t find a record of how I did it looking over my online records. The problem the first day was that the train for the second part of the trip was not due for 45 minutes after I arrived. And that spoiled my attempt to get there early. It also occurred to me that I might need another ticket for the train, that the one ticket for all might not include the train lines. (This is the problem with Google directions.) Fortunately no one asked nor were they likely to. So having figured out a way to make things work the first day you’d think I’d breeze through it again. Except for one big problem. It was November 1st, All Saints Day, or All Hallows, a date that means very little in America, (but the night before it does!) but in de-Christianized Europe it still survives as a major break on the calendar, much like Ascension Day. And I have been caught by this one before. And so the bus and train schedules were radically different from the day before. Eventually, with a great deal of exasperation, I managed to arrive in good enough time on both days, having allowed myself the grace to leave earlier than I needed for just this reason. Planned disarray?
Dimitri Jageneau feels like an old friend already. He has helped me with my crowdfunding and has taken me out in Brussels in early 2016 to a pub with puppets hanging from wall to wall. I enjoyed the time I spent here last year. So when we met it seems that we simply resumed our discussions about puppetry, in which I am very much the student still. He explained that theatre Peruchet is one of the few children’s puppet theatres still featuring marionettes, as opposed to glove/hand puppets. And they occupy a unique situation within the puppetry world, one he is keen to keep. But the problem is one of getting the help. His mother Biserka is his number one puppeteer, and she is getting older. Yet given the income of the theatre it is hard to train another puppeteer to take over the slot. He had a few younger people helping him, including Fernando and Velina. But neither were really puppeteers in waiting and they worked the door. Yet I did have good discussions with them.
I had a fascinating experience at one point I decided to take a few photos of their fantastic puppet museum again. This time I decided to leave the lights off and capture the puppets in the shadows. And this changed everything. I wished I could do that in every warehouse or museum featuring puppets. Dimitri kept coming in and asking if I needed light. But I didn’t. The way the darkness enveloped the puppets gave them even more of a sense of life than normal, which in turn gives me more ideas for possible ways of presenting puppets.
Eventually it was time for the show. Biserka came out to greet the children and to introduce the show which was going to explain once and for all how the elephant got his trunk. The marionettes were all flat made out of board, except for the elephant who seemed like a plush toy fallen on hard times. The story takes place on the “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River.” And all manner of animals come round to discuss the insatiable curiosity of the manic little elephant. Finally shortly before the intermission the elephant child is caught in a struggle between the crocodile and the python when the curtain comes down. I’ve noticed in Belgium it is standard to have an intermission for selling refreshments and showing of a museum in even a short puppet show. Following the break Biserka rings the bell and then has a bit of a raffle and finally introduces part two for les enfants. And naturally, voila the elephant’s nose is now the long lovable hose we now know. Yet the young elephant doesn’t believe it looks oaky. The Peruchet puppet shows are certainly there to teach the children little lessons. And the Belgian children certainly like it. These shows have some give and take with the children, including singing songs mid-performance, but the Belgian style does not push the kids over the edge as the Parisian Guignol shows do. Though there is plenty of physical action.
When the children left the second show I showed Dimitri, Biserka and the others a sample of my trailer for Gravity From Above. They laughed when they saw themselves and were glad that it looked like I would be getting financial assistance from the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières. A visit to Peruchet in Belgium is to visit friends in puppetry. When in Belgium go find them and enjoy the show for yourself.
PS. Now we’ve had a crashed hard drive! Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But THAT is a completely different story
Heartfelt farewells at the temporary bus stop at Huémoz, Bellevue in Switzerland
(As in my 2012 trek this essay is one that is not specifically germane to Gravity From Above. If you wish to skip it you will do no harm to the overall flow of my exploration into European puppetry. Nevertheless you might find it interesting.)
The journey from Lyon to Switzerland proved to be a lot more difficult than I had originally intended. It turned out that the tracks from Chamonix to Martigny had been buried by an avalanche, a detail I was not apprised of until I closed in on Chamonix while riding a cogwheel train up the valley. Thanks to the fine French railway system I was interminably delayed at various stops far longer than expected. My desperation to escape France (really the SNCF) and my relief at finally crossing the border to the land of dependable train service were equal in measure. Instead of arriving at my destination in the late afternoon, I found myself on the last bus of the day riding from Aigle to Huémoz around 11:00 at night with a load of noisy (Who knew?) local Swiss students. Getting off the bus and being confused by new road construction I eventually found my way up to Chalet Bellevue and was greeted warmly by a L’Abri helper named Hillary and was shown to my apartment in Chalet Les Mélèzes.
The L’Abri Fellowship Institute is a place I have visited ever since my original time as a student in, what now seems like ancient history, 1978. This was now my eighth visit. I come here to visit old friends, to meet new students and I often find myself with new friends. At least ten L’Abri students have found their way up to Alaska to spend time with me in Haines. I also come to give lectures. This time my topics were to include Social Media and Horizontal Propaganda, Conceptual Humanity, Georgian Music and Dance, and A brief History of Puppetry. (Aha there is a puppet connection!) I would be staying three weeks. With my mother’s passing last year I felt that needed to come back to this place which has had such an impact upon my life and to reflect on things.
And then there was the perennial question of what the students were up to.
L’Abri is an unusual place. Since 1955 it has been a refuge of sorts, for people needing to ask questions and work through ideas. L’Abri is Christian, but does not force its students to convert, nor even pressure them in such ways. Certainly many folks who have not been Christian at all, or had fairly heterodox concepts, have come through, as well as those understandably confused by today’s propagandistic religions and anti-religions. And one thing I look for when I come is the general mood of the students, which often mirrors the assumptions of the time.
And this time was no exception. One interesting point was that there were a couple of students who did not fit the usual graduate/post-graduate age. Of the approximately 30 students who were coming and going there was a healthy mix of ages ranging from 18 years old, the majority in their 20s, several in their 30s and a couple of guys in their 60s. And this generated a few interesting discussions about the difference between the generations. And indeed the difference is notable. And it forced me to consider the difference time makes. I am old enough to have originally come through here in the late 1970s. And over the years I have dropped in at a variety of times. In the 70s it seemed like a time you could seriously ask questions, without worrying about offending someone. During my one visit in the late 80s the students seemed as lackluster as that decade. In the early 90s things seemed to pick up. The students reflected the cynicism of that period, but were challenging, less interested in being pleasing. In 2005 the students still seemed a bit shell-shocked from the big event in 2001, yet they seemed eager to wrestle with ideas. This now was finally the Facebook/Smartphone generation. And that created a new mood entirely.
On one side I could characterize this period as the cuddling generation. It seemed that there were often students lounging around, snuggling on a couch somewhere. If I were to say anything I’d say the younger students were unfailingly nice. But I mentioned that to one student and then he corrected me. ‘Passive.’ He said. Then I replied “Nice wasn’t meant as a compliment.’ Many of the students were there for various emotional reasons, as has often been the case at L’Abri. And one got the feeling that Western society’s recent bout of over-sensitivity was also being reflected here. I felt the necessity of tip-toeing around certain issues more than usual. The question “Why did you come to L’Abri?” seemed more freighted than usual with danger than at anytime in the past. What used to be the introduction to an excellent conversation had now become more something you just talked about with your tutor, or your good friends.
Of course, these are generalizations. Several students did indeed come explore intellectual, creative or philosophical issues. A couple of girls just came because they could, with no pressing problems. And then there were the older and more experienced members of the cast who kept the conversations from dropping too much into self-conscious postmodernism. Joe, 61 years of age, often asked some of the questions that led to the most rewarding discussions. John, in his 30s, who’d recently come in from relief work in Lebanon brought some much needed experience of current events to the proceedings. Katie, who had worked in the political realm in London, raised some pertinent and well thought out questions. Kristen seemed to float around like a humorous butterfly, yet actually harbored many deeper thoughts, which came out whenever she spied an open moment at the meal discussions.
And there were many others: Sheila proved to be quite the growing artist. Hillary turned out to be a serious singer. Natalie from England honed in on many spiritual matters. James ,who I believe is 18, found a strange violet 80s style ski-suit he named Jumpy, which almost seemed to create an alter ego, and yet beneath the tweaked-out humor he also had very serious thoughts and questions on his mind as well. Coby, also 18, who probably has been getting comparisons to Clark Kent for several years now, and seemed to do enough exercises to match the image, was also revealed to have much on mind, as were most of the students. And probably the most memorable soul, and I would probably not be alone in this, was a tall Dutchman named Folkert, who spoke in an extremely matter-of-fact Dutch mode, elaborately retold books he read by C.S. Lewis or Kipling and worked on L’Abri’s computers, aging equipment to be sure. He shared the basement apartment of Chalet Les Mélèzes with me. And was ‘companionable’ (he’ll get the reference).
Besides the changes in the mood of the students, there were many other changes as well. Changes in leadership, new workers, subtle indicators of a shift in time. And I had good conversations all round with workers past and present. There were intellectual discussions with Greg Laughery who had now retired. Good fellowship with Richard Bradford. A pleasant evening with Giandy and Karen Sandri’s family, who had all seemed to have discovered they had musical talent. I watched a bit of rugby with Prisca. Cole and Adam the sons of Dave and Anna tied each to trees on clear days. And I actually had the chance, since the equipment was with me, to film a couple of interviews with Gian (John) Sandri about the ideas he’s been working on since well before I first met him in 1978.
On the night before I left I stood between Chalets Bellevue and Mélèzes with P.O. (Per Ole, but these English speakers just can’t pronounce Danish right.) as wet pellets of snow came down upon us. We talked about art, about creating works in the spirit of being a servant, as Tarkovsky had said, about this new generation and the future of such a place. It was truly the kind of moment I come to this little village in the Alps for. A place where honest dialogue and questioning is still permitted.
The next day I took part in a growing tradition that had seemed to take on more new dimensions than I had remembered at anytime. Maybe it’s just the way the Swiss had mutated the road, and the strange temporary metal stairway they had put there, which both congested the passageway and at the same time had made the experience of departure more of ritual. Many have been the times I left L’Abri without as much as a soul noting me waiting for the bus to take me back down the hill. I remember good friend Vanessa waiting with me in 2005. But now people seemed to march to this central point of concentration at the new ‘bus stop’ a couple of times a week. Several students and workers came down to see me off when it was my turn. Kristen was leaving as well and so ten to 15 folks crowded on the freshly snow covered scaffolding. And it was an excellent ritual to receive. (Do you hear that Alaskans? We Alaskans tend to be wonderful at hellos, and severely deficient at farewells.)
L’Abri remains important to the many who still come. The times are indeed changing and new challenges must be faced.
(Apologies for all of the names not mentioned.)
From a train nearing Berlin
Arriving in Lyon off of a six hour bus ride from Paris was a new experience for me. I am used to trains. But I haven’t spent much time on European buses before. They do not ooze seediness like Greyhounds do back in the old USA. Rather they are quiet efficient, rides. Uneventful, though the mandatory roadside stop halfway certainly reminded me of an American rest stop, complete with fast food and restrooms. But that parking lot was so much cleaner. But enough about European bus travel, which will remain a cheaper oddity for me, it was time now to look for Guignol in the city of his birth, Lyon.
I was accompanied again by friend and French language translator Paulette Caron. After settling into the hotel we had to scurry uphill on the a special train to go find Daniel Streble, whom Pascal Pruvost back in Paris had recommended highly, as did the folks at the Gadagne museum. Streble worked out of small theatre called Guignol Un Gone de Lyon. This was to be a children’s show and yet it was more. Streble turned out to be a voluble man with reams of data to unspool regrading this very French, nay practically the soul of Lyon, vrais lyonnais, character. We watched the show – La Fille Guignol a Disparu (Guignol’s daughter is lost). It was an enjoyable lark seeking to find and free Guignol’s daughter. Near the end the evil man was rather brutally beaten by our rascally hero. In fine French style the children present entered into the proceedings with many vocalizations and cheers.
After the show Daniel Streble graciously showed us many original handwritten Guignol plays dating from as far back as the early 19th Centuryincluding versions of Romeo and Juliet and Faust. These were truly museum pieces that were still living. Streble even accidentally torn one of the pages. But his position was that these artifacts were still alive, not ready to be embalmed in a museum. And one had the feeling that for Streble that they would never be ready for a pleasant burial. Streble then spoke with enthusiasm and eloquence about the meaning of Guignol as a character, a presence in Lyon. For him turning Guignol into a universal French character was impossible, Guignol was first and always a representative of the culture of Lyon.
I discovered Lyon for the first time back in 2012 when I came searching for more information about Guignol. I roamed the old town and discovered hidden traboules (dark passageways connecting the old buildings to protect the silk produced here from the elements). Paulette had been here before but never entered one, so she was properly introduced to the dark labyrynths. We also had a few truly representative French meals, which always seemed to include the tastiest imaginable versions of meats Americans usually did not even touch, cow lips, tripe, kidneys, etc. There was also the possibility of going to a French performance one evening, but when we found out that it featured only nude actors, even Franco-American Paulette had to bow out of that one.
But there was indeed more Guignolism to uncover. On the second day we had an appointment with Clair Deglise the new Directrice of the Musée Gadagne. We did wonder if she would be amenable to the project. We had received questions from her office about whether we had insurance or not before filming anything at the museum. Evidently someone thought this was a big production. The museum was winding up an exhibition entitled Guignol 14-18 Mobiliser, survivre (Guignol 1914-1918 Mobilize for World War I and survive). It was a fascinating exhibition featuring much material on the use of Guignol as a propaganda character in puppet shows and illustrations to foster local support for the Great War. Interestingly Guignol was often enlisted in the service of nationalism. Guignolistes performed at the trenches. And evil Germans were added to Guignol’s repertoire of figures to smack around. Although at other times Guignol was also hijacked by the Left as well.
Clair Deglise proved to be quite sympathetic to Gravity From Above and encouraged us to return later with the crew to film puppets. With hope, and Swiss money, I plan to return either in the fall or in Spring of 2017 to capture some of the puppets at the Gadagne Museum, for this is indeed the national repository of French puppetry. Meanwhile since this show was coming down at the end of February I was given permission to photograph a bit. The glass cases and bright lighting discouraged filming.
However I would soon being meeting one of the historians who helped to put this show together. As well as members of the more postmodern troupe of guignolistes, Le Collectif ZonZons. But more about them in the next installment of our journey.