Cracked glass in a fashionable store.
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 Last Days of the French Model?
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.
Automaton puppets behind plexiglass after the windows had been broken at Printemps.
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.
More cracked glass.
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.
Boarded up stores and banks on the Champs-Elysees, ready for the next riot.
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.
Aurélia Ivan discussing her puppet art.
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.
Dark clouds on the Champs-Elysees December 11th 2018.
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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A makeshift memorial at Place de la Republic in Paris
The Tbilisi Airport at 4:00 in the morning was chaos incarnate. It wasn’t until I was actually in the air on my way to Paris via Warsaw that I had a small fraction of rest to even begin to reflect on the last three weeks of my journey in Georgia as the lights of Tbilisi vanished in the dark skies. But I was also a bit concerned about making my connections to France. On the way to Georgia the EU customs lines at the Warsaw Chopin Airport (who decides to name an airport after a composer?) were unbearably long and this time I only had an hour instead of nine. And then I discovered something about the Georgians that I hadn’t noticed before.
When I exited the plane I obviously wasn’t the only person concerned with getting to a connecting flight on time. At least half of the flight was filled with Georgians on their way to Europe. As we followed the signs and ramps to our flights a confused airport employee told us to wait and then closed an electronic glass door, which cut us off after letting a few of our throng through. She swiped a card and it was locked and we were in the middle of nowhere. She kept motioning for us to turn around. Some of the Georgian family members had been cut of from the rest of us. Now I had been in Tbilisi for three weeks. Georgian men seemed rather low key most of the time. I had been told that they were an emotional people. But it didn’t register the way it would if we were Italy or Spain. And also I was told that they were descended from fierce mountain warriors, as was clear in many of the folk dances. But I hadn’t seen much to confirm that. Suddenly these men were cut off from their wives. Families were separated. And then I heard them speaking in voices, voices well schooled in strong singing, stentorian voices, lungs filled with anger over the rather strange and ultimately stupid move by an airport employee. Her swipe card would not work. She was reduced to tears as the Georgian men behind me were preparing to save their families. Finally her supervisor arrived and chewed her out in fine Polish style. And I looked at these men behind me and said ‘Aha!’ That’s how they managed to stay uniquely Georgian in the face of centuries of outside aggression.
A bomb scare at Charles De Gaulle Airport
I made it through the line in mercifully good time and was soon winging my way to Paris with Warsaw in the window below me. Paulette Caron met me at Charles De Gaulle Airport after I negotiated a bomb scare and took me back out to her parents house in L’Haÿ-les-Roses in the southern outskirts of Paris. I prepared my final return journey and was taken by Paulette to a local market. Paulette and other friends have often commented on how Alaska stops you in your tracks when you visit. That is how I feel about wandering through a French market filled with perfectly fresh produce, cuts of meat rarely seen in my neck of the woods, cheeses (I can’t even begin.), savory tarts and too many other edibles to discuss. And I won’t torture you with descriptions from the pastry shop. (O if only the wild nature of Alaska could just have a smidgen of French cuisine!)
Paulette and a few vegetables at the market
The windy weather prevented us from visiting my friend guignoliste Pascal Pruvost. But we did have an appointment with a respected and inovative hand puppet artist Brice Coupey. We met him at a cafe and I had an excellent discussion with him about his puppetry and about a possible interview in the future for Gravity From Above. He was quite receptive to the project and agreed. Obviously that interview along with many others would wait for the future.
Meeting hand puppet artist Brice Coupey
Paulette also took me for a walk over to Place de la République which had become a shrine to the victims of terrorism from November 13th and now Brussels, which had occurred since I had passed through. And simultaneously the doomed carnival atmosphere had become a staging grounds for a French style series of protests, which sadly had adopted the confused Occupy Wall Street trappings, in other words there was no specific goal, and which have since occurred to no particular avail, except adding to France’s woes.
At the Place de la Republique April 17th 2016
As I walked through the square pondering the dead and looking at the kids playing at revolution I mused on the many problems facing Europe: Immigration/refugees, the old walls from pre-EU days beginning to be erected again, terrorism, economic uncertainties, Islam and Europa, the lack of faith and the near terminal decline of Christianity, the influence of the worst aspects of American pop culture, the rise of right wing isolationists and fear-mongers, the insane utopian dreams of the left as now constituted less by any concern for the working classes and more by gender politicking. And here were the youth practicing what to do if sprayed, if clubbed, ready for endless demands and no wisdom to draw upon. I confessed to Paulette, who could only agree while rearranging some of my details, that the European future looked stark. And the near future would bring Brexit, Munich, Nice and the tides of Islamic conspiracy to Turkey. And meanwhile America continues it’s long course following the dwindling laws of diminishing returns as we prepare to vote again for the lesser of two evils. And I suspect fewer Americans care about Europe than ever in my lifetime. How can anyone care about anything when they are staring into a screen in their hands?
The Future of Revolution in Paris
Eventually it was time to say fond farewells to Paulette and her family and to spend my last night in Paris at my usual Hôtel Saint André des Arts, where I had the perfect final conversation with the manager Fred, whom I’ve known since 2000. We wondered at the strange shape of a world where people more and more were disappearing into wireless devices. We wondered at the worrisome fate of France and Europe. And likewise America. But we agree that at all costs we must remain human and to continue thinking without paying heed to the barrage of various propagandas beating down our ears.
The Pepper Spray Workshop
The Disturbing Presence of Teddy Bears at Memorials Gets at the Heart of the Problem with the Revolutionary Ideas ca. 2016. Is the Revolution to make the World more Sentimental and Cute?
On April 19th I boarded the first leg on my journey back to Alaska on British Airways. I then left London for an excruciating flight smashed into a seat near the toilet stall for nine hours. I missed my connection on Alaskan Airlines and spent the evening in a truly depressing American hotel near SEATAC. I resumed my journey the next morning to Juneau, where actor, teacher and clown Roblin Gray Davis put me up for a couple of nights with his family and graciously drove me to the early morning ferry. And finally I got to the ferry. As is the custom I talked with many friends, walked around the deck in the cool air and was picked up by Scott Hansen and delivered to my doorstep. I wish I could say I plopped down on my bed and slept. But I had to crawl under the house to turn the water on, spend the afternoon trying to get the heater working and try to get my life back in order before finally achieving the goal of all journeys to rediscover my shower, my bed and home.