The Journey to Brussels did not start auspiciously. I was about discover a well known aspect of France that I have, in eight trips to Europe over many years, managed to avoid. I had been informed by Paulette’s father, Gilles, that the TER rail line I was about to take to get from L’Haÿ-les-Roses to Gare Du Nord was on a slow down strike. And so I was taken to the station in a rather wonderful, if supremely funky, 60s era Peugeot somewhat apprehensively. As I stood on the platform swarms of darkly clad commuters slowly filled the platform. The good news was that the next train was due to arrive in four minutes. The bad news is that every stop prior to ours was experiencing the same swarming hordes. The train was jam packed. Especially if you were carrying bags to travel. And so was the next train to come down the tracks twenty long minutes later. I realized that I had to barge my way in onto the next train or I might actually miss my Thalys train to Bruxelles, which had seemed like an impossibility at first. Fortunately the next train was only one minute behind this one, with just enough room to insert myself into the proceedings. It was a delicate ungainly balancing act, since there was nothing to hold onto to steady oneself. After about two stops some guys pushed their way in such a manner as to remind me of the stories of crowds squashed to death at sporting events and rock concerts. One curious thing about this French crowd though: If you could actually get near the seats further in there was open space. Everyone was congregated near the doors. This was not the New York subway. Good news though. At a university stop piles of students fell out of the car. I squeezed my lithe frame through the crush towards the seats. And soon after another stop I was actually seated. And so I survived my first French strike.
Arriving in Brussels had the welcome familiarity of slight repetition. I had done this before back 2012. I made the needed adjustments. And with a basic minimum of travel stress I took the ‘free’ train from Bruxelles-Midi to Bruxelles-Central and emerged near my hotel. I wandered the streets near the Grand Place/ Gross Markt (everything here has two names… at least) surveyed at least a hundred chocolate shops and prepared myself to see the Toone and Peruchet Theatres. I was back in Brussels.
At 5PM I stood in the rainy Grand Place watching tourists befuddled by the rain as I awaited Dimitri Jageneau, the Director at Théâtre Royal du Péruchet. Dimitri had been a loyal supporter of my concept since he discovered the project almost two years ago. He contributed through the crowdfunding effort. And was mystified that more puppeteers weren’t contributing. When we met it was nearly like meeting an old friend. He took me over to Poechenelle Kelder a pub that had once been an old puppet theatre and was now festooned with myriads of old gloriously creepy puppets. (Highly recommended if in Brussels.) (Do I get something for this recommendation?) Dimitri turned out to be an excellent and opinionated puppet historian in his own right. He spoke of Indian puppetry origins, the various styles of Italian puppetry, he questioned the vogue for Object Theatre, while not fully rejecting it. He took Jurkowski’s point of view on the importance of puppetry qua puppetry, and hoped it wouldn’t be lost in the surfeit of new modernist and postmodernist tropes and he was critical of some of the politics of puppetry, not meaning political puppetry, rather the sense that the historical puppetry was being left behind in contemporary European theatre. All of this and I hadn’t even recorded a word yet.
After we finished our delightful Kwak beer, (Kwak means ‘trouble’) complete with strange double-decker class, Dimitri took me to a traditional Brussels restaurant, where I almost had the muscles, but settled on a hearty wintertime la Carbonade Flamande. More conversation ensued, upon which I finally brought out my digital sound recorder. It was an excellent introduction. And Dimitri also phoned Nicolas Géal from Toone to make sure he knew I was coming the next day. And so all of my introductions to Brussels had been made. Now if I could just sneak by the chocolate stores without too much undue consumption I knew that the portion of the trip bode well.
(Next a return to the Toone Marionnette Theatre to see Nicolas Géal and his Musketeers)