And sometimes you just have to make observations apropos of nothing. Travel does that to you. You see things that puzzle and intrigue you, amaze and amuse you. And so in no particular order here are a few dispatches from the road.
First of all there’s that moment when you enter a new country with a language you don’t understand. And that happened this time in Italy. I decided to break my tradition of avoiding it (for reasons of humility) and get myself down to Sicily, which I’ll write about soon. But here’s the confusing part. So I take a train from Switzerland to Italy. (I was really expecting the tunnel through the Alps to be longer.) I get out at Milan, which was just going to be a train transfer on my way to Genoa (Genova), where they still are quite proud of Cristoforo Colombo. I see that I have arrived early enough to jump on an early train so I don’t have to wait at the Milan train station for two hours. So far so good. An hour ride deposits me at Genova Centrale. I have a map, or rather a Google page, that is suppose to guide me. I get out of the station carrying my backpack load. And I start walking the direction I think I should be going. But it doesn’t feel right. I walk a bit further and nothing is resolving. Then I realize I should have gone another direction. So I go back to station and try another road, which doesn’t feel right either because its straight up hill. And supposedly I’m near the Mediterranean. At this point I just wanted a real map made out of paper. Finally I give up and go back to the white taxis I saw near the station. I use my few words of Italian and then find out my short ride is going to cost me 15 euros. Almost $20. And this is for a ride about five minutes. But the taxi driver indicates it’s ‘standard’. And so we take off. And then I get a shock. I was completely turned around. I was walking the absolutely wrong direction. And so I became grateful for my expensive little ride.
Another thing worth discussing here is sickness. Let’s just face it. If you aren’t on a slick two week package tour you are going to eventually get some foreign illness you’ve never had before. In 2012 I received two different strains of the local cold. In 2016 I had gastroenteritis so bad I was bleeding. And if I didn’t know what it was I would have been very worried. And this year I received a whopping fever. And here’s the point of all of this. In each of these cases the culprit seemed to be the Paris Metro. And specifically holding the metal poles, the perfect conductor of germs and bacteria. And I always forget to bring hand sanitizer. I also get the feeling the Europeans aren’t nearly as germophobic as we Americans are. So there’s not much to do but get sick.
And when you are sick travel changes immensely. New foods that might have seemed interesting to try now seem unappetizing. The customs of the locals seem all wrong. Does no one ever cover their face when they sneeze or cough? And they never have the kinds of things you want when you have a cold. But that’s okay there really isn’t anything you can do but rest, drink liquids and build up your body’s immunities.
On the subject of food I’ve been pushing it further this time. Of course there is French food, which I love. And yet I always have to get used to the fact I’ll be on a largely bready diet while in la francophonie. But also there are so many wonderful things that I can scarcely contain my desire to try as much as possible. There is a guy who sells cheese at the Sunday market in Les Häye les Roses where I stay while in Paris. And I am sure that this man alone knows more about cheese than everyone in the state of Alaska put together. And I have eaten cheeses that are so good I just want to cry.
And I have tried new things mate. In Brussels the central Carrefour had kangaroo meat! And since I actually had cooking facilities for once. I decided to give a try. Not bad actually. Tastes a bit like beef, without the heavy fatty feel and it had a bit of a tang to it. I didn’t get to the zebra meet sitting next to it though. But I cook up a little horse in Switzerland.
Also in Belgium I finally had Belgian frites, the original French fries. And here’s what I have to say. Astounding! They are thicker, with an amazing crust. And a wonderful flavor which I’m told comes from frying them twice in beef fat!?! Which is about as healthy as injecting pure cholesterol. But oh my! It was worth it. They actually had a big health issue over this. But the traditional frites makers argued that this is the tradition. And they won. And God bless them. Just don’t eat les frites too often.
And does everyone have annoying music on their phones in Italy? And do they ever use their earbuds? Why do I need to hear the pointless video you are watching on the bus? (Gripe number 326.) And no one seems to care. And then there is the ubiquitous presence of terrible electronic dance music, especially the excrescence know as nightcore, which involves taking old pop songs and adding new music to a vocal track sped up to chipmunk speed. This just strikes me as the most anti-musical notion I’ve ever heard.
Meanwhile back in Charleville-Mézières I forgot to mention my time spent in the Museum of the Ardennes. I had been there before, but the second time was just as enlightening. And I was able to get better photos this time. And I had a chance to watch the marionette clock work from the inside!
Speaking of museums? Yeah, I went to one of the greatest museums on earth, the Vatican Museum. I’ll save my thoughts about the contents for later. But let me get a couple more gripes off my chest about tourists. Two things drove me crazy this time round. It’s happened before but this time I’ve got to say something. Are we done with smartphones yet? These things are really polluting reality. You enter the Sistine Chapel, which clearly is marked No Photos. Guards are saying ‘NO PHOTO’ over and over. And still people can’t stop. Someone really needs to invent a phone jammer. And smartphone selfies? I have no end to my disquiet over those who can only experience something by putting themselves in front it. Once in a while. Okay. It proves you were there. All the time? It proves you weren’t. Period.
Next: Tour groups following people with flags. Does this mean you do not have to pay attention to anything at all? A whole group just stops and blocks walking traffic. No one can get around them. They look at no one. And in a place like the Vatican? (I’ve heard that that the Tokyo trains are less crowded.) My advice when you travel: Do not take a tour group anywhere that is already crowded. Period. To take a tour group when you are the only ones in the building? Exceptionally great idea. But a tour group (or thirty) with five thousand others swarming you. Stay home. Or come alone. You are just in the way.
And finally there are just the inexplicable things. In Brussels early in the morning, around 6, twice I heard this strange mysterious piping. 5 or 6 notes. High shrill. Discordant. Played at irregular intervals out in the near distance. It was not a bird. It sounded like a piccolo, even higher. But it wasn’t. It reminded me of the mad piping of the blind idiot god in H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories… and that’s something I’m not about to discuss here.
Instead let me end this praising Sicilian, more specifically Palermo, Palermitan, street food and a mention of two items in particular, stigghiola (grilled sheep or goat guts) and pane ca meusa (a spleen sandwich). Wow! I’m just impressed. I’d say one of the top three reasons to get down to Sicily is the food. (There is something for everyone.) End of essay. Go!
But we’ll discuss Palermo and Sicily next time. Stick around for that one. It’s about life and death. And that’s no metaphor.
From Rome, the Eternal City
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive and now broken glass on my laptop screen. 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.
Bruxelles or Brussels in Belgium is a weirdly polyglot city where you never know exactly what language to speak. My French is almost always met with English. And you stroll around the central tourist district near the Grand Place and over hear multilingual discussions in Spanish, Japanese, German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, French, British English, Arabic, African tongues, unplaceable accents, anything. And central Brussels is crowded it seems all the time. And as you stroll through the area an unusual kind of loneliness grips you. It seems like the world is too big, filled too many people, all hoping to do something with their lives, (or at least have ‘fun’) while the majority seem to be constantly fidgeting with some device in their hands. A selfie next to the Manneken Pis. Making a reservation for a museum. Talking to someone thousands of miles away. Welcome to travel in the 21st Century.
Not that Brussels is without sites. If you go to the remarkable Grand Place during the rain most of the tourists stay away and it takes on a moody atmosphere. And this time I discovered the National Museums, which are also certainly worth a few trips. But the crowds are everywhere and the only way to escape is walk off the tourist trail into a kind of no mans land in search of books and cheese.
Fortunately I wasn’t here to see the sites. Once again I was here for the puppets and to specifically to visit the Théâtre Royal de Toone and the Royal Theatre Peruchet and to visit my friends. (They are called ‘Royal’ because they actually have the blessings of the royal Belgian monarchy.) This time, after what should be easily the worst night of my trip at the Hotel La Madeleine, (the details are not worth the effort here) I was able to spend a week as a guest of Nicolas Géal and Toone on the 4th Floor (5th for Americans) in an old renovated building right next to the theatre. This gave me a quiet place to use as a fulcrum for my time in Brussels. Well usually quiet. One night I heard lots of chanting and shouting one night. I opened the window to find a sloppy hazing ritual afflicting a crowd below me.
Bruxelle does have it’s own bruxellaire culture of strange accents and attitudes. It is glimpsed between Jacques Brel songs and the narrow winding streets. People once spoke the Flemish Dutch here mixed with French words. Now they speak Walloon French with Dutch words and phrases thrown in. Belgium if seen in dim light could be seen as France’s Canada. People constantly and with a sense of humor saying we aren’t French. Or Dutch? Or do we even like each other, French and Dutch? It’s a place where bright yellow and purple meet. And they can barely be seen next to each other, they clash culturally so strongly. Yet here they are in Bruxelles.
Now I’ve been here before. And I’ve visited the theatres last year. But I decided to try to get a bit more footage for the documentary. And so on the first night I scampered over to Toone where Nicolas Géal was is old swaggering self. Or is it a bruxelaise thing. He greeted the audience in French, Dutch and English to introduce a very bizarre comic version of Dracula. Which included such odds and ends as Dracula’s interest in the Brussels dialect, a large plush rat, puppets being decapitated, some repulsive but unexpectedly seductive female puppets, and Dracula ugly yet chic or else in polka dotted undershorts or else burnt to crisp. The audience loved it. And for all four shows I saw it was nearly a full house. Kids would walk out, imitating the count, saying Kriek! Krack! Kronch! (Kriek is a Belgium sour cherry beer, which the count loves because the color reminds him of blood.
Now the marionettes in Brussels are loosely based on the kind of Sicilian marionettes that I will be encountering on my first trip to Italy at the end of November. They are heavy, one third human size and are passed across the essentially Baroque style stage by a team of eager younger puppeteers. Meanwhile Nicolas Géal performs every voice himself. And what a job he does! The Brussels accents is broad, with extremely explosive gargled R sounds and a flattened intonation. The main charter Woltje (pronounced Woal-Cha) is a somewhat sarcastic Bruxellois in a check cap and pants. He is in every play somewhere. As is his friend Jef Pataat, following a large nose that precedes him by about two minutes that can’t be described in polite society, speaking in a severely nasal voice swallowing sound and a kind of stupid braggadocio. The puppets look like they been bashed around because they are. There’s a lot of slapstick comedy and sly in jokes for the audience.
Toone is a special place because it seems to be the oldest continuing puppet theatre in Europe, starting around 1833. It has been in residence in several different structures be landing here directly in the center of the town. And each new puppeteer is named after the first Toone, Antoine Genty. And so Nicolas Géal is Royal Toone VIII. While his father José was Toone VII. And luckily José for the first time and he consented to an interview, and this was a coup for me since José was in his late 80’s and I wasn’t sure if he’d feel up to an hour long interview. But! He was. And near the end of my stay in Brussels he met me at their gallery, in the same building I was staying and I was filled in with much more Toone history. He said that when he first saw the Toone theatre as a child there were only a handful of people in attendance. And years later the theatre was actually being closed down and the puppets being sold off, inappropriately it turned out, that he finally, after working for years in stage and early television puppetry, became Toone VII and then basically turned the theatre into the living institution it is today.
I originally heard about the Toone theatre from an interview with the Quays. They had seen the theatre during the reign of Toone VII. José and I also discussed avant garde playwright Michel de Ghelderode, who wrote several plays for puppets. The theatre still puts on his curious Nativity play during each December as well as Ghelderode’s Le mystère de la Passion in the spring: A strange Passion play that mixes the sacred and sacrilegious, somewhat like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the farce revolves around Judas and his wife while there is a real Christ who dies for humanity. And next on their schedule is a Toone marionette version of Aristophanes – Peace. (?) Toone remains a unique puppetry institution. It is not modern ye somehow it manages to connect with people still.And I sense that this is because, besides their humor, they these strange figures with weird faces that somehow convey and antique yet timeless quality of surreality. When in Brussels go see them. And tell Nicolas I told you to go.
Next time we discover how the elephant got his nose.
On the Bus to Lyon, France
For more on Toone start reading our 2016 series here:
And then our first visit to Toone here in 2012:
PS. 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