This little essay has almost nothing to do with anything and is more or less just a series of travel observations that have accumulated thus far and didn’t really fit with any particular place. Some might consider this travel advice. It might contain such. But basically it’s just detritus.
A Cyclops Selfie taken in a Strange Concave Mirror in Scotland
Those who have followed this journal of my Gravity From Above trip thus far may remember that I had a horrible bout of gastroenteritis after a few days in Paris. The feeling of having been punched in the gut persisted until I was in London. I felt I needed some medicine. I happened to be in Chinatown, where I’d found exactly the kind of Chinese food not found in Alaska, when I passed a Chinese pharmacy. I thought ‘They have medicine for everything. Let’s give it a try.’ A pleasant woman behind a counter lined with wooden, trays filled with who knows what, first tried to get me to see a Chinese doctor. Then she suggested acupuncture. Finally I was able to get a bit of medicine out of her. She said it was a granulated tea made from special ingredients that would work with treatments one a day for seven days. I suggested that I only needed about three. She said “You can only buy seven.’ How much?’ ‘Sixteen pounds.’ I blanched but my queasy stomach wanted it. So I laid my money down and took the sweet woody tasting stuff four days in row. Maybe it helped. Maybe not. Either way it was a $23 experience. And you thought American drugs were expensive?
Here’s a little something for those for whom English is not a first language. Rough, bough, dough, through and ought are ways of saying ‘ough’ in English. Our evident lack of a rule here drives non-English speakers crazy. Good news! I found a new pronunciation! In England ‘borough’ is pronounced ‘bur-a’, with a very short ‘a’ sound. It rhymes with Edinburgh. (I know! It can get tough.) And in order to get to Edinburgh the train passes through places with names like Biggleswade and Darlington. And when you get to Scotland there are loughs. Just don’t hiccough or cough when you get there!
It’s time for a fashion thought! I notice that many women in Europe are now wearing winter coats that on first glance look like military wear. Olive drab has come back in vogue. But unlike the Seventies, these are not actual military surplus. They in fact are scrubbed of any military symbols and are upon closer inspection made of much softer material. And the expensive non-faux fur lined collars give the game away. But for just a second I feel like I’m glimpsing someone from the past, a rebel appropriation of army jackets in an act of subversion. Instead… it’s just chic.
I saw a David Bowie memorial on a mall wall in Belgium. I’m sure Bowie would have laughed ironically. (It was actually a bit of advertisement for his last album with some flowers beneath it.) And yet it spoke of what Mr. Jones meant to so many in his role as primal shapeshifter.
And it was in Brussels that I had a chance to go see Sylvie Testud in a new film. Arrête ton Cinéma! (Stop your movie!) which was an amusing takedown of the French film industry, based on her own novel of the same name. If you’ve never heard of Sylvie I can’t blame you. A television channel was having a Sylvie Testud night, when I was visiting the town of Le Puy back in early 2005 on my original puppet expedition. I watched and was captivated by her comedy and her expressiveness. Cher Sylvie is never going to win an award for the most beautiful girl in the world. But there’s something about the way she talks and subtly uses her face that, to my view, is unique. Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et tremblements) would be a good place to start. Or perhaps Tomorrow We Move (Demain on déménage). She’s also a serious actress as well and her role in the Murderous Maids (Les blessures assassines) is chilling. But mainly she has the most blissfully ironic smile I’ve ever seen, as well as a capacity for truly wide-eyed astonishment. Her films always make me feel that I’m just watching a friend. So there! Go watch a Sylvie Testud movie!
Speaking of friendly, Paulette Caron and I were eating lunch at a Lyonnais restaurant when suddenly a cat poked her head up on the free seat next to me. She definitely wanted to be invited to the party. Evidently the health rules were less than stringent in Lyon, at least as interpreted in that restaurant. The owners said don’t mind her. We didn’t.
What to eat in Switzerland: Chocolate, first of all. I prefer the chocolate in Switzerland to the Bon Bon style in Belgium. Not that those are bad mind you. It’s just that the Swiss chocolate bar is more about chocolate and Belgian more about the filling. And I must say I have a crucial craving for the chocolate bars filled with kirsch liqueur. Next cheese: Gruyere? Absolutely. Raclette? Definitely. Ementaler, the real Swiss cheese? Of course. But this time I discovered smoked fresh wet cheese up at the laiterie in Villars. Words fail me. And finally that I found that one illegal substance in the USA. We would eat it if it just had a French name, viande de cheval. Instead we call it horse meat. I split a horse steak with a pleasantly surprised L’Abri student. Most importantly I picked up my old favorite dried shaved horse meat. I can’t describe the joy.
Okay that’s the plus side of Switzerland. Here’s the rub. I ran out of a few necessities. (Note to self: Never, ever, ever, run out of necessities in Switzerland again.) I go up to the ski-town of Villars, we won’t even mention the bus fare here. I go into a small pharmacy. I pick up a small finger length tube of toothpaste, a similarly small bottle of shampoo, and a small bottle of Listerine. How much would you expect this to cost? Figure that you’re in a ski resort in the Alps. Did you count on these three items costing $35 US. I didn’t either. But then again I had a week and a half to go before departing, leaving dirty hair and teeth in need. Next time get enough in France! Enough to get me to the Czech Republic or at least Germany.
And that’s a good place to stop because soon I’ll be writing about Germany.
If there’s advice here take it. If the observations help I’m glad. I’m sure I’ve forgotten even more vagaries along the way. But I sure do indeed intend getting into these strange situations again. And getting out with a bit of aplomb.
From a train near Dresden
I knew that the journey was finally beginning in earnest as I talked to a French man, Baptiste, on the Chunnel train from Paris to London. It was one of those conversations you can only have while traveling. I was beginning to leave the stomach bug behind, though the queasiness and muscular soreness did not disappear instantly. Nevertheless I was in London to see the Quay brothers and I’d moved into the next square of the chess game.
Not that this square was simply thrilling. I was in London. Over the years London has become less and less interesting to me, Quays not withstanding. Paris always retains its fascination, likewise Prague, Krakow, Lyon. But London seems expensive and overrated. And all of the new South Bank features; the Walk, the London Eye, the new architecture, the Millennium Bridge seem more designed for tourists and the business world than for my own human interests. That isn’t to say London doesn’t have its charms. Its just that they’ve more or less worn off of me. And I really liked London when I first visited in 1978. It still seemed like London then. There were still gents in bowler hats and original 77 era punks on the streets. But now, the population seems too predictable to me. The Starbucks, Burger Kings and American movies not worth the comment. And it seems like I paid close to $40 US for about 7 Underground trips in Zone 1 in three days. London is far too expensive considering the return on investment.
All off which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. And a great chunk of that enjoyment came from spending a couple of days with the exquisitely eccentric Brothers Quay. I had come to meet them before on my 2012 trek, where I manage to convince them that I was indeed serious about this Gravity From Above project. (You can read that meeting here.) This time I felt like I was meeting old friends. On the first afternoon conversation ranged from shared Slavic roots, to the foibles of travel, Georgian culture, the glory of Gewurtztraminer wine, Jiří Trnka’s unreleased films and to Jan Švankmajer’s being stopped at the Czech border hoping to bring a shrunken head into the country. The second day was the serious interview, which I recorded, and I focused more on their connection to puppetry than in the hows and whys of their films. I had seen several decent interviews covering many subjects but none had got at the kinds of issues I had been wondering about. So for two hours I had a chance to pretty much ask what I really wanted to know personally. And so I have captured a fairly in-depth discussion from the Quays’ on the puppet, its meaning within their work and in their influences.
(Unfortunately I was so involved in the filming process that I forgot to get the stills of the Quays studio, a warren of strange figures and odds and ends. Well that would be a good ‘excuse’ to return if I needed one, but I don’t.)
Meanwhile… my bowels had recovered enough, with the help of a Chinese herbal remedy picked up in the rather compact London Chinatown, to eat normally and to gain my strength for the next phase of my journey to visit my friends Carsten and Rebecca and their new baby Zella up in Edinburgh. The train ride north was enjoyable and uneventful. Carsten greeted for me at the Waverley Station while proceeding to introduce me to the Scottish capital.
Now this wasn’t to be a puppetry stop. Rather simply a friendly visit. Edinburgh isn’t really a serious puppetry city as far as my research indicates, though occasionally homunculi will appear during the summer Fringe Festival. Nevertheless it was a fascinating city swirling around the old dark castle of the rock that makes up central Edinburgh. Carsten, if you remember from my 2012 trip, was working on his doctorate in Divinity (to use the British term). Rebecca was now an English teacher in the Scottish school system. And Zella bubbled and gurgled gleefully most of the time.
One day Carsten walked me across vast chunks of the old city allowing me to peak into nooks and crannies of the wet brooding streets. I happened upon an excellent bookshop, The Edinburgh Bookstore, a dangerous place, especially for a George MacDonald reader. I limited my shopping to a classic 1925 Oxford University Press two volume set entitled ‘The Medieval Stage’ by E.K. Chambers, and excellent history of the British theater, with fascinating information about puppetry, the origins of Christmas (not the solstice), and the Feast of Fools, among other subjects.
We ended up at the National Museum of Scotland, which led to some curious discoveries; including the 1500 year old Orkney Hood, the strange expression on a bronze bird podium and most intriguingly the scarily textured mask worn by Covenanter rebel preacher Alexander Peden in the late 17th Century. An idea I have a use for…
On another outing we visited the University of Edinburgh’s rarely open Museum of Anatomy, which unfortunately didn’t allow photographs except for the elephant skeletons at the entrance. But the display was everything you could ask for; gorilla bones, a complete bat skeleton , antique anatomical learning aids, fetal remains, enough sliced brains in glass to make Damien Hirst salivate and the entire bony corpse of the last murderer in Scotland hanged by the neck until dead.
Alas, it was time to leave the British Isles and to get back to what was now looming ahead of me as a rather busy two weeks on the Francophone section of the puppet trail. I had enjoyed a venison burger, haggis balls, 18 year old Scotch, homemade bread and good company. Now it was time to confront what Henryk Jurkowski called our mirrors, the puppets. Time to get back to France.
I was awakened by the sound of the BBC coming from the kitchen. It turns out that heavy downpours of rain had flooded many parts of the U.K. And it seemed that my travel north towards Durham might be interrupted by the waters. Nevertheless as I have learned in past moments of uncertainty, you commit yourself to a course, even if it is doubtful. And so I arrived at King’s Cross Station an hour and a half early. And it’s a good thing I did. Because as I sat there waiting I heard a sound on the public address system that definitely announced that the train to Durham, my train had been canceled. So I got up, dragged my weighty bags and got on a different train also heading north. I figured that I would at least get as near as I could, which in this case was Newcastle. As I passed field after flooded field north of York the train announced that there would indeed be a stop at Durham. Evidently many of the people aboard had the same idea that I did and since they had just cleared a fallen tree we would be the first train to pull into the station.
My main reason for going to what would prove to be the smaller town of Seaham, on the North Sea Coast, was to meet Lenka Pavlíčková, a Czech carver who had made my own Nimrod puppet for our Great Ziggurat show back in 2009. We had only communicated online and I thought it would be good both to meet her and to interview her on carving for Gravity From Above. When I arrived at Durham I was met by George, Lenka’s affable English husband, who gave me a guided tour as we drove and quite a bit of the history English labor relations, since he was also a union representative of long standing. He considered himself a socialist, which was interesting on many levels, especially since Lenka, being a good Czech girl was anything but. Yet I enjoyed seeing a relationship where political agreement was not the glue. (One rarely sees this in America anymore.)
In Seaham and vicinity I was taken to a spot on the coast that had had so many coal slag heaps once that it had been used by Ridley Scott in Alien to stand in as the foreboding planet where the creature was discovered. On this day though the North Sea was boiling in stormy anger as waves created fifty foot sprays as they crashed into the pier. We visited the old town of Durham and saw St. Cuthbert’s tomb in the old cathedral. I was also taken to see the Angel of the North, a strange statue near the motorway of an Oscar©-like giant with wings like an old biplane. We ended up at a classic fish and chips joint on the docks of Newcastle as the ferry to the Netherlands plowed through the nighttime waters lit like a Christmas tree.
I did interview Lenka for the film and watched her carve her curious puppets in her little studio. Her actual craft is a bit worrisome looking to the casual observer since it features her turning a block of lathed wood into puppet parts all the while digging the blades into her body, which is loosely protected by a leather apron and some rather gauged out flat piece of wood. Has she ever missed? Does she have scars? Certainly. But she’s also the total professional. She was currently working on a year long project of making many marionettes for a Czech music video. She also showed me a clip of one her other customers from Costa Rica a man named Randall Gutiérrez who performed an extremely lively dancing puppet show. (This reminds me of how much puppetry there is besides what I’ve seen on my European exploits.) I also had a chance to see many of her current crop of figures hanging up nearby. After talking with her I had a sense of accomplishment. This was my last official interview on this trip. I could now relax and just enjoy the rest of my time in Europe. (Or so I thought.)
My last stop in the U.K. was a trip up to Aberdeen Scotland to see my close friend and erstwhile Reckoning Motion puppeteer Carsten Hyatt who is studying systematic theology at the University of the same name. Carsten was staying with another theology student, David, in an apartment not too far from the campus. In a way I felt as if we were all contemporary monks keeping the coal fires low to conserve resources while having meaningful discussions about the nature of faith and humanity in the 21st century.
I did have a chance to see some Scottish folk music at a local club. Well to be precise the band called Amos was from the Shetland Islands, far north of Scotland, almost, and at times in its history actually, Norwegian. Between jaunty fiddle tunes the band members told extremely droll stories in a quirky accent that pronounced house as if it rhymed with goose. Carsten also took me around the town and campus and to an ancient Presbyterian Church, which was going through the same kinds of political/moral issues as Presbyterian churches in North America. All in all I found Aberdeen to be an intriguing town, though devoid of puppetry. I also spent yet another hundred dollars to mail back some of the film equipment I had borrow from my Swiss producers. But the relief to my back cannot be over stated.
At last it was time to go. Carsten saw me off at the train station. I arrived in Edinburgh, regretting that I couldn’t look around. Eventually I was packed into a cheap air flight and sent back to Paris for the final leg of my journey. (You may wonder why the extra flight? I actually saved money by flying out of Paris. Instead of Edinburgh or London. Plus Paris is a great place to do a little shopping before exiting the continent.) But the flight itself contained something I wasn’t quite wanting. One more little bug circulating in air, which my travel weakened system, nearly finished with its other symptoms, wasn’t strong enough to fend off.
And I wasn’t quite finished with puppets yet!
Next time we arrive back in Paris for the third time…
For more information about Lenka Pavlickova go here: