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 went nowhere. Yet this journey cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will part three of six posts. Bon Courage!
March 23, 2005
A Procession of Puppeteers
In the pitch blackness of that hall a white light was projected some ten yards away from us against a rough textured pale stone wall and against a tall brunette girl who was dressed in a white robe. Her hair was minimized being pulled back. She appeared to us almost as a statue from classical antiquity. Written words scrolled horizontally on the wall, against her human form. She began to speak in a clear burning voice. From what I could gather with my faulty French she was speaking about war and about what kind of people we are in relationship to war and to fear. The projection and the lights vanished. In the utter dark she held a wooden box that was then opened in a way loosely reminiscent of Pandora. Light shone from the box. She moved spectrally towards us asking questions as she paused to place broken puppets on nearly invisible black boxes. Where does war come from? She advanced closer and closer to us with her crippled marionettes. All were white or dirty beige, and while missing limbs, they were clearly homunculi, though none had defining features, hair, clothing, even color. She continued speaking about war and fear as she little by little drew nearer and nearer to us.
She stopped directly in front of us before two waist high felt covered platforms. Transfixing our eyes she removed the last two puppets from the box. Though, like the others, they were both featureless and white they were also both completely intact and quite clearly male and female. I say they were featureless but this was not true of their faces. While hairless and unclothed, like unfinished dolls off an assembly line, their faces were genuinely distinct, even riveting. This may have something to do with their eyes, which caught the light and reflected it back. The puppeteer then began to speak through the female form. She turned to look at the male puppet and she began to ask him about fear and war and life. The robed girl then changed positions slightly and began to articulate the male figure in more defiant gestures and to speak his voice. Basically he said that there is no reason to fear, these things are all just a part of life. You have to be strong, get used to it. The female continued to plead with him to help her understand. He became more incensed, more frustrated. She in turn was pleading now too much, too pitifully and he in turn was now frighteningly angered. The puppeteer, though directly before us the entire time, so inhabited the characters, that she had disappeared into each of them by turns. Finally she posed them each in their habitual attitudes: the female homunculus in a supplicating position, the male in defiance. The white robed specter finally turned away from them repeating her questions about war then sadly proclaiming all that remains is the blood. The lights were then extinguished.
The small audience applauded the riveting performance with vigor. The program notes explained that Julia’s piece was an extract of a longer work by Perrine Griselin, entitled ‘Si le vent le dit’ (If Spoken by the Wind). The program notes also explained that all of the solos had to be collaborations with contemporary authors, that each piece was to be seven to ten minutes in length and that marionnettes (the French word for all puppets not just hanging string puppets as our similar word suggests) were optional. People casually began to leave the room. I stood there almost in shock. My thinking processes were now on a high state of alert. Where did war come from? Indeed. I wasn’t expecting this, not to be engaged so directly. I was beginning to get a glimpse of something, a possibility, a fork in a road not taken. But I still didn’t have the time to mull it over. The dark haired woman with the ponytail was beckoning us further along. There wasn’t much I could do but follow.
We scaled perhaps three or four floors worth of steps to arrive at a converted attic. The ceiling was angled like its roof directly above it. We sat in two slanted rows in simple chairs. An aisle divided the seating arrangement in half. The room’s lighting was muted though not black. A cabinet of sorts cobbled together out of scrap wood lay to our immediate left. Further in the wooden floor was strewn with carpenter’s dust and debris. And off to the right was a hastily constructed cross standing on a small wooden base. We sat in the dimly lit room awaiting whatever would come next. There was a dragging, scraping sound behind us. From the center aisle a tall young man with sandy brown hair and a face I immediately recognized as Polish dragged three crosses in on his shoulders. He also had a collection of little placards on bits of rope. If you wanted you could hang one around your neck. The placards were more than strongly reminiscent of Christ’s I.N.R.I. placard featured in so many works of art, but these were merely blank pieces of old wood. He turned slowly towards us as he passed. He stopped, then handed one of the placards to a man sitting in the audience. He gave the now condemned man the slightest and slyest of knowing smiles. He dispensed one more in a like manner then he dragged his cargo over to the center of his ‘stage’.
He began to speak as he set up the three extra crosses. He spoke of the names on the blank placards, names only he would know. He hung them on each of the four crosses. Olga’s name made him smile wistfully. But when he read one man’s name and as he hung the placard upon his crucifix he suddenly grabbed the cross in such a manner that he was transferred into the crucified man himself and he writhed and bellowed suddenly in a tortured voice. He continued on with a dialogue between crosses and the crucified. Unfortunately I did not pick up all of the nuances of his words, but it was clear to me that he was the crucifier and that all of these stories intersected at different points, and that the greatest harm had been wrought upon Olga. But then the story began to plumb a deeper level of questioning: why evil, why torture, why death. Yet our executioner could not escape his own culpability. He stretched out his hands in a gesture of both crucifixion and supplication. The lights dimmed to black. Then a thick beam of light radiated from the homemade cabinet, or was it a confessional. He crawled along through the nails and sawdust and other carpenter’s refuse towards the light in the box. He knelt before a small window and prayed earnestly in Polish. A strange cobweb textured blank white mask emerged from the dark. No words were spoken. Then it was submerged back into the void. Something was wrong. He investigated the cabinet. He pulled out a chair with the mask connected to it. He picked up the mask, looked through the back of it, placing it over his face. He turned it over in his hands, finally facing it, then holding it as a doubting Hamlet before the skull of Yorrick he studied it in silence. At last he said that perhaps it would be best if we didn’t go any further and just leave this where it is. The lights were then killed.
Applause, naturally, as before, and a head, mine, that was assembling puzzle pieces together at a furious rate. Then a quick check to the brochure: Polish all right, with a name nearly unpronounceable in the English tongue, Przemyslaw Piotrowski. This too was based on a text by Thierry Panchaud. Besides the fact that I wanted to engage the actor in a long conversation about the existence of God, my memory was also taking detailed notes of every element I observed. Having left my camera and audio recorder at the hotel I itched to put this experience into a bottle somehow, which is probably why I have such a good recollection of these performances. I have discovered that in life there is such a thing as ‘new time’. New time is present during experiences that are absolutely without precedent in one’s life; firsts in most categories – a first trip to Europe, a first day on a new job or a first kiss. With new time experiences we are completely present, taking in far more detail than normal. I can still vividly remember the first day of my initial visit to Switzerland back in 1978. All of the strangeness of the new thing colonizes our memory with powerful primary impressions. That is what was happening to me here at Charleville. I could sense that I had entered a zone that was completely distinct from anything else in my experience. However, before I could even acknowledge that, even as these things were being stenciled into me, I had to move yet again, back down the stairs, back through the wood shop, all the way beyond the felt covered hall of Julia Kovacs’ performance where I began to hear a woman’s voice piercing the air with haunted declamations recited in a tone of sad finality.
At the end of the long black hall we turned a corner into what was now another long room that felt like the brown dead leaves of autumn. Yellowing shafts of light illuminated the walls, which were covered in brown paper with handwritten words listed upon them. Tombstone rows of walnuts in sand were arrayed on the floor beneath the scrolls. Further back into the room was a shadowy forest of dangling signs. Even further back along the nethermost wall there were dead branches. Looking up at the wall a woman dressed in an ornate pale antique blouse and a floor length black skirt held a dark brown basket of walnuts while reading from the scrolls. Her voice was strong, prophetic, plaintiff. It was hard to believe that this was the same petite unassuming soft-spoken raven-haired girl who had ushered us into Julia Kovac’s presentation not even an hour before. Yet indeed it was, and the transformation had been accomplished without an extra milligram of make up. She had just thrown some sort of interior switch and voilà.
Her voice intoned what I assumed to be a history of an important man named Jean (John). She read aloud the noble attributes of his public life in a rhythmic tone. At last she knelt down and picked up a lone walnut and presented to us the personage of ‘Jean le mort’ (John the Dead). She turned and walked away from us further into the room. She stopped behind a table upon which rested an empty dresser drawer filled with sand. We followed her into the autumnal chamber and stopped in front of the table. To the sides of the sandbox were square wooden boxes filled what looked like twisted roots with round white faces. They were made of dead grapevine branches and simple little plaster faces; actually direct tributes to artist Jephan de Villiers and his sad world of Arbonia. She picked one up, a straight ‘root’; held it face up and very carefully moved it towards us, towards the edge of the drawer. As she did she imbued it with a personality, speaking its thoughts. She then planted it in the sand, leaving it there rooted in the earth. She took up another more twisted root-creature and likewise, yet in a different voice, she moved it next to its companion. Then she did it again and again and again; different shapes, different voices, now quizzical, now cooing, now serious, now childlike; until at last their seemed be nearly twenty of them in the box, in the sand all hungry, all digging in, looking for the human food. She paused. She picked up her basket again and walked us further into her strange autumnal labyrinth through a forest of signs made of brown cardboard or wood with handwritten French phrases that were too poetic for me to quite comprehend. She read from a few of them. When we arrived on the other side of the hanging signs she raised her hands across a couple of elaborately twisted grapevines, now representative of walnut trees, and she too had lights in her palms. Yet rather than use them for illumination, this time they were used for animation as the shadows of the dead branches now grew and grew against the last wall by her art. She approached a door off to the side. She rapped once and it opened. She bid us to step through into the light of day. As we passed she handed us each a walnut, a reminder of death, the fruit of our decomposition, an emblem of hope.
The sky has never seemed so blue.
After the last of our small cluster of wanderers had emerged from that autumn chamber the petite raven-haired girl stepped out behind us. As we stood in a lazy semicircle we clapped our hands. The girl, Aurelia Ivan, smiled sweetly as she resumed her unassuming status. The piece was an extract from Valére Navarina’s longer dramatic work, La Chair de l’Homme (The Flesh of Man). My head was exploding by this time with ideas both creative and intellectual. Still I couldn’t take the time to sift these things out. There was yet one more performance to take in to finish off the set. But this one was much more of a straight theatrical meditation on the Marilyn Monroe image of femininity by Morana Dolenc, based on a text by Eddy Pallaro. Since it was presented in a standard theatrical venue, without much that would connect it to the world of puppetry or object theatre, it didn’t set off many fresh alarm bells in my head, although it did contain an interesting mobile of small mirrors. That was probably just as well. My brain was requesting a teensy bit of time for vital reflection or philosophical musing, whichever came first. But that would have to be delayed a little while longer. Before I could even eat lunch, nay dinner, I still had one more thing to do; one more place to be.
28 / 6 /2020
Coming Soon: Hands in the Dark #4 – Missing Pieces
Or go back to the earlier sections
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
This essay was originally commissioned for a book. Alas it was not accepted. Please accept it here in three parts. You’ll notice that the style is slightly more formal than usual. That shouldn’t be a problem should it?
I think puppetry is magic. Because you animate matter, make it alive. It’s the process of animation. You take a piece of wood, or whatever you’ve found, you are able to do some theatre with it. Or any kind of art. The process for me is the most interesting and important thing. I still feel like it’s magic. It’s like the photograph. You have traditional photography and it’s still connected to alchemy, because you literally capture the light by means of a chemical process. It’s all very tactile and physical. And digital photography, it’s all about watching these small screens. And it’s just about information. It’s completely virtual. And puppet theatre for me is about the physical experience, about the tactility, about how you change things by touching them. So for me it’s very physical.
Tomáš Procházka, Puppeteer with Buchty a Loutky, Prague 2012* (Later with Handa Gote)
Puppets have texture.
It doesn’t sound like a radical notion. Not too long ago such a statement could easily have been put into the category of obvious, so obvious as to be unremarkable. Today it stands out as almost something of a miracle. In a world of dead surfaces: the flatness of glass on the sides of buildings, stainless steel walls, enamel refrigerators, plastic tables, white painted walls, faux materials and, most of all, the unbroken smoothness of the screens engulfing our imaginations, to say that puppets have texture suddenly seems like a mighty contradiction of the realities that have been created for us to inhabit. And yet we can now say it with courage: Puppets have texture.
We often ask questions of ecology. What is the proper environmental habitat for creatures to live in? Humanity is something that we often assume should fit into this imagined ecosphere the way a frog does. And yet this only demonstrates a paucity of imagination. We rarely ask this question: What is the proper environment for a human being to live in? Yet without asking this question we often end up in such contradictions as the creation utopian communities which lack much of what makes the human experience worth living. Or we find people who lament the loss of natural habitat for snails and swans while simultaneously living themselves in cramped apartments, in crowded cities, in suburbs designed for automobiles, in universities of sterile modern architecture, eating processed instant food, injecting coffee into our veins to stay alive, turning music into the interpretive background score of our personal film through headphones, selfies taken to validate our passing through an unmemorable landscape, cruise ships that seem to keep us in one place as we move through space, endlessly addictive flickering images on our screens, which now are held in our hands. We don’t ask how much of this new environment is the place where a human can flourish. (And it really has appeared like lightning out of non-existence less than a hundred years ago.)
The world we now live in is a rapidly changing unknown moving towards a total encirclement. It is a product of the more reductive experiments of Modernism (Bauhaus, Pop Art, Minimalism, etc) in an unholy commingling with the commercial forces of this world. While those art movements meant to focus us upon uncluttered form, the market realized very quickly that to eliminate the last vestiges of bourgeois ornamentation would be a boon to economical production. Thus by the 1960s most industries that crafted home merchandise had begun the shift from the solidly manufactured products of the 1950s to the more cheaply made and far more disposable world we now inhabit. Skyscrapers were made to look eternally new. Kitchens were made to be the most sanitary and empty rooms on the house. Art galleries objectify their wares by hanging them in utter isolation on blank walls. Shopping mutated into a journey into the deadest of spaces devoid of humanity, all utility, all prosaic shapes and angles in ‘big box stores’. Plastic was molded to look like any number of materials. ‘Contact paper’ with photos of wood grain was glued to the pressed debris of the lumber industry to imitate planks of oak or pine. The car became another dead zone waiting to be filled with the waste products of the fast-food industry. And into this toxic antiseptic landscape the screen increasingly was placed to mediate our nullity. Think of the last airport you spent much time in. Think of the GPS navigators in your vehicles. Think of your white living room wall punctuated by a flatscreen television. Look to your palms. A device so insidious that it keeps you from noticing the world, the trashy, dead, horrifically colored, brutally designed, world around you.
Oliver Grau and Thomas Vogel in the Introduction to their book, Imagery in the 21st Century†, have written: “Never before has the world of images around us changed so fast, never before have we been exposed to so many different image worlds, and never before has the way in which images are produced changed so fundamentally.”
And again: “The historical development of images, between innovation, reflection, and iconoclasm, is reaching a new level of global complexity in the twenty-first century. These transformations have hit a society that is to a large extent unprepared.”
And then there is the puppet. Not the puppet as toy, another cute entity for distraction, but the puppet, handmade, conceived as performer, as solitary three dimensional presence, made of wood, papier-mâché, bone, fabric, metal, etc. This figure does not fit into the flat landscape. It sits in the corner cautiously. There is a mystery to it. (Which is why some people fear the puppet.) Questions emanate from it. Questions about why we make our mirrors of such rough textures.
The texture of the puppet. That is what in inspired me to begin to investigate puppetry back in the late 90’s. I had seen the odd puppet films Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay. And while I was impressed by their techniques, something else was speaking to me. The puppets themselves. Švankmajer seemed to go out of his way to add texture upon texture in films like Rakvičkárna (The Coffin Factory or Punch and Judy) where his two malevolent hand puppets smack each other silly in an environment of burlap, pages from old books and newspapers, badly painted automaton monkeys and a live guinea pig. Even the two puppets, not Punch and Judy but rather a Kašpárek and Harlequin, are purposely stressed and corroded in their appearance. And their puppet smocks likewise are texturally alive. The Quays likewise would use textures like a musical score: iron shavings, meat, dust, rubber bands, scissors, light bulbs, dirty glass, and old doll parts. And while their work hearkened to a gray (now mythic) Communist age, nevertheless in these evocations one could see the value of that grayness in contrast to slick illusions of high tech hypermodernity. (More than one puppeteer who had operated behind the old Iron Curtain has expressed a strange nostalgia for the gray, in contrast the ‘bright’ shiny present.)
This set a beacon for me to follow.
To be continued…
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 2 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
† – Imagery in the 21st Century Ed. Oliver Grau w/ Thomas Vogel © 2011 The MIT Press
I haven’t written for a while now. It isn’t that there is nothing to say. It’s that I’m not sure exactly where I am. I am certainly not where I thought I might find myself three months ago. I’ve been waiting for more resolution to give you all some account of my time in Tbilisi Georgia. But the resolutions are slower in coming than I imagined they would be. So I might as well report on what I can say. Which isn’t much.
Not long ago I thought I might get most of the money to finish up Gravity From Above. I then realized that I would have to downgrade what support I thought I had. Now I am wondering if I’ll get any help at all from the sources that seemed promising. If it sounds like I’m being vague I am. Let’s just say this the funding isn’t there… yet. And because I stumbled into some murky cultural waters that I didn’t understand let’s just say I don’t know if anything will come my way from that direction. But I am still hoping to hear something.
Then there is my life in Tbilisi. It’s not bad at all. But it is much slower commencing than I thought it would be. Again odd cultural issues play a role. Strangely many of the friends I have made are slow in getting back to me. If it was just one person I wouldn’t think too much about it. But it’s almost everyone. It probably didn’t help that I arrived in the holiday season again. And so had to mostly sit out a month waiting for it to end.
I was looking forward to editing Gravity From Above. I had the time. Oodles of it! But I wait for returned emails, Facebook messages, etc. This is a cultural thing. In America we are trained to get back to others as soon as possible on the Internet. But in Georgia I get the feeling that emails aren’t seen as being quite real. Which is fine. I’ve been saying this for years. And if I were settled in more it wouldn’t bother me. I would have other ways of contacting people. But I don’t feel I know people well enough yet to just call them up or stop by. So I wait.
And that goes for my work as well. The museum project is there, down the road. Eventually. Though the architectural design part has been siphoned off. But that doesn’t bother me. If anything was going to be taken away that would be what I was expecting. And truthfully there is a lot more politics in all of this than I imagined. And by politics I don’t mean office politics. I mean the real beast. Government officials, state and city budgets etc. And that’s about all I can say about that.
But I’m not without work. The plan is to have me teaching puppetry in English for students in the schools. And while I am planning that, I haven’t got the paperwork done yet, because I have to see what the legal prospects are for me as a resident. So again I wait. And hopefully this will be resolved relatively soon. But then again this is Georgia where I’m discovering that everything takes time. But when you finally get the signal then the question will be why isn’t it finished yet? (See the architectural issues above.)
And then there is the question of money. So far I am coasting. But this can’t last. And I’m not really sure how I will fare in the future. Everything is up in the air. And how will the documentary, which is so close to being done, be finished?
And you know I’m not worried about all this. I figured that there is a reason I followed the breadcrumbs here. So meanwhile I explore the city. I’ve taken bus trips to nearby villages. I’ve hiked up the mountains near Tbilisi. I’ve explored more art and culture. I’ve discovered a couple of worthy bookstores previously unknown to me. I’ve gone looking for practical necessities.
And I’ve discovered the many things that hardly exist here. Where is a lumber yard? Can I find black string for puppets? Food ingredients that are like gold: Bottles of vanilla??? Molasses. Malt vinegar. Decent peanut butter. Maple syrup. Cream of tarter, which is really weird since it’s a wine derivative and wine is everywhere here. Recognizable cuts of meat. Most Chinese ingredients. Any Mexican ingredients or spices. Let alone real salmon. Oh Alaska you spoiled me!
Stop and watch this for a little taste of joy!
But oddly I found some real pluses too. For instance I noticed that Georgia has about 20,000 people from India, mostly students at the state university. Thus I reasoned they must have Indian spice stores. I’ve found two! And one guy Vijay was a real help. But there are much fewer Chinese. Thus real Chinese food is much harder to find. And there is something that Georgians eat at the few ‘Chinese’ restaurants which has very little to do with China. But great news! Just down the street from me on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue they just opened a real Chinese restaurant since I’ve been here. And I’ve gotten in good with the owner, Shelia, from China by way of Vancouver. And she has two, count ’em, two Chinese cooks. Okay I survived 22 years in Haines Alaska without Chinese food. I think I’m going to be all right. (In New York City I used to go to Chinatown all the time.)
I did spend a little time with friend and photographer (and my landlord) Mariam Sitchinava and her pixie daughter Sophie. I did visit my good friends at the hand shadow theatre Budrugana Gagra. And I was welcomed with open arms and kisses on my cheek from everyone, men and women. And I got to watch a complete show of their shadow version of Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. And for the premier even the new president of the country, Salome Zurabishvili, was in attendance. I was quite proud to call these folks my friends. I will eventually write a more detailed review of this piece. As well as a report on the work on Mariam Kapanadze’s unusual animation project.
And then I found myself back at Erisioni where I was greeted as a returning friend. Otar Bluashvili commented that I indeed returned in December just like I said I would. When I first stepped into the dance studio several of the young male dancers broke into applause. And later when I finally saw the women dancers again I was greeted tenderly with kisses and very warm smiles. And today I stopped in and was invited to their big show this Sunday at the Philharmonic Hall where I was offered a better lens for my camera. I took a few photos today and greeted several more friends.
When I first arrived I felt even more disconnected than I did last year at the same time. With the financial questions hanging over my head, with Gravity From Above back in some sort of limbo, with friends yet to find me again, I was seriously wondering what I was doing here. The ground did not feel solid. I still have no idea how the practicalities of anything will work out. From getting a residence permit, to finding a permanent house to live in, to getting my container full of possessions, including my massive library, here, to getting Gravity From Above finished. These question fed my sense of dislocation.
Slowly I have been finding myself at home. I remember the day I walked up through Vake Park past the Soviet World War 2 Statue into the mountain, and then down the other side I felt at ease as I stopped at Parnassus Books, which also had books in English. More importantly there were two university students working there, Mariam and Ana. A wonderful conversation led to their offering to find someone to help me with Kartuli (the Georgian language). Within a week I had another university student Sandro helping me, for free! But it was on that walk, even before I got to the bookstore, that I thought to myself, how much I was feeling better about being there.
And there have been many other discoveries. But we’ll end our narrative here. What will tomorrow bring? I have no clue. None. Will I ever get enough money to finish up Gravity From Above? Will I find the wherewithal to get my stuff here? Will the Georgians let me stay? There are answers to these questions, but not yet. And so I am left with the big question mark. But you know a life without question marks really isn’t a very interesting life. So I accept that.
Oh and if anyone wants to help me get this bloody documentary finished….
There’ll be more to say, and soon, but for now I’ll just leave you all where I am. Wherever that is.
So if you wish to help out financially you can help me through PayPal. You can pass on a one time donation, or commit yourself to a small amount on a regular basis. Anything you choose to give will be helpful. And if you are one of those people who can help out in a more substantial way do consider it. I really am close to finishing Gravity From Above. But the amount needed is beyond me in this moment. So get in touch if you feel so moved. Click to donate. And thanks all of you for tagging along on this strange journey. CLICK ME!
Why do people come to Prague? I mean that as a serious question. Yes the architecture, the bridge, the castle. But why are so many people here? So many that even in the first week of December it is impossibly crowded with people who truly aren’t seeing what they supposedly came to see. I ran into this problem at the Louvre facing the Mona Lisa. The same problem exists here. People are told you should go to Prague. I’ve told dozens of friends the exact same thing. Yet I would always add but don’t go in the summer. But now I’m wondering when to go. Early December is obviously just as problematic as the summer would be. Is there a rainy season in March? But I’ve been here in March too. This is my 5th time visiting. And it won’t be my last. And yet the maw of tourism only grows.
I first came in 2000 at the exact same time of the year. It was wonderful. Yes there were tourists then. But I didn’t need a battle axe to cut my way through the Christmas Market in the Old Town Square. Today that Market is a kitschy festival of shoulder to shoulder tourists drinking hot wine out of plastic cups and chewing on trdlo, a fake ‘Old Bohemian’ sweet rolled bready thing baked on a spit over coals. (It looks much better than it tastes.) In fact if you want to sell anything to tourists just slap the words ‘Old Bohemian’ on it. ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal is a good example. There are probably hundreds of these ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal stores all selling exactly the same kinds of bling glitz to people who wouldn’t recognize fine crystal ware from a plastic sippy cup for infants.
One truth I’ve come to see about industrial tourism over the years, whether in Alaska, Paris or New York City, is that tourism syphons the realities of a place off into a simulacrum of itself. Making it difficult, nearly impossible for most people coming to this place to find the reality that attracted people in the first place. Yes you get an economy. But at what cost? Most true tourist destinations are often stocked with workers unrelated to the sights they came to see. And Prague is a classic example. You see Russian nesting matryoshka dolls, even matryoshka dolls in the shape of American football players. (Why?) You get classic car tours, at exorbitant rates, in fake classic cars at that. And you can ride a horse drawn carriage through the impossible pedestrian congestion. And you can pay ridiculously high prices for the privilege. Oh yeah you can get a Thai massage. I won’t point out the obvious here. That this isn’t exactly Thailand. Nor will I ask any further questions about how similar these institutions are to their Thai originals.
You want food? Watch out. Anything near the main arteries of tourism could be a trap. You could pay $50 for a single meal. Although just as ironically a good Czech restaurant could be buried in the mix. My most expensive Czech meal this trip was around $15 and it was tasty. (Duck, sweet red cabbage and dumplings, with beer!) My cheapest meal was $5. (Pork, cabbage, and dumplings.) And again watch out for the stalls selling ‘ Old Prague’ ham. I was ripped off once by these in the past. And seriously watch out for the ‘Change’ or ‘Exchange’ bureaus. These are probably the most evil currency exchanges in Europe. (I’m putting links below to videos that will help you navigate the tourist traps. I highly recommend Wolter’s World and for especially for Prague, Honest Guide.) And those sites that people came to see? The old town square, the bridge and the castle. They are mostly to be seen from a distance or endured. So many people clog these places that they have become unpleasant in the extreme. And the sharks? Oh they are there!
Do you want a real Christmas Market in Prague? I found the one in the Smichov district at Andél quite enjoyable. With genuine and inexpensive Prague ham on a spit too! In other words get away from the obvious. (Actually my favorite Christmas Market on this journey was in Lüneburg Germany while visiting my friends Carsten, Rebecca and their three daughters. But I digress.)
But then I come back to the question why do people come to Prague? Or more specifically why do I keep coming to Prague? Well one thing I can tell you, my Prague is not the tourists’ Prague. And I feel bad for those who come for ‘it’. I mean really what are they coming for? They don’t understand the history of what they looking at. The lines at the castle are too long. The bridge completely loaded with folks who aren’t really seeing anything. Oh yes you can take selfies here! Wow! How exciting! The old town square? Jam packed like a cattle car on its way to the slaughter house. So no, those are only valuable if you stay up late enough or get up with the chickens. Or come out in the rain. It’s not worth the effort to come see those things anymore.
But Prague is a special place indeed. It has a life that goes far beyond the crowds on onlookers. It has a unique history. It has a deeply creative side. It has art. It has the strangest assortment of outdoor sculptures I’ve ever seen. It has creepy puppets. (No not the cheap ones festooning that crowded tourist street.) And most importantly it has Czechs. That’s my Prague. My Prague is mysterious and filled with hidden symbolism. It is the place of the Golem and Faust, of Rudolf II and Vaclav Havel, of Trnka and Švankmajer. Prague in communist times was a gray decrepit city. I would have loved to have seen it then. Prague now is a harlot to the masses, with the Russian and Serbian underworlds counting coin behind the windows of hundreds of cheap gaudy whoring façades. One puppeteer I spoke to, who was old enough to remember the gray days, and was appalled by the cannibal culture of tourism, told me that she wished that there was a time after the Soviet Era collapsed and before the tourist explosion when Prague was cleaned up and belonged to the Czechs again. At least to have as a memory. But such a time was not to be. Sadly, unable to turn down the the cash Prague struck a Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles of tourism almost immediately. People couldn’t wait to exploit her. And exploit her they did. At least in Paris the tourism seems somewhat organic. But here a massive vacuum was begging to be filled. And suddenly the vultures swooped in. To be fair not all of the tourism is on the carrion level. There are indeed many reasons to come here. Alas though, it’s not for the three major attractions. The story of Faust remains central to the mythology of the city: The man who sold his soul to the devil.
My friend Nina Chromečková, translator from my interview with Jan Švankmajer back in 2012, had told me that there was a puppet version of Faust playing at the Colloredo-Mansfeldsky Palace shortly after my arrival. She bought tickets and met me at the palace entrance shortly before the play. We ascended a couple of flights of stairs and arrived in the empty shell of Hapsburg Era splendor replete with mirrors and filigree on the walls. We passed through haunted room after haunted room until we arrived at a makeshift puppet theatre behind a homemade stage, reminiscent of Buchty a Loutky in their classic period. And there in suit and tie stood Tomáš Procházka, former Buchty, now one of the creators behind tonight’s show by Handa Gote (Japanese for ‘soldering iron’). We greeted each other warmly and I knew instantly that if nothing else it would be an intriguing show. Tomáš said I could film the proceedings, so I set up discreetly off to the side near a window looking down on the Royal Road below me. In that darkened room it was hard not to be awed by the black silhouettes of statues on the Kostel Nejsvětějšího Salvátora across the narrow alley peering down on this darkened drizzling night as the hoards continued their mandatory strolls across the bridge. They never do look up to see the figures like beacons of the last judgement illuminated by the lights from below, as the trams pass on the tracks with regularity across the glistening cobblestone streets.
The show, a fascinating experiment, was done much in the way a show might have been done 150 years ago. Instead the usual theatre tech, with the exception of light bulbs, 95% of the devices used for music or special effects could have been seen before the age of electricity: a hand crank player piano, a music box, a whirring machine to make wind, a sheet of metal for thunder, old style linden wood carved marionettes with a rod in their head, painted back drops, cloth curtains and most surprising of all, a bellows stepped on occasionally to blow powdered tree resin into a hidden candle flame to produce a ball of fire on the small stage. A rare treat to behold. And the kind of performance that fills me with wonder, all the while wondering if the little stage would catch the flames.
Not only were the devices antiques, but so was the play itself. And while this may have made the entertainment a bit longer than contemporary distraction permits, (Let ’em squirm!) it was fascinating to watch the rhythms of this Faust and the strange archaisms. The elaborately carved medieval devils had their tongues drooping down their chins for instance. Now and then they spoke gibberish as though they couldn’t control their speech. (Švankmajer captured this strange sound perfectly in his version of Faust.) Also this followed a variation of Marlowe’s Faust, not Goethe’s. So there is no redemption for Faust at the end. But being as this is the Czech version, there is also not much of a damnation scene either. Instead in this version Faust is whisked off by the devils and then a long anticlimactic comedy with two guards continues as if not much has happened. As if to say people go to hell everyday, what’s the big deal? Life goes on. And eventually the two guards have more problems with a dumb Austrian bully than they did with the devils. (Obviously when this was written it was a subtle dig at the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had for so long stripped them of their language.) Another major Czech addition, Kašpárek, the fool, who tries everything after Dr. Faust does, becomes a black humor version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.
I also had a chance to meet my dear friend Nina Malíková at another traditional performance of Faust at Říše Loutek. The puppets were similar to the traditional Don Giovanni that ran at the same theatre for over 6000 performances and counting. And so while this wasn’t Faust antique it was Faust trad. And it was in fact the same classic Czech text, edited more, and minus the antiquarian touches. It even had the German bully scene at the end, about 15 minutes shorter. And it also had nice explosive effects and lots more traditional Czech devils.
Watch this now to understand what I’ve written!
Now truthfully I arrived late. I committed the classic boneheaded American blunder of confusing the 24 hour clock time of 16:00 with 6 o’clock. (Usually I’m better than that.) But before I could rectify my mistake I had missed the first half of the play. Nina however showed me the old puppets in the basement of theatre that most people don’t see. And again I marveled that the Prague I inhabited was so very different than the Prague of the tourists. Not that a visitor couldn’t have found this. After all they do find this theatre for Don Giovanni performances. It’s just that the rest of the repertoire of the theatre isn’t hawked as aggressively. And most folks don’t do enough research to find the real Prague. (Hint!)
Prague, the city of alchemists and puppets. Today’s fake alchemists don’t seek either a purification of materials or of souls anymore. Instead they lurk in chintzy doorways looking to turn unsuspecting tourists and their base tchotchskes into financial gain. But those who come to Prague willing to do a bit of digging will find much more than they ever expected. Be one of those people. Come to Prague. Look for puppet shows.
I’m writing this while on train during a day of German strikes when I am not sure when I will get back to Paris, nor what indeed it will be like when I get there after weeks of violent protests.
But next time we continue our Prague stories finding more puppet folks and more hidden gems beneath the surfaces.
On a German train somewhere beyond Berlin but not quite at Karlsruhe.
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.
After a mercifully uneventful but brutally efficient series of journeys from Haines, Alaska, to Juneau by ferry, and then by air from Juneau to Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon (!), to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Orly Airport South of Paris I arrived in France worn but alert at the Caron’s house in L’Häy-Les-Roses on October 6th. It was good to see the family of marionnetiste Paulette Caron again and to decompress and allow my body to adjust to a time zone ten hours earlier than the one I started in 40 hours earlier. After a summer working long hours in Alaska, taking people to go rafting or looking for bears, I purposely didn’t have much planned for the first couple of weeks of my permanent epochal passage from North America to Europa.
But that didn’t mean I was just going to sit around. It had been over 30 years since I had been to the Louvre. It was time to go again and the first Sunday of each month was free. And so I pushed myself through whatever jet lag I was feeling and hopped on a bus to the Metro to the Louvre the next morning just in time to stand in a modest line, modest by Louvre standards, with 25 minutes to spare. By the time the line moved forward however the line had swelled by to incredible lengths, lengths I would have surely avoided had I arrived 20 minutes later. At length they let us through the doors, in frantic waves. I decided I would quickly walk over to the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) to simply check out the insanity. Evidently I wasn’t alone. Although the Louvre had just opened its doors the Mona Lisa was already a zoo. But what I had come to see was NOT the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had come to see the insanity, which over the years had grown far worse than I had remembered it back in 1987 due to the advent of the smartphone.
Watch this now before you read on. It’s short.
And what I witnessed over and over was the following. Crowds blocking the view. Most with phones in their hands. They would line up the shot and then walk away. Literally never actually seeing the painting. They were ticking off the Mona Lisa. Done that. Next. Then they would post their photo on social media. Get a host of ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’. Feel the mini dopamine rush. Then tell their friends how they ‘saw’ the painting. They didn’t see anything. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to get some images for my documentary. Because I needed images to show people how deceived we have been by the illusion of extended sight through our devices. And here they were like pigeons with a bag of popcorn. Gathering the image frenetically. Heads bobbing. Seeking the next kernel of art. It was utterly hollow and bereft of any of the human experience of art. And each photo taken only proved that the taker had been present in the room and was too stupid to realize that any book or postcard for sale at the museum gift shop would have given them a better reproduction. (But not if I can get a selfie with it!!!)
And ironically if you stepped out of that room there were couple more Leonardo Da Vinci paintings that I considered to be just as powerful. And neither was subjected to the pigeon cluster. And so I was able to look for ten minutes. Although eventually the pigeons did start to gather. Phones came out. Apps with explanations and more digital reproductions. Of the works you were looking at! And the feeding frenzy continued.
I stepped away into the only slightly less psychotic room for the French masters of the Revolution and early 19th Century. David, Delaroche, Delacroix, Chasseriau, Géricault and other French Romantic painters who emphasized emotion and national feeling over intellectual or supernatural themes. It was a fascinating era to spend time exploring. And even with the increasing humidity of the throngs, and the weather outside was warmer than Alaska had been all summer, I apprehended something about France and and its art that superseded the myth-making of the French Revolution or Les Miz.
I learned long ago not to try to take in the entirety of large museums like the Louvre. Instead I spent a little time with the two Botticelli frescos, which I had fondly remembered then while passing the Winged Victory left to find the small Musée Eugene Delacroix in the sixième arrondissement before finding my way home by Metro and bus.
Click to expand.
While in Paris I watched less than a handful of films, wandered through the streets and found the crepes I had been craving. I also visited the Musée Luxembourg to see a fairly thorough exhibit on Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. Again it was crammed with tourists and I wished I had had the time to come at the right time of day or month too avoid the congestion. (I’m appreciating those sparsely populated museums in Tbilisi even more now.) But alas. All the same I picked up further appreciation for Mucha, an artist I have already spent a fair amount of time with. Besides his famous posters I was able to see many sketches and paintings I had never seen before. I also visited Pierre again at the obscure store Heeza where I picked a couple of animation DVDs and was also introduced to a stop motion paper animator named Camille Goujon.
While in Paris it was time to drop in on Pascal Pruvost again with les Petits Bouffons de Paris at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont before a highly excitable audience of les enfants and their parents. I was able to get decent wide angle shots of both Guignol and the children interacting together outdoors. Pascal at one point asked “When did you first come to see me here?” I told him 2005. He smiled and said “That’s a long time.” And indeed it is. Pascal was the first puppeteer I spent time with on that journey that changed so much of my life. And he wasn’t alone. There were others who still figured in some way into this story.
Yet one person was an entirely new addition to my sphere, a 16 year old puppeteer named Lyes Ouzeri. He had gotten in touch with me through Facebook. And while I had to miss his Punch and Judy performance in late September I was still curious enough about him to set up a meeting. He found me at the Metro entrance for Parc Monceau. His father, Mehdi, came along. He showed me his puppets, some quite marvelously homemade. And I interviewed him for posterity. I was impressed by both his youth and the maturity of his commitment to puppetry, especially the most traditional of puppets: Punch, Judy, Guignol, Pulcinella, even Polichinelle. It was clear that he had already found his metier in life and could see the value of these tangible creatures in this age of the digital distractions.
Back at the Carons I enjoyed the quiet, the food and conversation. And especially enjoyed the conversations with house guest Ugo Jude, whom I had met last March. Although Ugo was an atheist and a serious old school political Marxist and I a Christian of doubtful political leanings, we nevertheless enjoyed a strong heartfelt rapport. And that is how it should be in these polarized times.
Finally on the morning of October 21st, Gilles and Lorraine drove me through a secret maze of Parisian back streets in their rusting 1962 Peugeot 403 over to the Gare De Lyon for the my TGV train to Switzerland. I will pass briefly by Paris again before this journey is over but now on to the little village of Huémoz in the canton of Vaud in the Alps.
On the TGV to Lausanne
For more on my experiences with Guignol read these:
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And so my six month long journey is over… or at least at a stopping point until October. And I feel the need to summarize something about it. To look for a pattern in the ineffable. Without a doubt this journey was quite different in many regards to many trips I have taken over the years. It can’t be an accident that journeying to Europe has, over the years, often been the catalyst for great change in my life. I have been to Europe on nine different occasions. And three of those times have brought monumental alterations in my life’s direction. Europe certainly hasn’t been the only proving ground for me. And every visit hasn’t had the same kind of effect upon me. But this was indeed one of those demarcation points for me, beyond which I am forced into the next square on the chessboard. And that is quite clear.
For one thing this moment comes at a time when my life seemed at a crossroads. In 2015 my mother had passed on after having lived ten years in Alaska. This brought me to a point of questioning many things and of reaching out artistically into new zones, whether successfully or not remains to seen. Something seemed to be coming to an end by June of 2017. I felt I was looking out at the universe through a microscope instead of a telescope. And yet I couldn’t see that I was in the wrong or a terrible place. But I saw that I had to simply continue to walk on down the trail laid before me however uncertain. By early July I had been informed that my life in the Quonset Hut where I lived for over 20 years was over. The previous December I had been accepted for a three week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. And the only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get there. For a few minutes I thought about doing the practical and safe thing, to start looking for another place to rent and setting up a new situation for myself in Haines. But I realized two things instantly. One was that doing so would by necessity mean radical changes in my life in order to make the money to do that. And two, if I wanted to get anywhere playing it safe was definitely out of the question. And so I gambled on getting myself to France, closing my life in Haines down as soon as possible and putting everything into storage.
By October I had passed through one of the most tense periods of my life to find myself flying to France once again to try to do something with this ragged documentary that quite frankly I have been working on for far too long. By the middle of the second week in Charleville I was told potentially good news by the Institute. Very good news indeed, news that I had not been planning on. And thus many things occurred to me at once. I immediately knew that my decision had been the right one. If I had done the obviously ‘responsible’ thing and stayed home to organize my life anew I stood a good chance of dragging Gravity From Above out to the point of absurdity, and probably at the cost of my own sense of purpose. I also knew that this had happened far too early in this excursion, this exile, to be the deeper reason for the journey. This stroke of fortune had to be the hors d’oeuvre not the main course. I had planned on also visiting more puppet theatres and countries and then ending up for three months in Tbilisi, Georgia. And so maybe, I thought, something was awaiting me in Georgia.
Meanwhile as I moved on I can’t say that everything was simply a photo album of great moments of puppetry. That sense of muffled unease that had surfaced in June followed me around as well. I won’t belabor it or the specific reasons why here. But it was a serious concern that would pop up from time to time. And in a way I suppose I was also reflecting on my own mortality, and whether I had accomplished much at all in this strange life of mine. Sometimes it’s easy to see the cracked shards of endeavors to produce something of worth. I’m not one to be satisfied with cheap tokens of positive esteem. I am not looking to be validated by Facebook ‘Likes’. And so one of the places I most wanted to go was to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. A place with over 8,000 desiccated corpses on display. I wanted to look into the face of death and to both accept it and to gather my courage for the next chapter of my life. This questioning was not about feeling self pity. It was about seeing clearly what it means to be human in this dark world. It was about finding new resolve in face of personal dead ends and failures.
And I was having excellent conversations along the way with Lori, Gilles, Julien and my dear friend Paulette in Paris, with Māra Uzuliņa, Estefania Urquijo, Yanna Kor, Coraline Charnet and Raphaèle Fleury in Charleville-Mézières with Nicolas and Jose Géal, Dmitri and Biserka in Brussels, Mary and Simon in Lyon, the Quays and Matty Ross in London, with Per Ole, Greg, even Ellis Potter showed up in Switzerland and L’Abri students like Jessica, Jim and Sophia. And so many more.
And then there was art. I saw the artwork of Italy for the first time Palermo and Rome. I noticed the statues everywhere. I was particularly sensitive to the meaning of beauty in the museums I passed through. In Brussels, in Paris, in London, and in Rome. Tarkovsky had been right. “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” And so did so much of what I saw, the elaborate effort put into so much art. To see a Bernini or Michelangelo statue is to weep over the loss of beauty in contemporary art today. To realize how much work has been put into expressing that which is always just beyond our grasp is to look back at our cheap broken fragments today, the big eyed cute fanart kitsch, the postmodern ugly uselessness, with a sense of utter loss. And yet to see the wonder of the paintings and sculptures of the past is to marvel, to truly dream, to hope in something that we could achieve were we not running away from meaning at every turn in this virtual age. I found myself stopped by Michelangelo’s Pieta, tears came to my eyes as I beheld the holy sense of comfort exuding from his depiction of Mary, young face, old hands, holding her dead son. It spoke to me of everything missing in life. Of sacrifice beyond our comprehension. Of tenderness, a tenderness I’ve certainly never known, that must exist somewhere.
And of course there were puppets… And puppets to me seemed to speak of humility in this tawdry shallow world of geeky images and toy electronic music. As I watched the politically correct failure of the most recent Star Wars film I contrasted the massive budget and expert special effects with the hand shadow ballets I saw in Georgia at Budrugana Gagra. The one was an overpriced over-hyped film franchise with plenty of agenda, yet without a soul. The other could literally be made for free. And yet the dedication of the low paid performers to the perfection of their movements spoke of deeply spiritual longings in the deepest sense of the word. Everything missing from our shiny, noisy screens.
Guignol, Woltje, Gnafron, Orlando, Punch and clowns (!) seem to follow me around. As did much more mysterious creatures, like those found in the films of the Brothers Quay. And somehow there was a continuity between the puppets found in the Palermo and Brussels and Tbilisi museums, the statues in Italy, France and England, the skeletons and corpses of Italy. And the textures (another big theme) found in exhibitions about Christian Dior and Balenciaga, the dresses in the V & A and the many traditional costumes of Georgia. Artistically everything seemed of a piece.
And yet none of this was what I suspected might happen.
And the first few weeks in Tbilisi Georgia were good yet curiously uneventful. It was the holiday season that lasted until the eastern New Year celebration around mid-January. A few connections were made but particularly around January 1st I seriously began to wonder what I was doing there. But then there was a shift which I can date to a conversation on January 3rd which began to change my perceptions of what I was doing in Georgia. It wasn’t a big revelation, just a subtle recognition that there were people I could really talk to. Later after the second New Year everything began to open up again. And more conversations opened up more doors. There was the art I was discovering in museums. There was my time with Budrugana Gagra, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, the National Folklore School, the Marjanishvili Theatre, and especially my time with Erisioni that convinced me beyond a doubt of the artistic inclinations of the Georgians, which was important for me. And it was in conversations with Nini Sanadiradze, Ana Sanaia, Salome Berikashvili, John Graham, Eka Diasamidze Graham, Vladimir Lozinski, Elene Murjikneli, Gela Kandelaki, Tinatin Gurchiani, Natia Vibliani, Mariam Sitchinava, Koté Khutsishvili, Nata Zumbadze, Otar Bluashvili, Daro Sulakauri, Giorgi Kancheli, and especially Nino Vadachkoria, that I realized that I had the potential of having true friends in this country as well as the infrastructure of a community to help me navigate my way through this new landscape. I was nearly convinced of moving there when Nini Sanadiradze offered me the job of helping to design and create the puppet and doll museum from scratch.
And that was it. That was the real point of this journey in the end. I had often thought I might end up in Europe for the last chapter of my life. Yet I had no idea it would be a place like Georgia, which I had no real idea even existed before 2012. But now I will be returning there to set up a new life. I made sure I explored some darker corners of the town before I left. That I had a clear eyed idea of the place. (And I recently explored this theme here.) But now this small country in the middle of the world was to become my home. Talk about a dizzying beautiful experience. And the farewells were warm and meaningful. And more importantly I felt I was coming to a place where my gifts would mesh with the environment. Unlike New York, which always felt too embattled. Unlike Alaska, where most of my talents lay under wraps. Now I would be coming back to Europe to finish my documentary and then to stay. And that’s an incredibly large event in one’s life. This wasn’t going to be a temporary experiment. This would be me shedding my last skin to see what kind of creature this life has made of me. We will have to see.
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.
One of the puppet theatres I had most wanted to contact was the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I had seen them perform in Paris and then again in Tbilisi and yet I never quite made contact. It was a disappointment since Rezo Gabriadze was one of the puppet directors I had most wanted to interview and Ramona one of the best puppets shows I had seen. But alas, one doesn’t get everything one wants.
Click on these for larger images.
I did however discover that there was another place in town, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre (TSPT), which has existed in one form or another since 1934. And so I late February I found a Facebook page for them and and sent them a message. I was contacted by Ana Sanaia, an actress and their manager. She was happy to have me come see them. I found them in an old factory building called The Silk Factory, where they had a small theatre. I was let in on a day when there was an art exhibition in an adjacent gallery. The Silk Factory was used for a variety of purposes including a production studio that I was shown, which might be a place where I can edit the final version of Gravity From Above.
I was enjoying a conversation with a woman named Salome Berikashvili when Ana Sanaia came in. She was very glad to meet me. The show for the day was a short version of Tbilisi’s history done through allegorical imagery. The play called Sakartvelo (Georgia) featured a modified bunraku style not too different from the Gabriadze Theatre. They performed mostly on a table top, with performers in black moving the figures from behind. The main figures were a wooden donkey and a bird. But whether cotton balls for clouds or flat cutout dancers or pails filled with sand and turned upside down, then lifted up to represent an older Tbilisi, the sense of invention was continual. The main director Nikoloz Sabashvili had come from the theatre but was bringing to the puppet stage a wider grammar. I was especially impressed when the sandlot Tbilisi was set ablaze, some inflammatory accelerant laced into the sandcastles and then the sandcastles were destroyed. The donkey and the bird were seeking a butterfly, Suliko, who represents the soul of Georgia. Suliko is also a Georgian song, which is heard several times in the piece. But just when it seems like the butterfly will return it is crushed by the frightening boot of Communism. But, and this was a similar theme to Budrugana Gagra’s Isn’t This A Lovely Day, the donkey ascends in a ladder into the clouds to find the butterfly in a heavenly place. And then everyone sings a song. And that’s a happy ending in Georgia. Looking forward to eternal life, rather than the life in this embattled world. I find I am often impressed by the deep longings, often thwarted, in Georgian stories.
The song Suliko ends with these lines:
Ah, life has meaning once more now!
Night and day, I have hope
And I have not lost you, my Suliko
I shall always return to you, I know now where you rest.
Watch this now… It’s only 5 minutes of your life.
I also attended a children’s show on another day. The narrator was essentially a large khinkali. Let me try to explain what I mean. Khinkali is one of the national dishes of Georgia. It is a ravioli-like dumpling stuffed with ground spicy meat or selguni cheese. So what I’m saying is that the narrator of this children’s show was a large dumpling. The story, which I must confess I didn’t quite follow, my Georgian language skills can best be described as infantile, but it did involve love, a journey of sorts, farm animals and an ogre. Or was that a demon? The children were as noisy as the French kids, happily clapping and singing along when there was a moment. And the house was so crammed full that I felt guilty for taking up one of the seats.
A couple of weeks later in March I was invited by Ana to see the actual studios and rehearsal space of the TSPT. I met her in the Marjanishvili Square area. While waiting for her I bumped into Nino Namitcheishvili who was directing a puppet show based on Antoine Exupery’s The Little Prince over at the Marjanishvili Theatre. I told her I would go in a week. Ana came along after Nino had gone and had also met her on her way to see me. Artistically Tbilisi is not a very big town. Most people seem to know each other or at least about each other. Ana took me into a strange old modernist building that I had seen from a far but never seen close up. The building felt partially deserted partially unlit. We took an aging elevator up about seven floors. I entered the ramshackle hall on the floor that was used mostly by the puppet troupe. I was allowed to visit the rooms where craftsmen worked making dolls. I also met a few women working on clothing and other artistic aspects of puppet creation. It was a suitably crowded and thriving hive of activity. In another room the various puppeteers were gathering to work on improvisations and scripts. I also saw old rare posters for past shows sitting in a huge pile. At one point a puppet of Woody Allen was brought out. Evidently Georgians have a fondness for the neurotic New Yorker. Although it was hard to imagine what a Georgian would sound like imitating Vudi Aleni.
I was sitting in a moody dimly lit office with Niko Sabashvili watching a video he had directed in a theatrical manner that told a tragic Georgian political story of recent vintage. Ana Sanaia was there. She was also a potent actress within the film. Niko had to work on rehearsals when Salome came in. I told the two women about what had happened before this trip even started, losing my home of more than 20 years, receiving the backing of the International Institute of Puppetry in France at the beginning of this journey. As we spoke I also conveyed that I was starting to wonder if maybe I should relocate to Tbilisi. I had had several conversations that pointed me in that direction. They both looked at me seriously and told me at different moments: “You are supposed to be here.” There was something eerie about it. As though some direct word from above was coming through them. If I had been tilting towards the idea 60/40 when I walked in, I was even more thoughtful about the possibility when I left.
So while I was ruminating over these things it was clear to me that puppetry it turns out is very much alive in Tbilisi. There is much more to say though. Next time as we will visit the Marjanishvili Theatre and celebrate World Puppetry Day with the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre.
Come back soon!
Light and dark. Illumination and shadow. These are the most primal elements of visual experience. Everything we see reflects this. Even colors are essentially shadow shows with degrees on a spectrum of light and how they are reflected back to us by different materials. But black and white is the key. And black and white are the primary images in shadow puppetry. And the most basic of all entertaining shadows is silhouette of the hand. Hands and figures are the elemental tools. The shadows cast upon a wall by a light source creating rabbits or birds or perhaps just the shape and personality of the human hand itself. Thus making the hand the original puppet. And from that simplicity comes the complex artistry of Budrugana Gagra in Tbilisi, Georgia.
‘Budrugana’ is a Georgian word that means a carriage, particularly the kind of carriage that might open up in a small village in the Caucasus Mountains and produce a puppet show. ‘Gagra’ is the name of a town now cordoned off from Georgia in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. There was strife in the 1990s in Abkhazia. There was bloodshed. There were refugees. Hundreds of thousands. Most of them were Mingrelian Georgians (or Megrels, მეგრელები Megrelebi). And they were housed in strange places, like the huge old Soviet Intourist Hotel, now the considerably more swanky Radisson Blu not far from Rustaveli Square.
Budrugana had existed as a hand shadow puppet theatre in a previous incarnation without the word Gagra attached to it. Gela Kandelaki (whose name actually means candle holder in church) a film director, producer, and actor once, wrote and directed უბედურება (Ubedureba) a very realistic film based on a play by David Kldiashvili. Directing work was not steady under the Soviet system. (Tarkovsky only directed 7 films in his fights with the authorities.) And so in the early ’80s Kandelaki came upon the idea of bringing the old art of hand shadows, which was still performed in small villages up in the mountains by parents for their children, into a new form. He created a unique shadow puppet troupe. Kandelaki began working as a director with hand shadows in the 1980s, which was a time of cultural ferment in the loosening grip of the faltering Soviet system. Interestingly enough they practiced in the basement of the Karlo Sulakauri’s house/museum. (See the previous essay.) Budrugana officially came into being in 1991 at the International Festival of Manipulations in Paris. In 1992 they were designated a ‘state theatre’. In 1993 they flew all the way to the International Puppetry Festival in San Francisco.
Meanwhile the situation in Georgia became more unstable as the 1990s continued. Civil War, separatist movements, financial collapse, political uncertainty, electrical failures, along with the growing internal refugee crisis, created a difficult moment for the arts. But as the dust began to settle in the roller coaster of the Georgian ’00s it seemed appropriate to Gela to start the hand shadow theatre again. There were many available Megrelebi with creative talents who needed something to do. Several of the shadow puppeteers are Megrelebi. And so the name Gagra was added to Budrugana as a tribute to the formerly beautiful resort town that was ethnically cleansed of its many Georgian residents.
So Budrugana Gagra under Gela Kandelaki’s directorship has been making hand shadow art for many years in one way or another. When I first noticed their work in 2016 I was impressed by the dedication that the hand shadow puppeteers have to their work. The motions are balletic, which Gela attributes less to any direct influence of dance than to the essence of certain aspects of Georgia folk culture. The movements of the hands are incredibly precise. And they have to be in order to communicate the shapes of animals or the much more subtle waves of the ocean. Kandelaki, who does not perform the actual hand shapes himself, works out the forms with the owners of the hands. And different hands have different suggestions of presence and movement. And these shapes often correspond to the character of the puppeteers. Zuri, with big hands will often play larger or move immovable objects. Shorena and Mariam have the most pliant and supple arms and are used more for the grace and delicacy of there movements. Elene plays the duck in one story and she is more humorous.
And there are essentially two styles that Budrugana Gagra works with. One is a more accessible comic style with hands making ravens, spiders, giraffes, elephants, ducks and above all bears. And the other is much more abstract and ethereal and often is set to the music of Bach. Most recently they have been working on a multi-part series of abstract vignettes to Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. It will in the end have more than 15 sections and be performed to a recording, complete with orchestra and voices. Yet the way the work is unfolding it is by no means a literal transforming of the Gospel material into directly symbolic forms. There are no hand shadows making crosses for instance. And yet…
One thing has occurred to me as I have watched several performances. Even in the animal based images there is something going on beyond the obvious. In the piece ‘Isn’t This A Lovely Day?’ a hand shadow bear lip-syncs the words of Louis Armstrong from a live performance. (Sadly Louis Armstrong is probably better remembered in Georgia than in America. A live puppet film from back in the Soviet Era, called the Dreams of the Kojori Forest, also features a puppet of dear Louis.) Other animals play musical instruments. Another hand bear becomes the great Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. The Louis bear falls in love with the Ella bear and then loses her. In the end he dies. And the sad processional music of a New Orleans jazz funeral creates a moment of sorrow and tension. An angel takes him to heaven. But the joyful jazz marching music of the return journey from the cemetery brings him back in a resurrected form. It is not a simple nor ironic comedy. The Louis Armstrong bear is not a silly cartoon character of the great jazz musician. The disappearance of the Ella bear is a moment of genuine loss. (Louis and Ella never had any sort of romantic relationship in real life.) The death is truly sad. The resurrection genuinely joyful.
I asked Gela about the spiritual content of his work. The Saint Matthew’s Passion, though abstract, is loaded with suggestions of pilgrimage, prayer, deep beauty amidst struggle. He confessed in my interview with him that though he also said he was not always the most Christian man, something does come indeed through… I think he was being modest. His work has a depth that is quite hard to ignore. And the more I have spent time watching his unique shadow theatre the more I am inspired to push the boundaries of what can be said and felt through this medium. Especially in the realm of shadows and light.
Budrugana Gagra has in many ways been like a creative home for me here. I feel that I can drop in at any time. And even if the puppeteers present don’t speak English very well I always feel welcomed and accepted. Gela, who is in his late 70s, looks at me as ‘young’ visitor. At one point he told me told call him Bidza Gela, Uncle Gela. An honor indeed. Gela actually stopped me at one point when I mentioned that it my home away from home. He said “No! It’s just your home.” I had told him of what had happened in Alaska. (Click this to read that.) I replied “Then it’s my Georgian home.” He laughed and agreed with that. I will continue to visit my friends at Budrugana Gagra. They play about once a month in the ‘small room’ at the Rustaveli Theatre. If you ever come to Tbilisi, and I highly recommend that you do, then you must seek them out. (Links below.) And then you will understand the beauty and meaning of shadows and light.
20 / 3 2018
And here is Budrugana Gagra’s website. Go visit them!
And you can read about my first visit with Budrugana Gagra here.
PS. If you wish to contribute to Gravity From Above and our current journey then please feel free to give through PayPal. It is easy and safe. Several supporters have done so already. And their gifts have been truly timely beneficial. This kind of exploration is in no way a luxurious adventure. So yes do feel free to give.
I’ve discovered a lost world just this week.
And I mean that. I’m not talking in hyperbole.
I was ushered into a room that had the puppetry equivalent of King Tut’s treasures in it. Collecting the dust of years. Made by a name seemingly opaque to the world of puppets, puppet films, puppetry animation, never mind the big world. More than once my jaw was firmly resting on the floor with the miniature spectacle being revealed to me. I found a lost world this week, the world of forgotten Georgian puppet animator Karlo Sulakauri.
I originally visited Tbilisi Georgia in March of 2016. One of the tiny museums I tried to get into was what the Georgian Museums site called the Animated Puppet Museum. I had dutifully, eagerly hunted it down, going so far as to navigate the cryptic bus system to end up at 23 Amagleba Street. All I found was a locked door, the most paint cracked door imaginable, with an old rusty plaque on it that read ‘Karlo Sulakaure – Puppetton (?) Animation Doll Museum’. A ringing of the bell and knocks on the door produced no sound. Trying to peer into the windows proved impossible. The other puppet folk in Tbilisi didn’t even know of the existence of this place. I wrote to the email addresses listed on the Georgian Museums page. Silence.
I wrote a note to the Quay brothers about it. They immediately saw the extreme possibility of what might lay behind that door. They wrote back: “The plaque of the Puppet Museum is very moving and poignant. Somebody probably walked out, locked up, and then passed away and that person had the only key and he/she was buried with it, and the museum as well. But you must try to get into it.” I took that as a command. But to no avail. Like the spectral house in Shirley Jackson’s Daemon Lover, no one ever came to the door. Whenever I mentioned it to people who might know something they just looked at me with a puzzled hopeless expression. And so I left Tbilisi and all I had was the mysterious plaque in a photograph.
I arrived back in Tbilisi in late December of 2017 for an extended three month stay. I would meet more people. Occasionally I asked about the museum. No one knew anything. Then at the beginning of February, reflecting on the older photo, I thought again about the museum and then remembered the Quays command. I thought let’s give it one more try. So I wrote to the email addresses still listed on the museum website.
A few days passed.
And then I received a response from someone named Daro Sulakauri. Originally I thought it was a man, but it is hard to tell male and female names apart in Georgian. Tako is girl. Toko is a boy. Daro proved to be the granddaughter of Karlo Sulakauri, who had made animated films from the 1950s until the 1980s in the old Soviet Union. The little museum featured his work exclusively. Daro would be happy to open the door to the ‘Puppetton Animation Doll Museum’ and to give me a private showing. I had no idea what to expect. But it would take longer than I expected to get in. Daro is a photojournalist who works for international magazines like National Geographic or Georgian Journal, etc and she was often out on assignment. I had to wait. But what else is new? This is Georgia. I’m getting used to it.
Eventually Daro’s schedule proved favorable to a visit. And so I took the bus up to Amagleba Street and stood again at the decaying door. I pressed the doorbell. No answer. But I assumed that she would be coming from somewhere else. I was wrong though. Shortly before the appointed time a pleasant curly haired young woman wearing glasses opened the door with a friendly smile. She didn’t know I was there. The doorbell didn’t work. I should have knocked.
But as I stepped in I was suddenly presented with a very tactile colorful artistic stairway leading up to the first floor. But we stepped under it and back passed piles of stored boxes and other debris. Daro opened up a door and flipped a light switch. I was sidetracked by some art on the wall. And then I turned my attention to the room. And as we entered I must have gasped. I had expected some children’s puppetry. It turned out that Elene at Budrugana Gagra did know about this place. In fact they used to practice underneath in the basement, in what is now a restaurant. (This happens all the time here. Someone says they don’t know what you mean. Then it turns out they know much more than they said.) Elene had shown me a couple of pages in a book on Georgian animation. A thick book! And it seemed like pleasant work. But none of those images prepared me for what I was about to discover. Karlo Sulakauri wasn’t just an animator, he was an artist with a complete aesthetic vision. And no one seemed to know anything about him.
But Daro knew a lot. We spoke as she pointed things out. I waited a moment before beginning to photograph the collection. I was just trying to take it all in. Once my eyes adjusted I began to see images of creatures and people that I had never seen before. There was an old man in a wagon. I saw strange assemblages on the wall made many years ago that looked like they could have been found in a Soho gallery today. There were strange figures with even stranger lips. A tree man, I think, made of of wood. Look again and that old man had a strange grin. There were old posters of puppet shows from the mid-20th Century. Photos of Karlo and his film crew. Deformed asymmetrical puppets. A wicker figure. A large spider with a weird painted abdomen. A wooden flute with insectoid notes emerging from it. And most impressively, even eerily, of all I was struck by an insect/bird/moth/fairy that was battered with age and set against a ragged aquamarine background.
And as I spoke with Daro fragments of Karlo’s life began to revealed. And I soon recognized an absolutely dramatic story in the telling. And later I would hear even more of the tale from Daro’s father, Karlo’s son, Dato. Meanwhile I began to discuss even more with Daro, which eventually settled upon the topic near and dear to many Georgians – music. Then Daro introduced me to her husband, an electronic DJ, Giorgi Kancheli. And soon we were sitting in his studio listening to music and discussing the vinyl LP, of which he had a respectable collection. And I realized that there was something in the way Georgians talk that is at once open to new ideas, yet simultaneously respectful of traditions. Meanwhile I was smitten by the art all over the house. Much was by Dato. One wall tapestry arrested me for its use of textures. This was made by Daro’s mother, Nino Kipshidze. Then Daro pointed out a portrait of her mother in her youth as drawn by the famous Soviet Era filmmaker, Tbilisi born Armenian, Sergei Parajanov. In fact the creativity of this lineage of human beings was quite something to behold. And soon I would see just how much more there was.
Daro drove us through the back streets of Tbilisi until we arrived at a building not too far from Rustaveli Square, yet complete hidden. A gently aging ornate wooden house similar in color to the paint behind the moth fairy. We were met at the door by Dato Sulakauri, who it turns out is a very respected painter in his own right, and his wife Nino Kipshidze, who actually runs the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art that I described in my last essay, and does fantastic patchwork art of her own in tapestries, based on traditional Georgian motifs. And the part of me that is desperate for texture really connected to one of her works back at the museum / Daro’s house. But it was Dato’s work here that caught me. His work too was often inspired by Georgian themes. And his encaustic (waxed based) ikons were beautifully rendered, being both primitive (you could see ancient Roman art in his paintings), contemporary (technique, style, intensity) and yet there was gratefully no trace of postmodern irony. I was so impressed that Dato noticed and eventually handed me a copy of a book of his work.
But I was here to discuss his father, Karlo. But not until Nino laid a small but wonderful table setting of wine, tea, cookies and jam. Eventually it was time to set up the camera and train the lens on Dato, who then through Daro, an excellent interpreter due her time spent in the USA. (But that’s a long story better left for another time.) Then came the story of Karlo Sulakauri, which touched me in its complexity, heartbreak, drama and epiphany. How can I possibly do it justice? Perhaps a few details.
Karlo left Georgia to work in puppetry under the great Sergei Obraztsov. Obraztsov soon recognized his talent and sent him back to Tbilisi to work on animation films. He made a series of animated films including Soviet childhood classic Bombora, Salamura (a serious and impossible to classify hour long film based on the work of poet E. Kipiani), Dolls Laugh, and a unique film whose title translates into Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale. Sadly the only copies of these films available for anyone to see are muddy copies on YouTube in the Georgian and Russian alphabets and certainly no subtitles. Supposedly at least some of the films still exist in vaults in Moscow, but who knows in what condition. (I’ve linked Salamura and Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale which are highly worth watching even in this form.)
But that’s only the beginning of the issues surrounding these films. The Soviet apparatchik producers were playing a strange game with the puppets, which involved destroying the figures in front of Sulakauri at the end of production in order to embezzle the money needed to produce more puppets. Sulakauri was able to smuggle out duplicates of many of the puppets. But many precious originals were cut in half before his eyes. And then there was a fire that swept through the Tbilisi studio. Sulakauri actually risked his life to rescue the puppets that now live in this museum. There were strange issues with the censors. Sulakauri would put in ambiguous images like a red Kremlin shaped building that was filled with clowns. Hmmm. What kind of symbolism could that contain? When asked, he waved away their correct suspicions by saying it was just the clown house. They made him paint it white. But the point was still being made. In another episode Sulakauri put a subliminal image of St. George. But they caught it when they happened to freeze frame the film accidentally in that exact spot.
After the end of the Soviet Empire, in the early 90s, when Georgia was independent but caught in an internal civil war, fighting spread to the streets on Rustaveli Avenue. Sulakauri watched on helplessly. The main body of his work was finished. Yet he was inspired to make a new piece. He worked on it for over a year. He wanted the strife to end. This was to be his masterpiece. When it was finished he took it to be developed. As it was running through the developing machine the electricity suddenly failed, as happened often in Georgia in the 90s. The entire film was ruined. Sulakauri was devastated. He gave up on filmmaking, never to make another film. His depression was serious. It was the birth of his grandchildren that brought joy to his final days. He died in the year 2000.
And so his collection has remained pretty much where he left it ever since then. Collecting dust. Awaiting rediscovery. This small museum was occasionally open. But not for some time. And it was his granddaughter Daro, now living in that house, who opened the door for me to see these treasures. I told her that I was absolutely stunned and honored to be able to see these things. I also told her that puppet animation history needs to be rewritten to include Karlo Sulakauri. My time with the Sulakauris was deeply moving on many levels. And I felt grateful to be allowed a step into their world.
When I arrived at my apartment on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue I did a little online homework. I accessed the archives at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. Not a mention of Sulakauri. Nothing on Wikipedia. He is listed as Carlo (sic) Sulakauri in IMDb. I guess someone thought he was Italian. There was very little information there. Not even his dates (1924 – 2000). I was more convinced than ever that others, especially animators, need to know who he was. And so this essay along with my photos is a first step to informing the rest of the world about him.
There was one final thing that Dato told me that said me everything about his father. When he was just a six year old boy a traveling puppet troupe had come through his village. Later the family realized that Karlo was missing. Everyone searched the village. Karlo was nowhere to be found. The whole village was worried. Eventually it was discovered that young Karlo had stowed away to join the traveling puppet show.
Many more discoveries are awaiting. So come back again soon. (Or stop now and read our past encounters with European puppets, filmmakers, musicians, dancers and more.)
For more information about Dato Sulakauri’s art:
For more information about Daro Sulakauri’s photojournalism:
I’ve written more on the unique world of Georgian artists here:
And remember we are still funding this project from the bottom of very shallow pockets and can still use all the help we can get. We are grateful for recent PayPal contributions that really meant much more than can be expressed here. If you wish to help out please feel free to make a contribution. You can also share this story with others. Thanks for the continuing encouragement.
One of the things I’m attempting to do while in Georgia is to explore the culture to understand where the music, the dance and the puppetry comes from. In order to do this I find myself haunting some fairly out of the way locales. And that means finding museums that are not only ‘off the beaten path’ but almost abandoned. It’s weird to find yourself being the only person in a museum for over an hour. And these are ‘national museums’ and certainly listed as such. And yet when I arrive it seems that the main job of the friendly museum staff is to care for the treasures that they are sitting on. I’m also imagining that in the summer they get a bit more traffic than I’ve seen so far. And I hope they are getting school field trips and other purposeful visits as well. And yet as I open these cabinets of curiosities I am frankly entranced by what I find. And when I pay a few lari more I can get a personal guide to walk me through the collection and explain everything to me in the most knowledgeable ways.
The Quay Brothers once told me that it wasn’t simply that they were attracted to puppets, rather it was the discarded things found at the fringes of art and society, the cultural marginalia, that inspired them. And I seriously understand this. To say you’ve been to Europe and that you’ve seen the Mona Lisa means almost nothing. Especially when you’ve entered the Louvre along with thousands of other visitors only to stare for a few moments at the small painting ensconced behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by endless quantities of tourists taking videos and selfies of the experience rather than actually seeing the thing itself. I get the same feeling when someone tells me they love films, then go on to list popular fantasy and science fiction films that quite literally 90% of earth’s population has seen. It all becomes part of what Walker Percy describes as a preformed symbol complex, making it nearly impossible for the average person to actually see the Grand Canyon or the Colosseum, even while standing before them. Thus those who really are able to grasp meaning from art or culture are not those who will wait for hours at the most recent super show at the Met, rather it is those who can stop and gaze at the patterns of embroidery on a regional costume. Those able to see through the musty scratches of an old silent film. Or those willing to find arcane treasures in forgotten museums.
In some sense every museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, is already obscure by the standards of present day art and relic consumption. How many Americans could tell you who Niko Pirosmani is? And he is the most important artist from Georgia. Not to mention Lado Gudiashvili or Davit Kakabadze? Few indeed. But then again how many of my fellow citizens could even name a living artist? So even the most prestigious galleries and museums in Georgia are, by definition, marginal outside of Georgia. But I will save a discussion of the art for another essay and will only incidentally mention it here. (For more on Georgian art and culture follow this link.) (And since I have already written about my encounter with the Stalin museum elsewhere I leave aside that visit here.)
So let’s dive off the edge!
One of the most consistent features of these strange little Georgian museums is the fact that they are rarely advertised or even well advertised, even on the buildings they inhabit. Consider the most recent museum I discovered: The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments. Sounds pretty interesting no? Especially if music interests you. So I walk up a street out of the way off the main tourist route. I’m looking for a sign. I see a little sign. So I turn towards the sign. Nothing. I walk a little into a passageway. What would you expect if you were looking for a museum? Not what I found. I basically entered a backyard, descended steps, and did not feel at all that I was about to enter anything resembling a museum. (See photo below.)
I enter the building to find what I always find in these odd museums. Police guards. Who seem to be on the most boring duty imaginable. No one else. Nothing that immediately suggests museum. Just police. It was the same at the silk museum, and at the various small art museums. They must be there for a reason! But they usually look at you as if to insinuate ‘What are doing here?’ When I say something like ‘Museum?’ they point further back into…. what? I never know. I don’t know which way to turn. I am obviously the only person there who isn’t being paid something by the state. But then this is where the interesting stuff starts to happen. I find a closed door with people behind it. I motion at them. I hate to disturb them. Then they look at me as if to say ‘Did you want something?’ I say ‘Gamarjoba’ (‘Hello’ but literally Victory!). And ask if they speak English. Then offer to pay the entry fee. Which sometimes leaves them scrambling for something resembling change. Am I the first person today? And it’s an hour and a half until closing time! The fee is usually about 3 to 5 lari; less than two dollars. This time they asked if I wanted a guide. And this time I said Yes! And so they asked for 5 lari more. And so at the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments my guide was a friendly and knowledgeable woman named Eka.
She started to walk me through the exhibits explaining to me the various instruments, how old they are, where they are from, and what they do. And then she is pleasantly surprised to discover that I am not your average tourist. But then again what on earth would the ‘average’ visitor to this museum be like? Nevertheless it is clear that I already know more about Georgian music than 99.9999% of all non-Georgians. So she gives me even better information than I was expecting. And then she stops and plays an old 78 rpm record of the song Tsintskaro on an ancient wind-up Victrola. Later she starts the mechanism of a street barrel organ, opening it to show the barrel and pin as it plays. Eka even sits to play an ancient Georgian church melody on an antique wheezy German foot pump church organ. Now that is five lari well spent!
I also managed to locate the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art in the old town. Again I enter it takes fifteen minutes to make change for 20 lari. They did let me start looking at the museum as they were sent into a spiral of questions amongst themselves. (Am I the day’s only visitor again?) But soon I find myself drifting through Georgian carpets, traditional costumes, intricate parasols, and beautiful porcelain tea cups. And they were featuring a special exhibit of primitive paintings by random Georgians of Shota Rustaveli and Queen Tamar from the Golden Age of Georgia’s Medieval Period. Fascinating stuff. (Click on the photos to open up the images.)
By far one of the most unusual experiences I had was at The State Silk Museum. First of all read that title again: The State Silk Museum. What could that be? Are they showing silk fabric? Well yes. But you see Georgia was a major stop on the Silk Road. And like Lyon, Tbilisi was a silk manufacturing town. And so not only was this a demonstration of fabric… It was also a display of silkworms! And all things sericulture. This is the kind of place Guillermo del Toro could only dream of. The lights were off in the cold museum and they turned one on and told me how to turn the rest of them on. Half of this museum was dedicated to silk cocoons, silk caterpillars in glass, and strange devices for silk harvesting, all in dark wood and aging glass cases from the museums opening over 125 years ago. And there was a whole room dedicated to mulberry shrubs, the silkworm diet. And did you know that silk quality depends on the mulberry quality? I didn’t. But my faithful guide Mariam did. She knew more obscure facts about silk than I could possibly ask. But somehow we ended up talking about music. It is Georgia after all. And not only is she conversant sericulture but she is a musicologist as well. And as our conversation veered from Jimi Hendrix, to Bach, to John Cage, to Bernard Herrmann she kept up eagerly with all of the twists and turns. I can’t even begin to tell you how many discussions about music I’ve had here. Worth all five lari I spent on the day!
Oh and speaking of obscurities, while visiting the musical troupe Erisioni (Be patient for that one!) I met a former BBC, NBC, etc cameraman, documentarian, an Australian of Ukrainian heritage named Vladimir Lozinski, who would later fill me on the turbulent politics of Georgia’s post-Soviet history. He had heard that there was a locked door in the building Erisioni rehearsed in. So he managed to get the room opened up while I was there. And we entered. This was genuinely a surprise. The vast chamber had been a movie theatre prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Ornate designs were encrusted on the walls. But in the 90’s the Georgian Civil War, raging on the streets of Rustaveli Avenue below us, had destroyed it. The floor was dirt and debris. But the walls remained magnificent. We were allowed to take all the photos we wanted. And I could only hope that someday this along with many other structures would be restored… And not removed by the powers that be to build some hideous postmodern monstrosity.
And of course the most mysterious museums of all were the ones I most want to see. The puppet museums! A few days ago I sought for the illusive Tbilisi Puppet Museum, which supposedly was not too far from the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I didn’t find it. Today my friend Elene Murjikneli from Budrugana Gagra explained why. One day it was simply emptied out. Then the building was torn down. And now in its place stands sterile contemporary architecture housing a hotel. And what happened to the puppets? No one knows. The puppeteers didn’t know. Were they stolen? Hidden? Buried? Sold?
And finally there is the most mysterious museum of all which I discussed in my first visit to Tbilisi in 2016. The Animation Puppet Museum. Does anyone know that Georgia used to make puppet films in the Soviet Era? All I ever found was a corroding sign on the door. But!!! Now I have good news. The daughter of one of the animators has contacted me. And will open the doors of the museum soon… Just for me.
Speaking of the marginal and magical: Really I don’t need anyone else to come find me here. I’m fine. I’m happy with empty museums in this mysterious place.
But do come back soon to read my next adventure.
16 / 2/ 2018
PS. The way things are going I’m pretty sure I’ll be counting my tetri (Georgian cents) in March. The financial losses I took at the beginning of my journey are starting to become apparent. If you are appreciating this reportage from the other side of the world then you can be a part of it by using my PayPal account to contribute. It’s safe and easy to do and anything would be helpful. Thanks! Byrne
I stopped in to visit my friends at the hand shadow puppet troupe Budrugana Gagra, of whom I have written about in the past and will do so again before I leave Tbilisi. It was a day when various things had conspired to make life somewhat quiet for them. But I had been told by Elene Murjikneli that I could have a tour of the building that they were in and that was the prestigious Rustaveli National Theatre. So she took me over to the elevator from the basement in a newer connecting building and we began our tour. I had already had a glimpse of the theatre when I went to watch Budrugana Gagra perform in what was called the ‘small room’. The ‘small room’ was an ornate space holding over 280 people and was larger than the Chilkat Center for the Arts back in my hometown of Haines, Alaska. But compared to the main auditorium of the Rustaveli Theatre which held 800, it was, I suppose, small.
The Rustaveli Theatre was original built in 1887. With a couple of additions since then. Besides the main hall and the small stage there was also a black box stage as well as an experimental theatre. And the place is labyrinthine and elaborately decorated. Elene first took us up five flights and then we took another elevator to a floor below the roof. We walked through a window and suddenly were standing in a gutter outside overlooking the city. Not the place for folks with vertigo. It was lightly sprinkling and the metal at out feet was wet, yet it was an unforgettable view. Tbilisi spread out beyond us, including modern buildings, older rustic structures, Soviet era apartment blocks, and the current president’s house about a block away. She almost took me all the way to the highest part of the roof but the slipperiness of the sheet metal made that a dodgy proposition. We did climb into another strange rooftop room with a curious round hole in it before descending into more chambers.
We stepped onto the stage of the theatre which was set up for performances, and then I had a chance to see the main hall. Wandering around any theatre is always a treat, because the mind begins to wander dreaming up possibilities for events to be staged. We walked through another oversized hall that was grace with theatrical props and memorabilia. Before long we came to the front of the building, where the Rustaveli Avenue traffic could be seen through thick doors of wood and glass. We then descended…
Underneath the front entrance there had once been a cafe sponsored by the Artists’ Society that had founded the theatre. It had been a serious artistic and literary hangout in the early 20th Century up until the period of Georgian Independence ended in 1921 (See Georgian Lessons #7). Artist like Lado Gudiashvili and Davit Kakabadze had painted the walls. The Soviets in their passion to cleanse any trace of the bourgeoisie had painted over their frescoes. Yet traces of that older heritage could be discovered. Elene took be through a dark passage. She told me to look at the walls. Suddenly I saw the walls were covered by a painting from door to door from ceiling to floor. I took a few flash photos to capture the experience.
We then walked into a darkened area that was filled with passages and and heavy stone pillars. And Elene said that there were even more chambers below that were locked away from us. She said there was one theatre worker who knew all of the hidden secrets of the Rustaveli. And I was thoroughly captivated by the subterranean dark. But eventually it was time to thank Elene and to move on back out to Rustaveli Avenue.
As I was walking down the street I stopped at a sign in Georgian script. My comprehension of the Georgian alphabet now is now nearly complete. I read the word slowly to myself… ე რ ი ს ი ო ნ ი. Erisioni! I had found the home of the musical singing and dance troupe Erisioni. I had originally seen their DVD, Georgian Legend, which contained beautiful songs and astounding dances. I had been looking for them. And I knew they were somewhere in the area. I had walked by this old building dozens of times. There was no Latin script. But I had indeed found them. I walked inside of the dimly lit austere building. If the guys at the door were guards of some sort they didn’t seem to notice me. But then again I learned a while ago here always walk passed the various guards like you know what you are doing. Evidently school classes were on for singing and dancing. Students were coming in. I walked up the old cracking stairs in the darkened chamber and feeling a bit lost I eventually stopped a girl who looked friendly too ask her she spoke English. Not well, but well enough to tell me where the office was and that they weren’t there now. And so I would come back. (And I did but that’s an entirely different story but here’s a little preview.)
Click this and WATCH IT!
After a pleasant chat with Tamar over at Prospero’s Books, the English language bookstore, I eventually made my way over to see the Romeo and Juliet ballet by Prokofiev over at the Paliashvili Opera and Ballet State Theatre. This was now the third ballet I’d seen here after the Nutcracker in January and the Firebird in 2016. Ii was feeling like my ballet home, since the prices were both very affordable for me and of high quality. I was quite familiar with Sergei Prokofiev’s music and had long counted it as a favorite classical work. I had a perfect seat for viewing the show until a couple of women plowed through a row of folks in front of me at about the third dance. One woman of not inconsiderable size plumped down directly in front of me sitting high in her seat and sporting frizzy hair in what was practically an afro. And so I had to squirm around to see past her to the dancing, rather than sitting high in my own seat and blocking the view of the folks behind me. (But since this is Georgia, they would have suffered in silence.) Fortunately the chairs next to me never were filled and after the intermission I changed seats. And just in time for the dancing of the second half was quite stirring with the death of Tybalt and the weeping over his body hitting unexpected notes of emotion within. The finale of the ballet was also quite moving. And as the actors took their bows I noticed that Artistic Director and Prima Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili come out to present some of the bouquets.
I had quite an excellent conversation with Nina Ananiashvili back in 2016 and so I found her after the show and we made arrangements to meet again in the near future. And I left that evening walking up Rustaveli having had an excellent day of exploration, conversations, connections and ballet. I felt like I had finally reconnected with the Tbilisi I had left in 2016 and even surpassed that moment.
Come again for more. And trust me there is much more. Including my first supra, my visit to the Communist past (read that over at The Anadromous Life) and too many other things to possibly catch up on. Thanks for following along with me.
PS. Thanks to those who have given through PayPal. If you wish to help out, it would be helpful to say the least, feel free to make a contribution through PayPal today. Thanks.
Okay. Let’s start writing about Georgia again. Sakartvelo. საქართველო. I arrived here a couple of weeks back on the 22nd of December just a couple of days before Western Christmas. And I checked into the same guesthouse I’d stayed in during my 2016 stay. Mostly for continuity, to say hello to Tamuna and Shako and young Mariam again. I would within five days change to my long term apartment. But for now it felt good to have the same map coordinates and to have some familiar faces to start my sojourn of more than three months.
After arriving in Tbilisi at 6:30 in the morning I slept in till noon, and being this was Georgia I did not feel like I had slept in too late, eventually I went out to find the lari (Georgian money) I needed. Connect to the Georgia phone system and buy a metro card.
The next evening I found myself wandering past the Kachueti Church on Rustaveli Avenue. I heard sounds coming from a loudspeaker outside the church, so stepped down into it. An evening service in progress was full of people standing before the altar. (The Georgian Orthodox stand, believing that sitting before God, unless one has a physical condition, pain, age, etc. is a bit disrespectful. Sitting denotes rest. One stands before God.) They were dressed mostly in street clothes. The words of the scripture were being read in a definite musical key. The language was, of course, Georgian, and at specific moments with reference to Christ or the Trinity many Georgians would cross themselves. At one point there was a gesture of touching the ground, which puzzled and touched me simultaneously. Candles of the congregants, very thin tapers, were also being lit during the service. I was standing behind a large column. After the reading stopped I heard voices arising from a group of seven or eight men, who were dressed in gray robes standing before the opposite column from the one I was near. They sang an excruciatingly beautiful hymn in multipart harmony. As I absorbed it I was struck by the need for such beauty in my own country where it seemed that so much of our society had been rendered empty by our pop cults and cuteness fetishes. And just as they stopped singing and my heart was ready to enter a moment of rest, suddenly from directly in front of me on the other side of the column I was standing behind, another male choir began to answer them with an antiphonal song in an alternative key. And this just gripped me. I could scarcely take it in. Nothing in my life had ever sounded so evocative of the mystery of God’s world. And then the other group sang again! And then were answered again! In contrasting swirling harmonies. And finally the voices all came together before returning to their antiphonal chanting one last time. And all of the Georgians around me took this as normal.
As I continued my wandering down Rustaveli Avenue towards Liberty Square (or is it Freedom Square?) I came upon something I had not noticed before. In the place of the empty lot that had been there back in April 2016 the Galleria Tbilisi had just recently opened. And I stared at it with an open mouth at the gaudiness of the new mall. I walked into it to experience the strange deja vu these glossy beasts always elucidate and the vertiginous sinking feeling I had as I rode the escalators up six floors to the food court and then finally the movie theatres on the top floor. The place was illuminated pretty much in the standard Christmasy manner. And Santa Claus had children on his lap beneath the Levi’s and Calvin Klein stores. I suppose it had to happen. I walked outside where a Georgian boy was playing a drum and singing for a few lari. It was the perfect metonym of the country being caught between two worlds and two Christmases. The multitudes near him entered the mall as multitudes do all over the world, like Mister Toad from the Wind and the Willows, eyes bulging, caught by the shiny newness of the thing. I couldn’t blame them. They just want what they think everybody else has. They just don’t understand the trade they will make to get it. And that in the end you don’t get very much.
Western Christmas came, which didn’t feel particularly like Christmas to me, since Shoba, Georgian Orthodox Christmas, doesn’t come until January 7th. But on December 25th I did meet up with Sophie Zhvania a friend and translator from my last Georgian visit. And we had an excellent conversation at Fabrika, which proved to be hipster central for Tbilisi, and she helped me gain a bit more needed realism about her country. She was glad to be leaving for Berlin for the New Year. But she will be back soon, and we have film work to discuss.
Eventually I said nakhvamdis to Tamuna’s family and met up with Mariam and Kote, also friends from last year. I would be staying in their Airbnb apartment in the Saburtalo district for my next three months. They carefully explained to me the way the apartment worked. Mariam had artistically decorated the large room. We would be seeing each other again soon. And now I felt I could begin to settle into Tbilisi.
I began to look around my neighborhood to see what was available. I soon discovered many things including dried persimmons, tarragon soda, cheeses made with wine and honey, the delicious smoked scrumbia fish and much more. I often found myself saying “I have no category for this.” Tarragon soda was like that. Sometimes I see faces on the metro that are like that. And I have talked to people who are like that. (But we’ll save these encounters for another time.)
New Year’s Eve was upon us. Unfortunately I had picked up an annoying but noticeable sniffle. And since this was my third such attack since I first landed in Europe I decided to play it safe and stay home for New Year’s Eve. A thoughtful mood descended upon me as I reflected back on the year. But I decided I would fulfill my usual tradition of eating and drinking something new after the stroke of midnight. This wasn’t hard to do. I had the purple wine infused cheese and a three dollar (in US dollars) bottle of Georgian ‘champagne’. Quite sweet. I imagined that what would happen was when midnight came was that somewhere off in the distance I would see fireworks. With some sort of echo on the street. I had been seeing firework sales everywhere. Well for one thing you couldn’t tell when it was midnight whatsoever. An increasing roar had been developing throughout the evening. With one hour to go I looked outside to seeing the city erupting in fireworks everywhere you looked. I was completely thunderstruck by this. And as the clock approached the New Year I just heard it getting louder, I even thought I heard rounds of ammunition being fired. And so I recorded my envelopment for posterity. The next morning was the quietest I’d ever seen Tbilisi. Busy Vazha Pshavela Avenue beneath my sixth floor apartment was dormant until well past noon, only interrupted by the occasional firecracker explosion.
On the 4th of January I went to the Nutcracker at the Paliashvili Opera House on Rustaveli Avenue. It was the first time I had ever seen it performed as a ballet live. I was thoroughly enthralled. The afternoon audience was at least one third children. And it was clear that the Christmas season was still continuing strong here as I walked up the brilliantly lit Rustaveli on my way back home.
Finally came Shoba, and I found myself unprepared for the way that Christmas is celebrated here. Christmas Eve was not the still time it is even in New York City (the only quiet moment in that city). Not much seemed to be closed on Christmas Day in Tbilisi. And yet there was indeed a huge event taking place. In a feat of civil planning all of busy Rustaveli Avenue was shut down for the Alilo Procession. (Alilo means hallelujah.) Near Rustaveli Square hundreds of people prepared for this religious parade. Orthodox priests mingled with children in white robes. Real buffaloes and donkeys pulled carts. And puppet camels and elephants, even a giraffe (?) pulled up the rear. (Finally puppets!) Some people wore traditional Georgia costumes. Some held Georgia flags. The procession began around 14:00 (2pm).
Unlike any parade I’ve ever seen, you could walk completely around this procession as it went, which I suppose is quite Georgian. At first it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. But eventually it was clear by the time we hit the halfway point to Liberty Square that thousands upon thousands of people were on the street. And this was very much an Orthodox event. Priests controlled the movement of the crowds. Thankfully the whole thing did not end with or even include a Santa Claus figure.
And so the introductory slice of my Georgian journey had come to an end. Now I’ve emphasized the new and unusual things as I saw them. And you might be tempted to see Georgia as some magical dreamscape through my description. But fear not. I am not in anyway blinded to the realities of Georgia in the 21st Century. The Tbilisi Galleria was one thing. It was like the mothership had landed bringing with it the big thing. Even the Alilo Procession was somewhat diminished by cars with loudspeakers above them playing almost Disneyfied versions of an Alilo song. (But also traditional Georgia songs.) And I had read descriptions of this parade including singing from the streets. The amplification stopped anything like that from occurring. And this is Georgia. And of course there is the poverty, the lack of anything like recycling, the endless smoking, and one could go on. And my own state of mind was not one unbroken stream of wonder and discovery. Although often something would come along just when I needed it. Whether finding problems with my bank back home, concerns about how far my dollars would stretch , unresolved issues in my life, and illness, why it was in many ways just like being home.
But truthfully I’m in the best place I could be right now. Led here by more than circumstance. And I already have made contacts amongst the puppeteers. And I have had excellent conversations and met new people. I look forward to my submergence in this surprising culture. I have had other experiences that will eventually probably work their way to the surface. But since I will be here until the end of March my reporting back will be different than at the other stops on this Gravity From Above journey. I will allow some stories to develop over time. So you might not hear from me quite as regularly, then without warning there will be an avalanche of ideas and observations. So this is a good time to catch up on my older essays. More will come. And feel free to write your thoughts as well.
(Update from January 14th: Evidently I wrote this too soon. Last night there was a second Julian New Year’s Eve blow out. Not nearly as crazy as the first. But far more fireworks than most of us see all year! Happy second New Year!)
And just a reminder. There really are needs I don’t want to elaborate on. But any contributions to this journey at this point would be deeply appreciated. Someone recently gave $25. That’s more than two days of living for me. So use that PayPal link right here and below. It’s simple and efficient and I get more of your gifts than through any crowdfunder. Thanks for all of the support in so many ways thus far! I hope I’m doing you well.
Immediately after my time spent with the Brothers Quay (see my last essay) I was scheduled to meet a young British filmmaker, Matty Ross, who has made short films and was now filming a video for a well known musician in London. Matty had found one of my lectures on puppetry on YouTube and contacted me about helping him visualize a puppetry segment for a longer film he was developing. We had chatted through Skype but this was our first personal meeting. When I came down the stairs at the hotel I found him waiting for me inside the lobby. (Do not imagine anything grand here. It was a hole in the wall establishment near Saint Pancras Station.) We walked and talked and ended up at a cafe a few blocks away and began working on his project which involved puppets swimming and an episode in an ambulance. Matty was quite animated in his enthusiasm for the story. Obviously this was quite personal for him. And so I tailored my comments to help him bring out what he most wanted to say. He felt that I had helped to clarify a few things. Matty thanked me graciously. And we would be seeing each other again in the future.
I was free to explore London a bit more. Now I have a confession here. London isn’t exactly my favorite European big city. The pace of the people, the weather, the price of transportation, the naked tourism (on a different level from Paris) all tend to sour me slightly. Nevertheless I’ve been here before. I’ll most likely be here again. And there are things I like. And so I decided to visit something I’d never seen before: The Victoria and Albert Museum (the V & A). The next morning I took the Tube over to the V & A and entered.
The V & A is free, like other national museums, but one does pay a hefty price for special exhibits, as I did to see the Balenciaga exhibition. I had been following my interest in textures and had been quite inspired by the Christian Dior show over in Paris and the Museum of Decorative Arts. But this show left me a bit cold. And the reason was that Cristóbal Balenciaga did exactly what I have a problem with. He bowed to the Modernist aesthetic. He made clothes that cut against the form of the human body. And the show reveled in that fact. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find creativity, artistry, even wit, in the designs. And among the fashion conscious I’m sure I’ve been indulging in heresy. But I actually got more out the works of his postmodern ‘disciples’ than directly from him. Yet it was quite informative to see the the dresses and ponder the history of fashion. Though my texturally oriented mindset derived much more pleasure from the older clothes that were on the free menu as I strolled in.
The V & A is dedicated toward design and materials. And so as I continued my procession through the museum I found intriguing images everywhere. From statuary to theatre props, including old Punch and Judy puppets, my eyes were soon full. I wish I had had more of an interest in jewelry and crafts because this was really the motherlode for such things. If gold and silver intrigue you then come here!
I decided to go to Chinatown, near Soho, a place I have often found something interesting to eat. And sure enough I came upon an inexpensive dim sum restaurant that reminded me why I love Chinese food so much. Biting into the first shrimp dumpling I withered into a pool of bliss. This is what living in a small town Alaska, without a Chinese restaurant, will do to you.
After the meal I decided to save myself about $10 and walk to my hotel. I was running low on pound notes and didn’t want to go to the bank machine again. It was about a 45 minute walk passing bookstores on Charing Cross Road and passing the British Museum. Alas a proper English rain arose to make it perfect. It was raining so hard that a couple of girls stood near me stranded under an awning directly across from the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with large paper bags full of groceries completely soggy and coming apart in the rain. I told them to go back to a store and ask for plastic bags. But it was clear that they were tourists who didn’t speak English well. So eventually when the rain subsided slightly I left the awning and began to walk off. Then my conscience struck me. I turned, walked back to a bookstore, asked for a plastic bag, took it back to them and said ‘Here!’ They looked at me and sheepishly said ‘Thank you.’ and I walked off into the rain.
The next day I spent my pounds down to the pence on food for my train ride back to Paris. On the way I ended up sitting next to a girl with mixed French and English ancestry, and the English side was mixed further with a bit of black and white in South Africa, where she was born. We had an interesting discussion about law, which she was studying and troubling her up in Cambridge, news and the media, computers and would coding help her in the future, and reality, my answer to her question. For no matter what you learn in tech if the real world around you becomes too strange to deal with no one survives. Ultimately it always comes back to reality, to nature, to real face to face human interactions. It was a good meeting and I think we both learned something from it. And in the end both of us agreed Paris was in many ways much more human than London.
And I actually felt glad to be back in Paris. For me Paris is a more like home. Which is odd considering that English speaking London should be more familiar. And my French is hardly perfect. And believe me, Paris and France do have seriously problems. And yet I felt more at home with crowds and pace in Paris than London. I can’t really explain it. Maybe it’s the fact that London suffered so much in the war and its reconstruction over the years has left it feeling colder. Paris, even with all it’s immigrants, still feels French. London feels a bit less English than I originally remember it back in the late 70s.
Well the next week was essentially down time. Some of the puppet moments I had planned did not materialize. And I needed to unwind from my journey thus far. The Carons were perfectly enjoyable hosts. They even survived my one failed attempt to cook with a French oven. And I finally got over my cold only to run into another issue: An abscessed tooth. I went into Paris a few times. Once to see the latest Star Wars film, which I enjoyed on a dramatic level, but the more I weigh it the more I find wanting in the balance. I also found myself wading through the Noël crowds around Les Halles which were as crazy as any I’ve seen. My friends Nathan and Annika Birch dropped in for a nice brasserie meal on the Right Bank of the Seine. Nathan discovered the roasted bone marrow appetizer, which was a new for me. And we split a plate of escargot.
Paulette eventually came to visit and was whipped by circumstances from extreme joy to almost unendurable pain within a few days time. And yet it was quite meaningful to see her again. And I am hoping her health stays steady. She also helped me navigate the back door of the French health system to get antibiotics for my tooth. And then it was time to leave France for Tbilisi Georgia, where I will be spending a full three months. All bets are off on this one. But it’s sure to be worth coming back for.
But we’ll call this quits for now. And I hope you have a meaningful Christmas and brave New Year and face the future with the best resources you have.
As for me, I will have two Christmases, one New Year and have already had my heart enlarged by the music and people of Georgia since my arrival.
I jumped up on the all night train from Milan to Paris. I tried to open the door to my three person birth. It was locked, then undone, and I was welcomed to share the compartment with an Italian IT technician named Filippo on his way to Paris to work on a job. He and I were fortunately the only two sharing the room. He took the darker top bunk on the mistaken, we discovered in the morning, notion that some of the lights didn’t turn off. I was happy with the bottom bed, after taping something on the lights to cut down the glare. In the morning we had a interesting discussion about video games and fiction. After I told him about some of my stories, one will be self-published this summer. He demanded I give him contact information so that he could read my work and follow my progress. That was somewhat flattering I must say. Now let’s make good on that.
I arrived in Paris and rode the metro and bus out to my European home with the Carons out in the Ile de France. I had picked up an annoying, but not debilitating, minor cold in Rome that would linger for over a week. And so I used my down time in Paris to rest, see a movie (Les Gardiennes was a French World War I film that met my hunger for something grown up in this childish age.) and basically take it easy before going to London to visit the Quay Brothers. Before I left I dropped in on a store near Place de Republique called Heeza that I had bought a few odd items from online. Back in 2016 I had come here to search Heeza out but they were not open. But this time after a little effort I managed to get in. (There is no storefront.)
Once inside I met the owner Pierre who was an affable Frenchman who had very eccentric and intellectual interests in things like old silent film, primitive cinema, odd animation (lots of Švankmajer and Starewitch), a limited choice bandes dessinées (French and European comics), not to forget strange postcards, old fashioned games, and flipbooks. More importantly he stocks recreations of pre-film optical devices like the praxinoscope, the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the phenakistascope, the camera obscura and of course the magic lantern. (If you got even two of those names you’re doing well. Go check out his site. Fantastic stuff.) Plus books on all of this. We discussed puppets in animation. And he was curious himself why he didn’t have more on the puppets. I ended up buying a mysterious DVD by Patrick Bokanowski call L’Ange (The Angel) a favorite it turns out of the Quays.
As we were talking a couple of Ukrainian clowns walked in. (You really can’t invent this sort of thing. And what is it with clowns on this journey?) Now they weren’t dressed up! And they were on their way to Bordeaux to perform. Nevertheless we had a fascinating discussion about clowning techniques and how this little store was a perfect lure for truly intriguing people. I told the Quays later in London that they had to drop in sometime. You get the point. (Look them up online!)
Well eventually it was time to grab the old Eurostar chunnel express and zip over to London. I arrived on a wet London afternoon. And cursed the whole payment system for the London Underground. (Less than three days and more than $45 on spent on the Tube.) I was scheduled to drop in the next morning on the animating brothers so I did the appropriate thing. I went to the IMAX theatre where they were still showing Dunkirk. Since I had missed it in Alaska, this was my chance to see this perversely adult summer World War 2 epic with massive sound and huge screen. And I was duly impressed. I’m still weighing my thoughts about the film.
There was an degree of pressure at the Quays Atelier Koninck QbfZ. A mysterious benefactor had about a year and half earlier commissioned the Quays to make a film. Not a specific item for him personally. But, generously, to do what they did best. Make their own idea into a film. Institutions around the world aren’t exactly lining up to fund their films in this age of bottom line financial mania. The Quays were actually mid-way through another project when this person approached them. But since it was digital and he being interested in film rather than digital creations, he wasn’t so keen on it. One of his stipulations was that it be shot on 35mm film stock with their old cameras. But he basically said here’s a certain amount. Would you like to make a a real film out of it? What could they say? Why, yes! And now he was coming to check out what they had done on the 19th of December. And I had arrived on the 12th. So essentially my visit was a break in round-the-clock filming and editing (digitally then transferred back to film stock).
Well the brothers carved out a couple of hours in the morning. As they said in an email “Why don’t you come at 10am and we’ll throw you out at noon.” Sounded fine to me. We met as old friends and immediately traversed a wide variety of subjects from Sicilian marionettes to the Symbolist works of Marcel Schwob, whom I had been reading. We mentioned Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog as an opera with puppets. There were storage problems for their arcane studio, moving things up into the rafters to create something like a balcony. Evidently Švankmajer’s new film Insects is finished and will have a special Vimeo showing soon if you look for it. We also passed through subject of texture. They discussed their project, which at this moment officially is being called A Doll’s Breath. And the music for it is being done by Michèle Bokanowski, Patrick’s wife. And they seem quite pleased with her style.
Well time was passing and the hour of my ejection was coming. (Not exactly at the stroke of noon.) So I began wandering through their studio to photograph their oddities. It was something I’d always forgotten to do before. Several of the puppets for A Doll’s Breath were on hand. And I was allow to capture them. And there was a small set where they were still filming. I also was granted access to photograph that as well. Their place is quite thronged with strange little visual discoveries. Like the framed piece that they have had for many years that they never clean, except for one spot revealing a small face. At one point I realized that they had turned off the light for their little set. Rather than ask for the lights back I decided to take a picture in the darkened conditions, which seemed more appropriate.
Finally it time allowed us to talk a bit more while sharing a bottle of very dark wine I had brought from Sicily and some potent brie interlarded with truffles from France. For a little creative inspiration I promised to bring them a dried salmon head back from Alaska next time I visited. Alas it was time to leave them to their metaphysical activities. We would indeed see each other in the next year. After a fond farewells I ambled out into the gray London weather gladly satisfied that I’d crossed the channel to catch up with the Brothers Quay.
Next time we wrap things up in London and Paris before the big journey to Georgia
From the Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland waiting for a flight to Tbilisi
PS. An abscessed tooth, London Tube costs, all the other stuff I’ve mentioned in my earlier postscripts. After doing my budget its clear things have become tight for Georgia. So really if you can thrown in a few coins in my PayPal account that would be greatly appreciated. It’s simple and effective. Click here.
My road did indeed lead me to Rome on a 13 hour train ride from Palermo, which also included driving the train onto a ferry to get it across the Strait of Messina. I arrived, late of course, at night in the Eternal City at my hotel a few blocks from the Vatican, where a woman, whose accent I guessed, much to her surprise, as Ukrainian, was waiting for me and late for her dinner. And soon I was back on the streets of Roma where I discovered that everything near a tourist site is expensive and nearly everything seems to be a tourist site. But I strolled over to Saint Peter’s Basilica in the dark and reflected on the fact that I was truly in Rome for the first time in my life.
Now the reason I had never come to Italy before was mostly out of (a perhaps not misplaced) humility. There’s just too much history here. And I love history. Researching this trip I discovered that state of Tuscany alone has more cultural and historic treasures than any other single country on earth. And while you are rereading that line let me then add that Italy in total has more historic and artistic treasures than the rest of the world combined. That’s why I’ve never been here before. It is impossible for me to consider Italy as a quick vacation stop. And for that reason I didn’t even consider going to Florence or Venice. There’s just too much to see. There’s even a Florentine Syndrome that relates to people trying to squeeze in too much of Florence in too few days. The eyes just get clogged and one is unable to take anymore visual splendor. So Palermo Sicily was my specific introduction to the Italian world. And this would be an introduction to Rome. And if I was fortunate I’d be able to see a puppet show while I was here.
First things first. I wanted to go to the Vatican museum. I needed to see the Sistine Chapel. I almost bought a ticket the night before online. But I decided against it for practical and budgetary reasons. I decided to take my chances and stand in line. Curiously the line was less than 15 minutes long, I guess that’s what you get on December 1st. That isn’t to say it wasn’t crowded inside. It was 11:00 and pretty much like a cattle car. I learned long ago how to visit museums from a lecture by Dr. Hans Rookmaaker, you don’t mosey and look at everything. Especially in crowds like this. You save your eyes, avoiding Florentine Syndrome, and go straight to what you want to see. And so I passed up as many gawkers as I could, dodging in and out of the human traffic, using mi scusi and permesso often to push my way passed the bovine hordes. And at last I arrived at the place. And even with the relatively crowded room, the museum guards regularly saying ‘No Photo!’ to the selfie addicts I was able to find enough space to pause and explore the Michelangelo’s Last Judgment for ten minutes and the ceiling for another twenty. I was completely impressed by the life sized figures being sent off to judgment. Having seen them largely in coffee table books. Even the grandest off them does no justice to the size and intensity of the work. I was also caught off guard by Michelangelo’s various uses of trompe l’oeil, which did literally deceive my eyes.
I spent another couple of hours in the museum, basking in the statues and Raphael’s The School of Athens among many others. And I ended up walking through the Sistine Chapel once again. And I was glad I had gotten there early. Now it was so overcrowded that the assemblage were standing shoulder to shoulder. But at least I had had my time for reflection earlier.
The next morning was Sunday and so I walked the few blocks to Saint Peter’s Basilica to see Pope Francis give a short message at noon. While there I decided to walk through great church. It was indeed more than suitably impressive. Massive. Yet light as though floating somehow. I came up to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s great Baldacchino. Far grander than the photos had given me any notion of. And I continued making a loop along with many others, though it felt much less crammed with tourists than the museum had been. I almost left St. Peter’s when I noticed a group of people gathered around something. I was looking for Pope John Paul II’s tomb. And then I realized I was standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta. This depiction of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son, with young face and aging body is easily one of the greatest works of art ever made. Carved in marble, or should I say revealed in marble, for the carver’s art is not like the painter. The carver removes pieces very carefully to find this image. And as I was standing in front of the Pieta I was suddenly moved so deeply by it that I almost burst into tears. There was something in the face. That Michelangelo had found somehow the perfect face of tenderness and sorrow in the beauty of his Mary. And also knowing what it meant to my mother, one of the few artistic visions to haunt her, maybe because I was her only child, her son. But also the consolation in the face of Mary and that stark need we often crave when confronted by some of life’s darker tidings. I had to control myself so as not to be reduced to tears in public.
A little later it seemed anticlimactic to be out in the piazza with thousands of others as the Pope, the size of a postage stamp, gave his message. But it was good to know that on some level this journey had received the Pope’s blessing. And as I passed among people from so many countries again I choked up a little at the sight of Germans who were singing and dancing.
My task for the rest of that Sunday, perhaps a bit too ambitious, was to find two more Bernini sculptures hidden in obscure churches and find the burattini (Italian for both puppets in general and also hand or glove puppets) featuring commedia dell’arte characters. So I hopped on bus from near the Vatican and ended up somewhere further up the Tiber River. I was looking for the Church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere with the funerary statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. I arrived to find the church locked for lunch. (!) And since this was Rome lunch would take over two hours. So I decided, sensibly, to find my own lunch. I wanted something authentic. And I found it. A little pizza place called Don, which served Napoli style fried pizza. (?) And that was a bit like a small round calzone that was fried on both sides in hot oil. Absolutely sensational. Biting into it released steam, everything completely fresh. Overwhelming satisfaction. (Not a pineapple to be seen anywhere on the premises.) Eventually I went back to sit on the church steps. A mother and daughter from Connecticut and New York City respectively came to wait, another half hour, with me. The daughter worked at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. And she was here exactly for the same reason that I was. Bernini!
When at last, late in traditional Italian fashion, we were let into to see the Bernini it was indeed as awe inspiring as imaginable. The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni reclined in a nook of the church. A euro turned on a lamp to illumine her. A fence kept us a few yards/meters away. But I also appreciated the statue without the light. Cloaked in shadows. Exquisite. Profound. Bernini’s work has the ability to say many things at once. And this mysterious statue is a prime example of that.
As is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which I was also on my way to see in another church in another zone. A steady rain began to wash the streets, making it all the more meaningful to step into the dry Baroque church Santa Maria della Vittoria. This Saint Teresa is a little more well known than the Blessed Ludovica. Simon Schama spent an hour discussing it on his British documentary, The Power of Art. And there were a few more visitors. And indeed the image of the angel plunging the arrow into Teresa is potent and sensual. Beautiful beyond a mere description. My photos hardly doing it justice. The whole church was indeed a dark Baroque masterpiece on ornate emotion.
But sadly I realized that my camera battery was nearly dead and I had left my spare at the hotel. Thus I had to forego the puppets I had come to see. And they weren’t performing the next day. Alas…
On my last full day in Rome I walked among the ruins of the Colosseum, but didn’t go in. The tourism seemed too thick, too much like a theme park. I eventually walked by a far too bustling Trevi Fountain, where my coin dutifully disappeared and made haste to leave the area. But not before seeing the Pantheon. And this proved to be the highlight of my tourism day. This really was the greatest Roman building from ancient Rome. After being converted into a church it had remained in use since its construction. It was the largest structure made of unreinforced concrete in the world. And completely majestic. And because it was free the crowds weren’t too oppressive. And just as I left the area I found one last great Bernini sculpture, a great Baroque elephant in a small piazza. And my esteem for his work grew with my discoveries. (Not too forgot his contributions to St. Peter’s Basilica itself!)
Over all while I was made many crucial discoveries in Rome, Palermo really was the highlight of my time in Italy. Yet I can fully imagine coming back here and making another round of aesthetic searches. My understanding of sculpture took on a new depth, having stood before Michelangelo’ and Bernini’s works in the ‘flesh’. I saw that sculpture in many ways was the noble cousin to puppetry. But for now I was tired. I had picked up a little sniffle from the Metro while I was there. I would be happy to return on an overnight train to Paris.
17 / 12 / 2017
After getting lost in Genoa I ended up on La Superba, a massive ferry the size of cruise ship run by the Grandi Navi Veloci (GNV) on what was supposed to be a 17 hour run down to Palermo in Sicily and ended up in, what I later discovered was typical Italian style tardiness, at 21 hours. I shared a room with a rugged and overly clean Italian truck driver. (I counted three showers during our voyage.) He slept most of the trip, except for the 3 hours spent playing arcade shooter games. And at one point he said to me, almost in disbelief, “You no sleep?” But apart from the usual 8 hours of sleep I am accustomed to, I did not sleep. Instead I wondered around and explored the vessel. And I ate a long meal for lunch and wrote.
But I did have one big worry. The Wi-Fi (say ‘wee-fee’) did not like my credit card. And having had problems in the past with my cautious bank back in Alaska suspecting fraud, even when I’ve been merely over the border in Canada, the thought of having the money spigot turned off mid-trip was not pleasant. And so task number one upon our late arrival in Palermo, was to get a few more euros from a ‘bancomat’ and to determine my financial state. Thusly I was suddenly, without much of a clue, on a warm, what to my Alaska blood felt like mid-summer, December evening thrust into the traffic maw of Palermo. But then I noticed something curious, as I tried in very broken Italian to communicate my need, that the Sicilians were indeed quite friendly. Though I met very few Palermitanos that spoke English I always received help when I gesticulated, and hand gestures are the order of the day, since Italians are fluent in that. And yes, I did still had a connection to my bank. I could breathe easier. All I had to do was find the B & B La Fenicia and to get there I had to find a bus, a sweaty proposition, and when I did hail a bus the driver waved me off when I tried to pay and took me straight to the station, which was near my gracious and friendly hosts Nadia and Ninni at the B & B. And so I after indulging in a spleen sandwich from a vendor in a cart across the street from La Fenicia I settled down for the night happy to be in Sicilia (See-cheel-ya) and with no idea what I would find.
Well after far too organized Switzerland to have one’s next town be Palermo Sicily is to all at once be slapped in the face by trash on every street and the noisiest city I think I’ve ever been in, and I used to live in New York City. Yet what a lively town! And made up of some of the most talkative people on earth. Renown for it’s street food, pane ca meusa (spleen sandwich) was just the beginning. And pizza? Yes! This was real Italian style pizza. One individual pizza averaged about 4 euros ($5). And fresh? Like the tomatoes were growing yesterday. And when I told my hosts Nadia and Ninni about the American penchant for putting pineapple on pizza at first they were uncomprehending. And then they laughed at the joke. After 16 years in New York I’d been too bitten by the Italian (Sicilian) bug to do anything but concur. And that’s the thing. In New York City most Italians are Sicilians and so this culture did not seem that foreign to me. And I was happy to see the Old Country.
And so then there was exploring the town. I walked through Ballarò Market area, which was fantastically labyrinthine and exotic, filled with marzipan in the shape of fruits, unbelievably long light green Italian zucchinis and Mediterranean seafood of all descriptions. All being hawked by a chorus of street vendors chanting their wares. Then I just rambled aimlessly for a while. And Palermo is a great town to just come upon some forgotten cobble stone street corner decorated by the statue of a saint under dilapidated buildings.
And that’s what I found so intriguing about the town. That beneath its layers of grit there was a vitality few towns have: Loud Palermitanos yelling from balconies to each other. Children playing on a safe bustling street corner in the evening. When they saw my camera they all wanted me to take a photo! And this same liveliness certainly extended to the puppet shows I saw. There were a few tourists there. But certainly not like Rome or London. And plenty of obvious recent immigrants. But then again Sicily has always had people dropping in (or invading) from all parts of the Mediterranean world, and beyond. Normans, Moors, Romans and the ancient Greeks have all left their mark. But in the end, those that stay become Sicilians. Sicily if just too much itself to be colonized and digested by the outside world. Where else would you see gangs of guys and girls with scooters (Vespas!) and small motorcycles hanging out behind the McDonald’s at the only mall in town, popping wheelies and coming their hair back in 2017? It’s an infectious culture. Everything is a lengthy conversation, backing the car into a parking space or discussions about the contemporary state respect for la famiglia.
On another journey through Palermo after trying to get my shoes repaired and being so tempted by a new pair of Italian boots that just felt so comfortable, while being unable to justify the cost, or the weight of lugging around my Doc Martens, and after I passed the Quattro Canti, the four way divider of the old town, I came upon the Pretoria Fountain, where strange animal heads spouted water amongst what originally were scandalous nude statues below a homemade banner that denounced the mafia. And in the midst of this scene a fashion spread was being shot featuring a willowy brunette model moving with curious rhythms on the steps. Somehow this mixture of archetypes captured an aspect Palermitan life for me. And so I stuck around to try to use the contradictions to create something for myself.
By far what made the strongest impression of my five day sojourn in Palermo was a visit to the Catacombes dei Cappuccini. A true city of the dead. Back in 1500s the Capuchin monks started to hang and dry the corpses of their dead brethren. Eventually the custom was adopted by many others as well and continued until approximately 1920. 8,000 corpses now hang in this underground mausoleum. Not skeletons, but desiccated humans in their finest. Palermitanos used to come in and point to a spot and say “I want to hang there.” And so I came to have a look, to confront my own mortality in way.
Descending into this dark world after paying my 3 euros I soon found myself engulfed in dried bodies. They surrounded me from above and below. I carefully peered into their faces. I found myself often passed by others who were obviously just walking through the place as quickly as they could. But I wanted to see. Some bodies were more or less skeletons. Others had a layer of shrink wrapped human leather covering their faces. Often there was the indignity of that expression that comes in time as the gases of the body leaving through the mouth creating the appearance of howling. There were bodies behind fences, bodies in boxes, bodies in vaults, in the marble floor below, bodies standing in alcoves, bodies reclining. And sometimes, when I really began to take it in, I would look up and see the skull of a cloaked figure, sockets without eyes, glaring down on me. Then look away directly across from the glaring skull to find a leathery figure gaze cast off into heaven as if to plead to God on behalf of the human lot.
And then came the inexplicable things. One section was for young children only. The dark sorrow here was beyond measure. Each of these children had been accompanied by mournful Italian wailing as they were placed here. Lives ended too soon. In another hall there was a nearly animated preserved young boy in a glass case. The monks had perfected a kind of embalming technique. Then there was a chamber for virgins, at the beginning of a hall for women. This too had a great sorrow attached to it. Girls in white. Hanging on a wall. Nothing of them left in the world but these remnants of their physical bodies.
And then looking further down the hall of women I would occasionally be arrested by the appearance of a woman, whom in her day must have truly been a stunning beauty. You could tell by the structure of her face, the parched skin clinging to her features, how this woman must have stopped hearts as she walked down the street. And yet here she is, just a lifeless doll on a shelf. And I thought about this: someday everyone I know will be this way. We shall all be stiffs in the ground. (Unless you escape up the crematorium’s smokestack.) Right now my mother looks like this. All of my good friends will end up like this. I will become death myself. My bones leeched of their essence. The howl of indignity on what is left of my visage. And so…
And so we live today. Not foolishly. Not addictively. Not proudly. But humbly, knowing we only have an allotted time to walk around. And then we shall be no more. (I’m not dealing with afterlives right now.) Then we too shall be corpses in the ground. But I can hear those folks who say “But I want my ashes to be scattered to the wind.” Yeah fine. But you might be doing this because you can’t face the meaning of the skeleton. But that’s one reason I came to Palermo. I knew this was here. I wanted to face death and consider my own. Which really means to consider the point of one’s life. And that I did. A frightening proposition.
But reason number one for coming? L’opera dei pupi. The Sicilian marionettes. One of the oldest styles in Europe. And my adventure among the pupazzi was just beginning. But first give me another arancine followed by a fresh cannoli!
Life and death indeed!
On the Rome to Milan train
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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.