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travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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Titirimundi

It’s that time of year again! The time when the sun comes out, the old French carousel is set up under the aqueduct, and the puppets come to Segovia. Titirimundi is an annual festival, which unites some of the best puppeteers and performance artists from all over the world. It also attracts hordes of children, street musicians, fire twirlers, balloon vendors, and dreadlocked alternative bohemian folk (selling alternative bohemian wearable wares). There are also workshops, exhibitions, and puppet stalls, so that anyone who’s mildly creative and/or under the age of ten can have a go at being a part of the action themselves. And to top it all off, there’s the Tierra de Sabor (Land of Flavour) food tent, which I can personally recommend for the rich, psychedelic-dream-inducing cheeses, just in case the festival performances aren’t bizarre enough for your taste.

Oh yes, and there’s also the King. His Majesty Juan Carlos I of Spain decided to grace Segovia with his presence this weekend, but I don’t think he came for the puppets. There was some kind of Royal Artillery anniversary, with cannons and speeches etc. A bit of bad timing I guess, given the evident political persuasion of Segovia’s current transient population. Luckily, the King is recovering from a hip operation (after a triple fracture incurred during an elephant hunting trip in Botswana, I kid you not), conveniently excusing him from any obligation to walk through the city or greet the populace.

Anyway, back to the wonderful mundo de títeres (world of puppets).

Last time Titirimundi came to town, I was tragically desk ridden and didn’t get to see any of it. This year, no such lucrative translating jobs have come my way, leaving me free to roam the streets and enjoy the spectacle. I’ve been feeling so relaxed and enchanted by the atmosphere, that I was almost tempted to take my chances at joining one of the wandering artists’ troupes. The nomadic, penniless, circus-esque life is beginning to look like an attractive career move.

Whilst the atmosphere in the streets is fantastic, it’s really just a side show, a bonus. The main event(s) are the espectáculos, shows, held in ambient venues such as old monasteries and churches, and the famous Juan Bravo theatre on Segovia’s Plaza Mayor. Some are free, but you have to reserve, others are cheap, but it’s first in best dressed on the day, and some require you to book and pay in advance (although this is no guarantee of a seat). Yes, the ‘system’ is typically Spanish; varied and complicated. But one thing is consistent; all main events have been well attended, and tickets must always be bought as far in advance as possible. They usually go on sale about a month before the festival. Consider this a heads up for next year.

The shows themselves range from traditional favourites such as The Flea Circus and Punch and Judy, to all kinds of kooky international avant garde theatre productions.

As someone who is unfamiliar with puppets and their possibilities, one thing that has really surprised me is that although it’s clearly possible to make delicate, refined, and highly realistic puppets, many puppeteers chose not to. The majority of the títeres at this year’s festival, from hand puppets to marionettes, were extremely rudimentary in design. Beautifully crafted dolls could be found in the stalls, but not on the stages. For an internationally renowned festival, the sets were also very crudely constructed, at least in the few shows that I saw. Strangely enough, it seems to me that this deceptively amateur look actually emphasises the professionalism, skill, and creative talent of the performers.

The three espectáculos I attended were:

Sopa de Ladrones (Soup of thieves) by Titiritainas, Ecuador
A hand puppet drama about an Ecuadorian spinster who prays to Saint Antonio for a boyfriend, and then falls in love with a robber, whom she believes was sent in answer to her prayers. This lively mini theatre works on two different levels, with plenty of interactive moments for children, and funny adult innuendos. Almost worth seeing just to hear the kids’ animated commentaries.

Algo huele a podrido (Something smells rotten) by Elvis Alatac, France
A hilarious, depraved, very messy re-enactment of Hamlet, with kitchen utensils being the main protagonists. The actor/puppeteer was fantastic; eccentric, overly exaggerated and subtle at the same time, and probably best described as French. My only criticism is that despite having paid for tickets, many people still had to sit on the floor up the front, which meant that they A: got splattered with flour and fake blood, and B: had to strain to see the “subtitles” above the stage. Fortunately we all know more or less how Hamlet goes, and it wasn’t too difficult to understand the multilingual (French, Spanish and English) babble being spoken. The point was that it made no sense. Well, at least I think that was the point. Shakespeare always has been a bit over my head.

Dan’s atelier (Something about a workshop?) by Le Tof Theatre, Belgium
By far my favourite performance. In fifteen minutes of pure comedic brilliance, a puppet constructs himself, and then rebels against his puppeteers. The physical evolution of the puppet is fantastic, every gesture, every second of the performance is hilarious, and the skill of the two puppeteers absolutely blew me away. Acting is one thing (and difficult enough), but acting two roles at the same time (for example, a frightened puppeteer quivering under the threats of a menacing puppet), must require incredible talent and coordination. I walked away from this show feeling elated, exhausted from laughing, knowing that I’d seen something incredible that I’d never seen before, and that if every show after this was a let-down, the night would still have been good value.

So, as you might have guessed, Titirimundi was well worth the wait, and I very much enjoyed the glimpse I had into the colourful and exciting world of puppets. However, I know they’re not for everyone, and it’s no surprise that some local Segovians are a little bit over the annual hippy/artist invasion. Puppets can often be corny or clichéd, they have inherent limitations, and if done badly, they can be terrible (even embarrassing). But this makes them all the more challenging, interesting, and fun. It occurred to me halfway through Algo huele a podrido (Hamlet) that the performance was basically an adult playing with random objects and talking to himself in silly voices, just like a kid playing with toys. I don’t know how, but it worked. I guess that’s the magic of a good puppeteer.

 

 

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Assisi

I’ve been stuck on this post for a while now, getting frustrated over sentences that just aren’t working, sentiments that won’t be put into words, and a tone that cannot be found. Possibly because it’s been a few weeks since I was in Italy and now I’ve got other things on my mind. Or that when I do turn my thoughts towards Assisi, they’re met with glorious sunset images that simply cannot be described without sounding saccharine or clichéd.

I know the world probably doesn’t need another self indulgent writer harping on about ‘the wondrous Umbrian light’… but never mind, indulge me. Assisi is beautiful and I would like to sing its praises, no matter how clumsily or inadequately, and starting with the sunsets.

AssisiAssisi is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been to. At sundown, at least in summer, the ancient stone facades all glow a lovely, dusky pink – a reflection of the peach and flamingo medley sky. The medieval town is built on the side of a hill, surrounded by views  of a seemingly endless rust and olive coloured landscape. That would be Umbria, bathed in magical Umbrian light.

In addition to being almost inconceivably pretty to look at, Assisi has a wonderful vibe. Being the birthplace of St.Francis, it is, of course, an incredibly religious place. I’m not a religious person, and the word ‘spiritual’, in certain contexts, invokes in me an admittedly violent scepticism that makes me feel physically ill. But compared with, for example, the crowded halls and tacky gift shops of the Vatican (and countless other religious hotspots), Assisi seems so much more dignified, modest, and yes, genuinely, humbly ‘spiritual’. In the least pretentious sense of the word.

It was really nice to see churches being used as churches, and pilgrims without cameras.

AssisiAnother thing that struck me about Assisi was that it manages to strike a nice balance between tranquillity and liveliness. The clergy-to-layperson ratio is possibly one of the highest in the world, which is perhaps why the streets felt so safe and everyone seemed to walk rather slowly. But in no way did it feel sleepy or musty, and there’s more to the town than religion. For example, there are lots of fantastic bookshops and bakeries (which is enough to sell a place to me, but possibly not everyone). There’s also live music in the streets, plenty of bars and cafes, art galleries, and non-tacky gift shops (although there were some admittedly tacky ones too). When Mum and I were there, there was a medieval festival happening, with hot marching drummers, and hot roast sandwiches & glass of wine combo for 2.50€. There was a Morris Minor motor club passing through, and like most hilly places in Southern Europe, insanely fit cyclists flitting about in professional looking getup. The streets were filled with happy people enjoying Aperol Spritzers in the late afternoon light. I wouldn’t say Assisi is a party town, but it definitely has an upbeat feel to it. It’s refreshingly clean. And the local dessert is some kind of delicious brioche dipped in some kind of delicious liquor, just in case you were wondering.

As for St.Francis, he sounds like an interesting fellow. Mum and I were talking to a trainee priest who gave us a bit more insight on this apparently misinterpreted saint. Misinterpreted, according to our priest friend, because people often imagine him as a nature loving hippy. The story goes that St. Francis was a rich boy, the son of a wealthy silk merchant, who relinquished his comfortable life in order to be closer to God by living in poverty. He spent a lot of time wandering the countryside, talking with animals, and urging people to respect all living creatures as equals… sounds pretty hippy to me. And makes me wonder, perhaps if St.Francis had been born on the other side of the world, about 1600 years earlier, he and Buddha would have made good mates. Anyway, in addition to being a friar and wild animal tamer, the young St Francis and St Clare and their friends the birdsFrancesco was also a trendsetter; he was the first recorded person to ever receive the stigmata, and he bought Jesus’ humble robes back into fashion (retro was aldready ‘in’). He was reportedly a diplomat, who tried to put an end to the crusades by talking and negotiating with foreign leaders. He started his own order, and convinced his ‘friend’ St.Clare to do the same. St. Francis spread the love and was popular amongst his contemporaries, so much so that he was canonised just 2 years after his death. He’s since become the patron saint of ecologists – a hippy if there ever was one. However, St.Francis appeals to me personally on a more superficial, aesthetic level. He’s often pictured with birds… I’ve a bit of a thing for birds, and they look so sweet in all the paintings.

So anyway, no matter where you fall on the belief spectrum, I can highly recommend a visit to Assisi, especially if picturesque countryside, cute little rambling streets, or elegant architecture is your thing. There are a tonne of churches – not the gilt, austentatious kind, but the graceful, austere, gothic variety. Austere plus colourful pschedelic frescos. Anyway, the town is small enough that you can walk around comfortably, and big enough that you can stay for two or three days without getting bored. Another option is to spend a couple of months there and do an intensive Italian course, now that would be nice. There are lots of picnic spots with good views, and being in the heart of Umbria (more specifically, Perugia, the home of Baci chocolates), there’s plenty to see and do within an easy, day-trippable distance.

As always, but particularly this time, my photos don’t do the place justice. Perhaps St.Francis is telling me it’s time to buy myself a fancy high-tech camera with a panoramic lens.