Find here news updates, travelogue writing to worlds near and far that must be shared, as well as some wonderful opportunities I have had to experience the awesome creativity of kids. Feel free to subscribe at right, and share your thoughts!
Day Three teachers become puppeteers! The teachers built very simple stages to take back to their classrooms. And, they began planning a curriculum integrated performance to present to their students. Selected curriculum areas included vocabulary groupings, simple stories and fables, as well as original stories carrying a wide variety of messages and lessons.
Then, they had the next day to make the required puppets for their show. I had selected felt hand puppets as the technique. I thought these would be effective as they required simple materials and they could look sharp and colorful even as made by beginners. When told they could either hand sew or hot glue the parts, everyone selected sewing! One man did source out and bring his home overnight for his wife to machine sew.
The fifth, and final, day, each teacher presented their show for supportive feedback from the class.
Puppet theater performance was a new experience for all of them, and now that they had completed the necessary steps with support, they could do it again on their own, as well as lead their students to do the same. Their presentations varied from very polished and thought through, ready to go right into a classroom and engage children on specific curriculum learning, to hesitant, but growing in confidence, to rambling and needing editing – but all enthusiastic, and all well supported by the class. Fables such as The Lion and the Mouse and the Hare and the Tortoise were popular, as well as stories constructed around specific vocabulary groups such as clothing, shapes, animals, and foods. Original stories also taught lessons on honesty (a very funny one on a girl who pretend to be sick to stay home from school and learned a lesson when her little brother wore a scary costume to frighten her when she was home alone), park rules (with a bad boy breaking rules and learning a lesson), and more. Each participant received credit and a certificate…. and here they are! The first graduated class!Next week, a brand new class begins!
Now, on to Day Two! This (particularly intense) day, teachers experienced three different puppetry projects across the curriculum to involve their young students as creators and makers in the art form. All building techniques I suggest are extremely simple and quick, to allow immediate access to the heart of the art form: performance!
The first project focused on bringing sequenced creative writing to life with puppets.Teachers created a simple story using a storyboard, made a hand puppet of their main character, and simple puppets of minor characters, then told the story with a narrator.
The second project involved making the text of a poem visual through shape and movement. Knowing that poetry is an important art form in Middle Eastern cultures, I decided to bring a selection of short poems from an important American poet: Langston Hughes.
The third project organically builds an interrelated Puppet City to understand how communities work. This is a favorite project of mine, and proved to be just as much fun for adults as for kids, with the puppet neighbors getting acquainted and doing business right away.
Although each project had a language arts or social studies theme, the over arching focus was the spontaneous and improvisational use of English to communicate. Naturally, English is the only language the class’ puppets speak!
A CULTURAL NOTE: This is my fourth trip to the Middle East, but the first time I have been here during Ramadan. My contact at the Embassy asked if we had been briefed on the plane, which we had not. I knew that sunrise to sundown is a Muslim fasting period for the month of Ramadan. But I was surprised after my first class day when I went to the mall (connected to my hotel) food court to get lunch to find all restaurants closed. I did not know that during Ramadan, by law, no public eating or drinking is allowed – even water. The work day is shortened to six hours, ending at 1:00p.m. (There was also a large supermarket in the mall which remained open, so I could get provisions to keep in my room). Sundown, into quite late at night, activity resumes each day. The mall I was told stayed open until 1:00 or 2:00a.m. during the month of Ramadan.
I am back in Manama to present more project based learning through puppetry hosted again through the U.S. Embassy as an English Language Specialist. This time, not to do performances, or teacher arts integration single workshops as I have in the past trips, but to present five days of 4.5 hour sessions to two different groups of elementary school teachers, as organized and supported by the Bahrain Ministry of Education.
The Ministry desires a program to help English teachers engage students in creative opportunities for English language practice. If these teachers are any measure, their students will be highly engaged. The first group of twenty five teachers’ focus for the rigorous five days was unflagging!
I could not have asked for a warmer, more creative, more enthusiastic, or more open to new ideas group of educators! The group included teachers of grades 1 – 5. Apparently, there had been open applications to participate, and 25 had been selected by the Ministry of Education for each class. Some told me they had jealous colleagues who did not get in. They all came from different schools. Girls and boys go to separate schools here. In the first group, there were four male teachers from boys’ schools. There are some female teachers at boys’ schools, but no male teachers at girls’ schools, as I understand. I am not sure if any of the female teachers were from boys’ schools. The literacy rate in the country is very high, and all children begin learning English in first grade. The teachers all spoke very good English, which I have not always found to be the case in my overseas workshops.
I am so glad I put the time and effort into completing my book, The Sophisticated Sock: Project Based Learning Through Puppetry, as the embassy purchased a copy for each teacher. I was able to refer to sections of the book as the teachers experienced the lessons, making it easier for them to find helpful information when back in their classrooms.
Day one, after an introduction to the art form and to project based learning, teachers dove into collaborative work to create stories on assigned themes, make shadow puppet casts, perform their stories, and experience constructive critique.
The Sophisticated Sock – mascot for Karen Konnerth’s brand new book The Sophisticated Sock: Project Based Learning Through Puppetry – now has a name, thanks to Sylvia Yancy Davis, who posted, “Sophisticated also means cultured. Name her Pearl. She looks like a Pearl to me.! Yay!!! Perfect for such a cultured personality! As socks come in pairs, Pearl # 1 will stay with me here in New Orleans and can’t wait to begin signing books, and Pearl # 2 will contribute to the elegance of Sylvia’s home in Alexandria, Louisiana. Thank you Sylvia, and thanks to everyone’s creative contributions!
I am impatiently awaiting the first box of books, arriving next week!!! Yes, the book is available now at the bookselling giant, but I’ll be working to get it into the independent bookstores, as well as puppetry centers, museums, and places where educators hang out. Of course it can be ordered anywhere as well. Whatever it takes to help grow arts integration in schools!
What’s wrong with THE SOCK? Why isn’t she speaking to me? I wrote this book about her! She’s on the cover!
“You need what? A knock-out wardrobe? No? More sequins on your glasses? No? What, then? A name? Oh, I see. Neglected that, didn’t I. Hmmmm. A little late now, isn’t it…. OK, OK. I’ll put it out on social media.”
NAME THE SOCK! And the winner gets….. Hey, their own sock puppet, hand made by Karen! TO ENTER leave a comment HERE on the blog (Facebook doesn’t count) and sign up for our newsletter. (Don’t worry, we don’t send them out often. And we never ask for money for politicians.) PLEASE – help name the sock or she’ll be impossible once the book tours start!
BY THE WAY, the book really is on the way! Finally! A couple learning curves – like how to create an ebook when I’d never actually read one (yes it will be print and ebook). And did you see the reviews so far here?
This is the longer blurb: The Sophisticated Sock: Project Based Learning Through Puppetry delivers a career of in-school experience to teachers, resident artists, and anyone wishing to engage children grades K – five in enthusiastic learning across the curriculum. Karen Konnerth is a world traveling puppeteer as well as arts integration specialist, with countless hours logged developing, implementing, and refining these projects in a wide variety of schools and educational settings. Karen has provided workshops for teachers at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as well as for the U.S. Embassy English Language Specialist program in Central America, Asia, and the Middle East. The book offers time-efficient, step-by-step projects to produce memorable, in-depth, core standards-based, collaborative learning. The magically engaging art form of puppetry is the Pied Piper requiring students to grasp, use, and therefore, remember the curriculum core of each lesson in order to bring the art form to life. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) learning takes place as students manipulate and experiment with materials for a specific purpose and every project necessitates higher order thinking skills. Explicit diagrams and suggestions encourage puppet making using very basic, quick, and low-cost designs to facilitate immediate use of the art form in formal or informal performance. Specific assessment tools are included for each project. And best of all, students are motivated and enthusiastic as they absorb the 21st Century skills of critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication.
The cultural leap from my last trip (a vacation to Cuba) to this teaching tour in Oman could hardly be greater: from mojitos, skimpy spandex, and ubiquitous live music, to tea, abayas, and rarely even recorded music heard anywhere – although in similarly hot climates, on different oceans, at exactly the same latitude!
I was in Oman a couple years ago through the US Embassy to teach English teachers techniques in arts integration using puppetry. The relationship between the Oman government and the US Embassy at that time did not allow me access to the schools, so the workshops were all held in the embassy building. However, I was put in contact with the National Ministry of Education, and my wonderful contact, and now friend, got the funding for me to tour the Teacher Training Centers all around the country. So I’m here giving eleven five hour workshops – and seeing a lot of the country in the process: from sea, to desert, to desert mountains, ancient castles, even more ancient tombs, lively souks, and, of course, camels!
But, the most interesting to me are conversations with people – particularly the women. The people here are warm, friendly, and open. Not, of course, like in New Orleans, where strangers greet each other on the street, but the English teachers and education supervisors I meet are all eager to make connection and share thoughts and ideas.
Following are a few impressions, some typed in from notes I made while riding hours from one city to another.
A warm and generous teacher supervisor in Sohar spent an hour with me, driving me around the city, to the giant Lulu Hypermarket (a lot like Walmart) for something I needed, and to get a delicious avocado blended drink with fruit on top. In conversation, she told me that women must have higher grades than men for college acceptance. Beyond that, however, she said job opportunities and pay rates are equal. However, she indicated a cultural issue in that men feel they do not have to work that hard – that opportunities may come more easily to them without the effort women must give.
She also spoke of Islam, saying that women have a degree of freedom. She said covering of the face and hands is optional unless – she mentioned in an aside – the woman is particularly beautiful. She did speak with envy of the comfort of the men’s traditional long, white dishdasha and sandals, as opposed to the women’s black abaya. The only men allowed to see a woman without her abaya are her husband, sons, father, and brothers.
I was told by someone else that the Sultan is actually not strict about women’s attire – that it is the families who are choosing to do this. And that there is almost a competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran about who better upholds Islamic traditions, and Omanis may be somehow influenced by this.
Lunch another day with two other female supervisors in Buraimi. (They invited my driver to eat with us, but he refused – certainly because of the gender separation issues.) They were very candid as we sat in a private, curtained booth upstairs – separated from the open table area for men downstairs. One of the women partially covered the lower part of her face with her scarf when we passed through the downstairs room to the stairway. The few men ignored us.
We discussed education and job opportunities for women, which they said was equal. I decided to ask if it was indeed true that men could marry more than one wife. They looked at each other in maybe chagrin and said yes. They said they thought it was a bad idea, but a wife has no say in this. When we discussed children, I asked if they had any. They both said no, they were not married. One added she does not trust men and the other nodded in agreement. They had been working for a number of years, first as teachers, now as supervisors and I would guess they were in their mid to late 30’s. They had both been to the US for study, one as a Fulbright Scholar. I felt that they were in no hurry to risk losing independence.
One mentioned going to movies and theater in the US and enjoying these (not available here). She said people in the US asked her what she did at home for fun and she could not think of anything. She said she thinks a major problem of her culture is that people do not know how to have fun.
Theater is not a part of the culture
Mishmish invited me to the stunning National Opera House to see a touring Monaco based production of Romeo and Juliet, which was lovely. She told me that opera, musicals, orchestral concerts, and ballet, are presented in that theater, but no plays. Why story along with music in an opera or musical is acceptable, but theater alone is not, she did not know.
However, the teachers are loving working with the puppets as they create stories, make shadow puppets, and present their work in performance. Almost all classes are all female. Society here is extremely divided by gender. In the one class in which four male supervisors chose to participate (with great enthusiasm), at first some women expressed nervousness about presenting in front of the men, but they all did it and the men responded well.
I am also showing them some other simple puppet building techniques using easily available materials – including free scraps from the local tailors. One teacher was inspired by a scrap of traditional male wedding attire fabric to make a groom. When the puppet was finished, he chose a bride among the other puppets (I was told actually his mother would do this). Then he chose another bride. I asked if it was indeed true that a man could marry more than one wife. “Oh, yes, but not on the same day,” was the answer. Silly puppet.
Since these are all English teachers – some with better command than others of English themselves – I am suggesting they build stories around a simple vocabulary list. Most are more comfortable telling folk tales, favorites being Little Red Riding Hood, The Billy Goats Gruff (with a bear next to the bridge), and the Three Rabbits (rather than Pigs).
Evidence of ancient cultures everywhere
From tombs dating to 3000 BC, to fortified castles built by various peoples to defend against various marauders, I observed the gamut from beautiful and informative displays, to unmarked and unsecured ancient ruins.
My husband and I returned August 26th from 9 fascinating days in Cuba. I had fully intended to post throughout the trip, however – internet is accessible in NO private homes. Aside from a few upscale hotels, the only access is in select public spaces, using code cards @ $2/hour. Who sells these cards? The government. Is there any incentive to expand internet access? Hmmm. We did not immediately understand the reason for these mysterious clusters of people staring at devices.
Group shot 1: local people outside Havana hotel. Group shot 2: tourists in Trinidad.
To visit Cuba independently at this time, we (US citizens) must choose one of twelve reasons why we went when we return through US Immigration. Tourism is not an option. I was going to choose journalism, although actually no one asked. I wrote up my impressions anyway, to share with anyone interested in these people in need of so much, living in great hopes of immanent change, though knowing this change will come very slowly.
My musician husband, Vic Shepherd, and I decided to go to Cuba over a two week period we both had off – which generally falls in August. By the way, we both speak Spanish to some degree. I’m pretty comfortable in conversation, a little sloppy on verb tenses. We met a few taxi drivers in Havana who spoke English, but all other communication was in Spanish.
I had met through the world wide family of puppeteers at a puppet festival in Patagonia, Argentina a couple years ago, a two woman performing troupe from Cuba (now in the process of building with their own hands a “casa de titeres cubana” (Cuban house of puppets) in Junín, Argentina), who were then in the process of emigrating to Argentina for better work opportunities. I reached one of them, Geraidy, through Facebook and she responded immediately with contact information for her friend, Maria, manager of the band Aceituna Sin Hueso, a fabulous and well known Cuban band.
We had been reading the Lonely Planet Cuba book (whose information we found to be at least 5 years out of date) and chose to spend 5 nights in Havana and 3 in the 500 year old city of Trinidad and Maria invited us to spend the last night at her house not far from the airport. Maria found lodging for us in B&B style casas particulares in Havana Vieja (the quite sizable old section), Vedado (a newer section of Havana along the malecón, or sea wall), as well as in Trinidad.
Since Americans still may not travel directly to Cuba unless with a tour group, we went through Cancún, Mexico, spending one night in the actual city – not the hyper-touristy beach area – at each end of the trip in a modest and comfortable $30/night hotel.
Entry into Cuba was no problem at all. The official at at Imigracion asked if I wanted my passport stamped and I declined so he stamped a separate paper as the visa. Returning to the US was also no problem. They did not even look inside the passports so a Cuban stamp would not have even been noticed.
Cuba was really hot, which is no surprise as it is south of New Orleans. Air conditioning in public places is the exception rather than the rule. When we were invited to a fantastic concert in the National Theater, many audience members were using elegant folded fans. Electric fans are sometimes strategically placed in restaurants.
The Havana airport had neither when we left. I would recommend a trip in a cooler month although the high European tourist season is November, December, and January and we were told Trinidad anyway is extremely crowded then. I would try maybe October or February. August is also quite busy.
Cuba is more expensive than we and other travelers we met expected. It is significantly more costly then Mexico. Lodging is reasonable in the casas particulares (about $30-$40/night including breakfast) but transportation by bus is high and meals can be high as well.
We talked with people and asked questions everywhere, speaking with drivers, waiters, musicians, our lodging proprietors, Maria and her friends – and everyone was very eager to share information on personal thoughts and experiences of their lives, their opinions of their government, the country’s economy and available resources, feelings about the US, and hopes and expectations for the future. By the way, we did not meet one other US visitor, but many from all over Europe and other parts of the world.
Warm and friendly people, Fabulous music, Stunning architecture, Fascinating history!
I want to share what we learned because we found that we in the US know very little of what is going on there although they are our close neighbors and wonderful people who have, from what we learned, been abused by government after government. Many feel that they are living, as one new friend and father of an eight year old daughter said, a life with no future. I am very inspired to read a lot more about their history. Travel there does help the economy and is fascinating. From our experience, it is extremely safe – far more than the US. And by the way I am reading a fascinating book found in the New Orleans library comparing and contrasting Louisiana and Cuba slavery and cane plantation histories called Degrees of Freedom by Rebecca J. Scott. Highly recommended!
The large old part of the city featured majestic buildings in meticulous to crumbling condition, including castle-like forts from the 1500’s, cathedrals (none used at present as churches as present government prohibits that), elegant buildings from the 1700 and 1800’s, cobbled streets, American cars from the 40’s and 50’s, Russian cars, various taxi vehicles.
Wandering the picturesque streets, we found handicraft shops and markets, small restaurants offering seafood, rice, beans, pork, chicken, beef, not a lot of vegetables, and bars particularly featuring mojitos (rum, fresh mint, sugar) and no general merchandise or grocery markets. We walked a lot and were mystified by this.
We were informed that the government has put no money into infrastructure for decades. One local organization has some hotels and shops that contribute towards renovation. Many larger establishments such as the national hotel and the airport were at least co-developed between the government and a foreign interest and many are run as such permanently. As a “socialist” country, it appears that capitalism is a strong force, although the people complain a lot about government taxation on any attempt as entrepreneurship.
But culture is a powerful force and certainly isolation has not been a bad thing in maintaining this. Our wonderful friend Maria invited us to the fantastic show at the Buena Vista Social Club.
THE CARS: The old cars are so common you sort of get used to them – after lots of photos. They were left behind when middle class families fled the country at the time of the revolution and the government kept all of their belongings. Therefore, many of these belong to the government and the taxi drivers that use them are paid a low government wage. Some have been in families for a few generations now. Vic asked lots of questions and learned that a very few have original engines, most have creative hybrids of Asian diesel engines and Russian transmissions. The cheaper taxis are the Russian Lada cars – a bit newer but without the glamour. They are often privately owned and we were told cheaper to ride because without insurance. A driver in Habana Vieja noted that visitors find the old American cars so beautiful, but they are no novelty to the locals, who would much prefer new, modern cars – which are not imported at all. Traffic is always light simply because there are not many cars (for the size of the city).
STREET LIFE: So, I did get to meet a puppeteer here – performing in the large Plaza de San Francisco. He said that a few years ago an Italian puppeteer spent time here teaching about traditions of Polichinela, which is what Victor Joel Ariosa, of Polichinela de La Habana was performing – to the great delight of an excited young crowd.
We stayed in three of these rooms rented by owners. Sometimes the owner lives there, sometimes not. As tourism grows, this is causing similar problems as in New Orleans in loss of affordable housing for residents. There are lots of these and they are easy to find by this symbol. Two of ours were really nice with super friendly proprietors and nice breakfasts. One could have had better AC, and this was the light switch – but it was in a great location and we stayed 3 nights.
We happened to be in Havana for their annual carnaval, which is mainly a street party and parade with floats and music for the crowd to dance to. We met maybe one local who likes this celebration – others said there was too much drinking. We hung out for a while in the really nice family scene, but it was apparent that the parade would not happen til much later and we had an early bus ride to Trinidad the next morning. OK – call us jaded.
Very good bread, and yes, those flattened “Cuban sandwiches”. Rice and beans, and shrimp, fish, and lobster in restaurants were sometimes overcooked. Like anywhere, better deals found off the beaten path in tourist areas like Trinidad.
Food for locals is a very different story. They have sort of like ration books showing the very limited supplies each individual receives monthly: approx. 5 lbs. rice, 2 lbs. beans, some cooking oil, a small packet of coffee, seafood is listed, but we were told they never receive that, maybe couple lbs. chicken or pork. No beef. And for women, 1 pack of 10 sanitary napkins.
I do not understand all the details, except that the people are accustomed to creative survival on very little money, if they live outside of the tourism industry.
The markets contain single brands of very basic necessities (pasta: spaghetti and shells, rice, black beans, canned tuna, olives-apparently viewed as a staple maybe from Spanish influence?, cooking oil, laundry soap, etc.), along with one whole wall of rum. Some markets had a lot of empty shelves, too. We were directed to a “large” market, thought we were mistaken because it was so small, wandered around looking for the large market we envisioned, finally realized that had been the only one.
The ubiquitous mojito (rum, sugar, mint, and ice) sold in every bar and restaurant, necessitates lots of fresh mint (yerba buena). When we stayed with Maria, I got to find out first hand how all this mint gets to the bars. Maria and her friend have a a daily cottage industry job preparing neat mint sprigs and delivering them to a couple specific bars in Havana Vieja. They make about $10 a day, and said this covers their food. They also have to take a daily taxi to and from the city for the delivery, so I guess this is the net profit. They prepared Mojitos Frapés with left over leaves: Lots of leaves off the stems. sugar to taste, rum, and ice blended. Yum! Try it!
BLACK MARKET, POLICE, ELECTIONS, HOPE
We were told that anyone working for the government steals as a matter of survival, reselling items to supplement very paltry wages. All factories are government owned, as I understand.
We were also told that the police openly take items from anyone (not tourists) they may “suspect” of having Black Market goods. We were told as an example, if a person went to the country and their friend gave them a couple fish to cook at home, and they were observed by the police to be carrying these , the police may take them. Another example related to us was, if in possession of a quantity of beverages purchased for a party, the police may accuse the owner of stealing, or Black Market, and confiscate them for their own use. A man we met even said he takes a circuitous route on his horse (common transportation outside the city for the many people without cars) to visit his sister across town because the police may take the horse, making him pay to get it back. We were also told that people are encouraged to spy and report to police.
In this version of a socialist government, there are elections, however we met several young people who told us they do not vote because the process is so diluted as to be ineffective. They said there are levels of government, such that they may vote for someone, who votes for someone else, who votes for someone else – and they had no trust whatsoever that their vote had any impact on final selections. Some said they had voted in the past, but lost faith in the system. The general feeling, from the people we met, was that the showcased socialism was only a hollow shell masking an ineffective and abusive government.
Everyone we met was glad Americans were there and hope for closer ties with the U.S. in the future.
TRINIDAD AND MUSIC!!!
This city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and fascinating example of a well preserved 17th century city. It is a huge tourist site with lots of casas particulares, access to beaches and interesting tours.
We toured the old sugar mills, which was just what I had been reading about in Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba After Slavery, by Rebecca J. Scott. There are a lot of similarities to the south Louisiana plantations.
And there is lots of live music in Trinidad: in a main plaza, on the street, in cultural centers, and bars. We figured we could have stayed in Trinidad 10 nights and not heard it all. The music was absolutely and consistently fantastic! There are music schools for children and university programs as well. However, we learned from conversations with a lot of musicians, none are paid by the bar or restaurant where they have regular jobs. They play for tips only. The audience is all foreign tourists, and we noticed, few tip when the band brings around the tip basket. We do not know how they survive. Guitar strings are very hard to come by. Some guys we met were amazed when Vic told them how often he changes his guitar strings – for optimum sound playing table to table at Commanders Palace, and his many other gigs. This would be impossible for them – not only are strings expensive, they are basically unavailable. He gave away the extra strings he brought along with a couple slides. There were lots of opportunities to jam. We want to find a secure way to send them to them but communication is very difficult due to the limited and expensive internet access.
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art has been awarded a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award for the Teen Docent Program! I’m proud to have been involved annually in this program since 2008, when I approached the museum with the idea for the teen docents to engage young museum visitors through creative puppetry presentations on gallery tours. The puppetry component of the docents’ experience is now a significant leadership building and community outreach incentive.
Alumni and present docents attended an event at the museum last night to celebrate the program and award. And a display of the museum’s now significant collection of puppets created by the teens was a major focal point!
In my early twenties, a chance public library encounter led me to Invisible Cities the poetic and imaginative travelogue written by Italian writer Italo Calvino, of the travels of Marco Polo as related to Kublai Khan. This remains my absolute favorite book – so much so, that I brought my worn copy with me to re-read here in Italy. Through this book’s lens, and my camera’s, I share some of my travels – several hard to find on a map.
(Located in the Marché region of Italy, between the Mare Adriatico and Monte Sibillini, where its history of medieval splendor remains acutely apparent, and where I spent about 2 1/2 weeks)
The thirsty traveler who drinks from the lion’s mouth off of Via de Cippola is ever enchanted. Here, right angles never bind the path of the winding streets joined in patterns complex as the merletto al tombollo every girl learns from her mother. The gelato in flavors such as pera and baccio is a habit impossible to lose. But it is the round moon arcing the silent Santa Maria della Rocca that the traveler will look back on to remind them of other moons they had thought were as silver.
(FOF is the festival to which I was invited to perform and present puppetry workshops. I had befriended the festival directors when they were in New Orleans performing.)
Figura Offida Festival appeared from nowhere fofor the fofirst time, with magic, music, dance and mime, creative clownery, puppetry, unicycle strip tease, fofood, and fofestivities fofeatured in a classic theater, wide piazzas, and secret corners that have waited fofor just this event fofor 800 years. Performers foflew from countless corners of the world to fofascinate townspeople and tourists alike. Created and brought to life by Remo di FoFilippo and Rhoda Lopez, with various community support, including Proloco.
Daniela and Filippo
The traveler is drawn to the city of Daniela by a perfume in the wind. Surprised by its tiny size, the traveler is staggered by it’s magnetic impact and vast terrain. Olive all’ascolana, parmigiana di melanzane, pasta and frutta nurture travelers from near and far, around the kitchen table, in the sumptuous dining room, and in the cool cavern deep under ground. The traveler will ever after connect the word profumo to Daniela. And from the magical underground chamber of the connected city of Filippo flutter delicate birds of metal held gently in hands of wood. The lucky traveler may be accompanied by one of these birds to the other side of the world.
The impenetrable walls of the castle of Gradara – once crucial against attacks of armor-clad usurpers – deceive the wary traveler. The menacing portcullis, ax-grooved chopping block, and sinister morning star are now but gruesome enticements. For a pittance, the traveler may enter, greeted by an effeminate dragon with red painted toenails, to a storybook land of beckoning tenants. But once passing through the single arched gate, the difficulty is to escape unencumbered by wooden swords, plastic trolls, and postcards of the ever glamorous Gradara.
To the traveler casually passing through, Roma of the present seems to live in the shadow of Roma of the past. The population has not grown significantly in 2,000 years and the early, exquisite art and buildings cast shade over the knick-knack vendor, the elegant woman eating a gelato, and the motorcycle ragazzi. Even the subway lines make but one simple X because the multitude of ancient underground walls impede plans for modern transportation. So the traveler wonders – do these descendants avoid the rearview mirror? Or do they bask in pride knowing they have been touched by tangible greatness? Or perhaps they understand that the fearsome power that supported the building of such monuments is no longer worth the sacrifice.
Upon seeing the mythical city of Venezia for the first time, the wanderer is rendered speechless. That the tales passed from other travelers, were true – that water is truly the force connecting the delicate piazzas through the hundreds of stepped bridges and asymmetrical gondolas. That marble statues watch from every rooftop, that decorative design is carried to glorious excess, that even life long residents get lost in the serpentine alleys – is this a plan, a trick, to confound the ever vigilant sea? Were even the heavy iron covers over each piazza’s stone well, long ago opened but twice a day by the priest who held the key to the precious fresh rain, an attempt to mastery over the element of water? But the tides rise daily and the canal water is salty as tears.
Coda is an ephemeral city, appearing and disappearing, growing and shrinking. The traveler will surely find themselves there at some time and must always make a decision. They may choose to silently observe the old man leaning from the balcony, the brown dog, slowly leading the woman in a green dress, the black eyed baby fidgeting in the stroller. Or, if they choose to acknowledge that they share a common language with their neighbor in Coda, they may be forced to tell their own tale over and over. Sometimes their tale may wind and thrive with that if their neighbor, but there is also the chance that the tales will be but empty caverns with no connecting point.
The fortunate traveler who comes upon the thriving city of Remorhoda is drawn in to the hustle of the bustling streets going in many directions. Some streets lead to faraway realms, but others spiral ever deeper into the familiar, to lead visiting travelers to the richness of their own land. For this is a city built on trust in the goodness of life and of people. It is built on the sure knowledge that magic simply must be experienced to be accepted. As these building blocks are more solid than marble, memories of the generosity of this city will always remain with the traveler.
So, Offida, where I am staying for around 2 ½ weeks, is in the Marché area of Italy – quite beautiful – 20 minutes from the warm and placid Adriatic Sea, and 20 minutes from the mountains, amid rolling hills of olive trees and wine grapes. I’ve learned, after the Roman era, it was a region of medieval splendor, with many castles and towns, as Offida, dating to the 1400’s. So the city centers are all within ancient walls, with few gates to enter. Offida is walled on only one side because there is a cliff on the other side. It’s, of course, all about protection 800 years ago.
Suburban areas with modern housing, supermarkets, etc. are outside the walls.
My friends, Remo and Rhoda, rent a house 3 minutes from Offida Centro by car, where I am staying. Remo’s parents live in Offida Centro and we often enjoy their warm hospitality, eating meals of his mother’s delicious food. They have internet, use Facebook, within a house from the medieval era.
So, as I see all these castles, in this landscape that appears to offer sustenance for many, imagining the knights in armor, the conflict between the church and secular government (this area belonged to the Church, until the people rose up against the Papal State in 1860’s). I ponder human nature, I guess. It is so easy to connect with people around the world, despite different languages, customs, religions. It seems if governments were eliminated, the rest of us could get along fine. No, I’m not a libertarian. I guess that has been tried, and human nature seems to be the problem. Oh well.
Most of the time, I am spending in Offida, working on some writing, studying and practicing the Italian script for the show I will present for the festival, and simply participating in the household life of my friends.
However, they did insist that I should see Pennabilli, the town where they met at an annual festival, so we drove around 3 hours and spent the night there. Pennabilli is another beautiful medieval town, with a unique history, and remarkably peaceful atmosphere. There were originally, two communities here, built on hills very near each other: Penna, and Billi.
At some point in medieval times, they joined forces and became Pennabilli. The ancient castle of Penna is crumbling on it’s hill, while Pennabilli continues to thrive today as a vibrant community, as well as tourist destination.
But, there is more to the history. Several hundred years ago, a church brother led an expedition to Tibet to meet the Dalai Lama, carrying a bell for the three years it took to reach there, and finally meeting the Dalai Lama, with whom he became friends. The few brothers who survived the journey built a church and mission there and coexisted peacefully until a change of government caused them to return to Italy. In more recent times, another group of brothers set off from Pennabilli once more, to the same location, (now China) to find the bell that came from their city. They did locate the bell in the depths of a storage area, somehow snuck it into their hotel where they made a mold. They returned the bell, and brought the mold back to Pennabilli, where they cast another bell, just like the original.
In the 1980’s, the Dalai Lama decided to visit the home of his friend in Pennabilli (as each Dalai Lama is a reincarnation, so really the same person over all time). The Dali Lama has visited twice now, and the re-cast bell is mounted on the mountaintop along with three Tibetan prayer wheels for all to find peace and appreciate that all religions may coexist.
Pennabilli was also home to the poet, artist, and screenwriter Tonino Guerra, who wrote the screenplays for Fellini’s films, among others. His creative spirit dominates the town in gardens, unique sundials, and poems.
He emphasized the need for people to slow down, and the snail was his symbolic totem. I was told many famous film makers lived off and on here, without paparazzi, simply as community members. The palpable spirituality of Pennabilli draws artists to live in and maintain the community today.
Following, a few photos of my friends’ show at a small Buskers Festival in Roccoraso, a winter ski resort town, and a shot of the alto plano (high plane) in the way there.