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stories in Fraga

30/03/2019 - blog

Tuesday 19th February

I leave home very early to catch the first train. At the exit of Lleida’s railway station, the subtle blinking of car headlights greet me: Patricia McGill is waiting for me in her car, nervous due to her daughter’s messages, who is expecting a baby and today is her due date. Besides, she is already having contractions since last night.  Maybe the child will be born under the influence of the super moon?

We head for Fraga through a landscape blurred by fog, subtle and mysterious, matching perfectly with our uncertainty: will Patricia be able to do all storytelling performances, or she will have to rush out in order to act as mother and grandmother? Uncertainty and excitement at the same time, like the Christmas night…

While we update ourselves and talk about our things, the city comes near, and almost without noticing, we arrive to the Madrid avenue crossing the Cinca river. I ignored that when we crossed the bridge, the old town was  spying us behind our backs, crouching on a hill covered with fog.

Following Patricia’s memory, who already participated at FragaTCuenta Festival four years ago, we find the Hotel Casanova, with a huge notice announcing «chocolate con churros», and I could not resist the temptation. At the hotel’s café the retired men had put together some tables and were chatting in a playful Catalan, blurring borders between  «a» and «e».

After a good breakfast, Patricia goes to the performances and I stay on call, just in case. I don’t have any performance until one: a complicated time to tell stories on a high school, after a whole morning of class, but we are forced by circumstances, so I go with enough time to the Ramon J. Sender High School, located near the river and surrounded by pine trees and cypresses. At the library they already wait for me: they have moved tables and chairs to make room for stories.

I tune the travelling kokle and I connect it to the baffle I brought for enhancing the sound, because its sound is conceived for tiny rooms, like houses surrounded by snow, or maybe silent woods, and we wait until the alarm.

The students are two groups of 1st ESO, and since primary school have received a bilingual education. I am really impressed by their good English level, they speak fluently and they know the names of many trees in this language. And the trip begins: the story about gum trees brings us to speak about Australian Aboriginal fire-stick farming, then we jump to Haiti and the story of the Magic Orange Tree and we finish planting a beautiful orange tree. Here they know about it: the whole valley is devoted to fruit trees, and during the bloom they say the landscape is amazing. At the high school’s yard there is an old pine tree, and I tell them the Cherokee folktale about pines and Pleiades, and we finish with a round of questions, they are eager to know how many languages I speak, why I tell what I tell… if I choose stories for a reason, or just because they are interesting, or there is something else… Their questions are direct and focused, they make me think, we talk until the sound of the siren breaks the magic and brings us back to reality.  A Latvian student comes shyly to see the kokle close-up, he has not seen the instrument before. At home they don’t speak Latvian, but Russian, and I encourage him to keep his mother language, as we need future translators from Latvian and Russian who will help us to translate stories from his homeland, as they are only available in these two languages.

I meet Patricia for lunch; her future grandson is still remains reluctant to be born today, so on the evening we go together to the Tourist Office, where Patricia’s performance for adult audience is programmed tonight. The old town is a labyrinth of steep and narrow streets, but thanks to the intuition of one and the memories of the other, soon we arrive to a little tree-lined boulevard, and just at the beginning we find the Tourist Office, a building that is also the Regional Music Institute and probably hides more than one story… and more than one inhabitant, too. A tiny mouse shows its head from behind the white cloth that will serve as background for Patricia’s stories. From time to time, the mouse appears, showing its nose carefully, and hides at the slightest movement. The waiting audience observes it with amusement. It reminds me the astronaut mouse of Torben Khulmann‘s illustrated book Armstrong. It seems that the mouse is also looking forward to hearing stories, so Patricia begins and make us travel from China to Japan, from Wales to Ireland, and in front as well as behind the curtain there is an atmosphere of attentive listening.

It is a luxury to listen to Patricia telling in English: she savours words slowly, like a candy, helping to understanding, mixing some words in Catalan when somebody is lost… And the story makes its way beyond words. Patricia tells with the gesture, the look, and specially with silences. She finishes with a story of Nasruddin, this charming trickster of crazy clearness, about a pot that gives birth to a little pot: it is not the only reference to giving birth that has appeared in tonight’s stories. But when the performance is over and Patricia talks to her daughter, she tells her that the baby is still keeping her waiting.

We dine some delicious tapas near the Tourist Office and then we go back home: I keep the phone switched on, just in case Barbara gives birth tonight and I have to substitute Patricia in the morning.

Wednesday 20th February

Nothing new during night, so in the morning, after breakfast, I say farewell to Patricia, because when she will finish her sessions she will rush off to Barcelona. I use the time to visit the city: I cross the bridge searching the garden area promised on the  map. There is a bulldozer moving rocks on the river bank and water becomes cloudy. I follow the path to a river bend where a playground has been installed; it is hard for me to identify trees: willows, poplars and birches have a dreary look, but the buds from their branches already promise a summer shadow. Suddenly I bump into a circle of birches surrounding a willow of tree trunks, with a stone bank on its side. And I imagine this place in the summer, a leafy circle hiding a willow, like the linden tree of tree trunks of the bulbul bird, and I wish I was here in the summer to tell the story of the bulbul bird under its shadow.

Around 13:30 I go the high school I visited yesterday with the big kokle, the one made by the craftsmen and forest ranger Andris Roze. Today I will tell in Catalan: I have brought the show the night of the spider’s legs, stories with poems from Carles Fages de Climent, mostly from his book Les bruixes de Llers (recently republished by Brau Edicions). The folktale of the princess in the coffin captures their attention, but is a complex performance, with music, folktales and poems, that requires concentration and the time of the day is bad, the students are tired, some of them worried for the exams, others want to have some fun, they interrupt…

I shorten the performance and with the sound of the siren they leave the class like a stream. It was one of the risks of telling around lunchtime, and I try to imagine how it must be to go to high school here and now, with the tiredness of many hours of study, and the sleepiness of growth…

After lunch I continue reading Teacher Man, from Franck McCourt, and I am fascinated by his way of turning over classes, doing crazy things, listening to the students and letting them decide. And in order to avoid what happened today, I decide to change plans tomorrow: qui no arrisca, no pisca, as my grandfather said, that means, in a very humorous way, that you have to take risks.

Thursday 21st February

I wake up with great news: Patricia is already granny! I see Sebastian, a gorgeous baby, sleeping on the leap of the happiest of grandmothers. Soon he will enjoy her stories.

I have breakfast at the hotel buffet surrounded by languages and accents: Catalan, Dutch, Russian… I hear a man say: «I am from Morocco» in a perfect Catalan accent. They talk about cars, travelling hours, the best spots for eating or sleeping in this route. I ask myself if the atmosphere of a caravanserai on the Silk Route was the like, differences aside. It seems that the celebration of International Mother Language Day, which is today, has already begun here,  on breakfast time.

Elena from the librarian’s team, comes to pick me up with the car and we go to the Miguel Servet Primary School, up on a hill that overlooks the city. From here you can see lo castell (the castle) a very peculiar building that protects the ruins of Saint Michel’s church. It is chill and we hurry towards the school. They are already waiting for us in a library bright and lively and, as far I can see, with a good selection of illustrated albums. The students of 5th class, arrive, and after the teacher announces that I will tell them stories in Catalan, I begin saying: «Bonjorno. Mi star Susana. Qui star ti?»

Giggles from the students, surprised faces among the teachers… The kids quickly join in the game, they answer, telling me their names. And get into the story. It drives my attention that when a scholar does not understand what I am saying, others quickly help them with the translation. And we all together cook a delicious stone soup. After the story, I announce them: «Happy International Mother Language Day! Let’s see how many different languages we have here!» A lot of hands up: French, Turkish, Bulgarian, Urdu, Calo, Romani… A child tells me with excitement: «I also speak Arabic, and in the tale you said bezef, this is Arabic, and it means a lot!» And then I tell them about Sabir or Lingua franca, a pidgin that was born around the 10th century, during the crusades, and survived until the end of the 18th century in the Mediterranean, a language born from a clash of cultures due to the crusades, pirate attacks, rivalries between Italian city-states, life in galleys or prisons from both sides of the Mediterranean. Over the centuries, people from different languages and cultures kept modelling this proto-language without any other flag than necessity and urge to understanding. And I thank the kids for allowing us to celebrate the International Mother Tongue Day with their feast of languages, which maybe in the future will conform a new language shared by everyone.

Then more stories follow: the bulbul bird, and I tell them about the spot I have discovered in their riverbank, just in case in the summer they want to go there and tell that story. I ask them about tree names, and I learn the word mullererer, which is peach tree in the local language. They are astonished with the kokle, this time without my baffle, so I am obliged to lower my voice and they have to listen more carefully as well. It is the first time they see such instrument, some of them play ukulele, they want to come closer and touch it. The professor reminds them they have a maths exam; they thank me for the stories and they leave smiling: at that age exams are not that terrible yet.

With Elena we go to the Bajo Cinca High School, where they are preparing the library for the stories. I am impressed to see so well furnished and comfortable libraries, because in some Catalan high schools due to lack of space libraries have been used as classrooms, which is a pity. Elena tells me that Fraga was during many years the destination for recently graduated teachers, because the most experienced teachers preferred to be closer from the main city; this arrival of young and inspired teachers was really positive for the city, and was reflected in teaching teams full of new ideas that promoted modernisation of educational centres, and this has bore fruit in many ways, for instance, the existence of a good school library’s network.

The group I have now is a course of 4rd grade and her English teacher whispers me: «We are not going to tell them that you speak their language, so they will be focused on English». I say: «OK». And then: «Bonjorno. Mi star Susana. Qui star ti?»

And we cook again a full pot of soup, this time with other languages, too, but not as much as in the Primary School. And then I follow the stories in English, and they follow me to Australia and they help me to bring some rhythm to the story, and they even sing along the Magic Orange Tree as if they were true Haitians, and we finish with a Cherokee story. I ask them if this helped them to forget the exams for a while, and they nodded “Yes” with conviction.

As we have some spare time between sessions, Elena brings me to the Main Library of Fraga. She introduces me to Pili, Juan and the rest of the Culture team. We talk a bit about stories, words… and I broaden my vocabulary of Fragati, the local Catalan variant: mullererer, is peach tree, the fog is la segallosa, which makes me think in a spirit of the tree. The wind that in my region is called tramuntana, here is the serç… From the window we see a square, where some vendors put on the top of their cars some cages with carderoles (caderneres as my mother, jilgueros as my father will call goldfinches) in order to make them sing with the voltorn (the heat) of noon.

Ana brings me to the attic to see the view, and she proposes me to go before the night performance to see the castle. But now it is time to tell again at the Bajo Cinca High School, this time in Catalan: «Bonjorno…» And I thank them for helping me to revive a dead language on the International Mother Language Day. We follow with the Cherokee story of Pines and Pleiades and we finish talking about Tomicus destruens, a beetle that is attacking all pine forests from my region because, as the story says, we share the same nature with trees, and climate change is affecting them as much as to us, or even more, and from their health depends our.

After lunch I go to the hotel for preparing the instrument for the night session, and carrying everything like a busker, I go first to the children’s library, where at 17:30 is story time and I want to listen to Rosana. When I arrive, she is already telling the story of the red chicken, a variant of our Marcelina chicken, a recording I used to listen with my sisters, and even now we still remember complete passages. Rosana tells the story and the children join in the repetitions, and the story keeps fresh in spite the time.

From here I go to the Main Library to meet Ana and go to lo castell. She has a surprise for me: the book Despallerofant, from Carlos González Sanz. Despallerofar was the task of cleaning the ears of corn during Autumn evenings, a familiar and community task, perfect for telling stories. While I am waiting Ana, I begin to read the introduction, which is worth reading: «But among all, storytelling resembles the art of cleaning the ears of corn because it is a process, something that is being done, that is developing rhythmically. Indeed, we can’t understand as folktales only the moments in which tales are told, but the long history of telling and listening where the story has been constructing as a product of memory and thus, of the desires and mentality of the people in the heart of traditional culture.»

And all seems about rhythm now, because snooping around the library I discover the book Tengo tengo tengo: los ritmos de la lengua from José Antonio Millán; I take a look, take my notebook and I write the reference. «Take out Susana or she will hide like a mouse in the library and we won’t find her again», says Pili, amused.

I ask if the castle is far away, in order to evaluate if I should take the kokle and the suitcase with the baffle with me. «It is really close», she says, «It is heavy?». And as I don’t think it is heavy, I take everything with me. Mistake. When we go out, Ana gracefully goes up through a extremely steep, and I am about to give up. And I begin to laugh because it reminds me the situation of the main character of one of the tales I will tell tonight, carrying a dead body through the mountain.

It is almost dark when we arrive to the castle, unable to speak from laughter and from the effort. Ana opens a side door and is as if we enter the lion’s den. The instant when the lights warm up and little by little illuminate the space is quite solemn. She brings me to the place where Héctor Urién told her show of the Arabian Nights, under the ruins of the church that remind me a whale’s skeleton, and I imagine the storie’s characters flying over the huge hall. The view from the city are amazing.

We go down again, this time the slope is in our favour, and when we enter the pizzeria where the performance will take place, the hall is full of audience. I tune the kokle, and after a brief interview for the local TV, still with my legs trembling from the walk, through the verses of the Ballad of enchanted light from Carles Fages de Climent, we head for the Verdera mountains. The audience listens with attention, unfortunately we didn’t have a microphone, as the place is packed and the stories lose its charm if told in high tone of voice, but everyone is quiet and attentive for listening and allowing to listen others, and I keep their attention until the end. «You made us suffer so much with the last story!» says one man laughing. And I suggest them to make a variant of this story located right here, in Fraga, it may take roots easily in this landscape, as well as did in my homeland, because stories are from the place where they leave them grow and blossom peacefully.

I say farewell to the organizing team of Festival FragaTCuenta affectionately, as they made me feel like home. Ana stays with me for dinner and we still share time talking about stories, books, family stories… And it is time to go to bed now, tomorrow I have to get up early: I go very early with a bus crossing a landscape blurred by fog on my way home.

 

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