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Storytelling in Belgium

27/04/2016 - blog

After two months of medical leave, I was looking forward to a storytelling trip. I went last Monday, and after promising that I would be a good girl (no running, no lifting weight, no making efforts), I boarded a plane to Brussels, on the way to the International Storytelling Festival from Alden Biesen.

Monday 18th April

It is not easy to reach the castle of Alden Biesen: not many direct trains arrive to Bilzen, the nearest town, and the buses in constant delay in an airport that is still struggling to recover normal operations after the terrible attacks on the 22th March broke up my train connections. In addition, due to the little margin for changing trains in the connecting stations, plus my current slowness (no running, etc.), I missed  a couple of trains: when I arrived at the right platform, I saw how the train, with irritating punctuality, sped away from the station to its destination, which seemed unreachable for me.

At last, Guy Tilkin, director of the festival, came to my aid through a phone call with precious and accurate information: «Get off the train in the following station, go to platform 7, there is a train leaving at 16:43, but today has 6 minutes delay. It is a direct train, you won’t have to get off until Bilzen». And finally, as if I was finding the way to access the famous Platform 9 3/4 frequented by Harry Potter by magic, I got on the train of salvation. The trip was not free of emotion: in Hasselt station, the ticket collector invited me to change to the first train carriages, as the rest of the carriages would stay in that station, and when I changed to the first carriages, with soft seats and old doors which recalled ancient times, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find Hogwarts’ steam locomotive carrying the train. It is not easy to reach Alden Biesen castle, yes, but maybe this is part of its charm. Like a rite of passage from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

IMG-20160418-WA0004I walked through the gates of the castle after 18:00, and my performance was at 19:30. I had just enough time to say hello, go to my room, get ready and go to the hall for the sound check. I laid down on the bed 15 minutes, exhausted, and I looked to the pitched roof, with huge wooden beams crossing the room: so this must what the fairy tale characters saw before going to sleep… I set the alarm clock, just in case the room had belonged to Sleeping Beauty, as I soon I entered the room, I felt a pleasant sleepiness around me.

The hall where I was going to perform was in the old riding school, fully renovated as a theatre, and from seven sharp, the audience, in perfect punctuality, was getting in and taking seats in  the stands, where about 300 people were expected. Some people greeted me with «Buenas tardes» or «Buenas noches», whether they took the Belgian or the Spanish timetable, and they looked at me with shyness and complicity at the same time. To tell stories for an audience of students of Spanish with beginners level is always a challenge. Not only requires the additional effort of telling all stories using the present tense, but also creates all kind of doubts about which kind of expressions will be the most appropriate and understandable for them, and all this without losing the flavour of the story.

rijschool_bThe folktales of this performance have already travelled the world. I have told them many times, in my mother tongue (Spanish and Catalan) as well as in English and French, so much of their value lies in non-verbal clues: onomatopoeia, gestures and rhythm (mainly through repetition). So I focused in the present, and the stories came in. As I was about to begin the first story, there was a strange excitement in the air, that I understood later: they were looking forward to see if they could understand me, as much as I was anxious to see if they could follow the story. And they followed me on my way with The Grandfather, the Donkey and the Child, and they even helped me with the refrain. From that point, we all relaxed and began to enjoy stories and each other’s company. While I tried to tell more clearly, they also guided me with their reactions, either with their laughter, with an «ohhh» of astonishment or an «ahhh» of understanding in the story The Black Chicken, joining me with repetitions, onomatopoeia, or even with the refrain Patim-Patam-Patum sung by Patufet, the Catalan version of Tom Thumb.

There was a very special moment, when I began the Soup made of stone, when the soldier escaping from war goes back home and he finds out he has no home: I got the impression of watching the story from their eyes, and they seemed really touched with the image, and me too. The story Juan and María, a perfect excuse to refresh the days of the week, caused great hilarity, as well as tenderness. Nevertheless, towards the end, when I told The Beauty of the World, a wonderful Majorcan version of Faithful John (ATU 516), about unconditional friendship between a Christian king and a Muslim knight, I saw how part of the public had problems to follow the plot. It was the longest story, and the more complex, too, and certainly due to the fatigue of the long trip, I was being less clear than I thought. Fortunately, I captured their fully attention again with the Nuts of «Ay ay ay!», a funny story, so unique that has its own number in The Types of International Folktales (ATU 860: Nuts of «Ay ay ay!»), and I finished the performance with a good feeling.

DSC01180Something really priceless from Alden Biesen Festival is that you can talk with the audience in a relaxed atmosphere after the performance, to exchange views and learn from the experience. Some students came to tell me they have enjoyed the stories, pleasantly surprised, as it was their first year studying Spanish. One of my fears before the show was if repetitions would be tiresome, but this fear vanished after one student’s comment: «At first I didn’t understood all words, but thanks to the repetitions, at the end of the story I could understand everything.»

It was also a way of mending things: I noticed that almost all students, except from people from fourth year, had problems to understand The Beauty of the World, and I thought seriously about changing this story for an easier one the next day. But some teachers which come regularly to the festival, changed my mind: «Don’t change it! It is a story of an uncommon beauty, you just have to make sure they are understanding the key words, and then they would follow it without problems.» They also advised me to make a 5 minute break, as for beginners it is really hard to keep concentrated so much time («Don’t worry, they will be 5 Belgian minutes, not 5 Spanish minutes: they are very respectful with time»), and also to introduce myself before starting, something that I normally avoid, as I prefer to go straight to the stories: «Introduction sentences is what they learn at the very beginning, and they love to hear who are you, where do you come from, as it is very familiar for them». The after-show adrenaline gave me strength for chatting with students and teachers, as well as with my colleagues storytellers that were also finishing the day with a beer in good company. I also exchanged views with Carles García, in charge of the performance for Spanish advanced students: plenty of energy, he kept answering the questions of the students who had listened his life stories, but around twelve, my body gave signs of retreat, and I retired to my bedchamber in the castle (and I would like to say it again and again, as I can’t say it in my ordinary life.)

Tuesday 19th April

WP_20160419_08_47_17_ProThe following day, as I got up, from my window I saw the bridge of the castle, the fields, the temple of Minerva… It was a quite sunny morning, perfect for walking around, but my body was still lazy, low of energy. I could see that there were groups of students from all ages crossing the gates, ready to listen to stories in every corner of the castle. The festival lasts one week, and storytellers from different countries and regions come to tell stories in their mother tongues to an audience consisting of language students, from school age as well as adults. Their attendance to the festival has become one of their annual activities thanks to the excellent work of the festival team, who takes great care of the relationships with schools and teachers.

I asked myself how many people would cross the gates of the castle during these days, ready to listen to stories. And as I didn’t had any performance until 19:30, I took the chance and did like them: Carles García, who very wisely, had come on Sunday and already knew the terrain and the day’s program, recommended me the show of Tom Van Mieghem and Julie Boitte, accompanied by the musician Peter Verbeckmoes, performing the Russian folktale Ivan Tsarevich. It was really worthwhile; I was fascinated by their «récit à trois», where Dutch, French and music told by turns the story. A constant game through similarities and sonorities between languages, plus gestures, rhythm and catchy tunes, which seemed to me a blend of Slavic, Manouche and Klezmer melodies with a touch of chanson française… some of them are still dancing in my head, as a sort of mantra. Thanks to the similarity with German, I could follow a bit the Dutch parts: it was not parallel storytelling, but two storytellers building a single story, each of them adding pieces, and when it began to be difficult for me to follow the plot, I was immediately rescued by a gesture, a movement, a sentence or melody in French, bringing me back to the story. It helped me also the fact of knowing well a Kyrgyz variant of the story, The golden Bird, and I really enjoyed the juggling work of these three artists.

DSC01172After lunch I went to see the show The silent Prince, from Mia Verbeelen and Nathalie Bondoux, also in Dutch and French, a frame story that interweaved stories from different cultures. The cellar was full of teenagers, and I was impressed to see them listening to this story, alternating parts in Dutch and in French. They seemed used to alternating these two languages, two languages that are so different… or maybe they looked very different only for me. All this gives me a lot to think about multilingual storytelling, and Alden Biesen seems like the perfect place for reflecting on it. But maybe it is the time, after lunch, or yesterday’s fatigue, but at some point I couldn’t hardly follow the stories within the story, and when the performance finished, I sneaked away into my room for a long siesta.

In the evening, fully recovered, I went to the hall. 300 people more were attending the stories. Spanish seems to be a very popular language, and when I began to speak, everyone listened in full attention. This time I removed from the menu Patufet, and I proposed a 5 minute break, too. I saw faces of excitement and then relief at the end of The dress embroidered with pearls, as I revealed an ending free of revenge.  When the turn of The Beauty of the World arrived, I took my time with the word «beauty», with the more complex points of the plot… And the effort was well worth, because this time they could follow me through the story easily. At the end of the performance, a teacher congratulated me for telling in the present tense «I know exactly how hard this can be, I have been doing the same for many years when I teach for beginners», and she showed me a notebook full of notes about words and expressions from the stories; she would use them as a teaching material «it is easier for them to remember and fix an specific term or expression if they have the context of a story», she says. Some teachers told me that the Alden Biesen Festival is one of the most beloved event among their students, and they come regularly every year. I apologised because I forgot to introduce myself again, but a man from the group told me: «Don’t worry, we know you, we have googled you.» If you forget something, Saint Google does the rest nowadays…

DSC01178Here and there, they ask me details from the stories «What does pisar mean?» «Gallina and pollo is the same?» And they tell me about their fascination for our language, their link with our culture, and they ask me where I come from, where I am going to…

And thinking about coming and going… I remember that tomorrow morning I have to go back home. So I began to say goodbye to the audience, who were also leaving, to the rest of storytellers, to the Alden Biesen team, thanking them for their kindness and care… And Wednesday morning, after a last night sleep in my princess’ bedroom and a good breakfast with newly arrived colleagues, I left the castle, I did the reverse journey in train (now I knew the tricks), taxi (the buses to the airport didn’t show up) and plane, and the ordinary world began to erase the tracks of the extraordinary world, so today, a week after, I decided to put it in writing before I begin to mistake what I lived with what I dreamt.


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