Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Belgian notes 3

Today I have the morning off. I'm not performing in the afternoon, but I'll go to Louvain-la-Neuve to the bookstore again, and possibly to the toy store where I bought a bug puppet last time. I like to find puppets that are not made by Folkmanis or Manhattan Toy or the other American brands--those are very good puppets but it's nice to find some that are unusual, other than the truly weird ones I occasionally make.

Monday I went back to the school in Brussels where I've performed before, in French. My French has improved to a point where the mistakes are minimal. This time, in order to avoid the echo-filled gym, I did shorter performances for more groups in the library, and one for the preschoolers in their loft. It's hard to do a performance for less than 30 minutes--we've all just settled in and it's time to stop. Never mind, we had a good time anyway.

I had not wanted to do a performance for les tout petits (the tinies), because last time I didn't feel that I was successful, but I agreed to do 15 minutes with them. It turned into 25, I think. Two fingerplay stories, a song my friend Marie taught me, and lots of puppet schtick. These were 2 and 3 year-olds. They LOVED the puppets, especially my frog Prince, who had le hoquet (hiccups) after eating too many sauterelles (grasshoppers).

Yesterday Marie drove me to a school 80 minutes away where they have just started to do English immersion. Most of these children had not learned enough English to understand the stories, no matter how slowly and clearly I told them, no matter how much body language I used. I'm not quite sure what the teachers were expecting. I suggested that I translate a little, but they said no. Add to this the fact that one of the teachers kept taking the younger kids in small groups to the bathroom during the performance, and you'll understand that I found this experience frustrating.

Good thing I have plenty of successes to focus on, instead of that little blip on the radar. Friday I have two more English immersion schools, one where I had a great time performing two years ago.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Belgian notes 2

I'm having a little break between high school performances. This morning went well, other than being on a stage where I couldn't see the audience (nobody knew how to put the house lights up).

Yesterday I was at an English immersion primary school. In some of these old schools, the gyms are tile-lined, tall and narrow, with horrible acoustics and the heat full-on. That was the case here. The children in the first group were grades 1-3, so they haven't been studying English for long. They were quite chatty, too. We had some fun, but it was a challenge. Thank goodness for puppets and fingerplays!

The second group, grades 4-5, was much easier. They understood everything, listened attentively and asked really great questions. In both groups they asked how old I am, right off. I always tell them, but I also explain that though this is a question adults always ask kids, it's a question kids aren't really supposed to ask adults (I think it was Judy Nichols who pointed that out to me).

My puppet Trixie brushed her hair with her toothbrush, thought her foot was a telephone, and generally fooled around in front of all the kids. I don't believe she picked her nose, though I can't be sure. Mavis didn't come out of the bag, as the energy in the room was already fairly frenetic, especially with the younger kids.

In both groups, kids clustered around me at the end, asking questions and telling me important things in both English and French. Some were surprised to hear me speak French. One told me that she would tell the stories to her Mamy, and that her Mamy speaks English. One wanted to know if I had children and was interested to hear that I have a cat.

This English-immersion idea is fairly new in the elementary schools in Belgium. Next week I have three more, in three different villages.

More later.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Belgian notes 1

I just had a little piece of dark chocolate today. Yesterday I had a couple of milk chocolate mignonettes (about the size of a credit card, though thicker). Yum.

I'm in Belgium, having a day off. Yesterday I did four performances at the European School of Brussels I, two for the English as a second language children, two for the native English speakers, in the Primary School. It was quite fun all around. I even remembered to switch a few words from American English to British English, since most of the native English speakers are from the UK. "Nappy" instead of diaper, "rubber" instead of eraser, etc. Despite the change of vocabulary, the stories are universal.

Here's a difference, though, between American public schools and Belgian private schools: the teacher's cafeteria. No, not a cafeteria, more of a restaurant. I paid for my meal (around 5 dollars) and was shown the soup and starter bar--salads, artichoke hearts, sliced ham, hard-boiled eggs, bread, yoghurt, fruit. When I finished my soup and salad, a server came to take my plate and my order for the main dish. I chose turkey, couscous and green peppers in a tomato sauce. It was a huge serving, but I applied myself diligently. Then I helped myself to a chocolate mousse from the bar and waited for a cup of coffee, which came with a cookie (speculoos with chocolate). All around me the teachers were relaxed, taking their time, enjoying the meal together. I saw the server bring wine to one table. It was all very civilized, like the good coffee and croissants served in the teacher's lounge.

ESB I is not exactly typical. It's a good school that I would guess charges a hefty tuition. Next week I'll be at an inner-city Belgian school at the opposite end of the social scale. Never mind. Wherever I am, the children have a good time listening to stories.

Maybe I'll have another piece of chocolate now.

Friday, February 11, 2005


I'm ready to go. Bags are packed and by the door. There's the giant silver duffel, full of clothes, presents for friends, a few puppets, and some of my CDs. Next to the duffel is my messenger bag, with more presents, trip food, a couple of books, passport, my purse, important papers, brochures, and some pages from the NY Times crossword puzzle calendar. Also ear plugs, an eye mask and melatonin. The third bag is the home-away-from-home for my puppets. I'm also carrying some extra clothes, more presents, a harmonica (you never know), and the apples that didn't fit in the messenger bag.

When I thought I was done packing, I wandered back through my office. My eye was caught be another puppet. How could I leave her at home? I ended up putting three more in. I'll try to restrain myself when I go through security--the puppets just want to speak right up. Hope they don't eat my trip food.

I'll be in Belgium for a couple of weeks, telling stories (mostly in English, with a few gigs in French), hanging out with old friends, playing, eating chocolate, haunting bookstores for collections of folktales in French. The space taken up in my bags by presents now will be filled with books and chocolate on the way home.

That's it for now. More later. A la prochaine!

Sunday, February 06, 2005

My great-grandfather, snoring, and language style

Thanks, Tony, for the link to your blog. Your mention of being a parish priest in the UK reminded me that I need to update the news on my great-grandfather's memoirs. I finished transcribing them, tra la!

Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe was an Episcopal Bishop in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. In transcribing the memoirs, I realized that he most likely wrote them with an eye to church history. This made for a hard slog for some of the transcription. In the beginning, there are allusions to his family life, but almost nothing in the last half of the memoirs. My grandfather, the youngest of the 18 children (11 lived to maturity, 2 of his 3 wives died young), is not mentioned at all.

The last big chunk is about the Lambeth Conference of 1878. He went to this conference of the Bishops of the Anglican Communion from around the world, held at the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth. He and my great-grandmother took a ship to England, with a whole passel (herd? flock?) of bishops.

On the journey, they were in a stateroom, which didn't have walls all the way to the ceiling. In the next stateroom were two "musical gentlemen". Here's a little piece from the trip:

"When I awakened in my upper berth on the first morning, I found this opening in the partition between me and my musical friends stuffed with pillows and shawls, and [...] while I was dressing [...], I heard the upper man say to his friend, 'Did you hear the old gentleman blowing his horn all night?' 'No,' said he. 'But I did,' rejoined the complainant, 'I tell you, he’s a regular old steam tug.' So I was enlightened as to the purpose for which the shawls and pillows were stuffed there."

On a similar theme, during a visit to a Cathedral in England:

"In the afternoon of the same Sunday, a preacher of much more soporific influence occupied the pulpit at the Cathedral, while Bishop Littlejohn, Bishop Wilmer and myself occupied stalls in the choir. I became unconscious in the progress of the discourse, and by and by awakened by quite a resonant snore. I looked about to determine, if I might, whether I was the transgressor, and I saw that Bishop Littlejohn and my other friends were doing the same thing, agitated probably by the same solicitude."

What language! People just don't speak like this anymore, or not often. I hear remnants of it in the speech of my father, a retired Episcopal priest, and occasionally in my own speech. Within the family, some of us drop into this style sometimes. In general speech, we don't, because it sounds like affectation. Maybe it is, or maybe it's just habit. It feels as much a part of our family as our big rectangular smiles.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

You're pulling my ear!

I had the last of a four-week program with preschoolers last week, a special program designed to introduce parents and children to the arts using a child-directed approach.

At the beginning and end of the program, the kids sit with me without their parents. In between, the kids explore various art stations. In the first of the four-week session, the kids aren't sure what's going on. Most of them don't know me yet and are wondering if this is going to be fun. I sit on the floor with them, play my harmonica, learn their names, tell a story, get everybody on my side if possible. They keep a respectable distance. By the last week, the kids are practically in my lap (15 or so of them!).

This last week, my buddy Tim (age 5) had some ideas for the last story. Since the story we'd begun with was "The Gunniwolf," I wanted to tell that again, to tie everything together. I know, I know, that's not so child-directed, but Tim was fine with the idea, as were the other kids. I promised we would make up a story together at the end. Still, Tim had some things to say, "Make it a dinosaur! A dinosaur!" He crept closer and closer, and finally stood next to me, pulling my ear, as if to pour his ideas into my head.

As long as I could give attention to everyone, I didn't mind. Tim has so many ideas, they just spill out of him. Earlier he and another child and I were playing a game, and when I didn't do it right, he said, "Maybe you're having trouble keeping control of yourself." I suspect his kindergarten teacher has said this to him more than once.

Sometimes all kids need is a little acknowledgment before the story can go on. Sometimes that's a bit too much, and I gently suggest that the child listen a little. I think Tim mostly needed to be heard--that's why he pulled on my ear.