Thursday, May 9, 2013

I ♣ Guignol

           We just finished two weeks of home exchanges in Dijon and Nîmes. Both places were interesting and fun but we were eager to get back "home" so I think Bordeaux's beginning to get comfortable.
            Having never been to Dijon, all I knew was it's in Burgundy and back in the States its name is on mustard. As it turns out, there really was a guy named Poupon and Dijon really is known for mustard. In fact there's a store there, Maille, that's has it on tap and you can take your own container to be filled with one of three different moutardes du jour. We felt right at home, though, since one of the wettest, coldest and longest winters in Bordeaux history followed us right up north.    
            This shitty weather thoughtfully stayed with us through two days in Lyon then right down to Nîmes where it cleared up just in time for us to go home. Nîmes, being in one of the warmest regions of France, I optimistically (there's a phrase you don't hear from me very often) packed a couple pairs of shorts that never left the suitcase. On the plus side, this city has two of the world's best preserved Roman buildings in it's arena and what's called the Maison Carré, the Square House, so Cynthia was especially happy.
            For me, though, the highlight of the trip came during the two days in Lyon, the second city of France and, like Pittsburgh, situated at the confluence of two major rivers, the Rhône and Saône. Wait a second, this is how travelogues start. Disregard this paragraph.
            On a two-day stopover in Lyon, we went to the World Puppets Museum so I could see the original Guignol, what could be called the National Puppet of France but it's more than that. Guignol is a major part of the culture of this country and there is no American equivalent. He was created in the early 19th century by an out of work Lyon silk-weaver named Laurent Mourguet. According to the museum, when Mourguet lost his weaver gig, he decided to try his hand as a tooth-puller - that's right, a tooth puller. How the skill of weaving silk leads to yanking molars is anyone's guess but Mourguet also hit on the idea of puppet shows as a way to drum up business. Again, who knows, but this ended up being more lucrative than amateur dentistry. The main character of every show was called Guignol (ghee-nyol) and is thought to be modeled on Mourguet himself. The shows and characters became popular with the working class and spread all through France. When they lost their popularity with adults, like Warner Brother's cartoons the characters evolved into children's entertainment. Maybe that's why I get a kick out of them.
            Here in Bordeaux, both large parks have permanent outdoor theatres that have Guignol shows on the days kids are out of school. Every fall, travelling puppeteers make their way through the French countryside and this is how we first encountered him. I've enjoyed puppet shows all my life possibly because 1950's television had plenty, especially on Saturday mornings when you saw Kukla, Fran and Ollie as well as Andy Devine with Froggy the Gremlin. In truth, these shows were pretty lame and I was actually afraid of Midnight the Cat, one of Andy Devine's characters.
            A couple of years ago, while we vacationed near Aix-en-Provence, I saw a poster for one of these shows and almost literally killed us trying to make it to the little town in time for the show.  In this show, Guignol was looking for a job and was helped by a friend to find a position. The characters were simple and even though I couldn't understand a word, it wasn't too hard to figure out that the moral was that honesty is rewarded. Most of the 8 to 10 kids who came with their parents or grandparents of course got caught up and shouted encouragement and directions at the characters. They laughed at the silliness and had a great time because they were still young enough for make-believe. Not one of them had any of the electronic babysitters that seemed to be fixed to American kids hands. All in all this was one of the sweetest and most charming things I’d ever seen and now I have the excuse of language training any time I want to walk to the park for a puppet show.

                 You just don't see things like this in the States anymore.  For one thing, an integral part of every story requires at least one of the characters be brained with a club. Every kid knows this is pretend but – well there’s no use trying to explain it. We just don’t condone those sorts of things, unless you want to shoot them.


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