More than half a hundred storytellers gathered in a haunted castle in Spain to share ideas, news and stories for three days and as many nights before they scattered again in every direction of the compass.
Sounds like a fairy tale?
(Also, 'castles in Spain'. I learned that from Orlando Furioso. The air castles of Spain, held together by spells and dreams, and occasionally a hyppogriff. How freakin' cool is that.)
It was the fourth annual meeting of the Federation for European Storytelling. In Spain. More specifically, in Toledo. Even more specifically, the thousand-year-old castle of San Servador, complete with its very own five-hundred-year-old ghost (that has already been exorcised at least once).
There was no way I would have stayed away from that.
I set out by plane on a rainy Tuesday morning from Budapest to Madrid, and I realized once again how much I love to travel. Especially by plane. Not like I am not afraid of a crash, but the whole experience makes me feel excited and comfortable at the same time. Terminals are easy. They tell you exactly where to go, and what to do, and they are usually clean (at least the ones I've been to), and full of interesting things and people. From the moment you walk in the airport gates all through to the gates of your destination, you are somewhere else. Outside of time. In-between. No everyday problems, no worries. Just... traveling.
(Annnd yes, I'm an Eshu, thank you to all of you who asked ;))
So, as I said, I set out from Budapest to Madrid. I was prepared to tell in Spanish; the tale I brought, translated and practiced, was the Hungarian folktale of The Boy who wanted to walk on the clouds. And now that I could see the clouds from above, I started to understand why. From below, clouds are just puffy white and grey things in the sky; but from above, they are their very own realm. The Cloud Kingdoms. There are valleys and mountains, islands and great white seas, cities with towers and walls, ships that sail the endless blue, and flocks of tiny white sheep. I spent three ours staring at them with my nose pressed against the glass. Not like it has been the first time I flew. But with the story fresh and rehearsed, it suddenly made all the sense in the world.
In Madrid, I got a brief taste of the 10+ metro lines from the airport to the railway station, and a little bit of the pouring rain, before I was on the train and on my way to Toledo. In the meantime, I found an unlikely travel companion in the one and only Giacomo Casanova, whose travel journal of Spain proved to be an amusing read on the long plane and train ride.
When I arrived to the most beautiful train station I have ever seen, the rain was still pouring. I walked around the castle hill, and up some steps; and suddenly, there it was, Toledo on the other side of the Tajo, with a great ridge in-between, and the sight was so beautiful I had to stop and stare. I climbed up the hillside, carrying my backpack with wild ducks circling above, and stood on top of the road, staring at the city and the river and the bridges, laughing.
San Servador is old, and cozy, and beautiful, everything one can wish a castle to be. And it was already starting to fill up with storytellers. Pep was there, with some of the other Spanish organizers, and I knew everything in the world was all right. I found my room, and a roommate from Austria called Karin, all smiling eyes and colorful clothes. And then other people started to arrive. Martin from England (big hug and laughing), the Italians (Paola, Davide and Giovanna, long time no see, and a lot of smiles), and other storytellers, one after another, some of them I knew and some of them were new. And then suddenly Birgit and Tone were there too, and the conference has begun.
When you have 50+ storytellers in one place (which usually puts 'herding cats' into a new perspective), speaking more than a dozen different languages, it is always confusing in the beginning. But our steering group did a great job keeping the program together as we introduced ourselves, and laughed, and slowly figured out who spoke what. That is one great thing about international storytelling: most of us speak 2+ languages, and then it is just a matter of time to figure out who can help you speak to whom. And by the end of the week, we even spoke in languages we have never heard before, and every once in a while I found myself wondering which language I have been using a moment ago... our hosts compared the whole experience to Babel, and I liked the idea. Many many languages, working together, trying to reach the sky. The book got it all wrong.
Once the introductions were over, it was time for some short presentations; first, the FEST babies, those projects and organizations that were born from the inspiration of FEST meetings in the past. One was FIST, the new organization of Italian storytellers, and the other one was our very own HOLNEMVOLT Festival. I was proud like a mother.
After the presentations, Abbi Patrix told us the tale of FEST; some of us have heard it before, but there were new details to it now, like to any good story, and it was good to hear it again, to remind us where we started.
After the presentations, we had dinner; by that time, the rain stopped, and a rainbow appeared over San Servador. This settled out program for the evening: after dinner, we all gathered and walked down the hillside to the bridge, to cross over the river and visit the magnificent city of Toledo.
A nighttime walking tour.
The city was ours; we barely ever saw anyone as we walked down streets, through narrow alleys and under great old buildings, following our guide who told us the story of Toledo. I think we must have spent about three hours wandering around, amazed by the city in the dark, the shadows around the cathedral, the moon above the main square, the gates and massive walls and cobblestones and tiny little balconies. It was great fun, doing that tour with other storytellers. I did not envy the guide, but we had so much to talk about... and at night, it felt like the whole of Toledo belonged to us, and there was no one else within the walls.
It was very late by the time we got back to San Servador; after a whole day of traveling and all the new things and the excitement, I fell into bed as I was. And the conference had just begun.
After the first day of the conference, three more followed; we had a lot to talk about. There were panel discussions of different topics; I participated in Young storytellers, Multilingual experiences, and Repertoire. In Young Storytellers, I learned about storytelling education in other countries; how the new tellers are taught, through mentors or in schools, where they practice and how. It was all very useful and fascinating, especially since I am trying to help two other young Hungarian tellers (see below), and also because I only have 2 months left before I return to the USA to start the Storytelling MA program at ETSU. (Yay!)
Multilingual experiences was equally interesting; as a group I have described above, we needed to talk about solutions to multilingual telling, which includes telling to audiences with a different native language, and also telling with other tellers, translation or tandem. There were a lot of fascinating ideas for tandem telling, and we all agreed that languages are essential in our work, and also in promoting the art of storytelling. Everyone should be able to tell in their own language, but it is also important to speak at least one other, to make international telling easier. And of course, the more the merrier.
Repertoire was mainly about what kind of stories we tell, and how we work with them. Patricia McGill had a lovely image for that: she said picking stories is like buying shoes. There are the ones that are comfortable enough to wear for years; and there are some beautiful ones you just have to have, even if they hurt your feet for a long time before you break them in. And sometimes you just need to run into a shop and buy one out of necessity, and that's okay too.
Apart from panel discussions, we also had group meetings. One for festival organizers, which was extremely useful for me (our festival is still a baby, while others are already teenagers, or even grown-ups). I took pages and pages of notes of useful ideas and creative tidbits about making a storytelling festival successful. And there were a lot to them to learn from. Hakaya, Maratón de Cuentos, ZauberWort, Raccontamiunastoria, Beyond the Border, Festival on the Edge... it would be a long list, if I listed them all. But they all had good things to say, and I was happy to be part of the group.
We also had meetings about FEST itself, trying to figure out what to do to make it more visible, to promote storytelling, to create a website, a newsletter... there were a lot of ideas, and we invented the wheel more than once, but there were things to be said, and in this huge Game Without Borders, we all had to be on the same page. Our greatest fear was that between the annual meetings (Belgium next year, Rome after that, and then Sweden) nothing would happen. But everyone seemed very determined to continue active projects in-between, so we had all the hopes in the world. We'll see.
On the last day of the conference, we even sketched out an international all-European storytelling project for the 2012 Grimm year. It is called Project Grimm, and includes dozens of tellers all telling Grimm tales in their own languages, styles and versions. I am currently coordinating the project. Fun fun fun!
And of course, we had fun. While the festival organizers worked, those who do not have a festival had creative labs, and in two days they created five multilingual story performances, one better than the other. Thursday evening we all walked into Toledo once again, to the baroque theater, to watch the show. One group after another walked on stage and told us stories, and with the abundance of languages they used, all the stories were great, and the performances enjoyable, full of fun ideas for translation and interpretation.
We even had a Mini Film Fest, where we watched videos and slide shows of various storytelling events and programs of the past year. It was nice to see the photos from Raccontamiunastoria, the amazing DVD from Hakaya, and I even presented a short music video myself, cut from the videos made at Holnemvolt. Once the music is legal, I will post it online as well...
Anyhow, a lot more happened in four days than one would believe; it felt like a year, or more, some reverse fairy tale where one thinks she spent a year in the other world, and comes back to find out nothing has changed. Not that I mind.
We are all very different, us storytellers. It is a unique European experience, having so many cultures and so many languages in one place. (Just for the record: Spain, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Israel, Jordan, Chile, Mexico... I must have left one or two out...) We have ideas, and festivals, and a lot of stories; sometimes we invent wheels enough to supply a car factory, but most of the time, we get along just fine. Storytelling builds long and strong bridges from one culture to another, and even when we are tired and confused and don't always understand every word, we always find our way back in the end. It is a great honor to be a part of such a great group of people; to listen to the tales, and share the news the old way: traveling, listening, telling.
And here ends the conference, but not the tale.