Arad, Romania; Sunday, October 29, 2017
It dawned on all of us at the same time. I might be seen as representing Canada on this tour in Romania, and Jeff Hawaii (or arguably the USA). But John from Kenya was representing an entire continent. Wherever we went, eyes fell on him, and he was the first to be grabbed for selfies after a show. Coming from multi-ethnic communities, we took a couple of days to grasp it: for many of the people we encountered, John might well be the first Black man they saw in person. In our little group of four, we dubbed him the King of Africa. He did not mind.
Although the autumn weather in western Romania wasn’t very cold for a Canadian, the others were feeling it, and John’s wardrobe was still lacking. After Arad we would all be in Bucharest together for another week. It appeared that weather in Bucharest might be more mild than in Arad. But from there John would continue for a few days in Brăila, a port on the Danube in eastern Romania. When we asked Girogiana what the weather there might be like, her eyes grew wide. “Cold!” she replied.
So John needed more clothes. There is an abundance of second-hand shops in Arad, and Dominique knew them well from her trip two years ago. She had already helped me find a dark top for my shows (because apparently I was not even awake when I packed for this trip); now she led us back there in our collective quest for a hat and scarf for a Kenyan. (Someone at the festival had come up with a jacket for him.)
We found kids’ hats, and decorative scarves, but if winter was about to strike this gentle town with any clout, there was no sign of it in these shops. We wandered in and out of several, with no luck. As we left one shop, Dominique went to the trouble to ask again, as in “Are you sure” and when the shop-keeper shook his head dismissively, she gave him a classic French shrug. “No hat for the King of Africa,” she said, as if it were the shop’s loss, not ours. As the others walked out, I caught the shop-keeper’s startled look. Who knows what he thought.
That excursion produced no hat or scarf, but there was still Sunday, and by this time it was clear that John’s new jacket was short in the sleeves and too tight to fit a sweater under it. Sunday had a couple of major blessings, the first being that powerhouse festival producer Giorgiana attends church for at least two full hours, leaving us with some free time. Another was that Jeff had learned the marionette theatre in town had a puppet show. On the way there, we could check out the public market. Dominique wanted some fruit, and – who knows – we might find winter clothes for the King.
On the way, in quiet streets tucked in between the magnificent buildings from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in shops we had missed previously, John found a black knit hat and a long thick grey scarf. If we could find a warmer jacket, the King of Africa would be ready for the elements. Under grey skies, we continued down the narrow streets.
The market is in a large square, surrounded by buildings whose beauty is crumbling with neglect. It was fairly quiet, with many empty stalls in the chilly wet wind. There were a few Roma around the periphery: eyes on everyone; filling water bottles from a public fountain; a couple asking for money. The hardy vendors were wrapped in so many clothes it was hard to discern their actual size. Their faces, chiseled by the elements, were ageless. They could have been characters from a story book. Everything about them evoked another era and a life of hard work. They sold peppers and beans, apples and cabbages, greens and root vegetables we did not know. Dominique bought some apples while Jeff made goofy faces and got some laughs from the men who hung back. We passed an entire row of flower stalls, then off on its own we found a vendor with a miscellany of used items in an otherwise empty area of the market. Among her offerings was a heavy-duty waterproof red-and-grey wind-breaker, and it fit the King with room for extra layers. The vendor watched in fascination. 40 Lei (about $10). Dominique talked her down to 30, and John bought it.
With Jeff leading the way, we set off for the marionette theatre where we’d performed a couple of nights earlier. It’s a great little older theatre with marionettes in display cases in the lobby, and an adjacent workshop where the puppets are made. There was no one at the door; we walked in.
The show was underway, and the theatre about 2/3 filled with families and young kids. The show was not marionettes but large animal puppets, about the size of babies, handled by three performers. The puppets were cartoon-like, Disney-esque; an intriguing contrast to the players, who wore jeans and t-shirt (the man) or Romanian peasant blouses (the two women). There was a wolf and a rabbit and one or two other animals that were trotted around in and out of a couple of little houses. We couldn’t follow the Romanian, but it looked like the rabbit was a bit of a nasty character who alienated his friends. Then the wolf came along and yanked him out of his house, which caused an instant eruption of crying in the audience. Then somehow the wolf ended up on a bench on the other side of the stage with a patch of knitting and an unrolling ball of yarn. At this point Dominique and I were laughing so hard the kids around us were staring – that is, the ones who weren’t already staring at the tall black man beside us and the tall white man who could only be his body guard. Then the wolf got everyone’s attention again when he came out into the audience and ran a riotous romp through the room, out to the lobby and back through the other door, with the actors asking questions to which the kids screamed DA!! or NU!! like their lives depended on it. It was deliciously intense and delightfully simple.
Afterwards, Jeff wanted to show us the marionette atelier, but it was closed. We snapped a photo of the King beside a somewhat fatigued limo on the street, and walked back to the hotel. If I recall correctly, nobody was cold.
All content © 2017 Anne Glover