The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Angels in Geneva
This story is entirely true because I imagined it from beginning to end.
preamble to L’écume des jours (Froth on the Days)
We all seek a measure of security in a connected, networked world, where corporate identity ensures global monoculturalism at all levels. We can enjoy the exact same coffee in Singapore as in New York or Warsaw, buy the same clothes in shops that all look the same, hear the same shallow music, even taste the same foods. And our hyper-technology tends to amplify the banal by making everything purely visual. Paradoxically, in the flood of images being traded across the globe every second of the day, the imagination suffers.
Throughout their lives, puppeteers Tina and Michel Perret-Gentil’s chose to sally forth into the great unknown without fear of being disconnected. Their art of telling stories through their own puppets engages the imagination far more than any movie or series of pictures on Flickr. Their life and art dispense metaphors that trigger chains of thoughts and eureka moments and genuinely slake our minds’ thirst for adventure and mystery and for more journeying. — Marton Radkai
When Tina was 19, she packed up her bags, took the seeds of her life’s experience from a childhood in the stark, majestic mountains of the Canton of Grisons in eastern Switzerland, and went down to the valley to plant them and see what might grow. The year was 1967; in the western world, the younger generation was taking its first hesitant steps away from the social straitjacket of past conservative values. Change was in the air, and it was to break into full-fledged rebellion a year later in Paris and other European capitals. Geneva was not yet the pressure-cooker-like, global capital of finance, oil, real-estate speculation and tarnished money it is today, but the presence of the UN and other international organizations already gave it a distinct stamp, a whiff of distant shores lacking elsewhere in the country.
Tina, née Marianna Katharina Casanova, who had learned French and done some secretarial training, had no exotic plans for life. She just wanted to work at the post office and get a feel for life in a biggish city. “My aunts and my mother had worked at the post office in Obersachsen (her native village), and as a child I would help them distribute telegrams or express mail for pocket money,” she recalls. “I did that for a few months in Geneva but I realized I did not want to be behind a counter all day, I wanted to get out and distribute the mail, and be with the people.” And so her first seedlings withered quickly under the fluorescent buzz of reality.
As time slid by, however, she came to realize that the post office was not the determining message in her life choices, rather it was the determination and self-confidence bequeathed to her from her mother and aunts well before Swiss women even got the right to vote. “They were different from other women, they wore more jewels, they wore trousers, they were the first women to ski up there, they all made music, and I got a diatonic accordion for my 9th birthday,” she points out, a touch wistfully. “I had a wonderful childhood up in the mountains, close to nature.”
Today, Tina is still close to nature. Her home, surrounded by greenery, is unique in and for Geneva, a city plagued by an extreme dearth of lodgings and where rents are astronomical. Thirty years ago, she and her husband Michel slipped quietly into the nomadic lifestyle of rolling homes. “It was not a conscious decision, it just happened,” she says, “but I couldn’t live in a house anymore today. Those poor Romanies whom the government was always trying to force into homes, they must have gone crazy.”
They currently have four trailers, long, dark wooden structures that Michel has carefully and skillfully revamped, adding windows, insulation, wood paneling, and the occasional decorative touch. One is for sleeping, one for the office and atelier, there is one for each of their two children who are now grown up and have children of their own. Her son Jan lives in Uganda, where his wife works for an NGO. Daughter Anna is in Geneva. For guests or other meetings, Michel puts up a large yurt, a tent-like structure of wooden slats covered with felt used mainly in Mongolia.
The homes are currently located in a garden lot in the Cherpines area of the city, which until May of this year was zoned for agriculture. The two functional homes are placed so the doors face each other. Between the two is a simple picnic table covered in wax cloth and shielded from the rain by a canvas. Often, on warm days and nights, they sit together or with any of their innumerable friends and chat, dream and discuss projects. They are as gentle with the environment as possible, always using biodegradable soaps. The waste from the toilet is compost.
In their five years’ residence at the Cherpines, they planted a wild garden with roses, some vegetables and herbs, a small pond, and even a willow, using offshoots from a tree at their previous residence. “Everyday I look at the flowers in the garden, I feel they are inhabited each by their own spirit, and that gives me strength as well and confidence.” These two words return in our conversations over and over again.
On this day, we are in the kitchen, essentially a wide corridor with a gas stove and an old wood cooking stove used on colder days. The walls are covered in mementoes, pictures, notes, drawings, post-its, the eclectic ephemera of a life on the road and with children. A shelf carries a crowd of strange objects, statuettes and, incongruously, an old shoe. The sheer immediacy of the outdoor takes away any feeling of being inside. It’s spring, and a host of sparrows, blue tits and blackbirds are carrying on a lively conversation. The west wind that brought a light rain is also shaking drops off the trees onto the roof above us and making the nearby highway more audible than usual. The cats come in and out of the open door. The air is rich with spices, herbal teas and espresso and a hint of patchouli, an aromatic anchor in Tina and Michel’s lives.
We sit opposite each other. Her eyes are dark aquamarine, almost grey. They are not hungry, yet they take everything in as if they could hear. She speaks in clear, emphatic tone, her French has the slight singsong of her native Swiss German, and every move of her long thin arms shakes a parade of bangles. She modulates her voice down to whisper sometimes, or stretches out a syllable beyond its shelf life. A touch of theater is an occupational hazard: For nearly 38 years, Tina and Michel have been puppeteers, telling stories, singing, accompanying their little wooden actors with all manner of sounds. As such, they have become an integral part of the cultural scene in Geneva, appearing wherever there is some manifestation or celebration of the stage arts or children to entertain. They also launched a late spring festival called “Dust of the world” (Poussière du monde), a homage to nomadic culture featuring song recitals from the Maghreb or Columbia, or evenings of fairytales. It all takes place in a small park in Geneva. The theater house itself is in fact two concatenated Mongolian yurts, whose cloth walls are supported by slats intricately decorated with arabesques.
It is there, on a Sunday afternoon, that I picked up their latest show, in which they have their Rajasthan kathputli puppets enact vignettes from life and legend presented to the scratchy recordings of folk music taken from old 45s. The program opens with two puppet musicians playing, and very quickly one forgets the intricate, perfectly timed pas-de-deux of the two puppeteers operating behind a simple anthracite backdrop. Among the more virtuosic scenes is an acrobatic horseman holding a torch on his galloping steed, a little scene featuring a woman who turns into a man suddenly, much to the disappointment of an eager suitor, and our horsemen joisting. It is a far cry from the flash-bang, often violent drama with which the entertainment industry usually tries to hypnotize spectators. But rows of children up front, some surely hardened Wii, Gameboy and TV users, are wide-eyed in fascination, so much so that they begin moving forward and at some point have to be guided back to their place.
Puppeteering raises all sorts of philosophical questions, especially for people who have chosen a free lifestyle. “The most extraordinary exchange occurs between them and us,” Michel once wrote about the puppets. “We give them life, and in return they give us the possibility of living. Some are thirty years old. They don’t age. They wait discreetly, always ready for our hands to seize them. The wait is never very long, and when our hands take them it’s not just our hands doing the work, but our hearts are present as well.” By his own admission their creations avoid caricatures, sentimentality, irony and the spectacular, leaving “receptivity and imagination” in Michael’s words.
He is not just venting theory. The puppets are what sparked the couple’s unusual nomadic lifestyle. They became “the means of transportation for a journey without a goal… Like the horizon, the goal is always escaping me,” he wrote.
That journey began in the early 70s. After the post-office debacle, Tina learned to type and found work at a bank. It was then that she met Michel Perret-Gentil, a young man with curly hair, opaline-blue eyes, and the wild creative vein of an extramural philosopher. He liked his job washing windows. It gave him time to cultivate his tangled web of thoughts while peering into opulent shops, thoughts that got him thrown out of the military within a week of passing muster. “He was filed as ‘socially not adapted’” Tina says with a broad laugh. “You should have seen his demeanor, plus he had a bunch of psychological reports. But we did have to pay a military tax after that.”
Inspired by friends who had visited India, they put money aside and in 1971 bought a VW bus and drove to India by road. “It was a magnificent journey,” she says. There were adventures–such as people shaking their car at night–by way of the Balkans, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The beauty of discovering the world remains, tinged with the occasional thrill. “Afghanistan was simply marvelous, the people were hospitable, friendly,” she recalls. “Michel and I used to say that no one talked about the country because it was in peace, and suddenly look at what happened, the Russians, oil, money.” They even stayed with smugglers near Khyber Pass — “Guns, ammunition and Camel cigarettes! all over the place!” — who offered an evening of music, dinner, and a night in silk sheets.
They spent nearly a year in India and Nepal discovering a brand new culture. When it came time to return, however, war between India and Pakistan had broken out, so they left their car and flew home with the help of wired funds.
Back in Switzerland, life continued, but their paradigm had shifted. One day they went to see a puppet play directed by a Michel Politti. It was a classic coup de foudre, love at first sight, when all the disparate parts of life seem to gel into a full-blown affirmation, a single, vibrant “yes!” They wanted to return to India anyway, so through the Indian Tourist Board they found a center to learn how to make and activate kathputli puppets of Rajasthan, one of the oldest forms of the art. They gave up their jobs and hit the road again, this time in a small, two-cylinder Ami 6 Citroen station wagon customized for camping. After six months of toil, learning to carve, sew and string up the kathputli, they were ready to return.
Their return was not auspicious. The car’s engine froze up in Belgrade and they had to leave a large case filled with their freshly made puppets behind to take the train. Nevertheless, back in Geneva, at a little house rented from the city near the airport, they began rebuilding their stock. “We practiced a lot, and a woman saw us and asked if we would like play at the annual meeting of the Swiss puppeteers,” she recalls. “And would you believe it? Suddenly everyone wanted us. People would ask us how much money we wanted, we had no idea.”
The tours began, to France, to Germany, later to Eastern Europe and England. Soon, they were able to live from puppeteering and decided to buy a big 1947 Saurer bus to save themselves the cost of hotels. Ironically, the vehicle had originally been used by the post office to transport people as well as mail. They did about 12,000 miles a year. When the children came (born in 1976 and 1980 respectively) the trips became shorter, or Michel’s mother had to step in as a baby-sitter. Their shows evolved and expanded as new puppets were created and new tales added. Michel had found his calling in the creation of a string of “circuses” with special puppets. In Pécs, Hungary, they won a prize for his “Cirque philosophique,” which combined music (Tina on accordion) and Latin texts. They performed at festivals and in schools, for Christmas and Easter.
Meanwhile, in 1982, the city of Geneva wanted their cheap little house back to turn it into lodgings for flight attendants. Tina and Michel decided to make a deal. Rather than accept alternative accommodation, they asked whether they could use some municipal land and put a second bus on it. The city let them use a plot in Malagnou. Soon, real-estate developers started ogling the land, so they moved to a new place lent by friends, and then when the developers came, to another and another. Each time they cleared the grounds, planted gardens, created a paradisiacal human biotope. As the children grew, they added the rolling homes, which they found abandoned. Now they are at the Cherpines, agricultural land that was just declassified for building, and the real estate sharks are already making offers that local owners will find hard to refuse.
Tina speaks of the past as if it was the present. That is the gift of nomads, and it is their essential melancholy. They carry their entire lives in their baggage, in their minds, in their souls, in their homes, tents, on the backs of their camels and horses, or in their old vehicles. While most of us fill cellars and try to move on into an unpredictable future, the nomad collects and keeps mostly the weightless and sanctifies human to human contact.
Michel sits beside her in the kitchen. His clear blue eyes are opened wide by arched eyebrows; his look is a mixture of admiration, love, gratitude and amazement. He seems at peace. Those who knew the old Michel speak of his great intellect and ready conversation. Three years ago, while packing the stage after a Christmas play, a massive heart attack struck him down. He came back, but death’s claws raked a part of his mind, taking his treasure of thoughts, his memories and many puppet adventures away forever. Today, he handles the puppets with his heart alone, which is as voluble as ever in spite of the scars.
Wherever Tina and Michel go, they are approached by acquaintances, friends, admirers. It’s more than just the attraction of the theater. It is the single-mindedness with which they lead their special lives and their belief in the sanctity of the human creative impulse. Michel came up with a name for them, “des anges heureux,” (happy angels), which is almost a homonym for “dangeureux” (dangerous).
Tina takes me back to my car and shows me the garden. She is a long, lithe woman, with stunning poise. Her hair is always pulled back in two thin braids that reach almost to her knees. At 62, she moves with the grace of a ballet dancer, be that while walking through the market shopping, receiving gifts, or giving life to the puppets. And the rhythmic sound of a tabla, or djembe, a tombak or any other live percussion will set off a languorous swaying dance like that of a field of wheat caressed by a breeze. The beauty of her being radiates from an inextinguishable inner fire. At night a lighted candle always flickers near their home, “to signal that we are here, we are still burning,” she smiles. As I drive away in the luke-warm drizzle, I can see their home in the rear-view mirror and another quote of hers echoes in my ears:
“We are on wheels. When we go, there will be no trace of us.”
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