Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Family of Love, and Mary on a Stick - Welcome to Antwerp

I'm in Belgium, a country I've grown to love. This is my fourth visit in the past three years, and every time I come, I learn more, and find more very cool places to explore.

I'm staying with my friend Veva Gerard, a Flemish storyteller, and her family, and yesterday Veva, her husband, and their son Jasper, and I, went off to Antwerp for a tour. Our tour guide for the day was the fantastically-knowledgeable Key Minnebo, who has been leading what she calls "esoteric tours" of the ancient city of Antwerp for 30 years.

We started in the courtyard garden of the Museum Plantin-Moretus, and Key asked me what I was interested in.  I suggested local legends, stories of the supernatural, hidden and secret places.

"We will start inside," she suggested.

Inside she introduced us to Christophe Plantin, and a series of 400 year old printing presses. I could sense my father drooling, all the way from Canada.

Then things got interesting. Key gave a running commentary as we moved through the museum, giving us details on a mystic religious sect known as the Family of Love, or Familists, then drawing in secret societies, the Rosicrucians, Cathars, Freemasons, secret printings of heretical books, and (no-one was expecting them) The Spanish Inquisition.

It was just the start of our tour. From there, we left the museum to explore more of Antwerp, where Key guided us through hidden alleyways, fertility cults, sacred geometry, miracles, and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary rumoured to get up and walk around Antwerp on Her own:

The, after that, debates over which of two holy relics of the foreskins of Christ were authentic (surprise! both of them!), paintings by Rubens, the entrance to heaven, the reason why Japanese tourists have been flocking to Antwerp Cathedral for years to find a dog that never existed, a breast-milk-stealing shapeshifter, more fertility cults, a possible statue of the ancient god Priapus (who had his legendary phallus removed twice from the image, ouch) , ancient wells, Roman heroes, dragons with the skulls of horses, giants getting their hands cut off, more Freemasons, and a possible job opportunity should the whole folklore/storytelling thing not work out for me, the delightfully named Keutelraper (Keutelraapster for ladies so inclined) - the person who went around and scooped up after the animals who once roamed the Cathedral.

The Cathedral boasts some fabulous legends of its own, including many stories (some contradictory) about the founding of the church. The one I liked concerned a statue of Mary which floated away from its original location, and was later found in a low piece of swamp. Locals were convinced she wanted to be there, and placed her on a stump in that location.  Eventually the cathedral grew up on the spot Mary on a Stick had claimed for her own. If you look closely at the stained glass window in the top picture here, you'll see Mary, and her Stick.

"Legends turn events into part of our collective memory," Key told us. For me, my introduction to Antwerp was certainly legendary, and I will always remember it as a place with a truly esoteric history.

All that, and we finished off in a fabulous local restaurant, where I had amazing Flemish rabbit, and tomato soup with lots of meatballs, which Veva tells me is something you would always get if you visited your Flemish grandmother.

So, to end, in honour of my trip to Antwerp, and that meatball soup, a little Flemish riddle from Veva:

Ork, Ork Ork, you eat soup with a...?

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Two traditional Shetland riddles from Lawrence Tulloch

One of the great pleasures I had at the storytelling festival in Orkney was meeting Lawrence Tulloch from Shetland. Lawrence is a great storyteller, and a font of knowledge on local traditions, folklore and oral history of the Shetland Islands.

One night, the topic of conversation turned to traditional riddles. Lawrence offered up these two, and assured us all that though they might sound bawdy, the answers are very innocent. So keep your mind out of the gutter, dear friends, and guess away:

Riddle #1:

Hairy without,
Hairy within.
Lift your leg,
And shoot it in.

Riddle # 2:

She took it in her long white hand,
Rubbed the tip to make it stand,
He hit the hole and didn't miss,
"Oh man," he said, "I'm pleased with this."

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

My Orcadian Adventure

Yesterday, I flew back to Edinburgh and had a fabulous Nepalese meal with fellow Canadian storyteller Kathy Jessup. We were both here for the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, but while Kathy had been telling stories here in mainland Scotland, I had just returned from an amazing time on the Orkney Islands.

Kathy and I were talking about my trip, and then, and now, a day later, it is still hard to put into words.

While I was in Orkney, Orcadian storyteller Tom Muir told a traditional story about two men who had been walking home when they had spotted a open door in one of the neolithic tombs that dot the islands, light streaming out of the entrance. Hearing music, they looked in, and saw the trows (the local equivalent of our fairies) dancing. One of the men was so enthused he started to dance as well. His friend tried to pull him away, but the friend wouldn't leave. In the end, the friend left, leaving the dancing man behind. He didn't return home that night, nor the night after. Indeed, he didn't return at all.

A year passed, and on the same date, the friend was walking past the same tomb. Once more the door was open, light pouring out, with the strains of music on the air. He peeked in, and saw the man, still dancing. He tried to get him to leave once more, but he said he still wanted to keep dancing.

"You've been dancing for a year," his friend told him.

"No! It's only been five minutes!" the man exclaimed.

His friend hauled him out of the mound, and looking down, the dancing man saw that the soles of his shoes had been worn away from all that dancing.

That is sort of how I feel about my time in Orkney. When I was there, it was like I was there for closer to five months than the five days I was actually there, but now, looking back, it seems like it all passed by in five minutes.

I had the chance to meet and share stories with some amazing storytellers, including Bob Pegg, and Shetland's treasure, Lawrence Tulloch (more on Lawrence in another post).  I told in a town hall, a craft hub, a hotel, a pub, and other great locations, and along they way was shown incredible hospitality, ate a veritable mountain of cake, and visited some amazing archaeological sites ranging from the Neolithic to World War II. It is hard for me to describe what a fantastic time I had.

Thanks to everyone, Tom for being an amazing host, Bob and Lawrence, Erin for surviving living with us all, to Fran and Andy for being fantastic tour guides, all the other local tellers, volunteers, committee members, our Shetland storytelling groupies, the owners of the B&B where we told ghost stories, and everyone else who made me feel right at home.

I'll be back.

(Photo taken inside the neolithic tomb at Cuween Hill, Orkney)

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Farewell to Edinburgh!

The weather today for my final day at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival was perfect, and my walk back to my hotel up along the historic Royal Mile was a great way to end a wonderful and very full week of stories and storytelling.

The final storytelling session I attended tonight was hosted by the talented and incredibly charming Margaret Bennett, who hugged me at least half a dozen times, and called out from the stage halfway through the second half that I should come up and tell a story from Newfoundland. Margaret is no stranger to Newfoundland, and is the author of The Last Stronghold: The Scottish Gaelic Traditions of Newfoundland. Margaret had planned to be back in Newfoundland for Festival 500 this past summer, but ended up in a cast instead! It was great to talk to her, hear her fabulous voice, and see her up and around.

The other great treat for me tonight was that I finally got to have a chat with my Icelandic kindred spirit, Sigurbjörg (Sibba) Karlsdóttir, who was in town for the festival, and who I met at the very first Federation for European Storytelling (FEST) conference in Oslo in 2008. Sibba runs the Hidden World walking tour, pointing out the sites where elves and the huldufólk have been spotted. You can read the article National Geographic did on her right here

I'd like to point out she is cheating in this picture, and standing on staircase. There is no way she is that tall!

It was a great end to my time at the festival, which continues on in very capable and talented hands without me till Sunday.  And so, farewell to Edinburgh. Thanks to the very generous Donald Smith at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, to Annalisa Salis, to Barbora Voráčová, all the Centre staff, volunteers, event hosts, my fellow storytellers and the very appreciative audiences.

Next stop, Orkney!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Through the gap in the hedge - Newfoundland stories in Edinburgh

Today was a full day of storytelling for me here in Edinburgh. I performed at three very different events, starting with the Natural Journeys event at the Royal Botanic Garden.

The official programme invited visitors to the Garden to "journey between key locations in the beautiful Botanic Gardens and gather where stories will be shared in harmony with the elements." We as storytellers were given a start time and location, and then were encouraged to wander through the Garden, telling stories. Fellow storyteller Kathy Jessup and I got to the start location a bit early, and wandered around, looking for a good spot for stories.

When we started our search for storytelling locations, one of the festival worker encouraged us to look around, with the best set of directions I've heard in ages: "go through the gap in the hedge, and look for the Queen Mother's Garden."

Off we went. The hedge was easy to spot, a massive beech hedge, and sure enough, a gap.

Through the gap, and there, at the end of the garden, was a wee stone pavilion, with the interior walls covered in seashells and pinecones, located in the Queen Mother's Memorial Garden. I collected my audience, mostly kids and young couples, and we packed into the pavilion and I shared stories. It was definitely one of the cutest spots I've ever told in.

Later, it was back to the Scottish Storytelling Centre where I did an afternoon set of Newfoundland folktales, then a shared concert where I told Newfoundland stories with the charming Jess Smith as host, Botswana's Kelone Khudu-Petersen who shared two fabulous stories, and Claire McNicol who sang lovely ballads.

After that, and no surprise to anyone reading my blog, more food: a fantastic Nepalese meal with storytellers from Botswana, Italy, Canada, India and the UK. It's been an adventure, and there is much yet to come. Stay tuned!

Friday, 18 October 2013

Lamb, Lapsang, and JK Rowling.

Today, I had lunch with J.K. Rowling.

Well, not really, but I did have lunch at the Pottermore fan famous Elephant House gourmet tea and coffee shop, where Rowling sat writing much of her early novels in the back room, and which bills itself as the birthplace of Harry Potter. I sat with my large pot of lapsang souchong, surrounded by hundreds of elephant prints and brick-a-brack, ate a fabulous lamb and mint pie, and watched the steady stream of curious tourists wander through.

Thanks to the fabulous Terrie Howey (aka storyteller Red Phoenix) for the lunch suggestion.

And for you, O Best Beloved, a little story.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Welcome to Scotland, here is your haggis. #SISF13

I'm here in Edinburgh for the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, and though I've been in Scotland less than 12 hours, I've already eaten my half my weight in haggis.

One of my Canadian storytelling friends, Kathy Jessup, is here for the festival as well, and after I had a short nap (not having slept since Tuesday night) we met up for dinner and sharing stories.

"Are you up for haggis nachos?" I asked her.

If there is one thing I know about Kathy, she is always up for an adventure.

"Oh- absolutely," she said,  "I'm your girl for that one...just to get a story if nothing else!"

Well, off we went to the Arcade Whisky and Haggis House. And while we didn't order the haggis nachos (they ARE on the menu), we did have the haggis, even Kathy, who apparently has a deathly fear of turnips. I think she was clubbed with one as a child - it would explain so much...

I opted for the "Robert Burn’s Famous Haggis" - a three layer concoction with mashed turnip, potatoes, and the vegetarian's nightmare, haggis. With whisky sauce, naturally. Amazing.

Kathy, her highness,  had the Princess Diana Style Haggis with the cream, onion, tomato and Drambuie sauce. And because I have a hollow leg (and having refused to pick up my cholesterol test results before leaving St. John's) I also had the sticky toffee pudding.

And now, to sleep, perchance to dream of the wild haggis, running free. Tomorrow, the storytelling festival starts in earnest. I should have recovered by then.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Historical Storytelling - Storytelling for Historic Site, Museum, and Parks Interpretation

Heritage tourism, experiential tourism, and cultural tourism are a growing business, and there are countless museums, town squares, parks and interpretation centres where the story of past is told and retold. Many times however, this telling is not done by storytellers! I believe that there is a great opportunity for the storytelling community to get more involved, and that we have a unique perspective that can only help create more interest in our shared heritage.

Storytelling on site at a museum or heritage home, however, may be a little different from the sort of storytelling we are accustomed to doing at story swaps, concerts or festivals. When we tell at an historic site, we have a chance to take true historical tales, and present them as a means of imparting a bit of information about the past.

This type of storytelling is a bit more focussed, with a more specific goal. It is, in a sense, applied storytelling. When we do it, we cease to become wholly storytellers, and start to draw on some of the approaches used by historical and parks interpreters. So take off your storytelling hat for a moment, and think about a local museum or historic place.

1. Pick a time period, theme or person that interests you as a teller.
Different storytellers tell different stories. I love telling ghost stories, or Jack tales. Other people tell epic tales, personal reminiscences or literary stories. In general, the teller tells the type of story that they love. Why should storytelling at an historic site or museum be any different? There are thousands of stories out there to be told, but there is nothing worse than listening to a tour guide relate a story which holds no interest to them.

One of the historic sites that I have been involved with is the Newman Wine Vaults in St. John’s, an early nineteenth-century stone and brick vault which was used for aging Newman’s Celebrated Port. I love telling the legend of how a Newman’s ship was attacked by French privateers, blown off course, and found safe harbour in St. John’s. One of the regular interpreters, who has a background in biology, loved to talk about a very specific type of mould that grows on the vault’s cool dark stone walls. I doubt I could get enthusiastic about mould, and perhaps the interpreter cared little for stories of piracy. We each tell the stories that excite us, and I believe that this type of enthusiasm is contagious. Then again, perhaps the mould is as well...

2. Utilize true, real life stories from real people.
History has gotten a bad reputation as being boring, but I think history is one of the most exciting possible things to study! History is full of drama, intrigue, humour, sex, bloodshed, hope, and a thousand other things we love to talk about as storytellers. Find the real stories about real people who lived and worked on your site that bring the place to life.

Think about the little things that written history might not always cover. What did the place smell like? Were the sounds different one hundred years ago? What were the women doing while the men were writing history books? When exactly did Aunt Vera go mad, and how did she end up in New Zealand? The potential stories from historical sources are endless. Find the one true story that speaks to you.

3. Do your homework.
People were much shorter back then. Or, at least, so we’ve been told! Many people have memories of visiting a pioneer village or restored home, and having a guide explain the small beds by saying that people were much shorter in the “olden days.” Is this true? Or is it simply a story that has been repeated over and over without proper research? Do your homework and find out.

When telling a story based on historical truth, it is important to research, research, and research some more. When telling a folktale, a storyteller has great artistic license. We do not have the same luxury with history. There is always room for drama, and sometimes a certain amount of recreation is needed, but historical tales should always be grounded in fact. Archives, museums, public libraries and oral histories all give us grist for the storytelling mill. Tell the truth. And yes, Crazy Aunt Vera really did wind up in New Zealand.

4. Provocation, not instruction.
There is an oft-repeated story associated with the Grand Canyon about the length of time visitors spend there. Like many stories, it has a couple versions. One states that the average visit to the Canyon last seven minutes. Another says the average visit to Grand Canyon is four hours, of which only fifteen minutes are spent in looking at it.

Think about that for a moment. Seven minutes. Fifteen minutes if you are lucky. That is the amount of time that you, as a storyteller working at an historic site, has to relate that site’s entire history. Sound impossible?

It is.

Too many interpreters, however, try to do exactly that. They attempt to compress everything about the site into one presentation, trying to teach all there is to know about the site to an audience that might not really care.

Good interpreters know that the goal of site interpretation is provocation, not instruction. It is impossible to teach a visitor everything about the place in the seven to fifteen minutes they have before they have to get back on their bus, shovel down their lunch, or buy T-shirts for their grandchildren. What you can do in seven minutes is dig a hole for them to fall into.

You won’t need a shovel. What you will need are your natural skills as a storyteller. Your role is to create a story where you trap the visitor, creating a hole they will need to ask a question to get out of later. In a sense, interpretation is much more like flirting than teaching. Give away a little, but always keep back just enough so that they come looking for more. If we give an audience something to think about, they might want to stay for longer than that magic seven minutes to discover an answer for themselves.

5. History versus Heritage Value.
History has many definitions, but I use it here to mean all that stuff that is written down on paper somewhere about things that happened in the past. History is dates, names, battles, treaties, acts of Parliament, laws, census information, et cetera. This, of course, is a very narrow definition of history, but I offer it only to contrast it with the idea of heritage.

Heritage is all those things from history that we value, and we choose to bring forward from the past to share with current and future generations. Heritage is something less tangible than history, because it comes with a sense of value. The heritage value of a place can be found in the importance or significance of that place to past, present, or future generations. It is a living thing, not merely words on an archival document.

The idea of heritage value is linked to the concept of “provocation, not instruction.” Our stories, instead of relaying all the history of the site, should speak to its heritage value. While we should tell the truth, choose which whole truth you will tell. We don’t have to tell all the truths of a place, but instead should focus on telling one complete truth. As well, ask yourself if the story answers the “so what” question.

“The Crow’s Nest Officers Club in St. John’s, Newfoundland was opened in 1942 and was designated as a provincial heritage structure in 1990.” So what?

“The Crow’s Nest Officers Club stands as a tribute to the vitality and humour that was essential to survive the horrors of war on the North Atlantic.” Ah! Now therein lies a story!

6. Use your storytelling experience.
We are storytellers! We are not necessarily tour guides or park wardens. We have our own special skills, and we can bring something to historic sites that other professionals can not. We can tell wonderful stories, and we come with skills from our work as storytellers that serve us well. We know about respecting our audience and choosing our stories wisely. We have a style all our own, and can create vivid word pictures, with pleasing sounds and rhythm. We create believable characters, and understand the importance of dramatic appeal. And we know that we need to practice our material to give it a bit of polish. So find an historic tale that you love to tell, and tell it!

Suggested Reading:
Amato, Joseph A. Rethinking Home: A Case For Writing Local History.Berkeley: U of CA P,
2002. A good reference for historians and researchers who are looking for new ways of looking at the past.

Dupont, Jean-Claude. “The Poker.” in Living in a Material World: Canadian and American Approaches to Material Culture. Ed. Gerald Pocius. St. John’s: ISER, 1991. An example of how one simple artifact can be the doorway to a realm of stories.

Strauss, Susan. The Passionate Fact: Storytelling in Natural History and Cultural Interpretation. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1996. An excellent resource for storytellers who wish to develop programs for parks, or for parks interpreters who want to learn about storytelling!

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: U of NC P, 1977. This is the classic work on heritage interpretation. It is a great little book for anyone doing any sort of interpretation work at a museum, historic site or park.


Need a workshop? Dale Jarvis has taught workshops in Canada, the US and the Netherlands for historic sites, museums, parks and cultural organizations, and for storytellers, showing them how they can use storytelling to bring a site to life. Email him to find out how he can help your organization at

(An earlier version of this article was first printed in 2009, copyright Dale Jarvis, St. John’s, NL. Photo of storytellers Dale Jarvis and Jedediah Baker by Chris Hibbs.)