Just before the first spring flowers pop out of the snow and before Lent, the 40-day fasting period before Easter, something colorful and outrageous happens in villages and towns across Belgium. It’s carnival time and people come together to celebrate in excess, just as later on they used to congregate to celebrate in fasting and penance.

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Cultivating Attention

Photography cultivates a certain awareness and attention to detail. You walk on the street, all senses awake. There’s this detail here and that situation over there. You can see things developing into something that could be a good photo. You anticipate. You position yourself in the right place and wait for the right moment.

Sometimes (in fact, many times) that place was far from being the right one. And the right moment passed before you could react. Or never arrived. But the experience is still yours to enjoy. It wasn’t pointless.

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A Year In 12 Photos

This is my last post for 2022. December is often a month of reckoning, revisiting, and trying to make sense of what happened.

I need to accept how things are in order to go ahead and be prepared for how they could be.

I need to make peace with how things are in order to be able to turn them into what they could be.

Aren’t we all?

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There are borders that are meant to keep people in. They prevent people from traveling to see how life looks on the other side. When you see something different, you compare and evaluate. Terms of comparison are threatening for regimes that are built on delusions of grandeur and uniqueness: “Why would you even want to go out? This is the best place to be anyway!”

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Facing the wave

The tide is coming in like a tsunami.

The beach has been swallowed by the rising sea. There’s a storm brewing somewhere on the horizon. The waves keep getting higher and stronger. They splash against the concrete wall, creating foam tentacles descending upon unsuspecting passers-by.

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Shades of blue

It gets late and the tide is coming in strong. I am at the water’s edge, watching my feet slowly disappear under water.

The breeze is carrying smells of faraway life and death, of drifting away and never coming back.

Seaweed. Decomposing creatures washed ashore. Salt. Cold. Fear. Calm.

Fantastic shapes in the sand, resisting until the next big wave washes everything over. Water, the big equalizer.

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I sometimes find myself looking for serenity as if it were a moment of grace detached from the here and now. I suspect it happens to most of us. Serenity becomes a way of getting away from problems and finding a little bubble of comfort. A holiday thing.

The problem with this is that holidays end and you find yourself looking for the next holiday. It’s an escapist mindset.

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Traveling the world

I woke up before anybody else. Like a sleepwalker, I prepared my backpack before fully realizing what I was doing. I took a few sips of hot coffee and I went out in the cold air.

Past my neighborhood, with its smell of freshly-baked bread and its familiar streets that I can recreate in full detail

Past the railway station, which always smells of creosote and farewells and never-coming-backs

Past the forest, where I’ve lived my joys and drowned my sorrows and watched the sun go up and go down

Past the river, where so many have drowned trying to get somewhere or running away from somewhere

Past the mountains, with their dark valleys and shining peaks and secret caves and passages

Like the tiny forest spring flowing into the river that flows into the river that flows into the river

Eventually finding its way to the ocean

I keep on moving

A journey through the old Brussels

At the end of a certain Impasse Sainte Pétronille, carefully hidden just a few steps from Grand Place, there’s an old brick and wood house that holds inside much more that it gives away at first glance. Weekend tourists may know the beer tasting tours that invariably pass by the pub downstairs. The pub where you can drink the amber beer produced by the monks of the Orval Abbey, in the south of Belgium, while patting the cat of the house.

But locals and people who’ve been living here long enough know about the cozy puppet theater upstairs, the Royal Theatre of Toone.

What is this place really?

If you’ve been to a puppet show as a kid, you have a good starting point. Now, imagine a place where shows address any age and no age in particular. They speak to the kid in you. They speak to the adult who has maybe forgotten how to be a kid.

It’s a place where dreams are made.

“All for one and one for all”. A scene from The Three Mousquetaires (September 2021).

It’s funny how we use puppets and masks to tell our stories, those that count for us humans. At some point, however, puppets come alive and tell their own stories. Incredibly similar to ours and yet strangely different.

The theatre room is small and cozy. Dozens of old puppets are hanging on the walls. After having served in so many plays, they are now facing the stage just like the rest of the audience. In fact, they are part of the audience.

Wooden beams, long benches, small scene covered by painted wooden boards. The smell of old wood. The moment when the lights go out. When the wooden boards move to the side and reveal the scene. People slowly settle down and stop their whispering.

After a few minutes, your adult, often cynical mind is swept into that spot of light on the small stage, where small wooden frames covered by colored pieces of cloth talk, fight, fall in love, or die. They are called Athos, Portos, Aramis, Carmen, Cyrano de Bergerac, Faust, Hamlet, or Macbeth. And they’re alive.

Nicolas Géal, the theatre director and the official Toone (a title which passes from one generation to another), was kind enough to sit down and chat about the puppets and the theatre. I could also photograph what happens not only front stage but also behind the curtains, as he and the puppeteers prepare the show.

Nicolas Géal, Toone VIII, showing some of the oldest puppets in the small museum of Toone Theatre.

Who is Toone?

Toone is the diminutive of Antoine in the Brussels dialect. The founder of the Toone Theatre was called Antoine Genty. It all started around 1830 in the Marolles district. Toone does the voices of the puppets, surrounded by six puppeteers. The configuration of the puppeteers’ booth does not allow them to work with the same puppet throughout the show. Therefore, the puppeteers do not do the voices of the puppets. Toone performs all the roles for practical reasons. He also does female voices, hence the parody aspect.

Behind the scenes, the puppeteers prepare the show. José Géal, Nicolas’ brother, demonstrates a technique while speaking about the balance between realism and hyperbole.

What does the world of puppets mean to you?

The world of puppets represents all my childhood and my family. I grew up in this universe. My whole family revolves around the planet of puppeteering. However, one does not necessarily become Toone from father to son. It is a popular and adoptive tradition. Toone is indeed enthroned by his predecessor and by the public… because, without an audience, there is no theater. As Racine said: “The main rule is to please and to touch. All the other rules are made only to achieve the first.”

Nicolas Géal with Woltje, the mascot of Toone Theatre. Woltje appears in most shows in the role of a funny and resourceful little guy with a big mouth and a big heart.

What is the audience of your shows?

Our shows are aimed more at adults curious to discover the specificity of Brussels. Toone Theatre is indeed unique in its kind as it was a popular mode of education until the beginning of the 20th century. People came to Toone’s to keep up to date with cultural news. Now they come to Toone to see a parody and have fun.

Pulling the strings. Rehearsal before the show.

What do you do when something unexpected happens?

Sometimes you must improvise during the show. Puppets can get tangled up, lose their head (literally or figuratively), come on stage too early or too late… The puppeteer can also end up handling the wrong puppet. One day, a small dog walked across the stage.

At the end of the show, all the puppets come on the stage to dance and salute the public. The puppeteers show their faces as the public applauds and cheers. Toone descends in front of the stage with his usual half-innocent, half-naughty smile. “If you like it here, please go tell your friends. If you didn’t like it here, it stays among us.” It’s not just a joke; it’s almost an incantation, a signature phrase at the end of every show. A way of saying goodbye in typical Toone style.

The puppeteers salute the public at the end of the show.

Downstairs, in the small estaminet with Spanish pink brick walls, blackened beams, and tiled floor, there’s an inscription on the wall by Jean Cocteau. It reads:

“There are too many frozen souls out there in order not to love wooden characters that have a soul”(Il y a trop d’âmes en bois pour ne pas aimer les personnages en bois ayant une âme)

I couldn’t agree more.