Grand Bal Part 1: A Banjo Pickin’ Yankee at a Hurdy-Gurdy Festival

Paris had been lovely, but it was time to move on. The Watson Fellowship had sent us these little cards entitled “Am I Getting It Right?” to address the fact that it is an honor-bound agreement “To remove oneself from the comfort and stability of Home, exploring the World selectively in focused pursuit of one’s Passion, and discovering along the way one’s potential for humane and effective participation in the world community. The Watson journey is a “solo” experience, to be lived independently but shared broadly with those who cross your path.” The card is filled with good advice, much of which had already been engrained in me in earlier travels, but the two that i think about a lot on a daily basis are “eschewing the known for the unknown,” and learning when to move on, leaving behind familiar faces in search of new friendships and opportunities. This is something that I feel is really good for me, but will be a constant challenge of this year.

Anyway, I took the train into the city to catch my ride to the Grand Bal in Saint Gervais d’Auvenge. Every time I take the train I notice something new! This time it was an apartment building with thousands of shirts hanging out to dry and covering the whole side! unfortunately we were past it before I got my camera out. I took the metro to the meeting place where I met some hitchhikers! We chatted for a bit and I played banjo for them to build up my hitchhiking Karma. I definitely think that being nice to other hitchers makes you more likely to get rides in the future! They are from spain, don’t speak french and were rather nice. They got a ride in 10 mins or so and I waved them farewell.

A few minutes later a girl shows up with a big bag, looks around and sits down at the statue that was designated ast he meeting point. The man I met had mentioned that there might be another girl coming, so I went over, banjo in hand and asked in very broken french if she was heading to the festival. She was, so we chatted for a bit and waited for our ride. She was a very nice girl named Pomme, who spoke good english because she was living in london as an au pair. She was traveling to meet her mother and sister at the festival. Our ride showed up, along with a man from tunisia who was going to meet his sister a few miles from the festival.

Arriving in Saint Gervais

While he and our driver, Jean-Marie, had a deep philisophical conversation in the front seat. Pomme and I sat in the back and I learned some of the history of the festival. It turns out that the festival in Saint Gervais has only been going on for four years and has been under pressure from the mayor of the town because the space used is usually there for selling crafts and bring in more money. (After going to the festival this seems ridiculous because the town gets so filled up with participants that every restaurant is just dancers). The same organization also organizes a bigger festival in Gennetines earlier in the year which is much bigger and has been going on for many years. We had a funny translation moment when I said that the smaller festival must be nice because it is easier to bump into people you know. Pomme replied that “no, in fact it’s the opposite! When you are in Gennetines you bump into people all the time and there is never enough space!” We had a good time playing “Name that Tune” with a playlist of random homesung music from around the world that had been sent in by people for some competition. The car was collectively impressed when I sang along to each and every British folk song! At one point I asked the question of what was their favorite French food, which set of a long debate. Included: Cheese and bread, quiche lorainne, fondue, lots and lots of cheese.

After one rest stop and several hours of driving we made it the camp grounds. Pomme invited me to pitch my tent near her family’s car and cook meals with them, but it was raining and her mother hadn’t shown up yet, so we went to find me an ATM and got registered for the festival. we got our all important wrist bands which had numbers on them that were the basis for instrument check, meals, and other important activities (NEFFA and others, take note!) After dancing for a bit, we grabbed our stuff and went down to make camp. The camp ground was a large field about a 10 minute walk from the festival site and had a large pond behind it. It was rapidly filling up with hundreds of tents so we went to find Pomme’s family.

They turned out not be be hard to find.

Her mother was trying to live as much off the grid and organic as possible, and her car was in fact a giant purple gypsy bus. It was sort of amazing!

I went and set up my tent next to the trailer and got settled in. (SPOILER: The tent works great! One week and lots of rain later and I am still happy, warm, and dry! And it only weighs 1kg!) There was lots of discusion as to which way the tents should face so that we wouldn’t get woken up in the morning, but it all worked out in the end. Here i am doing my little photo shoot and rather enjoying the short break from the rain

I met her mother and sister and was invited into the trailer for a delicious meal of blueberries, (they had brought 10kg!) cous-cous, bread and cheese (local and delicious, of course!) The bus was even more amazing on the inside as the outside. There was a little stove, some beds and these great supports made from branches. I sort of wish that I was traveling around in something like this. I guess the upside is that i get to meet people traveling in awesome things and share food with them!

Neither the mother nor sister spoke much english, but they delighted in having me speak french, which was super useful. (More thoughts on language and communication coming soon!) We headed up to the dance where the week began in ernest with some circle dancing

I met Zarina, a girl studying abroad in the netherlands, who spoke very good english, and we danced a few dances in a round dance hall. I hopped around several dance halls and came to the conclusion that a lot of the dancing is similar. They danced a few different circle dances, a few different bourree, waltz, mazurka, scottish, and polka and that was about it. I admit that I was definitely missing the variation of contra dance or english.[Note to Saint-Gervais friends: This opinion changed, don’t worry, I will get there next post!]

I also wrote and underlined this in my journal, “why the strong reaction to new places? roller coster of feeling.” This has been a struggle for me in past trips as well. I tend to throw myself into a new place very fully, get overwhelmed and then get lonely as soon as I have the moment to think.Then, a day or so later, I realize that I actually love what I am doing and where I am and of course I always end up making friends. I ended going to bed early this night because I didn’t know anyone and the dancing seemed repetitive. I think that the more I am aware that that is my pattern, the better I am becoming of not getting down during the hard bit. I’m traveling my dream and I love it more than anything, even if my self-doubt tries to tell me otherwise at times!

I woke up the next day after an amazing sleep. I love how camping makes me sleep well! I went up to the super market, got baugette, cheese, Saucisson, turkey and avocado. I did not, however, buy and american sauce, as tempting as it was to get something that reminded me of home (Not! I shudder to think what is in american sauce! I guess that’s what we deserve for French fries. Also, the french apparently think the whole concept of freedom fries and freedom toast from a few years ago was hilarious. They do not, however approve of people pouring out french wine!) I walked back to the gypsy bus, picking a few apples off of a tree along the way. I had lunch with my adopted family, juggled a little bit, and laughed at the only book they had in english “Don’t Let The Pigeon Stay Up Late!” If you haven’t read it, it’s great!

I took my banjo and went to find some jams. Unlike american festivals, it is pretty much only Irish and French music (they really love irish everthing!) and i’m not familiar with either of these styles on banjo. The upside is that everyone and their mother plays diatonic accordion and so I could pretty much stay in one key (a-modal) for the entire time. There was maybe one fiddle for every seven accordions, two bagpipes, and one and a half hurdy-gurdys.

I ended up playing French music for several hours and then found a few people who actually knew a little old-times, so we sang “Cluck Old Hen,” “Oh, Death” and some of my own tunes for an hour, which was nice. It is fun to play an instrument that no one else plays! There were actually 2 other banjos at the festival but both were four-string, so basically something else.

I had a dinner of potato and stinging nettle soup in the purple truck (actually delicious and nutritious!) where i had another funny language moment. The soup was being served and we were all eating and there is lots of talking in french. I’m following the best I can, which is sporadic, but I get some of it. At one point everyone starts laughing and the mother goes into hystarics looking at me. I don’t get what’s going on and ask Pomme. She explains that they had served the soup wrong; there isn’t enough for everyone. The person serving had said this and everyone had stopped eating to redistribute except, of course, me. I had happily kept munching away, which they thought was very funny. It was all worked out and soup was had by all.

That night the range of dancing expanded.

This made me very happy and I also started to make new friends. I met a girl named Maiwenn who was a great tango dancer, so we spent a bunch of time dancing tango to things that weren’t. Which is basically the best time to do it. I went out and jammed with some more musicians till around 2 and came back just in time for this great circle dance:

The music slowly faded out and the dancers all started singing, filling the hall with voices. If I end up running another dance camp in the future, I really want to incorporate this dance in as a closing ritual. It was a wonderful moment with everyone slowing down from the crowded, energetic dancing to this very simple beautiful dance.

That was the ending of my evening and also the end of this post. I hope to post part two (probably of three) tomorrow. One more picture for tonight:


About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at
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2 Responses to Grand Bal Part 1: A Banjo Pickin’ Yankee at a Hurdy-Gurdy Festival

  1. Matt says:

    You’re trip looks amazing… I LOVE that purple gypsy truck. Sending you lots of warm fuzzies from VT.

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