travels with Greg – day 1.4
This is the fifth part of Travels With Greg, the story of my six-week documentary shoot through six countries in Western Europe. Join us as I write yet another entry that does not take us out of the country.
Once firmly in the air, after the turbulence of penetrating layers of atmosphere had died down and the pale seatbelt logos had winked out, I reached under the seat (I always keep one piece of carry-on in the overhead rack, one beneath the seat) and pulled out my travel binder. I never examined the binder in depth until I was on my way to the first destination. This was not laziness (although there may have been a touch of arrogance or plain hubris in there somewhere); any trip longer than seven to ten days often contained so many complications that the binders were assembled and reassembled by researchers and coordinators up to the last possible moment. It was completely against company policy, and it was utterly typical. Interviewees and locations would call up and change their minds, demand money, suddenly remember that the shoot day, cleared a month before, happened to be some great-aunt’s birthday, and could we come by an hour later? Or the next day?
This binder wasn’t even complete. Days 20-41 existed only as tabs. Somewhere along the line the rest of the material, the call sheets, questions, crib sheets and maps would be faxed or couriered out to us, wherever we might be in the wilds of Western Europe. In the meantime, I had nineteen days to map out in my head, although experience had long ago shown me how useless this was. The shoot never matched the sheets properly, especially in foreign countries. At best they served as horns that you could grip as the shoot bucked wildly underneath you.
Hey Greg, I said. We’re going to interview a wooden shoemaker in Amsterdam.
Greg nodded. That sounds like fun, he said.
Greg had a way of deadpanning the word “fun” to make it sound more like “hell”.
He went back to flipping through a book on the Tarot. At some point in our travels Greg had started reading Tarot cards, which made a pleasant change from the inspirational Joel Osteen books he had brought along on earlier trips.
We were on our way to shoot multiple episodes for three different shows. Two of them were time fillers, short segments meant for children and families. The shows were called Very Odd Jobs and Big & Small, which summed up the content of each so exactly that the names functioned as airlocks sealing in the format. For VOJ, you found someone with a very odd job and followed him or her around with a camera, a sheet of questions and a ream of releases. For B&S, you did the exact same thing, but the subject of each segment was either the world’s largest something (bridge, stadium, monument) or smallest something (pachyderm, flowering plant, computer chip). It was my job to take semi-promising situations and wring enough story out of them for the editor back home.
Those shoots were time killers, usually scheduled in when interviewees for the real show were unavailable. Since Greg and I were on salary, every day spent idle was sucking up precious money from the company. Not that I minded; a day of inactivity on the road could shift from relaxation to anxiety-ridden boredom in an instant. Better to keep busy. The funny thing was that the time-killing assignments almost always ended up being ten times more arduous and twice as likely to reduce me to a state of tooth-grinding anger as our standard shoots.
The real show was Disasters of the Century, a half hour documentary series that runs so often on History Television in Canada that you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s the only thing they air. Its production run is long over – I produced the final eight episodes (#s 40-47) in 2005 and 2006 – but its relentless reenactments at 9 frames per second (starring extras drawn from the ranks of the idle and unemployable) mixed with portentous narration (“But for the Johnson family, their new ocean front home is about to become a watery grave”) and interviews with half-deaf people in wheelchairs can still be seen pretty much any time you survey the middle distance of your basic cable package.
We landed at Pearson International Airport – or as our luggage tags tell us, YYZ* – around two o’ clock. This gave us three hours to wander around the terminals, looking for food, entertainment and internet access among the glass atria and public art of Airport World. The cheerful Wikipedia entry on YYZ will tell you that the worst disaster in the airport’s history happened on June 5, 1970, when a plane bound for California crashed shortly after takeoff in a nearby field. I’d been to the crash site the previous winter, where bits of fuselage and human bones were still slowly rising to the earth thirty-five years later. Someone had gathered bone and metal fragments into a little pile beneath a dead black tree that had reportedly been hit by the plane. The field had been sewn with soy as a nitrogen fixer, and the seed pods were easy to break between my cold fingers. Human bone, it turns out, takes on a weird greenish tinge after three decades.**
We ended up in a restaurant with framed photos of Second City alumni (Belushi, Radner, Ackroyd, de Silva etc.) plastered over dark faux brick walls. For some reason the image of a brick wall is inseparable from stand-up and sketch comedy. I’m at a loss to figure out why airport restaurants bother to adopt themes, names, a standard of décor, anything beyond tables, chairs and food. We’re not going anywhere. You could have a lineup of identical grey rooms cut into the corridors with names like “Tex-Mex Restaurant #2,” “Western Themed Grill” or “Fish Buffet” and it would make no difference to the experience. Most of the places, if titling were adopted honestly, would simply go by “Alcohol Refillery”.
By the time our comedy-themed entrées have arrived, Greg and I have shifted into our standard conversation mode, which is a hybrid of griping about the company we work for and a series of compressed lines and jokes that refer to our life on the road together. Lakota, said Greg, and we started snorting. Hey, that went pretty well, right? said Greg, and suddenly we were nearly weeping with laughter. People were glancing over by this point. Airport restaurants, even ones with giant black and white photos of John Belushi on the wall, are not for laughing; they’re for stuffing yourself with the house specialty (a burger) and numbing the unease of travel with beer. Greg and I didn’t care. We were gearing up, arming ourselves with a few guffaws for the six weeks ahead.
*YYZ is also the title of an instrumental Rush tune, which gives you all the benefits of Rush (smartly written and flawlessly executed rawk music) and none of the drawbacks (the mysterious high-atmosphere wails of Getty Lee). I mention this because I think the world needs a MIDI file of YYZ. Just putting that out there.
**Remind to tell you some time about the amateur historian that we interviewed for that disaster. It’s a small book all by itself.
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