Sunday, October 3, 2004

Happy Fanny Wood Day!

October 3 is officially Fanny Wood Day, which commemorates my hometown, Fanwood, NJ, as well as its unfortunately-named founder. We celebrate Fanny Wood Day with a street fair in the middle of town. There's a classic car show in the train station parking lot, the Little Miss Fanny Wood pageant, and, of all dumb things, a beard-growing contest. Of course, it's the best — or only — thing happening in town, so I was planning on checking it out, but today's the day of the big Medieval Fair at the Cloisters.

Halloween came early for this older couple.The pitch: "Okay, this is gonna sound strange, but there's this medieval festival at the Cloisters this Sunday. I'm not even all that interested in medieval stuff, but for some reason, I feel like I should go to at least one Renaissance fair before I die." Erica could not have been more thrilled at the idea — all the excitement I was stifling so I wouldn't be judged, she let flow effusively. Good for her. I mean, we took the subway up to Fort Tyron Park and we hadn't even made it past the entrance before Erica's suggesting that I get my picture taken with three bawdy wenches (read: chicks dressed like extras from a Robin Hood movie) soliciting donations for the Renfest. It takes me a while to warm to things, so I said I'd do it on the way out.

The medieval festival was amusing (and free) enough that I'd go again next year, if only to hit on bawdy wenches, but it was really more of a combination street fair/limited Halloween than a Busch Gardens recreation of dark ages Europe. Which I found a bit disappointing, especially since they already had the castle right there. And it's like the only genuine medieval castle in the Western hemisphere, so if you can't have a good Renfest at the Cloisters, where can you have it? The crowd included time-travelling tourists like Erica and myself, die hard Society for Creative Anachronism guys in full armor and corsets and Lion in Winter regalia, kids dressed up as Cinderella and Disney's Snow White (God, don't you hate how the Renaissance festival is getting more and more commercialized every year???), Dungeons and Dragons freaks, and the occasional moron who's dressed as, say, a goblin or Jason Voorhees and clearly isn't quite getting the concept. I'm sure that for a lot of the young and young-at-heart (read: vapid adults), it was just a fun costume party, but I actually felt kind of bad for the real die hards, the ones who feel like they were born eight or nine centuries too late. I mean, they get one day of the year when they're in their element, eating giant turkey drumsticks off the bone and rocking out to plainsong and motets. Then tomorrow, they'll go back to work in the office, there'll be a traffic jam, their computer will crash.... I mean, if the little anachronisms, the guys wearing devil horns and girls wearing butterfly wings, the five-dollar beer served in plastic mugs bothers me, imagine how much worse it is for those folks.

One of many irritating weirdos at the medieval festival.I told Erica that I could imagine myself in the role of Official Fair Pedant, engaging the festival cast in discussions on Charlemagne — "I believe civil war to be an inevitable consequence of the Holy Roman Empire tripartite division" — or the Revolt of 1178 or this new metallurgy the alchemists are working on, and generally pointing out all the inconsistencies in the festival. "Way to kill the spirit," Erica told me.

So, we went from tent to tent, window shopping for medieval-like wares at twenty-first century prices. (Seriously, what did we expect? Everything there, from the costumes to the soap to the finger puppets, was handmade. The soap with a fake plastic bug inside was straight from the factory, however. "Who would ever buy that?" Erica asked presciently as the ten-year-old knave selling that crap was right behind her.) Like I said, I have absolutely no interest in medieval stuff, and I don't think I own a damn thing that wasn't made by a machine in Taiwan or Indonesia, so it was easy for me to keep my money. Erica had more of a struggle on her hands, but in the end, I made it out with my wallet no worse for the wear and Erica only donated a dollar to the festival wishing well (it was more of a wishing grate) and a dollar to the Cloisters. Otherwise, we're going from tent to tent and Erica's looking at all the clothes and jewelry, suggesting I buy a pirate shirt for thirty-five dollars and picturing herself in one of those medieval dresses. (She wants to volunteer next year so she can wear a medieval dress for the day....) I might not know much about fashion, but I have seen Seinfeld and I know pirate shirts are a definite fashion don't. Whatever. I understand that when you go places with the fairer sex, you have to have patience and put up with things like this.

We made it to the Cloisters and checked the place out — it's still full of medieval art, in case you were wondering. We sort of got trapped with the Merode Alterpiece when some college art history class came in and crowded around us and the professor started lecturing. In case you want to know how ignorant the people in Columbia's Art Hum courses are, here are snippets of conversation you'll never hear in an Art Hum class. The form of Mary's body on the bench depicts her in her role as the Throne of Solomon. And: The laver [that's the basin in the background — I had to look it up too] has a dual symbolic meaning, representing both the purity of the Virgin Mary and foreshadowing Jesus's crucifixion. I felt like a moron. A moron who spent $140,000 on an education. I did know the mousetrap reference, though.

A jousting guy, Sir Angus Culdahay (ostensibly) of Scotland, and his truculent horseThere was a joust, during which I learned important things about medieval times, most notably that every little thing had to be preceded by an interminable speech that no one could hear. Also, I learned that parents can be extremely pushy trying to get their little brats up to the front row, as if their kids are the only people there who want to see the action. Anyway, from what I could gather, the guy pictured to the right is Sir Angus Culdahay of Scotland, and his opponent was some English knight-for-a-day. The bugler bugled (off-key... I mean, really, painfully off-key... I made an off-handed remark to Erica about it and some guy in front of me shot me a dirty look) and they were off.... galloping to the end of the field and stopping, doing nothing. And the crowd cheered, sort of. I think they were cheering for William Wallace there and booing the English guy, but I didn't join in. I figure that the English already have enough of an inferiority complex without me jeering them. The first event was catch-a-ring-on-your-lance, which the English guy won because Sir Angus's horse refused to move.

Then there was an actual joust, which was the most disappointing thing I witnessed at the fair. It was like a comical, Monty Python joust. Both knights rode toward each other and clanked swords. Clink. Clang. Clink. Every now and then, Sir Angus's truculent horse would decide he wasn't really into it, and he'd just carry Angus away from the fight. Then the English guy would run up to Angus and clink, ding. Eventually, the English guy made Angus drop his sword, so Angus anticlimactically pushed the English guy off his horse. The crowd cheered. I was hot.

So we left. Erica remembered about getting an incriminating bawdy-wench picture of me, but somewhere between being ten feet from the exit and zero feet from the exit, she forgot about it. I didn't remind her. I was half-disappointed and half-relieved. Well, maybe 45% disappointed, 55% relieved.

All in all, it was the best medieval fair ever. Well, at least it beat Fanny Wood Day.