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American Adventures: Seattle and VISS

My sojourn in Italy ended when I left Lucca for the United States, on the very day of the Lufthansa pilot strike. After much kerfuffle and a comedy of errors (including the airport train in Newark that takes you from one terminal to another being out of action at 5am occasioning a walk outside to find a taxi to take me to the right terminal) I got across the world to Seattle. This is one of my favourite American cities, as regular readers of this blog will know, not least because it is home to some of my favourite people. I arrived at about 11.30 am, and was teaching the freeplay class for Lonin that evening; I was swaying on my feet a bit, so didn’t kit up and join in, but instead taught them how to use freeplay as a diagnostic tool. In fact, the imperfections we discovered that evening created the class plans for the rest of the weekend.

This was an unusual weekend seminar, in that instead of the normal two full days, we had a small group (about 10-12 folk) on Saturday morning, the full group (27 students) for a longer session that afternoon, then two more small group sessions on Sunday. This let us cover much more ground, and each small group effectively chose what they wanted to learn in each session. I’d highly recommend this format for similar events in the future.

27 against one: seems fair to me.
27 against one: seems fair to me.

It was deeply satisfying to see how the Lonin group has grown and developed since my last trip. I attribute this to the efforts of the individual students, of course, but that would not be enough on its own: I think they owe a great deal of their development to the determined, passionate and skilled leadership of Eric Artzt.

We had a full group dinner at a fabulous barbecue restaurant on the Saturday, and a smaller dinner party at Neal’s house on the Sunday. Neal’s lovely wife Ellen almost made me cry with a toast she gave; I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more welcome anywhere.

I also managed to catch up with my friend Mark Teppo, chief editor on the Mongoliad, and founder of his own, new, small press: Resurrection House. I had figured that with changes in flight schedules, and not having any swords or freeplay kit with me in Italy anyway, I might as well travel hand-luggage only: then Mark gave me the entire back catalogue of his press; 8 glorious books. Through my advanced packing skills (compared to which my swordsmanship is decidedly amateurish) I fit them all in. Chimpanzee just made it to the top of my reading list; I’m 4 chapters in and totally hooked. It’s brilliant. Buy it and read it! One interesting coincidence; Mark’s father is the man who developed the laser cleaning technology that has spruced up the cathedrals, leaning towers, and glorious artwork that we have been bathing in in Italy. I’d like to shake his hand. Because these artefacts deserve to be seen at their best, and this technology has massively reduced the costs of reviving them.

I also managed to catch up with the legendary Gus Trim, and see his workshop of doom. Seriously, this chap has the tools to outfit an entire zombie apocalypse.

Gus is a legend, and as such never appears on film. But that is his arm and beard.
Gus is a legend, and as such never appears on film. But that is his arm and beard.

Then on to Vancouver, and VISS. This was an utterly delightful event, except for the unfortunate tendency of shrines to yours truly popping up in all sorts of odd places. I AM NOT DEAD YET! As the students in my three-class seminar series found out.

I'm NOT DEAD!
I'm NOT DEAD!

They were a lovely group to teach, as they quickly picked up on the idea that I was there to teach them what they wanted to learn, rather than just run a class plan through them. Each class began with us deciding together what to cover, and at each point where a decision had to be made about where to go next, I consulted them. This lead to some interesting choices; I was not expecting to spend over an hour on longsword striking mechanics, but damn, that’s the best stuff!

The event was preceded by a two-day “Instructor Summit” (only Devon can get away with calling an event a Summit. Really, the man’s a marketing genius, and uses his powers only for good). This was very useful, not least as it was basically two days of instructors chatting about problems they have, and drawing on an enormous pool of knowledge and experience to solve them. There was absolutely no “do it my way”, but lots of “I solve that problem like this”. One of the things I liked best about it was that there were at least three instructors there who have been training longer than I have; a couple since before I was born. And still there was no jockeying for status, political bullshit, or anything other than peers interacting for the common good.

Most of us, in one place. A pub, naturally.
Most of us, in one place. A pub, naturally.

Other highlights of the event for me were:

An afternoon spent with Tom Leoni, with il Fior di Battaglia open on the table, and a couple of swords handy, discussing our variant interpretations of the crossing of the zogho stretto.

An hour spent exchanging mechanics exercises, and killer push-up variations, with Kaja Sadowski and Randy Packer. Randy also gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received; he credited my class on mechanics at 4W in Seattle 2004 with inspiring him to go into body mechanics in depth, which has resulted in his blog BoxWrestleFence, and the foundation of Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly. Valkyrie just that week found a permanent 24/7 training hall.

A private lesson from Roland Cooper on the deadlift; I knew I was doing it sub-optimally (ie. wrong), but have now seen the light. He also gave me an amazing book: Starting Strength. Which I managed to pack.

Meeting the legendary Mark Mikita, of The Mikita School of Martial Art. This chap has been quietly and steadily teaching and training at the highest levels since about 1968. And the walls of his training hall are a work of art to behold. Seriously, it would be worth a trip to LA just to see them in person.

Meeting Marco Quarta, at last; I attended his lecture on the esoteric aspects of European swordsmanship, which combined his scholarly research into Alchemical sources, with his day-job as a research scientist in neurobiology.

Playing a public game of Audatia at the Gala party on Saturday, with Roland Cooper; we were ably assisted by a live Galeazzo, and a live Boucicault, who enacted with swords what we were doing with the cards. Of course, it ended with a kick to the nuts for the unfortunate Boucicault. Viva Italia!

I could go on with a lengthy discourse on meeting up with old friends (Steve, daaaahling!), making new ones, and in general having a wonderful time, but I’d be bound to leave someone out, and I’d hate to hurt anyone’s feelings. This was a lovely, lovely trip, and I’d like to thank everyone in Vancouver, especially the volunteers who made the event run like clockwork. One interesting point there; every single person who I complimented on the organisation replied not with “thank you”, but with “we have a really great team.” Nobody took personal credit for anything. It was amazing.

And a special thank-you to the Masons of Vancouver. They allowed the event to take place in their Masonic Lodge, trusting us to be respectful of their space. This was the first time in decades that they had allowed outsiders in, and I hope they found that we lived up to their expectations. I personally found the regalia and symbology of their ancient traditions inspiring, and clearly related, in part at least, to what we do as historical swordsmen.

The flight home to Italy was surprisingly uneventful; Vancouver to Montreal, Montreal to Munich (a Lufthansa flight. Nice of them to bother. Though it was late and I caught my connection only by the skin of my teeth; I’ve got to hand it to the Germans though: there was a special bus waiting to get us through security and passport control, then straight to the plane), Munich to Pisa, bus from Pisa to Lucca. And back home to my babies. For 18 hours, because the next day we left Lucca en famille, and flew back to Helsinki (Lucca-Pisa-Munich-Helsinki. I wasn’t tired at all). Our Italian adventure is not over though; we will be back!

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