I love a circus, don’t you? When Dan had an office in Montreal, we used to spend a certain amount of time there. One of the things we loved to do was to see Cirque du Soleil. The things they did were astonishing, magical. I remember once there was a man who flew. Really flew. He began by walking around the enormous ring, his hands through some gymnast’s rings that were attached far above him. He just walked in a big circle. Then slightly faster, and faster, till he was running. Then he simply lifted his feet in that amazing gymnast’s move until he was horizontal in the air, arms out to his side. He was flying. Magic. I was entranced.

While this was among the simplest things I ever saw at Cirque du Soleil, it is among the most amazing. A man and some rings. That’s all it took for him to fly. Well, no, it also took hours and hours and weeks and years of training, but all that was behind the scenes. All we saw was the magic. That’s what Cirque du Soleil is: magic. The circus grown up.

This is a far cry from the circuses I grew up with: Barnum and Bailey’s best. Lions and Elephants and horses and trapezes and tightrope walkers. Men who ate fire. Jugglers. Clowns. The guy who got shot out of a cannon. A different kind of magic, but still magic to a child’s eyes.

Last week in my town there was a circus. It’s a traveling circus, moving around Belgium and spending ten days to two weeks in the smaller towns. (You can find their fascinating–in French, though– history here.  They set up in a big parking lot, with their Big Top and their trailers and they set about to entertain us. To bring us magic.

That Saturday was a gorgeous day here in Belgium, even though the air traffic was still stopped. The air was warm, even if it smelled faintly like a cold fireplace from the volcanic ash. The sun was shining and the sky was perfectly blue. No clouds. No airplanes dragging their contrails. Nothing to mar the perfection of a sky of the sort we rarely see in Belgium. It was lovely. Dan and I went out to dinner and then treated ourselves to the circus.

We got there early, as soon as it opened, because we enjoy watching the preparations and seeing the audience file in. It was a small tent, and at capacity probably held 200 people. It was about 2/3 full, and there were lots of children. There were sparkly toys to tempt the children, and cotton candy to make them sticky. In the middle of the tent there was one ring, filled with sawdust.

There were big cats. No lions, but leopards, cougars and a puma. One of them refused to perform. Heh, cats will be cats, after all. There were other animals too: a black stallion who performed dressage moves under the direction of a beautiful lady dressed like a Spanish Princess. The kids (big and small) all said “AAAAH…” There were donkeys, and a pony, some llamas and even trained steers (a first for me!). And an elephant, of course. There were the usual mishaps with animals: the llama pooped and the kids said “EWWW!” The elephant peed and the kids laughed. We understood the reason for the sawdust.

At the intermission, the elephant was still in the ring and they brought out an enormous tub full of carrots for her to eat. As she stood there placidly munching away, the kids could come and have their photos taken with her. One little boy didn’t quite realize what would be expected of him till he was really close, and then he took one look at the elephant and would have nothing to do with her. He was saying, “NO! NO!”, and his mother was trying to calm him. The elephant took hold of one side of the carrot tub with her trunk and moved it to the side, farther from the boy, and continued to eat. She’d seen this before.

The performances were a far cry from Cirque du Soleil: this was a different kind of circus, with a magic all its own. It was small, personal. It was a circus for kids, and for the kid in all of us. The woman who showed us to our seats was the acrobat. The man who took our tickets was her assistant. The ringmaster was selling refreshments outside. The Spanish Princess was also the tightrope walker. The big cat handler scooped up the poop. The curtain to the backstage was slightly tattered.

The juggler dropped his pins. Some animals refused to perform. The tightrope walker danced on the rope, on her toes like a ballet dancer. We held our collective breath when she bobbled, conscious of the possibility of failure. We were thrilled when she arrived at the far side, and applauded wildly. The acrobat shinnied up a long pole balanced on the forehead of her assistant. At the top she hung by her feet from some rings, and the kids said, “OOOH!”. When she finally came down we could all breathe again.

This is the kind of circus you’d run away to. These were the kind of performances you could imagine yourself doing if you spent hours and hours and weeks and years training. OK, not the shinnying up the pole bit for me–too high. Not the tightrope either. But the Spanish Princess role I could do.  The cats too. I could do the cats.

I think that’s the magic of this kind of circus–you can imagine yourself being there, traveling from town to town performing for children who will say OOOOH, and AAAH, and EWWW and even NO! NO! For the space of a couple of hours you can imagine yourself living a different life. Under the Little Big Top.

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Kate McNally

Kate McNally

Born and raised in Atlanta, with degrees from UGA and UT Knoxville, Kate never lived above the Mason-Dixon line. That is, until she moved to Belgium. She now lives in the Belgian Ardennes, near Germany and The Netherlands, in an area where three cultures clash and co-exist. She used to have a stress-filled life, living in Washington DC and working as a management consultant all over the US and Canada. About 9 years ago, Kate and her husband Dan quit their jobs and moved to Europe. Now they teach English as a second language to business people there. They went there for two or three years. They're still here. Kate loves to cook, to travel, to paint and to write. She tries to do all of those as often as she can, and she shares tales of her life there in her blog. Kate says, "My blog is called 'Serendipity'. That pretty much sums up our life here in Belgium: serene with a little ‘dipity’ added. You’ll find here tales of our life as we sometimes struggle with other languages and other ways. You'll also find some paintings. And more than a few recipes, because I love to cook. My husband loves to eat. Perfect!" You can find her blog at http://serendipity-kate.blogspot.com/