Intrepid travel writer Kevin Pilley goes belly up at yet another folk show.
Always desperate to demonstrate that there are few situations he cannot handle, the travel writer will deliberately place himself at risk. Every day, he must prove to himself, his friends and colleagues that he is equal - if not superior - to the challenges his job places before him.
Put him in downtown Rio or plonk him in the backstreets of Kinshasa and the travel writer will show no fear. Dare him to eat out in Athens and he will do it without hesitation. But ask him to sit through a cultural floorshow and his hair will rise to perpendicular, his face will turn a chalky shade of green and his forehead bead in a worrying way. Nothing in life is more harrowing than a hula show. Anyone can endure a business meeting. But few can endure a folk evening.
I have been tortured by cabaret all over the world. Whenever it comes to hotel cabaret, my thoughts always turn to gunfire and, in the case of some mid-European hotel cabarets, bazookas. Who can remain sane watching a load of professional Bavarians performing their version of Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man? Who can seriously enjoy two pretend Austrian rustics in a pretend Austrian rustic inn flagellating each other's trouser seats? But you must pretend.You must be polite to your hosts and sit through it stoically. Detente depends on it.
Why so many hotels feel the need to put on spectacularly lousy displays of local culture and why respected business minds should take you to them is a mystery.
Nothing is less entertaining than being forced into a meaningful cultural experience and being made to watch and listen to something so obviously not worth listening to and watching. Nine times out of 10, these shows debase the very culture they try so hard to promote. The other time - the genuinely, really good one - you manage to avoid. But still our business associates abroad feel obliged to put us through the excruciating ordeal.
Connoisseurs of unintentionally awful local culture might enjoy Hanoi's Water Puppet Theatre. The programme promises: "An unique second-to-none entertainment in the world inciting marvellously wonderful feelings in the audience." Indeed. At the end of a very long day and a very long show, I seriously hoped that the performers would float to the surface for their curtain call. Face down. Air conditioning is limited to someone yawning beside you.
They aren't all that bad. There are exceptions. In Finland, I saw Eero Magga, Lapland's most popular cabaret artiste. As a reindeer herdsman, he sings about nothing else but reindeer herding. Even if you can't understand a word, it is entertaining to listen to a man serenading ruminants.
Another uncappably novel and genuinely local act was Mareno and his Singing Cod Chefs, who performed at the annual Cod Festival, in Norway's Lofoten Islands. Their whole set consisted of songs about cod, like Jumping Jack Cod and Great Cod Balls of Fire. They sing about nothing else. Sadly, I'll never see or hear them again. They have split up. Mareno called it a day, having struggled for 15 years to find a catchy rhyme for "taramasalata".
Over the years, folk dancing extravaganzas have taken their toll on me, too. I will not go out in Spain until the rural population have handed in all their castanets and had their maracas decommissioned. I cannot enter a room in Switzerland if I suspect there is a yodeller in it. I associate them with migraines and manslaughter.
In the States, you must cope with tone-deaf, and therefore very loud and very obtrusive, cocktail pianists with fire-retardant toupees. In Hawaii, you can't get away from the twangy pedal steel guitar musak.
The insult is that this sort of banal entertainment panders to what hoteliers feel the out-of-towners would like to see and listen to. So what we get is fake, fabricated and make-believe.
In Morocco, this means a man in a brocaded dress and fez doing a few star jumps while a friend bangs a few drums and grunts between inane grins. Anyone can jump up and down. Anyone can play an instrument badly. Especially if it is unique to one tiny region of the world and no one in the audience knows what it sounds like when played well. Anything can get away with calling itself "ethnic entertainment" as long as the performers look suitably ethnic.
In Turkey, I refuse to go belly dancing. I know how to undulate my midriff. A lady in London taught me. You just imagine that you are holding a pencil (or biro) in your bottom and then you imagine you are signing your name on the floor beneath you. And these people think they are revealing a great cultural art form. Get off!