You never can tell where a story will lead.
Back in 1984, during my first storytelling tour abroad, I remember arriving at the Zurich train station and making my way out to the nearby town of Kilchberg, where I’d been booked to tell stories at The American International School of Zurich. Having never been in Switzerland before, what struck me was that it looked exactly how I thought it would look, with it’s quaint houses and sweet villages, old men with suspenders riding bicycles down the streets, and koo koo clocks in the shop windows. And what first struck me about Kilchberg was the smell; it’s the home of Lindt chocolate, whose factory is down by the lake, and the smell wafts upwards to the school.
At the school I met an English teacher by the name of Chuck Kruger, an American expatriate who had left the United States years before, not wanting to live in Nixon’s America. When I told him I was a storyteller he looked baffled.
“You mean you’re a writer?”
“No,” I explained. “I travel around and tell stories. Like in the old days.”
“Well I’ll be,” he said. “I’ve heard of traveling storytellers, but never actually met one.”
After the school assembly, Chuck invited me to visit all his English classes and tell stories. Over the years I became a regular visitor to the school, and always stayed with Chuck, his lovely wife Nell, and their family in nearby Freienbach, where we would sit telling stories until late into the night. Chuck loved stories as much as anyone I’ve ever met.
“You know what I’m going to do, Joel?” he asked on one visit. “Some day I’m going to start a storytelling festival, to bring storytellers from all over the world together to share stories. And you’ll be the first I invite.”
“Sounds great,” I said. “Here?”
“No, no,” he laughed. “Are you kidding? Some place warm.”
“You mean the weather?”
“No, I don’t care about weather – I mean the people. Nell and I are thinking of Ireland.”
On my next visit he announced that he and Nell had traveled to Cork, Ireland, where they’d met a real estate agent who’d said he had something special to show them. They traveled to the southernmost port of Baltimore, and took a boat to an island called Cape Clear, the southernmost island in Ireland. On the boat down, the estate agent explained that the southernmost 60 acres of the island – including two houses – were for sale. Even before seeing the land, he was smitten.
“I have two loves in my life,” says Chuck. “One is my wife Nell, who I’ve been married to for over 50 years. The other is Cape Clear.”
It was in 1992 that they moved, and in 1994 that they started the first Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival.
True to his word, Chuck and Nell invited me to share stories, and what a festival it was, and island in time. In 2016 my wife, Taly, and I finally had the chance to return to this Island of Stories, and again, to lead a workshop in October of 2017. This last visit was bittersweet, however, as health concerns have forced Chuck and Nell to leave the Island and return to the United States, now living in a Quaker Community in Pennsylvania. You can read all about Chuck and Nell and the festival in this article in the Irish Examiner. Chuck has written extensively about the island, with award winning books of essays and poems. While you can pick them up in the shop on the Island, it may be easier to find your way to them here.
While Chuck and Nell are doing well in Pennsylvania, the island misses them dearly. Nell explained that when they came to the island and fell in love with it, they’d thought they had found the place where they would some day die. “In fact,” she said, “what we’d found was a place to live.”
And it was a great life they lived there, and a great gift they gave – one of the truly beloved storytelling festivals in Ireland, a destination for storytellers and story listeners from around the world.
As they say in Ireland, Chuck and Nell, Go Raibh Míle Maith Agat!
And, for the rest of us, we raise a pint of Murphy’s to you both – Slainte!