Nelly Writes — Stories

The Nieman Circus

Tonight the Niemen Circus is coming to town. Great! The kids will be happy to have something to do. It's a good start. Two days ago I yanked them out of school on the very last school day. They didn't even have time to say goodbye to their friends. We headed straight to the airport, even with Stefano's passport expired. Until the last minute it wasn't clear whether we would be able to leave. Luckily the flight attendant didn't look too closely to the expiration date. Well, we made it, but it was stressful.

Nieman Circus drawing by StefanoEvery summer we come to Mombaruzzo, Piemonte, Italy. Irene, my 11 year old daughter, Stefano my 6 year old son, and I stay in the house where my father was born. This year I came earlier than usual because I will be working here.

I am sure my friend Giovanna knows about the circus, maybe she will come with her son tonight. As much as I love Mombaruzzo, I realize it's a small, sleepy village with not much excitement, especially for two children coming from the Bay Area used to activity-packed schedules. Therefore every source of entertainment is welcome. Giovanna says "No, I don't think it's coming tonight, it will probably be tomorrow." "But the posters say tonight...." I start saying. I definitely need to unwind. I almost forgot this is Mombaruzzo.

We somehow survive the disappointment and the next afternoon we go to piazza Nuova sure to find the installation of the tent in progress. But there is no sign of the circus. I can tell, from the way they look at me, that Irene and Stefano have started thinking it's all mommy's fault. With nothing else to do, we go to the play area and soon some more kids show up.

Two blond children of about 6 and 12, probably brother and sister are eating a sandwich and are not mixing with the others. They look at ease, not shy at all, they don't own the place like the local kids, but seem used to being in unfamiliar places. Something about them is different, maybe the way they move. They go up and down the monkey bars like nobody's business. My children too look different, they are also very blond. It normally takes them a week or two to aquire the Italian body language. For now, they still talk to each other in English and they express their disappointments more with a lot of eye rolling than with their hands and words.

It's almost 5:30 pm and it looks like rain. Will the circus come tonight? Irene and Stefano are restless: "Let's go get an ice cream at Franco's" I propose. On the way back to piazza Nuova, we hear thumps and the noise of metal bars thrown on the ground. Yes! A group of teenagers is hammering poles in the dirt floor.

From an old motor home emerges a middle aged woman with bright red hair and three or four puppies. They immediately become the center of the attention of all the children on the piazza and the subject of my conversation with her. She is the owner of the Niemen Circus which is entirely formed by her family members: her six children, the four teen agers and the blond boy and girl I noticed earlier on the playground. There is also a husband and a dog. The name of the circus is somewhat exotic - it could be Hungarian- but she tells me they are from Milan. "My husband likes to come to this area of Piemonte for his shows because his mother was born in a nearby village, he feels at home here, I would prefer livelier places, but...."

Now the thumping and hammering noises have stopped and have been substituted by the noise of kicks and cheers. The older boys have started an impromptu soccer game. The circus tent is already up. But where is the roof? Only the sides are standing and the tented area doesn't seem bigger than an average living room. What if it rains? The sky is the color of lead. Our only chance, it seems, is to pray it doesn't rain.

Nine o'clock at night. Lightning flashes in the distance, only a few drops of rain, maybe it won't come down after all. We are sitting inside the tent. The show is about to begin at the sound of "Everybody Sing a Song". The excited audience amounts to twelve paying spectators, including three adults and nine children.

Here comes the father, whom I immediately nickname Mangiafuoco (Fire eater). He reminds me of Pinocchio's ferocious circus director who had a big black beard. This one has a big pair of black moustache but doesn't look nearly as evil. Now comes the oldest son. They tease each other into counting. When they reach number six (sei in Italian which also means "you are") the father is tricked into repeating "sei, sei, sei ....what? scemo (you are ....dumb)". The kids really like this joke, I can see they are going to use it too. Elian, the blond girl, dances while her older sister takes her hat off with her feet. Irene is watching with big admiring eyes.

Some more skits: father and son bet they can make a peach disappear. "Are you ready?" says the father "Not yet" says the son while he tries to chew and swallow the fruit as fast as he can. "Where did you hide it?" "In my mouth!" The kids laugh their hearts out. Now comes the knife throwing act. Virginia, the mother, poses in front of a red wooden board which carries the marks of many other shows. The knives start flying and they hit the right spots on the board. "This is dumb" I hear Stefano say aloud "she is all dressed in red!" But even so the act is completed without casualties. Next, they invite a person in the audience to stand in front of the red board. I pretend to be busy looking at something in my purse. Cristina, one of the three adults in the audience besides me and Giovanna, bravely walks in the middle of the platform. Luckily she is dressed in black.

The children are now invited to perform their best pig snort if they are boys and their loudest donkey bray if they are girls. For a few minutes Piazza Nuova resounds with these familiar domestic noises. No elephant bellows or tiger roars, just donkey and pig-sounding children.

The three older brothers juggle, hula hoop, rap dance. One of them eats fire. The littlest performs cartwheels and somersaults, an easy tune plays loudly.

The show is over now, kids and adults clap their hands enthusiastically. In its simplicity and naivete - no special effects, no wild beasts - the circus has brought us together in a magic world. We walk away deeply satisfied, Stefano is already repeating the jokes he learned, of course in Italian, Irene has been fascinated by Elian and her lifestyle. There is an exchange of phone numbers and the promise to sleep over tomorrow night. A lovely night at the circus. It should keep us happy for a while.

Top of page


"I come from a country where food is a central part of life. My passion and mission is to share my love of food and cooking with my students. Also to give them the inspiration and tools to create memorable meals and live meaningful experiences in the kitchen." - Nelly Capra