What It's Like to Run Away With the Circus

by Amanda Stern
Originally Published: 

J was a serious actor, with exceptional talent. His body was stretched and bony, and his gestures were mannered just enough to make his movements mysterious and French-seeming (he was from Kansas, so this was a real trick). He’d trained with Ann Bogart, studied the Suzuki method and had a Masters in acting, but it wasn’t his emotional life he tapped when telling a story; it was his body, which made him an obvious choice for the bendy antics of the circus. He took his work—and, unfortunately, himself—very seriously. Often, he’d fling his opinion out into the world so forcefully that it would sweep up all other voices and boomerang the attention back to him.

In the contract I was known as an Official Partner, OP for short, which just meant I was J’s girlfriend. The job of OPs was to do whatever we wanted. We’d be in six cities (Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna, Brussels, Madrid and London), spending up to eight weeks in each, and between shows we had a week off and could travel wherever we wanted.

Below are the dispatches from each city during my year away with the circus.


For the first six weeks, my home was in room 518 at the Renaissance Amsterdam Hotel on Kattengat 1 in the Netherlands. J had been there for a month already, and to make my transition less jarring, he promised to set up the Internet and get me a phone card. He did neither. I was jet-lagged and premenstrual and all I could do was cry. We looked at each other and silently worried: We’re doomed.

The bed was disguised to look like a double, but really it was two twin mattresses hiding under a bedspread heavy with dust mites. I took a nap on it anyway, and when I woke up, J had gone to rehearsal and I was feeling good enough to figure out how to navigate Dutch transportation and travel to the big top (aka Le Grand Chapiteau).

I arrived at the yellow and blue tents, vastly underprepared to see J wearing black and red tights pulled above his navel and held up by suspenders, arm-length gloves, a black floor-length cape, and a red and black Jester’s cap. He was scrambling for a powder puff and makeup remover to undo an eyeliner mistake. I couldn’t remember anyone’s names, much less pronounce them, but I remembered the two women whose eyes had blood instead of whites. J explained that everyone who does Chinese Poles gets it. It’s from the velocity of spinning. Now I was no longer worried about bloody eyes, but velocity. And spinning. But at least I knew which performers did Chinese Poles.

The family who did The Adagio Trio was too serious to be sweet, and the rumor, J told me, was that M, the five-year-old, was conceived to take the place of D, who was then 13 and too big for the part. I met C, whom I liked instantly. He looked like a movie star, but a French New Wave movie star from a Godard film. In his regular life, he was a professional wire walker, but at the circus that job went to a Russian and C was playing the part of The Child.

I left after an hour and when J came home from rehearsal and leaned in to kiss me, I saw remnants of white face makeup collected like shale in his pores. All desire for him had vanished.

We were invited to a party in E and M’s room. It was filled with acrobats dancing to trance music, drinking and smoking hash. The Hand-to-Hand duo were terrible dancers, the wire walker was a very heavy drinker and O, the Russian trapeze artist, was doing back handsprings in a room with no space. Everyone was dressed in metallic, bedazzled clothes, like toned-down versions of their stage costumes.

I felt like I was at a frat party until I realized that I was at a frat party. These performers weren’t creative artists; they were jocks. They liked German fisting techno and multi-level clubs where each floor thumped to its own bass-crushing theme. They preferred the Hard Rock Café to anything off the beaten path. Weirdly, I liked them, but my ideas about what they were going to be like had been all wrong.

After too many nights sleeping in the crack dividing the fake double bed, J, E, M and I came up with a genius plan. First, we smoked a lot of Moroccan hash. Then, we went into the empty suite that had a real double mattress and removed it from the box spring. We raced it down the hall and into the stairwell where, for reasons that don’t add up, we decided to temporarily leave the mattress. Back down in our room, we grabbed the twin mattresses and raced those into the stairwell, but E heard someone coming so we abandoned all the mattresses and took the elevator to E and M’s room for a glass of wine. Then, J and I grabbed one of the twin mattresses and brought it back down to our room, where we waited for E & M to bring the other twin mattress, but they didn’t come. We went looking for them and found them waiting for us in the empty suite with the other twin mattress. That’s when J and I realized we were too stoned to switch out the mattresses.

What I learned from living in Europe six months after 9/11 is that everyone wanted to talk about the bombing with me, but everyone’s approach was the same, and it was an odd one: They seemed starstruck. That I had been in New York when it happened, that J had been in New York when it happened, had turned us into these weird celebrities of calamity. It was such a disconcerting response. Almost as off-putting as a woman backing away from me when she found out I was Jewish. Don’t know how looking at my face didn’t give it away, but I guess that’s a testament to how few Jews she’d actually met.

We went to Menorca for a week, and then were on to six weeks in Barcelona.


With ten shows a week, I rarely saw J, and Amsterdam got pretty lonely. But after a week off in Menorca (the best place on Earth), we found ourselves in Barthelona, city of lisps and dripping buildings molded like wax, and I found my stride. I discovered a love for Antoni Tàpies and Cinzano (white). This was my kind of town.

What I learned from living in a hotel room is that great victories are born from small discoveries. Our chair unfolds into a couch! The coffee maker can also be a stove! Also, redecorating and moving the furniture around goes a long way. Six weeks is a long time to live in a conference hotel, and I kept busy turning our rooms into a home. I had it down to a science and here’s the kit: buy scarves and drape them over the tables; cut brown construction paper to cover the muddy watercolor renderings of Tibidabo and make your own drawings. Replace the padded floral bedspread with a thin, pretty one. Buy a Paul Klee calendar from last year and tear out and hang the pages. Most crucially, steal all the flowers from the room service trays until you have a bouquet. Penetrating stuff.

Matt and Jeni came to visit and we got so drunk that after Matt puked, I sympathy-puked all over my Steve Madden sandals, which I decided to leave at the Badal subway stop. We walked back to the hotel barefoot.

Circus infighting is all about who doesn’t make what jump or who hurts whose shoulders when they project off. Someone kept untying J’s left shoe during the third number and he was infuriated, on a mission to find out who was doing it, but I already knew. It was M. He was five, and a better contortionist than his parents.

J was remote and emotionally erratic. I never knew whom I was going to wake up to discover, and I didn’t like it. I loved Europe so much and I wanted to stay for the year, but I didn’t know if I loved J.

Other news: I’d sold my first book and bought my first cell phone; I was taking trampoline lessons with L (an acrobat in the show); C and I had started making little movies together; JV appointed me his fashion consultant; and J and I taught all the Europeans fake American expressions, which we told them were real. As a greeting, whenever C walked into a room, he’d say, “Dude, where’s my car?” When something tasted amazing, he said, “King Kong these are good!” I met David Sedaris, watched the first five episodes of “American Survivor,” and most importantly, learned how to swap out two twin mattresses for one full mattress without being caught.

Vacation in Croatia! Then tents went up in Vienna.

© Amanda Stern


After two months of bliss in Barcelona, the time came to leave and move on to Vienna. J and I spent our two-week tour break in Portugal, where we drank 75-cent bottles of port, stared down the throat of massive marble mines, and saw a bull fight. I became a vegetarian. For the second time.

We checked into our hotel in Vienna on the 6th, woke up on the 7th and decided to go to Prague until dress rehearsal began. So, we went to Prague for two days and fake-adopted a 12-year-old Czech boy named Adam. I bought a beautiful, gorgeous five-dollar ring, dug deep in my wallet, pulled out 150 Kronas, handed them to the nice fella, and went on my way. It wasn’t until five hours later, when I went looking for my one hundred euro bill, that I discovered I’d confused my Euros with my Kronas and paid a hundred and three dollars for a five-dollar ring. After searching Prague for the man, I decided to call it a day and consider myself the proud benefactor of a struggling young Czech jeweler.

I’d read 24 books in five months. I wasn’t sure J had any internal life. He was all brain and no heart. I wasn’t sure this was going to actually work. But…I really wanted to stay on tour.

When we returned to Vienna, I went to buy a carrot peeler, but it cost $17. The streets smelled like horse shit and Freud, and everything was super expensive. I found myself spending a lot of time backstage, more with C than with J. C and J had been super close but were sort of drifting apart. I thought C had the same problems with J that I was having: dead inside. I started to find my rhythm, and I even found a calming consistency to backstage life. After dinner, everyone got into costume. Five minutes until showtime there would be a rush to inhale the filter of a cigarette. A game of chess would begin. Magazines were opened. The clown tried his hand at trapeze. A flier practiced diablo. Everyone timed their activities to the applause and musical cues, rushing onstage in between chess moves and returning to pick up where they left off.

© Amanda Stern


I’d been in Brussels for two days and I had to say, I kind of loved it. People had said I would be bored, but there was so much going on there. Beth Orton was playing in a week, Moby was playing in a month, there was a theater festival, a music festival, a thousand flea markets, cool thrift stores, a ton of art stores and hobby shops and best of all, our hotel was in the African district and the people who lived in that quarter were my people. I felt at home.

J and I went to Antwerp for two days, and loved it. We spent a day in record shops and cool toy stores. Our big mistake was seeing Puppetry of the Penis in Ghent. So bad, not even worth words.

Here’s something I discovered: Pharmacists wrote prescriptions there! Also, snails sold on the street were fucking delicious. Brussels was a live music kind of town. There was so much going on there, I didn’t really go to the tents much. Plus there was the Gare du Midi flea market, which I was obliged to visit every single day.

Seems I might not have been the only one on the fence about J. C told me that everyone thought J was really pretentious. This sort of soothed my soul, because I thought J is really pretentious. He also said that P was probably not going to renew J’s contract for next year, so now J was part of circus gossip.

There were so many French speaking people on tour, I started ending most sentences with “C’est ça,” and “Mais oui,” or just plain “Bon.” This didn’t help with the crime I’d committed: being American. We were hated. Fiercely. The way I ate, drank, spoke, dressed, held a straw was scrutinized and traced back to one fact: I wam one of “those” people. At first people in the troupe said they hated all Americans, then after a few weeks of hanging out they told me they didn’t hate all Americans, just America. Then after a few more weeks it wasn’t that they hated America, but they hated American politics. Then a while later, it wasn’t that they hated American Politics, it was that they hated George Bush. Then I had to explain that we didn’t actually vote for Bush.

One day, I was out with a German woman whom I met in my Spanish class. We were talking about Vienna and I joked about being a Jew in Austria. She gassed her chair in reverse away from me. “You’re a Jew? I hate Jews.” The racism was fierce and frightening and there were moments I caught myself seeing America the way the Europeans do. I’d catch myself thinking, oh that’s so American, and then I’d stop and remember that it was that kind of narrow minded-ness I was faced with and letting it seep in and distort my views was no way to negotiate all the insanity I was trying to process.

We left Brussels to drive through the South of France to our next port of call—Madrid. We considered stopping in Marseille for a night to try and see Cannes and Toulouse.


We’d been in Madrid for a week, but since my book was due the following Wednesday, I hadn’t had a chance to explore. The hotel was really far from the city center, two subways from anywhere interesting. If a Senior Center and a Soup Kitchen loved each other very very much, they’d conceive the hotel we were staying in. I thought the elevators were made of plastic.

Madrid was incredible. An amazing city. They sell roasted chestnuts on the sidewalk, and funnel them into hand rolls of newspaper. I made two excellent friends: Edu (short for Eduard) and Vanessa (from Brooklyn!). Edu and I hung out A LOT. He showed me his Madrileno world, which consisted of art openings, off-road bars, traditional drinks whose names I can’t remember, and the true art of rolling your own cigarettes. Vanessa and I hung out a bunch, as well. We went to flamenco bars, sold our clothes in Retiro Park on the fringe of the Sunday drumming circle. One weekend we made 20 Euro between us.

We did a workshop exchange with the Israeli Dance and Drum Troupe, Mayumana. They were performing in Madrid for a few months. They had the most beautiful old theater and we just had some tacky ass tent. They spent a day at the tents learning how to trapeze and wire-walk, and then we spent a day at their theater and they taught us some dance and drum steps. I was weirdly good at it. So good, they asked if I wanted to train with them. I laughed at the idea I might run away from the circus to join a different circus. We’d all gotten tight and hung out all the time. Then, of course, I became obsessed with African dance and drumming.

For New Years, Mayumana, J and I, Edu and his friends went to Puerta Del Sol, the main meeting point in Madrid. The Madrileno tradition is to eat twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight. One grape for each month. Ido (my friend from Mayumana) asked me to hold his grapes so that he could hoist me on his shoulders (there were about 10 thousand people there) and I dropped one of his grapes on the way up. So, he only had eleven, but I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want to curse his luck. But then, when midnight came, we didn’t hear the chime and no one knew what to do and suddenly all the Madrilenos were screaming and yelling in their wigs (it’s like Halloween for them) and spraying champagne and spray string on everyone and for some reason, we missed it. So we all shoved our grapes into our mouths at once and I didn’t tell Ido that I dropped his twelfth grape, and he never found out, but still, I felt guilty.

Madrid was excellent. I dyed my hair pink (temporary), finished all the rewrites for my book and am now whoring myself out in order to get a blurb. I started doing pilates, then I stopped. I became a vegetarian, then I stopped. I taught yoga twice a week to a bunch of circus people (did it for two months), which was totally fun, and also taught the Russian twins creative writing.

J got fired. We weren’t going to London. They said the British press would eat his performance alive, and to save his dignity, they fired him. We’d both applied for residencies at an artist retreat in Provence, and if we got it, we would spend a month in the South of France and then come home.

Madrid was over, which meant touring life with Cirque du Soleil was finished. The last show in Madrid was amazing; I cried through the whole thing. The cast left almost immediately the next morning and we didn’t get to say goodbye to all our friends. C and I got to say goodbye on our last night. Of all the people I’d met on tour, C and M were the ones I’d miss most. It was a hard goodbye. I thought I might be in love with C.


J and I were in Provence in a tiny town (actually, it wasn’t even a town) near Greoux, one hour from Manosque and two from Marseille. We were both in residency at an artist’s retreat called Begat. I was the first writer in residence here. I was working on my next book and J was working on a new piece of theater. We would be there until Feb. 1, then we would try and go to Paris for a bit, and then I would come home in mid-February.

We were living in a beautiful stone house, but it was fucking freezing. I was wearing three layers of shirts under a jacket and a down vest. And two layers of pants. I put my socks on the wood burning stove (our only source of heat) but it was so biting that by the time the socks came off, they were already cold. I could see my breath! There were few distractions, aside from the 12 company members who were there to rehearse, but they spoke French, so getting into long intense conversations was not likely. I was really very happy there. Oh, and there were four cats and I am totally allergic.

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