The Polish Woman on the Bus

The emotional memory of that day is much stronger than the memory of the event’s details.   

It was 1981 and I was coming home from school on the bus.  I was sixteen.  Without a word, she presented a card with frayed edges with a handwritten address on it.  Someone’s name, UNHCR and a street in the neighbourhood.  I couldn’t imagine any office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees being located in that Rome suburb. There was a branch of the Italian Communist Party, a few shops, and the square where my mother wouldn’t let me take the dog out after dark.  There was the corner near our home, where youths would gather and sometimes form a tight rank when they saw a girl or a woman coming.  Keep your nerve.  Keep walking at them. Push if need be.  Don’t show them you’re scared.  There.  Now don’t turn to look at them.  Keep walking.  You’re almost home.   It was also near the beach where, a few years earlier, Pier Paolo Pasolini had been murdered. 

My stop was next – near the address the woman wanted – so I motioned her to get off the bus with me.  She didn’t speak any Italian.  “Do you speak English? Français?” There was no response in her pale blue, almost white, bespectacled eyes. 

Polski,” she finally volunteered.

“So you speak Russian! Togda vi govorite po ruski!” I said.  My Russian-born, Armenian grandmother had taught me Russian. 

She shook her head. “Nie.

I found that odd. I knew all Poles spoke Russian.  Everybody in the Eastern Bloc learnt it at school in those days.

I walked her to the address on her card and, as I’d suspected, there was no UNHCR office there.  I asked a few passers-by, but no one knew anything.  I tried to explain to the woman that such offices normally closed early in the afternoon, and it was already three o’clock.  Again, the calm, blank, hard stare.  I tapped on my watch.  “Tomorrow,” I said. “Domani. Demain. Zavtra.”

She shook her head earnestly and launched into what sounded like a protest, incomprehensible to me.  She then also tapped on her watch and I gathered from the few Polish words I was able to understand thanks to my Russian that she had to be back in central Rome by six to return to Poland.  Why? Did she have a train or a coach to catch? Was she with a group of fellow nationals? I tried to ask, but her face had resumed its impenetrable expression. 

I found a phone box and rang home to tell my grandmother I wouldn’t be back for my customary, late, after-school meal.  Then I called my mother at her office.  “But the UNHCR is in the centre!” she immediately said. “How did she get that address? Besides, they’re probably closed by now.”

She quickly looked up their address and number and I called them.  There was no reply.

While waiting for me to finish talking to my mother, the woman took a sandwich out of her bag and started eating it.   I remembered I hadn’t had lunch.  School finished at 1.15 p.m. and we lived a train and two bus rides away, so I wouldn’t get home until nearly three.  The only thing left was to try our luck at the UNHCR in central Rome anyway.  “Come, I’ll take you there,” I said, waving at her to follow me.

We got on the bus to the station, then took the local train to Rome, to the Pyramid stop.  There were delays on the way.  All my attempts at communicating with the woman hit a wall.  I couldn’t understand what she was telling me.  She kept repeating one word in particular.  I was tired and hungry.  I had homework to do.  Above all, I was frustrated.  “Look, I’m trying to help you,” I snapped in Russian.  “I really want to help you – can’t you see I’m trying hard? – but I don’t speak Polish and you’re refusing to speak Russian.  Please help me, meet me halfway, so that I can help you!”

The woman’s face softened slightly, and she suddenly put her hand on my cheek and gave it a gentle pat.  She repeated the word in Polish, then said it in Russian.  I wanted to hug her.  I wanted to cry.  I thanked her in Russian.  I wish I could now remember what that word was.

By the time we reached the city, it was too late to go to the UNHCR.  She gestured to me to get back on the train and go home.  I realised that she would be leaving for Poland in the next hour, that she’d perhaps missed her one chance to stay in Italy and not return to the Eastern Bloc.  We said goodbye.  On the train home, I wondered who the woman was.  Did she have a family? Or nobody to go back to, which is why she wanted to stay in Rome? Who had given her the wrong address for the UNHCR? Why did she want to defect? What had happened to her in Poland? And what had the Soviets done to her or her loved ones that she should have apparently vowed never to speak Russian again?

It was dinner time when I finally reached home.  My mother was back, and there was sadness in the air as the three of us sat around the kitchen table.  My own grandmother had left the USSR in 1933.  She had told us on countless occasions about the fear, the oppression.  When, in the mid-1950s, letters from her mother and sister had suddenly stopped coming, there was no way of discovering what had happened to them.  No amount of begging at the Soviet Consulate helped her obtain information, and, of course, she wasn’t allow to travel to the USSR.  The Soviet Union had left scars on my family, too.  And for all my grandmother’s passionate attempts to distinguish Soviet from Russian, the language was still the same.

When, in the early 2000s, I began teaching English as a Foreign Language, I had many Polish students.  I always wondered if, by the magical turn of coincidence, any of them knew the Polish woman on the bus in Rome, or perhaps were even related to her.  I wondered if, after Lech Wałęsa had set in motion the crumbling of the Eastern Bloc, she had managed to leave Poland, or if she had still wanted to.

I wish I’d asked her her name.

Scribe Doll  

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The First Day of Spring?

Last Sunday morning, 20th March, radio presenters were cheerfully announcing the first day of spring. “It’s not the first day of spring – it’s the vernal equinox!” I grumbled once again. I do that: talk back at radio presenters, cheer on journalists grilling politicians on television, swear at the Prime Minister whenever his face appears on the screen. I need to let off steam, like everybody else, in a way that causes no damage to others.

The equinox: two dates of the year when, traditionally, day and night are the same length. As far as I can tell, naming them the official start of spring and autumn is arbitrary. I guess they’re convenient dates partly because the seasons are by then in full swing, visible, obvious. As we know, western culture is heavily evidence-based, and eyesight is arguably its most trusted tool of perception.

By the 20th or 21st of March, in the northern hemisphere, the trees are starting to blossom, the sun makes more regular appearances, and the temperatures grow warmer (though not necessarily in the British Isles, where the weather has deep-seated commitment issues).

There are some things you cannot admit publicly without going against the accepted and approved general opinion, and appearing somewhat defective or, at best, eccentric.

People do a double take when I confess that spring is my least favourite season. I won’t go as far as saying that I actively dislike it, but I’ve never looked forward to it and I’m always relieved once it’s turned fully into summer. I find spring’s mercurial, unhinged mood swings difficult to handle on both the physical and emotional front, and have done for as long as I can remember. Whenever I’ve been significantly ill or unwell, it’s always been in the spring.

Summer nourishes me, autumn encourages me, and winter fills me with a world of possibilities. Spring attacks me and doesn’t pull punches. It puts me to the test and I spend the weeks between early February and early March alternating between fighting and cowering, until I am exhausted.

That’s right, because as far as my body is concerned, it’s not around the 21st of March that spring begins: its birthing pains start in early February and, in recent years, I’ve felt it even in late January.

That sudden shift and brashness in the air, that sense of something approaching that mows down ruthlessly anything standing in its way. The sudden dizziness as though there’s been an earth tremor. The light-headedness, the queasiness, breathlessness, general weakness, disorientation, and anxiety.

When I was growing up, it was at that time of year that my mother would notice dark rings under my eyes and unusual pallor, and ask my grandmother to feed me aladushki and other, as she put it, “strengthening” – and I’d call grounding – foods, then draw up a list of vitamins and minerals for me to take for the next fortnight.

I never found a satisfactory scientific explanation to my reaction to spring, and a few other people I’ve mentioned it to have responded with the puzzled-veering-on-disapproving look. What’s wrong with this woman who doesn’t like spring? 

About six years ago, I took up Qigong, which my teacher defined as “the mother of Tai Chi”. Qigong, or the cultivation of life energy, runs counter-intuitively to the western way of thinking on one crucial point: while in the West, power is about dominance and control of the elements around you, Chinese Qigong teaches you to align yourself with them in order to turn them into allies. In other words, instead of building a giant, heavy ship to withstand the wind, and a hugely energy-consuming engine to propel it, you craft a light boat, learn to read the wind, adjust your sails to it, and let it do all the work of carrying you to your chosen destination upon its breath. It’s a philosophy that inevitably leads to a deep respect for natural forces, and, by extension, the seasons. It also not only encourages you but trains you to listen to every request and slightest whisper of your body.

At one January morning class, our Qigong teacher began teaching us movements and recommending appropriate foods to prepare our bodies for the spring, which, according to traditional Chinese medicine, begins around the 6th-7th of February. It was all I could do to repress a visceral urge to jump and shout I know that! I’ve always known that! So I’m not mad! I felt relieved, vindicated, and so, so happy. I must admit that since I’ve been practising these pre-spring activities, I’ve found the change of season much easier. 

According to the philosophy of Qigong, summer, autumn and winter also begin about six weeks before the accepted Western dates. I wonder if way back in history Western cultures shared that view. After all, the old midsummer and midwinter, which almost fall on the solstices, are only a couple of days after what the vast majority considers as the first days of summer and winter.Who decided to call the climax the beginning, and when? 

Was there a time, long, long ago, when humans were so much more in tune with the earth that they were aware of even its most subtle shifts and changes? Equally, were they so much more attuned to their own bodies – before Christian priests told them they were sinful, and doctors that they were ticking time-bombs of disease – that they could detect the early warning signs of even the slightest physical imbalance? A time before the priests of religion and the priests of science bullied their way into being the unchallenged, unquestioned intermediaries between a person and their instinct?

Perhaps it’s this dependency on hard evidence that has led us to accept the existence of something only when it is clearly visible to us: in this case, we know that spring has sprung only once we all see flowers bloom and trees blossom, and it becomes too warm to wear coats, hats and scarves. We trust that autumn starts only once the trees begin to shed their leaves, making the ground a carpet of red and gold, not in early to mid August, when there’s a sudden shift in the colour of the light. 

We only trust what we see. Seeing is believing is a well-known expression. But isn’t the point of belief that you accept the existence of something you cannot see, and for which you cannot provide irrefutable evidence? Why don’t you say instead Seeing is knowing?

Scribe Doll

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Just a Five-Pound Teapot

I bought the teapot in Boots.  White with blue and yellow flowers.   Back when there was a Boots in Sidney Street. When they still sold a few household goods and stationery.  I paid about five pounds for it.  I could have paid less for a brown teapot in the Kitchen Reject shop around the corner, but I wanted a pretty one for my new room in Jesus Terrace, a small room on the ground floor of a terraced house.  We were three women living there – the landlady and two lodgers  – and three cats.  I was starting my A-levels at the Tech, determined to get into Trinity College, Cambridge the following academic year, in October 1986.

It could fill the four small stoneware cups of tea I’d bought a few months earlier.  It never occurred to me to keep mugs back then.  At home, my mother wouldn’t have stood for them.  Just as she wouldn’t have admitted tea bags.  It’s the dust from tea leaves that’s sold in bags – cast-offs.  Like my mother, I had at least three varieties of tea to offer my guests: Earl Grey, Assam or Darjeeling and always Orange Pekoe.  I’d soon learnt never to buy English Breakfast because that was what people always chose and then I’d have to drink it with them.  

Four people was all I could fit into my mousehole – as my friends called it – anyway.  Two on the bed, one on the chair, and me perching on the small blue-stained desk, each leg resting on four squares of wood sellotaped together, to raise it higher from the floor.  

Over the summer, at home, in the Roman heat, knowing I’d buy a teapot as soon as I had a new room in Cambridge, I’d made a tea cosy.  Two wooden spoons tied back to back, a face painted on each: serious on one side, smiling and winking on the other.  Two thick wool braids.  A white shirt with a ruffled collar and cuffs over arms made from notebook spiral wire.  A full skirt of fabric saved from a summer dress, with colourful stripes, lined with leftover tweed from a skirt to keep the tea hot for a long time.

Everyone who came commented on the teapot.  My classmate Y., also preparing for her A-level French, and my best friend C., on a year’s exchange programme from her college in Minnesota, as I poured out my heart to them about my crushes – generally involving a choral scholar from King’s I gazed at through the flickering candles at evensong.  When my New Zealand friend R. cycled over from Peterhouse in the hope that I’d translate some illegible document from Italian he needed for his Ph.D., he’d bring Chelsea buns from Fitzbillies for the tea.  The night C., a tenor at King’s, unexpectedly knocked on the front door to bring me a ticket for the Christmas Eve carol service, saving me from having to queue from dawn, he drank Earl Grey, black, no sugar, as he always did, and introduced me to John Donne.

Then there was the time I served tea to a middle-aged Scot in a kilt, who’d come to lend me a copy of The Genesis of Freemasonry.  A long story… 

It was over an Assam with milk, three sugars, that the other C. (from Corpus Christi) – a tall, skinny, formal young man who represented perfect Englishness in my imagination – and I drafted a letter to Prince Edward, then an undergraduate at Jesus, requesting an interview for the Cambridge University French Society magazine, Le Francophile – half a dozen A4 sheets we stapled together.  A few weeks later, we received a letter from Wing Commander So-And-So, apologising profusely, explaining that His Royal Highness was busy with exams. A story for another time…

Another regular visitor was J., with whom I’m still friends thirty-five years later.  We met to exchange lessons: he was supposed to teach me to play the classical guitar and I to help him practise his Russian. I never learnt to play the guitar but frequently dined at Emmanuel College, he managed a First without any help from me, and I have fond memories of all-night conversations involving philosophy and Armenian Radio jokes about the Soviet Union.

By the end of that halcyon year I wouldn’t have missed for the world, Trinity College had turned me down after an interview during which I was asked if I thought I deserved to get into Cambridge, and I’d failed my A-level English after an anxiety attack that meant I just stared at the question paper for two hours, unable to write anything.  

When I was packing up my room, giving away anything I couldn’t carry back to Rome, nobody would take my teapot.  Oh, no, I couldn’t.  But it’s YOUR teapot! I can’t bear the thought of you without this famous teapot.  Etc., etc.  I couldn’t believe it.  Finally, my landlady offered to store it in her attic for however many years it took for me to come back and retrieve it.

A  year later, she got married, moved house and took my teapot with her to the next attic.  Eventually, I picked it up from her and took it up to college, at Durham, and from there back to Cambridge, then London.  Now, I often use it to make tea for H. and me in Norwich.

Thirty-five years after buying it for what now feels like a ridiculously small sum, the spout has a tiny chip and there’s a barely noticeable hairline crack in the lid.  It serves Earl Grey mixed with rose petals, Gunpowder tea and – still one of my favourites – Orange Pekoe.  Please be careful with that teapot, I say to H. whenever he washes it, it’s the oldest piece of crockery I own and very happy memories are sealed in the glaze. 

I no longer use the white teapot with blue and yellow flowers every day. I take it out of the cupboard on afternoons when I want to reconnect with that girl who dreamt of becoming a Cambridge woman, and who would sometimes cycle across the city at night, the hems of her trousers secured with cycle clips, a brown tweed flat cap on her head.  And when I want to remind myself that it’s still okay to dream.

Scribe Doll

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New Year’s Eve

A tower of books is rising in the corridor, taller, wonkier by the minute, until it comes tumbling down.  I scoop the books into several plastic bags.  They’re going to Oxfam.  Books I no longer like.  Books I don’t care to remember I’ve translated.  Books which – after moving them from flat to flat to flat to flat – I finally give myself permission never to read.

A mountain of clothes is growing on the bed.  Clothes that no longer fit, clothes I no longer like, clothes kept for years, just in case – in case of what? I never found out.

I feed photos and letters through the shredder.  People, events I can’t remember or don’t wish to clutter my memory with.

I think of all the people I need to shed.  It’s hard at first: I want to keep them close to me.  Funny how easily they drift away once I let go.  I watch them float away absent-minded, unaware.  I know they can’t see me, but I wave goodbye anyway.  Thanks for all the lessons!

I pick up the broom and sweep, sweep, sweep.  Then I place the broom by the front door, as a warning to trouble.

I open the windows, let the wind blow into the room and the rain to sprinkle drops wherever it pleases.  Oh, joy! The wind and the rain know what they have to do.  They know what they have to bring me.  

I open the windows wider.  

Scribe Doll

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There are things you can’t tell other people – or only just a few people, perhaps: that you love the time of year when nights are long.  That you long for the moment, at around four o’clock, when you watch the horizon drink the last drop of pale daylight and the evening star appear, burning bright against the darkness, like a diamond, breathing sparks of white fire – though if you stare long enough, you can make out blues and greens and reds and yellows.

It’s the moment when I switch on fairy lights in the bowl of pine cones and light candles on my table, but keep lamps low to honour the darkness.

There are things you can’t tell other people – or just a few people, perhaps: that you embrace this darkness.  Because they brand as evil all that they do not know, and they have soiled this darkness – rich in possibilities – with their murkiness.

The darkness of winter evenings is the screen on which I project the colours of my imagination, the soil where I bury the seeds I know will sprout in the new year and blossom in the sunlight.  It’s the darkness that makes the world outside my window invisible to screen me from distraction, then whispers It’s time to look within and draws my attention to the candle on my table and the fairy lights giving the pine cones in the bowl a blush of green, yellow, pink, red and green. The candle tells me It’s time to draw up plans, time to weave spells because this is the season of magic and miracles, the season of gifts expected and unexpected, the season for casting wishes and forming intentions. 

There are things you can’t tell other people – or just a few people, perhaps: that for you this is not the season of barrenness, but of wonders you see with your secret eye.

There are things you can’t tell other people – or just a few people, perhaps: that for you, the red-clad, paunchy Santa Claus with vacant blue eyes, a jovial laugh and the pedestrian “Ho–ho-ho” is a usurper and you repudiate all that he stands for.

Instead, give me my Sir Christëmas, a cousin of Merlin.  Sir Christëmas, lean and tall in his cloak that has shades of green, brown, scarlet and gold, leather boots that can sprout silver roots to rival those of an oak.  Sir Christëmas, whose sparkling eyes are green, brown and ochre with a ring of blue.  The shapeshifter – the red fox whose amber eyes look up at my window from the street, the green-eyed tabby cat blinking at me from the neighbour’s wall, or the grey-eyed jackdaw watching me from the roof across the street.  He is the joker laughing heartily as he blows gales through the gaps in the window frames and the friend who leaves a perfect cone for me under the canopy of a five-hundred-year-old cedar when I feel low, or throws in my path a piece of especially glossy flint that catches the candlelight as I turn it  in my hand while I write. 

There are things you can’t tell other people – or just a few people, perhaps.

Scribe Doll 

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Finishing a Translation

There… and – send.  

I hold my breath until I hear the the notification that the e-mail has been sent. It sounds like a plane taking off.

I feel like jumping around the room, laughing, singing.  Where did I put my tap shoes? 

I want to scream, to claim myself back.

Memories of projects long delayed fly into my brain at supersonic speed.  Me! Me! Pay attention to me!

The sense of freedom is intoxicating.  I have no more strings; I can dance how I please.  The dummy is gone: I can speak with my own voice.  If I can remember where it is.  

I can think my own thoughts.  They must be around somewhere.

I stand up from my desk, it takes some time to straighten my back after being hunched over for hours at a time, day after day, for months – or is it years? 

I think I’ve shrunk.  I think I’m smaller than I was not long ago, except that perhaps it was long ago.  

I stand on the balcony, lift my arms and reach out as far as I can to the sky.  My back hurts but I reach out further.  And further.   I take breaths so deep my ribs hurt.  I need to make room for air in my shrivelled lungs. They’ve grown unused to so much exercise.

The cold air fills my lungs, expelling the gunge.  Out with the grey. Out with the sadness. Out with what doesn’t belong inside my chest.  

Out.  Out.  Out!

I breathe the cold air until my chest feels free.  Until my head has spat out thoughts that aren’t mine and my heart shed emotions that belong to someone else.

Until I am me again.  At least I think that’s me.  I can’t quite remember.

How does an actor step out of their role? How does a translator find their own words?

I feel taller now, my head is clearer, my lungs cleaner, my heart lighter.  I think I am me again.  Not sure – but I think that’s me. 

There’s so much I long to do now, but the exhilaration suddenly drains away.  I am so, so tired.

I sleep for twelve hours.  I wake up in the same position I fell asleep in.  For a few seconds, I’m not quite sure where I am or who I am.  What day is it today? 

I get up and open the curtains and look at the 180º sky.  Perhaps I’ll go out for breakfast.  That’s right – I handed in my translation, I can have a day off.

I slip a notebook and my fountain pen into my bag.  No typing today.  Writing.  Real, hand writing.  

No jogging bottoms or baggy jumpers.  Proper trousers, boots with heels.  I’ll even iron my sweater.

Lipstick, for a change? Why not?

I look in the mirror.

Yes, that’s definitely me. 

Scribe Doll

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Unapologetic Anthropomorphism

Scribe Doll

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Why I Find Emojis Sinister

“You just take it too seriously,” F. has told me over the thirty-five years we’ve been friends.  Over the decades, the it has referred to various situations I’ve felt strongly about.  From having to deal with unnecessary and time-consuming bureaucracy to people not being punctual, to any other issue I can’t help sinking my teeth into and not letting go.  “You just take it too seriously,” she says, and I shrink into a mental corner, feeling stupid.  Recently, when her it referred to my growing dislike of social media, I snapped, “Well, I am a serious person.  Life is serious business.  So are human relations.”  It was a breakthrough.  My response may have been somewhat over-theatrical, I admit, given the relative banality of the topic, but oh, how good it felt finally to retort.

My deleting my social media accounts is not a matter of if but of when.  When I find a way of receiving some of the information I require by other means.  When I make more friends who don’t use it or when my dearest, current ones agree to keep in touch with me by phone or e-mail.  When I become so well established in my various occupations that people will feel I’ve earnt my right to mild eccentricity.  When I pluck up the courage, basically.  I will probably keep my Twitter account, but I am getting closer and closer to exiting what could, if one were to use pretentious synonyms, be called  “Countenance Tome” (I’m not going to use the platform’s real name and give satisfaction to its algorithms).  There are many reasons for my dislike of Foxtroot Bravo) and they’re all entirely personal and subjective – and would produce way too long a blog post (there are a couple of other things I’d like to scribble before the weekend is over and work restarts tomorrow), so I’ll name just one – possibly one of my main pet hates: emojis.

I hate emojis.  There, I’ve said it.  To me, they represent a Me, Tarzan – you, Jane form of communication.  Here we are, a species with the gift of millions of words, and yet we resort more and more to a narrow range of one-size-fits-all, software-generated symbols.  Not only that, but most of us use, re-use and abuse an even smaller number of emojis than the set provided by our computers.  ❤️, 👍 and, the one that makes me want to reach out for a cricket bat, 😂, are basically the standard.  

 “Ever the purist!” my much-cherished friend S. said.  “Well, I like emojis,” she added.  

I’m not stopping her or anyone else from liking them or using them.  I use them, too.  They are very convenient for a quick acknowledgement when you either haven’t got time for a longer response – or when you don’t know particularly well the person who wrote the post.  

“But that’s what people do!” S. continues to say.

So? Does it means I have to? Is going along with the majority the only way to be liked? To be accepted? Whatever happened to trying to be true to yourself? And individuality?

My issue with emojis is that they encourage laziness of expression.  When I taught English as a Foreign Language (please see English: the Fast-Food Burger of the Language World) – mainly to business executives – course participants asked me time and time again why they needed to learn more than one word for the same item or concept. I tried to explain that what I was trying to do was like providing a palette with as many different colours as possible, so that they could choose the most appropriate ones, both for the occasion and as an expression of them as individuals.  What I was trying to achieve was to give them as wide a choice as I could.  Everybody would agree that the more colours you have at your disposal, the wider the scope for painting.  Isn’t it the same with words? Isn’t it the case that the more words you have at your command, the more choice, and consequently freedom, you have when expressing your thoughts – so hard to channel into the inevitably constricted vessels that words are, as it is?   

I worry that yielding to laziness, reaching out for what’s easiest – the staples on the coffee table next to our sofa – and making it our default setting, may lead to a gradual atrophy of independent, original thinking.  If we don’t flex our brains to seek the exact, right word we want, and always pick up the ones on the coffee table next to us, won’t our thoughts become equally basic? I believe strongly that the process works both ways: the more creative our thinking, the more need for a wide variety of words, but, equally, the more words we use, the more we stimulate the production of thoughts and ideas.  And, no, I can’t prove this scientifically.  It just makes sense to me.

Similarly, I wonder if using emojis all the time may lead to our forgetting how to express our feelings, our emotions, with the accuracy and faithfulness they deserve.  As a child, I always found it slightly disturbing when, when someone was asked how he or she feels about something, he or she replied, “Oh… don’t know, really…” I no longer find it disturbing, but I do find it dispiriting.  Like watching someone fumbling in the fog. 

Emojis are convenient, like a portion of “convenience” food after an exhausting day: a bag of chips from the local take-away when we don’t have the energy to wash and trim five kinds of fresh herbs for our salad. I sometimes stick emojis at the bottom of someone’s post, sometimes I search for one, appropriate word, and other times I construct a sentence or a paragraph.     

The problem with laziness is that it becomes addictive, until we let it define us because we’ve forgotten how delectable it can be to flex those muscles of expression.  If, every now and then, we get our posteriors off that sofa next to the coffee table with the usual emojis, and walk to the other side of the room in search of words to express how we feel, we might remember that there are other rooms in the house and even an outdoor area – we might even feel taller as we stride away from that comfy sofa.

Emojis are our assistants, our servants.  Every so often, let’s remind them who’s boss.

There, I’ve said it.  And if I’m too serious, so be it.

End of rant. [Gets off soapbox, smiles, winks, a cheeky glint in her eye].

Scribe Doll 

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Hallowe’en with an Apostrophe and an Extra Hour

I choose to spell Hallowe’en the old way, with an apostrophe that reminds me that there’s more to it than trick or treating and dressing up as ghouls.   

All Hallows’ Eve is one of my favourite holidays and it’s particularly special this time, because it coincides with what is actually my favourite day in the year: the twenty-five-hour day. That extra hour is more magical that any spell.   

I always resent it when, on every last Sunday in March, the clocks are brought forward and an hour is snatched away from us.  Robbing people of time is an act for which there can be no reparation: you cannot give it back.

I guess when the clocks are turned back again on the last Sunday in October, it’s no more than a form of restitution, but for me it always feels like a precious gift, a kind of miracle.   Time and again, I hear people talk about an extra hour’s sleep or complain about the evenings suddenly getting darker.  I always look forward to it with anticipation, like the opportunity for a new start, for breaking an old pattern, for laying down the foundations of a new one.  As for the evenings suddenly getting darker, since I work from home, I welcome them as permission to shut down the computer, put away the books I’m translating earlier, and withdraw into a world where my own creativity can be set free, a world made more possible at a time of year when shadows grow long enough to embrace you and gently encourage you to explore within.  Having said that, I remember looking forward to the clocks going back even when I taught and worked in an office.  I love sunlight and its slightly brash brightness.  I also love the long winter evenings when night becomes a screen on which I can project my imagination. 

This morning, I woke up at seven and felt joy and a sense of renewed purpose when I remembered that, as if by some magic spell concocted by J.K. Rowling, it was now only six o’clock.  I got up and crept around so as not to wake H., changing the time on all the clocks in the flat with childlike excitement.  Then, like every morning, I opened the French windows in my bottega and stepped onto the balcony, huddling in my dressing gown, filling my lungs with the chilly morning air and feasting my eyes on the East Anglian, 180º sky.  An hour.  A whole hour to use as I like.  Such a gift.  And on Hallowe’en, too.  

Hallowe’en, with an apostrophe.  The apostrophe that reminds me that although I will carve a face in a squash (they taste better than pumpkins), it will be a friendly one, because there’s no need for more fear in these dark times; that I will mark this day the way my Celtic ancestors did: as the start of a new year.  A year for which there is an extra hour to prepare, the time and mental space to rest, plan, focus, strengthen my intention. 

A blessed opportunity to push the re-set button.

Scribe Doll

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A Necklace of Words

1. Sfumatura (Italian): a shade, a nuance, but I love the sound of the word fumo (smoke) that forms it. A graduation in colour that’s as subtle as smoke; its very sound evokes a swirl of gossamer.  Close your eyes and try saying it, slowly… sfumatura.   

2. Arricriarisi (Sicilian): to enjoy.  My young friend I. taught me this one and I loved it as soon as I heard her utter it, enjoying the rolling “r”s, savouring them the way you savour soul-comforting food, with gratitude, joy and abandonment.   

3. Xirimiri (Basque, pronounced “shirimiri”): Drizzle, only not the drizzle we know in England – much finer, almost an invisible, weightless caress that makes the skin on your face soft and your hair curl. Memories of strolling in Donostia/San Sebastián on an late August morning, with the choppy, moody Atlantic Ocean on my right and the proud, green mountains on my left.    

4. Magick (English): Magic is pedestrian, insipid, insignificant.  Magick is for real witches.  The extra k adds a wealth of possibilities: colourful kaleidoscopes, brave knights and know-how.

5. Goûter (French): There’s something about a French goûter that English afternoon tea doesn’t quite convey.  Tea always feels formal to me.  Cake stands with miniature cakes, plates of cucumber sandwiches, a silver teapot, a string quartet in the background.  Goûter is heartier, less sophisticated.  A goûter can be white toast dripping with a generous layer of butter, accompanied by a large mug of hot chocolate made by melting chunks of Spanish chocolate in hot, full-fat milk.  It can be a sandwich with mayonnaise, Edam cheese, thinly-sliced onion and tomato, with a cup of lemon verbena tea.  Or it can be Proustian, with madeleines dipped in a china cup of Orange Pekoe.

6. Dolce (Italian): Sweet.  Dolce: the very word sounds sweet, like a person whose smile melts your heart, like the sound of a tenor recorder; in Italian, a recorder is flauto dolceDolce, like a gentle caress, a kind word, after a difficult day.  

7. Huáng (Mandarin pinyin): When I first went to teach in Taiwan, I noticed that all the Taiwanese teachers called themselves with English first names: Brenda, Tim, Clara, John.  I said it would only be fair for me to be given a Chinese name.  They asked me about my life, where I came from, what I had done up till then.  They thought.  We’ll call you Huáng, they said.  Phoenix.

8. Друг (Russian, pronounced “Droog”): Friend.  Not the “friend” you introduce after meeting them five minutes earlier, or the one you invite to make up the numbers, or the one you don’t work to keep.  Друг is your family of choice, the person you know will always watch your back, and never shy away from getting involved in your business if it means trying to help you.  A true friend in a friendship that is a wholehearted commitment.   

9. Bramasole: I read this word in Frances Mayes’ book Under the Tuscan Sun.  Someone or something that yearns for sunlight.  That’s me, after thirty-seven years in England.

10. Splendour (English): I love everything this word stands for, as well as its sound.  Splendour, like a table brimming with food, the Grand Place in Brussels, a harvest moon mirrored in the Canal Grande, or the opening bars of Monteverdi’s Vespers.  Splendour, like abundance, like plenty, like the domed ceiling of the Galleries Lafayette in Paris.

11. Effleurer (French) and Sfiorare (Italian): I always feel a sense of frustration when I have to translate these two words into English.  The best I can find is “touch lighty” or “brush”, but the texture of touch is too solid, and brushing evokes strokes.  Neither have the word fleur or fiore in them.  Flower.  A touch as light as the caress of a soft petals.

12. Dinky (English): A word I use often.  When in a traditional English tearoom, or an English cottage, or anywhere that’s small, cosy.  A front room with a bay window, low ceilings, a fireplace, furniture close together, carpets and cushions cluttering the sofa.  A place that makes a pretty picture – and where I wouldn’t last five minutes.

13. Apprivoiser (French): There is no exact equivalent in English.  In English, you tame, you domesticate.  Both suggest a kind of mastering of another creature.  Apprivoiser involves patience and love.  It results in this creature coming to you willingly, trusting you, knowing you will treat it like a friend. 

Scribe Doll

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