Tea Ceremony

A gentle hum that grows louder, then turns into a hiss that becomes a gurgle  The water is boiling, bubbling, impatient.  The teacher removes the electric kettle from its base, and pours its contents into a clear glass pitcher.  This hot waterfall emits steam, like gossamer climbing up the inside walls of the container, then spreading in the room, invisible, yet present.  

Patience is about waiting and being open to wonder.

A few seconds later, the teacher pours the water into all the double-bottomed glass cups arranged on a slatted bamboo tray.  The winter sun filtering through the window gives the small, clear glass a glow.  Another kettleful of water is put to boil.

It is by watching that you discover magical secrets.

He sits on the small black cushion on the floor, while we, his students, form a horseshoe around the small, beechwood tea table.  Some sit on chairs, others on the floor.  Nobody speaks.  He takes the earthenware bowl with the tea, and passes it around.  In turn, each of us gently fingers the black leaves, feeling the texture, smelling the slightly tart scent.

There are a thousand worthy words concealed in silence.

One by one, the teacher empties the cups into the slatted tray.  When the bowl of tea is returned to him, he tips the contents into a new glass pitcher.  The black leaves fall down the transparent shaft, with a soft rustling sound.  Once again, he transfers the freshly-boiled water into a glass pitcher, waits a few seconds, then pours it on the tea leaves, and puts the lid on.  Slowly.  Tea leaves, swelling with water, rise through a wavy sea of deepening amber, swirling, gathering on the surface where they linger for a minute or so.  We watch as the first tea leaf detaches itself from the other and gently sways down, landing lightly on the bottom of the pitcher.  Other leaves follow, and soon they are all quitting the surface, drifting to the bottom.  The infusion is now a rich golden amber.  

Who would have thought that there is so much beauty is watching tea draw?

The teacher pours the tea into every cup.  We all take ours but nobody drinks yet.  Each cradles the cup in the palms of his or her hand, admiring the colour, inhaling the steam, slowly, eventually bringing the tea up to our faces, feeling the warm condensation on our noses, guiding it through our nostrils until we can define its fragrance, delicate, slightly smokey, and send it down our throats and into our lungs.  

True pleasure is in sensing every detail, every stage, every minute impression.

We take our first sip, hold the hot liquid in our mouths, inhale through our noses, filling our lungs.  The terrain for a full experience of the flavour has been prepared.  After expelling the air, we swallow the tea.  A velvety, smokey, subtle tartness fills our mouths, then trickles down to our stomachs, like warm gold.

If you honour the food and drink, it will honour your body.

Red Robe Oolong.  Reserved for honoured guests.  It grows on the mountains of the Fujian Province, in China.  They say the mother of an emperor of the Ming Dynasty was cured of a serious illness by drinking this tea.  The grateful emperor sent swathes of Imperial red cloth to dress the bushes from which this tea had been picked.  Others say this tea saved the life of a much-respected scholar at the Emperor’s court.

A small, shrivelled leaf that bursts with magic.

We take another sip.  It never tastes like the first.  The surprise is replaced with a closer acquaintance with the taste of the drink, a closer awareness of its effect on our bodies.  The third sip is pleasure, pure, rewarding pleasure.

Awareness flings open the gates to a universe of unlimited possibilities.

It’s not just about drinking tea, it’s about getting to know it like a friend, getting to know yourself, getting to know the world.  It’s about learning, and learning leading to loving.

Happy Chinese New Year to all!

Scribe Doll

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A Shapeshifter at Play

All the windows are locked.  Curtains closed.  Blinds pulled down all the way to the sills.  Even so, its chilly breath hisses through the tiny gaps and reaches my knees.  There is an occasional tremor in the candle flames on the coffee table.  The nervous awareness of the force outside.  The normally vocal pigeons on our roof are silent.  The shapeshifting dragon is letting rip, giving a spectacle of its histrionic power.  Now it soars into the skies, its tail lashing the dark clouds, sending crackling rain to slam against the window panes.  Now it’s a tiger roaring in the night, sending a rumble rippling through the air.  Now a witch slaloming between chimneys on her broomstick, her impish giggle tickling the stars.  Then a gigantic owl, screeching in the roof, its wings whooshing in the air.  Then it swells into a tempestuous sea, foaming lips gnawing at the cliffs, then ebbing away before gathering into waves rising tall, fearless, tossing ships like juggling balls.  All of a sudden it retreats, quietens down, vanishes, like a memory you doubt.  Odd phrases of a tune that haunts you but which you cannot quite remember.  But, just two minutes later, it’s a dragon again, spewing flames like a Venetian glassmaker’s furnace, the bewitching fire of an Andalusian gypsy – spinning, swirling, lunging, turning raindrops into needles of ice, the supersonic speed of its flight making the windows quiver.  I am king, the dragon says. I am emperor.  And you’ve seen nothing yet. 

“It sounds like everything’s about to come crashing down,” H. says, looking up at the high ceiling of our living room.

I feel electrified, a thrill stroking my skin, like fingertips running up and down my spine, a sense of excitement and joy swelling inside me.  That and the unwavering sense that the power outside is choosing to keep me safe.

“I love – I’ve always loved the wind,” I say.

Scribe Doll

 

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Telephone Nostalgia

It suddenly occurs to me that it’s been months since anybody called our landline.  Except for my mother, of course.  Day after day, when I check the phone after coming back home, the display is always the same.  0 Calls.  0 Messages.  Come to think of it, hardly anybody ever phones at all.  I do get the occasional call on my mobile but even then, they have become an increasingly rare event in my life.  So much so that when the landline or the mobile ring, I jump, wary, assuming it’s either a wrong number or someone demanding that I do something.  I no longer consider the possibility of  hearing  “Hi, Katia.  How are you? I just wanted to hear your voice and catch up”.   

I often call a dear friend who lives in London – so we don’t get to meet very often –  and a precious friend who resides at the opposite end of the country, and I haven’t seen for over ten years.  But I call them.  Although when they pick up the phone, they sound pleased to hear my voice (either that or it’s wishful thinking on my part), the fact that I am always the one to initiate telephone contact makes me wonder if they simply put up with my quirk because they’re fond of me, but that among the rest of Western humanity, it’s a custom that has gone the way of letter writing and non-digital cameras.  

One London friend sometimes calls me on my mobile, and there’s my American aunt who sometimes rings me on the landline.  Other than that, it’s text messages and e-mails.  Maybe it’s the kind of friends and acquaintances I keep.  I can’t remember the last time anybody called and actually spoke to me when inviting us over for lunch, dinner or to suggest coffee in town.  It’s either a text message or an e-mail.  No tone of voice suggesting the person’s mood or state of health, no opportunity for a brief moment of warmth with words exchanged a viva voce.  Just emoticons.  I, too, used to include emoticons in my messages, but I do so less and less now.  I actually dislike emoticons.  Intensely.  Centuries of languages, poetry, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Sturm und Drang, millennia of words in all shapes, colours, sounds and subtle nuances and I get a lazy, bland 😀🤣👍👏🏻or 😘.  A fellow blogger I’ve become friendly with, recently removed the Like option from his blog.  As I understand it, his point is that if we enjoyed what he’s written, then he would like us to express it in our own words.  And not resort to a lazy “Like”.  I must admit, I often find the lengthy process of leaving a fully-worded comment a little trying but then, once I have made the effort, I feel like saying, “Thank you, my friend, for forcing me to use my imagination and my brain.”  

I don’t particularly like social calls on my mobile.  The reception quality is often capricious, there is the background noise to contend with if I am in the street, and my ear gets hot after a while.  Moreover, I am never able to concentrate fully when on my mobile.  At home, on the landline, on the other hand, I can sit down and give him or her my undivided attention.  

I get frustrated with the ping-pong of social text messaging or WhatsApp-ing.  I wish I could just continue the exchange in good old-fashioned human speech.

Text messages are very convenient for brief messages, or if you don’t know if it’s a suitable moment to call someone.  But then what’s wrong with phoning and saying, “Is it a good time to talk now or shall I ring you back?” Text messages have their place.  But sometimes I would like to hear the person’s voice, assess their tone, detect their mood or their humour – without a standard computerised emoji sign posting it.  Also, I like to hear a friend say, at the end of a telephone conversation, “OK, big hug” or “Love you” or “Mwah” instead of the obligatory “x” at the end of a text message or e-mail.  

I prefer face to face contact to talking over the phone.  But, when meeting is not possible, a telephone call provides a personal touch a text message or e-mail simply haven’t.  And, for all its convenient brevity, I find it much quicker to call someone and get an answer straight away, than using my large, clumsy finger pads on the screen of my smartphone – and waiting for the other person to respond.  

After I have cooked a meal and entertained guests, I would far rather receive a thank you call the next day, than a text message.

Yes, I too, am guilty of overusing texts and e-mails. I guess because people don’t use the phone to make a voice call, I am often reluctant to ring them for fear of disturbing them.

As they say in Russian, when you live with wolves, you start howling like a wolf.

Well, I don’t want to howl anymore.  I want to talk to people.  I want to hear their voices, in all their nuances.

Scribe Doll

 

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New Year Resolutions?

I’ve binned my 2018 New Year’s resolutions. Unopened.  They were past their use-by date.  Somehow, they ended up being kicked under the bed or falling behind bookcases, where dust grows in tumbleweed form, buried under dictionaries on my desk, or accidentally stepped on and crushed. 

No matter.  They’ve served their purpose.  They’ve made me aware of my true intentions.  Of where my focus truly lay and of where it was lacking.  

As I threw them all into the recycling bin, I wondered if I should form new resolutions for 2019.  Where would I put them, so they wouldn’t get lost again? On top of the tower of books I hope to read, ever-growing and neglected in favour of all the books I feel I have to read for my work? This novel won a prize.  I’d better read it in case I can pitch a translation proposal to a publisher.  Next to the address book with the contact details of all the friends I’ve lost touch with? I must call or write to them.  I haven’t seen them for ages.  But first I must finish this translation.  And then I have this other book deadline.  I haven’t got time to see them right now, anyway.  I can only take one day off this month and I have to go and see my mother.  That reminds me, I promised to buy her those Italian biscuits.  Or in my writing folder? I must definitely write tomorrow.  Or possibly over the weekend.  My own stuff.  I’m too tired now.  I can’t think straight.  It’s past 9 o’clock and I’ve been translating since early morning.  But I really must write.  I know I’ve been saying this for months.  Oh, and I must remember to buy some more potatoes.  And do we have any yoghurt left? I’d better check the fridge…  When did I start writing this book…? Oh, I had no idea it’s been this long.  How about sticking a list of resolutions to the mirror?  When did I last look at myself in the mirror? I mean really look at myself? I look so haggard, so tired, so grey.  Or perhaps I can add it to my list of travel plans?  Yes, I’d love to go there but not this weekend.  This weekend I really need to work.  I’m so behind already.  Besides, can I afford to spend the money? What if publishers don’t offer me another translation project after this? 

I once saw a cartoon on Twitter.  A woman approaching an aged writer sitting at a café table.  “I’m a huge fan of your intentions,” she says, shaking hands with him.  I’ve printed it and stuck it on my wall, where I can see it.

For 2019, no New Year’s resolutions.  No more living in the future.  As Mame sings in Jerry Hermann’s fabulous musical, “It’s Today!” The time is now.  

No more planning.  But doing.  

Take a deep breath.  Focus on my intention.  Direct it… Now.

I wish all my readers a happy, healthy, prosperous, creative and fulfilling 2019!

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Scribe Doll

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Needling

For some, it’s a massage or a facial. For me, it’s acupuncture. As soon as I’m overwhelmed by stress, run down or simply in need of TLC (not to mention if ever I have a health concern), I book in for some needling.  Many an issue has been resolved with a few well-placed needles.

My favourite thing about acupuncture is that it thinks outside the box and joins unthinkably distant dots.  When one part of your body sounds an alarm bell or even just starts whimpering, the acupuncturist will consult all your other organs and functions – like a kind of body world summit – to find out who’s really responsible. 

A few years ago, a strange-looking discoloured patch appeared on my body.  I went to the doctor.  She poked me, squeezed me and kneaded me.  “It’s probably nothing,” she declared sapiently.  “It’ll probably go away.”

I don’t care for the word probably where my health is concerned.  The discoloured patch grew in size.  I went to see an acupuncturist.  She said the patch was located along my liver meridian (who said the body doesn’t give you signs?).  She examined my tongue.  Liver issues.  Let’s treat your liver and see.  

The discolouration disappeared within a couple of weeks.

It never ceases to fascinate me how my tongue seems to be the spokesperson for the rest of my body, how a Traditional Chinese Medicine-trained practitioner is able to diagnose a condition by studying a person’s tongue.  I have vague memories of Western doctors telling me to “say ‘Aaah'” when I was a small child.  Did they also use the same method of overview? Is it another skill the West has lost?

Chinese diagnosis, of course, uses a way of thinking that can feel very alien to a Western mind, at least at first.  It’s just a matter of switching your brain to a different narrative.  You might be told that you have yin or yang deficiency, excessive damp, too much fire, for example.  As I gradually learn to get my head around these concepts, I find that they are extremely accurate as far as I am concerned.  And extremely wise.  Moreover, they convey a panoramic view of health and the body that allows one to see how everything is actually connected.  A method which Western medicine, in its increasingly localised specialisation, would certainly benefit from, in my opinion.

I first discovered acupuncture about twenty years ago.  I lifted something heavy awkwardly and my back froze, in excruciating pain.  I couldn’t move.  The doctor was called (it was back in the golden days when it was easy to get a GP to visit you at home).  “It’s a slipped disc,” she said, prescribing pain killers – to be taken at four-hour intervals – and telling me to rest my back.

Within fifteen minutes of swallowing the tablets, the pain would plummet at supersonic speed, only to soar back up like a rocket during the fifteen minutes that followed, which left me in pain for the ensuing three and a half hours while I waited to be allowed another dose.  My life degenerated into a yo-yo of pain, mood swings, tears and depression.  “My life is going down the toilet!” I sobbed, a week later, when a friend rang to ask if I was better.  

She recommended a Traditional Chinese doctor.  The thought of needles pushed into my skin horrified me, but I was ready to try anything to get my life back.  I somehow made it to the front door and into a taxi.  I cried out at every speed bump.  By the time I reached the doctor, I was a wreck of tears, curses and despair.  The pain wouldn’t even allow me to sit down.  The Chinese doctor examined me.  “It’s not a slipped disc, it’s a muscular spasm,” she said.  

This was my introduction to the unsuspected connection acupuncture makes between seemingly unrelated dots.  It wasn’t into my back the doctor put the needles, as I had expected – it was between my eyebrows.  “Sit down,” she said calmly.

“I can’t – it hurts… Oh? How did this happen?” 

I moved my hips gingerly, sat down, wriggled some more.  

No more pain.  No pain!

A few minutes later, I took the rush-hour, crowded bus home, stopped on the way to buy food from the supermarket and cooked my first proper meal in a week.

I look forward to my regular acupuncture sessions.  The practitioner examines my tongue, takes my pulses (yes, in Traditional Chinese Medicine this is a plural) and listens to my concerns or needs.  I lie down.  I generally don’t feel any pain when the needles are pushed in.  Sometimes, I can’t even feel them.  And then, more often than not, something wonderful and extraordinary happens to me.  I feel as though whirlwinds start to form around the points where the needles are inserted, and spread throughout my body like a warm, invigorating wave.  On occasions, I’ll feel a pain or a twinge which will travel across my body, as though flying through a channel, then it disappears.  It feels as though my body becomes a hub of conversations, questions and answers and negotiations.  More often than not, I fall into a deep sleep.  I wake up feeling reborn.  Feeling taller.   Feeling truly, truly wonderful. 

I guess there’s something to be said for a form of medicine that has been practised and perfected for a couple of thousand years longer than our Western medicine. Old is not always passé.

Scribe Doll

With huge thanks to, among others, Rebecca Geanty (https://www.treatnorwich.co.uk)

15 November is World Acupuncture Day

 

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Early Autumn Wedding

“Are you having any readings?”

“No.”

“Have you brought some music?”

“No.”

“Do you have rings?”

“Yes.”

The elderly registrar smiles with a hint of relief.  At least one traditional feature.  She tells those present that photos are not permitted during the actual signing of the register but they can be posed for afterwards.

“Does anyone have any questions?”

“No.”

“In that case, shall we begin?”

We all stand in our appointed positions. Just the couple and two witnesses.  “We asked you  because you’re the first people we met after we moved here,” the bride and groom said. “Also, this way, none of our other friends can possibly be offended at not being asked.”

Given these circumstances, H. and I feel deeply privileged to be here.

There are no other guests.  They felt disloyal about inviting friends and leaving out family.  She doesn’t want her family’s aloofness to sabotage her special day.  He knows his family aren’t ready to hear the news.  Too much pain to come to terms with yet, too much forgiveness to be granted.  This marriage is a right built on wrongs.  Inevitable wrongs that had to be righted and could not be righted without some wrongs.  We’re only human.  

He wears grey chinos and a blue shirt that brings out the colour of his eyes and the silver of his hair.  She bought a terracotta top for the occasion, as well as a blue-grey skirt.  Something new.  Nothing old or borrowed.  No flowers.  This is a second marriage for both.  A couple of decades ago, both had a day of white lace, speeches, three-tier cakes and pink champagne.  A day to please her husband’s family and his wife’s tradition.  Today is for them alone. 

The ceremony takes about twenty minutes. The registrar speaks the vows and they repeat after her slowly, meaning every word.   Plain, matching gold bands are slipped on fingers.  A tender kiss exchanged. This is a second wedding.  The youthful trust has grown into firm intention.  The candy-coloured spring blossoms have been replaced with the deeper, earthier hues of early autumn.  Passion with compassion.  

Scribe Doll

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Milan: Behind the Façade

I guess it was appropriate that my first conversation in Milan should have been about fashion.  H. and I just had lunch at Stazione Centrale and were leaving the restaurant, trolley suitcases in tow, when I noticed a young woman oscillating her head as I passed, to follow my feet with her gaze.  She was sitting on a high stool, and turned to mutter something to the young man next to her.  I did a sharp U-turn.  “You’re talking about my socks, aren’t you?” DSC00225.JPG

She raised her eyes to mine, evidently assessing my tone on the friendliness scale.  “I was just telling him –” she began, cocking her head towards the young man.

“I was talking about tights – not socks!” he stammered, blushing.

“No, you weren’t!” she almost snapped, outraged at this evident betrayal.

“Well,” I said, “normally, I would never wear white ankle socks with this kind of shoes but, firstly, I come from England, and in England fashion is not a priority, and, secondly, I’ve just been on a train for several hours, wanted to be comfortable, and the socks stop my sweaty feet from sticking to the insides of my shoes.  I know, the white  ankle socks give it a little girl look –”

“– and the actual shoes are also little girl shoes,” she added with organic seamlessness until her face suddenly froze with the realisation she had dispensed a gram of honesty too many.

The young man was looking away, his entire body expressing an unequivocal desire for a hole to open beneath his bar stool and swallow him up.

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I glanced at my shoes.  Sand-coloured leather with flat, white rubber soles, a T-bar with a buttoned strap and oval details carved out at the level of the toes.  It hadn’t occurred to me but, now that I studied them, yes, they did look like little girl footwear.  I looked up at the couple and burst out laughing.  The young woman ventured a smile of relief and I walked away, wheeling my suitcase.

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I had never been to Milan before.  I pictured high fashion, risotto with gold leaf and Northern Italian efficiency.  I had read Caterina Bonvicini’s exquisitely incisive portrayal of upper middle-class Milanese women in her brilliant (sadly not yet translated into English) novel, Tutte le donne di (“All His Women”) and an article in the Corriere della Sera that presented Milanese ladies as a bouquet of beige outfits, fish and salad lunches, private views at art galleries and operas at La Scala – but never on opening night.

After a week in the city of unbridled sensual splendour that Rome is, the relative austerity of Milan’s imposing, chunky buildings felt like a foreign country.  With a foreign language.  When I used the word stampella (entirely common in Rome) to ask the hotel receptionist for more coat-hangers, he did his best not to stare and, with composed politeness, asked me to clarify, then, with equally measured politeness, communicated to me that a perhaps more easily understandable noun would be gruccia and that I had, in actual fact, just requested a walking stick.DSC00226.JPG

As we walked along Corso Buenos Aires, then Corso Venezia, every building offended my baroque-spoilt eyes.   The massive palazzi, the lack of finesse in the stucco and carvings – everything seemed to stand witness to the slight vulgarity of 19th-century industry-generated money that has to prove itself.  The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II struck me as rather glitzy and vulgar, not a patch on the genteel, if a little worn, Gallerie de la Reine in Brussels.  Even my first sight of the Duomo was a disappointment, like an over-decorated cake, with sculptures filling every available space – even at the top of the tall gothic spires.  Every building in Milan seemed to antagonise me.

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On our first evening there, I e-mailed an Italian writer whose books I have translated. “Milan is not Rome,” he wrote back.  “Its beauties are hidden.  Give it a little time…”

There was a festival of Baroque music the next day, and H. and I went to a concert of sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli by the Ensemble Estro Cromatico at the church of San Bernardino alle Monache.   As it was some distance from our hotel, H. suggested taking the metro.  Frequent and swift, the Milan underground transport system is light years more efficient than the one-down-one-across metro network in Rome.  We emerged in an area quite different from the one we had walked around until now.  Older, friendlier-looking buildings that had more history and more heart.  That were not in your face.  Buildings that whispered.  I approached the makeshift box office outside San Bernardino alle Monache to pick up our tickets. “Ah, Gregor,” the lady behind the desk exclaimed as though she’d heard the name before, and rummaged through a stack of envelopes.  Benvenuti!” she said, smiling and handing me our tickets.  

For a second or two, I was puzzled by this unexpected welcome.  Then it occurred to me that mine must have been the only non-Italian name on her list.  Grazie!” I replied, suddenly feeling unaccountably cheerful and glad to be there, in this initially aggressive-looking city that clearly had a warm side.   

 We sat at the very back, by the doors that had been left open for the air to circulate in the 35ºC heat.  Everyone sat fanning themselves with either fans or programmes in this enchanting, 13th-century church with frescos, filled with the haunting, gentle emotion of period instruments.  I could get used to being here, I thought.

As though the evening of the concert had unlocked a door I had been walking past without realising it, I began to see a different side to the city.  I remembered my Italian writer acquaintance’s advice.  Yes, Rome opened its arms to you.  Milan required a little courtship.  Along the very Corso Buenos Aires and Corso Venezia that had so offended my eyes on the first day, I began to notice small gates leading to magnificent courtyards with hidden gardens and – in one case – a small pond with flamingoes.  Yes, flamingoes.  Who – what kind of individual keeps flamingoes in their garden? I wonder if I shall ever find out.  All over Milan, behind chunky, thickset façades, through elaborate, wrought-iron gates, lurked these alluring, elegant courtyards made of arches, a single lantern and sprawling foliage.  Intimate spaces shielded from prying eyes.

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The view from my temporary “office”

Freelancers aren’t free.  Fifteen pages of translation editing – a couple of hours’ work – had to be done every day, holiday or no holiday.  Not wanting to stay cooped up in our hotel room, I went in search of somewhere with a table, a view, tea, and where I could linger undisturbed for as long as I needed.  The ideal spot presented itself at the Mondadori bookshop, in Piazza del Duomo.  A corner table by the window.  A view over the Gothic cathedral looming over a square swarming with tourists, spires challenging the Heavens.  A cathedral which, as the days went by, began to look less aggressive to my eyes.  Its whiteness less glaring, its size less daunting, its spires less defiant, more inspired.  More inspiring.

I could get used to being here, I thought once again.

Scribe Doll

 

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