The rain is calling

The rain is calling. Stop hiding.

I’m sitting at my work table, reading the Saturday papers online while trying to psych myself up to work. My eyes keep drifting away from the screen to the raindrops landing sharply on the pane, like a volley of thin arrows. To the dove-grey sky. Pale but determined. My ears are teased by the creaks and groans of the French window frames in the wind. By the patter on the roof. Weather for staying indoors, weather people call filthy. But weather that strikes me as true to its intentions and so what if it’s May. The rain is calling. 

I put on my wellies and my jacket quickly, so the speed of my gestures can drown out the hesitation in my head. “I’m going for a walk,” I tell H., avoiding his eyes in case I see something in them that may weaken my intention. I glance at the fruit bowl on the dining table. “We’re out of bananas,” I say and immediately wonder why I need a purpose for going out beyond the simple purpose of going out. 

I wish I could just wear my tweed cap to keep the rain out of my eyes and let the rest of my face get wet, only there’s the issue of the mask, these days, the mask that must stay dry, so I pick up my large, orange umbrella.

I walk up the main road, keen to turn off into a side street to get away from the loud sizzle of cars driving in the rain. A sound that’s always made me anxious. I venture into a narrow, residential street and the traffic noise suddenly fades, even though it’s only a few metres behind me. I can hear the rain calling again and I slow down to listen. The trees on both sides of the street form a kind of gallery, I mentally close off reality and imagine that there aren’t expensive houses behind the row of trees but more trees, and more. That there’s a vast expanse of forest. I breathe in the cold, damp air, the scent of wet wood, of raindrops filled with spring blossoms and linden flowers, the rich, moist soil. 

I feel elated. As so often happens when I walk on my own, words and pieces of sentences start rushing into my head. I try and hold onto them, store them in my memory so I can write them down when I get home. I treasure these odds and ends. I walk past a holly bush. The dark, glossy leaves are bejewelled with a few blood red berries. I pick up a couple of soaked, muddy cones fallen on the pavement from pines that reach high into the sky. I stop to look at the bubbles and ever-expanding circles in a puddle. My cord trousers are wet at the knees and the rain is sliding down my ankle-length wellies, the chill prodding at my skin under my socks. I listen to the drops drumming on my umbrella. The rain is calling. 

I want to write all this down as soon as I get home. The colours, the sounds, the scents and above all this feeling of freedom, of being myself. 

I haven’t written anything in a long time. The ink is caked in the feed of my fountain pen. When I do write, what I produce feels inconsequential, lightweight. Fluff. A sentence flashes through my mind that suddenly lifts my spirits. I wish I had a notepad with me to jot it down.

I put on my mask and pop into the supermarket to buy bananas. The artificial lights bouncing off the chrome fittings are hard on my eyes, the nondescript sound of shoppers booms in my ears and there’s that metallic supermarket smell. I grab the bananas – there’s only one bunch left, anyway – swipe my card and dash out into the street again, into the welcoming greyness of possibilities. As I stroll back home, I recall that there was a sentence, something that filled my heart with hope. What was it? I was going to write it down. I thought of it just before I went into the supermarket. I search the corners of my brain. I can’t find it. Oh, no, I can’t remember it. My heart sinks and the grey sky suddenly seems blank. I stop in my tracks. Please, give it back to me. Please.

My writing feels lightweight. Fluff… Yes, but the inside of birds’ wings are also made of fluff,  so they can be weightless enough to fly. 

I hear the rain’s peremptory call. Step forward.

The rain is calling me. 

Scribe Doll

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And what of Italian Fairy Tales?

I would like to draw your attention to an interview I did with fellow Italian-English translator Lori Hetherington about her recently published translation of Emma Perodi’s TUSCAN TALES.

There is a link to the interview on the website of the Italian Cultural Institute in London.

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Evening Prayer Before Lockdown

I went to evening prayer the night before this second lockdown began.

I’ve always loved choral evensong.  The first one I ever heard, in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, in early Michaelmas Term 1984, made such a life-changing impression on me that I ended up attending it every evening for the next year and a half.  

DSC00949When people ask me if I’m a churchgoer, I’m never sure how to respond.  Before discovering the comforting, grounding nature of Anglican evensong sung by a choir of men and trebles, preferably helped by the acoustics of high stone arches, I went to church quite often but only outside Mass or service times, when I could sit quietly in the half-light, let the drunken monkey inside my head calm down and be inspired by the architecture which, of course, had to be at least five hundred years old before I could trust the wisdom absorbed by its walls.  I’ve never felt – and still don’t feel – comfortable at Sunday morning services.  I find them too long, my mind frequently wanders during the sermon and hymns to me are a minor endurance test.  Moreover, I find myself becoming irritated and ill-at-ease in what I perceive as the respectable, pillars-of-society atmosphere of Sunday morning Eucharist or Mass.  Evensong, on the other hand, has something therapeutic and accepting about it.  I love the mind-appeasing chanting of psalms, the lulling of plainsong, the night falling behind the stained glass windows, and I love the fact that it’s only forty or so minutes long.  I love sitting there, in communion with the music and the centuries-old walls.  Nietzsche could not imagine a God that didn’t dance.  I cannot imagine the Divine without music – and professional, at that.

I went to evening prayer on Wednesday night, just before lockdown.  There is no music at evening prayer but I felt like being in Norwich Cathedral, among the Caen limestone walls that have seen many a plague and war over their almost thousand years.  I felt like showing support to the people who care for it at present.

Since the end of the first lockdown, services have not been sung in the choir stalls, as per custom, but in the nave.  Seats far apart.  Everybody, including the clergy and the choir, wearing masks.  What strange times, when our very breath – breath, that is what makes us alive – should carry the danger of death.  A pillar candle on the floor, where just over five hundred small, wooden crosses are arranged in rows.  One for each Norfolk person who died from Covid-19.  

As soon as I walked in through the South door and reached out towards the electronic hand sanitiser, I was surprised to hear music.  The choir was singing.  I wasn’t expecting it. “Music!” I said to the verger.  

DSC01606He directed me to St Saviour’s Chapel, one of the side chapels off the ambulatory, and told me the choir were recording music, in case the lockdown was prolonged beyond 2nd December.  In case, I thought and wondered how many people besides myself fear that it will be extended.  There were just eleven of us in the congregation and I recognised faces I’d seen at evensong over the past couple of months.  As the priest began the prayers, I could barely hear him: his voice was drowned out by the choir in the nave, the choir singing a joyful familiar melody.  I suddenly realised it was the Sussex Carol.  Every now and then, they would pause, probably to listen to the choir master’s instructions.  A Christmas carol, in early November.  Is there a chance that the lockdown will go on for much longer than we anticipate? To the point where there may not be carols on Christmas Eve?  Funny, the  traditions you cling to for a sense of continuity and normality.

On Christmas night all Christians sing

To hear the news the angels bring

I smiled and hummed along into my cloth mask.  I like the Sussex Carol. My eyes wandered towards the retable ahead.  English, 15th century.  Three central panels representing the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and, in the centre, the Resurrection, and a panel on either side with men in mitres, either bishops or saints.  Bright, mediaeval colours.  I’d never taken in these paintings before and feasted my eyes on them.

News of great joy news of great mirth

News of our merciful King’s birth

Then why should men on earth be so sad

Since our Redeemer made us glad?

H. says Christmas carols make him sad.  All that promise of peace and joy, he says, and yet it’s the same wars, violence and suffering year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium and we never learn.  I never know what to reply to him.  He’s right, of course.  I cannot give him an intelligent argument to make him change his mind – at least not a rational one.  All I can do is retreat to that place inside me where certainties are not connected with empiricism. How can I find the words, products of my limited brain, to convey the truth of unlimited imagination?

Then out of darkness we see light,

Which makes all angels to sing this night

I smile and hum into my mask.  I’m glad I came to evening prayer.  I did get music, after all.  And with it, a glimmer of hope in these dark times.

Scribe Doll

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My Citrine Quartz Ring

My friend F. gave me a ring two summers ago.

Even elegant Autumn stomped in this year, perhaps sensing that subtlety was wasted on us.  The bay tree on our balcony is waterlogged, the French windows are streaked with rain, the East Anglian sky is a drama of shapeshifting charcoal clouds and the gale is bullying the delicate leaves of my young olive tree.

F. and I first met in Autumn 1986, queueing with other first-year undergraduates outside the Anglo-American lecturer’s door, at Rome University. One woman was complaining about her fingernails chipping despite the various products she applied to them.

“Just take some vitamins.”

Short, to the point, sensible. Almost imperceptibly impatient.

I turned to agree and saw F. 

We were both starting university a little late, at twenty-one.  Both Roman-born. Both Italian – she by blood, me by adoption.

What kind of winter is heralded by this brash, uncouth autumn? Will it give way to a winter cloaked in pandemic that will sweep over the country further, sowing more destruction in its wake or does its brusqueness conceal a desire to clear the putrid air we have created over the past few years and cleanse us before the season for soul-searching, dreaming and seeding? Is this second lockdown a way of forcing us to practise introspection? 

We talked, we went out for pizzas, then ice-creams at Giolitti’s.  Then she would take me home in her Fiat Panda, stopping to take in the view from the Gianicolo and driving over the cobbles of a Saint Peter’s Square floodlit in gold, across the unashamedly magnificent Eternal City.  

We were both restless and cast our glances abroad.  I thought we would leave together but when the moment came, she stayed.  “This is my home,” she said.  

I had yet to find my home, so I wandered away to England.  It was my father’s land.  “Maybe that’s enough to make it my home,” I said.

“You’ll need a fashionable Italian coat,” she replied and took me to Max Mara on Via del Tritone (you could still afford a Max Mara coat, back then).  It was a forest-green coat, cut Italian-style but with English duffle toggles.  A hybrid, like me.

In this all-permeating uncertainty and anxiety, in this world turned upside down, where the very concept of normality is challenged at every corner, the darkness is palpable.  It’s oppressive, deceitful, ruthless. It lies in wake, ready to pounce.  Only it doesn’t really pounce like a tiger, challenging you to a fair fight.  Instead, it penetrates your pores insidiously.  It then whispers in your ear that the sun is black, that the moon is made of base metal, and that joy is a thing for the deluded.  Until you’re afraid to breathe.

I made a kind of home in England.  Whenever I return to Rome, F. and I hug and talk and walk on the sampietrini cobbles.  In the post-9/11 world, cars are no longer allowed in Saint Peter’s Square but she still drives me to see the view from the Gianicolo after we’ve had ice-cream at Giolitti’s.  Over the years, I have watched her grow, learn and become wise.  We are different and don’t agree on everything but I know that if ever I were in need, F. would drop everything and rush to me.  She was a bridesmaid at my first wedding.  When she met my second husband, H., she welcomed him with unreserved warmth, as though she had known him for as long as I had.

On top of this pandemic, will we really have a period of food and medicine shortages in January, once Brexit severs us from Europe definitively? Will flights really be grounded for a while and will we really become an island not just geologically and geographically but also mentally and emotionally?

For a few years now, F. and I have taken to giving each other a piece of jewellery whenever I go and visit.  H. and I were having dinner with her and her family in a trattoria, two summers ago, in the lilac Roman dusk.  She gave me a citrine quartz ring.  I gave a small gasp.  I was sure it wouldn’t fit: I have large hands and even my wedding band had to be made to a man’s size.  Moreover, I feared it was too glamorous for me.  A silver ring with two small, embossed silver flowers that hold two large, pear-shaped, diamond-cut citrines in a diagonal.  A ring that glittered proudly, unafraid to be noticed.  Surprisingly, it fit my ring finger perfectly.  I still haven’t got around to asking F. how she knew my size.  Or that citrine was my favourite stone.  I kept the ring on for the rest of the evening, mentally deciding that it would step out of its box only on super-dressing-up occasions.  Only these are few and far between: I live in Norwich.  I wore the citrine ring for the rest of our holiday, sometimes on my right hand, sometimes on my left, over my gold wedding band.  I enjoyed moving my finger and watching the diamond facets flare up in a soft, lemon-gold glow, and the embossed silver flowers sparkle like small diamonds.  I started to wonder why I was so afraid to be noticed.  The more I wondered, the more I began to find the possibility of not being afraid of it and, on the contrary, embracing it, joyously seductive.  

I continued to wear my ring after we returned to Norwich.  Its yellow light would cheer me up when I felt lacklustre.  Its unashamedly baroque splendour told me everything was possible, even to feel and be visible again.     

I took the citrine ring out of its little box today.  I hadn’t worn it for months.  Lockdown can make you feel invisible even in your own eyes.  My heart sank.  The stones looked opaque and the silver rather grey.  I left the ring in a solution of bicarbonate, vinegar and salt for a few minutes and this restored it to its rightful splendour.  Splendour.  I like this word.  It talks of sunshine, of joy, of magnificence.  Like unreserved, generous hospitality, a table brimming with food, like the first bars of Monteverdi’s Vespers or a field of sunflowers. 

The gale is shaking the French windows and howling in the gaps.  But I have amber fairy-lights on my wall and a candle on my table.  It only takes a little light to frighten off the darkness and dissolve it inside and out.  

The citrine ring is sparkling on my finger.  What were you thinking? it says.  Don’t you remember that the sun is magnificent gold and the moon a splendid silver?

Of course.  I’d forgotten.  Splendour.  I allow it in and start to breathe again.  Joy. I feel cleaner, clearer, more hopeful.  And that feels truly magnificent.

Scribe Doll 

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Twenty-Five-Hour Day

I’ve written about this before.  After Christmas Eve, this is my favourite day of the year.  I look forward to it for weeks and, the night before, I go to sleep cradled by the joy of genuine hope and anticipation, my head brimming with projects, intentions and promises to myself.  It’s my once-a-year opportunity for a fresh start and I mustn’t waste it.  I just put all my clocks back by an hour just before going to bed and the following morning, like in a magic spell worthy of Harry Potter, I get a 25-hour day.  Think about it, it’s not the summer solstice that’s the longest day of the year; it’s the day British Summer Time ends.  Yes, I know, technically speaking, the extra hour isn’t a gift; it’s no more that a fair refund for the hour the authorities stole from us eight months earlier, but on this day I am willing to forgive them that first week I spend grouchy and disorientated. Because, strangely, I’ve never had jet-lag but that first week after the clocks go forward in the spring always throws me. I resent it.

Needless to say, I don’t use this precious extra hour on sleep. It’s my miracle hour, a  fleeting window of opportunity when I can do anything and anything can happen. Like a banknote you unexpectedly find in the house and allows you to buy something you hadn’t budgeted for.  A treat.  

An extra hour pregnant with possibilities, like a blank cheque waiting for you to write, inserting any figure you like. A gift.

Scribe Doll

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A Red Hair Drier

I threw away a hair drier last week.  It had been lying around for weeks while I tried to find someone to fix it.  The prospect of throwing it away made me sad.  I haven’t used a hair drier for my hair for over thirty years and this one was mainly to speed up the process of defrosting the fridge or else to blow clumps of fluff from under the bed to make it easier to vacuum.  It’s just a hair drier, I kept telling myself, angry at myself for being so sentimental.  It’s an inanimate OBJECT.  

My mother had a small, battery-operated radio when I was a child.  She loved listening to the radio. Music and news on the official Italian stations during the day on MW.  At night, we would often tune into the SW frequency, discovering weird and wonderful languages we played at recognising in between intervals of beeping, whistling, ticking and hissing.  Magic night times with my mother, when I’d wake up, glimpse the kitchen light and get up.  And there she would be, sitting at the table, listening to the radio and – always – snacking.  

When this radio finally gave up the ghost, my mother was upset but also angry with herself for being so attached to an object.  Do you want to know how a radio looks like inside? she said to me, a determined glint in her eye.  She proceeded to take the radio apart, pretending this was for my sole and educational benefit.  But I knew that as she was pulling all the pieces apart, it was her attachment to it she was trying to destroy.  There, now you’ve seen the inside.  Interesting, isn’t it? Then she threw all the pieces in the bin.

I sat stroking my glossy red hair drier.  I didn’t want to break it all apart.  But I was equally angry with myself for caring so much.  

I ‘d bought that hair drier thirty-six years ago, almost to the day.  The first thing I ever bought in this country.  On my first ever morning here.  It was 21 September 1984.  A grey, chilly Cambridge morning.  I’d flown in from Rome the night before and my landlady had served me a glass of milk from a glass bottle with a wide neck and a silver foil top.  I loved its creaminess.  I went to bed in an attic room with sloped ceilings and a window overlooking the playing fields of Fitzwilliam College.  I woke up to the sound of crows cawing on the grass.  Jet-black birds on iridescent green, against a lead-grey sky that looked so low over your head, you could practically touch it.  

My landlady gave me directions to the city centre and I walked down the only Cambridge hill.  My mother and my grandmother had brought me up to dry my hair thoroughly after washing it when it was cold, so the first thing I bought upon my arrival in England was a hair drier.  A small, bright red Braun model, from the Boots on Sydney Street.

As soon as I got back to my lodgings, I washed my hair, but when I took the hair drier out of its box, I was shocked to notice that it had no plug at the end of its cord.  As soon as my hair was dry, I rushed back into town.  “There’s a problem,” I told the sales assistant in Boots. 

She stared in incomprehension.  I stared back in incomprehension.  Like two people from different planets.  That’s when I discovered that in England, electrical appliances were sold without a plug.  You had to buy them separately and wire them yourself.  Thirty-six years later, I still don’t know why.  Just like I still don’t know why there are separate taps for hot and cold water.  Freeze your hands or scald them.  Or move them frantically from one to the other.

Electrical appliances without plugs.  Separate taps.  Tables set without salt and pepper shakers.  And poorly heated houses.  And shops closing at 5.30.  What kind of strange country was this? But, a week later, I heard evensong at King’s.  Then I walked across Grantchester Meadows, under the 180º East Anglian sky.  Then I fell in love with this country.  Then I decided to stay.

A few days ago, I threw away my red hair drier.  After nearly thirty-six years of living in this country.  But then it’s not the same country anymore.  I think that’s why I felt sad.  

The next day, I bought a replacement hair drier.  Another bright red one.  It had to be red again.  Because perhaps this country will be back to the way it was again.  Someday.    And I will know it again. 

Scribe Doll

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Through a Zoom Lens*

My favourite thing after I wake up in the morning is to step out on the balcony outside my study and stand beneath the vast expanse of the East Anglian skies.  The pigeons are generally sitting on the railings or the roof, jerky movements of the head, orange eyes quizzing me.  I breathe in the chilly early morning air and tune my ear to all the sounds that will be drowned out half an hour or so later.  The rustling of the wind as it ruffles the leaves of the trees, the cooing of a dove on a chimney top, the swishing of wings as a pigeon flies over me, the faraway call of a jackdaw.  I look at the splashes of various shades of green, copper and brown foliage and the grey slate roofs that make up the horizon behind a veil of mist.

Since the lockdown, I’ve got into the habit of taking out my camera and looking at the horizon through the zoom lens.  I focus until the splashes of colour become leaves, branches and pine cones.  Sometimes, what looks like a dot in the distance with the naked eye turns out to be a seagull, perched majestically on a gable, surveying its domain.  It’s a strange feeling, to be able to see something as if it were so close when it’s actually so far away.  The zoom lens erases distance.

Since the lockdown, something equally strange has been happening in my relationship with people.  The same way as the zoom lens of my camera propels me to an area in the distance, making all that lies in between vanish, the pandemic appears to have folded geography like a sheet of paper, so that the top of the page is now closer to me, revealing what is written on the back, making all that is written on the front disappear.  

When the British Government finally announced a general lockdown, I braced myself for the long haul.  Instinctively, I called all my friends and acquaintances in Norwich and London.  How are you? Did you manage to get food in? When I realised that many theatres and opera houses were making shows available online, I told those I thought would be interested.  Again, instinctively, I pictured the months to come would make us all even closer, often phoning or talking on Skype, sharing our experiences of these strange times, offering one another help.  I looked forward to the day I would see these friends and acquaintances again, be able to hug them, wrote mental screenplays about how happy we would be when we could be together again.  How odd we would all feel.  And how grateful.  I felt in advance the warmth I imagined we would all share.   In the meantime, we would help one another by whichever means we could.  Listening to one another on the phone or on the computer screen when one of us felt lonely or depressed.  Telling one another when one of us discovered another local shop that could deliver food or other necessities to our homes.  Exchanging tips on what to disinfect and what not.  Just being there for one another, if not together.

And I did speak to people frequently.  On Skype, WhatsApp, Messenger.  Over the good old-fashioned phone.  They were quick to share the latest information about Coronavirus precautions.  This is what you do with the Amazon boxes.  They sent me links of the latest news about Covid-19.  Watch this surgeon from the hospital in Bergamo.  They circulated jokes.  Famous paintings re-imagined with social distancing.  Da Vinci’s Last Supper with an empty space every other Apostle.  Cranach’s Aphrodite with a mask.  Marat in his bath, writing the umpteenth self-certification note.  We exchanged recipes and discussed politics.  We expressed our dismay at suddenly being unable to concentrate on anything for long.  On even being unable to read a book.  I listened to them when they were down and they cheered me up when I felt low.  We poured out our anger and disillusionment in our political leaders and laughed at ourselves.  We used one another as touchstones.  Is it me? No, I’m going through exactly the same thing.  And we said how much we were looking forward to meeting again.  

I don’t know what I would have done without these people.  My dear, dear friends.  Strangely, in this even stranger world and times, for the vast majority these were not the people I had called at the beginning of the lockdown.  Not the people I used to see most weeks, people we met for a cappuccino at the local coffee shop, people I always bumped into whenever there was a concert at the Cathedral, people who came to our home for dinner and who invited us to theirs on a regular basis.  People I’ve known for the past six years, in Norwich.  People I’ve been friends with for over twenty years, in London.  One local friend did keep in touch.  We chatted on Skype on the odd Friday.  She asked if there was anything she could drop off, since H. and I don’t drive.  Her offer meant the world to me.  There is also the wonderful friend in London who called regularly and ran urgent errands for me when I could not get to the capital.  Two friends whose names were so close to the bottom of the page that they were not covered up by the folding sheet of paper.  The other people to whom I owe my sanity, who kept my faith in friendship alive are physically far away, and yet I feel oddly close to them, as though every time we communicate through the computer screen or the phone, any physical distance between us is no more than an illusion.  It seems as though Coronavirus has changed the perception of space.  A Saturday morning espresso with a friend in Rome.  An aperitivo with chums and colleagues in Milan.  Three-way conversations and heart-to-hearts with Paris and Rome.  Discussing books with a writer in Paris.  Setting the world to rights with a friend in Warwickshire.  Connecting with Cambridge.  Combining dinner and breakfast with California.  Chatting and laughing with Wisconsin and North Carolina.  

Now that I can walk along the streets of Norwich freely, I feel alien to the city.  I can sense the flint cobbles under my shoes, but it is as though I am not really here anymore.  Familiar faces look diaphanous, ethereal, removed from my reality.  It’s a city where I hardly know anybody anymore.  Where I don’t know what to say.  There’s an entire chapter of history that I have spent apart from the people here.  That we haven’t shared.

Four months.  That’s all it took for us to drift apart.  But four months that changed our lives for ever.

What can I say to them after this?  How was your lockdown? 

Scribe Doll

*Thank you from the bottom of my heart to… you all know who you are.

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Translation as a Dance

A little something I wrote for the Italian Institute of Culture in London website, kindly republished by the Los Angeles Review of Books:

https://lareviewofbooks.org/short-takes/translation-as-a-dance

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A Story My Grandfather Used To Tell My Mother…

My mother used to tell me a story which her father would tell her. My grandfather was Iranian (half Azerbaidjani, haf Turkmenistani), and this may be a Sufi tale…
When Noah was gathering all the animals onto his Ark, and old woman came to see him. “I beg you, Noah, don’t let me drown in the Flood,” she said. “Let me come with you on the Ark.”
So Noah promised that, once all the animals were on the vessel, he would go and knock on the old woman’s door.
Only he forgot.
Once the rain began to pelt down, the waters started to rise and the Ark was carried into the seas, he felt the pangs of guilt about the old woman.
Forty days and forty nights later, once the waters subsided and the Ark stood firm on Mount Ararat, and Noah let his family and the animals ashore, he remembered the old woman and strolled in the direction of her house.
There it still stood.
Surprised that it had not been swept away by the flood, Noah gingerly knocked on the door, which was quickly flung open. “Oh, so we’re ready to go!” the old woman said, smiling.
Noah was astounded. “But – but… How come you’re still here? There have been forty days and forty nights of rain, and a universal Flood!”
The old woman gave him a quizzical look. “Well, I did hear some noise outside but I figured it couldn’t be anything dangerous because I knew you would come and pick me up, so no harm could befall me.”
Scribe Doll
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The Lady of Paris

When I first saw her, a few weeks ago, while crossing the Pont Saint-Michel, she looked like the ghost of a bygone age, her earthly life a memory, her soul gone from the stone.  Grey against the bleak, overcast night sky, her two towers seemed bereft without the roof or the timber flèche that used to pierce the heavens.

*

In one of his beautiful essays on Notre Dame, writer Sylvain Tesson ponders the significance of the flèche (arrow) as a sense of direction, and speculates about its destruction in the fire, last 15th April, as perhaps a symbol of the loss of direction on the part of our society.  A thought-provoking remark.  I remember the spire snapping in two, devoured by the flames.

I noticed the news headline on the BBC website.  I rushed to switch on the television with an overwhelming sense of Tragedy.  With a capital.  With that life-changing quality presented in Greek plays.  Both spiritual and visceral.  Tears were flooding my face and I sobbed from the depths of my belly.  Shaken by grief, anger and disbelief.  Also incomprehension.  My crying while watching the news is nothing new.  I weep at the sight of children maimed by war, people hunted down by religious intolerance, and other human injustices.  But I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard over a building.  A building, moreover, that I greatly admire but do not love.  In city that does not touch me.  H. loves Paris.  It’s his heart’s home.  For me, Paris is the handsome, learned, interesting, charming and generally perfect man you keep meeting and, frustratingly, just cannot bring yourself to fall in love with, to the point of wondering what’s wrong with you.

Perhaps, like many other people watching the devastating images, I felt a sense of grief and outrage at the very possibility of continuity, of stability being snatched away from me.   Whether or not it is your favourite church, and whether or not you are a Christian, Notre Dame is a point of reference in our geographic, cultural and literary (Victor Hugo made sure of that) consciousness.  We can no more imagine Paris without Notre Dame than New York without the Empire State Building, or Barcelona without the Sagrada Familia.  For all my telling myself that there were no doubt other splendours that had been and gone throughout history, and that human civilisation was still alive even though the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were no longer visible, a powerful No was resounding in my body and mind.  No.  This can’t be happening.  No.  I don’t want this to happen.

I began thinking about the people I knew in Paris.  None of them close acquaintances.  Heedless of whether my gesture was inappropriately over-emotional, I grabbed my laptop and e-mailed them messages of shared sorrow and heartbreak.  I needed to reach out to them, connect with them, weave a bridge over the void of this destruction.  One of the recipients was Alexis Ragougneau, a writer I’d not yet personally met, and whose debut novel, The Madonna of Notre Dame, I had translated a few years earlier.  I had only been to Paris once before, so when I went again a year or so after my translation was published, I walked around Notre Dame Cathedral with A. Ragougneau’s descriptions still fresh in my mind, like a mini-guide.  In particular, I stood staring for a long time at the Madonna of the title.  The most beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin I have ever seen.  She holds the infant Christ supported on her hip.  She is young, slender, with elongated eyes and the hint of a knowing smile.  And so, while H. sat next to me, hoping his beloved Rose Windows would be spared, I prayed that the Madonna with the discreetly knowing smile would survive.

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Notre Dame had been a part of my cultural formation even before I first went to Paris.  As I child, trying to acclimatise myself to the French language, I struggled with the pages of Notre-Dame de Paris.  When I see her towers I instantly picture Gargantua hanging the bells around the neck of his horse.  And, above all, there is the music.  L’école de Notre-Dame  and the birth of polyphony, the twin of the Gothic church.  The Magnus Liberi Organi of Léonin and Pérotin.  Voices like moonbeams, rising to the vaults, quivering against the stone, filling the air with sparks of colour in a perfect marriage of mathematics and faith.  Music I could listen to for hours – and, H. will say long-sufferingly – frequently do.  A sound I yearn to hear someday in a Gothic cathedral.

After a few hours, something inside me suddenly rebelled.  I couldn’t stomach the news coverage anymore, watch Notre Dame burning, and listen to the reporters’ fears that she might not make it.  I don’t know why I did it.  It made no rational sense.  I left the room and spent the rest of the evening writing my own mental script for the future.  I filled my imagination with images of the fire extinguished, of Notre Dame whole, in all her glory, and reporters’ voices rejoicing that she had been saved.  

*

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I stopped on the Pont Saint-Michel and stood looking at Notre Dame, fenced off, grey against the bleak, overcast night sky.  Strange without its usual illumination that throws a cloak of gold over her, and it occurred to me that this is how she would have looked in her early days, in Mediaeval Paris, when her power required no electric floodlights to inspire awe.  And, although gravely injured, she suddenly seemed more alive to me.  Grey against the bleak, overcast night sky, she was like a woman who, without the embellishment of her customary make-up and cosmetic enhancements, finally radiates with the inner beauty and splendour of her soul.  Grey against the bleak sky, I could feel the power of the Lady of Paris.  I could almost feel her breathe. 

Scribe Doll

 

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