Brugge (Part 1) – 2009

I felt at home there even as I wheeled my suitcase from the train station. The mid-August sun was setting behind the rooftops on Züdzandstraat, the crow-stepped gables that looked like stairways to the sky. 

“I think there’s an error in your booking,” the hotel owner said in crystal-clear English, her finger on the open register. “It says here 16th to 21st.”

“That’s right.”

“Six nights?”

“Yes. Is there a problem?

She looked up at me, puzzled. “No problem. It’s just that nobody stays six nights in Bruges.”

I sighed.  “I work all the hours God sends. I’m exhausted. It’s my first holiday in six years. I just want to be somewhere for a few days, get to know it, and just rest.”

I thought I saw something soften in her pale eyes. “I understand you.  I’ve been running this business for years, then I was diagnosed with two ulcers and my staff told me they would leave unless I took a holiday.”

A wave of deep solidarity swept over me like the warmth from a hearth.  Yes, I will be comfortable here, I thought.  

I climbed the creaky stairs of the old, tall, narrow building, a smell of old timber filling my nostrils. This is the kind of place that could be a character in a story.  My room was all white and blue, with a nautically-themed decor, a welcoming bed with crisp, white sheets that smelt of cleanliness, and a large window that took in a lot of sky.  I could already see myself sitting by it, scribbling, gazing at the stars before going to sleep,

A reputable restaurant was attached to the hotel.  Dark red walls covered in sepia portraits, bottles with dripping red candles, dimmed lighting, small, dark, glossy wood tables and chairs, polished to perfection.

Goedenavond, spreekt u Engels?” I had memorised a few phrases in Dutch. I don’t like to be the Anglophone tourist who assumes everyone must speak English.

“Good evening,” the tall Flemish waiter replied with an inscrutable expression (I later realised that just about everyone in Flanders speaks English). “Just one?”

“Yes.”

“Where would you like to sit?” he said, indicating the half-filled restaurant with a sweep of the arm.

I was taken aback by his question.  In Italy and France I had automatically been relegated to tables by the toilets, next to the kitchens, or behind doors, waiters keen on hiding from other diners the awkward sight of a woman eating alone.

The Flemish waiter didn’t wait for my answer.  “How about that table by the window?”

I followed him, barely believing my luck.  It was a table for four, in full view.  This really is I country I could easily get used to.

I ordered a baked potato with salad and that was to be my third surprise of the evening.  It was far removed from the dry, waxy jacket potatoes you get served in England, where the skin could be used for re-soling your shoes, and which I usually leave in my plate after scooping out as much unevenly cooked flesh as I can.  This potato was creamy, runny with tasty butter, generously filled with rich dressing peppered with mustard seeds.  The bed of salad – everything crisp, fresh, chopped small and full of flavour, included a vegetable I immediately liked and have been buying ever since: Brussels lof, or endives.  It was drizzled with just enough vinegar to make it suggestive, dusted with just enough black pepper to bring out the various textures.  This was the jacket potato and salad to shame all English jacket potatoes and salads.  

After dinner, I ventured to the city’s main square, Markt.  It was flooded in white and amber lights and dominated by a mediaeval belfry, the bells chiming like a carillon.  I stood in the centre of the cobbled square and began turning on the spot, awe-struck by the architecture.  I had never seen anything like it.  It looked like something from a book of fairy tales.  Tall, narrow, buildings with steep gables and picturesque weather vanes and roof decorations – a siren, a snail, a cat arching its back – trimmed with details that looked not like the modest brass we see in England, but gold leaf.  There was a comforting sense of industry, opulence and pleasure.  I’ve always liked that in a city. This is a place where you can dream.

The first thing that struck me when I strolled down the empty streets early the following morning was the overpowering smell of chocolate.  It seemed to permeate every brick and cobble.  Brugge, the city of chocolate and lace, of pleasure and precision.  I’ve always liked precision.  This precision mainfested itself in everything I saw: in the exquisite bas-reliefs on the façades of the buildings, in the young, delicate Madonna I passed every day on the corner of Kemelstraat; in the quirky mascarons and consoles; in the breathtakingly beautiful, complex bobbin lace patterns; and even in the impeccable presentation of the food served in cafés and restaurants.  After spending much of my adult life in a country where, unless you frequent expensive, exclusive establishments, tea comes in pots with stained spouts, spoons carry watermarks, glasses have smears and sandwiches are unexplainably served on top of the napkin on your plate, I couldn’t get enough of holding glasses up to the light, not a single speck on them, and enjoying my daily kaffee verkehrt in a gleaming receptacle on an immaculate saucer, and stirring it with a spoon so brilliant it practically glowed in the dark.

       

Every morning, as I came downstairs, the hotel owner would suggest places to visit.  At dinner time, she’d ask about my day.  I discovered that the tall waiter had a deadpan, sharp sense of humour. It didn’t feel like a hotel but a second home. On my last evening, the landlady offered me a glass of beer on the house.  “After all, you stayed with us for six days,” she said.  

The tall waiter asked me to choose one.  “You choose for me,” I said.  “I like dark beer, so bring me whatever you recommend.”  

I was served a rich, smooth, comforting trappist beer with an amber glow and a hint of caramel and spices, in its own special glass, as is customary in Belgium.  Each beer is honoured with its own distinctive receptacle.  Belgians treat beer with respect. 

One sip and I was converted to trappist beers, and have been unable to touch English beers ever since.

(To be continued)

Scribe Doll   

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Russian and Me

I feel happy and privileged that my article, Russian and Me, has just been published by the European Literature Network:

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“Jerusalema” on the Parvis

A wedding party is spilling out of the sternly robust 19th-century church that stands on the edge of the Parvis.  The eye is immediately drawn to the splendid bride, skin like molten chocolate against the white lace dazzling in the early afternoon July sun.  A fair-skinned, slender groom, beaming.  Families and friends with forebears from two different continents, righting history’s wrongs.  United in celebration and humanity.  Hugs, kisses, photographs, introductions.  Passers-by stop and stare, admire, wish the couple happiness, if not out louds than in their hearts.  Like many other strangers, H. and I pause to admire and bathe in the joy.  Further up towards Chaussée Waterloo, people sipping a wide variety of beers crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the scene, exchange happy remarks in French, Flemish, Portuguese, English, Spanish.  This is Saint-Gilles, where I’ve heard that a hundred and thirty-six languages are spoken, where over 40% of the residents are ethnically non-Belgian.  Where borders and passports and colour differences have no place.

The bride walks to the middle of the area outside the church.  Left foot forward, tap, tap, tap, then tap, tap, tap with her right.  A three-quarter turn and tap, tap, tap again.  A guest joins her, and another, and they mirror her moves.  The dance formation grows by the second.

A gleaming black car is parked a few metres away, and the driver turns on the stereo.  The doors open upwards, like expanding wings.  A song with a strong beat spreads over the whole Parvis, where the last market sellers are packing up their stalls.  When H. and I lived in Brussels, I used to shop here.  You can find every kind of fruit and vegetable, from any corner of the globe.  Any kind of cheese.  Your nostrils are caressed by the aroma of Italian, French, Belgian, Moroccan, Greek breads.  

The crowd of onlookers on the fringes of this line dance also grows.  One, two, one-two.  One, two, one-two. Dip, three-quarter turn, clap.  Some of us start tapping our toes, letting the rhythm travel up our bodies, teasing every nerve.  Others nod in time with the beat, or sway, as the female singer, a voice that rises from the gut, from the depths of the earth itself, weaves and embroiders a tune.  A voice with pride in its very fibres.  I don’t recognise the language she sings in, but what it communicates transcends dictionaries.  My chin is wet, dripping on the front of my dress, my nose is full.  I can’t find a tissue in my pocket and don’t feel like rummaging through my rucksack.  Next to me, H. is also entranced, his eyes glistening.  A Belgian man in front of us turns round.  His eyes and nose are streaming.  “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life,” he says in French.  

I turn to a lady next to me.  Her glamorous, colourful dress suggests she must be a close relative of the bride.  She studies my face for a couple of seconds and gives me a broad smile.  

“What’s this dance?” I ask.

“It’s a South African song,” she says.  “It’s called ‘Jerusalema’.  It’s played a lot everywhere.”

I indicate the line dance with a hand gesture.  “It’s so wonderful.  It brings faith in human nature back.”

She gives me a look of understanding.

I instinctively place a hand over my heart.  “Please will you tell the bride and groom that we wish them every happiness?”

“Of course! Thank you.”

There’s a halo of joy over the whole Parvis de Saint-Gilles as the dancers begin to drift away to chat to the remaining guests and the driver turns down the volume of the car stereo.  Joy.  And an underlying sense of hope.

Scribe Doll

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From a Word that Means “Bridge”

Brugge. That’s what I want to call it from now on.  

It’s in Flanders, not Wallonia.  

How typical of the Anglophones – the British in particular –  to use its French name by default.  We haven’t grown out of automatic Gallicisms when referring to things European.  If you order a board of “Continental” cheeses in a restaurant, you’re usually served Camembert, Brie, Roquefort; not Manchego, Fontina or Feta.  And so, on Anglophone lips, Brugge becomes Bruges.

Brugge. With a softly rolled r and a very light kh, like a sigh, between two delicate vowels, not as limp as a schwa, not as long as a French eu. The double g is almost like an h, a breath, the lady in the gift shop told me this morning. “Not with a hard guttural sound the way the Dutch say it. Flemish is much softer.”

The second dig at the Dutch I’ve heard in two days.

We don’t say Kiev or Peking anymore. Flanders is no longer under Francophone dominion. Let’s say Brugge. Brugge. A sound as fine as the bobbin lace made here for centuries. As light as gossamer.

Brugge. From a word that means bridge.

Scribe Doll

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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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Yuletide

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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