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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Queuing Outside la Comédie Française

Night is slowly permeating the evening sky in Place André Malraux.  The rain has eased into a steady drizzle and the yellow street lamps have come on.  The air is imbued with car exhaust fumes and roast chestnuts.  A smell of autumn in Paris.  The sound of traffic plays against the background of a gurgling fountain in the middle of the square and the wind rustling the brown leaves on the trees.  

Comédie FrançaiseThe queue under the colonnade of the Comédie Française is stretching all the way to the theatre shop.  We are all waiting for the box office on the side of the building to open and release the €5 tickets for the restricted view seats an hour before the show.   Molière’s Les Fourberies de Scapin.  €5 for a performance by one of the top theatre companies in the country.  Like hell would you get this in London, no matter what the view or the altitude.

In front of us, stand two children.  The boy must be about ten, his sister a couple of years younger.  Their mother is standing a few feet away, leaning against a pillar, smoking a cigarette.  She expels the smoke into the square, and darts regular, vigilant glances at her offspring.  The boy is reading aloud from a dog-eared, folded back copy of Les Fourberies de Scapin while his little sister listens intently.  He tells her the names of the characters before reading their lines, and occasionally pushes his blue-framed glasses back on his nose.  Occasionally, he trips over a word and goes back to it, re-reading it until he gets it right.  Every so often, his sister asks for an explanation.  Why does he say that? What does it mean? Her blue eyes are filled with admiration but her tone is that of a challenge.  Her brother explains.  A mixture of patience and irritation.  

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He comes across a series of difficult words. Too many in a row.  He tries to tackle them but it’s hard work.  He knows he’s done very well up to now and there’s no shame to walk to the pillar and ask his mother.  She throws down her cigarette butt, blows out the last of the smoke and takes the book from his hand.  She reads the sentence and explains it.  She comes back to stand in the queue and takes over the reading shift.  All three sit on the pavement by the wall and she slowly reads aloud.  Her son listens but his attention occasionally wanders as his eyes follow cars and passers-by.  His sister has huddled against their mother, head on her shoulder, staring at the printed page.  Every so often she smooths her pony tail.  Three ash-blonde heads close together, reading and listening to Molière.

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When restlessness disrupts the reading, and the siblings clearly need some physical exercise after the mental culture, horseplay starts.  There is some kicking and shouting.  Stop that now.  You’re disturbing everybody.  The mother hands them paper and pen and sends them on a mission: to write down the names of all the playwrights whose profiles are displayed in medallions on the walls of the Comédie Française building.  They are excited by this new venture and set off immediately, arguing about who is going to write the names down.  

A few minutes later, they’re back with a list.  Their mother asks them to read it out.  Jean Racine.  Pierre Corneille.  JBP – Molière.

So what does JBP stand for?

Jean? 

Yes. Jean and what else?

Jean-Baptiste!

And the P?

Pierre.

Patrick!

Paul.

No, no, it’s Patrick!

Poquelin.  Molière’s real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin.

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There is not much appetite for running around anymore, and the box office is about to open.  The mother opens the dog-eared book again.

Scribe Doll

 

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New Moon, New Month

DSC00721The crescent of a new moon is slowly emerging through the darkening sky.  A pale silver at first, now with a bright, almost golden glow.  A waxing new moon.  A middle-aged lady in the flat down the corridor, when I was growing up in France, taught me how to distinguish the moon quarters.  “Just hold up an imaginary stick against the moon,” she said. “If it forms a P, then it’s premier – first, so a waxing moon.  If it forms a D, then it’s dernier – last, a waning moon.” 

Tonight, my imaginary P has a very straight, perfectly vertical stem.   

My grandmother would have smiled and said, “It’s going to be a sunny month.”  She always checked the new moon and, depending on the inclination of the crescent, would predict the weather, or at least the chances of rain.  The more vertical, the least chance of rain, the more inclined, the more likelihood of a wet four weeks.  If it lay practically flat, with its tips sticking up, then don’t even think of leaving the house without an umbrella.

The funny thing is, her predictions always came true.  In the thirty-five years since I left my family home, it has never occurred to me to check for myself.  I wonder if the English moon follows the same pattern as its French and Italian counterparts.

I have always found the moon inspiring and soothing.  I love the delicate, golden sliver of a curve promising new beginnings, and I love moonbathing in its bright, silver fullness.  I once had a bedroom where once I month I went to sleep with the curtains open and the full moon shining brightly in my face, making me feel safe and deeply at peace.

The moon for me is indisputably female.  I don’t know what Eric Maschwitz was thinking when he wrote the line “Poor puzzled moon, he wore a frown” in A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.  I can’t see any Man in the Moon.  Only a kind, understanding, maternal smile that says Sleep peacefully, I’ll watch over you.

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At school, during maths classes, I would sometimes write sonnets or free verse in honour of the moon.  I spent summer nights in Rome lying on a sun lounger, staring up at the moon.  If I’d had to choose between the sun and the moon, I would have sworn allegiance to the moon without the slightest hesitation.

When I was much younger and brazen, I would sometimes tell people who insisted on my defining my accent that I originally came from the moon.  Didn’t they know there was life there that couldn’t be detected by machines? Of course there was.  Everybody lived in houses made of crystal, with roses and honeysuckle climbing up the walls, and musicians playing the lute to lull you to sleep every night. 

In recent years, I have steadily been moving towards the sun camp.  Hardly surprising after over thirty years in a country where the sun, far from being a rude imposition, is rather an overly tactful visitor constantly anxious about outstaying its welcome.  Now, I rush out to catch ever sunbeam I can.

And yet the moon is splendid tonight.  So slender, so straight.  I remember my grandmother’s words.  I must pay attention to the weather this month.

Scribe Doll

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Feriae Augusti

DSC00150Yesterday morning, when I opened the windows my skin suddenly felt taut.  It was like a slap. There was a a chill in the wind.  The sky was a pale, drab grey.  My heart sank.  It’s only the middle of August.  Oh, no, not autumn already.  Not yet.

Growing up in Rome, I hated August.  The month of the deep sleep.  Everything ground to a halt.  All my school friends away.  Although the city centre was, as ever, overrun with tourists taking pictures of anything they couldn’t buy, residential areas would turn into ghost towns, with every Roman who could escaping to the beach or the mountains.  Many shops were closed for a couple of weeks, you would wait even longer than usual for a bus, no theatre, no opera, no concerts.  Hardly any cars.  You could practically walk in the middle of the road.  And, of course, the stifling heat.  My family couldn’t afford holidays away, so even though I hated school, I would look forward to September injecting some life into the late summer stupor.

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When I moved to London, I found it exhilarating to live in a place that functioned all year round, where you could go to the theatre or a concert even in August.  All right, there were two weeks (now three) of general lethargy and inefficiency excused by Christmas, but I no longer dreaded the approach of late summer.

Now that I am much older and no longer have two months off in the summer (a weekendDSC00181 off is a major event) and have spent the last thirty-five years living on an island where the climate has severe commitment issues, I increasingly miss that month when an entire country slows down.  I now see August in Italy as the equivalent of the Wu Chi stand in QiGong.  The time of nothingness that creates.  A time of rest to take stock, to gather your energies, a time of merging with the allness before becoming yourself again.

I find that I miss the month of Ferragosto.  The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 15th August is not marked in England.  In Italy, in France, in Greece and other parts of Catholic and Orthodox Europe, it is a bank holiday.  But like so many Christian holy days, the Church superimposed the Day of the Assumption over a pagan celebration, in this case the ancient Roman festival Feriae Augusti. 

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After thirty-five years of Protestant work ethic, it’s not the heat and the boredom of Ferragosto that come to mind.  It’s the peace and quiet, it’s having breakfast on the balcony and playing music from the flat loud enough to hear it outside without worrying about disturbing the neighbours because the entire building is empty for at least a week.  I miss a chorus of cicadas singing you to sleep in the torrid hours of the afternoon.  Lying on a sun lounger late after midnight, looking at the night sky, counting shooting stars, until you feel as though you are falling into the sky.  

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As a write this, the rain is pitter-pattering on the window panes, the cornflowers on our balcony swaying in a half-hearted wind, and the sky is a dreary grey, I recall another Ferragosto tradition in Rome – the post 15th-August thunderstorm.  I remember it as happening practically every year, right at the end of the holiday.  One of those Roman thunderstorms, with thunderclaps like loud firecrackers, rain pelting down so hard you couldn’t hear the radio or TV, rivers rushing down the streets.  The kind of rain – once the thunder and lightning have ceased – you want to stand under after two months of stifling heat, feel it soak through your clothes, hammer on your scalp, drum on your face.  Then, half an hour or so later, it all stops, the sun dispels the clouds and its rays make the wet streets glow, and a rainbow draws an arc across the now bright blue sky.  But everything feels just a little cooler.  Cool enough to mark the end of a chapter.  You know the worst of the heat is now over for this year.  You know that in the next couple of days, the shops will start reopening and your neighbours returning.  And you feel refreshed, rested, ready for the new chapter.

Scribe Doll

     

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Paris, 14 Juillet

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We were in Paris this time last year.  I was enjoying the buzz and feeling shortchanged: we don’t have national holidays in England, at least none that carry any kind of historical significance.  No religious holidays except Christmas and Easter, and even the country’s patron Saint, George, doesn’t warrant a day off.  That’s Protestant work ethic for you.  If our May and August bank holidays do have roots somewhere in history, then they have been forgotten by the common man (and woman) and appear to have been randomly tacked on at the end of three weekends, almost like a grudging concession by an employer related to Ebenezer Scrooge.  We have no dates when we celebrate freedom from oppression, change of regime, the end of a conflict or independence.  No day that unites the entire country in a civic celebration.

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Almost all the shops were closed and there was a mildly festive ripple in the summer air.  Notre Dame was crammed with tourists.  Noisy invaders with little respect or awe for this ancient church or its prayer-soaked walls.  Calling out to one another in loud voices, stomping around in large groups.  Too loud to be able to hear her voice or her heartbeat.

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Once again, I longingly tried to imagine what it would be like to stand in an almost DSC00275deserted Notre Dame, listening to Mediaeval voices rising to the Rose Window, singing Léonin or Pérotin, music composed for a perfect marriage with Gothic architecture.  I went to smile at the stone Virgin and Child, one of my favourite Madonnas.  I like her delicate features, her gentle, youthful smile.  A few years ago, I translated a crime novel by French novelist Alexis Ragougneau, The Madonna of Notre Dame, and it brought this beautiful statue to my attention.

When we approached the cathedral exit, the noise of the crowd was suddenly drowned out by a loud roar.  A row of fighter planes tore across the sky, a trail of blue, white and red in their wake.  I find the sound of fighter planes eerie and something in my chest always seizes up when I hear them slicing through the air above Norwich, where I live, but there, in Paris, as part of the Quatorze Juillet parade, I stared and marvelled with the other tourists.  I felt strange, standing inside a church, a building symbolising peace and compassion, while above me, there were these war machines, designed for war.

DSC00280We strolled to Île Saint-Louis and stopped in a café for a late breakfast of crêpes and coffee.  There was a television broadcasting the parade on the Champs Elysées (Elysian Fields – nowhere would be called this in England).  We were the only customers and the manageress started chatting to us.  “Macron’s been lucky with the weather both years since he’s been elected,” she said. “It’s been lovely and sunny on 14th July.”

“Oh, is that unusual for this time of year?” I asked, surprised.

“Under François Hollande it always seemed to rain or something would go wrong whenever there was some kind of event.  That’s why he was nicknamed  le chat noir.”

The black cat.  How funny.

We ended up staying in the café, following the live coverage of the parade, President Macron and guests watching as what looked like the country’s entire human fighting force and arsenal processed before him.  Tanks, military vehicles, men and women in uniform, weapons of every kind, the Garde républicaine on horseback, helmets and swords gleaming in the sunlight.

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As always when watching a national parade – in any country – I felt a sense of wrongness, or at least of incompletion.  I always look at all that military personnel, at all those tanks, fighter jets, weapons, and all those politicians, and I want to ask out loud, Where are the country’s writers? Where are the scientists and the scholars? Where are the all the medics? Where are the actors? Where are the farmers? Where are all the other people who contribute to the country? Have they not also played their part in forging history?

Is the nation not proud of them, too?

Scribe Doll

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Reconnecting

The fountain pen feels heavy in my hand.  I haven’t written for a long time.  I mean written – not typed.  That I do every day, all day.  Click, click.  Irregular, hollow.  I tap the plastic keys, one letter at a time, and words appear on my computer screen.  Words someone else has written, thought, felt.  Words I mutate into another language.  Making myself think them, feel them.  Click, click.  

No words flow out.  My nib is like a dried-up fountain.  The pathway between my brain and my hand is overgrown with brambles, and my thoughts are caught up somewhere in that darkness.

I suddenly realise that even writing these few lines has been stressful and tiring.  An effort.

I pause.  Shall I put the pen down? What if I can’t pick it up again? A flush of anxiety  rushes into my face.  Cold.  I begin to write again.  Slowly, gingerly.  Piano piano.

I think of a cartoon in The New Yorker that hangs framed in my study, my bottega.  A little boy watches as a cute little girl is scribbling on the sidewalk. I try to write a little every day, the caption says.

Baby steps.  One foot, then another.  The black ink briefly glistens on the paper before turning matt.  I take my time to form the letters, join them, taking care to place the dots above the is and not let them float randomly.  Making sure I round my letters so my as and es are legible.

My rosewood and chrome Faber Castell seems like a close friend you haven’t seen for a long time.  You used to talk over each other and now you can’t think of anything to say.  The intimacy’s gone.  You look at each other with trepidation and fear of disappointment, hoping to detect the gold thread that connected you in the past, so you can pick it up again.  You search for the bridge that used to join you.  You know it can’t have crumbled – nothing that can’t be repaired with a few stones and a little mortar – you just can’t remember the way to it.  Any minute now you’re going to turn a corner and see it right in front of you.

And so I keep writing, slowly, gingerly, trusting in the brilliant black ink flowing steadily through the nib, taking root on the cream page.  Forming every letter carefully, lengthening the stems, evening out the loops, connecting them into words.  Almost any words.

Trusting that my thoughts will start to light up the overgrown pathway and seep into my nib.  Soon.

One word at a time.  Slowly.  Piano piano.

Scribe Doll  

Reconnecting

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