Thursday, 18 July 2019

From Switzerland to Romania – Journal Excerpts

Rain falls on the Limmat, Zurich

Marin Sorescu says in his poem The Traveller that because he’s stuffed his suitcases ‘full of useless things’ he didn’t have room for ‘the only /Useful object: an umbrella.’

I’d almost brought an umbrella with me but at the last moment, left it behind. Such an encumbrance! And besides – I was going south…
As soon as I got to Zurich, it started to rain. Bahnhofstrasse is all lovely trams and grand expensive shops. Except in the old town, the pedestrian zone, with its drooping red flags with white crosses, and shiny cobblestones. 

Augustinergasse, small shops and large buildings with restaurants on the ground floor. Between showers, I clambered up to the Lindenplatz with its vista over the Limmat, and rooftops. 

On the coach heading south
Over the border into Austria  the sun comes out. So do the mountains, the sharp ones, the steel-tipped ones, the ones wreathed with mist like a crown of jewels. The ones with bare patches like old scar tissue and the ones covered with the green fur of their forests but have pointed peaks that are white with snow. These are always the distant ones. They hide their very topmost secrets in low-travelling cloud. One looks as if there’s a whole castle up there, hidden by cloud curtains. As if the visible part which everyone thinks is the mountain is just a flight of steps leading up – to that part that’s obscured from view. The mountain spirits would be astonished to know that we think that the ladder is the real thing – that the scaffolding is the building, is the work of art. 

It was almost dark at the German border, when they took our passports away to look at them. My seat companion says they always check passports here (he does this journey frequently) sometimes they search all luggage, this is a route for smuggling (I presume drugs) and they check the young people because, he says, they (the border control) are not stupid. They don’t look it either. They look as if they would defend you against anything – a bit like the Austrian mountains we have left behind. Returning the passports, they call out people’s names. As usual, on coaches in central and southern Europe, I am the only Brit.
Early morning, somewhere in Hungary
So – you begin to get a taste for it, this travelling life. For the pale grey clumps and dots and punctuation marks of clouds, bushes of marsh grasses on the edges of the pale blue of sky. Early morning is always where the sky is special, newly-woken, threads of gold low down near the horizon, and my seat companion says we are close to Romania and the road runs between the mountains – only it’s not a continuous motorway, because of corruption. I imagine stepping-stones of road, through valleys, between protruding mountains, and the way we have to go – now slim and stretched, now thick and fat, in the places where corruption could not reach.


The Hungarian plain is so flat you can see every tree for miles and miles and every pimple on the land, each flicker of a rabbit's whiskers, each shift of the hare from its haunches to its back legs as it prepares to lope across the field.
You can see on and on until the light fizzles everything out into golden, which must be the entrance to God's fireplace.

Romania. Arad. Bucharest 425 kilometres says the sign.
Roadside houses all have roses, red, yellow, white. In their grounds they have vegetables or fruit trees or both. The gardens are not fiercely tended and laid out. Sometimes the ground is simply bare with some long grass more like a diminutive farmyard than garden. Some vines as well, vegetable patch, vine patch or trellis or both. Fruit and shade.

Hills and hills and all covered with trees, all kinds of trees, acacia, elm, poplar, oak and some olives too. Grainfields some golden already, some maize corn. Fallow land marshy by rivers, bamboo. Hay stooks around a pole.


Settle into the evening, after the whole long day with distant hills always green and the flat plains so flat and red roofs so few and scattered and even the small towns deserted looking. Now the hills have crept closer, thickly forested, mainly pines but others as well and they are turning into mountains. And few buildings, and look there's a river curving beside the road. Such fertility and luxury. The tree-covered mountains go on and on. Now the road climbs up, curving right and right, now left, in hairpin bends, and everything on either side is thick with green. So huge, tree-swept and so unpeopled a country.

Braşov, Southern Carpathians or Transylvanian Alps

Now there are big buildings many of them old with long sloping roofs, an alpine look, a high resort in the mountains and there's a train running alongside. My eyes latch onto it, clunky, square and appealing, its carriages of pale blue and pinkish brown all washed out and worn-looking. 

Something about this land that I feel should uplift, instead feels so big – mountains on both sides – with trails of thin cloud running down the green pine branches like down wrenched from the heart of the sky. These are not like the Swiss or Austrian mountains, their character feels very different. So high, I almost feel vertigo. A sense of relief as we descend back into the plain on the other side of the mountains and head for Bucharest. 

View of the Piatra Craiului mountains from Zărneşti, Romania, in winter.
Photo credit: Agent-garak

Monday, 24 June 2019

Swiss Ways - Seeweg, Wanderweg

Written on a wall in Wadenswil

The Swiss are an ultra civilized people. Peaceful - in the sense of valuing peace - but also in the regular sense - they're not excitable or prone to drama. They are polite, well mannered and helpful. As if this is a natural way to be. What we might call 'going out of their way' to be helpful, that is their way.

Walking today on the path that borders the Zurichsee (and here we have another Way, the Seeweg) the mountains come into view.

 The effects of light on the water

Man and dog come ashore

And I think I have the answer to the Swiss confidence in their own identity, their trust in the values and practices of civility. These mountains are on your side. Yes, lots of countries have mountains, but these ones draw you towards them, their presence is benevolent. I remember- I guess everyone does - the first time I saw the Swiss mountains. It was winter, they were snow-covered. I'd never seen anything like these pointed massive peaks, so remote and sublime, so much inhabiting another world yet planted in this one. They could have been angels, turned into rock and mystery. They are for worshipping (so I felt) thankful for this new feeling that they gave me.

Many years later when I stayed on the shores of Lac Leman, there they were, on the other side, watchful, wonderful.

And now, a few years later by the Zurichsee they're further away but I'm walking towards them. From Horgen to Au, to Wädenswil. Here, the Seeweg leaves the lakeside and becomes a Wanderweg, which goes up into the foothills. Through the town of Wädenswil,
through leafy lanes between large mansion houses, some with half-timbered facades. The fenced lanes are hung with roses and honeysuckle and a hedge of honey scented white flowers. Just to put one foot in front of another is a joy.

Zodiac decorated porch roof in Wädenswil

Every turn is signposted. The path markings are idiot-proof. Even I have not got lost, not once.

Beyond the town the path continues uphill through woods, pine, beech, all kinds of trees. They are tall and very quiet and there is no wind. The forest encloses. Uphill - and then the trees fall back like an escort that's taken you safely through danger, and waves you on your way.

And soon you're in inhabited country again, houses and gardens, the hilltop suburbs of Richterswil. I lost the sun in the woods, and the mountains are shrouded in cloud or mist.

From here it's all downhill to the town of Richterswil. I've been walking for hours. I take the S bahn northbound back to Horgen.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

John Renbourn, Artist

I was searching through a pile of folders the other day, looking for something (which I didn’t find). But I came across these 2 drawings that John Renbourn sent me years ago (along with a book about Rumi). I’d forgotten all about them. The letter that came with them is in his usual inimitable style.

John went to art college before turning to music. He would often scribble sketches and cartoons on scraps of paper (including my notebooks) or draw little illustrations on postcards.

This was his version of the castello Barge we stayed in one time in Italy. 

Signed  'Pablo Radbone'

And this is a photo of the actual castello.

And John working at the table in the Castello's dining room.

Excerpt from Every Shade of Blue the memoir of our travels across Europe and the USA

We are in the dining-room of the castello in Barge, in the Piedmont area of northern Italy. There is a long wooden table in this room and I am sitting at one end and John is at the other. The sound of the river drifts in the open window and faint sounds of birds and the puffing and grunting of Il Legenda at work, composing ...

Well, in this very grand dining-room of the castello where we are staying, apart from the long table and the silky velvet-covered old chairs, there is a carved wooden dresser and other chairs, more ornate and less comfortable, with carved backs and those carved feet that I think are meant to resemble claws but look like four human toes, complete with toenails and the kind of ridges you get when you squash your toes against something.


So we have ended up in this rather tumbledown castle, with its dark wooden beams and its spiral staircase and its pleasantly faded grandeur. In the unoccupied rooms, huge tendrils of cobwebs are draped across corners of the ceilings. In the bedroom, just below the window, a huge fierce spider has taken up its abode and when I swept away a little of its web it waggled its legs at me most malevolently. Perhaps this was because it had just finished a massive meal of insect which I noticed squirming furiously at the web-corner yesterday. And which has now disappeared. The spider, truly, looks very big and fat now.

There was something quite distinctly magical about that castle. After a night when I simply could not sleep for no reason other than I felt wakeful, I got up and watched the sun come up, dark red against the greyish blue light of the sky, a soft sky and the soft colours of the pale blue and slightly yellowish rooftops. And the birds waking up and me sitting at the long wooden table with a soaked, unshiftable sense of peace. 

Sunrise over Barge seen from the castello

Monday, 25 March 2019

Independence Day

Today I walked along the golden road to Pelekas,or golden was how it felt, even if at each side of the road there was mostly a variety of shades of green, pale green on the just-coming-into-leaf trees, grey-green of the olive trees, the dark green of the cypresses. But there were some golden flowers, as well as blue and palest pinky cream and there was some deep pink blossom on trees and I don't know any of their names but I greet them all the same. And all that blue above, and even a glimpse once I reached Pelekas, of the blue of sea.


I didn't reach the sea because it was a long way down from the village, and I needed refreshment, which I found in a tiny cafe which wasn't really a cafe at all, but a small shop only they had a sign outside saying coffee, so I went inside and asked for coffee, actually for Greek coffee, and I sat with 3 or 4 other old men, and watched the parade on the TV, taking place in Athens. There were marching people in uniform,  there was music, there were fly pasts, fly overs really, of helicopters or perhaps they were small planes, it was hard to tell.

This is a special day in Greece, it is Independence Day, celebrating the victory of the Greeks in 1821, finally being liberated from the centuries-long rule of the Ottoman Empire. The cafe (shop) owner is delighted and welcoming and pulls me out a chair so I can squeeze in among the old men, though I am unable to join in their conversation. But I practice my few words of Greek which are mainly to do with how I do not understand Greek, and how are you, but the cafe owner is very tolerant and smiles, and I have to point out on this special day, how one of my compatriots, Lord Byron, helped the Greek struggle for independence at Messolonghi, though sadly did not live to see their eventual success.

After this, I follow the twisting road through the village and climb up to the topmost point, where the Kaiser's Throne is located (there are lots of signposts pointing the way) a viewpoint looking out across the valley, and right to the sea beyond Kerkyra town. 

 Apparently it got its name from the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm used to spend summers in the early years of the twentieth century, up to that dread year of 1914, at the Achilleion (that extraordinary palace built by Sissi, Empress of Austria-Hungary, or commissioned rather, by her, but she loved Corfu, and Achilles). He liked apparently, to watch the sunset from there, always spectacular, and so this spot came to have his name, a bit like the way a viewpoint in the Scottish borders, looking out over the valley of the Tweed river and over to the Eildon Hills, is known as Scott's View as Walter Scott, the renowned novelist, who lived nearby, often stopped his carriage there, to gaze at the view of valley, river and hills.

It was hazy today, and I don't think the sea over beyond Corfu town and the port, is visible in the photographs but it was there, most definitely, in fact at almost any high point in Corfu you can see the sea in at least one direction and often in more than one.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Arrival in Thessaloniki

 I go out walking in Thessaloniki's busy, noisy traffic-choked street, Odos Egnatia. The smells intoxicate, smells of flowers and honey, smells of baking and heated cooking oil. Which has a particular smell here that's like nowhere else. If I was to be brought here blindfolded I would know where I was by the smell of hot oil. Just as the olives here taste different. And the honey. The street's messy and untidy, it's loud and full of life.

My heart expands as I walk along this street of small shops, bakeries, clothes shops, shoe shops, and one selling icons. Further on, there's road works, and I move away into quieter streets

There's the Rotunda Temple. There's the remains of a vast Roman archway, the Galerius Arch, (4th century AD) its sculpted friezes still clearly defined. 

Rotunda & Galerius Arch: photo credit Wikipedia

There's the original Roman Agora, and there's the sea front, the promenade, packed with people – and there's the White Tower, surrounded by pine trees, their thick trunks leaning away from the wind.

View of agora

Agora amphitheatre

The road's so full of traffic it's hard to cross. There's grassy squares lined with trees that still have clusters of dark green glossy leaves, between Odos Egnatia and the sea front. The paving stones beside the squares are broken, there's dust in the gutters, the park edges are brown earth, the grass quite worn away and dried fallen leaves from the trees lie on the earth and on the uneven tufts of grass. We become another person in a different place, one we love, and I feel so at home here with these crumbling kerbs and brown edges of parks and all the dried leaves, these crisp and curled up yellow cylinders. 

Apart from the glossy-leaved ones, and the maritime pines by the water, the trees are still bare. Light changes colour and texture in late afternoon and it's this kind of light that surrounds the old Hamam. 


The entrance is fenced off and there's graffiti on the fence. There's graffiti and stains on the façades of buildings. Roman ruins and ruinous modern concrete high-rises. It's all weary and watchful, it's worn and marked with life and time and traffic. It's stained and it's sheltering, messy and magisterial, it's unkempt and dishevelled, it's the Balkans and there's nowhere quite like it. There are artistic details – hand-painted signs for cafes and bakeries, bold lettering in bright colours. 

A woman sweeps the pavement beside cafe tables, under an awning. Her brush is made of long yellow twigs – like the brushes kept in the shade of a bower, to sweep up the leaves from the paths, in the garden around the Rotunda. 


Wednesday, 6 March 2019

International Women's Day: Writers and Photographers

Thinking of  International Women’s Day and some of the women I have been spending time with lately (in my imagination that is). Researching the life of Annemarie Schwarzenbach, writer, photo-journalist, traveller, (and translating some of her work) has led me to look into the lives of others who were important to her.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach: photo by Marianne Breslauer

In the late 1930s she travelled around Europe Germany, Austria, Poland & the Baltic countries talking to people, and documenting the rise of fascism. This article (my translation) was written by her in 1937.

The Good-for-nothings

The narrow wheels of the cart sink into the sandy path and the horse’s hooves make a dull sound. I have accompanied the country doctor on his visits – we have gone to the miller, the forester, to a tenant farm on a landowner’s estate and now we’re returning to the village…

The duty forester talked about the harshness of the times. ‘I was sent this guy,’ he said, ‘in uniform of course, a very young and stupid lad and insolent into the bargain. He knew nothing about forestry, wood or forest management but he said he was a ‘forestry expert’ and he wears a uniform and it was the local councillor who sent him – so clearly he was allowed to do anything. “Replant” he told me, “you have to replant quickly, Germany needs wood, we have to become self sufficient”. As if you could order the pine trees ‘grow faster, in the Führer’s name!’

The forester scared himself a bit with his own words but he knows that the doctor is a good man and as for me, I’m not from here, I’m a foreigner – curiously that seems to give him confidence.
‘All of them’ he says to me, ‘these gentlemen, the party functionaries with their pretentious titles, they are all good-for-nothings. People who have failed in life, in their profession, even as far back as school – they have not learned anything of worth and now they want to make it big in the Party. Isn’t it true doctor?’
The doctor says quietly ‘You exaggerate. There are also hard working and honest ones among them…..’

You can read the rest of the article here.

Her archive of thousands of photographs, from many parts of the world including Switzerland, Morocco, Russia, Congo, Lisbon, Afghanistan, Persia/Iran, Danzig/Gdansk, Estonia, Finland etc, can be seen online, from the Swiss National Archives.

Marianne Breslauer took many photographs of her, which often featured on the covers of Annemarie's books. In 1933, they travelled together to Spain, Annemarie writing articles and Marianne taking photographs, for publication in a Swiss magazine.

Marianne Breslauer: self-portrait

 Erika Mann, playwright, dramatist, actor, daughter of Thomas Mann, was a close friend of Annemarie. Photo taken at Annemarie's house in Switzerland.

Erika Mann:photo credit
Swiss National Library, SLA-Schwarzenbach-A-5-19/175

Inge Westendarp, another friend, also taken in Annemarie's Swiss house.

Inge Westendarp: Photo credit
Swiss National Library, SLA-Schwarzenbach-A-5-19/175

Annemarie met Barbara Wright, photographer, when she was living in Tehran. She and Barbara later toured the southern states of the USA, writing articles and taking photographs, to alert the public to the desperate poverty of many people at that time, still suffering from the effects of the Depression.
This photo was taken in Persia/Iran, near Tehran

Barbara Wright: photo credit
Swiss National Library, SLA-Schwarzenbach-A-5-19/175

Monday, 18 February 2019

George Szirtes: The Photographer at Sixteen

‘Photographs are skin’ says George Szirtes in The Photographer at Sixteen. His writing penetrates the surface skin and the still images come alive, begin to move, turn into a film. His contemplation of these images reminds me of the writing of John Berger when he looks deeply at something, whether it’s a photograph a painting or an object. He reads its history, its intentions, its desires and dreams. George Szirtes enters his own past with the help of photographs, and lets them sift through his imagination, and approach as far as he can, his mother’s world. George is a poet, he travels easily with metaphor and association, and he weaves his imaginative world into the facts as he knows them, facts of family life and residence, and facts that are uncovered later by talking to his father after his mother’s death, facts about her life that he did not know when she was alive.

‘...what a simple world it is

that lets in someone at the door
and sees a pair of lives go down
high hollow stairs into the rain
that’s falling softly on the town.

(p 144)

He mentions a particular courtyard in Budapest he ‘fell in love with’, and includes a photograph. This reminds me of a similar courtyard in Budapest, discovered when I visited that city a few years ago. I had never seen anything like it. Once the huge main door closed behind me, the noise of the busy street I’d come in from was shut out. An inner world opened up, one you would never have guessed existed, from the outside. A secret door into another world, A quiet, peaceful and lovely interior.

Courtyard off Rákóczi ut,Budapest
Same courtyard, in daylight

In a similar way, George Szirtes, through photographs, memories and imagination, opens doors into the inner world that was his mother’s life.

Images of Budapest (from a visit a few years ago)

Outside Mai Mano House of Photography
Mai Mano entrance

Inside Mai Mano

Pink flowers, pink facade