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


Tuesday, 29 January 2019

In Praise of Translators

Table Talk by Monica Manolachi - cover artwork is Le Poète et la lune by Victor Brauner

Monica Manolachi is an professor of English at Bucharest University, and a poet, prose writer and translator. She frequently translates for the Romanian publication Contemporary Literary Horizon , a multi-lingual magazine (English, French, Spanish, Romanian among others), chief editor Daniel Dragomirescu. Through the hard work of these translators and editors we are given access to writers from other countries and languages, an access which we would not have otherwise.

Translated literature gives us a wider view of  'the lives of others' and of cultures, values, styles, insights, history – for the chance to read texts that are different in all kinds of ways, from what we as English language readers are used to. 

In the books I’ve read by the authors mentioned below, many of our assumptions about what writing ‘should be’ are challenged: in terms of style, the way language is used, the blurring of boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, between fantasy, dream and reality, the disruption of chronology. Those staples of narrative such as plot, character and voice are used in unexpected and imaginative ways. I feel thankful to read writing that disregards or plays with literary conventions such as chronology, style, content and categories. 

In the past, I’ve enjoyed translated writers such as Marina Tsvetaeva, Konstantin Paustovsky, Danilo Kiš, Stefan Zweig, Dubravka Ugrešic, Thomas Bernhard, etc. who are well-known, and perhaps lesser known (to English speakers) writers such as Irena Vrkljan, Miroslav Krleža and Miklos Radnoti. In recent years, thanks to small and dedicated publishing houses such as Istros BooksPushkin PressMacLehose Press  etc. I’ve been introduced to such greats as Daša DrndićEvald Flisar,  Andrej Nikolaidis,  Faruk Šehić,  Alma Lazarevska,  Fatos Lubonja,  Dušan Šarotar  and many others. If you are curious about other literatures, and open to their differences of approach, mood, style, focus and even subject matter, I would urge you to read these and other authors, check out these publishers' lists and you will learn so much about a larger world which we can all share, thanks to these publishers and their translators.

From collaboration with these Romanian writers, their magazine, and their publishing imprint Bibliotheca Universalis, I’ve also discovered writers such as Rada Ignu, Roxana Doncu, Daniel Dragomirescu and of course, Monica herself. We owe so much to translators like Monica, (John Hodgson, Celia Hawkesworth, Alison Anderson, Yla von Dach, Will Firth, Dmytro  Drozdovskyi and Dmytro Chystiak, again, just to name a few) and it is heart-warming to see them being much more acknowledged.


Stefan Zweig considered translation as ‘the best way for a young writer to gain a deeper, more creative understanding of the spirit of their own mother tongue’
He wrote ‘In this modest activity of interpreting illustrious works of art I felt certain, for the first time, that I was doing something really meaningful which justified my existence.’

It is indeed a ‘special kind of pleasure’ as Zweig put it, to be able to translate a writer’s words into one’s own language and I feel lucky to have been able to do this, in however minor a way, from French, and to have worked with writers from Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine, to translate their work.

Monica has yet another talent, that of interviewing, of asking pertinent questions of others, and her latest book Table Talk (just published by Bibliotheca Universalis, in English) is a series of interviews with writers and translators from English-speaking countries – USA, Canada, Australia & UK – and from the Netherlands and Romania. The Romanian language version will also be available shortly.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Earth and Sky

The Moon appeared on the right-hand side of the bus, the side I was sitting on, the window next to me, there it was, all perfectly round and silvery white, a bright shiny button surrounded by all of the night sky, an immensity, an ongoing, almost endless blackness – or near blackness – that could only be imagined in the bus, where night was neatly framed by the window, giving an illusion of safety and security, of warmth and protection, the way human life does in this part of the world anyway, neatly severing you from ‘the outside’, the natural world, with its chilly inconstancies its limitless power to chasten, to batter and sometimes – to defeat. We are lulled into a complacent – and irrational – sense of containment and shelter, pressing our faces against the glass houses of protective habit and assurance; except for those who have stepped out – both metaphorically and literally – and are unprotected. And this, we have allowed to happen, as we trail from one brightly-lit shop to the next, performing our Christmas rituals because we’ve opted in to custom, window-pane screens, brick walls and warmth at the touch of a button.

The streets are empty, says one shopkeeper, bus-stops are empty, no-one is out buying, last month was deserted at the end of the student semester.
Austerity, we agree, has put paid to people’s spending. And fearful uncertainty for the future.
I remember, I say, that other time of austerity, growing up in the 50s, when there was so little, none of the imports we’re accustomed to now – peppers and avocados, Italian coffee, French cheeses –
We’re spoiled, she agrees. And tells me how, when she was small, she was sent to someone who had an allotment, to buy potatoes from him. And the pail was so heavy, the potatoes were covered in earth and mud, I could only carry it a few feet then had to rest and put it down; and then when I got home, they had to be washed and peeled – and there were cabbages too and turnips, but that was about all. Yes, we’ve become used to so many things since then – we’ve been spoiled.

And the question hanging in the air that we turn over endlessly in our minds and our fingers – what will happen in the future, and I think, once I’ve bought two boxes of incense and said goodbye, that maybe this is part of what has to happen, an erasure of taking for granted – the selection of food and the heating of houses and the clothes that we buy and that hang in our wardrobes while, all those decades ago, winter coats had to last, winter boots too and winter meant deep snow and ice formed on the inside of windows.

It’s true that the streets are not crowded, but there are plenty of illuminations – in parks, in shop windows and house windows and there’s little sign that the world of commerce will close up shop, that the carousel will slow down and its gears will grow rusty and disappear in the long grass, like the branches I collected in winter, and got covered over in summer growth. I found them just the other day, when I peeled off the damp and withered foliage, its lank tendrils rotting on the branches of pine. I pulled out the branches – one day, I’ll saw them into logs for the fire.

But it could be that the signs are there, and the shopkeepers notice, whereas I live in the country, dig potatoes out of the ground, cut up logs for the fire, pile on layers of clothes to keep warm, dig a path to the gate when it snows. Which it hasn’t, this winter, not yet.

Misty morning Moon

On the walk home from the bus stop there’s nothing between me and the night sky and I stop to watch the round Moon, screened by a filter of cloud, then it’s as if it melts it with its brilliance and all round the Moon there’s a sheen of pink, a gauzy light and there’s one star above it, far up in the sky and I remember this morning, watching a plane flying through misty cloud, in a straight line, and thinking how planes are things of such grace, so seeming-assured yet so vulnerable, and in my mind, I hold it up in the sky, in its trajectory feathered by cloud, to its safe landing, its airport, its gentle descent to the earth.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Pushcart Prize Nomination

Edward Lear drawing: Gjirokaster

I was just back from the USA after a journey even longer than usual because of cancelled and re-routed flights. It felt appropriate that I was still on East Coast time when I heard that my travel writing about Albania, Passages, had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. This came totally out of the blue but I could not be more delighted. Many thanks to Julian Torres Lopez, editor at the Nasiona Magazine for this nomination. 

It turns out I’m in good company too –  the award winning Canadian writer Douglas Glover (founder and editor of Numéro Cinq), has also been nominated, by the Brooklyn Rail  where an excerpt from his forthcoming novel was published.

View of Gjirokaster today

Friday, 7 December 2018

Fragments of Tulsa Time

The food – wonderful & plentiful, food in stores, food at home and food in restaurants. The USA’s birthday is July 4, the sign of Cancer the crab – food and nourishment, the family, the home. 


Photo credit: @FJSobriquet

There’s family, of course, part of your own heart beat. There’s extended family, who may not be genetically related to you, yet they are. Then there are fascinating branches of the extensions, such as H who says he’s sure his dog is a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, he’s looked it up on the internet – and he shows me an image on his phone. They look similar, I agree. He’s got arthritis says H and he’s only 5 years old, that’s young – 

His son interrupts – that dog’s got ill, he says – because you spend so much time worrying about him and his health, he had to produce something real, some real symptoms. You remember that time I walked past him without saying hallo and you said I hurt his feelings because I didn’t say hallo to him?  – all your worrying about him has manifested this, now you’ve got something real to worry about.

H smiles, looks a little quizzical, looks at me, I look at him, and I laugh, as much at C’s precise, pin-point diagnosis, as H’s look of bemused innocence, shrugging off the verdict, in the late autumn sunshine, sprinkled with broad leaf shadow like black pepper on the table.

One day is really hot and we have a morning yoga session, then M & I stroll down Cherry Street before meeting up with the others at Roosevelt’s restaurant where the sun is so bright and hot we have to ask for the awning to cover the table and give us some shade.

Later we all go to the Gathering Place, leaving the car in the overflow car park, all dust blown, as if we’re in the centre of a desert though it’s a densely populated desert. The creation of the park itself was the idea of a monied philanthropist, who gifted it to the people of Tulsa. The park has many paths, trails, climbing areas, a Boathouse – with cafe – mirror areas, sound areas with metal or wooden xylophones – bridges, open areas and lots we didn’t see. There will be canoes to go out on the lake which will be joined to the river.

On the skyline as the sun goes down, an industrial complex with chimneys & cranes, mechanical herons with long necks and metal probing beaks, showing up black against red sky. 

The next day it’s turned cold and the wind’s so strong, the wide and crackly curled up at the edges leaves have piled up in the entrance-way between house wall and garage so you come in wading through a tunnel of leaves.

And in the park near the house the leaves have climbed up the wire fence enclosing the tennis court, because the wind pushed them into a drift, like snow, then pasted them up the fence. They look like some flag-strewn artistic faux-natural design. Awards are won for less. This is the real thing, gains no award. It is itself, the bestower of awards.

The park this morning is mono-coloured, creamy pale brown with a hint of russet, the grass and leaves more faded than coloured, like an old shirt bleached by the sun.  If wind has any colour, it’s this one today, woody, bark-scented, dry and crackling.

I wait outside the bookstore. The temperature has changed again and though the air is still cold, the wind has dropped and the sun, high up in the sky, is warm on my face.

The square of shops is vast. In fact there’s probably a word for it, other than square. The shops are huge, the sign Barnes & Noble is written above the entrance in enormous letters. Signs above the other stores are almost as big – Trader Joe’s, Surplus Stores, Ross’s, where you can ‘Dress for Less’ and where I’d just bought a pair of jeans (VIP – Must Have).

As I wait, I watch a few cars pull up near Barnes & Noble, people get out and walk towards the store. They walk slowly. No-one ever hurries. The pace is languid.

I stand in the vast square of buildings, set back from the road, so there’s no traffic noise here in this other world, quiet and peaceful, sun warm on my face.


Great coffee at Shades of Brown

and the best Lip Balm ever at Ida Red Gift Store on S Peoria

We leave the next day, at sunrise

Photo credit: M McBroom