Saturday, 30 July 2011

I wake up in heaven, very early....

My friends arrange for me to stay at the Morska Perla hotel in Nesebar old town. Only the bus from Sofia drops me in the new town and no-one I ask has heard of this hotel. It's behind the post office I'm told but there's no hotels there, just rather ugly modern buildings. The tourist office helps. It's in the old town he says, gives me the address, points it out on the map. I walk along the narrow strip of land separating new town from old, and find the hotel. The woman is all smiles and laughter and the room is palatial – and with a balcony!


Next morning I wake up in heaven, very early. The sun comes through the windows and blinds of Morska Perla's spacious suite. Yesterday I walked right round the promontory and found that the small beach is actually very close to my smart residence. An old ruined church overlooks this beach of small stones. I wade into the water. On my way back to the hotel I walk past the marina. After morning coffee, I pick up my swimwear and towel, and head back along the narrow strip of land between old and new town, and then further along the new town coast, to the small beach, sandy, and packed with people. The waves rise up and lift you up, reminding me of the beach at North Carolina, long ago. I send off postcards – if not to the past, then – to the memories of past.

Just behind the beach, hotel complexes cram the little bay, jammed together – nothing sticks so hard it seems, as commerce, gain, a tough adhesive. But I am the luckiest in the world, for I wake in the shadow of ancient buildings, history lays its finger on the narrow streets where seagulls call, and a thin white cat stalks its morning territory. Even before the souvenir shops are open, before the cafés and the post office is open, the Byzantine churches have been blessed by the sun coming up over the sea. And the beach of small stones to myself. And the morning marina, of empty boats. My patronne greets me with a smile and coffee. Dobre? She asks. Dobre, I say.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Poetry Society

Recent articles in the Times and the Guardian may have left some people bemused as to what has been happening recently at the Poetry Society. For an excellent, clear sighted summary of recent events, including statements from some of the people concerned, the website of the members of the Poetry Society is here. There has also been an equally insightful analysis on George Szirtes site here, where you can find other useful links. George has initiated a petition calling for the reinstatement of the Director.

This is important, not just for members of the Poetry Society or for writers and readers of poetry, but for everyone concerned with issues of transparency and fairness in any organization. It raises the issues of how organizations are managed and how a Board of Trustees are in positions of trust and are accountable to their members, and what can happen when democratic procedures are not followed.

This kind of disconnection can happen in an employment situation, between employers and employees, between boards and members, between governments and citizens, which is why we have laws and procedures to protect members whether of a Society or society in general – and why, ultimately, we have the Declaration of Human Rights to enshrine these protective measures. So this is not just some storm in a delicate bone china teacup not some 'personality clash', but addresses a fundamental principle of fairness and openness. This principle is a bedrock of the larger society, democratic and open, where we are kept informed, where we have the opportunity to have our say, which we are fortunate enough to be part of. But we may also need to defend this principle, if necessary.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Sofia Old and New

They say that if you were born blind and later have an operation which enables vision, what you see at first is a disorienting swirling mass of colour. It takes time to learn to make sense of what your eyes are seeing. For sight is no mere visual reception – this sense perception also organizes and interprets.

Seeing a place for the first time is a little like a new gift of sight. Everything around you is full of sound scent and colour, but you have no background or context to place it in. The advantage though, is that you see everything with fresh eyes.

In Sofia I saw a demonstration, with people banging drums, blowing whistles, waving Bulgarian and EU flags. 'Protect' was written on one banner. Some people climbed onto a statue of a man on a horse in front of the National Assembly. One of these people talked through a loudspeaker and every so often a cheer went through the crowd, like a wave cresting and falling. Policemen stood at the end of Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, making it clear it was blocked off to traffic. They wear dark uniforms, with pill-box hats like French gendarmes. Some of them wore long-sleeved jackets. They must, I thought, be feeling the heat.

Immediately I arrived in Sofia I felt at home in the small streets off Rakovski. Peeling façades of old buildings, sycamore and lime trees throwing dappled shadow patterns on dusty streets. Of course, there is the city centre with its beautiful churches and grand new buildings. There is the

modern statue of Sofia herself, with an owl, the bird of wisdom, perched on her arm. But the small streets, for me, hold the real history, the humanity, the way people live.

After a meal chez P and R, P accompanies me back to my hostel, near the train station. It's late, but P says he thinks there may still be a bus. As we wait in the soft night, the last tram comes along. We get on. P asks the driver if since it's going to the depot, it takes the same route. It does. When we get off, we walk alongside the tiny river, forced into a canal in the way the Lana is in Tirana. And there are big bridges here too with sloping sides down to the tiny trickle of water. We cross at the Lion Bridge, through the silent, empty streets.

Friday, 8 July 2011


Keleti train station, Budapest

I'd made a reservation at a hostel in Budapest near Keleti train station. Off the busy main street, you pass through two doors and then into an inner courtyard. There are hardly any traffic sounds at all.

I wake in the morning to the faint sound of trams. There is something about Mitteleuropa that I recognize, it feels familiar. It is a sense that's all, like the feeling of sunlight in early morning, touching a place that you are aware has been touched before. It has no name, just this recognition, like a friend you haven't seen for some time and it's not that you'd forgotten this person but rather, that you'd been preoccupied with other things, as if our lives have several concurrent tracks or as if we are a whole system of Ways, we are the network rather than just one branch line, but this one line has been our focus for some time so we have come to identify with it. We have localized our perception and identity but at such times of recognition it's clear that the geography of who we are is so much bigger than our usual local streets. Travelling is not just visiting external places but revisiting parts of ourselves too.

Poetry I feel, takes this for granted. It can spring up anywhere and has no need of explanation. It has an immediacy like an outstretched hand. Not so much simply a response to a place or a feeling, but part of an ongoing uninterrupted communication. Here I am, here is my hand.

And you take the hand of the place you are in. How could you not?



Erzsebetvaros so I read, with surprise and delight, is named after Elizabeth, Empress of Austria. The delight is similar to meeting up unexpectedly with an old friend. Well known in continental Europe, her name meant nothing to me until a few months ago, when I visited the Achilleon in Corfu. It was she who had this grand mansion built in honour of Achilles. Elizabeth was married to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph but she was not someone who enjoyed court life and stayed away as much as possible. She had a fondness for Hungary and spoke the language fluently. She was influential in the re-establishment of the Hungarian constitution which led to the Austrian Empire becoming the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

Clearly her feelings for the Hungarian people were reciprocated, as this street and the area around it, has been named after her. It is off Rakoczi, and leads into the old Jewish quarter of Pest. This is when the city comes alive for me, in these narrow little streets. It's also when the feeling of familiarity is strongest.

These are the streets where Robert Capa, born Andre Friedman, was born and grew up, and where he first became a photographer. Obliged to flee Hungary because of the rise of fascism in the 1930s he later lived in Paris and became famous as a war photographer during the Spanish Civil War. So I feel that I meet another friend.

Travel and Transformation

After being away for some time from familiar places, it's curious, or so I think, to notice that these places no longer look the same, on one's return. And I don't just mean in terms of verdant growth, though there is that of course, the burgeoning honeysuckle hedge and thick grass covering the garden. But even the familiar road from town to my house, and the house itself, all seem to have undergone subtle transformations. The way space, furniture and the angles of walls are arranged, all seem to have shifted. The evening light was soft and there were only a few clouds in the sky. The light lingered as if it had no desire to leave. Perceptions in other words, have changed.

Travel broadens the mind laughed P when he was interviewing me. It feels more as if I have been picked apart and reassembled. As if the Master Baker has seized this lump of dough, pulled pushed squeezed and folded me so that a yeasty and expansive process has enlivened connections, so there is more room to breathe, and the sense of constriction has melted away. I am as happy to be home as I was happy to set off. Yet these two happinesses are not the same. I find it fascinating, this process of restructuring.

I left three weeks ago, phoning at the last minute, an afterthought really, to make a reservation for the night train from Köln to Budapest, via Munich. Turns out this was just as well, as I could not have done it at Köln station. I was sent an email with my reservation number, and a document of several pages, describing how to operate the machine in order to get it to print out my reservation. Operating these machines in German airports and stations turned out to be the hardest part of the whole journey, with the possible exception of getting a seat on a train to Paris, towards the end. Arriving at Köln airport at night, there did not seem to be anyone who could tell me how to get to Köln Hauptbahnhof. A couple of passengers I asked did not know. I followed a sign for Zug and came face to face with the first of the dreaded machines. It's not so much that my mind goes blank when confronted with these machines, but what I read does not reach the area of the brain that illuminates meaning. There is a logic to machines but it's not the way my mind works. Still, I managed to figure it out to the last step, at which point I asked a man who was doing the same at the neighbouring machine, and he helped me. Such a feeling of success when the ticket is disgorged from the logical belly of the machine. I was now equipped to reach Köln's main railway station and face the next hurdle – the printing out of my reservation ticket.

My emailed instruction manual differed somewhat from the actual screens on the machine - just enough to sow seeds of doubt in my mind, especially as I had been warned not to get it wrong, as I only had one chance. I did make a mistake when typing in the reservation number but fortunately I was able to correct it in time. The sense of accomplishment when the ticket was duly delivered into my hand is hard to describe. The sense of relief when I got on the train – which was a little delayed, so it was now after midnight - showed the ticket and reservation to the inspector and climbed into my couchette, was like having passed an exam or an initiation. Luck – or Providence – was clearly travelling with me. I resolved to cast all doubts aside. The rhythmic rattling of the train and its rocking motion was pure bliss. At some point I fell asleep and woke up before we arrived in Munich. I took a short walk outside the station before getting on the Budapest train.

This notice says it is forbidden to park bicycles here.