Wednesday, 21 December 2016

2016 - Books that visit UK, Romania, France, Ukraine, Italy, Belgium, Albania & Bosnia

It's hard to choose among many books I've read in 2016 I'd like to write about, but here's just a few of my favourites, most, but not all, published this year.

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Lucy Ribchester's The Amber Shadows (published 2016). Sometimes the way you come across books are stories in themselves. When I saw the cover of this one I felt immediately drawn to it. Font, colours and design are very important to me. I don't believe in the old adage 'don't judge a book by its cover' or rather I'd change it to 'go by your feelings when it comes to a book cover.' I hardly ever buy full-price new books (I borrow from the library, rummage in charity shops and am given books to review) but the cover and the subject matter were making a strong case to undermine my resistance. Then one day I came across a copy in a charity shop and snapped it up. It takes place at Bletchley Park during WWII and it is truly a nail-bitingly tense thriller. But more than that, for its descriptions of states of mind are so perceptive. Along with the main protagonist, Honey Deschamps, you flip from one way of seeing and assessing what is going on (particularly when it comes to Felix), to its opposite. It keeps you doubting and questioning throughout and the ending was quite unexpected, in a way I thoroughly approved of, as it seemed to be leading to a more conventional outcome.

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Alison Anderson's The Summer Guest (published 2016)
While The Amber Shadows played out like a monochrome film, in winter penumbra both literal and psychological, Alison Anderson's novel is full of colour, warmth and summer sunlight. The sensuous atmosphere seduces you into sharing the reveries and descriptions written in the journal of an invalid young woman who meets Chekov and his family. The natural world shimmers in heat, and in the developing friendship between them, which might hide a literary secret. Or might be the product of someone's imagination. Or even fiction.  As well as Chekov's nineteenth century Russia, the novel takes place in present day France and London, with a visit to Ukraine. I particularly liked the literary theme, the lyricism, and the quest, which involves not just Chekov but the very nature of what fiction is. Subtle and entrancing writing.

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Ioana Pârvulescu's Life Begins on Friday (2016) is a delightful novel set at the end of the 19th century, in Bucharest. While there is a mysterious stranger who turns up wearing strange clothes and with odd manners, all the characters are memorable, and most of them are warm-hearted. The way of life, particularly in the newspaper office, evokes nostalgia for a kinder less stressful era where people have time to talk to and care for each other. (full review can be read here).

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Elizabeth Jane Howard's autobiography Slipstream is fascinating. It's an account of a life in a particular time and place, taking in WWII and post-war London. It depicts her struggle for recognition as a person and a writer and has an endearing honesty and an inspiring insight, through her experience, into others' characters but mostly, into herself. She has an admirable capacity of being non-judgemental about others and herself, though she depicts without drama what she sees as her own flaws, weaknesses and repeating patterns of relationships that bring initial intense euphoria followed by disappointment and unhappiness. It's like being given a guest ticket to the green room of London's literati, actors, artists, editors and publishers. Stories and character sketches of those she knew, worked with and/or loved, Cecil Day Lewis, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee, Romain Gary and Kingsley Amis, just to name a few.

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Joseph Brodsky's Watermark is described as 'part confessional, part meditation on water and stone, past and present'. This is the kind of writing that poets often do so well, for they have insight and perception and a wondrous capacity for description. But  Watermark also tells us about the author himself, his relationship in particular with Venice, and his associations with water and time, his responses to art, architecture,  weather, Greek myths, light etc. He writes  “This is the winter light at its purest …..And the city lingers in it, savouring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An object, after all, is what makes infinity private.”

Other great books I've read and written about this year, with links to full reviews. 

Volker Weidermann's Summer Before the Dark - in 1936 several émigré writers such as Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Irmgard Keun met up in Ostend. It reads like a novel, lyrical and tender. I think it is a novel, a true novel. (2016)

Biography of Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu (2016)

Whatever the Sea - a brilliant anthology of poetry (2016)

Catherine Czerkawska's The Jewel - novel based on the lives of Robert Burns and his wife, Jean Armour (2016)

Faruk Šehić- Quiet Flows the Una
A poetic meditation on the river Una in Bosnia, this book features in other 'best of 2016' lists and is gathering awards. (2016)

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Last Summer Days in France

This year has seen so many travels and events, I've got way behind in posting them all. This is the last part of the French trip, from June this year. Earlier posts visited Alet-les-Bains
Rennes-le-Chateau, Saint Polycarpe & the Monastery of Cantauque, Monsegur, and Puilaurens and Mirepoix. Which took us back up to Picardie where I left my friends at Amiens train station where, because of the strikes, I had to wait several hours. But that's travel. Often a lot of waiting around. In October, I waited for hours in Newark airport, trying to get on a flight to Chicago. I got the last seat on the last flight out in the evening. You feel so very thankful when you do finally get on. 
It was one of those double decker trains to Rouen and I sat on the top deck, as always. I was so glad to see P* who picked me up at the train station. For some reason it is impossible to pull up in a car in front of the station, but P* did anyway, blocking the traffic behind, and then he drove through the town in inimitable fashion, flinging arms and imprecations to the gods, with one or two insults to other drivers, for good measure.

The picturesque old town of Rouen is on the right bank of the Seine, full of gorgeous timber fronted houses. 

But many shops are announcing that they're closing down. A clothes shop, one selling bandes dessinées. Soldes, réductions, plastered across the shop fronts. Tout doit disparaître. Déstockage massif.

Crossing the river, the wide Seine, there's a luxury cruise ship, the Botticelli from Strasbourg, tethered at the side.

And a working boat, with its stained metal cover and peeling red paint at one end, moves slowly under the pont Jeanne d'Arc. The Seine has half covered one of the quais, but the headline in the local paper says plus de peur que du mal. More fear of flooding here, than any actual problems.

Market at Saint Sever

 On la rive gauche you come to the colourful quarter of Saint Sever. In front of the church there's an open area, then two streets of small shops selling fruit and vegetables, shoes and clothes – bright, colourful flowing dresses and scarves, printed cotton trousers, in swirling paisley patterns. There are benches under shady trees, where old men sit and watch the passing people, and a couple of corner cafés where people sit outside drinking beers or coffees in the thick sunlight of late afternoon. To one side of the church is the shopping centre, also called Saint Sever, its modern glass front set back at a distance from the church, so that sunlight splashes the forecourt.

Outside the grocer's shop, fruit and vegetables are piled on small carts. Oranges in one, melons in another, nectarines in a third. The carts have big wheels, and are painted red. 


This is Rouen's quarter of colour. A dark-skinned young man stops me and says something about a sports centre, gesturing to a building behind him, which looks empty. But I say no thanks. Vous ne vous intéressez pas au sport? Non, I say.

This area has a feeling of life spilling out into the streets, and parading itself there. Boundaries between commerce, coffee and conversation, between pavement and shop, between sunlight, laughter and the dreamy silence of people sitting or strolling past, between work and leisure, between day and evening, are all blurred.

Before getting on the bus at the quai du havre in Rouen (this bus will take me to Paris where I will change to get another one to London) there's a couple of women waiting, with several bags. But you're only allowed one per person, says the driver. One of the women says – that person doesn't have a bag, that one too – no bag. My extra bags can be theirs. Les choses ne s'arrangent pas comme ça says the driver in the tone of voice that corresponds to a shrug-level, a little weary, with an 'end of conversation' movement, as he turns back to the bus.

The woman turns to the other, luggage-less passengers, to enlist their help. They agree to adopt a piece of her luggage. The driver says vous pensez qu'on peut faire ça à l’aéroport? (clearly the answer is no.) He said they'd have to pay a supplement. He's then on the phone. But when the door is opened and people put their cases into the luggage compartment, the women put in all their cases, newly reassigned to different passengers.
The driver's on the phone again, comes and goes, glances at people's tickets or phones, nods, allez-y he says to me and I'm relieved for I have 2 bags! He walks off again, talks into the phone, then comes back when it suits him. He is after all a French worker, employee maybe but still sovereign in his own territory, his own sphere of influence, management and expertise.

Every arrival of every bus or train, every time I succeed in getting on a vehicle is like an event of the greatest good fortune. I really have found the right place, right bus, and despite having two bags they will still let me board. So many reasons for thankfulness, they accumulate, follow each other, like waves on a beach, a succession of delicacies, over and over one after another, a folding of days, piled like linen in skies of pale blue. Linen days in petal-flecked skies.
There are these moments in travel when time's fabric eases just a little and we're no longer a beached island of self looking out on a world – whether distant or intimate, remote or thick and warm, we're always looking it seems, for drawbridges over the gaps between fireside and horses' hoof-prints in the dust, between candle light and the sound of metal horse shoes hitting stone.

Moments when there is only this, and it's not so much missing the rest, but the rest has been loved into silence, 'the rest' has dropped to its knees, surrendered its solitude, and become one with the only. Don't stand outside of it. 'The rest' has walked in and been welcomed. In the hazy warm sunshine, in the bus park at Porte Maillot, Paris, eating quiche aux épinards et saumon, there it is, when time loosens its laces forgets its earth-shaking agendas, and you – grateful for this – forget who you are. What bliss to lose the sensation of self, the Separator, and return to the source and the oneness – like the sun, like the ocean.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Small planes, big dinosaur

Flying over the moon

The USA as we all know, is very much a car culture. It's rare to see pedestrians, unless it's in the main street of a town, a shopping area, or a designated path or trail. I was lucky that there was such a trail just beside the house I was staying in, near a small town on the outskirts of Tulsa.

Small planes often fly overhead, from the nearby Flight School.

At one point the trail crosses a road and goes past the private property of a ranch, which was once completely rural, before the houses were built.

Some longhorn cattle graze near the fence separating the ranch property from the public path.

Flags wave in front of houses.

houses  have imaginative supports for mail boxes. 

The River City Trading Post has many pumpkins for sale. 

The Post Office is a safe place.

Photo credit: FJSobriquet

Photo session.

Photo credit: FJSobriquet


We leave the hot weather behind. The blue skies, the warmth on the skin, the breeze that rustles the leaves, most of them still green, a few yellow ones that have fallen from the tree onto the garden grass and lie there like the long-jointed grasshoppers or the curling butterflies that pirouette in the wind......

Coming into Chicago, the clouds lay flat as plates, stacked in the kitchen cabinet of the sky. These plates soften on contact with each other, press together, clothes emptied of occupants, clothes waiting for the rain to congregate, shrugging the briefest of shoulders, with each lightning flash running through the seams of them like celestial shears.

And then, on touchdown in the airport, it begins to rain – first, trickling down the many windows of the tubular structure that makes up the airport, and now, splattering on the plane roof itself, as we wait to move towards the runway. I so much like this airport, with its grey walls decorated with nuts and bolts effects, its many windows, its glass roof that lets the light in, and most of all its resident dinosaur (skeleton) with its small head almost touching the roof.

And the last flight, back across the Atlantic.


I'd like to share this post from the Sufi website
The Threshold Society. They quote from The Rumi Daybook 

 When you feel the urge to complain, give thanks instead. Exaggerate your gratitude. He didn’t say difficult circumstances would necessarily change. What he said was that, by showing gratitude, you will generate love. And this generating love is an act of Creation. This is an act of Healing. This is an act of Power. In this act, may we fly.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Travelling to Tulsa

Downtown Tulsa: photo credit FJSobriquet

This was a different kind of travel for me, going to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a family wedding. Instead of my usual buses and trains, I have to take three flights to reach my destination, beginning with the transatlantic one from Edinburgh to Newark.  I spend a lot of time in American airports, and in a world very different from the low-tech one I'm accustomed to. But this gives me plenty of time to browse bookstores, people-watch, and have the occasional conversation.

Flying across the Atlantic, the map of the world showing the flight path has a mysterious area in darkness, the area where it is still night. A few lights twinkle in this dark place, waiting for daylight. Waiting for the line of light that slowly moves forward, as the dark area recedes.

The sun symbol on the flight path screen has shifted from the lower part of the African continent, a little westward out into the ocean. I think this sun symbol must stand for midday, as it's at the mid-point between the 2 curtains of darkness, the one just on the edge of New York, the other, far to the east, beyond India.

It's been 3 years since I was last in the USA. Some things have changed. Prices have gone up, I notice in Newark airport. Exacerbated of course by the exchange rate which when I arrived made the pound worth scarcely more than the dollar.  10-15 dollars for a glass of wine meant that my capacity for self-denial kicked in. I would dearly have liked a glass of wine as I'd already spent a few hours in Newark airport, but there was no way I was going to pay that. Instead, I went into a café where I could speak to the person who took my order, and I had a coffee for a mere 4.50 dollars. I was flying stand-by, which means you might get on your desired flight or you might not. All the flights to Chicago – my next destination – seemed to be very popular and I didn't get on the first flight or the next and in fact I lost count of how many flights I waited for hopefully only to be told that there were no available seats.

Planes at Newark & the New York skyline

One thing that had not changed was the friendliness and courtesy of everyone I spoke to especially the people at the check-in desks. They smile, they're helpful, some of them are even apologetic about the fact that they can't let you on.
You strike up conversations with others who are also waiting. And because each flight, only about an hour or so apart, leaves from a different departure gate and because Newark airport is very big, there's quite a bit of walking to be done to get to the next gate, which is much better than having to sit in the same place all the time.

One of my co-sharers in patience, co-multiple returnees to boarding gates, trying to get on a flight, is a young Frenchman who currently lives in Chicago.
It isn't always like this, it's just a bad day he assures me – with a soupçon of a shrug and a big grin – this is exceptional.
Two flights before the last one, the Frenchman was actually offered a seat and he said he wanted to give it to me instead! Of course I knew he couldn't do that, as there is a strict order to be followed in the stand-by list, but it was sweet of him to try.

The last flight to Chicago is at 8.10 pm and it looks full. The stand-by passengers are allocated seats at the last minute. And I'm given the very last seat on the plane, am hurried down the corridor by the person at the desk and my fellow stand-by passengers who got on two minutes before me, wave at me with delight. I sit down in the seat, fasten my seat belt, doors are closed, engines rev and the plane begins to move towards the runway.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Guardians of Sea and Air

Kent, England, September 2016
I was staying in a friend's caravan, almost in sight of the entrance to the Channel Tunnel. At night there was a distant background noise like faint and faraway traffic. The nights were clear, and the constellations visible overhead between the trees became as familiar as household gods.

Returning home at sunset; entrance to the Channel Tunnel on the left

Guardians of sea and air
The night portals never rest,
the orange lights and the entrances and exits
to the underground, tunnelling beneath the sea,
the same sea we saw today, from cliff-tops,
a turquoise stretch of water, then a haze
of pale blue, no clear line of the horizon.

The night's work,
the guardians of sea crossings,
the tunnel underneath la Manche,
they never rest.

Night lights of planes
weave in and out of stars
altering the constellations.

In the afternoon, the hot sun
on the cliff-tops, white and chalky,
where the edges crumble, rusty signs
warn of danger, but there's the trodden path ahead,
there's the memorial to air battles
fought in World War Two 

the statue of Pilot Everyman
gazing out across the sea
and the valley railway line to Dover
and the sea birds above the blue.


Saturday, 17 September 2016

From Puilaurens to Amiens

It's the French trip again, from the Languedoc in the south, to Picardie in the north. June 2016

So it is in brilliant hot sunshine that we drive the next day to the castle of Puilaurens, which looks out over more magnificent mountains. The approach path, though steep in places, is shaded by trees and is much shorter than the one to Monségur. 

Puilaurens, like all the castles associated with the Cathars, has its own individual history.
It stood on one of those shifting borders, and at one point, before the 11th century, it was part of the territory of Aragon, only later becoming part of France. But during the Cathar crusade, although attacked by Simon de Montfort, it was not taken by him. Cathars, and others who had had their lands taken away from them during this crusade, took refuge there, but it is thought that the castle finally surrendered around the same time as Quéribus, about 1255. It later had to resist several Aragonese attacks and was the most southerly fortified castle in France. When the border of Aragon shifted further south, it lost its importance as a border garrison, and its maintenance and its military defense dwindled. 

So it's now a ruin though the outer walls are still intact and it's an imposing presence perched on the hilltop, with a clear view of villages in the valley, and of anything that might be moving through the valleys and approaching up the lower slopes towards it, and then there's those nearby mountains you can look across at, giving a sense of solidarity and companionship. 


Part of the castle that is still intact is the Tour de la Dame Blanche, which, the information board tells us, was named after Blanche of Bourbon who briefly graced the castle with her presence. It has a stone vaulted roof, and the guide (I've attached myself to a guided tour) points out a particular feature. A tiny slit in the walls, called a 'conduit porte-voix' which if you speak into it carries the sound down to the lower levels, even a whisper the guide says, so that there is quick and easy communication between the different levels of the castle. Or – I think – what is spoken, even whispered, on one level, can be overheard on another one.   

Vaulted roof of Le Tour de la Dame Blanche

The guided tour is a group of women, all with walking canes, peaked shade-giving caps, walking boots and backpacks. As they file down the steps from La Tour Blanche, a man sitting on a stone at the bottom asks 'Vous avez oublié les hommes?' And they all laugh. 

When we sit down in the shade of a solitary tree in the grassy central area open to the sky, I catch snatches of their conversation, which I love to listen to because of the southern accent, those long drawn out vowels and musical endings, sounding at least as close to Spanish as French and perhaps that's what the Occitan language sounds like.
Le jambon, c'est le jambon rouge?.... J'ai un peu du fromage....les gaans qui ne sont pas contaang.....c'est maintenaang je me dirai...


The next day we're up early, packing up our tents before beginning the long drive back through France. I'm going with the others as far as Amiens, where I can get a train to Rouen, to visit friends there. I've checked online to find the train times. We have lunch in the picturesque town of Mirepoix, 

then drive on to Limoges, where we spend the night. But we are leaving the hot sunny weather behind, heading back into grey skies, and mist. We are also heading into the areas which have been badly affected by the floods. Near Limoges, the motorway becomes almost empty, bereft of traffic, we're driving on the Ghost Autoroute, the fog turns to thin rain, and we become convinced, since there is no other traffic, that everyone else knows something that we don't. 

The river Vienne at Limoges

Leaving Limoges early in the morning, once again, it's a ghost highway, no other cars at all, the thick mist turning the roadside trees into vague and menacing shadows like some post-apocalyptic scene.

As we get closer to Paris, we are relieved to see a few cars looming out of the mist. And there is plenty of traffic on the périphérique, but there are signs saying that you could not leave it and go into Paris. The exit sliproads are clogged with stationary cars. This is because of the flooding. We catch a glimpse of the swollen Seine, and then we follow directions for Amiens. My friends drop me off at the train station, then continue on their way to Calais. 

I am in good time for the train and go to buy a ticket. I'm then told that the 14.50 train is not running. Neither is the 17.15. The first train I can get a ticket for is the 19.10. Clearly the information I got online was wrong. I ask the young woman at the ticket counter if it's because this is a Sunday. Non Madame she informs me, c'est à cause de la grève. Ah, the train strike! I'd forgotten about that.

Commemorating the battle of the Somme, 1916, outside Amiens train station

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Sunrise at Red Rock Bay

Walk along East Coast Path. (South-east Scotland)

The day started off grey-skied. I was so ill-prepared that I forgot various things. Most importantly I only realised once I was at the bus stop, was a sleeping bag. We were going to camp (C was bringing the tents) and I'd quite forgotten about a sleeping bag. I phone C – and he had forgotten to  pack his too! But he hadn't yet left his house. I'll bring two he chirrups. I was beginning to feel that this was a doomed expedition but he'd lost none of his optimism. For I'd remembered that we'd have to carry everything as we walked. I'd been thinking when I suggested camping out, of how much I had enjoyed camping in France. But then, our tents were parked on a campsite and when we walked we didn't have to carry anything. I phoned C again to say I wanted to call it off. Instead of camping we could just go for a walk that day. C's phone was switched off.

When we met up, he was cheerful. It's fine, I don't mind carrying both tents he said. So I could hardly complain about my much smaller pack with only overnight things, spare clothes, food, book, notebook and my sleeping bag transferred from his pack. Yet even that came to feel very heavy. And C's, which I tested, was so heavy I could barely lift it.

But as we walked, the grey clouds flicked their tails like fish in the sea of sky and headed south. We walked north along the cliff path looking down on greyish sea turning to blue. There were some rocks by the bays and inlets that were folded with careful precision, an arrangement of time and slow movement. 

Rocks must have a very different sense of time to us I say. We look at dragonflies and think what a short life they have and feel a little sorry that it's so short. Maybe rocks look at us and think the same. 

They look like a loaf of sliced bread says C. 

My goal was Eyemouth and coffee. None was available in Burnmouth.  As the cliffs and shoreline are ragged and indented, so the path weaves around the sea edges.

When we finally were in sight of Eyemouth, it still look a while before the path dipped down to the harbour piled with fishing creels and lobster pots at the end and several fishing boats on the oily water. 

The breeze vanished and I suddenly felt I was in somewhere quite unfamiliar, some small town in an unknown part of mainland Europe, hot, still streets on the other side of the harbour. I felt exhausted, my shoulders ached and we sat outside at the first café we came to. The coffee was delicious. One of the things I'd forgotten was my water bottle which I'd filled, ready to pack, then left behind. But there are shops in this small town and I bought a bottle of water. Totally revived, we continue. 

The path goes up  the cliff side and skirts the caravan site. It was now late afternoon and we were thinking of finding a place to pitch the tents. We had seen one perfect place on the way to Eyemouth and considered going back there. No let's go on I said.

There are fields of ripening grain on our left – wheat and barley, all yellow against the blue of sky. It was a pleasure to walk in this warm sunshine these rich colours on either side, and a slight breeze.

And after the path went inland a little, to skirt a fjord-like cleft in the land, then came back on the other side of the inlet, there was a flat and grassy place beside the sea, covered with clover. I like this I said, let's camp here. It was a sheltered bay, no wind, no midgies. The shore was red stones and the cliff was red rock.

A ring of red stones on the grass showed that others had camped here, and made a fire. And we did too, once we'd put up the tents as there was plenty of dry driftwood sticks lying on the red-stone beach. 

As we ate our provisions a flock of birds flew overhead, heading out to sea. We couldn't make out what kind of birds they were, not seagulls – possibly they were pigeons going home to St. Abbs, where there's a colony who live in a dovecot there.

One solitary wide-winged bird wheels and cries along the cliff-top. It felt as if it was coming to see us, marking our place and passage, a cliff-top guardian.

The sky, a newly perforated container, leaks light, and a bank of clouds turns deep pink, a series of ruffles that look solid as cream. C looks through his binoculars. They look like the surface of a planet he says.

We sit by the fire, watching the clouds fade into blue-grey then merge with the night.
To go to sleep listening to the sounds of the sea.

During the night I hear a few bird calls and several loud barks. I thought it was a dog, a wild fierce sounding dog, a guttural warning in the night. Always ready to mine a bank of unformed fears I conjured up a molosh, one of those huge mastiffs that protect flocks and will attack anyone coming near their flocks unless their master calls them off. But there were no approaching sounds, no more barking. In the morning, C, who had heard it too thought it might have been a deer or a fox, very unlikely to have been a dog.

From the tent I watched the sun rise over the water, appearing briefly between ledges of cloud. 

These pictures were taken from the tent (hence the line of the guy rope), as it was a chilly morning and I was not ready to get up yet. I don't think I have ever seen the sky and sea this golden colour before. When I've seen photographs like this I've assumed that the colours have been altered, but I haven't changed anything in this photograph. And this golden colour was exactly how it was, the sky, the sea and the air all around. This was taken a few minutes before 6 am. Just as an experiment though, I pressed the 'image colours adjust' button, which usually enhances the colours - and this is what came out - very different!

The sky became overcast but after we packed up we headed to Coldingham Bay, then on to St Abbs, to wait for the café to open so I could have the necessary morning coffee. 

My back was aching in various places now. We followed the Creel Path to Coldingham and got a bus back to the city, a strange place full of bustling people. And I came home to my wondrously peaceful house and garden. Where today the sun shines in a late summer, insects pursue their busy lives and the shadows of rowan and cherry trees have stretched their shady, cooling fingers. 

On the Creel Path