Thursday, 29 March 2018

A Writers' Residency in Croatia

The garden at zvona i nari

Zvona i nari means bells and pomegranates and though it wasn't the season for fruit (Persephone is still lingering in the underworld, delaying spring) I heard plenty of bells. There are two churches in the village of Ližnjan, one of them dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours and their bells ring out every hour and half hour, with a particularly long carillion at 7 pm. Church bells, I find, anchor you reassuringly in space, time-marking seeming to be more an excuse for melody and music, than the purpose.

village of Ližnjan, clock tower in the background

Croatian writers Natalija Grgorinić, and Ognjen Rađen have created in Ližnjan near Pula, Croatia, what they call a 'Cultural Cooperative'. This involves writing, publishing, translating, editing, hosting a library, creating public events such as readings, and offering residential space to visiting writers. This 'residential space' was my home for 10 days in March, a beautiful house with tiled floor, a kitchen with a door opening into a garden, a living room with a writing desk and lined with books in Croatian, English, Italian, German and French, and a bedroom upstairs. The library and events space is truly lovely, with a high ceiling and wooden beams and on a sunny day, the light pours in.

Over 100 writers from all parts of the world have been welcomed here over the past 7 years of its existence. This is a peaceful place ideal for writing and in summer it must be idyllic, though this spring is notoriously cold and wild throughout Europe. But even in this blustery weather, I have so enjoyed my time here, the continuity enabling me to get on with a longer piece of writing.

Near the tip of the Istrian peninsula, Ližnjan lies between olive groves and pine woods, and the sea, which is in easy walking distance. I've walked along the coastline almost every day, from the near deserted coastal paths to the east of the village, 

to the bay at Medulin, where boats are tethered.

Natalija and Ognjen arranged for me to go to the Tone Peruško school in Pula one morning, to talk to one of the classes learning English. The building is gorgeous, with  marble floors and staircases, dating from Austro-Hungarian times I'm told, built in 1848, and the second oldest school in Pula. 

I thought I would talk about Scotland, its history, geography, culture and its writers, but after a brief comparison of the landscapes, (both countries have lots of islands off the coast) I didn't get any further, as the young students were full of questions, asking about my writing and my travels. They had been learning English for several years, and were confident in expressing themselves. Natalija had said to me beforehand that it was a rare experience for them to hear and talk to a native English speaker and their interest and enthusiasm was heartwarming. (Which countries have you been to, which do you like best, what languages do you speak, why did you learn French, do you read books in other languages, what do you feel before you leave home? etc etc).
at the Tone Peruško school. Photo credit: zvonainari

In Ližnjan I experienced almost every variety of weather (except snow). Sunshine, rain, a thunderstorm, and the bora, the chill wind from the sea. 

Thank you so much Natalija and Ognjen, so friendly and welcoming, for this chance to spend time there and to get to know a little, the landscape, history, and the people of Istria.

One of the last questions a student asked me was, Will you come back to talk to us again?  I wasn't able to promise, but I really hope that one day, I can.

Look at their website, to find out more about Zvona i nari, and there are photographs and information about the residency, and of my talk to the class at the Tone Peruško school.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Istrian Coastline

I never tire of looking at the sea. On my first walk along the Istrian coastline it was a warm and sunny day. A few boats in the bay, then I followed the coastal path, no boats or people, just one or two seagulls sitting on rocks. The sea surface was ruffled, its colours shades of deep blue with areas of pale green.

At one point, a deep chasm between rocks, and the water in the cleft is turquoise. Scarlet anemones are scattered round the opening like red buttons.

The next time I took a different route to the sea, coming out further along the coast. It's cooler and the sea is rougher too with some waves splashing against rocks.

It's a stony track, negotiable by cars. A large 4x4 passed me, avoiding the puddles, driving half up on the bank, as if he was in a hurry. Later, he's parked at the track edge. He had not got out to walk but was sitting in the car looking out to sea. Perhaps he was simply seeking the solace of gazing at the waves breaking on the rocks, the shifting water with its varieties of colours, and the hills on the other side of the bay, a fuzzy blue merging with the blue of the sea.

Some of the rock formations are thin layers piled on top of each other, pressed together like millefeuilles.

Today is a different mood entirely. It's chilly, windy, and the sea has white wave tips and waves crash against rocks. The surface is whisked, shifts, as if restless to get somewhere and there's a roaring sound, a mixture of wind and surf, a primordial growl, a fierce deep joy out of which come the individual thumps and hisses of waves crashing over rocks.

Tonight there is a wild storm, wind, rain, thunder and lightning.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

From Rivertrain to Rocktrain

The journey from London to Liznjan took 26 hours. I left my friends in Brentwood around 9 pm, took a bus to the nearest tube station on the district line, got off at Victoria, then took a bus to Stansted airport. There were lots of people stretched out on the floor and I did too but I didn't sleep. As soon as the desk opened I dropped off my bag - which you have to do yourself now, in front of a machine - then went through security. After a long walk through the duty free, there was a much-needed coffee. A train to the gate and a few minutes later we were boarding.

The flight lasted two hours, but as soon as we were up in the air - that wondrous everyday miracle - I fell asleep and only woke up just before we landed at Ljubljana airport. Where the fields were covered with a thin layer of snow. Not freshly fallen snow but old snow, grubby and worn looking but like a well-used carpet, it had established a relationship with what it covered and had become tolerated, accepted perhaps even viewed with affection.
I certainly did.

For old snow is generous, it has made its statement, when it wiped out pathways to the outside world and to the roads connecting cities and people and workplaces and provisions. It has expressed itself and brought our transport systems and our lives to a grinding halt. And now, relaxed, like an ocean after storm, it accepts our admiration of its stained calligraphy, its extraordinary ice works, which change every day as snow shrinks or is cleared and piled up, as it darkens and gathers soot and mud and general dirt from cities and their modes of transport - cars, buses, trains and their sooty exhalations.

      In the area beside the river in Ljubljana's old town, there are wooden cafe tables covered with awnings and there are heaters too, for the outside clientele. And between the cafe tables there are heaps of old snow mounds that have settled into artworks, each ripple of contour dotted or streaked with a darker decoration.

The entire landscape viewed from the window of the train from Ljubljana to Rijeka is old snow and black trees. Sometimes it seems the land falls away sharply from the train tracks into a deep valley but it's so mist-filled it's deceptive, depth is blurred, and I'm glad the train knows how to pick its way through the sliding land levels, glides through mountains and comes out the other side.

The River Train (which gave this blog its name) is what I called the train from Ljubljana to Zagreb which runs alongside the river Sava, faithfully following its curves and contours. This train cuts through mountains. The embankments it slides through are black chunks of rock topped with their blankets of snow, so this is clearly the Rock Train.

I didn't think I'd be posting any more photos of snow but I couldn't resist one or two. Taken from the train window, most are blurry and indistinct, but the one with the pylons captures the starkness of the landscape. By the time we reached the border with Croatia the snow had disappeared.

The train arrives in Rijeka at dusk. It's a short walk from train station to bus station. A flock of dark birds swoops across the sky and I feel I have truly arrived.

The final part of my journey is a bus to Pula where I'm met by my host and driven to the nearby village of Liznjan. I am in a wonderful apartment, full of books in Croatian, German and English.

I go to bed and sleep for ten hours.