My own little #Mauerfall30 story

In October 1989 I lost my heart to an East German music journalist who told me Bryan Adams had predicted the fall of Communism. There’d been ripples of protests in the East bloc countries around us, but they hadn’t really reached us in Bucharest at the time. We were in the firm grip of Communist mania and the cult of one single reigning couple. Radio Free Europe had appalling reception in Bucharest and the walls in our block of flats were thin. No one knew which neighbours might be likely to report on you.

9th October, 1989 in Berlin. Credit: picture alliance/akg-images.

Yet on a magical night in late October, Thomas and I chatted freely until four in the morning, having been careful to turn the radio onto white noise to cover any subversive comments. He told me: ‘All you need is more choice.’ Bryan Adams had said that to him just six weeks before the demonstrations started in East Germany, the borders began leaking via Hungary and Erich Honecker resigned. Six weeks after he quoted Bryan Adams to me, the regime in my country, which had seemed so absurdly invincible, began to crumble too.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was very strange timing to be hosting a foreign journalist in Romania, even one from a ‘friendly’ country such as East Germany. The situation in his own country was highly volatile, was Romania not afraid of becoming contaminated by the spirit of unrest? Did Ceausescu feel so secure on his throne surrounded by bodyguards and sycophants, that he believed no one would want to topple him?

Odd though it was, there I was, acting as the interpreter for Thomas on his exchange trip to Romania. His actual host, who spoke no foreign languages at all (or so he claimed) was Chris of the Youth Spark newspaper of the Young Communists. Chris was the typical party faithful, an automaton who spouted all the nonsensical party lines without blinking. I was embarrassed to be translating that, and I caught Thomas rolling his eyes. Used though he was to these clichés from his own society, Romania in the late 1980s had taken these verbal acrobatics to unparalleled heights.

We took the train to Iasi. Moldova in autumn is a symphony of colour, mellow sunshine and honeyed wine. We visited factories and party headquarters, enthnographic museums and vineyards. We were bombarded with puff pieces about the soaring Romanian economy, when all he was interested in was talking to real people. But we also sneaked out of the hotel in the evening after we had got Chris drunk to visit the beautiful Trei Ierarhi Monastery. We didn’t get to admire much of its intricate outside sculpture work but we heard a choir of young priests in training.

It may not sound like much, but it was extremely subversive for the time. Back in Bucharest, we wandered around the ruins of the old part of town that had been destroyed to make way for Ceausescu’s new civic centre. We had spitting and stamping contests on the banks of the river Dâmbovița. We compared notes on the recent histories of our countries, on censorship and education. We managed to sneak into the Students’ Cultural Institute and played four-handed piano in an empty auditorium. Above all, we talked and talked and talked, a mix of music and politics which was utterly exhilarating. He had interviewed Bruce Springsteen, he knew the song ‘Heut Nacht’ by Spliff that no one else in Romania knew, he dedicated the song ‘Ohne Dich’ by Münchner Freiheit to me in a room full of party officials (Freiheit = Freedom, get it?).

He was 34, happily married with two children. I was 20 and in love with my boyfriend. He never tried to proposition me (unlike Chris, who then sulked like a teenager when I turned him down) but we could feel an undercurrent of danger, the euphoria and sadness of meeting a soulmate from whom we have to part very soon. It was like alighting for a moment on the brink of the clearest, most beautiful blue pool, but peering within we could see muddy depths.

All you need is more choice? To both of us, the choice was never about being selfish. This was about a lot more than a fleeting passion between two young people.

It was that breath of freedom spreading across Europe that caught us up in its magic. It was the thrill of cross-cultural understanding, of future possibilities, of finally being able to live the lives we wanted. To me, he represented my German-speaking childhood home. To him, I was the generation for whom freedom would arrive at the right time and who could go on to change the world. We dismantled the walls in each other’s mind before the destruction of the physical wall in his home town.

We only kissed once, when we parted. He got on the train to Berlin and, within a few days, was one of the thousands who thronged at the border crossing and danced on the Wall. I returned to the news blackout of Bucharest, but within a few weeks, was one of the thousands who chanted: ‘The Army’s on our side!’ in University Square. I like to think that we channeled the passion we felt for each other at a personal level into political passion.

Where have thirty years gone? And how can people want to go back to building walls in our minds and hearts?

Friday Fun: Nostalgia

Did you know that the term ‘nostalgia’ was coined in the 17th century to describe a medical condition of melancholy and anxiety present in Swiss mercenary soldiers fighting abroad (that’s why it was also know as the ‘mal de Suisse’ in those days)? Apparently, initially military doctors hypothesized that the malady was due to damage to the victims’ brain cells and ear drums by the constant clanging of cowbells in the pastures of Switzerland. But I didn’t grow up within earshot of the cowbells, only lived for a short while in the beautiful Lake Geneva area and am still irreparably damaged and homesick for that part of the world.

In fact, I enjoyed that part of the world so much that I probably stayed much longer in a marriage than I should have.

On the day when I can finally report that I have achieved some kind of financial settlement and inner peace following divorce, I think back once more on the things I loved about that area and introduce a kind of amnesia about the bad memories. Isn’t that what nostalgia is all about?

Memories of the local area

A walk on the Franco-Swiss border

Artworks on the border

Swiss chateaux

A fond farewell to the area before moving to the UK

And more about Voltaire and Ferney

Lugging Books Home from Romania

I brought 14 books back from Romania (had to leave about 5 behind), which is not bad going for merely a week away and not too much time spent in bookshops. Here is a picture of what I managed to squeeze into my luggage. All of them are in Romanian, of course, and I don’t think any of them have been translated (yet).

So here’s a little more information about the book haul.

I brought back four books by Bogdan Teodorescu, a sociologist and journalist, who has been involved in political campaigning and opinion polls, but is above all a storyteller. He has published many novels of the noirish or political thriller variety, one of which, Spada, has been translated into French and has been well received there. I’m involved in a little conspiracy to bring more Romanian literature to the English-speaking world, and Bogdan Teodorescu is probably going to be one of our first authors, so I’m trying to make up my mind which book would be most suitable as a ‘starter for ten’. The books I have are: two political thrillers Spada and Nearly Good Boys, a domestic noir unlike any you’ll have read in recent years, Liberty, and his latest, We’ll All Perish in Pain, a story that is both thriller and social commentary, featuring an investor, a tourist and a refugee in a country not unlike present-day Romania.

I also got crime fiction by three more authors to investigate for possible future translation. Lucian Dragos Bogdan’s Spiderweb is a police procedural about people being killed off at a crime festival in the Romanian Carpathians. Daniel Timariu’s PI investigates crimes in a city that exists on two planes: the human world and the underworld, a bit like The City and the City by China Mieville. Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu was a classic crime writer from before the fall of Communism.

Last but not least, I also got two books of crime stories: a collection of stories all set in Bucharest, Bucharest Noir, and a series of linked stories written by six different authors Domino 2.

In addition to all that crime fiction, I got some literary fiction: Mircea Cartarescu’s Solenoid, a massive tome of surrealist and semi-autobiographical writing. You can read an excellent detailed review of the book (in Spanish translation) on the much-missed The Untranslated blog. Since I am slightly obsessed with Mihail Sebastian, I bought a 630 page novel written by Gelu Diaconu about Sebastian’s life in the 1930s, which somehow has dual timeline with post-Communist 1990s Romania. The Innocents by Ioana Parvulescu is the history of a house in Brasov, the story of a young girl and a woman remembering the past, as well as the history of a country that has had way too much history to digest.

Last but not least, two non-fiction books. The same Ioana Parvulescu has published a book about everyday life in Bucharest between the two world wars, a period often viewed (probably mistakenly) as ‘golden’ in the history of Romania. The last one is even more interesting: the memoirs of Elena Ceausescu’s personal interpreter, Violeta Nastasescu, a rather lovely lady whom I met personally because she tested my English just before my university entrance exam.

#6Degrees of Separation, Nov 2019

I know I promised a reveal of my Romanian book haul, but I wanted to participate in this monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best before it gets too late. And that’s because the starting point is one of my favourite books, which I’ve referenced a few times in my poetry.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and perhaps even more Alice Through the Looking Glass were huge childhood favourites, that I turned to again and again in my adulthood and was delighted to share with my own children later. They loved them as much as I did, fortunately!

One childhood favourite that I also was keen to share with them but which they weren’t keen on was Swallows and Amazons. Perhaps the nautical terminology was just too much, or maybe they were a little too far removed in time from the children in the story (80 years or so, after all!)

Swallows and Amazons was published in 1930 and, as we saw with the recent #1930Club, there were very many good books published that year. One of my favourites of those is Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham, a bit of a fun romp and satire of the literary circles of his time.

Very unlike most of his other work, which tends to be more serious and even sinister. I am particularly fond of The Painted Veil and his short story Rain, both describing the alienation felt by colonial rulers in the countries they attempt to ‘civilise’.

A novel with ‘rain’ in the title and also set in the East (in Malaysia during the Second World War) is The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, about a young half-Chinese, half-English son of the head of one of Penang’s great trading families, who only starts to feel a sense of belonging when he meets a Japanese diplomat there – who turns out to be a spy.

I’m not a huge fan of spy thrillers, but it’s these quieter, more subtle books about the impact of spying on families and individuals that capture my interest. Another book that succeeds in this is Exposure by Helen Dunmore, set in postwar London.

For some reason, I kept mixing up Helen Dunmore with Helen Simpson, although the latter is a short story writer and has never, as far as I know, attempted historical fiction. So I will close with Helen Simpson’s Four Bare Legs in a Bed, her first collection, which I read when I first arrived in London in autumn of 1994.

A first from me – all of the books in this month’s chain were written in English, yet we still managed to travel a fair bit: from Victorian Oxfordshire to the Lake District in the early 20th century, from 1920s Hong Kong to Malaysian island of Penang during WW2, to London past and present(ish). Where will your literary associations take you this month?

Romanian Journey 2019

Last year we had a magical holiday in Romania. This year the holidays were much shorter, we stayed mainly in Bucharest and I didn’t expect any magic (and, indeed, none was forthcoming).

My parents are getting old and frail, so they wanted to talk mainly about what to do in case of ill health, emergencies or if one of them should die. I also tend to forget just how difficult it is to live in the same house as my mother until I am confronted with it on a daily basis. Last but not least, Bucharest is as chaotic, busy and polluted as most capital cities, plus a generous extra portion! So it was not the most restful of holidays.

However, there were some good bits, most of which I tweeted about while we were there.

It was nice to see that some of the 19th century architecture of Bucharest had been renovated and lived up to its reputation of ‘Little Paris’.
Just opposite this, however, and right next to the 1930 example of architecture of the Post and Telephone Building, you have this horror of a Novotel modern extension to an old facade (former National Theatre building, bombed during the WW2 and never rebuilt).
Other highlights include telling my older son (the history fiend) about the time when Ceausescu spoke live on TV from this balcony at the Central Committee of the Communist Party building on December 21st 1989 and was booed, sparking the full-scale public protests in Bucharest.
This building belonged to the Securitate forces and was riddled with bullets during the bloody days that followed the victory of the revolution on 22nd December 1989 (inevitable glass monstrosity was added later).
Rooftop bar can be used on rainy days thanks to these ingenious (heated) bubbles.
More examples of preserved architecture: the George Enescu museum, in one of the most impressive mansions on Calea Victoriei. Sadly, the exhibition itself is quite small and you can’t visit the entire house.
The Museum of the City of Bucharest in the Palais Sutu is really worth a visit: a carefully curated trip back in time in the history of the city.
For example, here is a portrait of a typical Phanariot of the 18th century – Greek administrators from the Fanari neighbourhood of Istanbul, imposed as de facto rulers of Wallachia by the Ottoman Empire for nearly a century.
I was somewhat shocked at the excessive luxury (and prices) in this giant shopping mall, complete with skating rink, climbing wall, food court, Imax cinema etc. when you consider that 80% of the population can probably not afford to buy anything other than a drink here.

I was discussing with my boys why Bucharest can feel like a shock to the system to those who live in other capital cities. It has all the traffic jams, lack of parking, crowded places, noise and building sites that we also associate with Paris and London. But, unlike those two cities, wealth and poverty jostle here more openly side by side. You can live in your protected bubble in the 6th and 7th Arrondissements in Paris, or in Chelsea and Hampstead in London, without ever coming across the less salubrious examples of daily life. That is simply not possible in Bucharest. You come out of the most extravagant restaurant and end up in a back street with crumbling old buildings. You drive your fancy Lamborghini through terrible potholes. On public transport you see fine ladies with expensive haircuts and camelhair coats as well as bow-legged peasant women with knotted scarves covering their hair – and both of them might be making the sign of the cross whenever the tram passes by a church.

The best bit was seeing that some of the beautiful older buildings had been sensitively and lovingly rehabilitated, rather than having ugly extensions built behind them.

If you are a foreign tourist with a bit of money, you can have a great time in Bucharest. For me, it will always be a city where pain and joy, anger and nostalgia blend. I can never ignore the dirt or inequality or those who have been left behind. I cannot unsee the price of foreign investment: people of my generation and younger who are being eaten alive by the Western corporations, a form of indentured labour for the present-day. The city will never be relaxing because there are too many threads binding me to it and never enough time to meet and greet all the people that I want to see – or that my family feel that I should see.

If you know the Cavafy poem ‘The City’, you will understand how I feel about this fascinating, infuriating, sleazy, beautiful, ugly city.

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighbourhoods, tunr grey in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

(transl. Keeley and Sherrard)

My dream of trawling through bookshops and cafés remained just that: a dream. Nevertheless, I did experience two nice restaurants while meeting up with people and one café for breakfast. I only entered three bookshops (two of them quite small), but somehow managed to return with a massive pile of books. More about that in my next post!

Friday Fun: A Room of One’s Own

Although I am the least artistic person in the world, I think an artist’s studio would be a very inspiring place for a writer to work in. Here are some places which caught my eye in the past.

So much light

More achievable, everyday studio inspiration

If necessary, I’ll take these away by force!

Even when they are cluttered, there is something peaceful about studios

Last but not least, when art, interior design and poetic inspiration combine

October Reading Summary

I’ve had quite a few days of holiday this month, but somehow my plans to spend them mostly reading didn’t quite work. Nevertheless, this is the month that I’ve reached (and overtaken) my Goodreads challenge of 120 books, so it’s not all bad.

9 books read, 7 of them were for a particular purpose, while two were just to relax. Only three of them by women, and a total of six in translation. Here were the reading targets I set for myself:

1930Club – a reread of a classic of Romanian literature and a sobering look at the First World War – Camil Petrescu

Orentober – Orenda Book authors, with two dark and twisted tales from Antti Tuomainen and Will Carver

Swiss in October – my own attempt to read thematically by geography every month, with three Francophone writers and one Allophone writer. From physical bank robbers in Basel to corrupt businesses in Lausanne, from feeling alien in LA to reacting to ‘aliens’ in canton Vaud.

Finally, the two that were just for relaxation, commuting or travelling by plane were: How It Was by Janet Ellis – a rather piercing portrait of family dynamics in the 1970s and rivalry between mother and daughter; and Tammy Cohen’s They All Fall Down, set in a psychiatric clinic, yet miles away from All Dogs Are Blue, for instance.

November is German Literature Month, so instead of allowing Indonesia, the Middle East or Canada to beckon to me, I will probably linger in Europe for just a little longer.