The Ice Queen Goes to the Basement

My playing around with flash fiction continues. Here is another rough draft that I wrote at the Flash Fiction Festival. Other people were churning out very polished, very accomplished pieces of work but mine needs lot of editing.

The Ice Queen was still quite tall and stately, although descriptions such as portly also might come to mind. She continued to sweep her train majestically through corridors and long ballrooms, although the hems were collecting more and more dust. And, of course, she was still the world’s undisputed champion at standing still, perfectly poised in front of the piano. She leafed through her immaculate collection of musical notes and cast aside any that were too overtly sentimental. She curled her lip sardonically at some of the titles, ignored those that were too agitated.

No one was there, of course, to listen to her playing, but standards had to be maintained.

What followed next, however, did surprise her.

It was not so much that she could detect noise through the floorboards, as a sort of rise in temperature. Quickening of muffled heartbeats, a sudden surge in energy. She pressed her Ice Queen palms to her Ice Queen ears and cheeks in an effort to cool down. But heat was calling to heat. Her earlobes were incandescent. She discovered she had no desire to play any music. She had to go downstairs to investigate.

Contrary to expectations, the cellar was not dark and damp. It had been painted in high reflective white, all the furniture was pale. Artificial light bounced off each and every one of its sharp corners. The floor was opaque milky glass. One slip and you were sprawled. But the Ice Queen could still sweep into such a room with her high heels, and glare at the writhing tangle of naked human bodies she found there.

‘Off with their heads!’ She whispered, and her whisper was all hiss and cold fury.

But the snaky arms beckoned, invited her into the warm sea of want. The pulsing chests offered blissful shade from the harsh strobe lights. How much longer would she be able to resist that invitation?

The Snow Queen. From “Andersen’s Fairy Tales” illustrated by Artuš Scheiner (1934)
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On the Dangers of Certainty

There is nothing I dislike more than people who are 100% certain they are right all the time. Who have such fixed mindsets that they cannot even entertain the thought that others might think or feel differently, or that others might be right and they might be wrong, or that others might be right in their own way.

Bertrand Russell was well aware of this when he remarked: ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.’ I have often wished I could be more on the side of fools and fanatics rather than as indecisive as moral philosophy professor Chidi from the TV show The Good Place, but then I console myself that Bertrand Russell also said: ‘In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.’

What prompted all this musing? Well, the current political situation across several countries, for starters, where it appears that clueless and cruel leaders can utter the most outrageous statements without the slightest shadow of guilt or remorse. That is because they feel no remorse or guilt: they are breathtakingly sure of themselves and in love with themselves, believe they are always right and that the opinions of others simply do not matter, because the others are not as clever or wonderful or worthy as themselves and therefore not worth listening to.

The recent trip to Romania with its avoidance of political discussion with my parents (and other acquaintances) and of course the ongoing battle about financial settlement with Wet Blanket further crystallised this feeling. I am sure I too have a sense of righteousness about certain moral principles (not killing, except in the fiction I write, would probably come pretty high on the agenda, for example, as would not hurting other people – these are non-negotiable red lines). Beyond, that it’s dangerous when your own ideas and principles trump everyone else’s and make you blind and deaf to any other views, and it’s painful to see this in people whom I once loved or still love, who are highly educated, who have travelled the world and have been given every opportunity to think broadly, deeply and cross-culturally. While most of it seems to be a conflict between generations, I have heard younger people come out with such blanket statements as well. Here are some of the things I’ve heard in recent weeks which have disturbed me profoundly:

  • Watching Fox News documentaries on TV about Soros and the Jewish conspiracy to destabilise democracy in the US and commenting: ‘Ah, the Hungarians have cottoned on to this guy and kicked him out of their country. When will we wise up?’
  • ‘Our Greek Orthodox Church is being weakened by those loose Western values, we are at war with those liberals who need to fill their churches with jazz concerts in order to survive.’
  • ‘At least Putin knows how to deal with those capitalists who just want to come in and buy up the country.’
  • ‘Who could possibly be against declaring that marriage is something that should only exist between a man and a woman? They’ll be wanting to adopt children next and a child needs a proper family.’ When I said that what happens in the bedroom is no one else’s business, the reply is: ‘But they are not content with leaving things in the bedroom. Are they teaching them about homosexuality in schools in England as well? Because this is what is happening here: they are trying to brainwash young children with their sick mores.’ When I interjected that I don’t think anybody became gay because they were talked into it, another person said: ‘You are right: it’s inborn. It’s a disease.’
  • ‘I don’t understand all this #MeToo and Kavanaugh fuss. Let’s face it, there are some fundamental biological differences between men and women. Men are just genetically programmed to be competitive and aggressive, cheat and spread their seed as widely as possible. Women have known this since time immemorial and should just learn to protect themselves. As for that CERN professor who said women are not as good at physics and maths as men, which is why there are fewer of them in this field? Well, that’s absolutely true – that’s why it’s been so hard for me to meet women at work.’

I have spent a lifetime trying to argue with such people and their ideas. Often calmly, occasionally losing my temper and flouncing off. But there is no arguing with these type of people and I cannot realistically expunge them out of my life. Recently, I’ve resorted to the ‘bite your lip hard and run away to count to ten’ strategy. However, counting to ten has turned into counting to a hundred, stress and insomnia. All I can do is resolve not to allow these people to upset me in the future as much as they have done in the past and use all the material in my fiction in future.

Holiday Book Haul

I had to pay a rather absurd amount for overweight luggage, although it was only my suitcase that was 4 kilos overweight, my older son’s suitcase was 4 kilos underweight and my younger son had no suitcase at all. What can I say except: don’t fly TAROM, as they clearly try to rip you off. So what was in my luggage? Of course all the Romanian delicacies that I miss so much when I am back in England: wine, homemade jam and honey, herbs and tea leaves from my mother’s garden, quinces (shame I cannot bring the tasty organic vegetables or cheese or endless array of milk products – kefir, sana, drinkable yoghurt, buttermilk etc.).
And, naturally, I had to bring back some Romanian books and DVDs. Romanian cinema is not very well known but highly respected in a small niche community. I got a recent film Child’s Pose, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, which covers pretty much all the topics that interest me: domineering mothers, generational and class conflict, as well as corruption in present-day Romania. I also got two older films from the 1960s by one of the best Romanian directors, Lucian Pintilie: The Forest of the Hanged based on one of my favourite Romanian novels, and The Reconstruction. The latter was named ‘the best Romanian film of all time’ by the Romanian film critics’ association, although it was forbidden during the Communist period because it turned out to be too much of a commentary on the viciousness of an abusive, authoritarian society.
There are many beautiful bookshops in Romania nowadays, although not all of my pictures came out well. I certainly lived up to my reputation of not being able to enter any bookshop without buying something! Among the things I bought are Fram and Apolodor, a polar bear and a penguin homesick for their native lands, two children’s books I used to adore and which I am very keen to translate into English and promote for the BookTrust reading scheme for diverse children’s literature In Other Words
I succumbed to the lovely hardback edition of Mihail Sebastian’s diary from 1935 to 1944, such a crucial (and sad) time in Romanian history, especially from a Jewish point of view. I got two titles, both family sagas, by female authors that I already know and admire: Ileana Vulpescu and Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (the latter is sort of our national Virginia Woolf, although not quite as experimental, but she nevertheless dragged Romanian literature into modernity).
Brasov Bookshop 1
I also bought some new contemporary writers to try out: Radu Pavel Gheo –  Good Night, Kids about emigration and coming back to the ‘home country’, Lavinia Braniste – Internal Zero, a book about young single women in Romania today, Ioana Parvulescu – Life Starts on a Friday, a historical crime novel or time-travelling story. Last but not least, I sneaked back one of my favourite books from my childhood Follow the Footprints by William Mayne. Nobody else seems to have heard of this book or this writer, although he has been described as one of the ‘outstanding and most original children’s authors of the 20th century’. Sadly, in googling him, I discover that he was also imprisoned for two years in 2004 for sexually abusing young girl fans, so that leaves a bitter taste in my fond childhood memory.
Brasov Bookshop 2
While in Romania, I received a fairly large pile of books back home in the UK to my cat sitter’s surprise, some for review, some I’d previously ordered. So here are the things which came thudding through my letter-box.
I went on a bit of a Murakami Haruki binge following the reading of Killing Commendatore. I suppose because the book was enjoyable but not his best work, I wanted to get my hands on some of my favourites by him that I did not yet own: The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleSputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Unrelated, and possibly as a result of some Twitter discussion, I went on a Marian Engel binge – a Canadian author I had heard of, but never read. I had to search hard in second-hand stores but found The Honeyman Festival, Lunatic Villas and Bear (I had heard about this last one, the love story between a woman and a bear, and it sounds absolutely bonkers). Meanwhile, I decided I needed to up my game with Chinese women authors, so I bought two Shanghai-based stories of illicit passion, Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and Wei Hui’s more contemporary Shanghai Baby. I also read an extract from Anna Dostoevsky’s reminiscences about how she met and fell in love with Dostoevsky on Brainpickings, so I ordered a copy of her out-of-print memoir.
I make no bones about being an unabashed fan of Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen, but I realised that one of his books was still missing from my shelves – his first to be translated into English (and possibly his darkest) The Healer. And the final, thick tome to make its home on my bedside table is from the Asymptote Book Club. I am very excited to be reading Ahmet Altan’s first book in the Ottoman Quartet – yet another family saga – Like a Sword Wound. Currently imprisoned in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, Altan (better known in the West as a crusading journalist, but much loved and respected in his homeland for his fiction) is currently working on the final volume of the quartet in prison. Last, but not least, I also received a copy of Flash Fiction Festival Two, a collection of sixty micro fictions written by participants and presenters from the second Flash Fiction Festival in the UK, which I attended (and loved) in Bristol in July. I am delighted to be there among them with a tale about a kitchen!

Friday Fun: Chateaux and Manor Houses

Can we ever have too many chateaux? In France they have a term for those houses that are not too extravagant but aspire to be chateaux or manor houses: Maison de maitre. The Master’s House. Let’s leave aside any classist (and gendered) connotations for a moment and dream of letting everyone have access to them!

Boath House, Nairn, Scotland. From Boath-House.com
Nearly a chateau in France, from thisisglamorous.com
Villa near Paris, from cote-maison.fr
American version of European style, from dsdixonarchitects.com
Simple and slightly windswept beauty, from lobsterandswan.com
I wouldn’t mind even this really tiny house, from feld-architecture.eu

German Literature Month: Fred Uhlman

Fred Uhlman: Reunion

I am linking this to the German Literature Month initiative, which has been run so successfully for 8 years now as a collaboration between Lizzy and Caroline. Yet it is a rather odd one to include here. Although Fred Uhlman was German, he emigrated from Germany in 1933 (just like his protagonist) and wrote this book in English. Yet its theme is very German and the author’s nostalgia for the landscapes of Württemberg and for a defunct way of life (and innocence) is so evident, that I do think it fits here.

It is a very slim volume, almost a short story, about the friendship between Hans Schwarz, son of a respected local doctor, and aristocratic newcomer to the school, Konradin von Hohenfels. Dazzled by the sophistication of the newcomer and the effortlessly golden lifestyle he represents, Hans and his initial hero worship harks back to other male friendships, portrayed in Brideshead Revisited or Remembrance of Things Past. Yet, with its sense of mourning over a past that can never be recovered, and with the conclusion that good and bad live together in a person, however heroic they might initially seem and however much we love them, it reminds me most of Le Grand Meaulnes.

For one brief year Hans and Konradin become inseparable, against all expectations, for this is 1932 in Germany and one is Jewish, the other very Aryan indeed. The author sums up the differences between them in his very concise, spare style, leaving so much to be imagined by the reader.

Who was I to talk to him? In which of Europe’s ghettos had my ancestors been huddled when Frederick von Hohenstaufen gave Anno von Hohenfels his bejewelled hand? What could I, son of a Jewish doctor, grandson and great-grandson of a Rabbi, and of a line of small merchants and cattle dealers, offer this golden-haired boy whose very name filled me with such awe?

And yet their friendship thrives, as they discuss their coin collections, debate philosophy, hike up and down the region, shyly admit to fancying certain girls, and recite from their favourite poet Hölderlin (incidentally, their favourite poem by him is also my favourite, which I learnt by heart at much the same age as the main characters and yet refers to middle age). There is perhaps a slight hint that they are aware of a social chasm between them: Hans is ashamed of the way his parents are overly impressed by his new friend’s titles, while Konradin never seems to invite Hans into his home when his parents are around.

Hitler and Fascism still seem like a joke or a temporary madness that no one is willing to take seriously. Hans’ father is so firmly assimilated in his German home that he sends a Zionist fundraiser packing. He speaks for many of the German and Austrian Jews of the period.

To claim Palestine after two thousand years made no more sense to him than the Italians claiming Germany because it was once occupied by the Romans. It could only lead to endless bloodshed… And anyway what had he, a Stuttgarter, to do with Jerusalem?

When the Zionist mentioned Hitler… my father said: …’I know my Germany. This is a temporary illness, something like measles, which will pass as soon as the economic situation improves. Do you really believe that the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish?’

Fred Uhlman

But they do. A lesson from history for us all. The ending is incredibly poignant, yet very spare stylistically. This is certainly not a writer who piles on adjectives or effusions, which perhaps makes this ‘typical’ story all the more memorable. Uhlman was a painter, and like Tove Jansson, also a painter, he knows how to convey just enough with words to build that picture in our mind.

Romanian Road Trip: Transylvania without Vampires

Don’t get me started about the tenuous connection between Transylvania and vampires! I suppose we have Bram Stoker to thank for tourism to this part of Romania, but there is no historical connection between Vlad Ţepeş and Dracula. According to the latest research, Stoker was inspired by a book written by a Scottish lady, Emily Gerard. She spent two years in the 1880s in Romania and wrote about the belief in strigoi, as we call them in Romanian. The belief was far stronger, however, in the rest of the Balkans (Greece, Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria), with outbreaks of mass hysteria in the 18th century and people being accused of vampirism, much the same as they were accused of witchcraft in Western Europe. When Bram Stoker heard about Vlad Dracul, the nickname of Vlad Ţepeş’s father, he could not resist using the name with its satanic connotations for his novel. And so a myth was born – and, even if it’s not really our myth, why should we turn down a good money-spinning venture?

There is a link to Transylvania in the person of Elizabeth Báthory, Hungarian noblewoman related to the Báthory family who ruled over Transylvania in the 16th century. She was allegedly the most prolific female serial killer and kidnapped, tortured, killed and dismembered predominantly young girls between the ages of 10 and 14. 

While Elizabeth Báthory never lived in Transylvania, there are plenty of castle/fortresses in that part of the country that were in the hands of fierce and strong females, wives of Hungarian, German or Romanian noblemen whose husbands had gone off to war. Of course, they also had a small contingent of soldiers to defend them, but the women were the ones who took the lead in economic, political and social decisions in their community. One such place is the Fagaraş Citadel, about halfway between Braşov and Sibiu, and this is where we stopped on our road trip.

Făgăraș was built over a wooden fortress razed to the ground by the Tatars; most of the building dates from the 14th-15th centuries, but was added to until the early 17th century. It was built on marshland, surrounded by a moat, which made any approaches by horse or heavy cannons virtually impossible; thus, the fortress was under siege many times but never conquered. It was initially a military fortress, but also became the seat of the local lord and his wife, so you can visit their restored chambers and view collections of old furniture, glass, local costumes and other traditional treasures.

The inner courtyard suddenly transports you to a different century.
Reconstruction of the Throne Room – where the Ottoman representatives would come to discuss terms with the leaders of Transylvania.
Council room for the brief period during which Transylvania was independent of any empire.
Traditional German men’s costume from the region.
Traditional Hungarian women’s costume from the area.
Traditional Romanian costume from the area.

It has also been used as a prison in the past – and there is a rather stark scaffold for hanging in the courtyard and some torture instruments in the basement, which I did not take pictures of. The fortress has a sad history even in modern times: from 1948-1960 it was a prison for those who protested against the Communist regime. There was a small but fascinating exhibition there about the mothers, wives and sisters of the resistance fighters from the Făgăraș mountain area.

The road to Sibiu runs parallel to the Carpathians, although sadly it was not the clearest day to admire the views and acres of mountains. Those mountains feature in my novel set in Romania, and a fatal accident takes place there. (I feel much more inspired to edit the novel now after my trip to Romania, by the way.)

You can barely make out the mountains in the distance but on a clear day it is utter heaven. I’ve been hiking in these mountains many a time – and my parents live just on the other side of them, about 100 km as the crow flies.

We have visited Sibiu many times, as my younger son’s godparents live there. They have two boys of very similar age and are almost a microcosm of traditional Romanian culture: he is of Hungarian extraction, she is Romanian, but they both speak German and met while studying in Germany (which is where I too met them). So their children are trilingual and have grown up in a home free of prejudice or biased interpretations of history.

The Small Square, which marks the second set of city walls in Sibiu.
The tiny windows in the attic are known as ‘the eyes of Sibiu’.
Four strapping young boys braving the Liars’ Bridge. Local superstition has it that if you utter a lie on this bridge, it will collapse.

By way of comparison, here is a picture of three of the same boys a few years back. It is delightful for us to see the friendship extending to the next generation as well!

One side note: In the past, the only language my boys and their boys had in common was Romanian, so it was lovely to hear them chatter. Sadly, this year it became clear that the Sibiu boys’ English has become better than my boys’ Romanian, so they mainly spoke in English. Still, we all spoke Romanian at the table, and my sons understood everything and by the end of the trip, their tongues began to loosen a little. I have to make more of an effort to speak to them in Romanian consistently at home, a habit I lost while we were in France (when I was concerned about keeping up their English).

Romanian Road Trip: Mountain Country

When I was young, I always wanted to go to the seaside on holiday in Romania and couldn’t understand why we had to follow the national tradition of a week at the seaside followed by a week in the mountains. Nowadays, however, I much prefer the mountains (at least in my home country – for beaches are pretty similar everywhere in Europe).

The first part of our road trip was heading north out of Bucharest up the picturesque Prahova Valley (particularly colourful at this time of year) to Braşov. We only stopped for lunch because both the cable car at Buşteni and the Peleş Palace in Sinaia were closed on a Tuesday, but if you ever go that way, you should stop and check out both. (By the way, the s with cedilla is pronounced ‘sh’).

Peles, the summer residence of the Romanian kings in the 19th/20th century. From gandul.info
The Sphinx, rock formation caused by the heavy winds at the top of the Bucegi mountains, accessible only on foot from the Busteni cable car.

We stayed a few days in Braşov, also known as Kronstadt in German, because its symbol is of a crown on an oak tree. Not to be confused with the Russian Kronstadt near St Petersburg, it was a bustling medieval and Renaissance town of craftsmen and merchants, where German, Hungarian and Romanian ethnicities lived together in something resembling harmony.

The coat of arms of the city on the town hall.

While it does not have the grand architecture of Sibiu (which is where the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy lived), it is still full of beautiful old buildings, some of them more renovated than others.

Nightfall in the main square of the Old Town, with the Hollywood-style lit-up sign of Brasov.
View of the city from behind the sign.

It is also home to one of the narrowest streets in Europe, appropriately known as ‘Rope Street’. Each window looking out onto the street has been decorated by a different artist.

I have a soft spot for Braşov, though, and not just because it has been the scene of many an escapade during my high school and university years (it is only 2 hours from Bucharest, so we went skiing or hiking nearly every other weekend). It is also surrounded by mountains, so in just a few minutes you can be in the forest and feel that you have left all the urban hustle and bustle behind you.

We stayed at a very nice hotel here too, in the Schei neighbourhood, which was just outside the Old Town walls and was traditionally the only place where Romanians were allowed to settle. This was the view from our balcony.

The weather was not as kind to us here as it was throughout the rest of our trip. It only rained a little bit, but there was cloud cover, which meant we didn’t get the best views of or from the mountains. And it was very cold for two days, with some snowfall, especially up in the ski resort Poiana Braşov, where I learnt to ski again as a grown-up after a ski accident in my childhood put an end to winter sports for me, as far as my parents were concerned.

A world away from the mellow autumnal landscape below.
All is well, however, when you can warm up your icy toes in a hot tub at the Hotel Sport.
Since it was out of season, we had the whole place practically to ourselves.

But it was the interplay of nature and architecture, as well as the friendly cats, which made us love Braşov.

Gate to the Old Town.
The tower of the famous Black Church in the background.
We kept passing this abandoned house on our way back to the hotel. I would love to renovate it and keep a few cats there. 

This is getting too long, so I will have to tell you about the next stage of our journey in a separate blog post. I had some hard choices to make about which route to take to Sibiu, where my younger son’s godparents live. I was initially planning to go via Sighişoara, which is the most beautiful medieval towns in Romania, but a bit farther away. In the end, time and other circumstances made us opt for another route. But, as you will see, we discovered a lesser-known treasure there as well.

One last fond look at Braşov. 

If you go there, try their Bulz (a sort of polenta and cheese mix rolled up into a ball) and their Papanaşi – enormous doughnuts traditionally served as a pair with blueberry jam and cream. Extremely filling – I can’t believe I used to be able to tackle those as a dessert. I now could barely finish one as a main course!

From retete.unica.ro