Friday Fun: Monastic Retreats

When I was in my early teens, I had a craving to become a nun. Not so much for reasons of faith, but because I kept thinking what fun it must be to have plenty of time to read, write, meditate and perhaps do a spot of gardening. Of course, in the meantime, I have realised that modern monastic communities do far more than that. And yet, when I see pictures such as these, I want to go on a retreat there for several weeks, if not months.

St Mary’s Monastery in Perth, Scotland, from TripAdvisor.
Metochi Monastery in Lesvos, Greece, has been rented out as a study centre for the University of Agder in Norway, from lesvos.com
The Swiss monastery of Kappel am Albis is a place where I once ran a training workshop over several days – the food was brilliant too! From Cityseeker.
The Chartreusian monasteries are among the strictest in the world – you are practically locked up in your cell – still, when the cell looks like this, I wouldn’t mind. Photo credit Nico Angleys on Twitter, from the Grand Chartreux Monastery.
The Abbaye de Lerin runs revision sessions for high school students preparing their Baccalaureate. It’s on an island near Cannes, so there is no escape. Photo credit: Jean-Jacques Giordan.
A very modern Benedictine monastery, Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire was built on the site of an old farm. From Mucknellabbey.org
Combining two of my favourite things: South Africa and Buddhism, this Buddhist retreat near Durban is a dream – and has accommodation ranging from the basic to the luxurious. Photo credit: Chantelle Flores, from Travelstart.co.za

Friday Fun: Painters in Curtea de Argeş

One final blog post about my trip to Romania, but you will be relieved to hear that this time you will not have to rely on my puny photographic skills. Instead, I would like to introduce you to some painters associated with the little town of Curtea de Argeş. I was surprised to discover there were far more than I had expected, when I went to visit the local museum. Alongside painters who were either born or made their home here, this part of the country seems to have been a popular source of inspiration for well-known painters living in Bucharest. Not to mention, of course, the medieval church frescoes.

Starting with the oldest: 14th century altarpiece in the church at the Royal Court (Biserica Domneasca). From Trecator.ro
Interior of the Curtea de Arges monastery (frescos dating from the 16th century but renovated in 2010). From transfagarasantravel.ro
The famous ‘family portrait’ of Neagoe Basarab, who ordered the monastery to be built.
Iosif Iser: Peasant Family in Arges, 1918, from Universulargesean.ro
The artist who restored many of the church frescos in Arges, Dumitru Norocea. His house (painted here by himself) now houses a collection of art and ethnography. From Am Fost Acolo blog.
Ion Theodorescu-Sion: Street in Curtea de Arges, 1922, from Pictura Zilei, ziuaconstanta.ro
Porch in Arges by Rudolf Schweitzer-Cumpăna, 1927, on WikiArt.
Emil Ivanescu Millan was renowned in the 1930s as a painter of church frescoes. From adevarul.ro
After the Second World War, Ivanescu-Millan settled in Curtea de Arges and painted landscapes and portraits, from adevarul.ro
Nicolae Darascu: Landscape from Arges, 1950s. From WikiArt.
Not in Curtea de Arges itself, but at the Cotmeana Monastery nearby, this rather fine depiction of hell. From povestidecalatorie.ro.

Friday Fun: City vs. Country

There are contrasts between the urban and rural in any country, but I sometimes think that Romania is an extreme example of that. No wonder I am dazed when I go back there for any period of time!

The Museum of Romanian Literature is housed in a former noble townhouse in Bucharest.
My grandmother’s house has been repainted, the vine replanted, but you can still see the porch where we used to sleep in summer, because it was too hot indoors.
Architectural detail on Calea Victoriei, Bucharest.
Interior delight at my grandmother’s house in the countryside. We loved the stove, which was used both for cooking and for heating in winter. The ubiquitous Abduction from the Seraglio wall hanging (barely glimpsed on the left) was less popular with us children…
Charming room over the carriage entrance at a grand house in Bucharest.
Although my grandparents’ house had two rooms, one was kept pristine ‘The Good Room’ for guests, while the parents and seven children all crowded in two beds in this room. My father, the youngest of seven children, says that they slept horizontally across the bed, with their feet either dangling or propped up on chairs.
The best restaurant in Bucharest at the moment, or so I hear.
During the summer months, my grandmother used this summer kitchen next to the main house, with a vegetable and herb garden right next to it, and grapevines hanging over a trellis (no longer there) while we played cards at the table – and occasionally helped her.
The Bucharest villa of pianist Dinu Lipatti, lit up in Ukrainian colours.
One of the three cemeteries where family members lie buried in the countryside.
There isn’t much love for modernist architecture, but this 1930s building designed for a ministry deserves to be renovated.
Museum of Art Collections was one of my favourite places to visit while at school, with frequent talks about art and culture from other countries.

Friday Fun: The Little Royal Town

My parents chose to retire in the little town of Curtea de Argeș (population 27,000), because they were both originally from the local area, still have family there and can easily go and visit the family graves or native village without having to live in a completely rural environment. Despite its idyllic location in the foothills of the Carpathians, it is a sleepy town for most of the year, without a single theatre, cinema or leisure centre, and a library and museum that are hardly ever open or visited by anyone. In recent years, quite a few people from Bucharest have chosen to retire there (usually because of family connections) and built quite beautiful and large houses, in the hope of luring back their children for the holidays. But the children tend to find the place completely dead after they turn seven or so.

However, the name of the town itself hints at its former glory, for it literally means The Court on the Argeș, which is the name of a rather manky looking river nowadays (because they have built hydro power stations all along it), and also the name of the county. In the Middle Ages, when several local fiefdoms united to form the basis for Wallachia (which later became one of the founding states of modern Romania), it was here that they established the first capital city. You can still see the ruins of the court of the Basarab family and the church that they built here, which is even older than the famous local monastery.

Built by 1351, although the interior frescoes weren’t completed until 1369.
Detail: this style of building with layers of horizontal bricks alternating with stone is quite unique to this area, as far as I am aware. The renovated sculptural details around the window casing data from the 17th century.
The grand entrance to the royal court: the ruler himself lived in a fairly simple two-room accommodation on the right-hand side as you walk in, but his ‘offices’ on the left-hand side, where people came to petition him and where he received foreign dignitaries, were much grander. Still, he could walk from home to work, right?
The gatekeeper’s house was built in the mid-19th century to mimic a traditional peasant house from the local area.
Couldn’t resist this juxtaposition of old and new – this church was built at around the same time on a hill just outside the Royal Court and probably served as a watchtower. Nowadays, the small park contains the War Memorial.
The covered market was built in the late 19th century, when the little market town became popular again because King Carol I decided to make it his final resting place for him and his descendants.
Not my picture, but to give you an idea of what it looks like inside: from ZiarulActualitatea.com. Nowadays, however, the farmers’ market is next door in a slightly more modern building, while the main building is dedicated to butchers and fishmongers. Still a great place to shop, though!
This, however, is what the town is best known for: the Monastery, with its rather gruesome legend with echoes of Icarus and human sacrifice, which has led to one of the most enduring and heartrending ballads in Romanian literature. Proud to say that my younger son was christened inside it, especially since the church is no longer used for ceremonies.
But there are plenty of examples of eclectic 18th and 19th century architecture peppered across town, despite the Communist drive towards industrialisation and ugly blocks of flats.
Traditional architecture in Casa Cioculestilor, from ro.wikipedia.org
Casa Chiriță from the early 20th century in neo-Romanian style.
Casa Norocea from 1913.
The town is also an important archdiocese for the Archbishop of the local area and obviously has reserved a fine building for him and his workers.
The Teodorescu House, from ro.wikipedia.org
The Hohenzollern royal family liked this place so much, they built a whole railway track from Pitesti, with each station along the way in a distinctive red brick style and of course culminating in this gorgeous oversized end of the line station. Sadly, although the local council wants to renovate it as a historical monument, it belongs to the National Rail equivalent in Romania, who doesn’t have the money to maintain it. From ro.wikipedia.org

Friday Fun: Walking down the boulevard

I wanted to keep all of the architectural pictures I took in Romania in one place, although there are so many of them, that it will end up being two or even three Friday posts, if you can cope. The first installment is from Bucharest, on the boulevard I walked down nearly every day to get to my university department (which was not at the main university building). It was always a prestigious location, with fine noble houses from the 19th century. Now back to its old name (of a 19th century conservative politician) to replace the 1848 woman revolutionary Ana Ipătescu, simply because that was the name of the street during Communist times, although naturally she had nothing to do with Communism. I’m quite incensed about this change of name, actually, and not quite sure whether I should be grateful or sad that the most beautifully renovated buildings are embassies or foreign companies nowadays.

A balcony worthy of Romeo and Juliet – and more magnolia.
Some of the buildings are very Parisian in style and feel.
While others have (to my mind) a more Oriental/Turkish twist.
Some are clearly more Scandinavian or inspired by mountain chalets.
Some might call this hodge-podge, but I quite enjoy the variety of styles on display.
Clearly, there was a bit of ‘outdoing your neighbours’ rivalry going on.
Who has the best decoration, round windows, little turrets, balconies, iron gates?
A friend of mine lived in a flat in this building (back when it was nationalised), so it’s sad to see it is one of the few remaining unrenovated ones. Although it has a certain decaying charm…
Glad to see that this one is getting refurbished. I’d love a study right there at the very top, wouldn’t you?
Away from the fancy houses on the main street, the back streets in this area are still full of the more modest houses of the bourgeois professional classes. This ‘bungalow’ one might have belonged to a doctor or a lawyer.
It’s the little details that I love. So unnecessary, so charming.
And this is my favourite house, in the so-called neo-Romanian style which was hugely popular at the start of the 20th century. You might recognise it from the first picture at the top.

Trip to Romania

It wasn’t exactly the most restful of holidays, but it was something that my soul had been begging for over the past 29 months – a trip back ‘home’ to my country of birth, to see my parents. I have shared various pictures and trips down memory lane via Twitter – and I will probably use my many, many attempts to capture Romanian architecture over the next few Friday Fun posts. Here are a few rather haphazard thoughts about my first trip abroad since the Covid outbreak – almost like an attempt at catching a few birds before they all scatter and fly off!

  1. For a country that is among the poorest in the EU and has had a somewhat troubled history with Ukraine, I was very impressed at the genuinely warm and well-organised welcome being extended to the Ukrainian refugees. Not so impressed with the news about the lone madman (and convicted criminal, and also ex-politician) who tried to ram his car into the gate of the Russian Embassy in Bucharest after dousing himself in flammable liquid. But the war seems more immediate when you’re bordering the country involved (which is why I remember the war in Yugoslavia so clearly still).
Temporary shelters set up in the main railway station in Bucharest, for late arrivals from the Ukrainian border around 483 kms to the north. (There is another Ukrainian border to the east which is much closer)

2. Romanian government, state institutions and bureaucracy are difficult to navigate, chaotic and corrupt and all too often quarreling amongst themselves. However, the Romanian population are almost resigned at seeing themselves as being at the ‘back of the class for misbehaviour’ and refuse to believe that other countries can have equally appalling public institutions or politicians.

Did I manage to complete all the paperwork required for renewing my passport? Very nearly, except it will take three months until they return them and I can then submit them to the Romanian consulate in London. Just as well I have another passport, isn’t it?

3. My parents have become frail over the past two and a half years, especially my mother. I will have to start planning more frequent trips back to Romania to see her and help support my father in caring for her. Our relationship has not been a very harmonious one over the years, but this time we managed not to quarrel. Doubtlessly, the long absence played a part. Besides, she only mentioned two of her major disappointments with me (my weight and that my career did not live up to my initial promise) instead of the habitual four. I did weakly attempt to justify my many sideways career moves and changes, but then realised that no matter how good my career might have been (and how content I might have been with it), it would not have lived up to her expectations.

4. The countryside is still filled with middle-aged people who toil in hard-core manual labour on their small pieces of land in what is essentially subsistence agriculture – and who have built or renovated quite impressive houses for their children to inherit. Yet their children have either moved to the city or abroad and have no intention of ever inhabiting those houses. It breaks my heart to see them all working so hard for nothing, and never getting a chance to enjoy their own lives or retire properly.

My grandmother’s house used to be the traditional white of the region with grapevines growing all over its facade. It is now empty for most of the year, although my father and other relatives go there occasionally to maintain it. It is NOT one of the impressive houses I mention above, but full of fond memories.

5. I was determined to focus on the positives and took lots of pictures of well-renovated buildings in both Bucharest and the small town of Curtea de Arges, which was the first capital of Wallachia in the 13th century – before regaining its royal favour in the late 19th century, when the Hohenzollern kings imported to Romania at that time decided to make the famous monastery there their official burial site. Sadly, some of the beautiful old buildings that were nationalised by the Communists and then reclaimed by the original owners are being allowed to fall into ruin deliberately, so that the land can be sold or something more lucrative (like a block of flats) built in its place.

The Writers’ Union was housed in this Monteoru Palace in Bucharest and returned to the descendents of the family in 2013, who declared their intention to turn it into a cultural centre. So far, the only change I have seen is a mobile cafe/bar in its front garden.
Luckily, the Romanian Academy was purpose-built for the organisation in the late 19th century. I used to laughingly call it ‘my future workplace’ as a child.

6. There had been a cold snap during the previous weeks in Romania (and two heavy rainstorms while I was there), so the tree blossoms and flowers were far behind their British counterparts. I still enjoyed walking through the parks where I spent so many lovely and romantic moments in my youth (I lived entirely in Bucharest – with the exception of the summer holidays – from the age of 14 to 22), but the trees did look slightly threadbare. Nevertheless, I made several trips to check out the beautiful protected magnolia tree which I walked past each morning on my way to school and where I first kissed my high-school boyfriend. Although we moved to different countries, married, had children, divorced, remarried, we have loosely kept in touch over the years (incidentally, the only one of my exes to ever ask me how I was and how my writing was going instead of boasting about his achievements), so I couldn’t resist sending him a picture of the magnolia and he wrote back at once to say: ‘So many lovely memories!’

And now I am still floating around in that state of limbo, in which my mind has been scrambled and shaken out of its routine and habits. I have been confronted with a culture that is still so familiar to me but so different from my everyday life here in Britain. I became immersed in my past and that of my family, talking almost non-stop with my parents about all the friends and relatives, about family secrets and my own childhood as well as theirs. But actually, what I find most confusing and tiring is that the country, culture and language has moved on without me while I have been living abroad. It’s not just the change in street names or orthography, or the new bars and restaurants that have opened up, the Americanised vocabulary… It’s the fact that those young people who have known no other political and economic system than the current one (those born after 1990) are now approaching their thirties and finding our tales of life under Communism quaint and ever so slightly unbelievable.

Friday Fun: Chateaux with Modern Interiors

You don’t always have to painstakingly maintain the traditional interior of a chateau, it appears that heritage laws are not always that strict – possibly if you have enough money to circumvent them.

Of course a chateau has to have a double-spaced great hall with a gallery, right? From Angus2012.
Keeping it simple, with bare floors and dark walls, from nbaynadamas.blogspot.com
A rather more ornate reinterpretation of a chateau, from Architectural Digest Middle East.
A blend of traditional bookcases and modern furniture and lighting, from Architectural Digest.
A timeless interior, with a few iconoclastic touches, like the shaggy chair, from House Beautiful.
With these frescos, this apartment on the Riviera only needs the bare minimum of furnishings, from The Spaces.

Friday Fun: Impractical Houses

My Friday Fun fluffy posts have always been about escapism rather than practicalities, but the houses below might strain credulity.

Ncaved House in Greece, half-buried into the mountain, by Mold Architecture. It feels like a very barren place to me.
Sea conch shaped house in Mexico looks brilliant at first glance, but can you imagine trying to fit in any furniture – or having to repaint the exterior? From WonderfulEngineering.com
This lighthouse-shaped house in Devon formed one of the saddest episodes of Grand Designs, as the owner not only took ten years and went millions of pounds into debt to build it, but his marriage also broke down in the process.
This playful, Moomin-like treetop house in Norway is destined for weekend stays… and is certainly not wheelchair friendly. From Azure Pan Cabin.
This Snail House in Sofia, Bulgaria, extends over five storeys (windows are all on the other side) – great fun, but the paint touch-up job must be excruciating. From Trip Advisor.
This one looks pretty much like a dream pad to me, except it feels slightly claustrophobic and I rather like my bedroom to be dark in the morning. From Pinterest.

Italian Literature: Svevo, De Gregorio, Bajani, Durastanti

It’s a shame really, because each of these books deserves a full-length review, but I am running out of time as I still have so much to do before leaving for Romania next week. I apologise to Italian literature and its many fans for shortchanging it!

Italo Svevo: A Perfect Hoax, transl. J.G. Nichols, Alma Classics.

One of Svevo’s lesser works, a bagatelle one might say, but leaving a bitter and sad aftertaste in spite of its humour. Mario Samigli is an ageing ‘man of letters’, who was never quite able to replicate the success of his first novel and is now writing very short fables about birds. He lives with his brother, Giulio, who never dares to contradict him, and they both seem to be perfectly content. Until one day a mischievous acquaintance of Mario’s, travelling salesman Enrico Gaia, tricks him into believing that a prestigious foreign publishing house wants to translate and promote that first novel.

Mario may be conceited and deluded, incredibly thin-skinned with his brother, often garrulous, but in his heart of hearts he has doubts about the value of his work, so we cannot help but sympathise with him. Meanwhile, Gaia’s motivation is cruel:

… the trick he played on Mario was loaded with real hatred. Oh yes, indeed. He had a fierce hatred of his great friend. He may not have been quite conscious of it, because he was convinced rather that he felt nothing but a deep compassion for Mario, that wretch who was so presumptuous and had nothing in the world, who was stuck in a rotten job in which he could never get on. When he talked about Mario, he knew how to look compassionate, but he twisted his lips in what could also be seen as a threat.

Yet Mario too has a cruel streak, for example when he belittles his brother’s ill health and feels that his own literary efforts are far more important. We may feel that Mario is making a mountain of a molehill when he begins to realise he has been duped, but he lives ‘in a city which is too small for him to walk through its streets safely – that is, unrecognised’. In this short tragicomedy about an average person (but one whose youthful ambitions have been reborn) in a provincial town, Svevo shows a deep insight into human frailties and fantasies, and our universal desire for some form of respect and recognition. Let’s not forget that Svevo himself only found fame for his literary work late in life (and died soon thereafter).

Concita De Gregorio: The Missing Word, transl. Clarissa Botsford, Europa Editions.

In most languages, there is no word for parents who lose children – that is the missing word of the title. And yet this was not an unusual state of affairs in the old days, when many children died during infancy. Nowadays, it is a rare event, it seems almost against nature. Yet this is what happened to Irina Lucidi, an Italian lawyer working in Lausanne. After separating from her Swiss husband, she agrees to a reasonable form of joint custody for their six-year-old twin daughters: at their dad’s every second weekend, and a couple of days during the week. One weekend at the end of January 2011, their father picks them up and they are never seen again. The father commits suicide by throwing himself under a train a few days later.

I remember this story, which was still being talked about in the Swiss press when I moved to the area in the summer of 2011. The girls were of similar age to my boys, my own marriage was not going brilliantly well, and I suppose it resonated with my unspoken fears and, now that I think about it, it must have subconsciously influenced my own writing at the time. The most obvious explanation is of course that the father harmed the girls before committing suicide, but it was quite scandalous the way in which the Swiss investigators were far more likely to believe the father and treat the mother like a ‘hysterical Italian woman’.

De Gregorio is a journalist, broadcaster and writer, and in this ‘fictional retelling’ of a true story, she imagines what it must be like to live with such grief, and what it takes to finally be able to move on. It is a short, beautifully written and heart-wrenching piece of work, hybrid or however we choose to describe it: written from the point of view of Irina herself, but also through the letters she writes and the way she is perceived by those around her.

… you know that nothing is ever forgotten and that everything should be retrievable at any moment, so that you can put it somewhere…. How could we live without placating memory, which doesn’t mean giving up, or forgetting, but allowing the heat to cool down, the damp to dry, everything to transform itself so that a beginning can be born from an end.

Andrea Bajani: If You Kept a Record of Sins, transl. Elizabeth Harris, Archipelago Books.

A story about an ambiguous mother/son relationship and an outsider looking in at present-day Romania? How could I refuse such a combination? Written in a slant, allusive style, a detachment that is perhaps more longed for than real, it’s the kind of cool storytelling that many believe is the prerogative of the millenial generation (he is more of my generation, the one before that).

Lorenzo is the young man who was come to Romania for his mother’s funeral. His mother invented a machine for weight-loss and began to travel more and more frequently to promote it. At first she tries to compensate for her absence, bringing back presents for the son she leaves in the care of his stepfather:

It grew harder and harder to find any space to put the new souvenirs you’d brought without burying the old. They were from every country, every corner on earth, my room, trip after trip, becoming the world map of your absence.

Another form of over-compensating was trying to roast a turkey every time she came back from one of her trips, ‘playing at being a wife and mother’, without bothering to find out if anyone actually wanted that turkey. Which was just as well, because invariably the turkey would end up burnt.

Roasted or burned, thought, the turkey always went on the table. And the more burned it was, the more it seemed like an act of diefiance. You’d slap it on our plates, just as it was. And we ate that turkey, the three of us, heads down, not peeling off the blackened skin, not looking each other in the eye.

As the memories come tumbling out, we discover moments of tenderness, of imagination and creativity, of promises which he never asked for… and which never quite turned out the way he expected. Inevitably, her visits got rarer and rarer, and eventually she abandoned them both in order to build her business in Romania with a business partner turned lover. Yet Lorenzo discovers his mother’s final years were miserable, that she was probably too proud to admit her mistakes and ask for his forgiveness or companionship.

As a Romanian, I naturally was curious to catch glimpses of Romanian society through the eyes of an outsider and thought he did an excellent job of reflecting the sometimes opaque, occasionally naive ambition of the Romanian employee, as well as the disparaging tone that the foreign business people use to describe them. Bajani can be excoriating, without laying it on too thick: ‘the way they looked around, arrogant and sated, with the self-importance of someone who’s twice the boss for being in a foreign country’. Echoes of the film ‘Toni Erdmann’, for sure.

Claudia Durastanti: Cleopatra Goes to Prison, transl. Christine Donougher, Dedalus Euro Shorts.

I took part in the crowdfunding campaign to get this book translated and published. Although it’s a contemporary story, there is very much a feeling of the 1960s about it, so the cover photo from Antonioni’s film The Red Desert seems very appropriate. In fact, the 1960s ‘new wave’ vibes are so strong, that it’s almost surprising when the characters use mobile phones. It also reminded me of another Antonioni film, L’Avventura, with the cool, slightly bored Monica Vitti. offering us very few clues about why she does what she does. It is the same with Caterina, the modern-day Cleopatra of the title, even though part of the story is told through her first-person point of view.

Caterina is a young Roman girl, who aspired to be a ballet dancer but ended up working as a stripper at the bar she opened with her boyfriend Aurelio. This boyfriend is now in prison for pimping, and she visits him in prison every Thursday, while working as a receptionist and cleaner at a run-down hotel with no customers. But her other lover is one of the policemen who arrested Aurelio, and she is stuck between a rock and a hard place, between him and her boyfriend’s increasing paranoia that someone set him up and tipped off the police.

Caterina is a born survivor. As she says: ‘I’ve been fending for myself ever since I was born. It’s a genetic thing. I’ll pass it on to my kids.’ Yet this survival instinct comes perhaps at the expense of any ambition or hope of escape on her part: she doesn’t believe she will be happier in another place or with another person. The last long paragraph linking Caterina to the city in which she grew up and which she will never leave is a prose poem of fury and resignation.

Friday Fun: Of the Classical Bent

It seems that many of us cannot get enough of the more classical style of libraries – lots of wood, darker colours, symmetrical decorations, comfy armchairs. Somewhere to hide from the crazy world!

Shutters down if you are in a Southern climate, to protect your books. From Pinterest.
Art and books merge seamlessly here, plus check out that strategically placed reading lamp. From The Fuller Review.
You know I can never resist a library with a mezzanine floor, and this cosy seating arrangement is perfect for two bookish friends. From Pinterest.
The Americans always have to do everything bigger and more opulent – the fireplace apparently was brought over from a London townhouse. From Sotheby’s.
If you do not have the ceiling height for mezzanines, this arrangement works well too. From Architectural Digest.
Another American entry, Dunham Library in California, from Veranda.