This Brief Moment of Calm

I’m under no illusions that people are reading my blog for the personal updates, but I just thought it might be interesting for future me to look back on these posts and realise there was a moment in time when – despite everything that was going on in the world in amazingly bad and infuriating ways – I felt calm and balanced. It has been so long since I felt like that – or perhaps I’ve forgotten feeling like that, because the last 5-6 years have been pretty gruesome and any moments of joy very fleeting. So, I’d like to remind future me, when things appear to be overwhelming once again, that there are fleeting moments of contentment in the middle of buffeting storms.

North Khorasan Province, Iran. Photo credit: Mohammad Alizade on

I admit I am very fortunate that no one from my close friends or family have fallen ill with Covid. My boys were not supposed to have their A Levels or GCSEs this year, so we’ve had no heartbreak for the time being (and we can but live in hope that they will sort things out for next year). I am no longer the only one wearing face masks in the local shops, which has reduced my anxiety levels. I allow myself only a limited amount of ranting about politics and incompetence. And school reopening is still a couple of weeks away, so I am refusing to worry about it at present. Plus, we managed to find shoes for the boys, so the greatest expense and trickiest purchase of the schoolyear is done and dusted!

I think what has made the difference is that I’ve been able to sleep for at least six, and often seven, uninterrupted hours every night, even during the heatwave. And I haven’t been bleeding for about a month now. (I’ve been having a horrible menopause combined with a fibroid which has cause me to have almost non-stop heavy periods for the past three years; of course, my medical appointments keep getting postponed.) This made me realise: ‘I can’t believe how much lighter and livelier I feel. Wow, this is how normal people live every day…’

So, although work has been pretty busy and stress, although August is a month of financial drain to which I had to add the unexpected additional costs of Barney being diagnosed with diabetes and my bathtub leaking again, I have suddenly found myself much less prone to anger and helpless tears. I’ve even had the energy to exercise daily and to write a little bit every day (mostly diary entries or flash fiction, but every little counts.) I have some annual leave coming up next week and I might even go back to editing my novel!

Future me: Make the most of it, Marina, you’ve wasted enough time and this feeling might not last too long!

P.S. Entirely by coincidence, a podcast that I recorded a few weeks back (before this moment of calm) just went live today. I first encountered Britt Skrabanek online when I started my blog and was still living in France, but then somehow lost track of her. So it was a delight to reconnect and chat on her Love Your Enthusiasm series of interviews about my ideals and passions in life, my sources of inspiration and why I’ll never stop talking about the need for cross-cultural understanding and communication. I might not be able to go back to listen to my dulcet tones, but do have a listen if you feel so inclined (lots of bookish name-dropping).

I like the quote she picked to feature at the top of the podcast. Did I really say something as clever as that?

It feels like everybody’s retreating into the trenches, that people are shouting over each other instead of listening to each other. But I really think this won’t last. Art and literature and films will bring us closer once more. We’ll realize that we have a lot of common ground—and what is not common is worth exploring in more depth.

Love and Being Content in a Mad, Bad World

tooclosePascal Garnier: Too Close to the Edge (transl. Emily Boyce)

I always get something out of a Pascal Garnier book, but there are some which truly stand out. This is one of the stand-out ones. As usual with this author, it is a slim volume which leaves you ever-so-slightly moody and breathless.

It’s a simple-enough story of Éliette, a grandmother who is ‘not old enough or fat enough to be a Mémé’, who is facing life on her own after her husband’s death two months before he was due to retire. The house they had bought and renovated in preparation for their retirement is in an isolated location in the Ardèche and the life ‘which was supposed to be a never-ending holiday’. After a few months, she finds herself getting restless with this placid existence and overly helpful neighbours. She buys herself a tiny bubble car and zips around the countryside with it. Then, two kilometres away from home, just as the rain is starting, she gets a puncture. A man in his forties called Étienne stops to help and she offers to give him a lift. When he tells her he has broken down himself and is looking for a phone, she invites him into her house. Gradually, some kind of relationship develops between these two strangers, although Éliette is not the sweet, trusting old dear that people can easily take advantage of.

‘I’ll warn you now: if you’re a murderer, I have very little to lose, and there’s nothing here worth stealing unless you count the walls.’

Of course, readers familiar with Garnier’s dark stories will recognise the warning signs, but the danger only becomes apparent once Étienne’s daughter appears on the scene and Éliette finds out about the death of her neighbours’ son. I won’t tell you a word more, because these stories always veer off into unexpected, off-the-wall directions. I will just say that the similarity of the two names is probably not coincidental, as the two characters have more in common than might be apparent at first glance.

She was innocent, just like him, like the worst criminal, like the dog who kills the cat, the cat who kills the mouse, the mouse who… must kill something too. All around, in the bushes and the grass, prey and predators mingled in the same macabre dance. You could be one or the other, depending on the circumstances, all of which were extenuating. It was what they called life, the strongest of all excuses.

I rather loved this wistful but completely unsentimental look at aging, loneliness and hoping to find love or at least comfort in a world which seems to have gone crazy. This book will be released on 11th April and comes heartily recommended.

feveratdawnPéter Gárdos: Fever at Dawn (transl. Elizabeth Szász)

This is a fictionalised account of how the writer’s (and film maker’s) parents met and fell in love after the end of WW2.  After his father’s death, Gárdos was given the letters his parents had preserved with such care for so many years by his mother.

The backdrop is anything but promising: Miklos and Lili have just emerged from Belsen and are recovering in different refugee camps in Sweden. Miklos is 25 years old, emaciated and toothless, weighs barely 29 kilos. On his way to Sweden he starts coughing up bloody foam. He has tuberculosis and is told that he has only six months left to live, but that doesn’t stop him looking for a wife. He finds a list of all 117 young Hungarian women from his region ‘whom nurses and doctors were trying to bring back to life in various temporary hospitals across Sweden’ and writes to each one of them in his beautiful handwriting. A few of them write back, but it is the letter of eighteen-year-old Lili which captures his attention. He is instantly convinced that she is the one, but over the next six months they will have to make do with writing each other increasingly passionate letters and seeing each other only three times very briefly and with great difficulty.

When they do meet face-to-face for the first time, they almost run away from each other, but instead they recognise each other in choked emotion. They are kindred souls, although they have had different upbringings and disagree about a number of things. Lili wants to convert to Catholicism, Miklos is a committed Marxist. Miklos is a dreamer with poetic licence, Lili is more timid and realistic. And, although they try to tell each other everything, they never speak about certain important things, neither then, nor later.

My father never told Lili that for three months he burned bodies in Belsen concentration camp… Lili did not tell Miklos about the day of her liberation from Belsen. It took her nine hours to drag herself from the barracks to the clothes depot, a distance of about a hundred metres… Miklos could never bring himself to tell her of his time, before he burned corpses, as an orderly in the typhoid barrack… the most ghastly block in the camp… And Lili never said a word about her twelve-day journey to Germany in a freight wagon.

This is not a book about the Holocaust, but a book about survival, about finding hope and love against all odds, when all the world around you seems ghastly and hopeless. It is anything but sickly sweet – charming, poignant and with little shots of sarcasm and humour which keep it from descending into sentimentality.

The film director originally wrote this story as a film script, then later turned it into a novel. The film came out in December 2015 (in Hungarian). Here is the official trailer on Vimeo.



Poetic Experimentation: The Reduction

At dVerse Poets today, Anna is encouraging us to experiment with poetic forms and language. I’ve chosen to ‘minimise’ or ‘reduce’ the unyieldy sauce of an old but previously unused poem.

I found my old lovers on Facebook.

They all had wives and kids>

Remarkably unpining after my charms,

nor did they realise what my fecund ideas

might have done to their lives.

Instead of world creation

bland holiday snaps.

Instead of creativity, those endless quiz results.

One had gone to seed

cow-like in pasture

happy in his ruminations,

aside from the fray.

Once angular faces now rotundly benign,

with eyes that flashed danger

now dulled by routine

and contentment.


The reduced form of this is as follows:

Old lovers on Facebook,

all partnered, with kids,

no pining for my charms,

or fecund ideas.

Creativity reduced to quizzes.

Rumination in pastures.

Dangerous angles rotundly benign.

Routine contentment now ruling their world.