After my long holiday and blogging break, I will now be taking another break, not sure how long, because of an actual break. For those of you who have not followed my self-pitying saga on Twitter, I fell over last weekend, fractured the elbow and sprained the wrist on the right arm (my writing arm), which has effectively put me out of action for pretty much anything. I can just about do my day job, albeit with speech to text software and frequent breaks, but I never realised how much you need two hands to accomplish simple tasks such as opening a jar of honey, cutting a piece of cheese or putting up your hair. Now that the boys have gone on holiday with their dad, I have no one to help and am beginning to understand why my mother put up with so much from my father over the years, and was so against me getting a divorce, terrified as she is of being alone and infirm in old age. (Needless to say, I still don’t subscribe to that view.)
But this post is called Friday Fun rather than Friday Accident, so on to cheerier things. I have put together some holiday pictures with a literary link.
There is no such thing as a relaxing holiday with the extended family back in the home country… but there were many pleasant moments, and a complete break from the treadmill, so I can’t complain! I’ve been boring everyone with endless holiday pictures on Twitter, but here are a few of my favourites, to give you a flavour of the landscapes and ‘vibes’. I will share more in my next few Friday Fun posts. [None tomorrow, though, as I have a lot of catching up to do still]
Although I had no time to browse in bookshops (unbelievable, I know!), I brought back a whole pile of books with me, some were old favourites languishing on my parents’ bookshelves, others that I had ordered online a few months ago and got delivered to their address. Meanwhile, a few books made their way into my letterbox here in the UK while I was away.
Here’s the result!
As part of my search for contemporary Romanian authors to read and possibly translate, particularly women authors, I’ll be reading Raluca Nagy, Nora Iuga, Magda Cârneci (this one has been translated by Sean Cotter) and Diana Bădică. All recommendations via Romanian newsletters to which I subscribe.
A mix of contemporary and more classic male authors as well: Gellu Naum is better known for his avantgarde poetry and prose in the 1930s and 40s, or his wonderful children’s book about the wandering penguin Apolodor in the 1950s, and this is his only novel as far as I am aware (this too has been translated into English, see some reviews here); Max Blecher’s Scarred Hearts, which I previously read and reviewed in English, but wanted to own in Romanian; one of my favourite modern poets, Nicolae Labiș, who died tragically young; an English translation by Gabi Reigh of my favourite play by one of my favourite writers, Mihail Sebastian; finally, two young writers that I want to explore further, Tudor Ganea and Bogdan Coșa.
Last but not least, a dictionary of Romanian proverbs translated into English – just to remind myself of some of the old folk sayings.
Another expat in Berlin story, imaginatively entitled Berlin by Bea Sutton. I read Susan’s review on her blog A Life in Books and couldn’t resist.
Two Japanese crime novels: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Onda Riku (I was bowled over by The Aosawa Murders by the same author) and an older crime classic by Matsumoto Seicho entitled Tokyo Express.
Two volumes of poetry, Reckless Paper Birds and Panic Response by the English poet John McCullough. I recently attended a workshop with him and found him very inspiring indeed.
Last but by no means list: a whole flurry of chapbooks of Swiss literature, translated from all four official languages of Switzerland, published by the wonderful Strangers Press at the UEA. I am hoping to convince them to do a series on Romanian literature too someday, fingers crossed!
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
Here is just a handful of the many examples I could have picked. However, it might be worth mentioning that more recent writers would have lived in blocks of flats and therefore have a less attractive backdrop for their creativity.
I’ve just finished reading two superb books for #WITMonth, both of which I intend to review: Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance. Both of them discuss linguistic and ethnic identity, the possibility of bridging cultures, how to find a home (or not) in exile – whether voluntary or not. These are topics so close to my heart that I could not remain indifferent and they both got me thinking deeply about my own situation, past and present, and pondering about future decisions – where I might settle next. It doesn’t seem fair to include such personal musing within my reviews of those books (‘we’re not interested in your life story, Marina, just tell us what the bloody book is like, will you?’). In fact, it’s not fair to share all these personal details in a public format online (even if I am not a huge celebrity or have that many blog readers – which probably would be even more of a reason for me to remain quiet). So I will wrestle with the granular decisions and uncertainties mostly in my offline diary, but here are some higher-level thoughts which may be more universal.
Illusory Freedom of Choice
I am very fortunate at present to have dual citizenship and therefore settle anywhere within the EU or the UK. However, for the longest time, the Romanian passport was an albatross around my neck. Therefore, I cannot help but think of all the people who have no choice about moving to a different country: they might not be able to get out of their country at all, very few countries might ‘accept’ them (after making the process of entering or settlement as complicated as possible), the information they might have about the relative safety of certain countries might be out of date and so on.
But there are other reasons why this ‘I’m choosing to start a new life in X’ is seldom a clear-cut decision for people.
First of all, countries change over time, as do your requirements. You may be fine in your twenties, living in London or New York, working shit jobs and living in inadequate accommodation, learning the ropes for a future splendid career. But when you have children and it’s time to move to the ‘suburbs’, you might prefer the safety of rule-bound societies like Switzerland or family-friendly policies like the Scandinavian countries. When you start feeling the creak in your knees and a twinge in your back, you may decide you need the warmth of the Mediterranean or Australia. It’s a little bit like moving houses over the course of a lifetime, but just much, much harder to do, because it usually involves lots of paperwork and learning of new languages and ways of doing things.
Secondly, in my experience, the choices are never quite as deliberate as we make them sound with the benefit of hindsight. We often ascribe patterns or purpose where there was mere serendipity, or where small steps and choices led us up a corridor we didn’t even know we wanted, and by the time we wanted to turn back, too many doors had slammed in our face. How could we know at the time that our professional qualifications might be worthless in another country (or require many expensive years of re-qualifying)? Should we have picked our life partners by the worth of their passport – and what if that passport becomes worthless when political circumstances change? What to do if your pension is no longer recognised in other countries and you are never going to be able to achieve the minimum number of years required for somewhere else? What happens when the value of your house or your currency is not enough for you to afford something even halfway decent in another country? Worst of all, once children come along, you have only a limited number of years left for uprooting them, before it can seriously impact their education or their mental wellbeing, before they start formulating their own preferences and tying you down.
Nostalgia for Something Which Never Existed
Many immigrants and expats have a great nostalgia for the country they left behind – or the country that might have been… if poverty, war, nationalism, hateful ideology, corrupt politicians and so on hadn’t driven them away. As we grow older, we start remembering the butterflies fluttering across the meadows, picking cherries and peaches directly from the trees, the warmth of the sun as we lay in a haystack, the low mooing of cattle coming down from the mountains, grandmother’s apricot dumplings… Our senses tingle with all of these rich memories – and we forget that this is because we were children, and life was easier for us as children, even when it was hard. Our memories become selective and bring forth the sensual pleasures, while banishing any less than perfect images. In Mizumura’s novel, the protagonist craves a Taisho or Meiji Japan she has glimpsed in the literature she loves to read, but which hasn’t existed in that country for over a century. The very title of Gansel’s book ‘Translation as Transhumance’ conjures up my ancestors’ almost mythical occupation as shepherds (one of the most famous Romanian ballads Miorița is about three shepherds), which I will proudy proclaim at every opportunity. Yet I only visited my great-uncle’s flock once when I was a small child and thought the mountain hut smelled revolting.
Comfort, Friendship, Heritage?
Pragmatism and sentimentalism are at war within me as I try to decide, over the next two years, where I will go.
Remaining in the UK is probably the easiest option, now that I am so familiar with everything here and have established networks and connections, as well as pension rights and a house. But is it truly the comfortable choice, even if this absurd and corrupt government comes to an end within a few years. The curtain has been lifted on the dirty mechanisms and assumptions that lie below the magic of the stage, and I don’t know if I will ever recapture my entire love for the theatre again.
Perhaps I can forget that I never truly felt ‘at home’ in Romania while I was living there and return to a country that has changed so much since I left it in my early twenties. There are certain thirsty pockets within me that nothing but the Romanian landscape, language and literature (and food) can quench. Perhaps the happiness of my childhood there is less illusory than the nostalgia of my Viennese childhood. Who can afford a flat in Vienna, anyway? Plus, all of my childhood friends were so international that they have moved away from Vienna, even if we all love returning there from time to time.
As we approach old age, perhaps it’s friendships that nourish us most – and, oddly, the vast majority of my close friends seem to be divorced or single now. But when your friends are scattered all over the world, replacing the biological family and supporting each other becomes difficult. Nevertheless, I am fortunate once again in having two of my oldest friends both living in Berlin. Two friends that I can see myself growing old with, sharing stories, joys and burdens. A city I have often visited with delight, but which would be an entirely new adventure for me.
When you have no real sense of belonging, you have endless choices, or so it may seem. I remind myself that I am fortunate to have choices, but just how endless are they really? Will my choices be determined by my fragile parents, my children ready to fly the nest, my financial and legal position? And would I trade it all for a real sense of belonging?
If you want to read much more sophisticated musings on sense of belonging, then I really recommend the two books below, which I hope to review by next week.
Romanians are very fond of their gardens but they’ve always had to combine their love of beauty with practicality. The climate ranges from very dry and hot in summer to very cold and snowy in winter, with everything in-between. Growing your own vegetables was never a trendy hobby but a necessity, and much of the land around your house (if you were lucky enough to own any) had to be given over to keeping hens, turkeys, pigs, cows or whatever livestock you could muster, to make up for the lack of food in the shops during Communist times. The younger generation now live mostly in the urban areas and have at best a balcony or terrace in which to unwind (or a park). Wealthier people, who have holiday homes in picturesque settings, are not there all the year round to look after their gardens properly, or are keen to copy Western models.
So, while they might not look as pretty and dreamy as the English country house or cottage gardens, these are hardworking gardens which deserve our admiration. And I can assure you quite a few are suitable for reading (tried and tested in my childhood).
At this rate, I’m not sure I will finish 20 books this summer, or at least not read and review them, but I have read two more, and they both are set in Eastern Europe during Communist times.
Sarah Armstrong: The Starlings of Bucharest (Sandstone Press)
Set in Bucharest and Moscow in 1975. This is the story of a somewhat clueless young journalist, Ted Walker, who has escaped from the hardship of fishing life in Harwich and set off for the bright lights of London (albeit, living in an insalubrious bedsit in Plumstead). He is sent by the editor of his second-rate film review magazine to interview a famous Romanian film director in Bucharest and then later to an international film festival in Moscow, and becomes a target for the local security services.
Although it has some tense and dangerous moments, it is far less a spy thriller and more of a coming of age story, as Ted starts to realise what he is and isn’t capable of, and what people want from him. Coming from a humble background, without much education, he has been bruised by the class system in England and the Russians correctly surmise that he might be more sympathetic to their cause. Ted realises that, no matter how much he aspires occasionally to be part of the action, he is in fact far better at ‘watching it all unfold’. Above all, he is flattered by the attention that all of these mysterious bilingual people seem to be paying him: ‘I never knew I had anything to give, anything anyone wanted. It made me want to say yes without asking what it was.’
Quite an enjoyable read, and a more realistic look at the mundane details of the world of spying and the Cold War in the 1970s, more Le Carre than James Bond. However, I’m not quite sure what was the point of setting the first part in Bucharest and even giving the book that title, as most of the action takes place in Moscow. Was it purely to have another setting to describe? At that point in time, the Soviet and Romanian spy networks were definitely NOT collaborating, Romania was viewed with suspicion by the Soviets for its non-alignment with the other Communist states, while Ceausescu was still very much the darling of the Western leaders for opposing the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, signing agreements with the then European Community, visiting the Queen and Jimmy Carter in 1978 and so on.
From someone coming from Britain in the mid 1970s, with the oil crisis, strikes, unemployment, Bucharest can’t have seemed as grey and poor as all that. The food crisis was not yet as great as in the 1980s, clothes were plentiful and cheap (so the story of Vasile the guide craving Ted’s trousers sounds bizarre), although I agree the architecture of hastily put up blocks of flats was pretty horrible. Sorry to be picky, but if there are readers who point out that the train no. 45823 has a black undercarriage instead of dark blue, I think I can get slightly riled by inaccurate historical details.
Cristina Sandu: The Union of Synchronised Swimmers (Scribe UK)
Originally written in Finnish and translated into English by the author herself, this is a novella describing the starting point of a group of six girls who decide to form a synchronised swimming team, and their subsequent lives after they illegally leave their country during an international competition. The country of the girls is never named (nor officially recognised) other than ‘The Near Side of the River’ after the fall of the Republic, but for anybody familiar with the region, it sounds remarkably like Transnistria, with Moldova being the Far Side of the River, the ‘correct’ side, the place ‘where they can get a new passport and membership to a sports club that is internationally recognised’, sport being the ‘fragile link between two countries looking away from each other’.
I particularly enjoyed the lyricism in the parts of the story describing the girls’ childhood and their determination to become competitive swimmers, to escape from their boring lives and jobs at the cigarette factory, in a country where ‘for most of the year, the men were gone. They grabbed any kind of work they managed to get in a neighbouring country. They sent letters and packages home, and came to visit when they had enough money or their homesickness had become too great. Only the women stayed. They kept life going. They worked the land, fed and slaughtered the animals, raised the children. They ensured that the metal factory filled the sky with red smoke. They prepared the cigarettes… to be shipped far away, by land or by sea, to places they could only dream of.’
These descriptions (written in italics) were interspersed with accounts of the present-day – the experience of the six girls, now grown women, as immigrants in different countries – Finland, France, Italy, California, Saint Martin in the Caribbean – or returning ‘home’ many years later. The exploitation and subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination) they face elsewhere, but the certainty that there is no turning back, that they can no longer fit into the place they left behind either.
Much is implied or left unsaid, so I can understand the frustrations of readers who were expecting this to be more of a novel. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscope of images, impressions, vignettes from the women’s lives, the people they encounter, the conversations that mark them, a novella in flash one might say, and the gaps signify the distance between the six girls who once used to be so close. This worked upon me as a prose poem, although you shouldn’t expect something purely dreamy and lyrical: there is a lot of anger and sharp social observation too. Perhaps if you go in expecting something more like Jenny Offill’s Weather or Dept. of Speculation, you would be less disappointed. I think I know why the author chose to focus on the ‘after-lives’ of all six of the characters – to emphasise some of the univerals of the immigrant experience – but that does feel like we only get to know any of them in a very limited way, in a book that is that short.
I was supposed to go to Romania this summer to celebrate my parents’ 80th birthdays (they are on different days, but both in the same year). I was hoping to take the boys for a hike in my beloved mountains, but instead will have to make do with these pictures instead. The first few pictures are from places that were within easy travel distance from Bucharest, so I used to go hiking and skiing there at least once a month when I was a pupil and a student. The last batch show the four seasons in different parts of the country.
N.B. I left Romania in the mid 1990s because it had a corrupt government, merciless exploitative capitalism combined with nostalgia for communist strong men, and because young people seemed to have no future there to fully develop their talents. There are still plenty of things wrong there, but I’m seriously thinking of moving back there in retirement at the latest.