Literature

Picasso in the pool / Picasso en la piscina

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The Swimmer. Picasso. 1929.

Picasso in the pool 

The cap tugs my thin hair, pulling it at the roots, right near where I have my goggle strap. It really hurts, but is nothing compared to the ice cold water that awaits. There is no easy way to get into a pool and get it over with. I’ve tried all the options and attest, nothing works to assuage the bloodcurdling jolt it gives your heart on entry.

I scan the poolside. The serious set is here. One broad shouldered amazon does her arm swings. She twirls from the shoulder blades like a whipper snipper.

I place my kick board at the slow lane as a swimmer shoots off from the wall end, gliding beneath the surface of the water in pursuit of the next lap. That is the thing I paddle and splash for. That kick-off from the wall. Even in the slow lane, you never feel slow doing that.

*

Picasso en la piscina

El gorro de nadar hala mis cabellos delgados desde sus raíces, muy cerca de donde el caucho de las gafas se ubica, realmente duele, pero no se compara con el agua congelada que me espera. No hay una manera más sencilla de entrar a una piscina y terminar de una vez, sin embargo después de agotar todas mis opciones e intentos, nada funciona para reducir los espantosos escalofríos del primer contacto con el agua.

Al revisar la orilla veo que la bañista elite está presente, hombros anchos y poderosos sacuden sus brazos haciéndola girar como una guadaña.

Esto sucede mientras ubico mi tabla de patear sobre el muro que marca la línea destinada para los nadadores lentos. En la siguiente vuelta se que esta es la razón por la que remo y salpico en el agua al notar que pronto me alejo de la pared inicial. Sin importar que te encuentres en la línea lenta, nunca te sientes lento haciendo esto.

Translation: Fabian Rodriguez

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Nick the Greek / El Griego Nick

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yog2

Nick the Greek

Sometimes childhood recollection seems stronger than present experience. I know this sounds all very Proustian, only for me today, it is not the smell of steaming madeleines, but rather the tart astringency of my mother’s yoghurt. Mum learnt it from the Greeks. At 25 she was on a ship to Athens via North Africa. Fortunately she turned down the marriage proposal of Nick, the Greek soccer player she met on her way or else this story, as much as its author, would never have come into fruition.

I learnt how to prepare it, and also how the Greeks prepared it. Apparently, every household had a pot that was left at the front doorstep overnight. In the early hours of the morning the milk man would come past each door and fill the pot. By breakfast time, it would be ready for the family to haul into the kitchen from the hot Mediterranean sun.

I could tell by Mum’s tone that she wished we had a milk man to fill our yoghurt pot, as in Greece. I guess she made her own yoghurt out of a frustration with the gelatinous farce that was 1980’s shop bought Australian yoghurt.

I’d drag one of the wooden chairs, with intricate wood carvings in recession, across the wooden floor to the kitchen bench top that overlooked our jungly garden. Climbing the chair to add to my 5 year old height, I’d soon be by Mum’s side as she prepared the milk. She would boil, mix and finally pour it into her brown earthenware yoghurt pot.

In the scorched summer mornings Mum would place the pot, brimming with milk, out on a wooden chair under the sun, wrapped in a tea-towel, to incubate. By dinner time, after a few hours of refrigeration, we would cup our own cool bowl filled with it, scooping it into our mouths as it swum in the mahogany juice of  home stewed plums.

Today, I echoed my mother’s frustrations for shop bought yoghurt. It’s sitting by my window garden now, waiting to incubate while I write at the library. Though ironically, given the Melbourne weather, it’s started to rain.

Oh! For a Mediterranean sun!

*

El Griego Nick

Se que esto puede sonar muy Prusiano, pero algunas veces los recuerdos de la infancia parecen más fuertes que las experiencias del presente. Para mi, hoy no estuvo presente el aroma de las magdalenas al vapor, pero si la fragancia de la tarta astringente del yogurt de mi madre.  Ella lo aprendio de los griegos  cuando tenia 25 años de edad y mientras viajaba por barco desde Africa del Norte rumbo a Atenas.  Afortunadamente rechazό la propuesta de matrimonio de Nick; el futbolista griego que conocio durante su trayecto, de lo contrario esta historia junto con su autora nunca hubiesen sido posibles.

Aprendi a como prepararlo y tambien como los griegos lo preparaban: Aparentemente cada hogar dejaba un recipiente en la entrada de la casa durante la noche, que luego muy temprano en la mañana, el lechero pasaba de puerta en puerta llenandos. A la hora del desayuno, el Yogurt ya estaba al punto debido al calor mediterraneo, asi que esta vasija podia ser  arrastratrada hacia la cocina para la familia.

Por el tono de mi madre deducì que ella deseaba que nuestro yogurt fuese como en Grecia.   Y creo que apartir de su frustracion por la gelatina artificial disponible en las tiendas de los 80’s que dio origen al yogurt australiano, ella empezo a preparar su propio yogurt.

Yo arrastraba una silla de madera, con grabados intrincados en el espaldar, atravez del piso tambien hecho de madera, para ubicarla junto al meson de la cosina que tenía vista hacia nuestro jardin selvatico, al treparme a esta silla ganaba más altura de la normal a mis 5 años de edad, de esta manera podia estar a su lado mientras preparaba nuestro yogurt.  En el proceso ella hervia, mesclaba y finalmente vaciaba la leche en una olla de terracota oscura destinada para el yogurt.

Durante las mañanas calurosas de verano, mi madre sacaba  al sol este recipiente rebosante de leche, previamente envuelto en un paño y sobre una silla de madera para que se aliñara. A la hora de la cena y despues de algunas horas de refrigeracion, ya podiamos llenar nuestras tazas con el producto final, el cual lo degustabamos al mezclarlo con el jugo caoba de los duraznos guisados en casa.

Hoy repreti la frustracion de mi madre por el yogurt comprado en la tienda. Por eso ahora mi propio producto esta reposando en el jardin de la ventana para que se aliñe, mientras estoy en la biblioteca escriendo. Ironicamente pienso en el clima de Melbourne porque ya empezo a llover.

Opa! Por un sol mediterraneo!

Translated by Fabian Rodriguez

In the depths of the Pine Forest / En las profundidades del bosque de pinos

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Dance with the Pine Tree. Roberto Manetta.
Dance with the Pine Tree. Roberto Manetta. Available from http://www.saatchionline.com

The pine tree is heaving  its last perfumed sigh. Lying, spoiled with its trunk severed, the tree looks forlorn on our hardwood floor. Weeping resin.  Viscous amber. My breath catches. Not only due to the crisp, woody scent of the fir tree, but also for the end of a splendid reign in our living room. Its jewels, Christmas baubles, lie scattered around it. Needles are browning, they are brittle now and snap with the slightest pressure. The only sign of our tree’s former glory is the heady perfume that fills the room and upstages our freshly brewed coffee.

The tree is taken out and hurled into the skip bin.

But the scent lingers. If you close your eyes, you could be deceived that there is a pine forest in our living room.

*

El árbol de pino exhala su último suspiro perfumado.  Sin esperanza alguna, con su tronco seccionado y con un aspecto melancólico, se encuentra yacente en nuestro piso de madera mientras descarga lagrimas de resina   y ámbar viscoso.  Mi aliento se detiene  no solo por el aroma de madera fresca del abeto, sino también por ser el final de su esplendido reinado en nuestra sala. Sus Joyas  y adornos navideños reposan a su alrededor. sus agujas frágiles ahora de color marrón sucumben con facilidad,  el único trazo de su antigua gloria es su embriagador perfume que inunda nuestro aposento y a la vez eclipsa nuestro café recién preparado. El pino es exilado y arrojado al contenedor de basura pero su fragancia permanece  Si cierras los ojos, podrías creer que hay un bosque de pinos en nuestra sala.

Translated by Fabian Rodriguez.

The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway and little 8 year old me…

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Hemingway
Hemingway

Hemingway’s prose puts little anchors in my soul that gently tug and coax at it and sometimes thrust at it so strongly that tears quell up in my eyes and my throat crackles.

I’m re-reading The Old Man and the Sea for the first time since I first turned the brittle leaves of my Dad’s paperback copy as an eight year old outgrowing the bookshelf contents faster than my school shoes.

I first read The Old Man and the Sea in a cottage surrounded by more books than money and it did not take long to reach the top shelves where mum placed the heavier literature. One afternoon my Mum’s book suggestions were exhausted so instead I tugged on my dad’s shoulder and asked him for an offering.

“Hemingway”, he mumbled when my prompting urged him to name his favorite author as he sat in his chair wearing his navy woolen rib jumper.

And so it was that my mum took the wooden ebony stained chair into the lounge room to begin the arduous ritual of uncovering this time a slim dark blue coloured paperback with pages that smelt of dust and memories and even a few scattered pencil markings and annotations. She found the book, even though she and Dad thought it would perhaps be too advanced for my ken. And so I read Hemingway at 8. This is not a statement I make to be lauded but rather something that now places me in a unique vantage point for I seldom have ever re-read books (except for the Scarlet Pimpernel, I evade returning to even my beloved favorites for isn’t life too brief for that with its endless sea of unread prose waiting to break at the shore?) Now I am reading my father’s favourite once more I find myself catching ripples of memory of reading it as a kid and it feels like I’m 8 all over again except there is an undercurrent of appreciation for the author that my 8 year old mind never noticed. The imagination was strong in those days and unhampered by the necessities of survival such that I saw no line between the writer’s bait and hook and my imagination, the “great strong fish” caught by Hemingway.

“Fish,” he said softly, aloud, “I’ll stay with you until I’m dead”

The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway.

Just a little right…Even just a little, would be enough.

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IMG_4275[1] Gelati in hand, for something new, I’m walking briskly down the boulevard today. Then I hear it. The unmistakable sound of someone being taught to read. Regardless of the language, there is something unique in the intonation of a reading session. I turn to my left and there they sit. She with bended head over a picture book. He in a cap and glasses, slowly sounding out. Slowly. I hear her patient tones- dulcet and warm. I don’t slow my pace. I just speed past. 6 metres later however, I turn in hesitation to look back at the duo sitting on the bench. Should I? Inhibition aside I return my steps. Standing in front of them armed with only one big wide smile and my fractured Bulgarian, I tell firstly him, “Bravo. You are reading so well!” Then I turn to her. Her face is all bright with a grandmother’s love and patience. She explains that her 16 year old grandson speaks Spanish and some English but he has relocated to Bulgaria. Now he must learn to read and understand Kirilica. A laboursome process. I know that well. Her wizened index finger points to the little pencil strikes she has placed to mark the accent in each word. Every word, has been painstakingly annotated with the little graphite dashes. She explains her method. It’s a daily ritual often conducted on the main boulevard of Sofia.

I am then asked the regular question… Where are you from? I give the regular answer and tell them a little about myself. Why I am here. What I do in Australia. She nods her head in understanding when I explain my job as  a “logoped” / speech and language pathologist. I then find myself talking with her about opera. Her eyes twinkle. She loves the opera. She asks me who my maestra is and nods her head in recognition at my answer. Indeed, 50 years ago she says that she attended a soiree on Ulica Alabin, in some downstairs basement where Nadia Afeyan, my maestra’s mother had a soiree of arias. My heart jumps a beat at the serendipity. There on Boulevard Vitosha, my two worlds coexist.

Sometimes it is difficult switching between 2 careers- Opera and Speech and Language Pathology. The switch is harder to the latter. I’m about to fly home and hit a lull in inspiration, a lull in cognition, a lull in creation. As much as I enjoy therapy and regard it as a noble profession (only noble in the event that one is efficacious), I lose a part of myself when singing is reduced. But maybe this is the point. Maybe we need to lose more of ourselves. I don’t know.

I was often asked on completion of my Masters why I was going back to singing? Wasn’t I now a speech pathologist? Wasn’t that enough? People were puzzled. I wanted to blurt out- “Why are you breathing?” Same question. Same answer.

I leave Sofia in two days, arriving in Melbourne at 9:30pm, I’ll start work some 11 hours later. There I have therapy rooms full of kids who have had no access to an education. Teenagers who had no civil rights and have fled war regions, moving from rural poverty and persecution to urban poverty in affluent Australia. I have a boy, who also is 16, who wants to learn to read. He can’t follow class work but he wants to be an engineer. He wants to go to University and return to Afghanistan and make things “just a little right there”. “Even just a little, would be enough”, he told me once. I have students who can’t converse with their peers. Who shuffle early into class so they don’t have to walk in to a crowded room and fight the pressure of not knowing who to sit next to. “It’s easier if I’m there early, then they have to choose where to go instead”, they tell me. “If I’m late, I am scared. I don’t know where to go.”

Today was a bridge for me. A glimpse into the working life that is on hold, waiting for my return. After seeing this boy with Down Syndrome and his grandmother, therapist and supporter all in one, I am ready to leave. So if you ask me, why am I going home to Australia for now, I will ask you, “Why are you breathing?” For the answer is the same.

They are waiting. They want to learn, as much as I do. God, may I help them, may I make things just a little right. Even just a little, would be enough.

WanderLust: Oh, If I had a sea container….

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Interior of NDK- The National Palace of Culture
Interior of NDK- The National Palace of Culture

If I had a sea container- I could fill it.

Next to the gilded orbs of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral I meandered. There is a thrift and artists market. In the square garden you can find anything you never imagined being able to find. In fact you can even find things you never wanted to find (Old Swastika emblazoned Nazi Knives, Postcards scrawled in Cyrillic with Stalin’s big head on the front, the worst model of ushanka you ever thought possible- more on that next time).

Oh, but the things you will find!

I stop at a stall and a woman points at every brooch she has pinned on a square board- “This one from Czechia, lady, this one from Bulgaria, 1950, this silver, this Bohemia and this, ah, I think this Hung-AH-rian.” She insists in calling me lady- possible a direct translation of dama, I don’t know… I peer at the brooches and the skeptic in me wonders if those diamantes really are from France. But how much nicer is it to imagine they are and if so, how much more interesting to ponder, how on earth did they get to Sofia? There’s definitely a story there.

Another stall is filled with vintage cameras, the oldest date from the 1920′s. They sit in rows on a little card table- their concertina forms so beguiling, especially at 30$ Australian, on average. I ask the stall seller hundreds of questions and get to try out some old mechanical Soviet and Czech box cameras.

Lubitel- Soviet Camera
Lubitel– Soviet Camera

The stall seller informs me that the “Flexaret is the BMW of cameras over the Lubitel 2,”  except he says BMV like a good European. As I peer into the cameras and focus, they manipulate the dimensions before me. Oh, I could fill a sea container with these, open a store and sell them for a song.

The coveted Czech Flexaret
The coveted Czech Flexaret

I’ve had the most derogatory comments from people about the fact I live here.

-As if I’ll visit you in Bulgaria…,

-What on earth would you want to do there? ,

-Trust YOU to choose some crazy place like that,

What has suprised me is that many comments have come from people who consider themselves to be artists. This city may have a dysfunctional economy, corrupt politicians, decaying infrastructure, but after living here for 2 years I can’t deny that there is charm. There is architecture. There is history. There is Art. There is a story.

 What happened to Wanderlust?

I think many of my peers are losing a sense of adventure.  Do we all really just want to travel to places that are just as comfortable as our home? If so, perhaps a trip to the shopping mall shall suffice. Can we, in the West, really not find the beauty if a city is built on cracked pavements and worse still, why mock such a place? Why not go there first?

Random chair at Christmas time

When I first moved to Sofia, I thought the city was not so spectacular. Maybe because my head was always inclined to the ground, so as to watch my step. I would gorge myself on paintings over my morning coffee before I left my apartment, in the belief that nothing on the decrepit dusty bus to my destination, nothing in the  streets of Soviet block style apartments and nothing aside from Yellow Paves (the old quarter of downtown Sofia) would inspire me aesthetically. I began to look deeper for the beauty, only to realise, it’s right there. Right at the surface. There is a beauty in Soviet style apartments- the coziest apartments I’ve entered were this style, they usually have old parchetry floors that bear a history like the palm of your own hands, until you’ve seen them, or better, lived in one, don’t assume that because they are ugly on the outside by your standards, they lack charm.  Most likely they are filled with Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Pushkin that has been read and no one watches Master Chef or the Voice there.

History books at the book tables of Graf Ignatieff
History books at the book tables of Graf Ignatieff

If I had a sea container- I could fill it. I’d fill it with treasures found in antique shops: coral brooches, diamante hat pins, old fragrant books in Kirilica trimmed with gold leaf, flowers from old street sellers, the fast moving chatter of the coffee clubs, the slow laboured strides of the old bread seller- who always gives me a smile. I’d fill it with values too. The value for literature and the arts. I’d fill it with knowledge- the knowledge of more than one language, the general knowledge of a tram driver who studied  at least 17 subjects in secondary school and can recite poems, the talent of the actors, the insight of the musicians. Oh I’d fill it. But would you appreciate its contents?

Ode to Bees- “Buzz”

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Fine, hand colored engraving from Jardine's Naturalist Library engraved and published by W.H. Lizars in Edinburgh. 1859.
Fine, hand colored engraving from Jardine’s Naturalist Library engraved and published by W.H. Lizars in Edinburgh. 1859.

I once met an old Bosnian man, while living in Sarajevo, who had spent his whole life studying bees. In fact, he had written a hefty tome on apiculture. I recall being so fascinated by him. He was poised and slim with wizened skin and a sparkle in his eye. I was frustrated by my limited Bosnian vocabulary to suit an apiarist, in light of a fascinating conversation opportunity.

Virgil Surveying Bees. Œuvres avec les commentaires de Servius, Paris, 15th c.
Virgil Surveying Bees. Œuvres avec les commentaires de Servius, Paris, 15th c.

I’ve just downloaded Virgil’s Georgic’s Volume IV on Beekeeping to read and it has made me ponder when my first fascination with bees developed. Maybe it was as a small child in my grandfather, Poppy’s garden. Driving our Volvo to my grandparents’ house near the sea was one of the most thrilling things for me as a child. On arrival, I would race to Poppy’s garden. It was often hard to find him as he was quiet and reserved but once discovered, I’d hug his knees tight (that was all I could reach) and tell him I loved him.

There is something special I want to tell you about my Poppy. He could pat bees. He would stroke their abdomen with his rustic farmer’s hands. They never stung him in return. This fascinated the grandchildren and we would watch, wide eyed. After his death, I was asked by my Mum and Aunties,

“Did Poppy stroke bees”?

Didn’t they know?

“Of course he did,” I replied. It was concluded posthumously that this was something learnt in the Prison camps of South Germany, where apparently he had undertaken an apiculture course to pass the drudgery of incarceration.

Graffiti Fresco by Melbourne artist Mike Makatron.
Graffiti Fresco by Melbourne artist Mike Makatron.