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Unravelling the story I'm trying to tell

Poland in the fog (near Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains)

Thursday afternoon and a free hour. My camera’s neglected, tucked amongst my belongings, under timetables, notebooks and scenario guides. I’m teaching English, constantly conversing and I’m exhausted. I’m scared because in only a few days I’ll be going home, and I have many things waiting for me when I get back which threaten to overwhelm me.

I contemplate sleep or reading. There’s a swimming pool downstairs, but I’ve only an hour.

Instead I pick up my camera and walk along the road to the church. Normally you can see the church from my bedroom window, but the fog here is too thick to see anything. Outside I follow the road. It’s straight and I can’t get lost. I watch for cars with a certain terror – ready to dive into the field should one come along because I know they’ll hit me before they see me.

The fog makes it impossible to focus. It’s not just the camera, but my eyes which relax then contract again and again, quite unhappily. I’m working hard just to see, struggling although I know resolving the far off streetlight or stone wall is impossible.

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More books I’ve just finished reading (June/July)

books

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

The Light Fantastic, Masquerade and Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Two were borrowed from the Short Aunty and the third was from the local library.

If things start going wrong, find yourself a comfortable corner and a Terry Pratchett. Even I, with my ‘special’ sense of humour, find them funny. There’s probably a lot more I miss too, there’s so much crammed into each page.

A most important question was: what name should she call herself? Her name had many sterling qualities no doubt, but it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It snapped off the palate and clicked between the teeth, but it didn’t roll off the tongue.

The trouble was, she couldn’t think of one with great rotational capabilities.

Catherine, possibly.

Terry Pratchett, Masquerade

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Picked up in a charity shop.

Same characters as the film, same events, same setting, lots of chocolate. Completely different story. Which was surprising. I can see why they changed it for the film – made it a little lighter and sweeter – but perhaps the book was a better portrayal of life and particularly single mothers. I don’t know.

There’s something pretty about the writing itself. The style suits the setting, but it’s not overly flowery and doesn’t get in the way of the story. I’d read another book by Joanne Harris. I have Gentlemen and Players waiting on the bookshelf.

The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

Borrowed from the Mother.

When life gives you lemons, check which sort of lemons they are because there’s no such thing as ‘just a lemon’. Read more of my witterings on this book.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

Borrowed from the Mother.

Last November I read a book by Stephen Grosz which contained the following:

My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s book is about coming to terms with this sense of disorder and working out how you interact with friends, family and colleagues so that you and they can accommodate your grief and bring it to a place of acceptance. What struck me most about the book was Sandberg’s repeated self-admonishing of her previous attitudes to people suffering to grief. There was a beautiful sense of humility at play, which is, I guess, a gift of grief.

Don’t Stop Me Now by Vassos Alexander

Borrowed from someone who pretends not to love running.

This is a story of how podgy middle-aged man became super obsessed with running, crazy sort of running, like ultra-marathons and up and down fells. It did persuade me to go out in the rain one Friday morning for a pre-breakfast run.

Running’s one of those things I think you need to do for a few months before you start to enjoy it. I first ran because someone decided to close the gym for refurbishment. I fared better than Vassos Alexander on his first run. I got more than 200m and didn’t lie to any old ladies about it.

Once you can put one leg in front of another for an extended time, however slow, then you need to go somewhere exquisitely beautiful (Yorkshire moors for example) and run cross country in a warm (but not overly hot) sunshine. At worse you ache and sweat a lot in gorgeous scenery. At best, you fly. If you can do that, I don’t see how it could be possible not to love running.

The book made me laugh. It was full of inspirational stories from various elite athletes whom Alexander had interviewed, which perhaps gave the book as a book more credibility, but it didn’t really need them because I felt Alexander’s own story was funny and informative enough.

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The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

Sicilian lemon grove

Lemon trees in Sicily. Many of the traditional lemon groves are abandoned because maintaining them is labour intensive.

Next time I pass through Savona, I need to stop and find myself a candied chinotti. It’s a type of citrus fruit used in the perfume industry and candied in panettone.

I told a friend that I was reading a book about the history and farming of citrus fruits in Italy. He laughed. But the more you see a land, the more you want to understand it. It helps that the book flows with a personal narrative and delighting anecdotes.

Perhaps I enjoyed the book more because I’ve eaten Amalfi lemons, lived a few weeks on the outskirts of Palermo and wandered lost, in the rain, through abandoned lemon groves. Perhaps it helps to have drunk homemade limoncello.

Surely it helps that I know what a citron is. When I was in Sicily last winter, I ate a slice of one. This beast is somewhere between a lemon and a rugby ball. Its skin isn’t smooth. You can’t find it in our supermarkets, and its juicy centre is pitifully small. Imagine the earth, with its small core, thick mantle and rough crust. The segments are the core, the pith is the mantle and the yellow surface rough with character. The juice is incredibly sharp. You eat it, and the thick white pith, with salt.

Before visiting Sicily, I’d never heard of this fruit. Along with the mandarin and the pomelo it’s one of the oldest citrus. The rest of the citrus family (which is much more extensive than just oranges, lemons and limes) is descended from these fruits.

I made lemon sorbet yesterday afternoon.

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Other books I finished reading in May

books

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers edited by Don George

Much of the time, I’m oblivious as to why I travel. I know when I’m exploring a new place, being introduced to someone new and then having that incredible conversation where they open up and surprise you with their insight, I get a kick. I also know that I’m drawn to the sea, the mountains, forests and early morning sunrises across distant horizons which make the worship of the sun seem common sense. Sometimes, when I’m alone especially, the world feels like it’s trying to show me something more than my little human brain can comprehend.

“And I’ve begun to understand the purpose of travel; a few days of seeing the world in a different way gives us the confidence to face whatever waits for us at home. Even Mountains.”

Aliya Whiteley, An Alpine Escape

And yet travel is a lonely business. It’s often a quest to find that supposed ‘self-love’, happiness to be oneself and take comfort within that identity. Sometimes it’s a quest to define oneself, by comparing oneself to what one is not. Whatever the quest, it’s a quest that in the urgency of routine seems impossible. It requires a fresh perspective.

“Looking back, I think my trip to India was in part an attempt to cleanse myself of the need for her, to find an alternative route to peace or else a definitive reason to give up the search. This was a tall order, and it didn’t work, thank God – that woman is now my wife.”

Stephen Kelman, Mumbai: Before the Monsoon

The magic of travelling perhaps is a mixture of recognising oneself, the sacredness of the world, and what it means to belong.

And in those quiet moments of sunshine on park benches, reading how other people tackle the same mental agility course as I do is somewhat therapeutic. Hearing their stories of the wondrous and the exotic reminds me of the value of my own.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo

Reading this book lead to a fascinating conversation with a couple of fellow nomads about the difficulties in balancing the need for connection with the traveller’s urge for novelty.

“When we feel socially connected, as most of us feel most of the time, we tend to attribute success to our own actions and failures to luck. When we feel socially isolated and depressed, we tend to reverse this useful illusion and turn even small errors into catastrophes – at least in own minds.”

Perhaps everyone struggles with loneliness, but perhaps with travellers, it’s an expected condition. The isolation of being the only person like you, who knows you, who has felt for you, is one that a traveller should expect. You’re an alien walking amongst a tribe. You do not fit. You are a novelty. You do not belong. You are special and wondrous, but you cannot be understood.

And the more I think about it, the more I feel that the antidote to loneliness is being seen. Many conversations through instant messengers, or cheerful exchanges amongst strangers can’t do more that act as a distraction. Sometimes you need to be seen as you are. You need someone to be willing to look.

Sometimes, with travelling, you find the odd stranger who does look. I had coffee with a young man in Poland who used the silence between sentences to listen and see. He let there be space, a crack that allowed the light to get in.* Then there was a conversation I had with a woman who saw my fingers twiddling with my necklace, leant forward and asked what it meant to me. I hadn’t known the answer until I told her. In these moments, there’s a real connection.

But it can never compare to the level of connection that comes from someone who really knows you, knows you at your very best and at your very worst, accepts them both and is willing to know more. And that’s precious.

 

 

*The Leonard Cohen obsession continues.

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Poland: Navigating the public transport of Poznań

Poznań terrace houses

On Wednesday, when I took my camera, it wasn’t quite so sunny.

For me, it’s a bit of an awkward moment. You walk into a café past the seating that’s out in the sun on the main square of a quiet town at lunch time on a Tuesday morning, and ask to be directed to a toilet. The cafe is otherwise empty, and the waitress gives you an odd look. You promise what you really want is a coffee.

It’s not like I’m desperate or anything, it’s more a matter of security.  As a lone traveller who knows nobody in this foreign city, I have nobody who’s going to look after my bag for the duration of my expedition to the bathroom (where I find I don’t know the words for ‘men’ and ‘women’ in Polish). I don’t want to order a coffee and the waitress deliver it to an empty table. Who wants cold coffee? There’s a whole problem of not feeling comfortable leaving your handbag unguarded beneath the square table. I don’t even have a cheap coat or jacket which could prove this place is my space.

It’s a common inconvenience of being a solo traveller

In the sunshine, the old market square (Stary Rynek) in the centre of the old town of Poznań looks picture book worthy. Although the old town isn’t in the position of the oldest part of the town – that was on the little island close by where the Cathedral now stands – it’s here you find the old terrace houses, many of which are painted beautiful colours that remind me of a more subdued, elegant version of Cork, Ireland. Many of these terraces have become cafés.

I chose a cappuccino

Hoping nobody was staring at me, wondering what I was up to, I swallowed my little white lactase tablet. I know I shouldn’t be drinking a milky coffee. It’s the first one I’ve drunk in months. Worse still, I’m disappointed with the surplus foam, too much milk and there’s no chocolate sprinkled on the top. I’m no longer sure why I used to love these drinks so much in my pre-lactose intolerant days, or why they used to give me so much comfort. This choice is a symptom of the stress of the previous few weeks. I’m behaving irrationally.

And particularly the stress of the morning I’ve just had.

I’m staying with a wonderful woman, in the outskirts of the city, who, unfortunately, had no idea of how to use the local public transport. She is very much a car driver. Since I have no car I headed out, wandered through the housing estate where the houses stood proudly amongst their gardens (yes, gardens), past the yappy dogs and located the nearest bus stop. I’m not a fan of buses.

Getting a ticket was complicated

A kind Polish woman who spoke lovely English explained that there was no possibility of buying a ticket on the bus. However, she named the street and the newsagents where I could buy a ticket. Back ten minutes walk in the direction I’d just come.

The women working in the newsagents were gossiping

When I walked in, with my ‘I’ve got no idea what I’m doing but I’m happy to meet you’ expression. It’s been my experience that strangers in Poland do not pass in the street with a chirpy exchange of ‘morning’. They keep themselves to themselves. They do not exchange eye contact. A lovely Russian Theology graduate later warned that this is even more severe in Russia. To smile on public transport in Russia is as to walk around with a large billboard declaring yourself a fool.

I am a smiling fool. I did however manage to buy a ticket, thank the ladies, in Polish, and begin the trek back to the bus stop. The ticket was not, however, enough to cover me for an entire journey. The newsagents didn’t sell complete tickets, they only sold ten minute tickets. The sort of ticket that allow you to get on a bus and traverse to the nearest real, automatic, credit card accepting ticket machine. I said it was complicated.

I discovered the ticket machine

At the end of the bus route, where you change from bus to tram to get into Poznań centre I wandered around lost for a while and only came upon the ticket machine just as I was thinking of giving up and walking. I purchased a ticket that would last me for 72 hours and cover both the buses and the trams, but was cheaper than a day saver at home. Then, relying on luck, I climbed on a tram, assuming there was a good chance that all the trams went somewhere via the city centre. It was the number two tram.

Between the GPS on my phone, and my intuition of following the crowd, I hopped off the bus at what proved to be a convenient location. After gaining my bearings, I strolled down the cobbled streets towards the square, to find my coffee.

And so I ordered a cappuccino, and then wished I hadn’t.

 

Poznań terrace houses

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