Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania by William Blacker

Sheep herding, Romania

When friends in England were mastering the latest computer technology, I was learning to mow. ‘This’, as I wrote to a friend, ‘is what I call progress.’

On a hill, just outside an old Romanian village, I’m sprawled out on the sofa, reading Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania by William Blacker. I giggle causing my friend to glance up from his own book. This is what happens when you’re reading a tale of an Eton educated Brit falling – quite haphazardly – in love with Romania in the 90’s and its peoples. You laugh at the absurdities.

I had found myself uncomfortable with the fact that I knew nothing about Romania, especially since I was going to be spending so much time talking with Romanians, so I loaded Along the Enchanted Way onto my e-book reader and began to learn.

There’s something special about reading about the land you actually see when you look out of the window. I read Victoria Hislop’s The Island, when I visited the island of Spinalonga – an old Greek leper colony – and the mixture of reading and seeing had convinced me of this fact. As the sun peeked up over the hills of Romania, I passed the goats, heard the donkey braying, saw the sheep being herded down the road, saw the women chasing their cows with their sticks, saw the stacks of hay in each garden, alongside rows of bold red tomatoes. At lunch time I lay on the sofa and read about what I was seeing.

On our first evening in the countryside, we were warned, strenuously, to keep to the path, beware of the sheep dogs which won’t hesitate if they think you’re trespassing on their flock’s territory. I nodded convinced, I’d read about how these dogs are trained to hold their line if wolves attack. I’d learnt that a herd of horses can keep off wolves over night by putting their heads together to form a circle and using their hind legs to kick out. I’d learnt how the dogs were trained to position themselves around the flock, with the shepherd in the middle to coordinate their aggressive defense.

I read about tensions between populations (Saxons, Romanians, Hungarians, Romani Gypsies) and love and history and tradition, and I listened, because all around me were Romanians speaking of Romania. The primary and secondary evidence educating me with a complete visual, kinesthetic and auditory experience. We drank milk brought up fresh from the village, and bought watermelon from the van which passed by calling, “Pepene, pepene!”

I delighted in it all. The book itself is an entertaining read, brought to life for me by the colour of the people I lived beside.

Additional reading: Prince Charles and the Half-Gypsy Kid

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.

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.

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.

Some books I finished reading in May

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

I travelled throughout May. This meant I was back to my ebook reader where I had started reading a wonderful series of short stories by Gabriel García Márquez some time before, and a series of short travel exploits* which happen to be the perfect size to fit between train stops.

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

These stories were strange and all in their own way represented a search to satisfy some unsatisfiable need. In the prologue at the very beginning, García Márquez discusses the origin of the story collection.

“This has been a strange creative experience that should be explained, if only so that children who want to be writers when they grow up will know how insatiable and abrasive the writing habit can be.”

These twelve stories of South American travellers are not suitable for children, and I feel in this sentence, García Márquez isn’t speaking about young, half grown humans, but children as in the children of the craft. He’s talking about me.

Stories come into mind over time, and García Márquez seems to have collected them like how one sees grubby men collecting fag ends from beneath park benches. Compelled because it had become part of him. After accidentally losing his notebook, containing the key elements of the stories, he reconstructed those that remained strongest in his mind. The whole process took eighteen years, sixty-four stories became twelve, but he wrote the current result in ‘eight feverish months’.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

Listened to the audiobook, borrowed from the library.

I am sadly susceptible to travel sickness. Not ideal for a traveller. Long coach journeys, bus rides and boats are my nemesis, for whilst on a train or plane I can quite comfortably read, but on these other forms of transport it proves icky. Audiobooks in the circumstances are a wonderful alternative.

The Silk Roads is non-fiction epic history. In its paper form, it’s a chunky book. In audio, it’s over 24 hours long. That’s some serious listening time. It’s also a huge amount of information. I liked it, because it provided a perspective on history that was different. It wasn’t that is wasn’t focused on the west (in parts it definitely was) but it gave an overall broader impression of the connected nature of the world, going from way back. It felt more complete than any understanding of world history that I’ve had prior to this.

Now I can’t remember most of the book, for which I’m blaming my ears. I’m every type of learner other than auditory. And in the bits I do remember, I’m not sure where they happened or who was involved. But I do recall thinking that I would have to, at some point, get a paper copy of this book and begin all over again. From what I do remember, it will be worth it.

My Life With Ewa by Tim Pratt

This is a love story between a young American boy, Tim, and a girl, Ewa, from communist Poland. It’s a story about visas, popes, speeding school buses, hitchhiking, love letters and a truly long-distance romance. It’s a delightful tale, in which tense arguments regarding guns at the border between east and west Berlin mix with the delightful account of the everyday. Moments like learning to queue, Polish style, or when your girlfriend’s mother asks how serious your intentions are towards her daughter.

But this story, candid and humorous, had a poignant twist for me. I borrowed my copy off Ewa’s bookshelf, in the room where I slept at night.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t care if you’re rolling your eyes you mathematical logical geniuses, I love this book. And I will keep on loving this book. I first read it seven years ago, borrowed from the Grump’s mother. This time I read the Mother’s copy, which I’d bought her, and which I’d lent to Jesse and then collected again on my detour through Germany. I read it laying on a bed in Poland, whilst hiding from having to speak to anyone.

Looking back, I’ve no idea why I liked it so much before. Back then my heart was whole and scratch-free. My Italian road trip hadn’t yet happened. I didn’t speak any Italian. I hadn’t taken up meditation properly. There was certainly no feeling smug when Gilbert explains the intensity and difficulty of Vipassana, as I’d never heard of it. Reading it again now, I must get so much more out of it. Reminds me there are other books I ought to re-read.

Gaining Visibility by Pamela Hearon

This book was a free gift from Kobo and everything you would expect from a terribly light romance set between America and Italy. I read it in a morning, whilst I was feeling exhausted and in need of casually sitting in a sunny park letting the world pass by. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, but sometimes it’s nice to have something light and quick to munch.

Do you have any recommendations of short story collections ideal for the traveller?

*In part two…

Books I finished reading in April

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

No Matter The Wreckage: Poems by Sarah Kay

Borrowed from the Midget.

Sarah Kay writes and speaks poetry. I read her poems, sometimes in my head, sometimes in a whisper, occasionally aloud, before falling asleep in the evenings. They’re playful, but sometimes melancholic. The words twist and dance. They’re not following rules and there’s no rhyming scheme I understand. But all the same, they’re picture painting.

My favourite is one called ‘Dragons’. I don’t know why.

I’d read more of her work. It’s comforting.

Contagious: Why things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Library book.

A very general kind of book about what causes us to share ideas. It’s marketing in a breezy conversation with psychology. Between them they’ve agreed on some concepts and come up with some ideas.

The premise is if you want someone to think about something, you’ve got to show them the idea in the first place, and then you’ve got to continue to trigger it, again and again. The idea must appear to have worth to the individual – it makes them look good or allows them to provide genuine help to someone whose opinion they care about (makes them look good). The best packaging for a message, surprise surprise, is a story. Fairy tales and religious texts have been selling their morals and lessons for ages. But it also helps if the message is specific and individual. It has more power if it feels exclusive, unique, important, special… Exclusivity, ‘sale’, this week only…

Just a bit of light reading. Not particularly recommendable, but not a worthless read either.

One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

It’s not mine, but nor I don’t know whose it is…

This is a good book, a well-written book. An easy to consume, eye-opening, descriptive but constantly on the move book. It’s an account of one day of one prisoner’s labour camp jail sentence based on the author’s own experiences. The details bring it alive.

It’s not a depressing though as I imagined.

It’s a book that makes you question your own materialism. Solzhenitsyn makes you pause before you next eat. You find yourself looking a little closer at the plate in front of you, piled high and hot. This book has a horrible backdrop, but explores the uncomfortable setting through the delights of a puff on a cigarette, or an extra 20 grams of bread. For the protagonist to dwell on the horror of the circumstances he’s in, would be overwhelming. It goes unwritten, and is saved for the reader to feel when they step back and compare the comfort of one day in their own life to the hardship of one day like that.

Would recommend.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Borrowed from the Mother, who apparently bought it in a jumble sale, before she was married, according to the name inscribed in the front, but who has never read it.

It’s not my first Evelyn Waugh book. I read and enjoyed Scoop some years ago. Knowing I liked the author’s writing and having heard the name of the book a few times, I thought Brideshead Revisited would be a good read for me.

Now, I can’t disagree that it’s a good book, but I can’t claim to like it. In a way, I think the emotional journey through it was too close to my own emotions and my own frustrations, even if the actual story and characters are nothing like my life. Maybe that’s the mark of good literature, that it gives a different way of looking and feeling something that’s inherently the same.

But, frustratingly, nor do I dislike the book. I just don’t like the feelings it induces in me. There’s a hollowness it conveys, which is uncomfortable. And the reasoning, like so much of my own reasoning, is circular and blown out of perspective. It doesn’t make sense. But I know how it feels to have life not making sense around you. Damn frustrating.