Saturday, 15 June 2019

Quick Lit June 2019

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for our monthly book reviews. On reflection, there seems to be a slight philosophical/ spiritual slant to the past month's reading, whether inspired by chickens or monsters. Hope one of these inspires you, too!

Rumer Godden - Black Narcissus
A small group of British nuns leave their mother house in India to found a new mission in a disused palace among the Himalayas. But, caught up in no man's land, in a place between heaven and earth, and a building that seems to retain the spirit of its amoral foundation, each sister finds herself confronting personal demons. The theme of the 'civilised' Westerner who finds everything she believes called into question when confronted by a strange, 'permissive', culture is nothing new, but in Godden's hands it is fresh and compelling - I was hooked.

James Runcie - Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death
James Runcie, it turns out, is the son of late Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, who, coincidentally, is the only Archbishop I have ever met in person, when he visited my school back in the eighties. Shameless name dropping apart, my point is that this author knows the Church of England and its priesthood intimately, and that shows through warmly in this collection of short detective stories featuring Sidney Chambers, canon of Grantchester and reluctant detective. On the other hand, he seems to know the 1950s less thoroughly, because he is annoyingly quick to give Sidney modern sensibilities on moral questions. I declare it very entertaining, but not illuminating. I believe it is a TV series now, but I haven't regularly watched TV since, well, Robert Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury.

Alice Walker - The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels who have Returned with my Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, the Gladyses, & Babe [audiobook, read by Walker]
I kept my own flock of chickens (and ducks) up until we moved a year ago, so I completely get Alice Walker's Chicken Love. This short memoir explores how her decision to raise a flock of chickens, something she had not done since childhood, unexpectedly leads to her understanding her past and seeing the present in a new light. It's a wide-ranging and candid reveal of Walker's life, art, and opinions, and based on her blog, so ideal if you want something you can digest in small chunks. I suspect that hearing it in Walker's voice was better than reading it, though. I found it fascinating, but if you think the only good chicken comes fried or roasted, and anyone who is a "Chicken Mommy" is a little crazy, this might not be for you.

John Gardner - Grendel [audiobook]
It's tough when you are simultaneously suffering an existential crisis and the urge to bite off heads -  that seems to be the gist of this retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of its most famous monster. Following Grendel's stream of consciousness through various philosophical positions (with a zodiac theme thrown in for good measure) made this a challenging listen - unlike The Chicken Chronicles, it might have been better on paper. Ultimately, I just could not get into it, as there was no one to empathise with. I think it was Gardner's intention that the reader is unsettled and unable to pigeonhole Grendel as man or monster, but for me, he did not quite pull it off. But while I am on the topic, in contrast, I wholeheartedly recommend Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf.

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
I bought this at a church fete because of all the hype - and then didn't open it for months for the same reason (I don't tend to like popular books, or epistolary novels). But I am glad I did, because it had a tone I loved (light, witty) and eccentric characters you could root for (unlike Grendel). Briefly, author Juliet falls into accidental correspondence with a group of people who found solace in their impromptu literary society during the German occupation of the Channel Islands. When she travels there to gather more information, she finds much more than the story (and friendships) that she bargained for.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Koper - One Year On

It is somewhat ironic that this one-year review is late because we were back in the States for our daughter's graduation. (And I was resolved to avoid a long flight for as long as I could. Oh well.) But here we go...

I am sitting here trying to decide if it 'feels' like a year. I can't tell. Life back in Mississippi seems like a dream. But here's a few reflections, with an eye to helping others contemplating an overseas move, particularly to a place where you don't speak the language. So let's start there...

I have to look back over the course of a year so as not to be discouraged, and to remind myself that I only got a tutor towards the end of last year. I know vastly more Slovene than I did then - but I still can't hold a conversation. At best, I only ever have 50% of the words I need. Still, I am recognising more words around me - and often more than one word together! I can function in a cafe or restaurant, ask to make an appointment, or tell a shopkeeper than I am "just looking" or ask "how much", as well as make all those standard presentations covered in textbooks (about yourself, your family, your interests, what you are doing - you know the stuff), and that covers everyday life. Our four year-old son quite clearly understands Slovene, but will only answer in English. I am curious to see if the inevitable switch will be gradual or overnight.

My thoughts? If you are in a work/life situation where you are not immersed in the language daily (which is probably the case unless you moved to be a missionary or are in a witness protection programme, because why else would you be doing this crazy thing?), it is going to be a slow slog if you don't already speak a related language or are a linguistic genius. It helps to cultivate an attitude of accepting that you are going to open your mouth and make stupid mistakes.

I don't think much about cultural differences on a day-to-day basis, so I suppose I have got used to them. Having spent twenty years in the most efficient country in the world, I am now mostly resigned to how long things take here appreciate the slower pace of life.

The Loggia cafe, up the street from my office

One trait I have happily adopted is not worrying about stopping at a cafe for a coffee break. In the US, I would be calculating how often I 'deserved' a coffee out, but here it is pennies, and running errands on foot means there is often a break between meeting people and making appointments. In general, social life takes place outside the home, so don't feel slighted if you are never invited to dinner. And if you are, take off your shoes - there will likely be a basket of guest slippers by the door (you can buy them by the bag in the supermarket). Apparently, some Slovenes have a room at the front of the house where they entertain - and guests are never invited further in. As an introvert, I find this strangely comforting, because I can walk around town and pretend I am participating in Slovene life.

Most people are kind. A few openly resent the influx of foreign workers and I don't blame them. Between the cruise ship trade, expanding university and international business, plus increased immigration from bordering countries, Koper is growing and changing. I know how it felt to watch the quiet little town I grew up in become a crowded suburb of international London. Some incomers don't even bother to try learning the language. I just try to smile and stutter a few words of Slovene.

One of the most notable differences, and one you wouldn't think about when moving to Europe, is that between what my husband coined the "Anglo world" and other countries. (I am making observations here, not judgments, by the way.) Italy, for instance, is much more socially conservative that one might imagine given that Rome seems to be only an enclave of religion in an otherwise quite secular society. Though I shun the word "progressive" for myself, I was surprised that attitudes towards, for example, LGBTQ issues, are those of Britain and the US about ten years ago.

And you have to get used to the local administration. A Hungarian friend tells us that Slovenian bureaucracy is so much better than Hungarian. A friend who has spent decades in China smiled knowingly when I explained things here to him. Ho hum. All our dealings have followed a general pattern:
  • Begin process for whatever. 
  • Be told by official there is some potentially fatal flaw in our application. 
  • Stress, panic until it gets to the last minute. 
  • Official shrugs and fixes everything.
Well, I am actually wanting to skip over this annoying greying process and get to sexy all-white hair,  so maybe I should be grateful.

Apart from this spring, which was wet and filled with other obligations (like going to New Zealand, England, Wales, and Spain), we have done pretty well in keeping our resolution to make the most of being tucked into a corner between eastern and western Europe - see the list of places to the right! I have confirmed that I am not European enough to go nude in public, love of spas notwithstanding, plus that we don't do casual tourism very well and prefer the nerdy options (shout out again to Prof. Udovic at the Neanderthal Museum). A big bonus of resolutely exploring your new place is that it gives you little breaks from the stresses described above (and below). And yes, it really does broaden the mind.

No, let's not go there. Oh, okay.  I am still not accustomed to the daily drive across the border to Italy, where our daughter is in school. Italian drivers have the ability to reduce me to a quivering, swearing, sometimes even tearful, wreck. As someone who shall remain anonymous remarked to me, "They drive as though your life is not worth thirty seconds of their time." Slovene drivers are somewhat better, but do like to honk at you if you are not quick enough for them.

It's another Anglo thing - we are taught to drive defensively, park in the right places etc. Oh no, not here. (I am making judgments here, not observations. Except that the following observations are all true.) Need directions? Stop the car on the road, get out and ask. Don't feel like walking across the car park to the supermarket? Just park outside - bonus points if you do it in the driving lane that everyone else is using to get to the actual parking spaces. Ditto for school. Parking four deep across the road at the bend is far more convenient - for you. It's not your kid stuck in the school bus that can't get round the corner. My husband once broke down and directly asked a friend who drives like this, "But what if you block the road?" He replied, "Then they have to wait."

But I am Slovene enough to longer care about stopping in the one way street right in front of our apartment to let the children out if it is raining. Naughty me.

And one thing I do know: despite stresses, frustrations, and setbacks, I have no regrets about moving here.