Telephone Nostalgia

It suddenly occurs to me that it's been months since anybody called our landline.  Except for my mother, of course.  Day after day, when I check the phone after coming back home, the display is always the same.  0 Calls.  0 Messages.  Come to think of it, hardly anybody ever phones at all.  I do get the occasional call on my mobile but even then, they have become an increasingly rare event in my life.  So much so that when the landline or the mobile ring, I jump, wary, assuming it's either a wrong number or someone demanding that I do something.  I no longer consider the possibility of  hearing  "Hi, Katia.  How are you? I just wanted to hear your voice and catch up".   

I often call a dear friend who lives in London – so we don't get to meet very often –  and a precious friend who resides at the opposite end of the country, and I haven't seen for over ten years.  But I call them.  Although when they pick up the phone, they sound pleased to hear my voice (either that or it's wishful thinking on my part), the fact that I am always the one to initiate telephone contact makes me wonder if they simply put up with my quirk because they're fond of me, but that among the rest of Western humanity, it's a custom that has gone the way of letter writing and non-digital cameras.  

One London friend sometimes calls me on my mobile, and there's my American aunt who sometimes rings me on the landline.  Other than that, it's text messages and e-mails.  Maybe it's the kind of friends and acquaintances I keep.  I can't remember the last time anybody called and actually spoke to me when inviting us over for lunch, dinner or to suggest coffee in town.  It's either a text message or an e-mail.  No tone of voice suggesting the person's mood or state of health, no opportunity for a brief moment of warmth with words exchanged a viva voce.  Just emoticons.  I, too, used to include emoticons in my messages, but I do so less and less now.  I actually dislike emoticons.  Intensely.  Centuries of languages, poetry, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Sturm und Drang, millennia of words in all shapes, colours, sounds and subtle nuances and I get a lazy, bland 😀🤣👍👏🏻or 😘.  A fellow blogger I've become friendly with, recently removed the Likeoption from his blog.  As I understand it, his point is that if we enjoyed what he's written, then he would like us to express it in our own words.  And not resort to a lazy "Like".  I must admit, I often find the lengthy process of leaving a fully-worded comment a little trying but then, once I have made the effort, I feel like saying, "Thank you, my friend, for forcing me to use my imagination and my brain."  

I don't particularly like social calls on my mobile.  The reception quality is often capricious, there is the background noise to contend with if I am in the street, and my ear gets hot after a while.  Moreover, I am never able to concentrate fully when on my mobile.  At home, on the landline, on the other hand, I can sit down and give him or her my undivided attention.  

I get frustrated with the ping-pong of social text messaging or WhatsApp-ing.  I wish I could just continue the exchange in good old-fashioned human speech.

Text messages are very convenient for brief messages, or if you don't know if it's a suitable moment to call someone.  But then what's wrong with phoning and saying, "Is it a good time to talk now or shall I ring you back?" Text messages have their place.  But sometimes I would like to hear the person's voice, assess their tone, detect their mood or their humour – without a standard computerised emoji sign posting it.  Also, I like to hear a friend say, at the end of a telephone conversation, "OK, big hug" or "Love you" or "Mwah" instead of the obligatory "x" at the end of a text message or e-mail.  

I prefer face to face contact to talking over the phone.  But, when meeting is not possible, a telephone call provides a personal touch a text message or e-mail simply haven't.  And, for all its convenient brevity, I find it much quicker to call someone and get an answer straight away, than using my large, clumsy finger pads on the screen of my smartphone – and waiting for the other person to respond.  

After I have cooked a meal and entertained guests, I would far rather receive a thank you call the next day, than a text message.

Yes, I too, am guilty of overusing texts and e-mails. I guess because people don't use the phone to make a voice call, I am often reluctant to ring them for fear of disturbing them.

As they say in Russian, when you live with wolves, you start howling like a wolf.

Well, I don't want to howl anymore.  I want to talk to people.  I want to hear their voices, in all their nuances.

Scribe Doll

 

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Early Autumn Wedding

"Are you having any readings?"

"No."

"Have you brought some music?"

"No."

"Do you have rings?"

"Yes."

The elderly registrar smiles with a hint of relief.  At least one traditional feature.  She tells those present that photos are not permitted during the actual signing of the register but they can be posed for afterwards.

"Does anyone have any questions?"

"No."

"In that case, shall we begin?"

We all stand in our appointed positions. Just the couple and two witnesses.  "We asked you  because you're the first people we met after we moved here," the bride and groom said. "Also, this way, none of our other friends can possibly be offended at not being asked."

Given these circumstances, H. and I feel deeply privileged to be here.

There are no other guests.  They felt disloyal about inviting friends and leaving out family.  She doesn't want her family's aloofness to sabotage her special day.  He knows his family aren't ready to hear the news.  Too much pain to come to terms with yet, too much forgiveness to be granted.  This marriage is a right built on wrongs.  Inevitable wrongs that had to be righted and could not be righted without some wrongs.  We're only human.  

He wears grey chinos and a blue shirt that brings out the colour of his eyes and the silver of his hair.  She bought a terracotta top for the occasion, as well as a blue-grey skirt.  Something new.  Nothing old or borrowed.  No flowers.  This is a second marriage for both.  A couple of decades ago, both had a day of white lace, speeches, three-tier cakes and pink champagne.  A day to please her husband's family and his wife's tradition.  Today is for them alone. 

The ceremony takes about twenty minutes. The registrar speaks the vows and they repeat after her slowly, meaning every word.   Plain, matching gold bands are slipped on fingers.  A tender kiss exchanged. This is a second wedding.  The youthful trust has grown into firm intention.  The candy-coloured spring blossoms have been replaced with the deeper, earthier hues of early autumn.  Passion with compassion.  

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
"Today is for them alone." Absolutely. And it is so apt that they invited members of the local community to share the experience, ... Read More
Monday, 24 September 2018 16:14
Katherine Gregor
Thank you for your comment. To be honest, this is one of the very few weddings I've enjoyed. Mostly, I find them overlong and du... Read More
Monday, 24 September 2018 20:57
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Milan: Behind the Façade

I guess it was appropriate that my first conversation in Milan should have been about fashion.  H. and I just had lunch at Stazione Centrale and were leaving the restaurant, trolley suitcases in tow, when I noticed a young woman oscillating her head as I passed, to follow my feet with her gaze.  She was sitting on a high stool, and turned to mutter something to the young man next to her.  I did a sharp U-turn.  "You're talking about my socks, aren't you?" 

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She raised her eyes to mine, evidently assessing my tone on the friendliness scale.  "I was just telling him –" she began, cocking her head towards the young man.

"I was talking about tights – not socks!" he stammered, blushing.

"No, you weren't!" she almost snapped, outraged at this evident betrayal.

"Well," I said, "normally, I would never wear white ankle socks with this kind of shoes but, firstly, I come from England, and in England fashion is not a priority, and, secondly, I've just been on a train for several hours, wanted to be comfortable, and the socks stop my sweaty feet from sticking to the insides of my shoes.  I know, the white  ankle socks give it a little girl look –"

"– and the actual shoes are also little girl shoes," she added with organic seamlessness until her face suddenly froze with the realisation she had dispensed a gram of honesty too many.

The young man was looking away, his entire body expressing an unequivocal desire for a hole to open beneath his bar stool and swallow him up.

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I glanced at my shoes.  Sand-coloured leather with flat, white rubber soles, a T-bar with a buttoned strap and oval details carved out at the level of the toes.  It hadn't occurred to me but, now that I studied them, yes, they did look like little girl footwear.  I looked up at the couple and burst out laughing.  The young woman ventured a smile of relief and I walked away, wheeling my suitcase.

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I had never been to Milan before.  I pictured high fashion, risotto with gold leaf and Northern Italian efficiency.  I had read Caterina Bonvicini's exquisitely incisive portrayal of upper middle-class Milanese women in her brilliant (sadly not yet translated into English) novel, Tutte le donne di("All His Women") and an article in the Corriere della Sera that presented Milanese ladies as a bouquet of beige outfits, fish and salad lunches, private views at art galleries and operas at La Scala – but never on opening night.

After a week in the city of unbridled sensual splendour that Rome is, the relative austerity of Milan's imposing, chunky buildings felt like a foreign country.  With a foreign language.  When I used the word stampella (entirely common in Rome)to ask the hotel receptionist for more coat-hangers, he did his best not to stare and, with composed politeness, asked me to clarify, then, with equally measured politeness, communicated to me that a perhaps more easily understandable noun would be grucciaand that I had, in actual fact, just requested a walking stick.

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As we walked along Corso Buenos Aires, then Corso Venezia, every building offended my baroque-spoilt eyes.   The massive palazzi, the lack of finesse in the stucco and carvings – everything seemed to stand witness to the slight vulgarity of 19th-century industry-generated money that has to prove itself.  The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II struck me as rather glitzy and vulgar, not a patch on the genteel, if a little worn, Gallerie de la Reine in Brussels.  Even my first sight of the Duomowas a disappointment, like an over-decorated cake, with sculptures filling every available space – even at the top of the tall gothic spires.  Every building in Milan seemed to antagonise me.

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On our first evening there, I e-mailed an Italian writer whose books I have translated. "Milan is not Rome," he wrote back.  "Its beauties are hidden.  Give it a little time..."

There was a festival of Baroque music the next day, and H. and I went to a concert of sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli by the Ensemble Estro Cromatico at the church of San Bernardino alle Monache.   As it was some distance from our hotel, H. suggested taking the metro.  Frequent and swift, the Milan underground transport system is light years more efficient than the one-down-one-across metro network in Rome.  We emerged in an area quite different from the one we had walked around until now.  Older, friendlier-looking buildings that had more history and more heart.  That were not in your face.  Buildings that whispered.  I approached the makeshift box office outside San Bernardino alle Monache to pick up our tickets. "Ah, Gregor," the lady behind the desk exclaimed as though she'd heard the name before, and rummaged through a stack of envelopes.  "Benvenuti!" she said, smiling and handing me our tickets.  

For a second or two, I was puzzled by this unexpected welcome.  Then it occurred to me that mine must have been the only non-Italian name on her list.  "Grazie!" I replied, suddenly feeling unaccountably cheerful and glad to be there, in this initially aggressive-looking city that clearly had a warm side.   

 We sat at the very back, by the doors that had been left open for the air to circulate in the 35ºC heat.  Everyone sat fanning themselves with either fans or programmes in this enchanting, 13th-century church with frescos, filled with the haunting, gentle emotion of period instruments.  I could get used to being here, I thought.

As though the evening of the concert had unlocked a door I had been walking past without realising it, I began to see a different side to the city.  I remembered my Italian writer acquaintance's advice.  Yes, Rome opened its arms to you.  Milan required a little courtship.  Along the very Corso Buenos Aires and Corso Venezia that had so offended my eyes on the first day, I began to notice small gates leading to magnificent courtyards with hidden gardens and – in one case – a small pond with flamingoes.  Yes, flamingoes.  Who – what kind of individual keeps flamingoes in their garden? I wonder if I shall ever find out.  All over Milan, behind chunky, thickset façades, through elaborate, wrought-iron gates, lurked these alluring, elegant courtyards made of arches, a single lantern and sprawling foliage.  Intimate spaces shielded from prying eyes.

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The view from my temporary "office"

Freelancers aren't free.  Fifteen pages of translation editing – a couple of hours' work – had to be done every day, holiday or no holiday.  Not wanting to stay cooped up in our hotel room, I went in search of somewhere with a table, a view, tea, and where I could linger undisturbed for as long as I needed.  The ideal spot presented itself at the Mondadori bookshop, in Piazza del Duomo.  A corner table by the window.  A view over the Gothic cathedral looming over a square swarming with tourists, spires challenging the Heavens.  A cathedral which, as the days went by, began to look less aggressive to my eyes.  Its whiteness less glaring, its size less daunting, its spires less defiant, more inspired.  More inspiring.

I could get used to being here, I thought once again.

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Scribe Doll

 

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
...but Max Mara shops! :-) I've always noted that when an Italian gives presents, they are unostentatiously wrapped, but they dis... Read More
Tuesday, 14 August 2018 11:45
Katherine Gregor
Well, now that you mentione it, I did loiter in a MaxMara shop. I used to have a MaxMara coat, about thirty years ago, when the b... Read More
Tuesday, 14 August 2018 12:11
Rosy Cole
These days it's the Precis Petite outlet online for me. I'd be going back thirty years with the MaxMara clothes, in the days when ... Read More
Saturday, 18 August 2018 15:33
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Paris to Rome by Train

"Why can't we take the train?"

"What – all the way?" H. gives me his your-quirkiness-is-turning-into-madness look.  "It's – it's –"

"The longest leg would be just twelve hours," I filled in, smiling sweetly.  "If you went to Australia, you'd have to sit on a plane for over twelve hours."

"Y–yes, but–but, you're actually proposing to take a train from Norwich to London, London to Paris, Paris to Rome, then Rome to Milan, Milan to Paris, then –"

"Yes, I know."

"But you even want to go from Paris to Rome by train? That's, like –"

"Yes, twelve hours." My smile loses some of its brilliance.

 

I truly hate flying.  I do it when I have to but I find the whole experience increasingly stressful.  The wait at the airport, the luggage restrictions, sitting cramped in that tiny space, with the constant noise of the engine, and that unpleasant aircraft smell.  

 

And so here we are, in a taxi driving us across a barely awake Paris to the Gare de Lyon, to catch a 6.30 a.m. train to Milan, where we will change for a train to Rome.  I wonder for a moment if I am putting our marriage to an unnecessary test.  I've come prepared to tackle any protestation of boredom on H.'s part.  There's music uploaded on my iPad, a velveteen-covered neck pillow and a copy of The Society of Authors' Author magazine in my holdall.  

 

As the TGV leaves the station, my heart feels light.  Twelve hours to myself.  Twelve hours with no work, no e-mails, no mother phoning, no household chores to be done.  When was the last time I had twelve hours in a row to myself? When was the last time I had even half that to myself? 

 

The early-morning grey is gradually dispelled by sunlight.  The sky is brightening.  We whizz past country churches with steeples, fields, small towns.  I fall asleep, my neck pillow wedged behind me, supporting my low back.  

 

I wake up to luscious, dark green hills against a turquoise sky.  The guard announces Aix-les-Bains as our next stop.  The hills reach up to become mountains and the train plunges in and out of their bellies.  Suddenly, a large expanse of water a slightly greener tone than the sky.  A lake.  "Let's go to the buffet car," I suggest to H. and we make our way down from one carriage to the other, swaying between the seats, trying not to step on protruding feet and canine tails.  By the time we reach the buffet, we're in the middle of this magnificent lake.  There's a small island, with a fairy-tale-like château sprouting out of it.  "What's this beautiful lake called?" I ask the lady behind the counter.

"Lac du Bourget," she replies, smiling. 

We stand by the window and watch the sunlight glinting on the smooth, green-blue surface.  There are children bathing by the shore, and people having a picnic.  Any moment now, I expect to see water sprites leap out of the water.

"Well, isn't this sight alone worth the train journey?" I ask tentatively.

"Hmm..." H. replies.  But he is smiling, entranced by the view.

 

The mountains grow taller, their peaks sharper.  We're passing the Alps.  I now cannot see them without thinking of the many books and extracts H. and I have recently been translating, all set there.  The Alps seem to have become a favourite backdrop to many Italian novels.  A place between countries, languages and cultures.  Where Austro-Hungarians turned Austrians, then became Italians, then Germans, then Italians again, each time switching language.  Summits veiled in shreds of cloud like gossamer, with streaks of snow on their sides.  Patches of brown showing through subtly different shades of green.  I wish I had the vocabulary to name all these vibrant, deep greens.  Gorges with jagged sides, as though hacked with the sword of a pre-human giant.  Rock formations like camouflaged faces watching the train as it runs past them.  Observing humans, unseen.  Sprawling masses of rock carved by the wind and smoothed by the rain.  A view that commands awe.  I can't help feeling that there is something un-judging and yet unforgiving about mountains. A force not to be challenged and never to be disrespected.  On one summit, a solitary cross. 

 

My ears imagine the wind howling through these narrow gorges, sweeping across the green valleys.  I picture Alpine witches riding on broomsticks, carried by this wind, laughing uproariously on their way to a sabbath, circling the peaks, snowflakes blowing in their faces.  Perhaps they gather to stir polenta in a large cauldron, on cold winter nights.  Trilingual witches who compose rhymes in Italian, German and French.  

 

In Milan, we jump into a taxi to change stations, to catch the train for Rome.  After the rather slow, tattered TGV, the Italo train is a luxurious experience of speed, ample leg room, comfortable seats and just the right potency of air conditioning.  

 

Between Milan and Turin, the flat land of the Po Valley, with rice paddies, grey skies, and a pastel landscape.  H. falls asleep, my velveteen pillow framing his neck.  The countryside becomes more chiselled and colourful as we approach Tuscany.  When the train pulls into Florence – blink and you miss it – I catch a glimpse of  Brunelleschi's dome.  I am as excited as a child.  I think Dante, Guelphs and Ghibellines, and my old friend Gianni Schicchi.

 

Deep in Tuscany, there are faded, terracotta-red casolari atop hills, with rows of cypresses straight as arrows, silent sentinels of olive groves and vineyards.  Mediaeval cities perched on cliff tops, as though carved from the rock itself, with churches I imagine covered in frescoes.  H. is also looking out of the window, while listening to Turandot on my iPad.

 

The woman sitting behind us pulls down the blind.  I could weep and protest as politely as I can.  I want to see every tree, every rock, every stone castle and olive grove.  The direct sun is uncomfortable for her eyes.  We compromise and keep the blind halfway down, which means that I have to curve my body to see outside.  After a while my back is aching and the poor woman's eyes are stinging as the sun is now lower down in the sky and she asks to pull the blind down lower.  I wish I could explain to her that where I come from, the sun is an unpredictable luxury not to be wasted but worshipped wholeheartedly whenever it honours you with its presence.  That I have spent the last couple of years feeling cold and am so sun-starved I could almost hold the sun's glare, afraid to look away in case it hides behind the clouds again.

 

As we approach Lazio, maritime pines begin to appear, their tall trunks slightly twisted and bent by the winds from the Mediterranean.

 

The sun has set by the time we reach Rome.  H. is exhausted.  So am I.  We take our luggage and step out of the cool train into an embrace of intense July heat.  

 

"Next time we'll take a plane, right?" H. says as we walk to the taxi rank.

"Next time, perhaps you can fly, I can take the train, and we can meet in Rome?" I suggest.

"Well, we'll see," he replies.

I peer into his face out of the corner of my eye.  I think he has forgiven me my quirkiness-turned-madness, but I guess I shouldn't push my luck.

 

Scribe Doll   

 

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
It all sounds wonderful to me. Except the 6:30 am departure time.
Monday, 06 August 2018 22:35
Katherine Gregor
The 6.30 a.m. train is the only way of not arriving at destination at night.
Wednesday, 08 August 2018 08:12
Ken Hartke
This brought back some very happy memories. I love long distance train travel, both in the US and Italy although the experience i... Read More
Tuesday, 07 August 2018 03:44
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9 Comments

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