An ordinary tourist returning from Stockholm… on an extraordinary day


When I travel, I like to be a flâneuse, to walk and wander somewhat aimlessly, to soak in the atmosphere, sit in cafés on squares and observe both the tourists and the locals, and let things happen; not for me vigorous hikes or organized tours or even the audio headsets. So I generally travel alone, as this aimlessness is deeply frustrating to others who prefer a planned agenda, with lists of things to do and see.

On my latest trip I decided to go to Stockholm, because I had not been there in fifty years, and couldn’t really remember much about it, and also because I imagined it to be a good place for the solo woman traveler: safe, efficient, woman-friendly. I booked a room on a floating hotel, which also matched my state of mind: even if the ship would not be leaving port, I would have that illusion of traveling onward, a comfortable mixture of drifting and destination, and indeed there were a few windy moments when the ship rocked ever so slightly, and I felt a momentum in my thoughts.

I made some plans nevertheless, to structure my flânerie, allowing for the forecast of sun and wind. I returned to Skansen, the outdoor park and museum, a perfect place for ambling and daydreaming; I remembered it as magical from fifty years ago and it was unchanged, as far as I could tell; only the season was different. Small children in bright pink reflective vests followed their teachers while magnificent geese waddled everywhere, very much the rulers of the place. There were views onto the water and the city in an early spring sunshine; young fathers on paternity leave congregated in the café for their children’s snacks, strollers and baby carriages neatly parked in rows at the entrance.

I took the tram back to the city center and got lost, almost sorry to be trapped among modern architecture and massive construction sites after a long morning in nature and an illusion of a simpler past. Finally I found Drottninggatan, the main pedestrian shopping street, which I knew would lead me back down to my island and hotel. Another perfect causeway for people-watching and drifting on impressions: while many of the shops were the familiar chains you find everywhere, and I could have been anywhere, therefore, I knew I was in Sweden and that its reputation went before it; I saw nothing to refute that, only people going quietly about their business, no shoving, no rushing, a sense of reserved friendliness and helpfulness, if help were needed.

This impression lasted all through my three days in Stockholm. I went out to the Waldemarsudde museum, which was filled with flowers and eager pensioners, like myself, gathering for lunch at the museum café; this was their favorite place, they assured me, I must come again. As at Skansen there were views onto the city and a walk by the water to the tram; all conferring a sense of well-being, along with the bright, low-angled sunlight; even the brisk wind was intermittent, bracing. I found myself again in the modern center, did some shopping, wandered slowly back down Drottninggatan to the old town and my boat.

The last morning I was very tired: all my walking had caught up with me and I was sorry my plane was so late in the afternoon. One last short hike up the hill to the square by the Nobel Museum; a café armchair in sunlight. Local children were on a sort of scavenger hunt with their class. I eavesdropped on passing tourists and heard Dutch, Spanish, Finnish, German, Greek, Arabic. I left regretfully; the sunshine, the unassuming hospitality, the ease of being a woman alone. Or a woman, full stop. Astrid Lindgren, Greta Garbo and Birgit Nilsson on the bank notes. All those young fathers doing their share – I had seen more of them during my walks. This is how society is changed, I thought. By example. Quietly, slowly. Small things like a country’s currency; larger ones like paternity leave. (The Nobel Museum is not exemplary, but then it is global, and it is a reminder of what remains to be done.)

By half past two I knew my flight was delayed; I attributed it to the low-cost carrier and the late departure from notably erratic Geneva airport. I sat and watched a small team of construction workers rearrange a corner of the area where my gate was located. A ginger-haired young woman in a reflective vest and sturdy hiking shoes was sticking squares of green striped carpet to a dusty floor. The men were mostly standing around, apart from one who was drilling panels into the wall. Their conversation was desultory, calm.

Finally I went to stand in line; the other passengers were getting edgy, impatient. A frazzled French mother was doing what she could to calm her tired young son; she had another toddler in an airport stroller. In answer to the son’s pleading she explained that the flight was delayed, then out of the blue: “It seems there’s been a glitch, there’s a truck that ran over some people in the center of town, we don’t know, maybe it was an accident.”

She didn’t want to frighten her son; I could appreciate her hope, which I shared, that it was an accident. I checked my tablet: the BBC reported a lorry clearly targeting pedestrians on Drottninggatan then slamming into the Åhlens department store on the corner. Three people were reported dead, at that point.

With hindsight, it was as if no one knew, apart from the French mother and me. Ground crew were smiling and calm, passengers no more irritable than anyone who has been waiting for two hours would be. I felt calm, even numb, as yet unaware of the resonance of the event, but anxious to know, and to let others know I was at the airport, about to board.

We finally took off; I was next to a Swedish woman and her son; she spent the entire flight reading fashion magazines; he played games on his phone. Most of the passengers seemed to be Swedish families on their way to the Alps for skiing or tennis. Some were fidgety, moving around the cabin to talk to others they knew. I gathered some were speaking about the incident, but they didn’t seem distressed. The view of the Alps was among the best I’ve ever seen, in a late afternoon rosiness. Stockholm seemed very far away.

But as I reconnected with the world in Geneva and messages started coming in, I felt an immense sadness. For those who had died, their families, the injured. And yet again, to a degree, for a country’s loss of innocence. But I also felt a doomed nostalgia for those three sunny days where I’d wandered in an illusion of a kinder, better world—of course I had known all along, reading the news from Syria or Washington, that there is no such place—but briefly, Stockholm had been that place for me. A part of me was sorry not to be there still, perhaps inconvenienced, trapped in the city without transportation or a place to stay, but also given an opportunity to know it even better, in a different and deeper and more meaningful way. As it was, place and time had ordained things otherwise, and I am grateful for that. But even now I keep wandering along Drottninggatan as it was on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, and I am frustrated, half-blind, as if I had lost, or missed something in my aimlessness.


Sumy and the Chekhov Museum


I’ve never been one for pilgrimages, or trips organized around a certain goal, or travelling for the sake of getting somewhere; I’ve always been, rather, something of a drifter, choosing my restaurants and lodgings and sometimes even villages or islands on a whim, an instinct, a desire to flee the crowds and insinuate myself into a landscape not as a tourist, but as a visitor or traveller. (more…)

Conversations on Ukrainian Trains

In the spring of 2010 I was on a train from Simferopol to Sumy, in Eastern Ukraine. I didn’t see much of Simferopol it is the capital of Crimea, but it is inland, a town of administration, big buildings and airports and train stations, not a place where tourists linger. I had just spent five days with a British tour of southern Crimea, viewing the well-known historical treasures in the region of Yalta, the spectacular scenery. Then the tour abandoned me, as planned, to return to London, and I stayed on, feeling vulnerable, adventurous, very much alone with my limited Russian and my eagerness to explore, to be no longer the tourist but the traveler. (more…)

In Praise of Melancholy

Wandering through the halls of the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh some years ago, I came upon a little-known work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a 16th century German painter. Was it the title of the painting that captivated me – An Allegory of Melancholy – or the painting itself, so modern, almost surreal, in its juxtaposition of strangely discordant elements?

cranach.jpgLet me start by explaining that I like the word melancholy, even though its Greek etymology is black bile, hardly an attractive notion. One of the four humors: I cannot see myself as choleric, or sanguine, or phlegmatic, so I’ve always opted for the melancholic side of things. Melancholy has a bad rap, especially in these days of enforced cheerfulness and tooth whitener smiles. The word melancholy is onomatopoeic to me, something about its consonants and rhythm suggestive of languor, gentle sadness, nostalgia. Sitting alone on a veranda watching the sun go down, missing some one, but gently. (more…)

Quiet Literature

There are words, I suspect, that some publishers or editors or agents don’t like hearing when applied to a book. Dark is definitely one of them; I speak from experience regarding a dark novel I wrote once that failed to find a home–with hindsight, thankfully. Another one may be quiet. Which could so easily bleed into boring, or slow, or dull, fair enough; but there is a fine line, and the book that manages to stay just this side of boring, slow and dull is, for the discerning reader (some people find all books dull by definition in this day and age), a gem. Because with such a book you feel like you are rediscovering something you thought was lost forever. (more…)

Bouboulina or Merkel?


I was apprehensive, I have to admit. Not for the usual reasons one is apprehensive before going on holiday fear of the unknown, of mishaps, accidents, sickness, or unfriendly natives but, on the contrary, because I was going to a place I know only too well, and have loved, and it pains me to see her misfortune the way it pains me to see a friend who is ill and suffering. (more…)

Anatolie, mon amour

Some years ago, many years ago, I traveled with my daughter and then husband to Turkey. I remembered it for years, or chose not to remember it, as a trip that was fraught with problems: the car breaking down, horrible intestinal infections, petty thefts, and worst of all, marital strife in the form of raging arguments   or stubborn silences that lasted for days, all in the most gorgeous places. It should have been the trip of a lifetime. Not the usual tourist circuit down the Aegean coast, but a month-long drive that took us all through Anatolia to the Iranian border, and the Soviet border, and all along the fog-shrouded Black Sea. I remember waking in some town, it could have been Trabzun, or Giresun, I don’t recall, and realizing that I was a married woman, and had been married for only four months, and was deeply unhappy. Was it my expectations that had been too high? Was I clinically depressed for some reason – the strangeness of the country, the constant moving, the uncertainty of the future?

Mount Ararat

For my most recent birthday I was given a magic box that converts old slides and negatives to digital photographs. For the last four months I have been patiently traveling back through time and revisiting my school years, my first boyfriends, my grown niece and nephews as children, countries as diverse as Norway and Greece and Russia. Today I came upon a box of slides:  Anatolia 1986. (more…)



Every so often you find yourself somewhere and you think you are dreaming. Or that you’ve died and gone to heaven. Or that suddenly the human race has reformed, and put aside war and despoliation of the planet to turn to culture and human friendship. The feeling often coincides with a visit to a place like Italy, because despite its sizeable contribution to war and despoliation (not to mention the idiozia of its current head of state), it has also contributed perhaps more than its fair share to culture, perhaps human friendship, too.

The little town of Mantova, or Mantua in English, that I have only ever known through Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet (to Mantua; /Where thou shalt live, till we can find a time / To blaze your marriage), has for 13 years been hosting a literary festival for four days at the end of the summer. It is the perfect venue, with its wide squares and palazzos and parks, its cobbled car-free streets, its mild climate, its medieval/Renaissance atmosphere. It is not overwhelming with other things to do or see, the way nearby Verona or Venice would be; and it has just enough cafe’s and restaurants to keep everyone in macchiati and agnolini. (more…)

On Nobel Prizes and Translation









I admit, like many of my fellow translators of foreign literature who work into English, that I have often had doubts. Felt that my efforts were in vain; that apart from a few benighted yet god-sent editors and publishers, no one was reading the books I had translated. They were printed, looked lovely and readable, and then gathered dust on the shelf. Americans are fearful of foreign languages, fearful of subtitles, fearful of translations. Are they afraid to admit their own ignorance? And is it a question of their ignorance, or that of the publishers who presume American readers are resistant to translations? Are they so proud of their own authors (Roth, Oates, Pynchon, Updike, etc etc) that they don’t have time anymore for the successors to Tolstoy and Camus, who, it seems, used to be read, at least… (more…)

Happy Hedgehog

hedgehog.jpgA little less than two years ago, a title caught my eye in a list of newly published novels in France. L’Elégance du hérisson. Hérisson meaning hedgehog. I’ve always had a soft spot for hedgehogs, ever since visiting my friend Christina in a remote village in Bulgaria in 1974; they had adopted a stray hedgehog. Yesh, in Bulgarian. I learned a word and an affection for an oddly repellent little animal–they prickle, and smell, and have lots of bugs; they shuffle and sniffle–and yet they are in some way tender in their awkwardness. They are fragile, vulnerable little creatures, as anyone who has driven down country roads in Britain or Turkey can attest; they are secretive, and Beatrix Potter made them lovable in The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.

In short, I have a thing about hedgehogs. I have hedgehog stuffed animals, a keychain, a charm, a wax candle, coasters, and most recently, a hedgehog toy for my cat (he doesn’t like it that much). My daughter drew me a little hedgehog when she was a child, a tiny picture I carried in my wallet until it became too fragile and now it is framed and hangs above my bed. When I moved into my new little house in Switzerland, a hedgehog foot-wipe brush was waiting outside the front door.

So this novel intrigued me by its title. I finally got hold of a copy a few months later, and within twenty pages knew this would be, for me, the translation of a career, of a lifetime. Even if the word hedgehog only comes up once, and the book has nothing to do with hedgehogs…ostensibly. But the humor, the humanity, the quirkiness, all evoke the tenderness that the little Bulgarian yesh did so many years ago.

Read this book. Read my translation. I dare not say more, for fear of overkill, hype. Avoid the Amazon reviews, avoid any review. Please just read it. Send me your comments — on the book, on the translation. On hedgehogs.

Here is the link to the publisher’s site, for more information.

Europa Editions

September 2008

Collateral damage…or how I keep surviving capitalism


It was one of those phone calls when you know there’s something not right. This person shouldn’t be calling you at this time of day, or on your cell phone. You answer, and to make things worse, it’s your landlady, and after a moment of annoyance that she is calling you at work, you hear her saying right up front that she has bad news.

Pick one, goes your catastrophe-panicked brain:

a) The house has burnt down.

b) She has to raise the rent, or sell, and who knows who your landlord will be then.

c) She found your kitty run over in the street. (more…)

Bedroom Community

tomjones65.jpegLast week I was in my favorite bookstore, Stacey’s, on Market Street in San Francisco, trying to buy a copy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Why I was looking for Tom Jones is a long story which I won’t go into. What I will mention is that, first of all, Stacey’s is an endangered species. It is one of the last independent bookstores in San Francisco. Since I began working here, I have seen half a dozen independent bookstores close, most recently Cody’s and Clean Well Lighted Place, within a few weeks of each other. When I go into a place like Stacey’s I almost feel endangered myself: there are fewer and fewer customers, and seemingly endless piles of shiny, alluring books that no one has time to read anymore. As an (erstwhile) writer in a place like that, I feel both the awed reverence that a worshipper can feel in a temple, and the vague unease that I am on a leaky ship without lifeboats. There is a sadness about the place, now. (more…)

Reading New Grub Street: An irreverent creative writing workshop in ten easy lessons

(Or, how not to get seasick)
George_Gissing.jpgIf I were a teacher of creative writing, I would assign one task to my students for the year, and be paid handsomely for doing very little: I would have them read George Gissing’s New Grub Street over and over until they were all convinced they would change their degree to something useful like computer science or quantum physics, and thereby spare the world the spectacle of yet another struggling writer languishing in poverty, tuberculosis and marital strife.

Let me start by saying that I did not become a writer by attending creative writing classes, I do not have an MFA, and I have no intention of ever becoming a teacher of creative writing (nor would I be hired on the basis of the lazy curriculum I would impose: let them read Gissing while I go to the pool!) I have, however, taught a few weekend classes, somewhat guiltily, as I don’t believe in the ability to teach creative writing: it’s a bit like teaching a sailor how not to be seasick. (more…)