Katherine Gregor

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Katherine Gregor (a.k.a. Scribe Doll) is a literary translator and scribbler who has also been an EFL teacher, theatrical agent, press agent, theatre director, complementary medicine practitioner, and one or two other things. Perhaps that's why the literary characters she relates to most are Arlecchino, Truffaldino, Gianni Schicchi and Scapin, and feels empathy with crows, squirrels and cats. She lives in Norwich, Norfolk. (Photo courtesy of Rosie Goldsmith @GoldRosie )

A Piece of Italy – I Mean Naples – in Notting Hill

Pasquale places cutlery next to my sfogliatella.  Pointedly.  "You Northerners probably eat it with a knife and fork," he says, deadpan, and strolls to look out of the front door, his hands behind his back.

He says Northerner to me, Roman-born.  Slap-bang in the middle of the boot-shaped peninsula. "And how do you, Southerners, eat it?" I shout back. 

He turns around, takes one hand out from behind his back, clumps his fingers together and lifts them up to his face.  "Like this," he replies.

I put down my fork and pick up my paper napkin.  I raise the sfogliatella and bite into it.  Pointedly.

The exchange takes place in Italian and, seeing that those at my table who've been following it are now laughing heartily, Pasquale's moustache stretches into a mischievous smile.  Unable to guffaw with a mouthful of crisp pastry and ricotta, I can't, however, suppress a snort which sends a small cloud of icing sugar all over my chin.  

I always ask for a sfogliatella when I have lunch or dinner at Da Maria's – it's the best I've tasted in London.  Just as I always expect to have at least two or even three hearty laughs with the owner, Pasquale.  

"I'll give you Northerner," I say, once I've swallowed the delicious Neapolitan speciality.

At that moment, a middle-aged man opens the glass door, briefly letting in the traffic sounds of Notting Hill Gate.  "Here comes another foreigner," Pasquale mutters.

They greet each other like friends, talk about football, then say goodbye with a hug.

"So where's the foreigner from then?" I ask.

"Ischia," he replies.

By now, my husband and my friends can barely breathe from laughing.

"Ischia! But that's what – thirty kilometres from where you're from?" I say, hamming up my Roman accent.

"Of course," Pasquale replies, now unable to suppress his smile.  "That's far enough from Naples."

Of course.  How stupid of me.  

It occurs to me that when I meet fellow-Brits abroad, I never ask them exactly which part of the country they're from.  Or when I meet French people. Whenever I come across Italians, however, the innate campanilismo of that part of me that is Italian through nurture awakens.  Of course, when I encounter a fellow-Roman, the next question is invariably, "Which part? – Oh, I'm from the Tomba di Nerone area." 

The jokes between Norfolk and Suffolk inhabitants are nothing compared to the precisely localised civic pride of Italians.

In this instance, however, the campanilismo expressed by Pasquale and me is pure show, actively aimed at the gallery, who get the joke and giggle.

Da Maria is therefore not a piece of Italy in the heart in Notting Hill Gate, but of Naples.  There's a Napoli Football Club scarf and memorabilia on the wall and a large TV screen for when supporters gather to watch a match.  There's a figure of Pulcinella.  There's a mural with a Naples street scene, complete with a line of washing waving in the wind, a Saint Gennaro, little boys playing football or eating the most famous local dish, pizza, Mount Vesuvius across the bright blue bay, and, overlooking the street from the balcony, two celebrated Neapolitans: Sophia Loren and Totò.  

I've lost count of the number of years I've been frequenting this tiny café-restaurant, tucked in right beside the Gate Cinema, with tables covered in checkered tablecloths.  It must be nearly twenty years – since my friend L. introduced me to it – and she had been going there pretty much since they'd first opened, in 1980.  When I lived in London, L. and I used to have breakfast there most Saturdays, after a quick shop at the Farmers' Market behind Waterstone's, and before doing the rounds of the charity shops in search of either books or quirky, unique clothes.  We had dinner and a celebratory glass of red wine when Pasquale finally obtained an alcohol licence.  

When H. and I moved in together, I introduced him to Da MariaHe decreed the pasta and pesto to be the best.  My staple is no longer on the menu, but as soon as he sees me arrive, Pasquale asks, "Pasta al tonno, right? With or without peperoncino, this time?" A few minutes later, my favourite dish is served.

The food is delicious and very reasonably-priced, but it's the warm family atmosphere and the sense of humour-on-tap of the place that attracts a following among both Italians and Londoners, although I have also heard Polish, Arabic, French and Spanish spoken at the neighbouring tables.  Some locals lunch there every day.  If someone is absent for a while, Pasquale worries, asks around if they're all right.  Enquires after them if they're ill.    If they've had a professional success, he shares the news with other regulars.  "You know so-and-so who comes here at lunchtime, sometimes? He's just published a book" or "She's just graduated", etc.

Now that we live in Norwich, whenever we're in London for any length of time, H. and I go for a meal at Da Maria.  Pasquale greets us like the proverbial prodigals. If his wife is in the kitchen, she comes out and shakes hands.  If his son happens to be around, we want to hear how his studies are going, and ask about his plans.  

After dinner, it's often a limoncello for H. and a grappa for me.  

And, at the end of a long day in a city that's fast becoming a shrine to corporations and chains, a feeling of human warmth, of international bonding, for us both.

*   *   *

Da Maria is now under threat of closure.  All that because of a planned expansion of the Gate Cinema's foyer.  In an area that used to be one of London's quirkiest, where so many independent businesses have been eradicated by the faceless chains, Da Maria is one of the few remaining jewels.  Interestingly, it's located in one of the capital's wealthiest boroughs, Kensington & Chelsea – they of Grenfell Tower fame.  Below is a link to an  article from The Observer and a couple of clips from YouTube.  There is also a petition.  Please sign it if you have been to Da Maria, if you would like to go, or if you simply support independent businesses that are one of a kind.

Scribe Doll

Da Maria Website

Article in The Observer

YouTube Clips

What Happens When Napoli is Playing...

The Petition

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
Sfogliatella sounds delicious. I hope Da Maria is rescued.
Monday, 09 October 2017 01:59
Ken Hartke
Good luck to Da Maria. This reminds me of some friends here. Although I don't have a speck of Italian DNA, I'm a member of the Clu... Read More
Monday, 09 October 2017 16:26
Katherine Gregor
Sounds like a truly fun bunch, Ken. I can just imagine the atmosphere of warm bantering. Thank you for sharing.
Tuesday, 10 October 2017 09:07
177 Hits
3 Comments

Idle Thoughts about Bank Holidays

I love Bank Holiday Mondays.  Even though I now work from home, so weekends and Bank Holidays are of little consequence to my timetable, I nevertheless get out of bed with a sense of anticipation, of mild excitement, at the thought that it's officially a non-working day.  I feel very virtuous when I sit at my desk on Bank Holiday Monday, and only moderately guilty when I decide to take the day off.

 

Bank Holiday Mondays.  Here in Britain, these three days are tacked on to the weekend.  Why risk a holiday in the middle of the week, when people might also take the days in between off?  Still, a long weekend is eminently practical for all concerned, I admit.  Bank Holiday.  I wish there were names for these days, rather than something decreed by the closure of cold and now not very popular institutions such as banks.  It's always made me feel a tiny bit uncomfortable.  A day when banks don't trade, when there is no financial speculation, instead of a day to celebrate something or someone – be it a saint, the First of May, or the anniversary of independence.  I wonder if any other European country has nondescript, apparently random days off.  When I first arrived in the UK, I asked where these Bank Holiday Mondays had originated.  Were they former saints days? Pagan festivals? Historical anniversaries? No, people replied.  They're just Bank Holidays.  It seems that in this country we've been ruled by banks for some time now... I can't help but wonder if this is why Britain has among the lowest number of holidays in Europe.  Economy in all things! Waste not, want not.  A penny saved is a penny earned, etc.

 

My favourite Bank Holiday Monday is the August one.  I can't really say why.  Perhaps because it's the last Bank-sanctioned day off before Christmas Day, nearly four months later.  In Catholic European countries, there's at least All Saints Day in the middle.  But we, with our staunch Protestant work ethic, work valiantly till Christmas.  

 

Perhaps, also because, having been brought up in Catholic countries (although I am not myself a Catholic), where 15th August, Assumption Day, is a major religious holiday, I feel cheated unless I have at least one day off in August, albeit at the very end of the month.

 

People change, I guess.  When I was young, living in Italy, I would dread the approach of August.  The month when, just because of that one Assumption Day, the country seemed to sink into officially-sanctioned torpor for a whole month – and still does.  Ferragosto.  Why do you stand in the crushing heat, waiting for a bus for forty-five minutes? Because it's Ferragosto.  Why are so many shops closed? Because it's Ferragosto.  Why are all your friends away, either at the sea or in the mountains, leaving you to be bored to tears in a ghost city? Ferragosto.  My family could not afford holidays, so as a teenager, I hated the month of August with a purple passion.  The intense heat, the lack of social life and entertainment, the nationally-approved inefficiency of the City of Rome.  I couldn't wait for the traditional, violent thunderstorms in the second half of the month, that heralded the end of this unbearable inertia.

 

In a way, something similar happens in the UK, when the end of November signals the start of general laziness, inefficiency and incompetence because it's Christmas. 

 

Now, nearly thirty years later, I find myself longing for Ferragosto in Rome.  As a freelancer who, noblesse oblige, never turns down work, I yearn for a government-approved month of quiet, of sleep, of doing absolutely nothing.  A whole month of lounging about, reading, writing, dozing in the sun.  I remember with unexpected fondness the streets outside the tourist-infested city centre almost totally deserted, the blocks of flats with the blinds of almost every window shut tight, the bliss of not hearing the neighbours' TV because they're away.  I long to have a lengthy afternoon nap, with the blinds half down, listening  to the maracas of a dozen cicadas rhythmically lulling me to sleep.  I have fond memories of lying on a reclining sun lounger on the balcony, until past midnight, staring up into the black, starry sky until I was no longer sure if I was falling into the stars or the stars falling on me.  And counting shooting stars.  Blink and you'll miss it. 

 

I miss being in a climate hot enough to eat watermelon.  Bright red, sweet as sugar, with large, black seeds I can then crunch – not the pathetic rubbery white ones of under-ripe fruit.  

 

Above all – and especially in view of these three months of grey, wet, chilly transition between last spring and next autumn in Norwich, that you cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, call summer – I long for bright light in my eyes, and hot sun on my skin.

 

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Enjoyed your post...It's a little hard to tell when laziness starts and ends around here. Bank Holidays? That's something we misse... Read More
Wednesday, 30 August 2017 21:47
Katherine Gregor
You really should write about your family. Honestly. Thank you for sharing this.
Thursday, 31 August 2017 20:36
Rosy Cole
Katia, three of the British Bank holidays were traditionally tied to religious festivals. Christmas and Easter still remain. There... Read More
Thursday, 31 August 2017 15:33
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8 Comments

Midnight Cha-Cha-Cha and Tabasco

I am about sixteen.  I wake up in the middle of night.  The sound of distant crunching, faint music and the light spilling into the corridor lure me like the tune of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.  I get out of bed.  Naz, the canine of miscellaneous origin curled up at the bottom of my bed, opens his sleep-glazed eyes briefly, then closes them again.  No cause for alarm.  He's seen this happen before over the years.  Many, many times.  

At the small kitchen table, my mother is leafing through an out-of-date Il Corriere della Sera or Le Monde which she hasn't had time to look at sooner.  She's at the office all day and sometimes doesn't come home until late.  She is buttering a row of three of four grissini, trying not to break them, balances a small piece of parmigiano on the pan flute-like construction, then shakes a bottle of Tabasco sauce over it before putting it into her mouth.  The sharp scent rushes up my nostrils.  Soft music is playing on the radio.  While munching, she reaches for a red felt tip pen and marks articles she intends to cut out later.

She is startled.  "Oh, tesoro, did I wake you up? I'm so sorry.  I'm going to bed in a minute –  I was on my way, as a matter of fact, but I suddenly felt hungry."  

The clock on top of the fridge shows half past midnight.  Suddenly hungry after midnight.  As usual.

I sit at the table, yawning.  My eyes wander over the maps that cover practically every inch of the wall.  Israel, Italy, Turkey, France, Greece, USA, Germany, Luxembourg.  My mother's way of helping me learn geography.  Scraps of paper  with quotations.  Francis Bacon, Erasmus, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Ernest Renan, Trilussa.  Her way of helping me learn to think.  

I reach out for a grissino and crunch off the tip, lazily.  "Are you hungry, too?" she asks, quickly swallowing her mouthful.  "Here, help yourself." She pushes the packet of extra long, thin, Piedmontese-style breadsticks, the butter and cheese closer to me.  Then she stands up and opens the fridge door.  "What else would you like? Oh, look, we have some fontina  – would you like some?"

I shake my head and keep crunching my grissino.

She suddenly gasps and turns up the radio slightly.  "Listen, listen.  You recognise it, don't you?"

"Dvorak's Symphonic Dances."

She gasps again.  "I adore this." She softly hums along.

I cut myself a piece of cheese.

"Here, don't you want some Tabasco sauce on it?" Her expression turns pixieish.  "It's very, very hot." She picks up the small bottle, throws her head back, and shakes some sauce on her tongue.  Her eyes narrow.  "Mmm... Delicious!" 

She's daring me.  Or else she wants confirmation that I'm really her flesh and blood, that she can be proud of me.  I want her to be proud of me.  I accept the bottle she's handing me and put Tabasco on my cheese.  The sharp chilli and vinegar taste wakes me up.  

"Good, isn't it?"

I nod.  I'm like her.  My mother's daughter.

She sits down again and returns to her snack.

"Your Auntie J. and I, when we shared a flat, sometimes, when we had no money and no dinner invitations, we would sit and eat grissini and Tabasco sauce at night.  And we would dance the bossa nova or the cha-cha-cha. "

I've heard this before, but I love hearing it again.  My mother and her Iranian friend, a stunning-looking woman with ivory skin, black hair and bright blue eyes – Auntie J. to me – and their exploits in early 1960s Rome.  Via Veneto till four in the morning, a month's salary on a pair of soft leather Magli shoes, chasing after singer Domenico Modugno in J.'s Fiat 600 (until he stopped his car, came out and looked around to see the two girls waving at him), dancing in nightclubs on boats moored on the Tiber, coloured lightbulbs strung on the deck.  Like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Before I came along and made it all abruptly impossible.

"You can dance the bossa nova, can't you?"

Yes.  She taught me on one of the other nights like this one.

"And the cha-cha-cha?"

I wish I could say yes.  But it's 1981.  My school friends and I go to discos with bright flashing lights, red laser beams.  We dance to Richard Sanderson singing Reality and want to look like Sophie Marceau.

"Come!" My mother goes into the living room and switches on the lights.  "Come and stand next to me."

My face has an uncontrollable grin of anticipation across it.  I'm going to bond with her.

"Now look at me.  One, two, one-two-three.  One, two, one-two-three.  Wait!" She kicks off her slippers and sends them flying across the room.  Her feet have exceptionally high arches.  Nothing between the ball and the heel touches the marble floor.  

I park my slippers next to the sofa and follow her example.

She takes me by the hand.  "One, two, one-two-three.  Now this isn't ballet school, so sway your hips a little.  Like this.  Good."

Good.  Well, I can't sway as gracefully as she.  Just like I'll never get into her 60-centimetre waist silk and satin evening dresses – the ones she wore before I came along – which she is saving for me for when I grow up.

Suddenly, an outraged, astounded face appears in the doorway.  Without her glasses, my grandmother's large, slightly protruding eyes look even larger.  This cameo is also part of the routine.  She looks at my mother.  "Are you crazy? It's one o'clock in the morning! The child has to go to school tomorrow! Katia, go to bed.  And look at you, barefoot on the stone floor.  You'll catch a cold!"

I reply, on cue, "Oh, no, not yet, please!"

"Yes, yes, Mum, you're absolutely right," my mother says with a total lack of sincerity.  "We'll both go to bed soon.  I promise.  Why don't you come and dance with us?"

My grandmother stands in the doorway for a few seconds.  "Well, goodnight, you crazy night owls."  

She vanishes as quietly as she appeared.  Such a light step.  "She never even wears out her shoes," my mother often says.

Now that I've mastered the basic steps, we come to phase two of the lesson.  My mother goes to the bamboo bookcase that holds all our records.  She pulls out an Ella Fitzgerald LP, places it on the Philips turntable, lifts the arm, carefully lowers the sapphire stylus on the right track.

You-ouuuuuuuuuu – you!

You're driving me crazy

One, two, cha-cha-cha.  One, two, cha-cha-cha.

We dance together.  Ella Fitzgerald speeds up.  The words are sung faster and faster,   spiralling beyond the possibility of any dance steps, so it becomes a free for all on the marble floor.  

It's half past one.  We're both breathless, suppressing our laughter to avoid waking up my grandmother.  "Now go to bed, tesoro," my mother says, her face suddenly authoritative although the corners of her mouth are still dimpled and her eyes sparkling.

I go to bed.  My mother returns to the kitchen.  I wonder how long she'll stay up.  I wish I weren't so sleepy.  I wish I didn't have school tomorrow.  On my bed, the dog is snoring.  I slip under the blanket, taking care not to push him with my feet.

I fall asleep, smiling, my hand under my pillow, the previous couple of hours tight in my fist.  Like a treasure I never want to lose.

Scribe Doll  

Recent Comments
Virginia M Macasaet
Time travel! I love it!!!
Sunday, 23 July 2017 22:26
Katherine Gregor
Thank you!
Monday, 24 July 2017 07:10
Rosy Cole
...But neither did your mother! Vibrant, subtle and evocative.
Saturday, 29 July 2017 23:21
244 Hits
6 Comments

Scriptorium

Some people have studies.  Others dens.  Or offices.  I have a Scriptorium.

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In our previous home, H. worked in the spare room, and I at the dining table in the living room.  After a while, however, I found it hard to do any of my own writing in a space that was, ultimately, communal, especially outside working hours.  So, after the usual period of grumpiness and seething dissatisfaction, I came up with a solution. I bought myself a small, folding, wooden exam desk – complete with pen-carrying groove – and a small, folding chair.  I placed them in a corner of our bedroom, between the window and the chest of drawers.  There was enough space for a few white fairy lights to give this corner an air of celebration, a candle for inspiration, and, of course, enough room to write.  Because, at the time, I was translating an Italian novel set in 11th century Venice, complete with copyist monks and illuminated manuscripts, I began jokingly referring to my little corner of freedom and creativity as my Scriptorium.  The term soon became shorthand for "do not disturb".  So if H. asked what my plans were for that afternoon or evening and I replied, "I'll be in the Scriptorium," he knew I would be off limits. Consequently, when I grew exhausted, irritable and/or discontented, he would gently suggest "spending a few hours in [your] Scriptorium".

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When we moved to this house, at the end of April, he kindly offered the spare room to me.  "Think about it," he said, "you can have a whole room for your Scriptorium and not just a corner."

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It had been a while since I'd had a space I could arrange to please myself and myself alone.  As I stood in the room, surrounded by towers of unopened boxes, I tried to picture it the way I wanted it, constantly reminding myself that it was going to be my room, my space.  I could have it look and feel the way I wanted it.  I didn't have to compromise, to ask anyone else if they minded this print or this plant or the furniture arranged this or that way.

Oh, bliss.

A print of Raphael's Triumph of Galatea had been stored in a box since I'd bought it from the Villa Farnesina gift shop a few years ago.  H. doesn't care for it.  It was the first print I unrolled, smoothed, and hung on the wall, almost as a declaration of freedom.  Naturally, my beloved Tobias and the Angel, by Verrocchio, took prime position, above a small sofa bed.  A small futon that turns into a chaise-longue, covered in a red and black Abruzzo-style woollen throw from my school days.   Not really suitable for overnight guests, but perfect for reclining on for an afternoon nap, getting absorbed in a good book, or simply lounging and looking at all the familiar, friendly objects in the room.  

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A bookcase devoted exclusively to books on medicine and healing, one with a row of dictionaries, a shelf for religion and philosophy, and at the bottom, a collection of world folk fairy tales and mythology.  Books in Russian, French, Italian and Spanish.  And then a shelf for my guilty pleasure: the crime novels of Donna Leon.   

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My elemental friends, of course, live with me in this room.  Among them, the lemon plant I've grown from a pip, the pink busy-lizzy on my desk to cheer my working hours, and my oldest companion, the weeping ficus plant.  A Bahamian friend gave it to me in Cambridge, over twenty years ago, before she went back to the Bahamas.  At Christmas, I thread white fairy lights through its branches.  

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Fairy lights, of course.  An odd wine glass with white ones.  A jar with coloured ones.  

Postcards with Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings of learned, inspiring women.  Christine de Pisan.  Veronica Franco.  Photos of favourite trees.  A Cedar of Lebanon in Norwich, Maritime Pines in Rome.

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Beautiful words.  Saint Francis's Canticle of the Creatures, the faith of Julian of Norwich.  The term "Joy" cut out from bright yellow paper, pinned to the noticeboard above my desk.   

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Favourite objects.  A toy spinning wheel, a piece of flint with a quartz inclusion picked up on Hunstanton beach.  Candles.  Things treasured because they were given to me by friends. 

A white swan and a black and shimmering blue-green magpie feather.  A Schornsteinfeger from a New Year's Eve in Hamburg. A cartoon from the New Yorker.  Christian Dior fashion pictures from the 1950s.  Drawings of Commedia dell'arte characters.

On my desk, the books I'm currently translating on the wooden stand, an Oxford Concise Dictionary, a small wooden box with "Fulham SW6" printed on it, found in a bric-à-brac shop – a reminder of my London life – for pens, scissors, markers, calculator, candle snuffer, and other bits and pieces.  

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Etc.

And, of course, something on which to play music.

Friends who come in look around, not knowing what to make of the room at first.  Then they comment on how "peaceful" it feels.   

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As I write this, H. has come to sit here too, to read yesterday's Guardian, while listening to William Byrd.

"What do you think of my Scriptorium?" I ask.

"It's comfortable," he replies. "Secure.  Snug." 

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Peaceful, indeed. You inspire me to get my little green room better organized. We have a few things in common. I have an old Sc... Read More
Monday, 10 July 2017 07:08
Katherine Gregor
We DO have things in common! I'd love to hear more about your little green room. Perhaps you could write about it? My small CD pl... Read More
Monday, 10 July 2017 08:12
Stephen Evans
Reminded me of this song from long ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2GuwDfXlHk ... Read More
Thursday, 13 July 2017 03:20
296 Hits
6 Comments

Latest Comments

Monika Schott Farm Reflections: The Migrant Camp
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Thanks, Stephen. It's an important part of history. It must be captured.
Monika Schott Farm Reflections: The Migrant Camp
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Thanks, Rosy, that's a lovely thing to say. I am enjoying it and why shouldn't I share the joy! The ...
Stephen Evans Farm Reflections: The Migrant Camp
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Wonderful that the story of this community is being preserved. Bravo.
Rosy Cole Farm Reflections: The Migrant Camp
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Your enjoyment of this project is infectious, Moni, and unusual and fascinating to read. It's not so...
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'Course it is. I bet you calculated that when you were still in diapers, as you say over there, and ...

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