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 )

Trust

Some thoughts on the painting Tobias and the Angel (circa 1470-80) by the Workshop of Verrocchio.  Egg tempera on poplar.  National Gallery, London.

Trust me, if you will.  I am loving, I am infinite, I am immortal.  I do not judge.  I am beyond all fears.  I will guide you if you ask me.  The decision is yours.  I ask nothing of you.

The Archangel Raphael's sandaled feet tread lightly on the rocky soil.  He does not need the reassurance of solid ground beneath him.  He carries certainty in his tall frame, full of androgynous grace.  He turns to look down at the boy.  His face is weary from the centuries of doubt leading up to this attainment of wisdom through knowledge, but he can now draw strength from certainty.

I do not ask blind faith of you, he seems to tell the boy.  You will learn, and only then will you know and be certain.  In the meantime, trust me, if you will.  The choice is yours.

Raphael's wings are scarlet and black.  They were built on the embers of passion and fear.  It cannot have been otherwise.

I do not want white wings.  I want to remember my past.  I was like you, once.  I want to remember the ashes I rose from.

At Raphael's feet, trots the translucent figure of a small dog.  To warn of approaching demons.  He turns back to check that the boy is following.

Trust this stranger, boy.  Trust your heart.  Trust.

Tobias's boots are firm on the ground.  He needs to feel rooted while his cloak billows in the winds of uncertainty.  He has slid a tentative hand onto the stranger's arm.

Let me hold onto you.  I cannot take this journey alone.  Not yet.

The boy stares up at the archangel, mesmerised by the stranger's secret knowledge.  His young body is unsteady, but the faith in his eyes is unwavering.

I want to trust. 

His mind cannot comprehend but his heart knows that he is safe with the stranger.  He does not know, yet.  And yet he knows.

Guide me to this faraway land.  I want to learn. 

I want to trust.  I choose to trust. 

I am glad, says the archangel.   Walk with me.  All will be well.  The world is full of wonders.

 

Scribe Doll

(This piece was  originally published on Wordpress on  21 August 2011)

 

 

 

 

 

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Languages: Turning Enemies into Allies*

“S and I got engaged!” I announced to my family, just before my second year at university, showing off my emerald and diamond ring.

My grandmother did not miss a bit.  “Congratulations, my sunbeam! Does he speak any languages?”

“No.”

“Oh, dear,” she said, her smile waning.  “His family has no means, then?”

 

Right or wrong, I come from a family where it is taken for granted that any parents with sufficient funds will, as a matter of course as evident as the movement of the planets, make sure their offspring learn, first – languages; second – to play a musical instrument.  To understand this, it is important to know that, for our family, music nourishes the soul, whilst languages enrich the brain.  For us, learning languages is not a luxury or a hobby.  It is a necessary tool of survival.  It has been engrained in us over the past four generations that you could lose all material possessions in a heartbeat, on the whim of a natural disaster or a change of government.  Before you know it, you might have to move to another country and, for that, the more languages you have at your command, the better.  As Dolly Levi says in Hello, Dolly! “If you have to live hand to mouth, you’d better be ambidextrous.”  I imagine that families who have lived in the same country for several generations, or who own property, such as houses, might find it difficult fully to enter into this frame of mind.

 

My grandfather used to say that, with every new language you learn, you acquire a new personality.  He was right.  Speaking a language is not just about finding your way on holiday.  It is about being able to switch between different ways of thinking and feeling.  I am more or less quadrilingual.  I feel most comfortable debating issues in English, cuddling children and animals in Russian, expressing outrage in French, and joking in Italian.  When asked which is my mother tongue, I stumble.  I do not actually know.  What is a mother tongue? Is it the language in which you formed your first words, as a baby? If so, I would say, Russian.  Or is it the language in which you are most proficient? In that case, I would say, English.  However, as a teenager, I would have said, French; and, a couple of years before that, Italian.

 

I did not enjoy the process of learning any of these languages.  In fact, I positively hated it.  It was an uphill struggle filled with frustration, humiliation and long periods of hopelessness.  I did not choose to take classes in these languages for fun or interest.  I learned them fast, forced by circumstances.  In a way, my survival depended on it.

 

I was born in Italy, to a non-Italian family.  My Russian-bred, Armenian grandmother, who shared with my mother the daily job of bringing me up, taught me Russian.  It was the language we spoke at home.  As soon as I ventured out, I learnt to play in Italian with the neighbours‘ children.  Because, in those days, in Rome, speaking a foreign language in the street would attract relentless stares and gaping mouths, I would switch to Italian as soon as I was out of the family flat.  When I was six, my mother sent me to the Overseas American school in Rome.    Children learn languages easily.  Every new word is a building block.  They do not slow down their thought process by translating in their heads, or by complicating matters with grammatical logic.  They simply imitate and associate.  Within a few months, I was fluent in English, complete with U.S. accent.  So, I spoke Russian at home, Italian in the street, and English at school.  All was well.  That is, until we moved to Athens.  I was eight.  Thanks to Russian I could just about distinguish the Greek Cyrillic alphabet but the language, itself, was nothing I could relate to my existing tongues.  I made friends with Greek children and their parents.  We played in the clay garden, and went swimming among the rusty jellyfish in the ice-cold, limpid sea.  After a few months, I could hold my own in Greek – at least enough to play with my Greek neighbours.

 

My first language trauma hit me – in more ways than one – when I was nine, and we moved to Nice, in Southern France.  The headmistress of the local state school decided that it was paedagogically sound to put a nine year-old who spoke no French, into the Cours Préparatoire of five and six year-olds.  Recess was torture time.  Most days, I would be surrounded by the said five and six year-olds, pushed back against the school yard wall, and kicked in the shins by their miniature feet.  The ritual included shouting things at me which, of course, I could not respond to, since I did not know what they meant.  I repeated some of the words to Madame, hoping for an explanation, but she glared and waved her finger at me, saying, “Non!” When I tried to retaliate physically, I was told off in no uncertain terms by the permanently yawning Madame, for picking on les petits.  My wordless gesticulations and pointing at my black and blue shins did not appear to convey the message clearly enough.  The only thing to do, was to spend every evening, before bed, memorising a few words from Le Petit Larousse Illustré.  Luckily, I soon learnt to produce guttural ‘r’s, elongated vowels, and enough words to string into sentences.  I moved to another school, was put into a class of older children, and learnt to topple little plastic soldiers with glass marbles during recess.  I was on my way to becoming an honorary Niçoise.  When, at the age of nineteen, I scored 14/20 in writing and 18/20 in oral, in French, at the French Lycée in Rome, beating my French boyfriend to the slight annoyance his mother, I felt I had arrived.  

 

Arrived – just in time to pack my suitcase for England.  All I knew about Albion, was that half my blood came from there, through my father.  Of course, my English, neglected during the years of contending with French, had turned somewhat rusty.  I landed in Cambridge, on a cold, damp, September night, and went to sleep in an attic room with a sloped ceiling and a luke warm radiator.  The following morning, I awoke to the cawing of jet-black crows hopping on a bright green lawn beneath a lead grey sky.  I was brimming with hope for my new life in a country which, I felt, was my home by right.  

 

The English did not kick.  They stung.

 

“What did you say? Oh, how quaint, I’ve never heard it phrased quite like that.”

“Where did you acquire that American accent?”

“Gosh, you do have a healthy appetite.”

“Are you cold? Really? I guess we’re brought up to be quite stoical, here.”

“Well... I wouldn’t put it quite so bluntly...”

 

After many a night crying myself to sleep, I vowed to beat them at their own game.  I began memorising words from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, keeping a journal in English, referring to – rather than pronouncing – the ‘r’, and mentally repeating after people, as they spoke.  I forsook French entirely, and missed the rigueur of its grammar.  English was like water.  It slid out between your fingers as you tried to grasp it.  So I learnt to swim in it.

 

A few years later, when I had to explain the language of a Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, to a group of native English actors, I had a lovely feeling of – well, just how could I put it nicely..?

 

My languages have graduated from enemies to allies.  They are my Virgils, guiding me through various dimensions of thoughts, hopes and emotions.  They are my spies, which I send out on reconnaissance missions.  They are the Arlecchini who capture laughter for me.  They are the faithful servants who bring food to my table.  They are my steadfast allies, no matter what the government of the moment.  They are the architects who build me a bridge, whenever I want to cross a river.

 

Scribe Doll

*This piece was first published on Wordpress on 14 October 2012

I am thankful to Orna Raz for reminding me of it with her brilliant piece Please Leave Me a Note: The Language of Personal Notes 

 

   

 

 

 

   

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Both you and Orna have me thinking a lot about language and literature. I live in a place that is bi-lingual and I'm fascinated to... Read More
Sunday, 27 July 2014 17:58
Katherine Gregor
That's an interesting point – and a deeply sad one – about a culture disappearing if its language and literature does. Thank you... Read More
Sunday, 27 July 2014 20:34
Orna Raz
Dear katia, I love this post. I need to read it few more times in order to fully appreciate all the fine points, but several thoug... Read More
Monday, 28 July 2014 10:04
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Homesick

Wind-swept, East of England skies.  Shapeshifting clouds.  Swirls of white puff that stretch into mountains, curl into castles, swell into dragons, rise into chariots, then metamorphose into angels.  Skies mottled with lead-grey, steel-grey, velvet grey with  undertones of purple, shades of pink, hints of blue and glints of gold.  Ever-changing skies.  Skies so big, they come all the way down to your feet.

 

Elms that rise proud against the sky, copper beeches that glow in the afternoon sun, weeping willows swaying by the river, oaks – hundred of years old – that stand strong against the hurricanes.  Trees that have witnessed generations parade before them.  Trees with stories full of magic to tell, if you would listen.

 

Winds that howl in the night, winds that rattle wooden window frames, gales that push against you as you struggle to walk up the street.  Winds that tear off scaffoldings.  Passionate, exhilarating winds that stir your soul.

 

The river that rushes beneath your favourite bridge.  The bridge that overhears your secrets you whisper to the river.  The river, that washes away your worries and to which you confide your dreams.

 

Autumns of scarlet, ocher and gold.  Springs bursting white pink and white blossoms. 

 

Contrasts.  Passion.  Change.  Light.  Colour.

 

Scribe Doll

 

 

Copyright

© Katherine Gregor

Recent Comments
Orna Raz
It is so interesting to read that home is not a peaceful place, butyit is stormy and has many layers of meanings like the " Tree... Read More
Sunday, 13 July 2014 18:07
Katherine Gregor
I find non-descript blandness stifling, draining. Home for me has to be a place of contrasts. Thank you for reading and comment... Read More
Sunday, 13 July 2014 18:33
Ken Hartke
Thoreau wrote "...in Wildness is the preservation of the world.” I learned early that I had to live within sight of wild places ... Read More
Monday, 14 July 2014 02:47
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A Green Room Full of Hopes

I’d write Green on the whiteboard with a green marker, and wait for the students I’d divided up into groups to brainstorm any English idioms they knew that contained that word.

 

He’s a bit green.

To get the green light.

Green, as in ecology.

Green with envy.

“Beware, my Lord, of jealousy.  ‘Tis the green-eyed monster...”

 

Sometimes, I’d simply ask, “If I say ‘green’, what do you think?”

 

Grass.

Emeralds.

Trees.

Hope.

 

The Green Room in a theatre.  London Fringe Theatre.  Frayed sofas smelling of stale cigarettes and lager.  A Tannoy announcing the Half, Fifteen Minutes and Beginners.  Actors sitting and smoking, doing vocal exercises, complaining about their agents, criticising the director (the one they idolised at the audition but now the critic gave a bad review, well, they really should be at the RSC on on television, instead of Fringe).  Hope for a successful career.

 

The impeccably ironed lawn of a Cambridge college.  Only Fellows are allowed to walk on it.  I walk across the one at King’s, while talking to the Dean.  We’re talking about Dante, and he says he’s going to give me a ticket for the Advent Carol Service.  Hope for academic achievement.

 

The soft, luxuriant green of Grantchester Meadows.  With jet-black crows skipping at the foot of elm trees, swaying in the East Anglian winds.  Hope for peace.

 

My green silk dress I wore on an unforgettable date.  He took me to a Maria Friedman concert at Cadogan Hall.  Sondheim and Bernstein.  Afterwards, we strolled through the winding Chelsea streets.  Hope for true love.

 

A bushy green fir tree, standing by the sash window, decorated in gold and silver baubles, lit up with a criss-crossing string of tiny white lights.  Hope for home and hearth.

 

The glossy green leaves of small lemon plants, grown from pips in pots on my desk during a harsh winter.  Hope for survival.

 

An e-mail from a friend I have yet to meet, telling me about a newly-set up haven for writers recently orphaned of their familiar internet forum.  A red room that provided much warmth and nurture.  She invites me to join a new room, a green room.  I picture a velvet green sofa with soft cushions, a crackling fireplace, the smell of coffee mixed with roasted figs, chocolate fudge cake on the table, a large bay window overlooking a garden with a weeping willow trailing its  mane in a limpid stream.  A group of writers, from different countries, different backgrounds, united in effervescent conversation, discussing every topic under the sun and moon.  Laughter.  Support.  Learning.

 

Hope for friendship.  Hope for writing and reading splendid words.

 

 

Scribe  Doll

Copyright

© Katherine Gregor 2014

Recent Comments
Orna Raz
I love it and have to include this beautiful poem (and song): Flowers are Red by Harry Chapin The little boy went first day of... Read More
Friday, 11 July 2014 21:13
Katherine Gregor
What a heartbreaking comment. It reminds me of my primary school in France, where we were made to form letters exactly in the sam... Read More
Saturday, 12 July 2014 07:36
Stephen Evans
Sometimes when I am editing a manuscript, I'll do a search on a various words, just to see how many times and in what ways they ar... Read More
Saturday, 12 July 2014 00:47
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10 Comments

Latest Comments

Stephen Evans Going to the Dickens
14 January 2018
Thank you! That sounds just my style
Katherine Gregor Going to the Dickens
14 January 2018
I haven't yet been able to read a Dickens novel in ful (shame on me).May I recommend a wonderful New...
Katherine Gregor Four Wishes
14 January 2018
Amen to this.
Stephen Evans Four Wishes
11 January 2018
Devoutly to be wished.
Stephen Evans Going to the Dickens
05 January 2018
Thank you! Ken has reminded me that I read A Tale of Two Cities in school. I am moving on to Carson ...

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