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 )

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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4 Comments

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

Thunderstorm

After weeks of relentless, unusually intense heat, the weather forecaster announces a violent thunderstorm with possible flash flooding in the East of England.  That and we've been promised the longest lunar eclipse – with blood moon, no less – in a hundred years.

 

My heart sinks when I hear of a forthcoming moon or sun eclipse.  I live in England, and England, as proved – as if proof were needed – by recent political events, always has to be different from everybody else.  So, while much of the rest of Europe is awed by this spectacular display of cosmic art, England, true to the spirit of the Reformation, has to shield its residents from too much magnificence with a blanket of cloud.

 

By 8.30 p.m., when H. and I go for a stroll, I know that, unless a coup de théâtre by our recently-returned grey weather suddenly raises the curtain on a patch of clear sky, preferably where the moon is scheduled to rise, the extraordinary eclipse is something I'm going to see in other people's photos.  The air is so dense and heavy, it's an effort to pull it through your nostrils.  The moisture is so oppressive, it makes every step laborious.  We decide to go back home and breathe more easily indoors in the breeze of an oscillating fan. 

 

Exhausted by having worked all day and overwhelmed by the heat, H. falls asleep to the regular, slightly rheumatic creak of the electric fan that's recently been brought out of storage after several years.

 

I am not sleepy.  On the contrary, I feel a sense of anticipation, of excitement I usually experience before a thunderstorm.  I love thunderstorms.  Even as an easily frightened child terrified by things real as well as imaginary, I always felt strangely safe during them.  As I close the curtains and switch off the lights around the house, I catch a glimpse of a sky that's like marble, with different shades of deep grey infused with lilac, gold, blue, terracotta and red.  I wonder if it's the blood moon seeping through the clouds.  A flock of starlings circles over the Norman church tower a few streets away, then settles on the crenellations, like a row of soldiers ready to face the invader.  

 

I take my notebook and pen and sit on a chair facing the window, which I've pushed open as far as the frame allows, my feet on the sill, watching the gradually darkening sky.  Everything feels still.  I switch off the radio and the silence is suddenly thick with possibility.  The only sound is the whirr and creak of the electric fan behind me.  I consider turning that off, too, but the heat is unbearable, so I just tune its noise out of my ears and focus on the sounds outside the window.  There is enough light to write.

 

I smell the unmistakable, slightly metallic scent of impending summer rain.  Like a refreshing shower of silver after a day bathed in gold.  There are hints of lighting splashing here and there throughout the sky, now a mottled apricot-gold.  A hesitant breath of cool air laps the soles of my feet.  Then a sudden gust of wind ruffles the short palm tree in the neighbours' garden.  A playful gesture.  And here it comes – drops of rain drumming gently on the glass pane and the roof tiles.

 

I glance at the church tower.  The starlings are no longer on the crenellations.  I wonder if they've huddled up inside the walls.

 

A small white cloud drifts quickly across the horizon.  Purposeful.

 

The flashes of lightning are now more frequent, brighter, more urgent, until there are explosions of blinding white before me.  The church tower is floodlit.  I remove my feet from the sill.  Something black flutters a few inches away from the window pane.  Is it a leaf? No, it has wings.  A bat searching for refuge.  Although fascinated, I quickly pull the window pane closer to the frame.  I don't want to deal with a panic-stricken bat inside a house where you can't open the windows in full.  It's now too dark to write.  I can't make out the ink from the paper.

 

The mane of the neighbour's palm tree is suddenly swept right back with violence.    There is a vague rumble of thunder.  Another small white cloud rushes across the horizon, as though seeking safety.  I take a small torch and shine a small ringed circle of light on my notebook.  I pick up my fountain pen again and resume scribbling.

 

I hope the next thunderclap will be louder.  I long for a thunderstorm like the ones I would watch while growing up in Rome.  Like the ones we would always get immediately after 15 August, once Ferragosto was over.  With the skies letting rip, the water pelting down into rivers streaming down the streets, and thunder that exploded as though tearing the air apart.  This thunderstorm is more subtle, more understated.

 

Two little white clouds now flee across the horizon.  Anxious.  The wind is now shaking the window pane and I hear something crashing in the street.  The sky is now a dark, reddish brown. 

 

I feel a surge of power within me.  Whole.  At one with myself.  My fountain pen runs smoothly on the pages I keep turning.

 

Then an alien light takes over the garden and filters into our room.  Brash.  Intrusive.  The neighbours are in their kitchen.  I can hear their television, their laughter.  Their noise upstages the storm and drains the silence of its possibilities.  I suddenly become aware again of the whirr and creaking of the fan behind me.   

 

My fountain pen stands still.  I put the cap back on the nib.  I forgot what I was about to write.

 

 

Scribe Doll

 

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Excellent -- I can smell the rain. Sorry you didn't get to see the eclipse. We didn't see it either here in the US (Obama's fault... Read More
Wednesday, 01 August 2018 17:14
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Ken.
Friday, 03 August 2018 20:35
Rosy Cole
I don't know whether this vivid and telling piece struck other readers in the same way, but it seemed to me a perfect summation of... Read More
Thursday, 02 August 2018 12:12
162 Hits
6 Comments

R. R. R.

Different ways of speech communication is one of my earliest memories. The fact that, at home, my mother and grandmother speak one way, and friends, neighbours and people in the street another. Then there's the way my mother speaks to my grandmother when she doesn't want me to understand what she's saying. The third way. Russian at home, Italian outside, Farsi for secrets I long to know.  I am at the stage in my young life when I have a notion of existing but not living. My body still feels like a chunky box that's the wrong shape for me. Too bulky, too slow, too clumsy, too heavy.  Like a container in which I am trapped and which prevents the lithe, fast, agile, sprite-like me from moving as easily as I feel entitled to by right. 

 

On top of this hindrance to the full expression of my self, there is the disobedience of my tongue.  I cannot roll my "r"s.  This is just another way my body is opposing me.

 

My mother looks sternly. You cannot speak Russian or Italian with a weak "r". Her daughter will learn to rattle "r"s as hard as engines, as uncompromising as machine guns. "You'll practise this Russian tongue-twister," she instructs.

 

На горе Арарат

Ростëт крупный виноград

On Mount Ararat 

Grow large grapes

Where's Mount Ararat? Why are the grapes there large?

 

While my mother is at work, during the day, my grandmother prompts me gently. When my mother comes back home, the evening, it's boot camp training mode. I know you're sleepy.  Say it just once again and you can go to bed.  Come on.  One more time.  Rrrrr.

 

I hate Mount Ararat. There are probably big spiders and nasty people living there. And I hate grapes.

 

I finally manage to produce a guttural "r". "Good," my mother pronounces as though she expects no less. "But no one is French in our family. We need a strong, Russian and Italian RRR."

 

I am caught between wanting them to leave me alone and the conviction that the goal is non-negotiable. It's as though my life is impossible until it is achieved. I dread uttering words that contain "r"s.

 

Then, one day, it just happens as though it were the most natural thing in the world. R r r. My mother is relieved. The uneven edge of my speech has been sanded down.

 

Scribe Doll

 

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
I have always admired people who have a facility with multiple languages, and even more now that I know what went into it ... Read More
Tuesday, 05 June 2018 02:40
Katherine Gregor
All small children have a facility with languages. It's a neurological fact. I admire people who learn them as adults. Thank you ... Read More
Tuesday, 05 June 2018 09:26
Ken Hartke
When I worked in the prison system an issue came up on inmates with hearing deficits and the state university wanted to conduct re... Read More
Wednesday, 06 June 2018 18:15
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6 Comments

Latest Comments

Katherine Gregor Milan: Behind the Façade
18 August 2018
Rome and Milan are like two different countries. Rome is certainly more magnificent, but I imagine ...
Rosy Cole Heard in a Dream
18 August 2018
Good advice for poets!
Rosy Cole Milan: Behind the Façade
18 August 2018
These days it's the Precis Petite outlet online for me. I'd be going back thirty years with the MaxM...
Chris Wing-Quay Melbung smellee welly high
18 August 2018
Fascinating to hear the way things have changed in our fair City!
Katherine Gregor Milan: Behind the Façade
14 August 2018
Well, now that you mentione it, I did loiter in a MaxMara shop. I used to have a MaxMara coat, abou...

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