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.

A Nomad to Guard Someone Else's Land

My Armenian grandmother, Yekaterina Gregorian, passed away in March 2012, at the age of one hundred.  Several years ago, when, blind and almost deaf (but her mind as sharp as a needle), she was moved from my mother’s to a nursing home, I raided her cupboards and drawers, grabbing anything I thought should be kept safe, intending to go through it at a later date.  Although that was, technically, my mother’s job, I was worried that – with all the pressure of her own frequent house moves – she might overlook something.  Or else that she would discard something as merely sentimental and, therefore, not worth holding onto.   I come from a family who has not owned a property since the Soviets confiscated the little my great-grandparents had, nearly a hundred years ago, and who has moved from country to country for now three generations.  We have moved through marriage, political unrest, lack of opportunity, or simply because we heard it said that such-or-such a country was better than the one we were currently in.  I, for one, have moved house forty-four times, so far.  I imagine if you do not have the security of a place to live from where no one can boot you out, there is nothing stopping you from chasing after dreams over mountains and over seas.  After all, if you have no solid roots to anchor you to a piece of soil, then you ride on any alluring gust of wind.

Among my grandmother’s personal possessions, there was not much.  Certainly nothing of any financial value.  The upside of having nothing, is that there are never any family fights over bequests.  There is nothing to fight over when there is nothing material to inherit.  I know that is where both my grandmother’s and mother’s quasi obsessive thirst for knowledge and education comes from – one that was drilled into me from at early age.  Learn, learn, learn – languages and skills.  You have nothing except what is inside your head.  At any moment, you could lose your home, your spouse, your friends.  But your knowledge is yours.  No change in government or affections can take that away from you.  Gold is too heavy to carry, banknotes lose value, but acquiring a new language is always a good investment – because every new language gives you a new perspective.

When The Red Room posted the theme of finding something in your attic that reveals a fascinating piece of family history, as a blog challenge, I decided the time had come to spill the contents of the plastic envelope containing what I had salvaged from my grandmother’s things, on the kitchen table.  There is a small cloth-bound notebook with recipes  transcribed, out-of-date documents (one with a picture of my grandmother at the age of seventeen), letters her mother sent her from the Soviet Union after my grandmother married an Iranian diplomat and moved to Teheran.  A couple of the letters are cut up, with paragraphs missing beneath jagged edges.  Soviet censorship.  There is also a land deed, dated 1902, complete with the Russian Imperial seal.  Several pages of thick yellowed paper, sewn together with a cotton thread.  I have difficulty deciphering the old legal Russian language but understand it testifies as to the acquisition through inheritance of a plot of land containing a small house and a vegetable garden.  It belongs to a man whose name I do not recognise.  There is also a map, traced in different coloured inks, outlining this plot of land.  Where this land is situated, though, I cannot work out.  The names written in the legal document no longer exist, probably changed by various incoming political regimes.  What is someone else’s land deed doing among such personal family keepsakes? I studied the map, wondering.  Then a word, and image, a recollection at a time, a memory began to take shape.  I remembered odds and ends from something my grandmother used to tell me, long ago.

Your grandfather helped this man.  

He always helped people.

This Russian man fled from the Soviet Union.  They had taken everything from him.

He wanted to go to America.

Your grandfather helped him get the papers.

The man was so grateful to your grandfather.  He left him the land deed – what good would it be to him in America? He gave it to your grandfather for safe-keeping in case, one day, the Soviet Union collapsed, and borders would be opened once again.

My grandfather gave the documents to my grandmother, and told her to keep them safe.  “You never know,” he said, “life can be strange.  Perhaps, someday, our children or grandchildren will meet an American, by chance.   He’ll tell them his father or grandfather once owned a piece of land in Russia.  Our child or grandchild can then give him good news, say he still owns this land, and hand him the deed back.” 

And so it seems I have in my possession that land deed, for a plot which belongs by rights perhaps to an American of Russian descent, somewhere across the Atlantic.  Life is strange.  Nobody in my family has ever owned land in living memory, and here am I, a nomad, yet unwittingly the guardian of someone else’s land.  Life can certainly make you smile.

I will find someone to help me translate the deed, and find out exactly where this land is, and whom it belongs to.  Then I will have all the information I need to be ready and wait.  Wait for a gust of wind to blow me to the rightful owner of this land – or to blow him or her to me.

Scribe Doll

This is a slightly edited version of the article which first appeared on Wordpress in July 2012

 

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
People have such great stories. Too bad sometimes we learn about them too late to ask questions. I have a friend in his 70s, a tru... Read More
Monday, 04 August 2014 06:30
Katherine Gregor
I think no matter how many questions you ask, there will always be something you forget to enquire about. Or something the other p... Read More
Monday, 04 August 2014 07:32
Rosy Cole
This is a fantastic story, Katia. Your heritage. There's already a structure and a novel arc to it. Even if you're unable to fit t... Read More
Monday, 04 August 2014 18:06
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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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