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 )

Brexit – The Hairline Fracture

H. and I have just come back from a two-week holiday in Rome.  We left Great Britain, we left the United Kingdom, and have come back to Little England, with everything this implies.  For the first week after the Referendum, the first thought I woke up with every morning was that it had all been a far-fetched, stupid dream.  We would get up, have breakfast, stroll in the blazing Roman sunshine then, once the holiday was over, go back home.  Home.  But as we got up, had breakfast, and read the newspapers and Twitter feed on my iPad, we went for a stroll in the blazing Roman sunshine with icy unease in our hearts.  Home.  Would England still be home? 

I am not a devotee of the European Union as such, but I am a European to the core, and, as a result, I feel that the European Union is the best option in an imperfect system.  I can't claim to be politically all that well informed.  However, when I saw the encouragement Brexit would give the extreme right-wing, anti-immigration, at times xenophobic factions rising throughout Europe, there was only one way for me to vote in the EU Referendum, and that was to Remain a part of the EU. 

My British father (with some Cornish and Welsh) played no part in my growing up.  Other than a blood connection, I had no legal or moral claim to Britain.  When I first moved here from Rome, aged nineteen, this country couldn't have been more alien to me.  Shops closing at 5.30 p.m., electrical appliances sold without plugs, first-class-stamped letters arriving the very next day, people under-dressing, under-eating and understating.  And then there was the language.  Language is not a birthright.  My early childhood at an American school had been followed by nine years in the French education system.  In my first week in England, I went to see Chariots of Fire, and had difficulty following.  Colloquial, non-bookish English, was incomprehensible to me.  Sarcasm, dished out by my landlady with considerably more generosity than food, was something I couldn't see coming until I felt it sting like a paper cut.  People seemed amused, though in a disapproving way, I sensed, by my American accent.  

The first week, I cried a few times.  The second week, I went to evensong at King's, and fell in love with Cambridge, the dramatically changeable East Anglian skies, the flat Fens where the horizon is so low, the land seems to go on for ever and ever.  So I decided to conquer myself a place on this island, and set out to work.  I was determined to be accepted, to be at home here.  Every evening, I sat memorising words from the Oxford Concise Dictionary.  I made myself keep a journal in English only.  I watched how people moved, how they spoke, how they dressed.  I aped their speech, their accent, their cadenza, their tone.  The way it rose and fell.  I swapped my green MaxMara jacket for a gun-metal grey duffle coat, learnt to add milk into my tea, cycle on the left-hand side of the road, and the true intended meaning of the adjective "interesting".  I acted English... until I became English.  

I'll never forget the boundless pride and joy I felt, a few years later, the first time I went to see a Shakespeare play without reading it first, and understood it.  Or when I directed a production of The Duchess of Malfi, and the actors asked me to explain some of the Jacobean language.  Or when I got my first job teaching English as a Foreign Language, at a British Council accredited school, after qualifying at International House.  I write in English, I translate from Italian, French and Russian into English.  People ask me which language I think in.  I laugh.  I don't think in a language but in concepts.  Doesn't everybody? Heavens, if my thoughts needed sentences in order to be formed, I'd be a really slow thinker!

I have lived in this country for over thirty years.  I have loved it and felt at home here.  To the point where I feel entitled to make lovingly sarcastic public remarks about its flaws.  

I feel at home here, except for the odd hiccup, like a needle scratching a record, when somebody, in a shop or at a party, suddenly catches me unaware by asking, "What's your accent?" Then, for a few minutes, I feel as though I am seen as a usurper, as someone who doesn't really have a right to be here, perhaps even not entitled to speak English quite to this standard.  But it's only a few minutes of discomfort.  Then I feel at home again.  My accent is what betrays me.  An accent that has been described as French, Dutch, Irish, American, Russian, but mostly – and unfathomably – as South African.  Perhaps it's the way I clip my consonants.  

Other than the sticky accent issue, I can honestly say that I have never experienced any xenophobia directed at me.  Some might say I've been lucky.  I can only make a judgement based on my personal experience.      

But now, in the light of the xenophobic episodes that have taken place since Brexit won at the Referendum, for the first time in over thirty years I feel anxious.  As someone rightly said, it's not that half the country is racist, it's that the handful of racists so far muzzled by political correctness thinks it now forms half the country and consequently entitled to express its xenophobia without restraint.  Poet George Szirtes wrote a very poignant article in The Guardian, yesterday, which illustrates how I feel.  Unlike him, I am not a refugee.  But I have started from scratch in more than one country, and more than one language.  When I was nine, we moved from Italy to Greece.  A year later, we moved to France.  Six years later, it was back to Italy.  When I was nineteen, I moved to England.  I know what it is to learn a new language, new customs, new gestures, new ways of dressing, new ways of eating, new ways of thinking.  I know what it is to shapeshift in order to survive.  I know what it is to leave everything behind, sometimes through choice, sometimes not, and start from scratch. I do not want to be forced to do it again.  Will I walk into a shop, one of these days, and will someone, upon hearing my accent, say something insulting to me? 

We are, all of us on this island, originally from another land. Some of our Leave camp politicians seem to have forgotten that their forebears were immigrants or refugees, however many years or centuries ago.  

We had a German exchange student at my college.  One evening, while chatting over coffee in my room, he said, "When you're German and people ask you where you're from, and you say you're German, you sometimes feel as though you should add, 'I'm sorry' because of our history."

My friend, born in the 1960s, was no more responsible for the horrors connected with mid-20th-century Germany than I am for the 52% who voted in favour of Brexit, and yet many of us, rightly or wrongly, feel a share of responsibility in the actions of the countries where our blood – or at least some of our blood – comes from.

My worry now, is that, for the rest of my life, whenever people ask where I come from, I will bow my head and, with a heavy heart, reply, "Britain.  Sorry."

Sorry, my country was the earthquake that caused the hairline fracture that spread into a crack, then a crevasse across Europe, shattering something which, with some reforming, could have been a truly creative, fruitful, and, above all peaceful union of countries.

Scribe Doll

*Please also see:

https://scribedoll.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/the-british-obsession-with-accent/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-eu-referendum-racial-racism-abuse-hate-crime-reported-latest-leave-immigration-a7104191.html

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/26/racist-incidents-feared-to-be-linked-to-brexit-result-reported-in-england-and-wales?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=179242&subid=2346909&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/02/brexit-we-want-out-and-we-want-you-out

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
This is an interesting and unique perspective, so many thanks for sharing it, Katia. Don't lose heart. Whilst I feel there won't... Read More
Monday, 04 July 2016 12:32
Katherine Gregor
Thank you for that. I was very interested in Tom Bradby's views, which echo many of my own. Regarding accents, I beg to differ. ... Read More
Tuesday, 05 July 2016 08:26
Rosy Cole
Katia, I am sorry you've had this ongoing experience and can see it must have been hard for you to keep adapting to different cult... Read More
Tuesday, 05 July 2016 12:18
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10 Comments

Wine and Politics

We were in something of a celebratory mood, so, being in London for the day, went for lunch at one of our favourite Italian restaurants, in Bloomsbury.  "Let's go there," I said to H.  "Last time we were there, the manager promised to get a bottle of Strega in."

 

I like a glass of Strega after a meal.  I like its golden colour, its fragrance of mint and fennel, its sweet, aromatic flavour.  I also like drinking a liqueur that lends its name to Italy's most prestigious literary prize.  Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant in Britain, before ordering, I ask if they have Strega.  If they do, I forego the wine with my meal, saving my very low alcohol tolerance for a drop of that magical nectar.  Sadly, very, very few restaurants serve it.  

 

Perhaps predictably, when we arrived at the Bloomsbury restaurant, the manager was different and, sadly, no Strega in stock.

 

Directly behind us sat a middle-aged American couple that were engaging in conversation with two Scottish women at the adjacent table. The American man was telling a joke.

 

We didn't get the joke entirely but began to eavesdrop on the conversation and enjoy the general good humour and joviality behind us.

 

As we tucked into our scrumptious food - in my case pasta with courgette flowers - there was a roll of thunder and the skies broke open and sheets of rain teemed onto the street. I heard someone - not sure who - comment that "it always pours in England".  A remark that, after years of teaching English as a Foreign Language I am, frankly, sick and tired of hearing.  "Ever tried Milan or Brussels?" I snapped, swinging around.  

 

The American woman, who was sitting back to back with me, also turned round, and asked about Brussels. I told her it could be very, very grey, so it wasn't fair that England should, alone, carry the reputation for miserable weather.

 

We got talking.  It turned out the Americans were lawyers, as well as film lovers and wine connoisseurs.  

 

One conversation led to another, and the US man began voicing praise for the British Empire.  The bridges, the roads, the infrastructures.  I looked down and shifted uncomfortably in my chair.  I couldn't work out if the man was serious, and very much hoped he was being ironic.  H., who had said nothing until then, responded, "If we were that great, and built all those bridges and roads, how come you kicked us out in 1776?"

 

The vague feeling of unease exploded in general laughter.  The US man enjoyed the repartee, taking it on the chin.

 

Suddenly, he asked outright, "How are you all voting in the European Referendum?"

 

Silence. Dense, palpable silence. 

 

He looked at the adjacent table. One of the Scottish women was looking absent-mindedly at the table cloth. The other replied with a grave tone, "This is a very personal question."

 

Feeling merry and particularly loquacious as a result of having drunk half a glass of Nero d'Avola - twice my usual amount of alcohol intake - I was only too happy to open my mouth wide and unleash all my opinions about how I felt about this topic, allowing them to gallop freely, like a wild mustang over sun kissed mountains.  H. joined in and, after a while, the Scottish women also dipped their toes in the debate. There were crusaders, devil's advocates, apologists and fence-dwellers, each of us taking turns to assume these roles.  The course of the discussion inevitably veered to the US Presidential elections.  "We're not stupid and we're not mad," the American man said, "but we're voting for Trump."

 

This time, silence came crashing down right in the middle of the room, like a crystal chandelier.  None of us folk from this side of the Pond knew what to do with our splinters of awkwardness.

 

Clearly, the US man knew the impact his revelation would have among a bunch of Europeans.  "We need a change," he said.

 

"So I guess you're Republicans, then..." I said, at a loss for any interesting response.

 

"We're liberal Republicans," his wife added.

 

More dense, palpable silences, dissent phrased as questions, and - in conclusion - a shared wish for a better world and a peaceful world.  We just had to agree to disagree on the way to get there.

 

The American man ordered a bottle of Amarone and six glasses.  "The grapes are left to wilt in the sun first," he said, "which gives the wine its intense flavour."

 

We all stood up from our tables, dropped our napkins on the tables and, with them, all our political differences, and clinked glasses in the uniting pleasure that an unexpectedly stimulating conversation with a new acquaintance can bring.  Even one whose political opinions you do not share.

 

The red wine glided down, smooth, rich, warm.  As warm as, a little later, the goodbye handshakes, exchange of business cards, and hugs, while the tall-stemmed wine glasses gleamed in the afternoon sun.

 

Scribe Doll

 

 

 

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Opinions galloping freely 'like a wild mustang over sun kissed mountains' Love it! I've had a Strega miniature at the back of my ... Read More
Thursday, 23 June 2016 08:17
Katherine Gregor
Do you mean a bottle of liqueur or a model of the prize?
Thursday, 23 June 2016 15:23
Rosy Cole
Well, now, I do mean a bottle of liqueur, but I live in hopes :-) I bet you can't understand how it's remained stoppered all these... Read More
Thursday, 23 June 2016 18:01
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4 Comments

What Exactly is Your Job?

Last weekend, I had the joy of seeing members of the Norwich Stonemasons' Guild perform a Mystery Play outside the doors of the Cathedral.  It was a warm, sunny afternoon, a brief summer interlude before putting our coats, scarves and gloves back on in time for June.  The first Mystery Play to be acted by a Norwich guild for five hundred years – Cain & Abel.

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As an eager crowd gathered outside the Mediaeval Benedictine cathedral, the Beadle of the Guild, in his black velvet cap and cloak, and gold-tipped staff, announced, in imperative tones, "You will enjoy it. You will laugh," triggering the first giggles among the willing audience.

I couldn't begin to describe the sheer delight and fun of this ten-minute performance.  I couldn't do justice to its highly imaginative props, to the brightly-coloured, makeshift set, to the hysterically funny performance by the actors, who, fuelled by the audience's laughter, gave into corpsing themselves, thereby increasing the overall giggling.  There was something so earthy about the whole event, so uniting.  Inevitably, I thought of the Mechanicals of Athens performing Pyramus and Thisbe.  An unwitting trigger to laughter was also the organ player in the Cathedral, where that evening's concert was being rehearsed, whose notes from Fauré's Requiem thundered through the stone walls at a couple of appropriate Biblical moments.

WP_20160528_004

 

At the end of the performance, after the cheers and bows, the Clerk came on and spoke of the history of this Guild, and repeated the last line of the performance, "Perfection in an imperfect world." Summa Inter Mediocria, the St Stephen and St George's Guild motto.

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These words sent a tingle up my spine.  I often walk past the Church of St Clement, and catch a glimpse of the stonemasons at work, complete with their square white caps.  Everything about their body language and that of the Master Stonemason who supervises them oozes something we seldom see nowadays: fierce pride in one's work.  A refusal to produce anything less than as perfect a job as any human can aspire to.

Over the days that followed, I pondered over something that has been much on my mind, recently.  Job titles.  Pride in one's job. A sense of achievement when performing a task.  The refusal to compromise quality and "make do".

Stonemason.  Baker.  Translator.  Writer.  Carpenter.  Lawyer.  Priest.  Journalist.  Teacher.  Actor.  The words immediately tells me clearly what the jobs entail.  It took me ages to work out what a CEO did.  Chief Executive Officer.  What's that? What's wrong with "boss"? Or MD.  Managing Director.  What is "manage", exactly? Is it to regulate? To direct? To organise? When I taught Business English, the majority of my clients' job titles weren't words but abbreviations.  I often had to ask them what they did exactly and, in most cases, still couldn't put my finger on what precisely their professions involved.  After many a lengthy explanation, I frequently yearned to ask "What do you actually make? What is the tangible, physical result of your work?"

I once worked for an oil company for two months.  The second month was to work out my notice.  My job title was also an abbreviation.  Much of it seemed to involve entering long serial numbers into a computer.  I wasn't quite sure why.  One day, when one of the top honchos of the company circulated through our department, shaking everyone's hand, and asking what they did, I embarrassed myself.  His question suddenly stumped me and I replied, "I don't know.  I'm not really sure what I do." He laughed politely, probably assuming I was joking, but I was totally serious.  Inappropriate for the occasion, but serious.  I had no idea what I actually did.  I couldn't be proud of a job I didn't understand.

Recently, at the London Book Fair, I asked a woman if she was a publisher.  She replied, "No.  I facilitate publishing."

I stared, totally at a loss.  What's "facilitating publishing" when it's at home?

In one of the very executive London language schools I used to teach ("executive" – another hermetic word for me – executing what?), we weren't called teachers but "trainers".  I wondered if the management considered the word "teacher" to be too authoritative, too passé, or – what the heck – too politically incorrect.  Similarly, students were referred to as "course participants".  I went around feeling like a rubber sports shoe, facilitating learning rather than teaching – which is what I'd signed up to do when I qualified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (there, the word is "teaching"!).  As for "course participants" as opposed to "students", the difference in connotation made me somewhat uncomfortable, the latter suggesting in my mind individuals who were simply required to attend my classes and not necessarily learn from them.

Other job titles that have recently puzzled me are "Community Banker" referring to the advisors/clerks at my local bank, "Presentation Team" printed on the uniforms of cleaners,   and anything with the nouns "Consultant", "Executive", "Corporate" and "Officer" (outside the military) attached.

Stonemason.  Baker.  Translator.  Writer.  Carpenter.  Lawyer.  Priest.  Journalist.  Teacher.  Actor.  These I understand.  But perhaps I'm too simple-minded.

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
It seems that there's a resurgence of interest in the Mystery Play, and in going on Pilgrimage which I understand is gathering mo... Read More
Wednesday, 08 June 2016 16:03
Katherine Gregor
Thank you for commenting, Rosy. Interesting, I didn't know about the resurgence of pilgrimages.
Friday, 10 June 2016 20:41
Ken Hartke
My daughter walked 200 kilometers (just a fraction of the total) on the Camino Santiago last November...a pilgrimage to the tomb o... Read More
Saturday, 11 June 2016 17:32
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4 Comments

Adventures with Chicken Soup

My acupuncturist takes a quick look at my tongue. "You've got a low blood count," she says. 

I smile and roll my eyes, thinking of how my GP had to draw blood and process it for a whole week before working that out.

The acupuncturist carries on her diagnosis with remarkable accuracy.  As part of her list of suggestions, she advises me to have chicken soup. 

"I very seldom eat meat – I haven't liked it since I was a baby," I reply.

"Well, try it," she says, "and see how you get on.  It does wonders for the immune system.  Only make sure you boil a whole chicken, to get all its goodness."

 

"Dearest, will you make us some chicken soup, please?" I say to H. – a meat eater – as soon as I'm back home.

Once he's processed his surprise at my request for meat, and my explanation for it, he stares at me, his eyes momentarily blank behind his glasses.  "Why can't we just buy some ready-made?" he suggests, clearly trying to be helpful.

"Because this is supposed to be for my health, not something in a plastic tub, full of additives and preservatives.  In fact, we'd better get an organic chicken.  So will you make us some clear chicken soup? You keep talking about the one your mother made with Kneidel..."

"I don't know how to make chicken soup..."

It's my turn to look blank. I finally burst out, "Your family were Ashkenazi Jews from Poland – how can you not know how to make chicken soup?!"

"My mother was the one who made it."

"And didn't you ever watch her in the kitchen?" I say, and immediately realise the futility of my question when addressed to a man.  I remember, not without resentment, the hours spent – under duress – in our family kitchen.  My Armenian grandmother would say, in a self-satisfied tone, "Watch, Katia.  Watch and learn."  Being a girl can be so unfair.

"Where can I buy an organic chicken?" I ask no one in particular.

H. gives a constructive shrug.

"OK, I'll go and find one – and a recipe – but I've never handled raw meat, so you'll cook it, right?"

H. nods with deliberate obligingness.

Before my irritation degenerates into an accusatory rant, I grab the shopping bag and venture to the supermarket.

 

An hour later, there's a small, organic chicken on our kitchen counter.  I'm on the phone to my friend Sue.  

"Now whatever you do, don't wash it first," she says.

"Oh, but my grandmother always used to wash meat thoroughly before cooking it."

"So did my mother."

"Then why?–"

"They're now saying it's safer not to."

"'Safer'?"

"Yes.  They tell you to cover every surface with clingfilm, and if any raw chicken touches anything at all, then make sure you clean it with anti-bacterial detergent."

I suddenly remember stories of the extraordinary precautions taken by my mother, when giving me the polio vaccine when I was a baby.  Holding my hands to prevent me from putting them in my mouth.  Boiling or burning any contaminated bibs, towels, or kitchen utensils.

"Why do people eat chicken if it's so dangerous?" I inevitably ask.

"Oh, it's perfectly safe.  They just tell you to be very careful because of the bacteria."

"Who are 'they'?"

"The experts."

Oh, them...

 

After half an hour on the 'phone, I read out all the health and safety instructions to H. 

"Oh, yes, everybody knows that!" he says, casually.

I briefly consider hurling the chicken at him, then remember that, at all other times, I do love my husband.

 

I watch him at work.  As he cuts the string that holds the dead bird together, its limbs suddenly pop apart.  I gasp and jump back.  Perhaps I should leave the kitchen... No, I'd better watch and learn.

 

We take our largest pot but even that doesn't look big enough to contain the chicken.  H. stuffs it in with difficulty.  I hear something crack and feel nauseous.  I struggle to remember why I suggested all of this in the first place.  We cover it with water and add my home-made vegetable stock.  As it starts boiling, some disgusting-looking froth forms on the surface.  Neither of us knows what to do with it, so we take the executive decision of skimming off with a spoon and throwing it down the sink.

 

Then, something unexpected and terrifying happens.  The chicken, the dead chicken, slowly starts to move of its own accord.  It spreads its wings, its legs rise over the edge of the pan, and the whole carcass floats up, emerging from the stock.  

"What the hell is that?" I say, wondering if I should reach out for the rolling pin.

H. is very calm before this unexpected development.  "I don't know," he replies, "but I definitely think we should add some pearl barley."

 

An hour later, the flat is heavy with the smell of fat, the sick ward in a hospital, the sour, musty smell of a second-hand clothes shop.  We sit down to eat.  I stare into the swirls of fat forming shapeshifting paisley patterns in my bowl, stir the slippery barley, keep telling myself this is good for me.  I finally muster the courage to lift the spoon to my lips.

 

A smile is beaming over H.'s face, as he wolfs down his second bowl of soup and reaches out for a third helping.  "Mmm... Just like the soup my mother used to make," he says, dewy-eyed.  

 

I push my bowl away.  The yellowish, viscous liquid has gone cold. 

 

I go and raid the kitchen for bread, cheese and olives.  There's a bag of curly kale in the fridge.  Tomorrow, I'll bake it to a crisp in olive oil and salt.  I'm sure it will raise my blood count.

 

 

Scribe Doll 

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Hilarious! Certainly a prescription for raised blood pressure! ... Read More
Sunday, 29 May 2016 20:43
Katherine Gregor
Glad it made you laugh. I think I'll stick to being a non meat eater...
Monday, 30 May 2016 10:37
Rosy Cole
Very wise. The long and short term health hazards of eating meat are well known to the medical profession. Any in-depth procedures... Read More
Tuesday, 31 May 2016 12:25
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6 Comments

Latest Comments

Stephen Evans We Don't Say Goodbye
15 June 2018
Sound advice Ken.
Ken Hartke We Don't Say Goodbye
13 June 2018
I may have posted this before -- I sometimes need to revisit it. I occasionally need to give myself ...
Katherine Gregor Rise
12 June 2018
I like it!
Katherine Gregor R. R. R.
12 June 2018
I hope you're right. Thank you for your comment.
Rosy Cole R. R. R.
12 June 2018
The real strength you gained from this, I believe, is the interior knowledge, not necessarily recogn...

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