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.

Zebras at the Opera House

Last night, I eagerly tuned in to the BBC Radio 3 live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot.  It's one of my favourite operas.  I didn't listen to it till the very end, though, because I wasn't grabbed by the performance.  I found Nina Stemme's Wagnerian soprano too heavy and too lacking in crystalline quality for Turandot.  I felt that her diction was a little sloppy and, on several occasions, I thought I heard her swallow consonants and leave out vowels.  Marco Berti's tenor, for me, was too thin, too deprived of richness, too throaty for Calaf.  I also didn't care for the pace of Paolo Carignani's conducting.  I found it too fast and lacking in drama.  

Some of the above comments are a matter of personal taste and preference.  However, when the Met audience applauded uproariously, sounding as though they were about to bring the house down, I suddenly realised something: the audience always applauds uproariously at the Met or Covent Garden.  It's almost expected.  It's totally predictable.  And I wondered: is it a matter of manners or lack of discernment? Does the audience take its cue from the critics? Does fame equal quality, equal wild applause? 

There was a time when audiences would hurl tomatoes, boo and hiss at performances and performers who failed to live up to their standards.  I don't agree with such abusive behaviour.  Of course I don't.  My many years working in the theatre has taught me just how hard everyone involved in a production works, and their efforts should be met with respect.  But, surely, it should also be an audience member's privilege to express disappointment with a show or a performer, if s/he feels that the quality is inferior to expectations.  After, all, shouldn't clapping and shouting "bravo!" be like restaurant tipping, i.e. subject to the standard of service received? There are many respectful ways an audience can convey the fact that it doesn't like something.  Not clapping, for example.  Another, more drastic, expression could be leaving during the interval.  I know some people do that, but then how come whenever I attend an opera or listen to a live radio broadcast, there's always – always – such roaring applause? Sometimes I almost wonder if it's pre-recorded.

* * *

I first started going to the opera when I was sixteen, in Rome.  The Teatro dell'Opera hadn't been revamped yet, and much of the upholstery was the worse for wear. The place was drab. On the rare occasion when a famous singer was scheduled to appear, you would have to start queuing for tickets at the crack of dawn.  The first person to arrive would take it upon him or herself to tear up little pieces of paper with numbers scribbled on them, and hand them out to anyone joining the queue.   

I have fond memories of many a Sunday afternoon spent in the galleria, surrounded by characters who lived and breathed music, and were not afraid to express their opinion, even in voices that carried across the  auditorium in the silence that preceded the opening bars of the second or third act.

A ticket in the gods cost less than admission to the luxurious Barberini cinema, where the latest films were shown first, so I went very often.  Moreover, since I mostly went everywhere on my own, I found it much less intimidating to go the opera than the cinema.  Nobody up in the galleria found it odd that a teenage girl should turn up without parents, friends or boyfriend.  Before leaving home, I would wrap a piece of milk chocolate in foil and put it in my coat pocket.  By the interval, it would have softened exactly to my liking, and I would snack on it while listening to the other music lovers provide an in-depth, no-prisoners-taken, critique of the performance.  Mostly, they were music students from the Santa Cecilia music academy, and other, older, opera aficionados who could not afford a seat in the stalls. 

In any case, the stalls were where the fur coats sat.  And the fur coats, we galleria regulars all knew, would applaud at anything that moved on the stage.  

I remember a Rossini Semiramide with a spectacular set, and a Massenet Manon (which, my galleria betters, assured me, sounded far better in Italian than in French) where Raina Kabaivanska's dress caught on the banister of a staircase, preventing her from walking down until rescued by a slow-on-the-uptake Des Grieux.  Then, Italy being well known for its art, its fashion, but also for its frequent strikes, there was the time when I attended a chorus-free performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

My first opera was Puccini's La Fanciulla del West.  My heart pounded at the opening bars.  The singing was excellent.  The set, however, was another matter.  At one point, the curtains swished open on several plywood or cardboard cut-out horses.  One of them had an unusual pattern of pink and orange stripes.  The conductor raised his baton.  The man next to me was watching through his binoculars. His voice carried loud and clear across the void.  

"Look at that – they've even got zebras!" 

The conductor lowered his baton amid a crescendo of shushing from the fur coats down in the abyss, and supportive giggles from the galleria occupants.

Now that's what I call audience power.

Please also read 'Turandot – a Story of Redemption'

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Orna Raz
Thank you dear Katia for this interesting post. I wonder if a television production of an opera could ever be a exciting it as bei... Read More
Sunday, 31 January 2016 20:56
Katherine Gregor
I must admit, if I'm not there in person, then I prefer concerts/opera on the radio than on television – at least my imagination c... Read More
Monday, 01 February 2016 21:17
Stephen Evans
I was listening to that broadcast too (though not through the BBC) and had the same opinion about the singers. But what gorgeous o... Read More
Sunday, 31 January 2016 23:29
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Borzoi

I couldn't believe my eyes, so I dodged my way through the Saturday lunchtime crowds by the market, and strode towards him.  Two women were stroking his cream head.  When he saw me, he slid past them and lifted his long aristocratic muzzle to my outstretched hand, from which I'd made sure I removed my glove.  I don't like to stroke animals with my gloves on.  Just as I don't like to shake hands with my fellow humans except with my bare hand.  I stared in disbelief at the rounded bust, the sharply tapered, greyhound waist, the wavy, silky coat that formed a kind of fur collar around his neck, the tall, slender legs, the long, bushy tail, the elegant demeanour.  I hadn't seen one for over forty years.  "Is this a Borzoi?" I asked the owner.  

"That's right," he replied with obvious pride.

I stood caressing the Russian wolfhound, then crouched before him, and he immediately wiped my face, all the way up from my chin to my nose, with his soft tongue.

 

A Borzoi.  I could barely believe it.  In Norwich. 

 

The last time I had seen a Borzoi was back in the mid-Seventies.  In Nice.  I was nine.  On sunny winter days when there was no school, my grandmother and I would often take a walk along the Promenade des Anglais, and sit on a bench, our backs to the glitzy casinos that remained closed until the evening and the domed entrance of the Hôtel Negresco, looking at the sea so blue it seemed to have been painted cyan by Dufy.  La Baie des Anges.  I had semi-chronic bronchitis and dark rings under my eyes, and my grandmother said the sea air would help cure my cough.  

 

Among the other strollers, we would often see individuals who were clearly not French.  There was something proud and other-worldly about them, I thought.  Sometimes, as they walked past our bench, they would overhear us speaking Russian, and stopped to engage in conversation.  The men would tip their hats at my grandmother, sometimes even lift her hand and brush it subtly with their lips.  The ladies would sit next to us.  All were considerably older than my grandmother.  Distinguished, formal, their hats and coats sometimes a little the worse for wear.  All overjoyed at meeting another Russian speaker.  "Oh, such a pleasure! Have you been here long? When did you leave? Before or after '17? And does your granddaughter speak Russian? Oh, good, well done.  It's so important.  My own grandchildren hardly speak a word.  I keep telling my daughter and son-in-law, but they just speak French at home.  'Katia'? Oh, how wonderful, you gave her a Russian name! And your family? Yes, many of my relatives disappeared, too.  Terrible times.  How could they do such things to their own people? Yes, we also received letters with half the pages missing.  And now so many of us are here.  At least the climate is mild."  

 

After they had gone, my grandmother would impress upon me that these were Russians.  Russians – not Soviets.  And, back in those days, their accent was noticeably different.

 

Some of these Russian émigrés would stroll with their dogs.  Borzois.  There was something about these hounds' genteel demeanour and their sad eyes which, in my child's imagination, very much symbolised the vieille Russie of the books my grandmother read and the stories she told, as well as the conversations I overheard among these émigrés.  Long, snowy winters.  Fairy tales.  Ballrooms with crystal chandeliers.  Rhymes by Pushkin and Lermontov.  Tchaikovsky's heart-wrenching music.

 

One of these, a tall, formidable lady with steel-white hair gathered under a sable hat and piercing-blue eyes, befriended us, and would often invite us to her flat in the exclusive Cimiez area of the city.  Somehow, she had managed to smuggle part of her wealth out of the USSR, so lived in relative comfort, and – if I remember – paid the occasional visit to a plastic surgeon in Germany.  She had an impressive collection of fur coats and jewellery, and took it upon herself to "educate" me in matters which she felt my family clearly lacked the means in which to instruct me.  

"Now, Katia, this is important: look at this mink.  How can you tell that it's of the finest quality? Hmm? Remember, I told you last time.  You look at the long hairs, thickly set, the sheen... Wouldn't you like to have one like this when you're grown up? Now this one here is cream Astrakhan – very rare.  And this is leopard, of course..." 

 

I listened politely while trying to catch my grandmother's eye and send her a silent plea.  

 

Later, at home, I wrote a fairy tale about a leopard fur coat that comes to life whenever a lady wears it, roars and sinks its teeth into the owner's flesh, mauling her to death.  Eventually, I also made up variations on the theme with alligator handbags and snakeskin shoes.

 

As I crouched by the silky, friendly Borzoi outside Norwich market, I wondered if he was the descendant of a line that came from Old Russia.  Whether any of his ancestors had ever  strolled along the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice.  Whether I had ever stroked them, age nine, more fascinated then by them than by their owners.

 

Scribe Doll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

Recent Comments
Monika Schott PhD
Oh Katherine, I so enjoy reading everything you write! I love your stories and the way you tell them. Thank you for sharing them. ... Read More
Monday, 25 January 2016 21:00
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Moni, You're very kind.
Tuesday, 26 January 2016 11:45
Rosy Cole
This is a lovely, atmospheric piece, Katia. The character of your grandmother comes through so clearly and sympathetically. And wh... Read More
Tuesday, 26 January 2016 10:12
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Yekaterina Gregorian – My Grandmother

Nini

 

My grandmother had nerves of steel.  I used to joke that if anyone were ever to tell her that there was about to be a nuclear attack, she would curl her lips over her teeth in that way that she did when considering options.  Then she would say,  “In that case, we needn’t lock the door when we leave the house.” There would be no panicking.  Very little ever disrupted the perfectly controlled neutrality of her smooth, ivory face.  Someone once asked to use that face to advertise cosmetic creams, but my grandmother declined.

Yekaterina Gregoryan was born in a small mining town just outside Rostov, in Russia, in 1911.    She said the coal dust made the snow grey.  The family was Armenian.  From what I heard, she had a very happy early childhood.  I remember snippets from what she recalled about it.  There was the bear cub her much older brother had once brought home after a hunting trip, who used to break into the cellar and become aggressive after getting drunk on wine.  The dying cat the little girl put into the dolls’ bed, and nursed back to health.  Christmases with fir-trees so tall, their tips brushed against the high ceilings.  During the First World War, Yekaterina narrowly survived Typhoid fever.   She said she had hallucinations about a Chinese man throwing a large spider on her.  The war turned into the Revolution.  One snowy winter’s night, the family woke up to noise outside the house.  It was the fleeing White Guard, breaking into the stables to steal the horses.  Yekaterina’s father forbade everyone to go out, saying it was better to lose the horses than risk their lives, since the White Guard was almost certainly armed.  Some time later, it was the turn of the Red Guard to raid the house.  My great-grandmother Gayaneh saw them arrive on horseback from the kitchen window.  She was baking bread.  In a fraction of a second decision, she ran to fetch two diamond rings from her jewellery box, and slipped them on her fingers before continuing to knead the bread dough.  The Red Guard took away anything of value.  My grandmother remembers one of the soldiers crouching before her and her sister, and removing their earrings.  Nobody noticed that my great-grandmother dough-covered fingers hid the diamond rings.

One story I particularly like, is that of the family maid, who had an attack of malaria every other day, like clockwork, and so came to work at the house only on odd days.  When the Communists forbade the practice of religion, all the churches were locked up.  One day, the priests staged a rebellion.  They opened the church doors and rang all the bells.  Yekaterina was out with the maid.  They were caught up in the disturbance.  Bells peeling, crowds running, police on horseback charging.  In the general panic, Yekaterina let go of the maid’s hand, and ran across the street, right in front of a policeman.  His horse reared up.  The maid nearly died of fright, thinking the child would be trampled but, luckily, she managed to get her out of harm’s way just in time.  The next day, much to my great-grandmother Gayaneh’s surprise, the maid came to the house.  “Why are you here?” she asked. “Isn’t this your malaria attack day?”

The maid was just as puzzled.  “I woke up expecting the usual shivers,” she replied, “but they didn’t come, so I thought I might as well come into work.”

There is an old belief that malaria can be cured with a violent emotional shock.  Unscientific as that may be, after the shock of seeing my grandmother nearly trampled by a horse, the maid never had another attack of malaria.

Under the new Soviet order, the Gregoryans – who owned a delicatessen shop – began to be seen with suspicion, as “bourgeois oppressors”.  The school began charging the family three times as much for fees, as the “proletariat” had to pay.  This was more than they could afford.  As a teenager, Yekaterina moved to her grandmother’s house in Rostov, to continue her schooling there.  The house was considered by the Communist committee to be too large for just one family, so most of it was requisitioned to shelter other families.  Rooms were divided up into portions, partitioned by curtains.  My grandmother recalls how you were afraid to whisper anything potentially subversive even to your own kin, in case the stranger in the bed on the other side of the curtain would overhear you, and report you to the authorities.

Although she was not academically brilliant, my grandmother more than made up for it with extreme hard work and dedication, and was highly respected by her teachers.  She wanted to go to university, and study to become a technical draftswoman.  I think it must have appealed to her strong sense of precision.  Still, the fees were way beyond the means of her family.  Besides, further education was almost impossible, unless you were a member of the Party.  With no money and no career prospects, there was little for my grandmother to look forward to.  In 1933, she married a young foreign diplomat, and left the Soviet Union.  Prior to her departure, her mother took the two diamonds off the rings she had saved from the raid, and my grandmother swallowed them.  When she arrived abroad, she sold the diamonds, and got enough to buy table and bed linen.  I guess they cannot have been large stones.

For the first few years, she corresponded regularly with her family, even though most letters arrived with much of the writing blacked out or cut up by censorship.  Then, the letters stopped coming.  She could get no news from the Soviet Consulate.  She never found out what happened to her family.

I wonder if the stillness of her face was a way of keeping in check the pain of so much turmoil and of so much loss.

Yekaterina moved to Rome shortly after I was born, and helped raise me while my mother had to go out to work.  She was very strict.  “Come away from the window,” she would say to me as I stood commenting on the neighbours‘ comings and goings.  “Mind your own business.  Do your homework, or read a book.”   When we lived in France, she used to collect shiny candy wrapper foil, and we would sit and make Christmas decorations.  She had extraordinarily skillful hands.  Her knitting and embroidery had no flaws; her cooking was famous among neighbours and friends.  She had a talent for making everything look neat and beautiful – and cosy.

From an early age, I loved listening to her telling and reading Russian and Armenian fairy tales.  However, when it came to teaching me to read and write Russian, she had quite a battle on her hands.  I was lazy and, as a child and teenager, had a yet to be explained resistance to the Russian language.  We had a volume of Pushkin’s complete works, and she used his fluid poetry and entertaining novels to seduce me into deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet.  I loved every minute and every word.  Moving onto Dostoyevsky was quite another matter, though.  I remember a summer, when I was about sixteen, when we spent a couple of hours a day on the terrace, taking it in turns to knit a blanket.  One knitted, the other one read Crime and Punishment aloud.  My knitting was no better than my reading.  As I read, my grandmother undid my three inches of twisted, irregular blanket, and had to knit it all over again.  Reading, and being corrected every few words, was pure torture for me.  Fairy tales, Pushkin and Lermontov is one thing, but Dostoyevsky almost sent me off screaming.  Rebelling or complaining was no use because, sooner or later, I would end up doing as I was told.  “Education is the one thing nobody can take away from you,” my grandmother always said.  “Times change, wars break out, you can lose everything you own – but what’s inside your head is always yours.”

My grandmother was an impeccable judge of character.  She could see through a person within minutes of meeting him or her, noticing imperceptible details of eye movement or body language.  I still do not know what made her say, when I was about eleven, that she thought I would grow up to be a teacher and a writer.  At the time, I think I might have been planning to become a secret agent or a reporter.

Yekaterina Gregorian, my grandmother, passed away in 2012, aged one hundred.

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
What a colourful, fascinating story, Katia, elegantly told. A wealth of good novel material there, to be sure! To have had such an... Read More
Friday, 15 January 2016 13:07
Katherine Gregor
I think there's often a bond between grandmothers and granddaughters that a mother-daughter relationship cannot match. Perhaps it... Read More
Friday, 15 January 2016 17:00
Amy Brook Palleson
It's a gift to be allowed an inside peek into the personal histories of our fellow human beings, for--together--we create this wor... Read More
Friday, 15 January 2016 13:32
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"So What Brought You to Norwich?"*

When I tell the truth, they don't believe me.

I was brought to Norwich by a sheet of paper, a pen, and a china mug.

"I want to leave London," I told a few people.

"But where would you go?"

I didn't know.

"You must never run away from your problems.  You'll only be taking them with you."

Shame there's no copyright on platitudes.  The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society would need to hire extra staff.

But where would I go?

My brain, of which I had up to then been inordinately proud, had not – I had to admit – served me all that well over the past four or so decades, so I figured I had nothing to lose by resorting to my instinct.  That was the point.  I had nothing to lose.  I was alone.  My misery was also my asset.

I took a sheet of paper, a pen, and a china mug.  I cut the paper into seven sections, and on each, wrote the name of a city at most two hours' train journey from London.  Oh, yes, and it had to be an old, beautiful city.  I like to stroll amid buildings with stories to tell.  I folded each piece of paper, and put them all into my favourite china mug.  One with a black and white cat sitting on the windowsill of a house with gables, a roaring fire and comfortable furniture inside.  I placed my hand over the mug, shook it up and down, closed my eyes, and pulled out Norwich.

Norwich.  The country's first UNESCO City of Literature.  The first city in the country where a female writer was published – Julian of Norwich.  The city with the ugly, sugar-cube castle over a slightly eerie shopping centre.  But a city blessed with temperamental, expressive, East Anglian skies.  I'd been there once, for a weekend, several years earlier, but could not remember anything much, except for the Castle and the Cathedral Close.  I didn't know anybody there, and that was a point in its favour.  If you need a real, total change, no point in going to a place where familiar faces expect you to enact familiar patterns.

I told very few people about my plan.  I didn't think many would notice my absence, anyway.  When I mentioned it to my dear friend P., he said it so happened his wife's cousin lived in Norwich, and rented a room in her house.  I booked it.  I now had a home – albeit a temporary one.  Things were looking up.

A book I had been hoping to translate, and the rights to which the British publisher had been negotiating for months, was finally secured.  The day before my departure, the publisher rang to say my contract was ready to sign.  My first real translation contract.  Things were definitely looking up.

And so, one freezing February afternoon, as I dragged a suitcase crammed with dictionaries from Norwich Station, I discovered that Norfolk, despite what Noël Coward wrote, is not flat.  I also discovered that – as Northwickians are proud to point out – the winds here blow straight from the Urals.  Yes, that means they can be very, very cold.

I arrived in Norwich on Shrove Tuesday, and left again shortly after Easter.  Two months I would not trade for the world. Sometimes, when you're drowning in problems, it's useful to run from them just far enough uphill to get a full, panoramic view of them.  If you see how they're laid out, you can plan your way out of them.  In a new place, where everything you react to is new and unfamiliar, you're less tempted to react – and consequently, act – according to old patterns.

When he saw me off at Liverpool Street, my friend B. had said, "I wonder if, now you're leaving London, things will unexpectedly unblock for you here."

I remembered his words when I went back to London for the Easter weekend and, unexpectedly, was offered a wonderful, affordable room in Wimbledon.  A room with an old, wise oak tree outside the window.  A room where I knew I would be very, very happy.  A week later, I moved back to London.  Two days later, I was offered two well-paid teaching jobs, working for nice, appreciative employers.

Among my friends, Norwich became synonym of a gamble that pays off.  A re-set button.  A place to find yourself.

Two years ago, when H. and I were living in Brussels, and wondering where we could move since we couldn't afford the obscene London rents, I joked, "There's always Norwich."

H. looked at me very seriously.  So seriously that, eighteen months ago, we moved here.  The friends I'd made here nearly three years ago welcomed me back.  The contacts I'd made and the knowledge I'd acquired here served me well.  Although I still miss London, I'm gradually learning to love Norwich more day by day.  One would think someone sent me here, three years ago, to lay the foundations of the home we're making here now.

Perhaps that's what life said to me, on that grim December night, as I was pulling a piece of paper out of a mug.  Perhaps I wasn't completely deaf to its guidance, after all.

* If you would like to read about my 2013 Norwich adventure, please read from this blog post.

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Jane Phillipson Wilson
Many good things have happened since that bleak day in February. Thanks for sharing them.
Monday, 11 January 2016 16:02
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Jane. Many good and not so good things – but I try only to write about the former. I wish you every joy in 2016!... Read More
Monday, 11 January 2016 16:23
Stephen Evans
It's fascinating how much of our lives turn on such semi-arbitrary choices! the angels of small decisions ... Read More
Tuesday, 12 January 2016 01:12
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