On Friday 11 May, I trekked up to Crouch End Broadway for my first day of book-selling for Peirene Press. Lucky for me, it was a sunny day.
I first hiked to the far-flung reaches of North London (I live near Greenwich, so it really does seem far away,) to meet Meike, the publisher and mastermind behind this successful independent press which exclusively translates award-winning European fiction into English for the first time. On that afternoon a few weeks ago, it was cold and rainy, and after two and a half hours standing by the book-stall with Meike, I was absolutely frozen.
Undaunted, I resolved to carry out a full day of book-selling, not least because I love the concept behind Peirene – novellas (and one short story collection thus far) which can be read in the time it takes to watch a film.
I was also pleased to no end, upon arranging the book-selling with Meike, when she sent me a copy of each of their books so I could read them (in order to talk about them, in order to enthuse about them) — and I absolutely love the books, which are dark & deeply intellectual, but quick reads. There is a lot to think about if you choose, but zippy stories are at the fore. Each book is very different from the next, and they vary in their origins – there are German, French, Catalan, and Danish texts. This is stuff that I admit I haven’t read much of, save Pushkin’s Eugine Onegin, (loved it,) and I quickly discovered two more presses whom I’m in love with, though Peirene gets credit for opening my mind to European literature.
Pushkin Press has a similar bent to Peirene – or perhaps I should say Peirene is like Pushkin, as Pushkin have been around longer. Pushkin Press produce deliciously pocket-sized books, or at least purse-sized books, translated from European literature. I just finished ‘Dying’ by Arthur Schnitzler. There’s a good review of it here. The story and characters ring absolutely true, emotionally. I spent the first half of the book slightly distracted by the fact that I was not convinced that Felix was actually dying, but it didn’t matter because the whole point was how his conviction that he is dying preys on his mind. The psychology and philosophy in this book is rich, and I want to come back to it. It would be a brilliant book to teach in a philosophy course, or a literature course.
Another press I’ve discovered, whose books I would like one copy of each (please. My birthday’s in January, for the record.) is Persephone Books. Meike has taken a cue from this successful press in setting up Peirene, and I feel like I’m getting to know, and help grow, something that will make a difference, and could last a long time. Creating a community of readers, creating beautiful books whose exteriors and interiors are treated with equal import – form and function, cover and contents. I want a book that will enlighten and transport me, and if I want to stroke it and sniff the pages, so much the better. Peirene’s doing that for me, and I’m so very excited to see where she goes next.
If that isn’t enough of a reading list for you (all books from Peirene, Persephone, and Pushkin,) I’m going to try to refocus this post and talk a little bit about my day book-selling. It was absolutely lovely, a sunny day, with lots of people walking up and down the Broad Street. It was our first day trying a Friday – so far, the Roaming Store has only been out on Saturdays, so Meike was curious about how that might be different.
The morning was busy, and I set up the stall with great care, worrying that I might miss something (Meike wasn’t coming until the afternoon, when she’d stand in while I wen to get lunch). I set up the stall to my satisfaction, and then stood and smiled and wondered what would happen. I quickly realised that, as Meike had explained, we need to be active in talking to people, and drawing them in, but it is a delicate balance of noticing when a person is pausing or hesitating – when they are expressing an inkling of interest in the Stall (even if it is simply ‘what is this?’) that I step in and say, ‘Can I give you more information?’ ‘Have you heard of Peirene Press?’ or something similar.
I would say only two or three times in the entire day did I get a ‘no’ to one of those types of question, and even then, there were only maybe two grumpy people, so that was pretty good. The best times were engaging with chats with people, getting across the message about the books, and sharing my own enthusiasm and recommendations. There were a few exciting encounters where someone was already familiar with us and had read a lot of the books, and wanted to know when the next was coming out, or had read about us online and wanted to know more. And I did sell books!
I was on my feet the whole day, but buoyed up by intermittent conversations. Fortunately, it didn’t get very windy, and the sun was actually in my face for much of the morning – probably an unusual occurrence. I’m wracking my brain for where in the Blackheath / Greenwich area would be suitable for a Peirene Roaming Store / book-stall, and I have a few ideas…
Before I went to Vienna, I mentioned that I’d been invited to a ‘Blogger’s Breakfast’ and exclusive tour of the ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist’ exhibit at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace.
I’m pleased to say that my review of this has led to my first piece with the British Medical Journal, which is posted here. So I shall not say too much in this post about the exhibit, and ask that you kindly read it in the link, but I will put up a photo of the delightful Martin Clayton, Exhibition Curator, whose job we all must envy enormously.
I also think it’s brilliant that, despite the fact that I was joking in my post about ‘meeting the Queen’ for this event, I did actually see the Queen! By pure coincidence, just as I was leaving the exhibition, I ran smack into crowds assembled to see her ride past in her Carriage to give her Speech at Parliament.
I was able to snap a photo of the Regalia going past in a slightly less ornate carriage, and then I decided to look at the Queen rather than look through my screen, so I didn’t take a photo of her. But it was a perfect end to the morning.
Megan volunteered to sing with the St Augustin choir when she moved to Vienna, and she invited me to attend Mass on Sunday to hear the music. I was stunned to enter a cathedral-sized church, with not only the organ, but what sounded like a full orchestra, and a many-voiced choir high up in the back. It was a stunning performance, and I’m also amazed that many of the singers are volunteers: Megan is of course a trained singer, but I really think to get that sound they must have to tell some people that they can’t join? Anyway, I sat in a beautifully carved, desperately uncomfortable pew (wood, with a panel right across the lower-shoulder blades that meant one could not lean back comfortably, but this isn’t about comfort, after all,) and was steeped in clouds of incense.
Megan’s choir sang a ‘Messe C-Dur,’ which I take to mean a Mass in C-Minor, with music from Schubert.
One of the characters about whom M writes in her own blog is a formidable lady who apparently runs things, whom M dubbed ‘Mildred’ because she didn’t catch the lady’s first name. This very lady exchanged addresses with M so they could write to one another, upon which M learned the lady’s name is actually Lisa. Lisa invited M to lunch after Mass, and Megan had already arranged to meet me, so I was absorbed into the invitation. Later, M & I decided that ‘Mildred’ was a more apt name than Lisa for our hostess. Tugging a wheeled shopping bag behind her at alarming speed, this 80-year-old lady blazed down the road to Cafe Mozart, explaining (in perfect English – she taught as an English teacher for much of her life,) that she wanted us to see the professionalism of the waiters at this Cafe, and that it had been re-built on the site of the oldest Cafe in Vienna, and that all the tourists go to cafes for the cake (guilty!) but the food is in fact amazing and we had to try the lamb…
The tornado calmed somewhat: we were seated straight away, and Mildred announced that she was there for her usual lamb, and helped us select some traditional dishes. I chose Tafelspitz. This was beautifully boiled beef in a clear broth, floating beside a knuckle of bone with perfectly softened marrow ready to eat. There were slices of boiled parsnip and carrot, and a separate small dish of creamed spinach, accompanied by a perfect dome of golden-fried potato shreds, and finally, two small dishes: cream with chives, and apple sauce with shreds of fresh horseradish. Mildred instructed me to mix the latter sauces all together to get a ‘blend of sweet and sour,’ and it really did taste amazing. I cut off the strip of perfect fat along the crescent of boiled beef with some guilt, feeling like I should eat every morsel of this carefully prepared dish, and I even made sure to try the bone marrow (not bad for a former vegetarian).
Megan had a large, fluffy pancake chopped up and served with cream and sweet berry sauce. She later said she’d had three cakes in one meal: that was her main course, another traditional dish treated as a main course. Mildred had her lamb – the best in Vienna! – and then she continued to force-feed us by ordering two cakes for dessert. One was an enormous thin, crunchy waffle cone coated in hard chocolate, filled with cream and fresh strawberries, with a bit of shortcake and strawberry mousse hiding within the cone. The second was a marzipan and coffee flavoured layer cake. We also had coffee (I carefully tried a tiny espresso – I’ve learned that coffee with milk makes me jittery to the point of being unwell for hours, but for some reason coffee with no milk seems ok) and Mildred dashed back to the church to find her coat, which she was convinced she’d brought with her, but we gently insisted she hadn’t.
An important point to note about this lunch was that Mildred, with the help of our waiter, selected a glass of white wine for Megan and me, and a glass of red for herself, which she offered to us to try. ‘Is this Austrian wine?’ I asked with surprise – ‘Of course!’ Mildred said, ‘But it has a French name.’ (She’d picked a Cabernet for us.) It was incredible wine, as was her red, and it restored my faith in Austrian wine which had been severely tested the night before, in the taverns.
Throughout lunch, Megan and I sat and listened to Mildred’s stories. We talked about the concert and opera Megan had taken me to, and Megan was amazed at some of the famous people Mildred has heard perform in Vienna throughout her lifetime – (I’m afraid I don’t have the understanding of this subject to be suitably impressed, but I’m sure Megan will name the correct names with the correct amount of respect on her blog when she writes about this). At one point, Mildred told us that she’d finally come to appreciate how important it was to buy herself tickets to get good seats to shows. ‘When I was young, I was too worried about saving money,’ she said, ‘My mother wanted to have a good seat for the opera, but I never got her one…I wish I had now.’ We all got teary at that, and then the tornado took off again, and we hurried behind like ducklings, careful not to get run over by her two-wheeled shopping bag, as she took us on a swift walking tour through the city, to the Volksgarten.
‘We used to have to queue for hours for potatoes,’ Mildred told us, ‘I remember getting up at three in the morning, and standing there until eight in the morning…and the people two, three ahead of me, they got the last two potatoes. There were none left…They gave us peas. We realised every single pea – every single pea – had a worm in it: we soaked the peas overnight, we peeled them apart, one by one: into one bucket went the peas; into one bucket went the worms. We made everything out of peas: bread made of peas, soup made of peas, flour made of peas…I remember we had to take a train to cross the border; the train was so full of people, and we did not know when it would leave. I was young and not afraid: I climbed right to the top of the train, to sit on the roof! My mother was afraid, but she would not leave me: she climbed up beside me. We waited and waited; we climbed on that train at 10 in the morning…it left at eight at night. In the night, the Russian soldiers climbed on the train: they were looking for women. I was twelve years old. My mother, she covered me with a blanket, she hid me…’
The impromptu tour from this remarkable woman, woven with her remarkable memories, helped me revise my opinion of Vienna. It has the same sort of love for life, food, family and friends as I’ve felt travelling in Bulgaria: the feel of a satisfied being which still remembers the pangs of hunger, the memory of fear. A culture that knows what it is to want, but no longer has to want, and so rejoices in a bounty it did not always have. A culture entitled to its cake.
I remember riding up a steep, winding road on my Vespa, going at about 20 miles per hour, ‘vrim-vrimming’ towards a perched village in the South of France in the winter sunshine, my friend Caitlin bravely holding onto my waist. When we made it to the top, and paused to overlook the sprawling landscape, I said, ‘This is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever done.’
Saturday in Vienna was like that, and I laughed about it with Megan, but we also acknowledged that (and forgive me for a hugely sexist comment,) maybe it is easier for us to share these sublime moments with our girlfriends, because frequently the men in our lives just don’t experience it the same way (thus far, I can think of exactly one exception).
So, cruising the Danube River in the sunshine, passing vineyards and ruined castles, was one of the most romantic things I’ve ever done in my life with a girl friend.
But first, we took the train to Melk Abbey. It is a sprawling complex perched atop a rocky outcrop, overlooking the charming, tiny town of Melk. The abbey is painted a similar rich yellow to Schonbrunn Palace, and all I could say as we approached, was, ‘well, it gives you an idea of the wealth of the church, doesn’t it?’ We were blessed with a gorgeous, sunny day, so we took a walk around the gardens first, admiring a cafe/orangerie gazebo that surely must be used for weddings. It is like a cake itself, painted with pastel murals inside; baroque, beautiful, and over-the-top.
The gardens are dotted with a surprising variety of what we could only conclude was ‘modern art,’ including mirrors with words you could read by looking into the opposite mirror, metal grates for vine flowers which also employed the use of phrases and words, and a mirrored gazebo with a mirror in the ceiling so you could read more sayings and phrases. There were quite a few mirrors, come to think of it. It was a great chance for Megan to stretch her German vocabulary, and she did an admirable job, but as far as we could conclude, the words and phrases ‘friendship, life, death,’ etc didn’t amount to any deep philosophy. The gardens were beautiful, though, and we especially admired the herb garden perched on the south-facing side of the hill overlooking the village.
Finally, we gave up the sunshine to go through the Abbey. I do admire the organisation of these tours – again, like Schonbrunn, you aren’t pelted with information, but enough is there to get a very good idea of the history of the place, without feeling like your brain has been drained of all ability to think. I also got a distinct flavour of how carefully constructed these stories are; a definite bias or possibly even propaganda element: but then, surely that is true of how any place (palace, museum, monastery,) presents itself, and I’m perhaps being sensitive to being in Eastern Europe (ish).
Megan and I were particularly taken with the famous library, and here I’m going to go into a painfully American reference. Most girls, growing up, will have seen the Disney film version of Beauty and the Beast, and most girls who are like me will remember that they cared little for the Beast and his castle, but would have given their right arm for the library, into which Belle is absorbed. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the impossibly huge room, and, crucially, the ladders which reach from floor-to-ceiling, giving access to any book. Melk Abbey’s library is a real version of this dream-library.
We gawped. We pined. We gazed. And we were desperately curious as to whether the monks (who presumably reside in much of the complex that tourists aren’t allowed into,) still make use of the books here. God I hope so. If these books are chained away for tourist eyes (and we can’t take photos!) – and I saw sugar ants running a path through one of the windows, making my guts constrict – oh, no, the books, the books…(Swoon.)
The church within the abbey is a riot of baroque gold, in-your-face theatrical drama. We later learned (from Mildred, whom you’ll meet in the next blog post,) that it was in fact designed by someone who designed theatre sets, which explains a lot. I had a great discussion with Megan about how this sort of ostentation does not befit what I would think of as a concept of ‘god’ if I believed in ‘god’ – and to be fair, the nearest, most comfortable religion, or spirituality, I’ve come to in recent years is Quakerism, so that is the other end of the spectrum.
Megan made an excellent point that at the time, this church needed to draw people in, or back in, and creating high drama and theatre drew people to church. The spectacle for the rich, was something that impressed the poor, and seemed unreachable but worth worshipping, aspiring to, even if that would only be reached in heaven. As we looked at the gold decor and considered this, some startlingly modern music began to play – and a wedding party began to process out! So we stayed to watch the bride (I, all the while, amazed that this spectacle had become a living spectacle, and that these people having the wedding must be aware of and ok with the fact that they too were on display,) and we admired her dress, and Megan cried a little bit because ‘I always cry at weddings,’ and then we went back out into the sunshine.
A rather important part of our day excursion to Melk was the round-trip nature of our transport. We’d bought a ‘package deal’ that included rail fare to Melk, entrance to the Abbey, a river boat cruise to another village (name escapes me at the moment,) and rail fare from there back to Vienna. We were aware that there were only four boats per day, so M kept careful track of the time in order for us to be on time for our boat. Upon arriving in Melk, we’d seen the well-marked sign, pointing across a footbridge to where the boats were.
So we gave ourselves a bit of time – plenty, so we thought – to walk there. Except, upon crossing the bridge, all sign-posting broke down, and we found ourselves in a car park, not beside a river with boats as we’d anticipated. We were slightly nervous, but still convinced we had enough time, and M asked the car park attendants about the boats; they waved us in a direction, and we followed it. There were signs for about four different docks, pointing in four different directions.
Nothing on our tickets, or in our guidebook, or on the signs, indicated which dock we needed to go to. It was then that the ‘hero’ of our day appeared: a battered-looking taxi driven by an equally battered-looking cab driver, asking if we were looking for the tour boat (we were,) and of course, instead of telling us where to go, attempting to usher us into his cab because he would take us. We declined and hurried to the nearest dock, following a short path along the river, only to be told by the man at the dock that we were meant to go to the dock over there, (far enough that it would take too long to walk, at that point,) and we were probably going to miss the boat.
At which point, our cab driver pulls up, grinning, and says (it doesn’t matter that it was in German; it translates into any language,) ‘I told you so.’
So we climb into the cab, and he break necks it to the dock, in a huge fluster of worked-up excitement, scrambling out and saying ‘you must get the tickets!’ and the lady at the ticket booth shouting, ‘no, just go to the boat!’ and the true hero of our day, the man at the correct dock (young, blonde, and handsome,) smiling and saying ‘calm down, the Captain has seen you, you will make it on board.’
And then our cab driver charging €10 (TEN EUROS) for this favour he did us. We didn’t have the time to argue. I concluded that we would not have made the boat if it weren’t for him, and he probably made a killing on this whole procedure, ‘panic-inducing’ included, and he must be in cahoots with whomever put up the poorly marked signs. Once we settled aboard, I had a beer.
Laughing and sweating, Megan and I felt like silly tourists indeed, but once we were off, the cruise unwound into an unreally beautiful stretch of lazy blue sky, John Constable-esque clouds, ruined castles, and terraced vineyards. It was here I acknowledged the romance of the day, and felt that despite being dependant on the weather (as any outdoor trip is,) this would make a brilliant honeymoon. Just try to give yourself time to find the right boat dock.
On the train back to Vienna, I watched lightning cut through the sky as Megan had a nap; we were tired from walking and from sunshine, and we realised that we hadn’t even had lunch (an no cake! But we made up for it the next day…) so we shared some cheese, crackers, and nuts on the train. A heavy storm lashed across the train as we sped through the flat, green landscape back to the city. By the time we arrived, the storm had passed (or we’d passed through the storm,) and we decided to press on with our original plan of visiting a classic tavern for supper.
Heurigen, or wine taverns, are classic locals’ places, found on the outskirts of the city. They sell their own wine, and have a buffet from which you can choose your own salads, sides, and roasted meat. The plate of food is weighed up and you are charged by the weight; this amounts to a much cheaper meal than ordering from the menu, and you also are able to get just the right amount of food. Megan and I weren’t terribly hungry after our picnic of cheese and nuts, but we wanted to try the real Heurigen experience, so we popped into a few taverns before settling on one with a bustling atmosphere that was more full of locals than tour groups (choose carefully).
There was an accordion player, and too much cigarette smoke for my liking (the only complaint I have about Vienna,) but we enjoyed modest plates of potato salad, bean salad, and a perfect piece of roast pork each, and a glass of absolutely awful, sour white wine. I was intrigued that the wine was so terrible.
We took our time over supper, and then wandered towards the tram, before peeling off and deciding to poke our heads into a different Heurigen, unsure whether we’d be able to try another glass of wine (I was still hopeful,) or whether we’d be expected to have another buffet. We were welcomed into a bustling tavern, more busy than the last and equally full of locals, and were served glasses of red wine just as the accordion player and violin player struck up a song accompanied by a young lady singing bawdily.
For the next hour, we were somehow caught up in a whirlwind of music, in which the accordion player, who had patted Megan’s behind upon entry, took it in turns to sit beside us and make us seriously consider leaving (if it weren’t for being trapped and also deafened by the accordion – not my favourite instrument!) and also conversation with the sweet young woman singing – it was her first night there, ‘you could tell those two were Spanish,’ (she said, referring to the harmless but leering musicians,) she was training as a singer…she and Megan had a good chat about music (shouting a bit over the noise). Then the tables around us struck up some local songs, and everyone was singing, and the red wine was just as vinegary and terrible as the white wine, but it didn’t matter.
We escaped when the musicians moved to the far end of the room to serenade other customers, and caught the tram home to Schwester Christine’s apartment.
On Friday, Megan and I met (after her morning school run with the children,) at ‘Schloss Schonbrunn,’ Schonbrunn Palace, an enormous yellow building rivalled only by Versailles, set within sprawling park and gardens a short train ride out of Vienna. The palace was begun in 1695 and completed by Maria Theresa’s court architect in the 1740s. The stout Maria Teresa is the main figure overlooking the palace – she has a touch of the Queen Victoria matronly severity about her.
Images of her, however, jostle with another female figure: ‘Sisi,’ or Empress Elizabeth, a troubled icon made, unfortunately, into the face of Vienna: tea towels, barbie dolls, etc. Why anyone would want their daughter to look up to an anorexic, nervous, depressed woman who felt trapped within an arranged marriage and was assassinated whilst travelling is beyond me. She’s a tragic figure when looked at from one perspective, and an unhappy girl who didn’t do much with the power and wealth she had to hand on the other. She was also, apparently, a poet, and I was curious about this, but wasn’t able to find her work in any extensive translation.
The tour of Schonbrunn is well-handled: guests are herded through in timed group tours with audio-guides pressed to their ears, but they don’t give too much information, so you come out of the tour of a select handful of rooms without feeling totally exhausted, having been able to actually absorb much of the history piped into your ear.
Megan and I didn’t tour the grounds or gardens of the Palace, as it was drizzling with rain and we were after higher things: schnitzel. Megan used my visit as an excuse to track down a recommended ‘locals’ schnitzel place near the Mariahilferstrasse. We decided to share a schnitzel, but were each served an enormous plate with a huge schnitzel, and a side of fries/chips. (It was pork – or was it chicken? – schnitzel, I should add: we didn’t go in for the veal.) Undaunted, we each devoured the entire delicious, pounded, succulent fried meat.
Megan had to rush off to meet the children (not a good idea to run after eating schnitzel,) but she sent me a text about the street market we’d passed on the way to the tavern: it’s only on twice a year! I decided to wander my way through the market. On leaving the restaurant, I saw a pair of bewildered tourists looking at their plates: each had two huge schnitzels on them. So we had split a dish after all!
I wandered through the market and bargained for a painted metal soldier: a little drummer man which I gave to Megan later as a gift. The market was full of antique typewriters, jewellery, bric-a-brac; local foods, high-street goods from the shops behind spilling out their sale items into the road, makeup, books…I wandered all the way back into town, browsing and window-shopping (apparently a Viennese Major Sport,) and eventually made it to Cafe Demel, another famous ‘must’ on par with Cafe Sacher.
I explored the whole cafe to see the interior decor before settling at the small bar to enjoy a pot of green tea and apfelstrudel (apple strudel). Demel sells chocolates wrapped in beautiful boxes and papers, so I bought a few of them as gifts to bring home. I whiled away the time like a good cafe-goer before meeting Megan – rushing from leaving the children – at the opera, where we made it into our standing spots just before the doors closed.
Thus followed a brilliant evening at the opera, only marred by my nagging cough, which was fortunately (in this case) backed up by the nagging cough of someone standing behind me – so when an angry Spanish or possibly Portuguese tourist turned and shouted at me to leave, I was able to say ‘it isn’t me!’ because, just by chance, that time, it wasn’t!
The Viennese will shoot glares at you over their shoulder silently (like the couple at the concert did to me the previous evening) – but this lady wasn’t having it. The thing is, she was leaning over the people next to her, filming the show with her phone! Ah, etiquette in the theatre. Or Opera. Or concert. Buoyed up by water and lots of Polo mints, I managed to get through the show without annoying anyone too much (except for the grumpy woman who left halfway through anyway).
I woke up Thursday morning in a high-ceilinged, white-painted room suffused with pink light. I hadn’t realised the night before that the curtains were pink. This was Schwester Christine’s ‘spare’ room. Despite being on the ground floor, the flat is lofty, with tall ceilings, tall doorways, and tall windows. This height is pronounced by the smallness of Schwester Christine and her furnishings.
The nun lives in austere luxury. The most prominent feature of her main room is her bookcase; the most prominent feature of her person is her smile. The former is filled with philosophy, Shakespeare, and Biblical texts. The latter starts at her perfectly straight teeth, fills her eyes, and practically glows from her fingertips.
The main room has a little wooden round dining table; there are two wicker chairs, and a couple of folding chairs, one of which is at the small wooden desk, on which sits a large, open Bible, with many notes pencilled into the margins. There is a little cot which serves as Schwester Christine’s bed, a tall palm plant, and the bookcase. There are a few little stools for tables, one holding a basket filled with books, one holding a radio, one holding a laptop. Pictures adorn the walls – of the sea, of the Virgin, of an Abbey; photos of friends and family. There are a few little woven rugs and mismatched, floral curtains, in pale blues and off-whites. This ‘main room’ is where she lives, and there is also (not unlike my flat in London) a hallway, a bathroom, and small kitchenette. However, the ‘spare’ room, which could easily be her bedroom, is nearly empty, because, as Schwester Christine explained, ‘it is too much for me; I have what I need.’
Schwester Christine went to church very early Thursday morning (she usually goes in the evenings, she told us, but she had to leave for the airport at noon,) and I was delighted that we had more of a visit with her between church and the airport. Megan had to take the children to school, but the three of us managed to convene at the flat by about 9am. After thanking her once again, and admiring her home, Schwester Christine replied, ‘It is good for my…’ she patted her heart. ‘You see, there is no furniture,’ she said, gesturing around. (Indeed, there is what I described, but nothing bulky.) We agreed that this lack of clutter made us feel we could breathe and think.
Now, if you know me, or have read the background of this blog, you will know I am an atheist. I’ve gone from being a Pagan (pre-blogging-days, at university,) to being an ‘evangelical atheist’ (getting to meet Richard Dawkins a few times, etc,) to being some odd mixture of the two: a superstitious atheist with a great curiosity for religion. As much as I loved being able to talk openly to Megan about her religious beliefs, I didn’t want to raise it with Schwester Christine.
So I felt slightly odd giving her a copy of my poetry book, at her request, because I wondered if ‘Darwin’s Microscope’ might be blatantly anti-religion (even though I would say it is simply secular). I had a similar odd feeling gifting Verity (also religious) a copy of Darwin’s Microscope, but that was more because I lived in her house all winter caring for her two cats, and there are a few poems in my book about dissecting cats. Anyway, I concluded with Megan over wine spritzers that Schwester Christine surely wouldn’t read the book, so it didn’t matter.
Therefore it was a bit amusing and unnerving when she pulled it out Thursday morning and began opening to specific pages and asking me questions. The most flattering, and beautiful, moment, was when she opened to my poem about Ophelia, and read it aloud in whispery, lightly-accented English. ‘Beautiful,’ she said, smiling, ‘beautiful.’
It was beautiful, re-animated by her voice. I told Megan and Schwester Christine about the wonderful moment in Les Adrets when Verity pulled out my book to show off to her friends, a couple in which the woman spoke some English and the man didn’t speak any: the woman read a poem aloud in faltering, but good, English, and then Verity read it out, translating it into French on the spot.
It was especially unexpected when S. Christine opened up to ‘Fallen Armour’ and had a lot of questions about it. This poem talks about the deaths of my father and my friend Andrew, and also refers to an amusing story told many times when my brother and I were growing up, about how after I was born, my dad got a vasectomy, which my mom always referred to as him ‘getting fixed’ – I use that phrase in the poem (the ‘humorous’ part of the story is that my brother, three years old at the time, leapt into my dad’s lap after the surgery – slapstick humour and probably not funny to any male, anywhere).
S. Christine really wanted to understand the entirety of the poem. There was a long moment of Megan and I trying to come up with the word ‘vasectomy’ in English, German, and/or French – (fortunately the nun did know what a vasectomy was…) so when we finally hit on the right word, and the penny dropped, S. Christine burst out into whoops of laughter. I laughed at her laughter, and Megan laughed with a slightly panicked look.
Yup – with the bewilderment of an observer, I sat in Vienna laughing about my dead father’s vasectomy with a nun. And it was absolutely okay (though I’m not sure what poor Megan made of it)!
In true Schwester Christine style, the little lady shooed us out of her flat shortly after, ‘But you must GO girls, GO!’ – again, this is done kindly, not to kick us out, but because we simply MUST have TONS to do…and Megan and I went off to find the Josephinum, the only thing on my list, (since I knew Megan had loads to show me,) which we decided to get out of the way so we could then ‘play tourist’.
It was such a treat to see the Viennese waxes so soon after the Florentine waxes, which I saw over my birthday in January. Despite no photography being allowed, I’ve seen a beautiful collection of work from the photographer Tanya Marcuse, whom I hope to eventually collaborate with, combining the Venus Heart poems and the photographs. (She must have had special permission to take photos, but her photos are also better than mine would ever be.) Her collection of ‘wax bodies’ photos can be seen here, and they combine photos taken in Vienna and in Florence.
The waxes in Vienna were commissioned by the Emperor Joseph, made in Florence, at the workshop run by Fontana, and carted over the Alps on donkeys, to get to where they are today. They have the same Venetian glass and rosewood(?) cases that the waxes in Florence have, the same torn and worn silk cushions, and, similar to the Florentine waxes, these three rooms in Vienna (there are more rooms at La Specola) have several life-sized models, and many more bits and pieces all along the walls.
The Viennese ‘Venus’ is quite different, something I’d been able to tell from photos. She is not like the dissectible ‘doll’ after which my play is written – the brunette with pride of place in the obstetrics room in La Specola. This Venus is more like the three wax females I barely saw in the room that was being closed off temporarily. Splayed open, with (of course) a foetus in her womb, she’s got a double strand of pearls around her neck, and very long blonde hair. Her skin is the main difference, and her eyes – her skin is remarkably pasty, not luminous like the brunette Venus at La Specola. She looks more like a porcelain doll than a waxwork. She’s matte; less life-like, than the others. The male ecorche figures on either side of her, and the waxwork body parts along all of the walls, glow in contrast with a sort of wet, shellacked, luminosity. Did Fontana, the Director, or Susini, the wax-modeller, not want the Viennese Venus to be as beautiful? She is the only female figure on display at the Josephinum. Why blonde? Was that a request? (The Florentine brunette; the Viennese blonde?)
The other striking thing about this collection is the way the third room is displayed. This room holds six life-sized male figures, which feel larger-than-life, because they are standing upright, in enormous cases of glass and wood, raised on stands a few feet off the ground. Two are full musculature models, and are really big, beefy. The room is not necessarily ominous, but it does feel oppressive because of how the models are displayed – overlooking the viewer.
Back in the first room, with the blonde Venus, there is also a wonderful array of a dissected heart, and a whole heart in a glass dome, which Marcuse has an amazing photograph of.
It was lovely to have Megan there – she was happy to join me (though I stressed she didn’t have to, as I know this isn’t for everyone!) – She’d had no exposure to the waxes, and I filled her in on some of the history. ‘I expected to be more horrified, but they’re beautiful,’ she said. (Hurrah for friends with open minds…) She connected particularly to anatomy of the throat, which, as a singer, she’d learnt, but never seen. We talked about the idea of the gaze; who was looking at whom. I pointed out that as an artists’ model, there is the expectation and assumption that I am the object looked at, which is true, but that people forget that I am animate, and therefore I am also observing them.
Megan pointed out that we were considering the models now, but there are hundreds’ of years worth of gazes effectively invisibly layered between our gaze and the original models.
I thought about the presentation of the material. It is rather frustrating for these to be in a quiet, tucked-away space (though rather a treat, too, I admit,) – they are purely in the ‘history’ camp. To come to them, and understand anything about them, one needs to already have done one’s research. These could have modern charts or explanations to bring out more information, to impart knowledge about anatomy as well as about history. Not to mention art – these are pieces of art, and there is a vast amount of information about the pigments alone that were used to make the colours in the waxes. Then there is the social and political history behind them, which Anna Maerker writes about in her book ‘Model Experts’.
We went to a cafe for gloriously in-season asparagus soup (served with cream) and the best chai tea latte I’ve ever had (served with cream) before exploring a wonderful market, buying €5 pashminas and a bag full of goodies (cheese, olives, breads, stuffed peppers) in anticipation of a late picnic-style dinner at the flat.
Then we visited the Globe Museum – Megan’s suggestion, to my delight. (I’m so very glad to have friends who love the same obscure historical stuff I do.) I was impressed by how well laid-out and presented this Museum was, particularly in contrast to the context of the waxes, and my above thoughts about their presentation.
After exploring – which made me want to return to the museum at further length – we went to Cafe Centrale. Then Megan had to dash off to meet the children. I, meanwhile, wandered in a light wine-spritzer haze through the Volksgarten, past the Museumsquartier, enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine.
I met Megan at the Musikverein, home to the Vienna Philharmonic, for an incredible concert: a Beethoven overture, a Berg concerto, and, after the break, a symphony by Schostakovich.
The music was sublime as Sachertorte with cream, in undoubtedly the grandest setting. It was the best concert I’ve ever heard. (We had seats for €20, and the next night we had standing tickets to the opera for €3: now that is accessible culture.)
The only thing I knew I wanted to see in Vienna were the wax models at the Josephinum (about which I will write later). Unfortunately, the Josephinum was one of the few places I visited which did not allow photography. So, instead of graphic anatomies, I will post pictures of cake.
I arrived in Vienna at about 4pm on Wednesday afternoon, and was to meet my friend Megan at 7pm. So, I walked to Cafe Sacher for the obligatory Sachertorte. This is a chocolate cake covered with chocolate ganache; between the cake and ganache is a fine layer of apricot jam. The chocolate sponge cake is surprisingly dry, and the cake is served with a huge dollop of unsweetened cream: on its own, the cake is dry, and on its own, the cream is bland; together, they are sublime. Cream is served with many things in Vienna: atop certain types of coffee, atop soup, atop hot or iced chocolate, and of course, alongside cake.
On the way to Cafe Sacher, I took the clear tourist route from the Schwedenplatz U-bahn stop, along the road called Rotenturmstrasse, which becomes the pedestrian Kartnerstrasse. This goes past one of the main sites in Vienna, the Stephansdom church, outside of which men dressed as Beethoven accost tourists in a friendly manner trying to sell tickets to various concerts.
The Viennese struck me as extraordinarily friendly (whether or not they are trying to sell anything,) helpful, and laid-back. This is probably because, as far as I can tell, they live in one of the most beautiful, clean, culturally rich cities in the world, where the main focus of the day is eating cake and sitting around chatting, or going to hear a world-class concert. What’s not to love? Even the tap water is delicious, piped in from a mountain spring. The second ‘Beethoven’ who tried to sell me a ticket followed my gentle rebuttal by asking me out to dinner and inviting me to his flat.
‘No thanks,’ I said (thinking, does anyone ever say yes to this sort of proposal?) ‘I’m having dinner with a nun.’
I ambled along the street to Cafe Sacher, and sat just inside the cafe at an open door looking out to the Opera House, where I enjoyed my slice of cake. A brilliant thing about cafe culture in Vienna is the expectation to linger. One can even have a tiny, €2 coffee, and stay in a cafe for hours. (The only downside to my urban mindset, which I slowly realised was probably a boon, was how few places had wireless internet; Megan has to go to Starbucks for that, and I think the fact that there even is Starbucks in Vienna is a travesty.)
The sun was shining, and I walked past the Wien (pronounced ‘VEEN’ and where ‘Vienna’ comes from,) Museum, past the Hochstrahlbrunnen, a fountain built in 1873, which I later learned was built to celebrate the piping into Vienna of that wonderful mountain spring water. Behind the fountain is the Russian Liberation Monument, built after WWII. It is apparently roundly ignored. I walked through the Stadtpark which runs just south of the centre of the old town, past the little river to the Danube Canal, a sizeable canal separating the main part of Vienna from the Prater suburbs, where Megan has been living and working as an au pair. I met Megan at Praterstern Station, and we walked to Kleine Schwester (‘Little Sister’) Christine’s.
Megan describes her serendipitous meeting with Schwester Christine in her own blog post, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety. I’m going to poach a small part of it to put here: How Megan met Schwester Christine:
On Monday March 19th, I headed to the Musikverein for yet another Stehplätz adventure… In my usual pushy fashion, I got a good standing place, only to have a tiny woman push slightly to my right and wiggle right into a place that hadn’t been there before. She determinedly tied her scarf to the bar, and planted herself right beside me on the floor. With her wispy grey hair pulled back into a bun and forced into place with several barrettes, and light blue sweater tucked into a long navy blue skirt, she seemed the typical scrappy Viennese Stehplätzer that I am quite fond of, and so after a few minutes of me reading my program (which culminated in her borrowing it for the entirety of the performance) we began chatting. She decided that ultimately my German was not up to her standards and after switching to English, I found out that she was originally from Brittany, and had lived in Vienna for forty years. When I told her where I lived (a popular introductory question here in Wien—as apparently lots of judgements can be made based on in which Bezirk one calls home), she exclaimed “But we are neighbors! You are going home after the concert?” I nodded. “But then we must go together!” It seemed I had made a new friend.
And later…Megan learned Schwester Christine was travelling for the month of May, and the ‘Little Sister’ invited Megan to invite friends to stay in her flat. So I took up the offer, and Megan visited Schwester Christine several more times, not least to borrow a set of keys:
Obedient, I stood outside her door once more on Wednesday. As I entered, Schwester Christine was dancing around to some sort of French motet. She flung open her arms after a glorious cadence–”Welcome! Megan!” She showed me the room Kelley would stay in once more, and the tiny bed she had made up. “If you see anything you want in the cupboards you must take it!’ she said, smiling. Gesturing to the huge windows in the “Kelley” bedroom, she said “I did not wash the windows, but you must open them so you can see out, and then you will not notice the dirt!” I assured her how glad I was she HADN’T washed the windows. We made plans to eat dinner together the evening of Kelley’s arrival, and giving me another hug, she said, smiling “I don’t know why I trust you. But I feel in my heart you are a good girl. The students staying with me last week I did as a favor for my friend. But this, your friend coming and you visiting here, I do for you!” She chortled, “It is a gift from me to you!”
Schwester Christine’s only request was that I bring a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for her, as she’d just read it in French and wanted to read it in English. I’m very glad I found a lovely copy for the lady, who, as embodied in Megan’s writing, does speak wholly in exclamations, with a brilliant smile, about everything.
Meeting her was like being hit by a small sparkler; the little kind one waves around for a birthday or New Year celebration. She, and everything in her flat, are tiny, and there is a wonderful determination about her. The flat itself was serene, but when we arrived, after a warm welcome, the nun proceeded to fly into an excited, frantic sort of upset because she wasn’t able to get a live feed on her laptop for the French Presidential debates. We tried to help, but weren’t sure if we were making the situation worse, and she ended up on the phone with a friend who finally concluded that she couldn’t watch it live and would have to wait until afterwards. Megan and I had brought a dinner of cheeses, breads, and fruits, which we ate, and Schwester Christine had a few bites, but eventually she kindly shooed us out into the warm night, insisting that we must want to go to a cafe and catch up.
We went to Cafe Museum in the town centre, one of M’s favourite haunts. The waiter recognised her and they had a chat, and I admired her proficiency in German. I found, to my surprise, that I understood much of it. In fact, once or twice during the trip, I understood the person to the point that I afterwards said, ‘why were they speaking English?’ and Megan said, ‘They weren’t.’ There are a lot of similarities to the language.
At the cafe, we enjoyed lemon-and-mint white wine spritzers, which were the most refreshing, delicious thing I could have wanted in the balmy warmth of the evening, and in my dehydrated, post-flight state. We sat outside and talked and talked.
Yesterday, I received an invitation to visit Buckingham Palace.
I replied straight away. Wouldn’t you? So, next Wednesday, I’ll be going for an ‘exclusive blogger’s breakfast’ at the Queen’s Gallery for a tour of Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist. Excited? Yes. (By the way, I don’t think the Queen will be there. But it makes a good title.)
I feel a great affinity for da Vinci’s notebooks, having seen an exhibition of them somewhere (it was probably DC or Boston) when I was about sixteen. I was captivated by the figure drawings, the mirrored handwriting, and the alchemical feel of such old brilliance (remember, I was sixteen). I haven’t thought of those sheaves of paper for a long time, but it came back to me with an overwhelming punch with the arrival of this invitation. I think da Vinci was the start of my love affair with the history of medicine; with the history of science, anatomy, and invention (I remember his drawings of flying machines especially).
The timing couldn’t be better: today, I fly to Vienna, and tomorrow I plan to visit the Josephinum, where a full collection of wax anatomical models instructed by Felice Fontana, made by Clemente Susini and the wax-workshop at La Specola, Florence, are housed. It will be fascinating to compare and contrast the Viennese waxes to the Florentine waxes.
On the facing page of my AA guidebook, the ‘Narrenturm,’ a former insane asylum, is described, and I must see that, too: ‘You may find it bizarre or gruesome, but you won’t forget a visit to this 18th entry, circular Fool’s Tower, now home to a museum. Be prepared for its ghoulish medical chamber of horrors.’ Now, I rather hate that quote, as it is sensationalist and misplaces (as so many sites do) the medical history’s context – Entschuld, but these ‘horrors’ were meant to save people’s lives; were the forefront of medical trailblazing. Fair enough that it was often said that the cure was worse than the disease (for example, in the case of removing all of the breast tissue pre-anesthesia if a woman had breast cancer – see Fanny Burney) – but I think for the most part, the intention was to heal. (Of course in the part of the insane or marginalised, the intention was probably more to experiment and learn from rather than heal…I need to come back to this or I’ll just keep saying ‘however’.)
Atlas Obscura describes the Narrenturm as full of: ‘Syphilitic skulls that resemble Swiss cheese, jars of disfigured fetuses, and graphic wax displays of untreated STDs all peer out at you from the old cells. It also contains a recreated wonder cabinet, complete with a narwhal tusk and taxidermied monkeys.’
I admit that I too fall fictional prey to the ‘evil doctor / mad genius’ trope, which I use in my poetry play Venus Heart. However, if real medical history wasn’t presented as so gruesome, maybe people wouldn’t think it was so gruesome (she writes skeptically). Then again, it might not appeal so hugely to the Goth/Steampunk market. Well, I’ll just have to go to the Narrenturm and see how it’s all presented.
And then when I’m back from Vienna, I’m off to Buckingham Palace. Did I mention that?
I feel the title would naturally run: ‘Muse meets Nymph: All Hell Breaks Loose’.
However, happily it is ‘Friendship Struck,’ or at least, to begin, ‘freelance assistantship’ on my part. On Saturday, I meet Meike, who runs Peirene Press. Her name is pronounced ‘Mike-uh’, or Mica (like the crystal – you know, mica and quartz,) and Peirene is pronounced ‘Pie-ree-knee’.
My friend, talented illustrator Joanna Walsh, aka Badaude, told me about Peirene Press a few months ago when she designed a poster for one of their literary salons. I’d signed up to the mailing list but hadn’t had time to get to any of their events, nor, for shame, to read any of their books.
Just as I thought all my plans for the summer were collapsing, I noticed a mention on Peirene’s latest newsletter that Meike was looking for a few people to help sell Peirene books at their Roaming Bookstore (more on which anon).
I emailed Meike explaining my interest, and after the busy London Book Fair calmed down, she asked me to phone her. I expressed my interest and enthusiasm not only for small presses in general (I told her about my excellent experience with Flambard,) but also for what I see as a very female-driven press: Peirene is a Greek water nymph, and Meike has developed a ‘voice’ for Peirene which plays a wonderful role in her blog, ‘Things Syntactical’.
Meike invited me to meet her and see what the Roaming Store was all about on Saturday.
So, this Saturday, despite rain and various closed travel routes, I fought my way up to the Broadway at Crouch End (about as far into North London as I live in South London) and met Meike and the Peirene Bookstall. Some things I admire about the Peirene approach is an out-of-the-box way of reaching new readers; creative ways of stimulating their audience, and sometimes unconventional ways of selling their books, such as the Bookstall: it is unconventional in that it is at a ‘regular’ market, not a literary fair or even particularly craft-orientated market.
Peirene books are beautiful novellas translated from award-winning European fiction. They are all under 200 pages long, meant to be ‘consumed in the length of time it would take to watch a film’. Not only are the books themselves beautifully designed and published slices of literature, the whole concept behind them is appealing and unique.
Meike herself stands at the bookstall on freezing, wet days, to chat with people about the Press. For the three hours I was with her, she sold a handful of books, and also got a new subscriber – low-to-medium in terms of how busy they can be, according to her, however, it presented a good opportunity for me to listen to how Meike talks about the books.
Peirene publishes three books per year in a carefully curated, themed series. I love how Meike finds relationships among novels whose authors speak different languages and are from different countries. One huge boon to selling for Peirene is of course getting a copy of all of their books, because I must be familiar with them and be able to speak about them. I read the first book on Sunday, ‘Beside the Sea,’ which was just put on as a one-woman show at the SouthBank Centre. It took me a few pages to get into the modern, distinctly ‘uneducated/troubled’ voice of the narrator (my head has too exclusively been in 18th and 19th-century literature and poetry,) but once I did, the story pulled me along in its riptide. I’m bringing the next two Peirene books with me to Vienna.
Right now, Meike and I are sorting out some dates for me to sell books for Peirene. She liked my suggestion of selling them at Greenwich Market, so I’m looking into which days of the week would be best for that possibility. I also realised that I wouldn’t have contacted Meike if I had not thought that my modelling month in Bruges was cancelled. When I thought it was cancelled, I began to set up plans with Peirene. Then I heard from the Atelier and learned Bruges was confirmed. I explained it all to Meike and she was very kind and flexible about my needing to be away for all of June. ‘Peirene’s reputation is important,’ she said, ‘I’d rather have the right people to represent the press, and work out dates.’ A woman after my own heart!
I’m already thrilled to be getting to know Peirene Press. Stay tuned…