SA 2018: Winery Road

Whilst some of you wake up early to defrost your cars, we sit amongst the vineyards eating French toasts smothered in maple syrup. It is only 8.30am but the sun is already high, making our bare arms and legs look beautiful despite the lack of tan. Glancing across the table, the Helderberg Mountain seems even closer now that we’ve seen it in daylight. Grape wines hang over our heads and we couldn’t care less that Aussie flu is quietly sneaking into UK. Not today, not for the next three weeks. We are spending the North-European winter in South Africa, starting at 96 Winery Road.

Our first time outside of Europe (ever, ever in our 40 something years, with a bunch of good friends and kids that are up for adventure) – I can’t help boasting.

The Country Guest House may have a boring name but is nothing but for those who like to see the making of South African wine up close. Ken Forrester vineyards surround not only the 15 tourist accommodation cottages but sprawl far up the Raithby road. Small taster bottles of  the white, red and pink ‘petit’ are in every room, not to mention the cellars of the 96 Winery Road Restaurant that stock the full range of Ken Forrester varieties.

All that remains now is to start exploring the history of this rather posh part of Western Cape between Stellenbosch and West Somerset.  Originally inhabited by Khoikhoi people,  I struggle to find original place name for this geographical area on the internet.

Embarrassingly, I find that the term Helderberg Mountain is relatively modern, replacing the older Hottentots-Holland Mountain.  The term ‘you are speaking like a hottentot’ rings a bell with a derogatory phrase people used in Czechoslovakia during my childhood, describing  someone who couldn’t express themselves very well. Little did I know that this was a term coined by the European settlers who found it difficult to follow the click sounds of the Khoisan language and therefore referred to them as ‘stutterers’ (hottentot in Dutch/German). That just about sums up the attitude of the era everyone would rather forget.

But Ken Forrester pledges to be a modern, post-apartheid kind of winery business that treats the land and its people with respect. Everyone who looks after us, be it in around the cottage, breakfast cafe or restaurant seems happy enough, but you’d make a mistake to think they grew up in South Africa. Zimbabwe and Malawi are the two most frequently quoted places of origin for staff who are clearly overqualified for their jobs.


Apart from wine groves there are lemons, limes and a tree nursery of some kind. A couple of understated lakes, one of which is  good enough to fish in.

Tall African pines dominate the landscape in the distance and our 9 year old son wants to go fishing again. In the absence of any advanced equipment, Margaret, the Malawi cleaner advises on possible bait of corn from an unfinished pizza. She tells us her Dad and her little daughter, both of whom she hadn’t seen for a good couple of years, love fishing. But it’s ok, she assures me, though there are no jobs, there are luckily no wars in Malawi.

We chat, hang our wet swim suits on the wooden fence, then walk in the direction of the Helderberg Mountain to sit by the lake, attempt fishing (& catch nothing) into the evening (8pm-ish! December) sunset.

To be continued…





Golden ribbons

It’s five in the afternoon
and my office is a little lantern.
I am stepping out of it
onto the dark deck that is the street
my heels are pressing into the rotting leaves
with no earthworms underneath,
just concrete slabs
sealing off whatever secrets lay beneath.

Paving my way are two large ribbons
in plastic bags they are creased
one silver and golden one
on top of each other they
shimmer through the ethylene
past the Co-op Funeral Care
past the Christmas tree that is purple and shining
stealing the street from the lingering souls.

On the doorstep
of that Co-op Funeral Care
that I pass every morning, every dusk
behind that door, every relative has a wooden chair
but tonight I don’t care
It’s Christmas Eve.

I am hanging my thoughts on festive ribbons
One for my door
Another one above the kitchen window
And one that l wrap around my body
ready for take off
into the ether.

In the sky my ribbons will be multiplying
changing shapes like starlings
trying hard to impress
if it wasn’t for the heavy fog
that makes merry with smoke and cars,
past the lime trees’ trunks burried in concrete
I swear to lighting up the sky.

Feathers more colourful than 23 November

After the second spell of frost
the Earth warms up again and
concrete is covered in rotting leaves.

Fog bounces off the ground like a smoke
holding onto nothingness above
that is a playground for birds.

Where street bulbs are fitted seagulls sit,
all looking North-East
whilst car windows are steaming up
with people overdressed
in coats and scarfs,
searching through bags for lipsticks and purses.

On Butts Road pigeons have gathered
on a patch of green as they always do,
their feathers more colourful than 23rd November.

I step with my heels over the same kerb,
past the overflowing bin and high rise buildings
with men and their backs against tinted windows.

The United Reformed Church takes up a lot of space
like an unwanted box that does not fold.
Right next to it, Gala baths flash the polished seats
but no children are swimming yet
under the morning drizzle.

Finally, a used sleeping bag is discarded by the bin,
its waterproof black side shimmers
but inside is wet and wet…
A white pillow now stained with fresh mud
is not sure if it has rested any head.

What happened on nights of Sabbath.

Some might say that Sabbath started on Thursdays. This is when women took ritual baths. Those who have just given birth went in first, others have hurried across the path towards the mikveh in the evening.  Water carriers were busy fetching buckets from the nearby creek because it is written in the Jewish Orthodoxy that water has to come from a clean nature’s spring, The hills surrounding the town called Yeregin (or otherwise known as Szentgyorgy, Sankt Georgen or Svaty Jur) provided just that.


Now that the women are half immersed in the water, their children are playing by the creek chanting Jeshiva prayers. Christian children catching fish further down are spying on them and disappear only after a fierce looking elder starts to make his way up the hill. A butcher is having a good day, even cheaper cuts of meat are shifting quickly, he can’t wipe that smirk off his moustached face. Just before bed, poorer households up the road check their cupboards for dry beans, ready to be soaked overnight.

On Friday, it is time for men to take to ritual cleansing. Cholent pots come out and Hungarian and Slovak kitchen maids are busier than usual. It’s a common knowledge that Jewish families are not allowed to work from the sun down on Friday and well into the Saturday. Not as much as taking out meals from the ovens or lighting the candles. This is when Christian staff comes in handy, without them Sabbath would not happen.


German, Hungarian or Slovak casual staff played essential role in preparing Sabbath meals, setting the tables, tending candles, fires and clearing off, in a way that families were used to. Those who had done it long enough could no doubt speak a bit of Jiddish or even recite Sabbath prayers when their minds were not occupied by menial tasks. And following strict Orthodox Jewish tradition as opposed to the Reform was a hotly debated topic far and wide across the Austro-Hungarian empire .

On one particular Sabbath night, perhaps 190 years ago (or maybe a bit earlier or a bit later), renowned Rabbi Chatam Sofer visited the Yeregin Jewish community and gave a fierce speech against the Jewish Reform (Neologs). He knew that Yeregin’s community, sheltered by Small Carpathians’, would have little to object. He found keen listeners in the little Jewish Temple behind the river where men sat on one side and women on the other.

Chatam Sofer made sure his words reverberate as he planted his most trusted student, Moshe Schick as the town’s Rabbi. Moshe has stayed for over 30 years, building a  strong Jeshiva (Jewish teachings school). Moshe became the most outspoken defender of the Jewish Orthodoxy and have even been approached to form political movement against the Reform. Some say that he raised 80 plus students in the local Jeshiva whom he then managed to relocate with him to Western Ukraine where he found a fertile ground for his ideas in the town Khust.


Reformist Jews were moving towards the idea of more integration with other cultures, introducing more secular education and sciences into teaching and were quite open to ideas of mixed sexes and gender equality in religious worship, choirs and occupations in general. The tension between the two schools of thought continues to this day and some of the Orthodox teachings promoted by Chatam Sofer and Moshe Schick continue to flourish in Jerusalem Pressburg (Bratislava) Jeshiva.

pressburg jeshiva

After the Second World War, not one Jewish family had permanently returned to the area of Yeregin and as I have written in my previous posts, the Temple remains a derelict building which happens to stand right behind my parents’ house. Access to the site is prohibited and very few pictures of the interior are available – as seen below.

I found the Torah curtain (parochet) that used to hang in the Temple on the site of Jewish Museum in Bratislava. The Hebrew inscription reads: “This is a donation by the esteemed Mr. Joel Neumann, may his light shine, together with his wife Madam Rikla, may she live, the esteemed Mr. Jeshayahu Markstein, may his light shine, together with his wife Mrs. Rivka, may she live, for the holy community Yergen in the year 666 of the minor reckoning”.

Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 23.58.56

Parochets are used to cover the ark in remembrance of the curtain which covered the Ark of the Covenant, according to Exodus 40:21: “He brought the Ark inside the Tabernacle. Then he put up the curtain for screening, and screened off the Ark of the Covenant…” [FHJ].

My thoughts are going back to the little creek, the man with two buckets and another one with a long beard, his long black coat floating around his muddy shoes, perhaps it’s misty and cold and the thought of a bath is enticing. There’s a pretty woman busying in the larder across the fence and another searching for a clean table cover. They all speak a mish-mash of languages in which mundane words of everyday life are understandable to all, yet deeper thoughts and beliefs come from vastly different places. Still,, they probably all agree that there is only one God, therefore his worship is sacred to everyone on the night of Sabbath.

A lot of you might rush in to say that this kind of religious cooperation exist today. Look at America and UK, Visit multicultural streets of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall Caldmore or Palfrey. But I am yet to see any examples when people of different cultures allowed each other into sacred intimate spaces, into the core of worship. Everyone talks about dangers of parallel lives. Well, 19th century provides its own examples of mutual respect and cultural inter-change. Shame that this model ended in the most tragic way everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe and there’s now a huge fear of religious diversity should it ever reappear again.



All Souls Night

Not a migrant

On 2nd November the sky flips over,

gives stage to candles, no more stars.

The lights join the pathways,

from breath to breath drawing star constellations  –

Perseus, Virgo, Cassiopeia, Libra and others.

Behind the iron wrought fence

sheltering the graves from the main road

souls are lined up in a solemn oath

practising a march to silent drum.

One of them fell out of line,

another glances down longingly.

I walk from our house along the creek,

my breath tamed by the chill showing me the way.

The cemetery sits just under Ursa Minor,

my uncle’s grave is holding its foot.

I lit the first candle – is he a Saint yet?

Is he a wondering Soul?

or is he an In-Between.

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Rustle me

Not a migrant

Rustle me
through the autumn leaves
not where earthworms moisten
but where air lifts
the lightest, translucent leaves
curled and selfless with
colours of Saharan dust…

Reveal my inner blade

You see all my veins
I am heading towards you
Inside the whirlwind I lose my texture

Scoop me in your arms

I have always felt your pain
just a numb sound is all you make
like an ogre that slurs

Now whistle through me!

View original post

Rustle me

Rustle me
through the autumn leaves
not where earthworms moisten
but where air lifts
the lightest, translucent leaves
curled and selfless with
colours of Saharan dust…

Reveal my inner blade

You see all my veins
I am heading towards you
Inside the whirlwind I lose my texture

Scoop me in your arms

I have always felt your pain
just a numb sound is all you make
like an ogre that slurs

Now whistle through me!

Raisa – Forever in Pussy Bow Blouse

I have always wanted to know what Raisa thought when she was arranging her pussy bows around her neck. We picture men’s moments of meditation when they do their ties, yet at the end of 1980s, women took into blouses with fancy collars, bows and semi-ties, just like Raisa in these images. I have just watched a documentary about her life – one of those that you find on youtube by accident and without paying too much attention to politics, all that’s stuck in my head are her soft, elegant, elaborate blouses.

The woman did not like her neck exposed, or did not think it appropriate…I have an image of her entering a lift and adjusting her bow or even better, seeing another woman in the lift, whose bow has collapsed unaware and Raisa itching to do it up for her…Always interested in fashion and appearance, reframing the image of a Russian working women in media home and abroad.

Yes, there’s other stuff about Raisa you’ll probably read, that she has set up a Cultural Heritage Fund and that she has retrieved and secretly adored Christian Orthodox icons in times when religion was not openly promoted in Soviet Union. Or that she was once filmed shocked that a little girl from one of the Baltic states could not speak very good Russian. There always comes that moment when leaders question their own understanding of the reality – it’s unfortunate when this happens on a national TV.


She was an exemplary student and a First Wife who allegedly studied history and every country she was about to visit alongside her husband also to impress the other First Wives with multitude of nuanced questions. Today, all that remains is the Raisa Gorbachev Fund, occasionally brought to attention by her former husband taking an odd photo opportunity with Mila Jovovich or Eva Herzigova at some or other posh gala dinner.

Still, I love her style, I love her soft timid eyes and have to conclude that she’s retained her grace all the way to her final journey – according to the Russian Orthodox tradition her loving husband gave her a farewell in an open coffin and although these images are freely available on internet, I will not be providing them here out of respect.

Jewellery Quarter Graveyard

Choose the weather on the day you die.

Height of summer,
air heavy and thick
your soul will hardly lift
itself off the bed on
the hospital ward.
The corridor gives off the synthetic smell
your ascent is stalled…
hesitation mid way.

On a grey day, dull and bland
16 degrees in October
women with tight roll necks overdress
making haste through the Jewellery Graveyard
but the soul has nothing to miss.
Up it goes, then sideways, to the tunnel nearby.
The tree opposite your usual spot notices you and
one of his branches gives you a wave,
yet, there’s no breeze.
You look back one more time
then the light sucks you in.

On a winter day between Christmas and New Year
when the Linzer cookies have gone stale
and leftovers are no longer
there’s one and half meter snow at your childhood window.
Somewhere East of Vienna
they think you are already dead but
you linger above the newly plastered ceiling,
hover above the chimney,
check the leafless grape vines.
A little look at the new family, their snotty baby…
Now. I am ready.

Let the scents carry you before the head is tipsy

Cherry, lime, peach, honey, cinnamon, blackberries are only a few from a long list of notes a wine label would mention. To be honest, I’ve never paid much attention. Raised on gallons of Rhine Riesling, some Miller or mixture of the two, then a bit of Wallachian…I could just about tell which which wine had sugar added, which is too diluted and which one is simply crap.

But not after my tour of the Small Carpathian Museum in Pezinok (20 km from Bratislava) that not only gives you an overview of the region’s history, from its terroir to its multiethnic people and their instruments, but takes you down into its bellows where you can roam through the deep cellars and admire very old wine barrels with a good glass of chilled wine.

There – little sniffing pots are lined up, giving you a hint of what scents you could be detecting in your wines. It all depends on process of fermentation and honey bees pollination could be playing its part too, but don’t ask me about science behind it.  All I know is that since I have visited, I have never drunk wine the same way again.

I have had these photos stored since late spring, but as it’s now a season of grape picking, when hot days coexist with spots of sharp rains and very high winds (at least in Western Slovakia). I thought you’d like to have a glimpse into this small tour too.  I highly recommend it.