The lightness of being is truly unbearable

On 31 of January a man was nearly run over in a car park. He could not speak English, but lucky for him, a senior manager of a certain Black Country town cared enough to make sure he was ok. The manager fetched me quickly – the Russian speaking member of his team  -and pleaded anxiously- “tell him I am sorry and ask him if he needs anything”

From that moment onwards, Vladimir’s and my lives intertwined. He spoke to me about his political activity in Russia, how he used to be a good friend with late Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian anti-establishment journalist whose murder remains unsolved to this day. He spoke to me of the 1990s, the years full of hope, when he set up an independent newspaper in St. Petersburg, of his acquaintance with Vaclav Havel and Milos Zeman and many other dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe.

He drunk black tea and ate some toasts (he had to stay off cakes being recently diagnosed with diabetes). I helped him to polish his asylum case – which he found so difficult to put together as his English was very weak. I heard all about his substandard accommodation provided by G4S and of his unpleasant flatmates and of the humble £37 he gets very week to support himself of which he attempts to make some ‘savings’.

He told me of his time in exile in Germany, halted by Angela Merkel’s deal with Putin which meant repatriation of all political asylum-seekers back to Russia only recently. And of his difficult return to his homeland which brought nothing else but suspicion and stigma, followed by systematic persecution and bullying by local authorities, Police and courts, denying him pension and citizenship rights. I wondered, what it must take for someone to immigrate again, so late in life – in their 70s. How desperate one has to feel to fight for dignity and freedom after having failed so many times before.

It was another cold snap in Black Country, the Northerly wind was blowing, as they say on the news, with the dandruff type of snow falling all Friday. Vladimir spent the whole morning in a library and then came to see me. He asked if I could call his solicitor . It’s not my job – I could say, but he insisted. He had another appointment at Immigration Office, Leeds and wanted to make sure his paperwork was in order. He wanted his solicitor to accompany him.

I looked at him and he was not his usual self, I could tell, although I only knew him for a while. “You look a bit different”, I said, “your eyes are yellow and so is your face”. He complained of his stomach pain and lack of sleep, profuse sweating and many other ailments. But after a while, we brushed all this under the carpet, being concerned only with his case…we threw ourselves in further paperwork, considering his options.

Until about 4 o’clock when his state has deteriorated and I suggested to take him into an A&E. He resisted it and now I know it was because deep down he must have known. We reported at the reception and luckily the waiting room was relatively empty. The receptionist agreed with me that he was  “very jaundiced” and they took us in shortly. There were some women outside laughing – maybe because their suspected diagnoses turned out not to be so detrimental or they simply felt good about the Friday afternoon. We will never know….

The truth is…I had to leave Vladimir there on that Friday evening, barely managing to explain to the medics that he was suffering from a long list of digestive complaints, constipation including. After all, I had to go to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see the highly acclaimed 7 Acts of Mercy, never mind I could barely perform only one of them…???

As my weekend progressed and I visited the Swan Theatre in Stratford, my first visit to a theatre in 10 years – my mind was wandering to Vladimir and that little corner in Manor Hospital where they took his bloods ( missing his vein entirely and making a proper mess of it).

Later on in the weekend, after the Sunday roast was cleaned up, the ironing was done and we even managed to talk to our relatives on Skype I had a phone call: “It’s pancreatic cancer”, Vladimir said with repeated hiccups. They said there was nothing they could do. I am kaput”, he concluded. “Could you just bring me the slippers and a laptop from my flat so I can at least watch some Russian movies”.

Silence…followed by silence and then some words of encouragement, instructing him to ask as many questions as possible, not to give up, query the diagnosis, consider the chemo or any other experimental treatment, further investigation, invite an Orthodox priest, contact his family and all the other things we hold on to when someone is faced with a terminal diagnosis.

The clock is ticking and I am wondering whether there are any Russian books in the Walsall Central library. If I should bring him some of mine – Dr. Zhivago may be a bit cliche but what about the Tolstoi’s autobiography I have? Would that be too boring? Or the Quite flows the Don – he may be fed up with all these classics. What movies does he want to see before he dies? Is there anything we can do for him not to die?

There’s some time left – one wonders what to make of it, how to wrap up an unfinished story that seeks justification. How to make sense of this ‘stranger, ‘a wondering soul’ that I have known for so short yet have known so deeply.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A veiled woman

My veil with silver threads is lighting up my way

Not a migrant

If I was a veiled woman

I’d wrap a purple scarf around me with silver threads.

I’d feel cosy like a child carried around in a blanket.
My weaves lighting up the road before me
like a treacle of chandeliers on a Halloween night.
I would not worry about my hair or make-up.
I’d take my kitchen and attic with me everywhere
and whisper to them as trusted friends, my close relatives…

…about fresh kohlrabi dipped in salt,
about gooseberries, Bulgarian grapes,
about the dark-eyed boy from the fairground
and all the things I knew twenty-five years ago.

If I was a veiled woman I would sing into my ear
about the sky, the warm skin, kind people
and the dome of air that carries me to you –
from Chuckery all the way to Carpathians.

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A veiled woman

If I was a veiled woman

I’d wrap a purple scarf around me with silver threads.

I’d feel cosy like a child carried around in a blanket.
My weaves lighting up the road before me
like a treacle of chandeliers on a Halloween night.
I would not worry about my hair or make-up.
I’d take my kitchen and attic with me everywhere
and whisper to them as trusted friends, my close relatives…

…about fresh kohlrabi dipped in salt,
about gooseberries, Bulgarian grapes,
about the dark-eyed boy from the fairground
and all the things I knew twenty-five years ago.

If I was a veiled woman I would sing into my ear
about the sky, the warm skin, kind people
and the dome of air that carries me to you –
from Chuckery all the way to Carpathians.

The White, the non-White and the voiceless on Brexit

When you have just finished work, picked up your kids and gave instructions for homework, travelling to Digbeth on the tail of M38 traffic does not seem attractive. It was January 26th, the coldest day of the year so far, and ghost factories of inner city Birmingham felt unwelcoming until I reached the Impact Hub with its bright and optimistic spaces.

I must admit, it has been a while since I have attended an academic debate, there’s not been many in the last 10 years raising two children. Understanding Brexit – Inequality, Inclusion and Social Justice was worth it, I thought, after all, Brexit is what keeps me awake at night, worries my friends and clients and I am not even going to mention the Trump-effect. It’s the end of the world as we know it – at least since 1989.

I came a bit late and decided to camp on the carpet by the door as the room was completely packed. The Panel were already discussing the reasons why majority of people voted for Brexit whilst we (the audience that is) all know that Brexit could never possibly solve them. They discussed the migration statistics and various half-truths and lies told by the Brexiters. They went into a lot of depth explaining structural inequalities entrenched in racism since colonisation. They also talked about the rise of fascism, nationalism, xenophobia and white supremacy across the world. We were told by Kehinde Andrews that Britain has always pursued the ‘whiter the better’ model of citizenship.

I am looking around the room – and I wonder, whether I am the only one who thought the debate should also touch on social injustice and exclusion faced by newly settled migrants from very diverse communities – white and non-white who are all EU citizens (some old and some new) and who are having to reconsider their life chances in this country. Many of these people did not have an easy ride – coming from both rural and urban communities devastated by the fall of Soviet Block, austerity or possibly war refugees from around the world who happen to have Italian, French of Dutch citizenship. Worse still, if you are a Roma hated by your neighbourhood with that sneaky feeling you thought you’d never have – that actually, you had it better during the communist era….at least the hate attacks were not as widespread and there was regular work.

These people took a gamble, learnt languages, uprooted their families, kissed good-bye their relatives (whilst still supporting them financially)- and obediently paid taxes for decades in this country, some say, to prop up the generous British welfare system. And it still was hard – their kids were queueing up for school places (waiting for months and years),  their genuine intentions (to work and contribute) were constantly questioned, their housing infested, their workers’ rights undermined but that they still kept their loyalties. Of course, it could be worse – they could have been ‘enslaved’…or ‘sexually exploited’ like some of their less fortunate friends. So they persevered.

It troubles me is these people have little voice in debates such is the one hosted by the Impact Hub. They do not know or relate well to the current debates of inequality, discrimination or racism. The old concept of working classes and proletariat versus ‘evil imperialists’ pushed so aggressively during the era of Eastern and Central European socialism is obsolete and unhelpful. The left across Europe is generally going though difficult times, searching new identities and answers.

Yet, we are becoming more and more unequal societies, where migrant workers are on the bottom of food chains and I am afraid that racism discourse – mainly focusing on visible ethnic minorities, does not offer any practical answers. After all, many migrants are voiceless, their contribution invisible and they are resented by all different colours of the spectrum – for taking jobs, marrying for passports and money, for drinking in the street, or sleeping in the park…or just speaking their mother tongue.

So – where does this leave us? I believe that anti-racism movement shouldn’t shy away from exploring different perceptions of racism experienced by people who are officially described as Other White but their culture is portrayed as base, alien, mistrustful, cheating, hugely anti-social and generally inferior regularly by Daily Mail and other media.

The word xenophobia does not always cut it. If one understands European history (East versus West) and even – Euro-Asian history – one finds many shades of racism dividing the continent to Aryans and non-Aryans, Ottomans and Europeans, Slavs versus Germans, Roma versus non-Roma, Jews and non-Jews , commies versus capitalists and Hungarians versus everybody else in Central Europe.

One only needs to look at development of 20th century fascism to realise that many European administrative procedures were racial-ised at one time or other. If one goes further into history and etymology, soon discovers that the word ‘slave’ was inspired by the ethnic label for Slavs who used to be hunted and sold into slavery via Ottoman Empire and Muslim Spain. And yes, I do need to address one wicked problem – as many people assume  -that European migrants are themselves racist and therefore have very little understanding 0f ‘the struggle’.

Since I came to UK, I wanted to join several black and minority ethnic networks and my ‘whiteness’ was somehow in the way – ‘this is about visible differences that lead to discrimination‘ I was told. And not long after, the employee network changed its name into  a Black Workers’ Group – which made the point absolutely clear.

But I accept – these are valid arguments and we mustn’t ignore the accumulated disadvantage and colonial legacies. And I can’t deny that Eastern Europe has its own horrific issues with racism. But that does not justify the stereotyping, hatred, mistreatment and direct discrimination, perceived as racism, by the victims who happen to be Polish, Moldovan, Italian-Pakistani, Russian, Slovakian or Roma.

We all carry prejudices based on information our brain has been fed (particularly in our early development). It’s a fact now observable through neuroscience experiments. We can be Asian and affluent and have a particularly negative view of Eastern Europeans (the label, by the way, that chucks half the continents’ diverse population into one basket). Or we can be poor and White and have dual heritage kids as our best friends.

So, I disagree that the European project is simply built around the idea of White ‘fortress Europe’ that purposely excludes non-White populations and this is why ethnic minorities voted for Brexit. European countries, like the rest of the world, are experiencing squeeze on resources, squeeze on middle class. Social mobility of our children is threatened. This represents struggle for resources at every level, be it access to education, a decent library, a GP surgery or relatively safe neighbourhood.

Coming out of poverty is extremely hard for those who aren’t able to pull on these resources and public resources are becoming very scarce. The fear is felt mainly by those who think they have a mandate to talk about Britain’s future – White or non-White as opposed to the newcomers who clearly do not have it. Not only do they not have a vote but they also, by their own admission, do not claim any space for any voice because they have tried, for all these years, to keep their head down and be ‘invisible’.

With so many different  languages, cultures, political heritages, previous conflicts and wars, Europe has no chance to survive without close cooperation. Europe needs to allow its citizens to move freely to test their stamina, to thrive, to help out poorer regions, to become multilingual, to compete, to try survive. And yes, Europe should reform and become more democratic and reassess many things that have gone wrong.

And every continent should have their own European Union that tries to find the best way to live with their neighbours. Let’s have a multipolar world, where different transnational structures negotiate between themselves to find the best deals for their citizens.

It is a shame that Britain has never fully embraced this concept and is now ‘feeling in the dark’ for some kind of a narrative – of greatness and strength that can hardly ever come from  isolating itself from your nearest neighbours.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/21/eu-migrant-uk-referendum-politicians-press

http://balkanist.net/an-open-letter-to-the-editors-of-the-monkey-cage-blog-of-the-washington-post-online-edition/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2301743/How-invasion-immigrants-corner-England-mockery-PMs-promise-close-door.html#ixzz49WXxDQei

http://discoversociety.org/2016/06/01/racism-in-post-communist-central-europe/

http://wp.me/p7z1pV-4

How I fell in love with Mr Klapka

Some words and names have a way of reappearing in one’s life. They are sort of there, on a bookshelf of your childhood living-room in one country only to reappear, twenty years later, on a poster at your workplace in another. For me – the ‘phrase’ Jerome Klapka Jerome are exactly such words – providing their quiet presence as a backdrop to my daily grind.

The picture of the blue plaque on Jerome K Jerome birthplace – the townhouse at Walsall’s Bradford’s Street – has been hanging on the wall of Walsall Council’s link bridge for a good few years. The link bridge joins the old Council building with the more modern Civic Centre. It’s also the place where senior managers and elected members cross pathways and officers rush to meetings. And so it is no surprise that though I have often glanced at the blue framed image that read JK Jerome it has taken me a while to realise that,  yes, K stands for Klapka and yes, he was born in Walsall.

Why should that be of any interest to me?  In the year of 1986, my mother received a bulky manilla envelope. She was a member of the Society for Friends of Beautiful Books – a popular Czechoslovak book publisher specialising in classics and received another two books fresh of the press – the Klapka’s Three Men in a Boat and the Nun by Diderot.

jerome-czech-version

There was a reason why classics were in high demand in then socialist Czechoslovakia. It was one way (or maybe the only way) to get to read the Western authors that weren’t picked primarily for their critique of ‘the decaying Western imperialist world’. And whilst I might be inclined to read such a critique today, I understand why my mother loved the Western classics when the only travelling allowed was Eastwards. This way, she could travel anyway, anytime and with very little money.

As our newly fitted top to bottom bookshelves were soon filling up with all kinds of books sent to us by the Society and every time they arrived, my mum to would start reading one, then the second one, in addition to the already other 3 she had on the go by her bed. She would say:, “you should read the Klapka one day, he is really funny” and she reenacted the chapter about the poor uncle Podger who was trying hang a picture frame – a comical process worthy of about 5 pages.

But I never did read Klapka, I preferred a bit more intriguing Nun by Diderot or anything else with female characters really. I thought the book cover was really boring (why should anyone care about three middle age men in a boat that flows on a narrow canal?). As the book title was then neatly put on the shelf, I could see its author’s name looking at me, every time I was watching TV, or even brought my friends upstairs, declaring: “I am here, . Klapka Jerome!” and every time I thought what annoying combination of words – where on earth did he get the Klapka from?

Well, it was meant to be, that twenty odd years later, I regularly pass by JK Jerome’s house  in Bradford Street where street workers, refugees, migrants and old Caldmore residents mix. I understand that the author lived here only very briefly after his birth, though he became Walsall’s honorary citizen later in life. His birthplace, turned into Museum, is not open to public at the moment, although one can see the memorabilia, including a medical cap he used as an ambulance driver in WWI, by prior arrangement.

Speaking to the curator I am surprised (or maybe not) that in recent years, there were more visitors interested in viewing from Slovakia, Czech Republic, Japan and Russia than from the native UK. Russia, of course, made their own film adaption of the Three Men in a Boat with a famous actor Andrei Mironov.

I walk into Walsall Central Library and very reluctantly pick up a copy of the paperback that I had to rescue from a shadowy bottom shelf. And later on, at home, I am completely taken in by effortless writing of a skilled observer, who sets out to write a travelogue but ends up writing a comedy stroke memories of childhood stroke commentary on a society with all its anxieties, flaws and false pretences that are as relevant today as they were hundred and fifty years ago. I find myself re-reading the uncle Podger picture framing plight to my husband and my children, I am imagining carrying large quantities of smelly cheese on a Victorian train and I am telling everyone at work to read JK Jerome – who I will forever call just Klapka – especially since I discovered that he stole this name from the famous Hungarian general to replace his less attractive original Clapp.

Final note: ‘klapka’ means ‘fastening’, ‘valve’ or ‘covering’ in Slovak.

 

 

 

Words like tiny bombs

12 years, 4 months and 7 days

That could be a fifth of our lifetime
No one willingly put their life on pause

It is not all my fault
You used to shower me with words
Like tiny bombs that never came off
their noses buried in the barren ground

You told me many complex stories
Grand symbols, brilliant films
But somehow their premature endings spoilt the kills

You wanted much effect
But I wasn’t affected at all
My needs were a lot simpler
Life’s undercurrent took over

Today, all I do is occasionally Facebook
Watch snippets of your successful life
Like shadowing of an old friend
The closest I get to be an unfaithful wife

I hear shuffling of your feet
Thousand and eight hundred kilometres apart
Hear your water taps, a person yawning
Your windows opening
A bite of lemon tart

When you speak to others there is no sound
Your wife, your child are muted
Muted out of my life speaking to your face
I am inverted into a different time zone
A black hole through which I intercept your days.

One Saturday afternoon
I heard a scrap metal car
With an old bed that rattled
And a lamp like a star.

A driver man with his son –
they looked very fair
They said I should just jump in
And that I should not stare.

We drove onto a meadow
And stopped by a tree
All this time I was wondering
Where on earth can I be?

A woman stuck her head out
I had no idea from where
She said I should choose something
Maybe a pot or a chair.

The truck was full of rubbish
But some of it was good
I looked at it and touched it
In the end of chose a book.

The woman wasn’t foolish
She said it might just rain
Then handed me a parasol
And a scarf to warm my hair.

You can arrange it this way…
She uttered and disappeared
But I never cared for a moment
I was glad the meadow was cleared.

I read and read and fallen
Deep into a sleep
I have dreamt of so many people
They grew on me like weed.

And now I wasn’t on a meadow
But a big parking lot
and people held bags and bags of stuff
And then my scarf felt hot.

I opened up my eyes
And suddenly sat on a bus
The doors were locked and the bus moved
And everyone made a fuss.

Of course – there was no driver!
And me still reading a book…
I turned my head and suddenly
The idea has just shook.

I closed the book ever so quickly
And began to remember my name
My husband and our two children
I wished they stayed the same!

I rushed through the meadow slowly
But I could not move my feet
Until my duvet fell onto the floor
And I found myself in the sheet.

And then I woke up thinking
None of those things were true
No trees, no parasols, no meadows
Only me – the same but somewhat blue.

©Irena Revina

Photo Byrev on Pixabay

Quince inspiration between two Christmases

It is not October (I know) and I should not be writing about the humble, mis-shaped, freckled, warted and forgotten fruit of quince. I should be summing up the Christmas, show pictures of ethnic food and share quirky details of immigrants celebrating the birth of Jesus far away  from home.

But today was the day I had finally cleared my fridge of leftovers and mustered enough courage to start cooking simple food again before we start another feast, and I am not joking, because half of our family is Christian Orthodox and their (our?) Christmas Eve starts tomorrow evening.

Anyway, back to the quinces…This past autumn trip to Romania has brought it all back – my father talking to me about the quince trees that used to grow in every vineyard. He run around those trees with his brothers, take shade under them and enjoy the sweets he had saved in his pocket whilst waiting for his parents tending the grape vines. Not ready to eat when picked directly from the trees they enriched the October landscape with their distinct yellow shapes. Their scent gave off as they caught the autumn sun and, of course, they were the last fruit of the season – picked when birds feasted on the cold berries that did not make it into the wine.

quince

Bucharest maybe call itself a metropolis but its suburbs are intertwined with rural dwellings sitting comfortably next to modern homes. On our way to metro station, quince trees were everywhere and I regretted not having my camera to capture this odd flashback where urban and rural lifestyles feel so close.

Of course I have since discovered that Romania is one of the few countries that still massively uses the quince in both sweet and savoury cooking and that many artists around the world, including filmmakers have long been fascinated by this seemingly ‘mundane’ and not very ‘perfect’ looking fruit. Some people still use it to refresh their shelves and windows to wane off smells and insects. And many like it for its jelly making properties, used in conserves and chutneys.

wp-1483658051742.jpg

And so on this perfectly bright but chilly day between the two Christmases I too made a good use of the quince conserve brought from Romania spooned over oat and apple pancakes born out of desire to eat a desert that sounds a bit more healthy before the feasting starts again!

 

 

No one likes St Nicholas more than Eastern Europeans living abroad!

On 5 December in 1984, late at night, I was polishing my snow boots, placing them on the widow sill, considering whether I should draw the curtain or not, in case St Nicholas should peep into our living room. The air outside was crisp though it was not snowing yet. “Any time soon”, I hoped.

My sister’s boots were tiny compared to mine, she was 7 years my junior and that made me smirk because I knew that Mikuláš (as we called him in Slovak) could potentially fit more. More clementines, monkey nuts, chocolate coins or even an odd banana (if the good old trade infrastructure allowed for such exotic pleasures!)

There were other perks of the Mikuláš season too. My parents’ employers organised annual discos for children. But we were not allowed to dance until Mikuláš, accompanied by the Angel and Devil, gave out identical presents of sweets and fruit to all the children waiting in a long queue. Don’t ask me why the Devil was needed, I have never really thought about it. I remember angels always looking stunning, with their fur trimmed white dresses  getting shorter and shorter every year. Parents loved 6 December too, it was a great excuse to get tipsy after work (or even during) and launch thus slowly but surely the Christmas season.

mikulas-3

The truth is, this gift-giving tradition rooted in early Christianity and inspired by a philanthropist born in South Turkey, was a strange mixture of religious and secular symbolism even during the ‘atheistic’ socialism. The Mikuláš I remember from the childhood was a serious guy with a tall hat reminiscent of Christian Orthodox Priest. Sometimes he was drawn on a cart or troika sledge through the snow. Nowadays, these guys look more like under-nourished Santas.

mikulas-2

If anyone asks my children about their Slovak heritage, they often bring up St Nicholas as the special day whey they get their boots filled with little presents  – long before Santa has even considered to dust off his boots and started planning his round around West Midlands. Let’s be honest, it does sound a bit more appealing to the British audience than a traditional Christmas soup of pork and sauerkraut or endless permutations of savoury dumplings. Many Central or Eastern European communities living in UK share similar nostalgia and continue to organise popular St Nicholas events for parents and children. Only the beautiful tall hats are somehow missing and the Angels could do with a bit more white fur…

15242009_1452195248139109_1246044565213416374_n

http://www.ncregister.com/blog/joseph-pronechen/19-little-remembered-or-forgotten-things-about-st.-nicholas

Happy St Nicholas Day 2016! What is the history of Saint Nick and Santa Claus?