Anna Belfrage

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time. Welcome to my world!

A Woman and her Wicked Ways

Some years ago, I was in Poland on a business trip. Like most of my trips, it was one of those short in-and-out visists, and it would probably have been filed away as utterly unmemorable if it hadn’t been for an incident at the airport.

Now those of you that travel frequently, know that one airport is pretty much like any opther airport. You check in, line up to make it through security, and while you’re waiting you study the people in front of you to assess if you can keep your shoes on yes or no, if you’ll have to take the computer out of its case, and if they’re picky about jewellery and watches. In some cases, they insist you take it off, in others, they just wave you through.

There were two security lines in the airport that day. I was talking to a nice American guy, who was making me laugh by explaining just how stressful he found this take your shoes off bit – he now went about with a constant hang-up on socks, because who wanted to have their big toe peep through a hole?

Our line was flowing along quite nicely. The other line had ground to a halt, and an excited Italian gentleman was making a lot of noise about this. American guy and I shared a look: making noise doesn’t help. Complaining doesn’t help. Making sarcastic if funny comments doesn’t help. While you’re in a security line, you’re at the mercy of the staff – something they know just as well as you do. To rile people with such temporary power, is to risk missing your flight.

At the front of the halted security line was a woman. I’d guess her to be somewhere between fifty and sixty, expensive matching computer bag and handbag on the conveyor belt. She didn’t want to take of her high-heeled black shoes, her body language making it quite clear that to set her stockinged feet on the potentially filthy floor was more than repulsive to her.

Well, some fights you can’t win, so after some arm waving and a heated exchange in something I’m guessing to be Polish, she took off her shoes, displaying their bright red undersoles to the world as she placed them in a little tray.

She swept through the barrier. It beeped. She was sent back, the man manning the barrier indicating she should take of her necklaces. The woman’s voice became shrill. Her body language spoke of an urge to ram something down the security officer’s throat. The man in question was young, dressed in an impeccable uniform. He spoke in a low voice. She stabbed at him with her finger. He shrugged. With a “hmph!” that carried through the entire airport, she took off necklaces and bracelet, her watch and her belt.

In only a black dress, a short little black jacket, the lady attempted the barrier again. It beeped. By now, activity in our line too had come to a halt. Attendants and passengers were all watching the drama in the other line.
The American guy snickered. “Think she has a bomb under that?” he gestured at her tightfitting dress. I had no idea. But I felt sorry for her, especially when the attendant now suggested she take of her coat, gesturing at the zippered pockets.
Our heroine complied. In only dress and stockings, she strode forward. Beeeeeeep! One didn’t need to understand Polish to follow the ensuing conversation:
“You’ve got to be kidding me! There’s something wrong with your machine, not me.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’ll have to do a manual inspection.”
“What, you? No way! I insist on a female attendant.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, we don’t have any on call at present.”
“Well then find one!” The lady returned to the other side of the barrier. Hands flew, arms were shaken. The attendant made an apologetic gesture. The woman said something very rude, to judge from the way various men snickered and looked at each other. And just like that, she bent over, took hold of the hem of her dress and pulled it over her head, throwing it to land on the conveyor belt.

In a lacy bra, as lacy knickers, a garter belt and stockings, she looked …umm… striking.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” American guy said, staring at the apparition who was glowering at the horrified attendant. As a last gesture, she pulled the pins out of her hair, and it fell in soft waves down to her shoulders. Bottle blond, I can tell you, but all the same.
One of the older attendants yelled at her. The lady sniffed, raised her head, and pranced through the barrier. It still beeped. But this time, the young attendant snatched her dress off the conveyor belt, pressed it into her arms and more or less shoved her towards the other side and the waiting departure gates. The lady grinned and did the V-sign. A round of spontaneous applause followed.

So, did the lady have a bomb secreted in her bra or knickers? I have no idea. But I do go out of my way to wear nice underwear and dresses when I’m travelling. After all, one never knows when an impromptu little striptease might come in handy!

Bottoms up!

IMG_0548Us Swedes like our herring. And with herring, we serve chilled akvavit, served in small glasses. When we eat herring and drink to the herring, we often sing, strange songs about pike fish with legs (but that one we can blame on the Finns, it’s their song) or about hopping frogs, or about girls that ride pigs (naughty, won’t go there). As the consumption of akvavit increases, the will to sing decreases. Maybe not the will, maybe it’s more about the capacity to sing. This is when yet another little Finnish song comes in handy, the one word “nu!” (now). Or we skip the songs altogether, going for a loud “skål”. When my father reached this stage, he would occasionally holler “Andrea Doria” instead, looking somewhat guilty.

Why the guilt, one wonders. Well, thing is Andrea Doria is a ship that sank, went bottoms up, so to say. And while many of my father’s generation found this little version of “cheers” funny, they were also aware of the fact that they were making fun of a tragedy, ergo the twinge of shame. So what happened to Andrea Doria?

Allow me to take you back to the 1950s. The world had survived the war, and after years of restrictions, global economy was taking off. People had money, and that global phenomenon, mass tourism, was about to take off. As yet, most of the travelling across the Atlantic was done by ship, but air travel was beginning to eat into the previous so profitable Atlantic shipping routes. The solution to the profit squeeze was to create floating entertainment centres – voilá, the luxury cruise liner was born.

Initially, it was mostly about bracing sea air and playing shuffleboard, but soon enough these floating hotels were ferrying people from one side of the pond to the other, there to take in the sights. Many Americans had Italian roots, ergo they wanted to go to Italy. The Italian Line catered to these wishes, with a fleet of ship that went back and forth. Being proud not only of its fantastic food but also of its Italian heritage, the Italian Line named its ships after famous Italians, at times something of a misnomer as many of the people so honoured never defined themselves as Italian, but rather as Florentines, or Veronese, or Venetians. Whatever the case, when Italian Line decided to launch their new, top of the range cruiser, they named it Andrea Doria.

Angelo_Bronzino_-_Portrait_of_Andrea_Doria_as_Neptune_-_WGA3261

Mr Doria, as Neptune

Andrea Doria the man was a seafaring man, a proud Genoese. Born somewhere around 1466, he spent his younger years as a soldier of fortune, at some point transferring from land to sea, where he quickly became a successful naval commander, serving the interests of Genoa. At the time, Italy was being torn apart by Francis I of France and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. While Doria was chasing Turks and pirates over the Mediterranean, Francis invaded Genoa, and for some time Doria served the French king, but finding him miserly, he switched sides. In return, the Holy Roman Emperor helped oust the French from Genoa, and Doria was allowed to set up a republic, albeit within the umbrella of Charles V’s massive empire.

Battle_of_Lepanto_1571

Lepanto

Years of fighting the Turks, the Barbary pirates, the French – Doria was not a man to sit about, serving his imperial master well into his ninth decade. He was given command of the assembled navies in 1538 to finally defeat the Ottoman Turks, but at the Battle of Preveza he lost. He lost again at the Battle of Ponza in 1552, and not until 1571 (at which point Doria was long dead) would the Christian navies finally defeat the Turks, at the horrifically bloody Battle of Lepanto (in which a certain Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra lost the use of his left arm, ergo his nickname, El Manco de Lepanto). Doria himself died at home, a rich and respected man – despite never having quite succeeded in defeating those pesky Turks.

Oh, dear: talk about a tangential excursion – especially as Mr Doria’s exploits have nothing to do with what happened to the ship named for him.

Andrea_Doria_posterAs many of us know, Italy’s economy was in shambles after World War II. Being a nation of merchants and engineers, the Italians regrouped and concentrated on rebuilding their nation. When the Andrea Doria was launched in the early 1950s, it was viewed as the most luxurious of all the ships plying the Atlantic. It was also considered one of the most beautiful ships ever built. As an add on, it was also presented as being “unsinkable”. One would have thought such adjectives went out of use after the Titanic, but the Italian engineers were more than proud of their improved construction, the ship divided into eleven watertight compartments, two of which could be flooded without actually sinking the ship. As  final feature, Andrea Doria also carried sufficient life boats to accommodate all passengers and crew – in the unlikely event that it should, despite all that security, become incapacitated while at sea.

In July of 1956, the Andrea Doria was en route for New York. Life aboard was a party, albeit carefully segregated. First Class passengers did not mix with the lower classes, or vice versa. As a consequence, the ship had three outdoor pools – one for each class – separate restaurants, separate walkways. It would not do for some lowlife in tourist class imposing on the daintier and more fragile creatures that travelled in first class. But whatever the class, people had fun.

There were other cruise ships doing the Atlantic route. Some were famous such as the Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. Some were anything but famous, such as little M/S Stockholm, of the Swedish American Line. M/S Stockholm was about half the size of the Andrea Doria, and was originally built for practical comfort rather than luxurious cruises, but the general interest in sea holidays in the early 1950s resulted in the ship being refurbished, an additional floor added to offer more and better cabins. It was also a ship designed for cold climates, thereby provided with a prow designed to plough through ice if needed. Not that anyone expected ice to be an issue on that warm and balmy July day when the M/S Stockholm set off from New York, making for distant Europe.

So what have we here? On one side the opulent Andrea Doria, with approximately 1700 people aboard, on the other M/S Stockholm, carrying in total 742 people. While M/S Stockholm was cruising under a clear sky, Andrea Doria hd spent the last few hours stuck in a fog bank, a common occurrence off the Massachusetts coast. Andrea Doria’s Captain Calamai had accordingly reduced speed somewhat, had activated his foghorns, and closed the watertight doors.

M/S Stockholm reached the outer edges of the fog bank. The Andrea Doria was effectively invisible – except on radar. The Andrea Doria had no visuals of any other ships – except on radar. In actual fact, both Stockholm and Andrea Doria were aware that they had company, but from the information on the radar screens, they misinterpreted each other’s course. At some point, both captains realised they were on collision course with each other. At that same point, both captains took measures to avoid this collision. The Andrea Doria  steered to port, so as to enable a starboard-to-starboard passing. Stockholm decided to go for a port-to-port passing and turned 20 degrees starboard. Seeing as they were prow to prow, this meant both ships were turning in the same direction, i.e, instead of widening the distance between them, they were shrinking it.

You don’t exactly pull a handbrake on a ship. With both ships doing over 20 knots, the collision was unavoidable. Stockholm veered hard to starboard. The Andrea Doria turned hard to port. Just after eleven PM, Stockholm rammed into Andrea Doria’s side. Stockholms ice-breaker prow sliced Andrea Doria’s starboard side wide open. Water rushed in – not a problem, one would have thought, given the eleven watertight compartments and all that. Thing is, at the time of collision the Andrea Doria was cruising with almost empty fuel tanks. Those on the starboard side filled with water. Those on the port side acted like a floating device, and so within a few minutes of the collision, the Andrea Doria was listing badly. Suddenly, stairwells and passages began filling with water, causing further list. The generator room flooded, cutting all electricity. The pumps could not be started. Half of the lifeboats became impossible to launch, hanging way up high due to the list. It seemed the world had a new Titanic in the making…

Those of us gifted with vivid imagination have little problems imagining the ensuing panic. Cold water, no light, the floor tilting… People scrambled for the safety of the deck, all too aware that to be trapped below in the rising water was to risk a slow and anguished death. Even worse, Stockholm’s bow had crashed straight into five passenger decks. A number of people died immediately, like the young mother travelling with her four children, or the wife, whose husband was saved by the fact that he was brushing his teeth, or the eight-year-old girl who was crushed upon impact. One teenager was thrown from her bed, out into the night, but was miraculously discovered on the deck of the Stockholm, injured but alive.

Stockholm_following_Andrea_Doria_collision

M/S Stockholm

The damage to both ships was severe. The Andrea Doria looked as if it had been slashed open with a gigantic can-opener. The Stockholm had no prow, just a huge gaping hole in its bow. The Andrea Doria continued to tilt, and launching the life boats remaining proved a difficult task. Things didn’t exactly get better when eight of the life boats were sent off with 200 panicked crew members and no passengers… After a thorough inspection, the captain of M/S Stockholm concluded that his ship was not in danger of sinking – the night was relatively calm – and so redirected the efforts of his crew to help the Andrea Doria. Fortunately, the SOS messages had been picked up, and ships from all over were steaming towards the two ships. When the huge Ile de France appeared, I imagine the passengers cheered. The French liner placed itself as a bulwark along Andrea Doria’s starboard side, and lit its floodlights before launching its boats to the aid of the stranded passengers.

Andrea_Doria_at_DawnOn the Stockholm, more than 500 people from the Andrea Doria had been brought aboard – and amazingly enough, a large number of Stockholm’s passengers slept through the whole hullabaloo, a consequence of all that bracing sea air, one presumes. By early morning, the Andrea Doria was empty of all but Captain Calamai and a couple of his crew members. There was no hope for the ship, it was too damaged to be towed, and with every passing hour it took in more water. At nine, Captain Calamai gave the order to abandon ship, and exactly eleven hours after the collision, the Andrea Doria rolled over on its side, lifted its stern heavenward and slipped under the waves. In total, the tragedy had cost 52 people their lives.

Obviously, the legal aftermath was humongous. The most repeated question was why. Why was the Andrea Doria doing 20 knots in a fog as thick as pea soup? Why had the radar information been so misinterpreted? Why had the Andrea Doria turned port, when the accepted procedure was to turn starboard when meeting a ship? Many of these questions went unanswered as the two shipping lines settled out-of-court. Neither party had an interest in full disclosure. At the time, Captain Calamai was apportioned most of the blame, even more so as the Italian Line made it clear they weren’t about to hire him again. These days, the jury is out: yes, the Andrea Doria did that strange turn to port, yes it was speeding – but so was the Stockholm, and how come the Swedish officer so misinterpreted the radar information? We will never know.

Captain Calamai never accepted another command, living out his life in a haze of guilt. It is said his last words were, “Are all the passengers alright?”

And as to that odd tradition of hollering “Andrea Doria” while downing yet another shot of snaps, I am happy to report it went out of fashion long ago – and thank heavens for that!

“Goodbye, farewell” – hang on, not yet!

To catch a falling star-100dpi 201501I’ve done it. I suppose this means I should sit back with a celebratory cup of tea, pat myself on the back and say “well done”. Instead, I’ve been walking about in a fugue, feeling strangely hollow inside. Eight books published, a series completed, and I am so NOT ready to say goodbye.
“Oh come on,” Alex says, giving me a virtual pat on the back. “It’s not as if we’re leaving you.”
Difficult to do when you’re a character trapped in my head, but I don’t say that. Instead I give her a teary smile. For I don’t know how many years, Alex and Matthew have lived in my head, and now we are done? Over?
“Don’t be such a daftie.” Matthew hands me a handkerchief. “And what’s to stop you from writing more about us?”
The fact that they’re approaching the end of their life spans and I just can’t bear the thought of writing their deaths?
Matthew gives me a gentle smile. “That’s how it is. Human life is short, a little burst of light, no more.” He gazes up at the heavens, spread out in darkest velvet above us. It is night, and Orion hangs low in the sky, while way up high the North Star winks and beckons. “But afterwards, there is all that,” he says, pointing at the sky. “Eternity at God’s feet.”

Whoopee. I share a quick look with Alex. None of us are all too thrilled by the notion of spending eternity in some sort of spiritual state. Heaven should be a place that flows with tea and cake, where a constant soft breeze whispers lullabies through groves of rustling poplars, while the meadows stretch endless before us, dotted with poppies and cornflowers. A place in which to walk hand in hand with your beloved, with the words of Solomon’s Song ringing through the air: “Let my beloved come into his garden, and taste its choice fruits.”
Matthew chuckles and wags an admonishing finger at us – well, mostly at Alex. “Our eternal souls need other sustenance, they need the Word rather than the joys of flesh.”
“Tough.” Alex dances towards him, and for all that she’s well over fifty, she moves gracefully, the light in his eyes making her carry herself like a young girl. “I guess the pleasures of heaven will just have to wait, Matthew Graham, for I have definitely not had my fill of you – not yet.”
“Or me of you, lass.” He kisses her, and just like that they fade away, no doubt wanting some privacy from my prying eyes.

It makes me smile – and it also comforts me. Maybe, maybe, there will be another Alex and Matthew book. A collection of novellas, I muse, and the knot of ice in my stomach begins to melt, as all of a sudden one scene after the other tumbles through my brain. In the background, I hear Alex laugh.
“See? We will never leave you, Anna.” I swear I feel her warm breath tickling my cheek. “We live in your blood and your soul, honey. We always will. And once you’re dead, I guess we’ll be coming with you to the place in the sky.”
If there is a place in the sky,” I say.
“Of course there is.” Alex laughs. “Matthew says so, doesn’t he?”
True. And when it comes to matters of God, none of us can hold a candle  to him!

To Catch a Falling Star, number 8 in The Graham Saga, is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK – plus, of course at my publishers, SilverWood Books.

And now a little excerpt…(somewhat amended, to ensure no spoilers)

Well after midnight, and Matthew was asleep on his side. Alex slipped out of bed and went over to the window, struggling to get it open without making too much noise. It was a clear night, with star-studded skies that invited wolves to raise their snouts and howl at the glory of it all. A full winter moon hung just above the treeline, and the yard below lay bathed in its silver sheen. A night of magic, of elves and little folk – except, of course, that Mrs Parson firmly insisted they hadn’t crossed the sea nor ever planned to, and so this brave new world might have Indians and spirits of its own, but elves and fairies, goblins and trolls, they had been forever left behind.

Alex rested her chin in her hand, and inhaled the cold, crisp air. A star shot from the firmament, left a wake of glittering fire, and was gone. Like a flash in the pan, like all human life – here today, gone tomorrow. Another falling star, and Alex splayed her hand and pretended she could catch it, hold it safe against her heart, and cup all that fragile, ephemeral life. A single tear trickled down her cheek, others followed, and she gripped the sill and wept quietly, the brilliance of the night sky blurry with her tears.

A sudden gust of wind cooled her face and, after a couple of steadying breaths, she wiped her eyes with her sleeve. The moon slid behind a screen of clouds, but she found the North Star, blew a kiss to her father and one more for XXX. The image of her angry, hurting son rose before her, and he was screaming that it wasn’t fair – he didn’t want to die, not here, not now.
“Life isn’t fair,” she whispered to the night. Another star blazed a trail through the dark, and Alex closed her eyes and made a wish. For her son, that he be at peace, safe in heaven.
Something skittered over the ground, paused for a frozen instant, and turned goggled eyes to stare in her direction before leaping onto the smoking shed roof.
“Horrible pests,” Alex muttered, but with no real heat. “You get at my ham and I’ll blast you to pieces.” The raccoon sat outlined against the moon, and for a moment Alex was convinced it was indeed an elf, a wood sprite from a distant, long-lost shore. A series of jumps, and the racoon melted into the silent forest. Alex closed the window. Matthew rolled towards her when she got back into bed, opening his arms to gather her to him. “Mmhmm?”
“Nothing.” She patted him. “Let’s sleep, okay?”

And if you’ve made it this far, there’s a giveaway to enter :) I’m giving away a Kindle copy of To Catch a Falling Star – just leave a comment and tell me if you’ve ever wished upon a falling star. Or not. But remember; you mustn’t tell me what you wished for – such wishes must remain a secret between you and the stars so way up above!

Giveaway is open until Monday.
…and now the giveaway is closed! Lucky winner is Joan!

Humble beginnings: a rib and an apple

Eve Michelangelo,_Creation_of_Eve_01Today I thought we’d talk a bit about one of the more maligned women in history. Well; history might be pushing it a bit, as we don’t know for sure this lady existed. Many would instead argue they know for sure she most definitely didn’t exist – woman did not spring from a male rib. Too right; if we had, men would have walked the world with more ribs on one side than on the other, which does not seem to be the case.

By now, I’m thinking most of you, dear readers, have worked out that today we’ll be talking about Eve, the lady who gave the fig leaf a face.

As per the creationists among us, our heroine was brought forth as the pinnacle of God’s creative efforts. Seeing as God first made Adam, then made Eve, it stands to reason Eve was the better, improved version – except, of course, that He used Adam’s rib.

Now, we all know the basic story line, don’t we? God creates the Earth, the sun, the stars and the skies. He goes a bit wild and crazy in the zoological department, and as to insects, well clearly God has a fondness for things that creep and crawl, that buzz and sting and flutter about. Or maybe He likes it that they don’t talk. Or think. They simply are, in difference to the far more vocal and independent creations He chose to put at the top of His little evolutionary pyramid.

Adam 1280px-Adam_na_restauratieOne could argue that in creating man, God showed lack of judgement – or maybe we are testament to His faith – in us. Why else give us free will, lead us constantly into temptation, pollute our souls with the seven deadly sins, and gift us with sufficient intellect to question His existence. Not that all of us do, mind you. Many are the men and women through the dust-lined road of time who have fought and died on His behalf, professing with their dying breath that God exists.

As a little aside, when God in Genesis 1 creates Adam, the name denominates mankind rather than a specific dude. In Genesis 2, however, God moulds Adam the man from the earth and breathes life into him. It is this Adam who is gifted with Eve, lest he become too lonely playing with himself.

Eve Lilith_(John_Collier_painting)

Lilith playing w a snake.

I am sure Eve was less than happy about all the insects. I am not all that sure she was too thrilled at having been created as a replacement. Yup, folks, that was what she was – at least according to the apocryphal texts. As per Jewish tradition, God made both a man and a woman at the same time, from the same earth, but this spirited young lady named Lilith had no intention whatsoever of being Adam’s help-meet. No, Lilith was the world’s first feminist and refused to either sleep or serve under Adam, and when he tried to tame her, she upped and left.

Instead, Adam got Eve. The First Woman was not the first woman – she was the Number Two Wife, no doubt making Adam hope that this female would be somewhat more acquiescent to his demands. Lilith, meanwhile, was enjoying herself enormously with the demons, producing an endless stream of baby demons. But to judge from Michelangelo, Adam was quite the hunky guy, so maybe Eve was happy enough with her lot in life. I wonder if Adam was, or if he dreamed of wild Lilith and her flowing black hair.

Now God may be a misogynist – or even an invention, an expression of wishful thinking along the lines that all of us like the idea that there’s someone out there, “Someone to watch over me” as Judy Garland sang very many years ago. But to give Him his due, He didn’t stint when it came to the Garden of Eden, creating a veritable paradise for Adam and Eve to live in and be fruitful in. He turned them loose with a fond smile – and only one admonishment. “Don’t touch the apples, children,” He said, pointing at the Tree of Knowledge. Clearly, God lacked parenting experience. Those more jaded among us know that whatever you tell a kid not to do, is probably the first thing he will do, given a chance.

Adam and Eve, however, had enough to take in – at least initially. They strolled through meadows and forests, they picked daisies and wove them into garlands (of course they did!), they held hands and progressed from that to other things, they swam in the lakes, climbed the trees, rolled in the mud, played with the baby lions – but at no time did they approach the Tree of Knowledge. After all, God had said “no”.

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Eve, L Cranach

The tree, however, was always on their minds, a little teaser that now and then had them taking a couple of steps in its direction before remembering it was out of bounds. Eve would pick an apple from another tree and bite into it, eyes stuck on the perfect, Christmas-red apples that hung from the Tree of Knowledge. She bet those apples tasted sweeter, were crunchier and jucier. Adam would pick an apple and eat it while watching Eve, considering just what he would do to her after their meal. men are, at times, rather singleminded…

One could have thought God would have made it difficult to reach his precious tree. Like put up an electrical fence around it, or something. Instead, the tree just stood there, a perfect tree in a perfect world. From having detoured around it, Eve began to walk that much closer, wondring just what knowledge the tree could impart. That’s the thing with us women, we are naturally curious. (Men are just as curious, but prefer to send out their women to pick up the gossip rather than to be seen listening avidly)

One day, she was standing close enough to touch the tree, when out of nowhere, she heard a voice.
“Great apples,” the voice said.
“I wouln’t know,” Eve replied.
“Duh.” The voice slithered closer, and to her surprise, Eve realised she was conversing a serpent with legs (as per Genesis, okay?) “Wouldn’t you want to know?”
“How they taste?” Eve asked, confused. By now, she’d sampled her way through all the other apple trees in paradise, and she didn’t really think one apple would be that awesome. The serpent rolled its eyes, cleft tongue darting out repeatedly.
“No,” it said, “wouldn’t you want to know everything?”
Hmm. Eve mulled that over. Would she? She thought of Adam and the dreamy look on his face when he woke in the mornings and reached for her, something like disappointment flitting over his features when he properly woke. Did she want to know what he dreamed? Unfortunately for mankind, Eve was the jealous type, so she decided she wanted to know, thank you very much, not stopping to consider that she might regret her choice.

The serpent undulated in happy figures of eight, weaving itself round her legs, up her legs, round her waist, and it was a very nice serpent, despite its legs, not at all cold and slimy, but warm and smooth to the touch. Gently, it urged Eve closer and closer to the tree, whispering that once she’d eaten, she would know as much as God, and why should a dude with a lot of hair and a matching beard call all the shots, huh?
“Why not a pretty lady like you instead?” it hissed, and Eve definitely thought it was onto something here. Besides, she really, really wanted to know what Adam dreamed about each night. She rached for the closest apple. It fell, ripe and round, into her hand.
“Yummy, yummy,” the serpent said, caressing her hips with his coils “And you know what they say, don’t you? An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
“Doctor?”
“Never mind. Once you’ve eaten it, you’ll get to know everything about doctors.” It snickered.”Good one,” it said to itself, attempting a high-five with its stunted little forelegs.

Eve Michiel_Coxie_-_Original_Sin_-_WGA05581The moment she bit into the fruit, she was overwhelmed by the sensation that this was a bad, bad idea. But it was too late for regrets, and the apple was delicious, even more so because it was forbidden.The world around her changed. The trees, hitherto so permanent in their bright green foliage, acquired a hue of gold, and what was that, a leaf drifting to the ground? “Death,” the serpent hissed. “As of now, you and all your kind is mortal. There’s a price to everything dear Eve, and you aint seen nothing yet.”
“Death?” She watched the leave shrivel. she raised her hand to her face, and the skin was no longer quite as radiant. “You’ll grow old and wrinkled,” the serpent informed her, and she knew it was speaking the truth. “But him, your Adam, he will remain as he is, and he won’t want you when your body sags.” It laughed. “Best feed him some of that apple, hey? Old men lose their eyesight, you know.”
Yes, she did know. She knew everything now.
“You wish.” The serpent coiled itself tighter around her. “He will be pissed off, and you will be punished.”
“Why me?” she asked. “Why not you?”
“You’re the woman, soon enough you’ll be the seductress that tempts Adam to taste. Cherchez la femme, as the French say.”
Eve didn’t understand. But she did know it was right; she would tempt Adam, she had to, making them both equally guilty in the eyes of God.

That dear people, is not how things worked out. God called a little meeting – not because he didn’t know what had gobe down (being omnipotent and all-seeing has its advantages) but because he wanted to hear what they had to say.
Adam blamed Eve. She’d played the “do it if you want to get laid” card, and being a man, he’d gone along with it.
“Did you?” God asked Eve. She squirmed and concentrated on adjusting her new figleaf. With knowledge had come a desire for more modesty.
“So what?” she finally replied. “I just took a leaf out of Lysistrate’s book.”  God pinched His nose, thinking it had been a very stupid thing to do, to encapsulate all knowledge in one tree and its fruits.
“And just so you know,” Eve went on, “the serpent tricked me!”
“That would presume you didn’t know you were disobeying me,” God said.
“Umm…” Eve looked contrite.

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Heyerdal – Adam and Eve being banished

God pronounced judgement. The serpent got off real easy, losing only his stunted legs. Mind you, he wasn’t too happy about it, objecting loudly at having to drag his beautiful shimmering coils through the dust. Adam and Eve were banished.
“Eh, what?” Adam said, looking quite panicked. He knew for a fact things were pretty dismal out there, having peeked now and then.
“You heard.” God made a shooing motion with his hand. “Off you go, use all that new knowledge you’ve got to build a new life somewhere else. Good luck with that, by the way.”
“But this is her fault, not mine! Send her off!”
“Afraid I can’t do that. You know, what God has joined together, let no man put asunder and all that.” God looked at Eve. “But she will be further punished.”
Eve quaked, standing very quiet as God told her that from this day forth, woman was condemned to give birth in pain and to always live under the dominion of man. Fortunately, since then us ladies seem to have crawled out from under the male thumb, but the having babies part is still very far from being a walk in the park.

One can only imagine just how strained relations betwen Adam and Eve were after these events. And life outside of Paradise was tough, even more so when the babies came. Plus there was the whole mess with Cain and Abel, showing neither Adam nor Eve had much of a role model in the parenting department. That’s what you get when you mould people out of clay – or a rib.

Over the centuries, Eve has been portrayed as the ultimate seductress, the woman who brought Original Sin into the world. It was Eve’s example that had early Christian Church fathers conclude that women were indeed a weaker vessel, much more prone to sin and spiritual mischief than men. Women had to be kept on a short leash, their evient carnality controlled by their male betters. (Or exploited. Quite often exploited, one suspects) Women were called such fun things as “the devil’s gateway” or the “sting of the scorpion”, and collectively women were blamed for having brought death into the world, thereby indirectly causing Jesus’ death. (I know, a HUGE mental leap)
Eve’s transgression formed the theological base used by such nasties as Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger to promulgate the theory that witches were mostly female, as expressed in the Mallus Maleficarum. Over time, our legged serpent evolved into being Satan himself, coming down to tempt that lustful creature, woman, to sin. Rarely did anyone stop to consider that Eve’s behaviour was that of a person willing to step beyond boundaries and explore the unknown. Where Adam was happy to sit about all day and just enjoy his perfect status quo, Eve longed for change, for evolution. Makes me think that if it hadn’t been for Eve, we would have been a very, very dull bunch. Makes me think Eve would have fitted right in with us today, ever curious, ever open for new possibilities, new insights. Just saying…

These days, few of us have a portrait of Adam and Eve on our walls, and even less do we refer to them as our ancestors. After all, many of us are far more comfortable identifying a long dead half-ape, half- human lady nick-named Lucy as our progenitor rather than admit to maybe – maybe – believing God had a finger in the pie. An apple pie, of course.

 

 

Plain pain from plane to plane

There are some aspects of international travel that are wonderful. New places, new vistas, new food (although at times the new food is…errm…challenging. Lamb’s eyes, for example), new languages that whisper enticingly through my head, indicating just how much there is left to learn and explore.

There are some aspects of international travel that are less than wonderful. Stressful, even. Like when your connecting flight is delayed, and you realise the odds are you’ll miss your flight home. It’s strange, that the flight HOME is far more sacrosant than the one out of home. No matter how fun the trip, it is the homecoming that is the icing on the cake – at least for me – and delays in that direction are far more painful., Plus there’s the added aggro that by the time I’m going home, I’m out of clean underwear…

Yesterday was one of those excessively exciting days when the powers that are conspired to make the homebound trip anything but relaxing. Finding out you have at most 20 minutes to make it from one end of Chicago O’Hare to the other, is like contemplating entering an Olympic Marathon. (this is a big airport, people…) I have no desire to run a Marathon. I do, however, want to make my flight…

I was more or less resigned to missing the plane and hanging around Chicago for 24 hours until the next flight. Actually, I was just getting used to the idea of having an entire day at my disposal in Windy City – a favourite of mine. My travelling companion had other priorities. He had to get home, as he was scheduled to leave on the next long-haul flight a day later.

My travelling companion is young. And fit. And male. And equipped with very long legs. I am not as young. Sadly, neither am I as fit. My legs compared to his is like placing a dachshund beside a giraffe. So when my travelling companion gave me a determined look and said “let’s run for it,” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Give up immediately? Try to talk him out of it, pointing out that 28 minutes (yes, we recouped 8 minutes versus the original delay) was very little time to make it from Terminal 1 to Terminal 5 – and that was excluding security? Silly me, being as competitive as my co-traveller, decided to ignore the obvious differences between us and said “ok”.

No sooner did the plane doors open, but we exploded out of them. Okay, exploding is an exaggeration. It is difficult to do so with two backpacks and a bag on wheels. Still, we made good time, weaving like maniacs through all those other travellers who obviously were nowhere close to missing their flight.

To his credit, young and fit did not set off at maximum speed. To his even greater credit, he went to great lengths to pretend he was running as fast as he could, while in actual fact he was pacing himself to me. I owe him a pay hike, I think, for this gallant attempt at safeguarding my self-esteem. Meanwhile, I was running flat out – well, my version of flat out. The backpack bounced uncomfortably, my mouth filled with the metallic taste of my blood – a sure sign of over-exertion – and as to air, well, my lungs were screaming at me that they weren’t getting any.

This is when a vivid imagination comes in handy. It is much easier to ignore the physical pain if you pretend you’re fleeing for your life, rushing up hillsides strewn with rocks and patches of heather, while from behind comes the sound of determined pursuit, the sun glinting off breastplates and helmets. Unfortunately, all it takes is a stubbed toe to bring you hurtling back to a reality where you still have very, very far to go and the clock is ticking.Tick tock.

Up the last flight of stairs, and my legs were trembling, my left knee angrily reminding me that I wasn’t supposed to run. Through the passport control, into the security line (where we were waved to the front) and then it was time for that other very enervating aspect of travelling, namely all that “put your computer in a tray” stuff. Don’t get me wrong; I understand why this has to be done, but there must be a better way of doing it…

On the opposite end of the security control an immaculate stewardess was telling us we had to run – and run fast. Duh. Guess what we had been doing for the last ten minutes or so? The last stretch was down an endless corridor. My legs had morphed into pillars of lead, my lungs had shrunk to the size of a teabag, and my heart was pounding so hard the pulse was drowning out the surrounding sounds. And still I ran, bags bouncing against my legs, heavy winter coat flapping around me. Okay, so it felt as if I ran. I am thinking that by this point it looked as if I was hobbling. But in my head, I was leading the charge of the Light Brigade, the words “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die” ringing over and over in my head. (Hey! You going down, you should go down with literary style!)

We made it. Truth be told, young and fit reached the gate well before me, standing himself firmly in the doorway. I wheezed like a broken accordion. My dress stuck to my back. My feet were killing me. I hadn’t run this much since mandatory PE classes in high-school. I have no intention of repeating the performance anytime soon, but I do believe I can say we set some sort of record: 18 minutes from one end of the airport to the final security control.

Thankfully, the flight itself was uneventful. And as to young and fit, he grinned, high-fived me and promptly went to sleep. I didn’t. I never sleep in planes, convinced as I am that the moment I shut my eyes, the whole fragile contraption might crash. Sometimes, dear people, I seriously wonder why I travel….

Behind every successful man…

17202303-Martin-Luther-nails-up-his-95-theses-on-the-cathedral-door-the-act-that-started-the-Reformation-Orig-Stock-Photo-illus-Martin-Luther-by-G-FreytagWe’ve all heard of Martin Luther, right? And no, I am not talking about that inspiring leader and awesome demagogue who spoke that immortal line “I have a dream” – I am rather referring to the man for whom he was named, a German priest born in 1483. That Martin Luther was one of the pivotal people in the religious movement that swept through Europe as a firestorm during the 16th century, namely the Reformation. And once the continent emerged from that crucible, the hitherto united Christian faith had divided into two blocks – Catholics and Protestants.

Now Martin Luther and his contemporary religious hotheads did not spring out of nowhere. Religious debate has been around as long as the Church, and through the centuries wise and learned men (and women – one example can be found here) have raised their voices to question various aspects of faith as imposed by the church. Many of these were found guilty of heresy. Many of them died at the stake, such as Jan Hus and George Wishart. Many had even been exhumed and burned after they were dead – like John Wycliffe . And yet, despite the very obvious risk of taking on the mighty Church, people continued to do so.

When Martin Luther was born, all Christian people were effectively Catholics. Martin himself was baptised into the Holy Church, would go on to study law and philosophy, generally frustrated by how much trust people put in reason when addressing the central issue of God and faith. After a near death experience during a thunderstorm (or maybe Martin was just scared of lightning) he promised God he would become a monk if his life was spared, and being a man of his word, the 23-year-old Martin entered the Augustinian order.

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An unhappy monk?

It does not seem to have been a joyous decision, and as to Martin’s father, he was royally pissed off. He’d invested a lot of good money on his son to ensure he’d be a member of the educated commercial class, and instead Martin decided to set off in search of God. Pah! God was all around – why bother looking for him?

Martin would have replied that yes, God might be all around, but the teachings of the Holy Church – and specifically certain practices, such as the sale of indulgences – were leading the believers astray, away from God. Martin’s solution was simple: people needed to read the word of God themselves, and they needed to understand that faith is based on just that: faith. It is about subjecting your will to that of God, of not expecting to be able to understand or explain, but to simply believe. A difficult concept to embrace for crass modern mankind…

For people to read the word of God – the Scriptures – they needed to be translated into the vernacular. Martin did some serious translation of his own, and other likeminded men did the same in other countries, producing a Bible in German, English, French – well, in most European languages. All this translating coincided with the introduction of the printing press in Europe – thank you Gutenberg (related post, see here) – and so the vernacular versions of the Bible were easily made available to common man. Ahem: well, not so easily, as the powers that were did not approve of all this translating and did their best to destroy the translations, causing a trade in contraband Bibles (!).

Martin started his little crusade against the established Church on October 31, 1517, when he banged up his 95 theses on the door to the Wittenberg Cathedral. At the time, his writing had as its purpose to create debate rather than antagonise, but sometimes there’s a fine line between dialogue and provocation, and clearly Martin rubbed a number of people up the wrong way. Seriously, the man was also requesting the church to stop selling indulgences, thereby depriving the coffers of sizeable income!

In 1521, Martin Luther was excommunicated, and would so remain for the rest of his life. Seeing as he was by then already busy with creating his new, revamped version of the Christian faith, I don’t think he was unduly worried – but at the same time I suspect that a man who had spent so much time within the Catholic Church must have woken up at night and wondered what in God’s name he was doing, taking on this behemoth, this self-proclaimed representative of God on Earth. (Before we go any further, it might be important to point out that I have no intention – or interest – in belittling the Catholic Church, spiritual home to so many millions of people)

Back to Martin and his restless nights – and I am sure they were many, endless hours when the teachings of his youth made him twist in fear as to what he was risking on behalf of his eternal soul… One of the things Martin opposed, was the Holy Church’s insistence that priests be celibate. As per Martin, there is no support for this in the Bible, and it may be worth remembering that until the Second Lateran Council in 1139, Catholic priests quite often lived as married men, with no stigma attached. (As an aside, can you imagine the heartbreak when these men were told they had to put aside their wife if they wanted to continue working as priests?)

Now Martin opposed the concept of celibacy in principle. He himself had no intention to marry, seeing as he lived under the constant threat of being apprehended and carried off to martyrdom, not, in Martin’s opinion, something he wanted to subject a wife to having to witness. Plus points to Martin, I believe…Besides, he was far too busy to consider the complication of a wife. Life, however, has a tendency to happen, which is how Martin came to meet Katarina.

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Lukas Cranach – but it looks so modern!

We don’t know all that much about Katarina’s earliest days, but we know that as a child of six or so, she was sent to a nunnery for schooling. Some years later, she was transferred to a Cistercian convent, where she was to remain for most of her youth.

Despite a life behind walls, Katarina and several of her sisters kept well abreast of what was happening in the outside world. When Luther nailed his theses to the door, Katarina was an impressionable eighteen-year-old, and clearly what this man said resonated within. She began to feel trapped. So did a number of her sisters.

In 1523, these ladies managed to get word to Luther. They needed help to escape the convent. At the time, to steal away a nun was a terrible crime – nuns were the brides of Christ and should under no circumstances be taken from their convents, not even when the nuns in question had been forcibly veiled (and yes, that did happen). Martin had very little left to lose: he was already excommunicated, and I think it appealed to his virility to cast himself as the saviour of these poor damsels – err, nuns – in distress. Said and done, Luther devised a plan.

stilleben_mit_hering_und_bartmannskrugOne day, a herring merchant drove his cart into the convent. Herring was a staple of the times, so there was nothing unusual about that. In all the bustle of unloading full barrels, loading empty ones, twelve nuns managed to hide in the cart. In the barrels, one presumes. Off they went, the herring merchant sweating profusely as he drove under the beady eye of the gate keeper, but fortunately his illegal cargo went undiscovered, and some hours later twelve giddy young women were deposited in Wittenberg.

Word went out. The ladies needed husbands, seeing as their families refused to take them back, what with all this escaping their convent being a heinous sin. One by one, the nuns were married off, until at last only one remained: Katarina von Bora herself. Whether this was due to looks or temperament, we do not know. The lady herself is said to have expressed that either she married Luther or she didn’t marry anyone. Well, even men bent on religious revolution can be flattered, right? Besides, Katarina was young and worshiped the ground Martin trod on – she called him Herr Doctor, would always call him Herr Doctor.

Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration.tif (1)So in 1525, Martin Luther married Katarina. He was 41, she was 26: a former monk married to a former nun – that must have caused a number of ribald jokes. In actual fact, they were well suited, both of them of religious temperament, both of them intellectually agile and devoted to the cause. Plus, of course, by marrying, Martin was setting a precedent for all future Protestant priests.

The marriage seems to have been very happy, with Katarina assuming responsibility for all worldy tasks so that Martin could concentrate on theology and his teaching. Six children in eight years indicate they enjoyed each other’s company in bed as well, and Martin is known to have turned quite often to Katarina for advice. But it wasn’t an easy life. Katarina struggled to make ends meet, she ran a brewery, raised and sold cattle, ran an hospital, raised their children, ensured meals at set times, supported her husband whenever he needed it – in brief, our Katarina rarely had time for a nice cuppa and a slice of sponge cake. Still, I believe she was as content in him as he was in her, as expressed by him saying, “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me, that I would never exchange my poverty with her for all the riches of Croesus.”

In 1546, Luther died. Apart from struggling with her grief, now that her beloved Herr Doctor was dead, Katarina was plunged into economic difficulties without his earnings as a professor. When war broke out she was forced to leave the life she had built up in Wittenberg and flee. With several underage children, she struggled to make ends meet, and was very dependent on the generous support of men such as the Elector of Saxony. She returned to Wittenberg for a while, but an outbreak of plague had her leaving again in a haste. There was a road accident, the cart Katarina was on upended causing her grievous injury. She never recovered, dying some months later, in December of 1552 in Torgau, where she was buried, very far from her beloved husband.

Was Katarina instrumental in Martin’s success as a reformer? No, probably not. But I do believe that Martin on more than one occasion raised his eyes towards the heavens and thanked the good Lord for this excellent helpmeet, this woman who loved him so well. And if he didn’t, well then shame on him!

Being versatile

theversatilebloggerSome days ago, I was more than honoured to discover Helen Hollick, Pirate Admiral extraordinaire, creator of heartthrob pirate Jesamiah Acorne, author of I don’t know how many books spanning everything from King Arthur to King Harold, had nominated me for the Versatile Blogger award. Seeing as Helen is, per definition, versatile, I did a little hopping about with glee. And if you haven’t discovered just how versatile, I recommend you pop over to her blog ASAP (but not yet: you may miss out…)

Now, this blog award comes with certain expectations:

  1. Display the Award Certificate (cut and paste it from my post) – DONE
  2. Write a post and link back to the blogger who nominated you – See above & Read on!
  3. Post seven  interesting things about yourself – Phew… caused me some headache, but I think I nailed it.
  4. Nominate up to fifteen other bloggers (and why you’ve nominated them) – Will come later
  5. Inform them of their nomination  (probably via comment on their blog unless you have their email!)  –  Will do!

Maintaining a regular blog is at times somewhat daunting. You see, sometimes, I have no idea what to write about. After all, some things one doesn’t share on cyber space – firstly because no one else necessarily cares, secondly because some things should remain private. I know; such a strange concept, isn’t it, in a day and age where some people seem to present their entire life on social media.

However, to not be personal – at some level – is no longer an option. The challenge is to balance the personal touch with the subject matter. Sounds easy, is hard…

Anyway, today I thought I’d share with you some recent reflections I made while having my legs waxed. Thing is about waxing, it sort of keeps you very awake, and there I was, lying on my tummy while my favourite skin therapist was doing her thing, when I suddenly asked her, “Who do you think I’m doing this for?” Ouch! She yanked off a patch of wax before responding.
“Doing what?”
“Waxing my legs.”
Her hands came to a halt. Moments later, she was crouched beside me, dark eyes burning into mine. “I sincerely hope you’re doing it for you!”
I mulled this over for a while. “Men don’t wax all that much.”
“That’s because men are supposed to be hairy,” she said. Well, I have a little surprise for you all: most women are relatively hairy as well by nature, but apparently we’re not supposed to be? Yasmine laughed.
“Come off it; women have been depilating for thousands of years.”
“Yeah, by now one would have hoped Mother Nature had caught on,” I muttered. Any further thoughts were interrupted while I gritted my teeth when she attacked my thighs.
“So who do you do this for?” she asked once she was done.
“To placate thousands of years of tradition.” I ran a hand down my smooth legs and smiled at the sensation. “No,” I added, “I’m doing this for me.” And I do. Very few people get close enough to my bare legs to have much of a vested interest in whether they are waxed or not – a state of affairs I am very happy to maintain. In actual fact, only one person other than me ever runs his hands up my legs, and he’s also the man who will kiss my brow and tell me he loves me just as I am. Actually, most men I know seem to love their wives just as they are. The wives, however, rarely love themselves as they are: either they’re too fat, or too hairy, or too pale, or too grey, or too…Ergo, the waxing – to make us feel better. Ergo, the multi-billion beauty industry, which further underlines our insecurities – but offers hope of overcoming them.

Us women have a great capacity for wallowing in our physical shortcomings. Men seem to take them in their stride. I wonder why – do mothers raise boys with more unconditional love than girls? Or is it female peer pressure – the same pressure that makes us feel like awful mothers when we’ve bought the birthday cake instead of baking it – that has us constantly assessing our physical exterior? Sometimes, it seems to me us modern women are elegantly trapped between the preconceived notions of what a woman should be, as expressed by our mothers, and the time constraints of our day to day. It is sort of difficult to juggle full time jobs, kids, the practicalities of life, and still find time to ensure the negligee sits just so over a svelte and buffed body as we welcome hubby home with a dry martini. (I wish! – or rather he wishes…)

I guess the only comfort in all this, is that we’re following an age-old tradition. Since woman first caught sight of her reflection in a still pool of water, she has expended considerable energy on improving what she sees, whether it be with coal round her eyes and carmine on her lips, or sophisticated laser treatment. Interestingly enough, very few of us expect our men to expend the same energy on their exterior. Why? Because we love them just as they are!

Tulips IMG_0055Right; after this little meandering excursion into the why’s of waxing, here come seven interesting things about me:

1. I dream in Latin – which is weird, as I don’t know Latin.

2. I have a thing about drawing “nekkid ladies” while stuck in boring meetings.

3. I call my husband Heathcliff

4. I only drink coffee when I’m pregnant – which means I won’t be drinking any more coffee in my life.

5. I have a thing about whisky and lug home bottles every time I’m overseas – but I have never tasted a drop. I just like the smell and the colour…

6. My home is full of red stuff: red lamp, red chair, red computer, red vases, red Nespresso, red toaster, red blender, red teapot. I do believe red is my favourite colour ;)

7. I skinny dip whenever I get the chance.

And now on to my nominees:

  • Flashlight Commentary . Erin Davies excellent review blog. I know Erin lives a busy life, with small children and a full time job, and still she posts excellent reviews at such a rate I think she inhales the books.
  • The Seventeenth Century Lady. What ms Zuvich doesn’t know about William & Mary is probably not worth knwing. Same goes for that flamboyant man, the Duke of Monmouth. For some odd reason, she has a crush on Prince Rupert, which is sort of sad, seeing as the dude in question has been dead for well over 300 years.
  • Barbara Gaskell Denvil – because this lady writes blogs almost as beautiful as the prose in her books. And as to her books – wow!
  • Kim Zollman Rendfeld – her blog is an informative venture into early medieval European history
  • Always Wanted to be a Reiter – Jacqui Reiter’s impressively erudite blog about John, Earl of Chatham and older brother of William Pitt. Besides, who can resist that blog name, huh?
  • Layered Pages – Ms Stephanie is beyond doubt one of the more generous bloggers around, always offering to host and promote others. Her author interviews are great!
  • Judith Arnopp – a blog dedicated to history, need I say more??? Ms Arnopp is not only an excellent novelist, but she also writes insightful posts that shed new light (at least to me) on the intricacies of Tudor life
  • Before the Second Sleep – the name itself makes me smile. Ms Zlitni may not post often, but when she does, her poetic language leaves me wanting more. Much more.
  • The Freelance History Writer – Susan Abernathy maintains an impressive blog – and she is a generous lady who gladly shares her knowledge with those in need.
  • A day in the life of patootie Lori Crane is an excellent writer, and a truly versatile lady, what with her combo singer/writer routine.

Right; after all this writing, I shall now drag myself off for a nice cuppa. I have no idea why writing makes me so thirsty, but there you are, yet another odd little fact about me – I drink tea by the gallon while typing :)

 

 

When the creative juices flow

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Me sitting down to chat w me…(Sargent)

Every now and then, I sit down to have a serious one-to-one chat with yours truly. Okay, so the conversation is generally one-sided, as I haven’t progressed to doing different voices for different sides of my personality, but the purpose of these little tete-a-tetes is to remind myself why I write. Primarily for me. You see, sometimes I forget that my main source of inspiration and energy is the desire to write what pleases me.

These meetings tend to be quite the hub-bub. Some of my more vociferous invented characters will take the opportunity to remind me that very much of what I write affects them – and they really want a say in it. Not about to happen, I remind them. After all, life is usually a long sequence of surprises (big or small) no matter if you’re living in the real world or in between the pages of my novels. Except, of course, that Alex Graham is of the firm opinion she exists well outside my writing. (She does. She swishes around in my head more or less all the time) Matthew Graham merely smiles. He knows this particular lady (me) has a crush the size of an elephant on him, and ergo, where I go, he goes. But I don’t tell Alex that. She isn’t good at sharing…

All of the above probably has the more pragmatic among my readers rocking back in their chairs. What, she admits to having conversations with her characters? Huh. I would argue all writers do. We need that spark of life from our characters to properly flesh them out, develop them into tangible beings. Things do, however, become problematic when they start expressing opinions about everything in my life – but I’m not going there. At least not today.

Michelangelo,_Giudizio_Universale_02

..and he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter…

So, where was I? Oh, yes: a writer writes to please himself. A painter, I presume, paints to please himself/herself. Nah-nah-nah, some of you say, reminding me that many are the artists and writers who have sold their talent for commercial rewards. Even that star among artists, Michelangelo, painted and sculptured on commission. Yes, he did. But somehow I don’t get the impression Michelangelo did much compromising on quality – or on being true to his ideals. I truly believe he was proud of his work – you see, it pleased him. (And in his case, if it lived up to his own exacting standards, he assumed the rest, maybe with the exception of Raphael, would like it as well, but then Michelangelo never liked Raphael – professional jealousy, one presumes)

17th century man 3

Pleased w his pic – but is it the truth?

I realise that Michelangelo is not perhaps the best example to bring forth. The man was a genius, his talent so bright no one in their right mind would attempt to interfere with his creative process. Many, many more artists (and writers) are far from geniuses, and somewhere along the line the artist who wants to eat may have to compromise. The portrait painter in the 17th century who survived from commission to commission was not about to risk his future by depicting Mr X (a rather ugly man) as he was. After all, Mr X had requested a portrait of himself because at some level Mr X was convinced he would look good hanging on a wall for all eternity. So the artist had to do some magic – a tradition that has survived most hale and hearty all the way to us, when Photoshop allows must of us to look great, even if we don’t.

I guess it all comes down to how dependent you are on your creative efforts to feed yourself. If yes, of course the artist must compromise to keep his children in food – but I suspect many such artists have felt physical pain at doing so. I am fortunate in that I don’t need to write to feed my kids. (And three of them no longer live at home) I write, as I remind myself, to please myself. Except I don’t. Not only. If I only did it for myself, why go through all the angst of publishing? No, it is time to come clean and admit I write to please myself AND my potential readers. Many, many readers, preferably.

My father was an accomplished amateur painter. He would stand for hours before his easel and consider just what shade of green he wanted for that specific leaf. Or he would hum happily to himself as he created a new collage. For him, painting was about escaping. Every Sunday, he would allow himself some hours in which he lost himself in his creative efforts, no longer the efficient business man, no longer the man who put the bacon on the table, but simply Ingvar, a man who once dreamed of becoming an artist but who got caught in the hamster wheel of life. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe he was unhappy with his choices – he loved his work – but sometimes the dream reared its rosy little head inside of him.

My writing started out as something similar. Hours in which I escaped into a world where I called the shots. This was before Alex and Matthew  grew into such formidable presences as they are today. Before Adam de Guirande popped up in my head, with his slow smile. Before that endearing Hannah Carolina and her sticky fingers, and definitely before Jason and Helle, torn apart by fate. These days, I have resigned myself to not calling the shots. I’m some sort of glorified secretary at times, fingers going numb in my effort to keep up with all the whispered suggestions from my characters, all the images that flash through my head. BUT. My writing is still an exquisite pleasure, moments in which I no longer think about the more mundane aspects of life, concentrated as I am on creating.

20150223_093655My father once expressed that his painting helped him develop professionally. Seeing as he was the CEO of a company, it is sort of difficult to see how his painting could impact his work life – or at least that was what I thought, until now, close to forty years later, when my writing most definitely has a positive influence on my daily work. You see, since I started investing serious time in my writing, my creative processes have improved. I trust my instincts more, and as to thinking out of the box – well, if you write about time travellers and reincarnated souls and more or less develop friendly relationship with real people who died seven centuries ago, thinking out of the box very much becomes the norm.

Likewise, the structure I implement at work (thinking out of the box is all very fine, but in some areas, such as accounting, it is definitely frowned upon) helps me in my writing. I may be wildly creative, have tons of little post-its lying about, but once I sit down to properly write, I adopt a serious approach, staring with a thorough structuring of my research. (Research sounds so dry. In reality, I wallow in lovely, lovely books about people and times I want to know more about. Lucky me!)

At one point in time, I dreamed about being a full-time writer, bring the world to its knees with my sweeping masterpieces. My father, in a surprisingly gentle manner for a man as rational as he was, reminded me that dreams are dreams. With a wry little smile, he told me that some things in life are best kept as precious bubbles, stolen moments in time uniquely our own.
“You’re too conventional to handle the harsh reality of surviving on your art,” he said, “as am I.” Hard words to hear when you’re twenty something – after all, what young person wants to be defined as ‘conventional’?

Many years have passed since then, and these days my father isn’t around. But whenever I sink into the world where my creative juices flow unhindered, I swear I can feel him at my side, a proud gleam in his eyes. And he was right, of course. I’ve never had to compromise to eat, so my writing remains a passion, an urge. It flowers as it pleases me – and my voluble characters – and quite often what pleases me pleases my readers. And if it doesn’t, well then I must remember that I’m mostly doing this for me.
“And for us,” Alex Graham says, sweeping her arm in a gesture to encompass all my characters, presently ranged around tea and scones (I do have a very roomy brain, okay?). Yes, of course for them, for the imagined people who have become my beloved friends and constant companions. “Sheesh,” Alex mutters, using her apron to dab at her eyes, “you really do have a way with words, don’t you?” Duh!

Torn asunder – of Finland and its history

Finland Albert_Edelfelt_-_Kaukola_Ridge_at_Sunset_-_Google_Art_Project

Finland, land of lakes

So I was taking the opportunity of a lull in the meeting to bore my colleagues with yet another historical tidbit. Okay, maybe not bore, as I do try to present my favourite moments in history in an entertaining manner, involving a lot of posturing, multiple voices and general enthusiasm, but in a group of people not all that interested in history this mainly leads to amused smiles rather than a riveted audience. But what can I say? I take it as my personal mission to do some educating…

One of my colleagues is from Finland. Now Finland doesn’t feature much on my historical radar – there is also an element of embarrassment for me as a Swede to delve too deeply into a history that will, per definition, include a series of atrocities perpetrated by the crusading Swedes on the Finnish people. Sweden conquered Finland in the 12th – 13th century, this under the pretext of bringing Christianity to the heathen savages who lived in the Finnish forests. (Not so sure they were all that heathen – or savages.)

All this Swedish aggression still rankles in Finnish minds. I recall an incident several years ago when I was working for a Finnish multinational. We were visiting a production facility in a town called Kauttua (land in Turku, get a car, drive two hours straight into the never-ending woods, and there is Kauttua) when one of my Finnish colleagues pointed at the lake spread before us and said, “That’s where we murdered those three bishops. Drowned them. Serve them right, Swedish bastards that they were.” Err… at the time, I was sitting stark naked in a sauna, surrounded by Finnish people gripping bundles of birch twigs (used to whip the dirt off your body while in the sauna). Somewhat intimidating…

Anyway, my present day Finnish colleague suggested I write about Eugen Shauman or Alexandra Gripenberg.
“Ah,” I replied trying to sound as if I knew exactly who he was talking about. To be able to look knowledgeable while clueless is a valuable skill in the world of business, and one I have become quite good at.My colleague was not taken in. He grinned, bright blue eyes sparkling.
“You’ve never heard of them, have you?”
No, I admitted.
“So read up,” he suggested. Which, dear people, I have now done.

Finland’s history is intimately entwined with that of Sweden and Russia. As stated above, Sweden sent off crusaders in the 13th century, but the interaction between the countries stretch back much farther in time. While Sweden wanted to annex Finland as an eastern outpost, the Kingdom of Novgorod was just as keen to expand their territory west, using Finland as a western outpost. Obviously, the poor Finns were caught in between.

Finland Hertig_Karl_skymfande_svartvit

Swedish aggression, 16th century style

Initially, the Swedes were successful. In the name of God, Finland was brought to the Swedish crown and was to remain Swedish for very many centuries. Swedish noblemen were granted Finnish land, Swedish clerics moved to spread the word of God (in Swedish, mainly) to Finland. Obstinate Finns were forcibly relocated elsewhere – like in the wilds of Sweden. The use of Finnish was not encouraged, and overtime, the Finnish society coagulated into an upper class who spoke Swedish and no Finnish, and a lower class who spoke only Finnish and resented their Swedish overlords. Duh…

As an aside, even today, there is a large minority of Finnish people whose mother tongue is Swedish. Some of the best Swedish language literature has been written by Finnish people – and especially the poets combine the lyrical aspects of the Swedish language with the stark and uncompromising character of the Finnish people, resulting in immortal poetry. Neither here nor there, but as I write this, my tongue curls itself round lines like “Röd-Eemeli föddes i torpets bastu:smuts och gråt” (“Red Emil was born in the croft’s sauna; dirt and tears” from Röd Eemeli by Diktonious) or “Du sökte en kvinna och fann en själ – du är besviken” (“You searched for a woman and found a soul – you are disappointed” from Dagen Svalnar by Edith Södergran)

Peter_benois

Tsar Peter, looking to the west

Back to our abbreviated history lesson: as many of you may know, the Swedish empire reached its largest extension in the 17th century and began to crumble rapidly after that. To the east, the Kingdom of Novgorod had been gobbled up by Russia, and this larger, stronger Russia had aspirations – to the west. The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, defeated the hitherto so powerful Swedish Army at Poltava (for a related post, go here) and during the first few decades of the 18th century Finland was one massive, bloody battlefield, leaving it split in two (the Russians annexed the south-eastern part) and severely depopulated, seeing as more than half of the population had died due to war and pillage.

Finland Raatajat_rahanalaiset

Suffering peasants – look at the little girl!

The 18th century in Finland was pretty bleak. The Russians invaded and plundered, the Swedish/Finnish armies fought back, and the ones who paid the price were the people. Our Finnish friends were not happy. Centuries of oppression coupled with decades of warfare awakened a desire among the Finns to control their own destiny, become independent. Groups of intellectuals began talking about the Finnish identity, the importance of preserving the Finnish language and heritage.

Finland 800px-Edelfelt_Koivujen_alla_1881

Among Finnish birches

In 1809, Sweden lost the rest of Finland to Russia, and the country of a thousand lakes and birches became an Imperial fief – a Grand Duchy, no less.  Not, in the opinion of many Finnish people, an entirely bad thing. St Petersburg was a much bigger draw than the provincial backwater of Stockholm, and the Russians allowed the Finns to keep a number of their laws, such as those guaranteeing the peasants remained freeholders rather than serfs as was common in the rest of Russia. Plus Alexander I was quite okay with leaving local legislation in general up to the Finnish parliament. And yet… That desire to become truly independent grew successively stronger.

Finland Alexander_I_of_Russia_by_F.Kruger_(1837,_Hermitage)

Tsar Alexander I

It all started with the language. In the 19th century, groups of Swedish-speaking Finns began to actively promote the Finnish language, this as a means of creating a common bond between them (mostly upper class)  and the Finnish speaking peasantry. At the time, Finnish as a language had no official status. It was Swedish or Russian, full stop. Very quickly, the Fennoman movement (i.e. promoting everything Finnish) took hold. In 1834, the Kalevala was published, a collection of Finnish myths harkening back to a very distant past. In the late 19th century, after insistent lobbying, Finnish was at last granted the status of official language.

That itch for independence was becoming a rash. The Finnish people, now cleverly united behind a common language, (although truth be told very many of the Swedish-speakers would never lower themselves to speak Finnish) began to dream of a free Finland. Dangerous dreams if you’re part of the Russian empire, and those too vocal often ended up imprisoned.

Finland Eugen_schauman

Eugen Schauman

At this point in time, I think I must introduce Eugen Schauman, still today considered one of Finland’s foremost heroes. This was a man destined to live a very short life, ablaze with Finnish patriotism. Yet another of those Swedish-speaking Finns, he took it upon himself to rid Finland of its Russian General-Governor, Nikolai Bobrikov, appointed in 1898. Bobrikov was not a major Finland fan. In fact, he considered Finland to be a borderline enemy state, and all this Fennomanism, all this liberal spouting about Finnish roots and culture, had him seeing red. No, Bobrikov decided, it was about time the rebellious Finns were brought to heel, which is why he urged the Tsar to sign the February Manifesto in 1899.

Finland Nikolai_Bobrikov

Nikolai Bobrikov

Just like that, several of the rights and liberties hitherto enjoyed by the Finnish people became null and void.  The period in time labelled by the Finns as the first “Years of Oppression” had begun. Russian became the official language, Russian was to be taught in schools, Russian laws were to take precedence over Finnish laws, and the Finnish army was to be abolished, all those serving in it to be sucked up into the Imperial Russian Army. Conscripted Finnish men were sent off to distant parts of the Russian empire to serve, so as to knock the Finnishness out of them.

Not, in brief, a good time to be Finnish – or a Fennoman. Half a million Finnish people signed a petition to the Tsar, begging him to revoke the manifesto. The Tsar didn’t even deign to receive the delegation. (This, BTW, is of course the same Tsar who was to die in Yekaterinburg) . And as to Bobrikov, he became the most hated man in Finland. So hated, that several undercover groups planned to murder him. The task to do so, however, went to the young volunteer Eugen Schauman.

Eugen had so far in his life shown little inclination for fast-paced action, no matter that his mother had filled his head with nationalistic dreams of a free Finland. Born in 1875 in Charkov, Ukraine, Schauman belonged to a family with strong military traditions, but as he had impaired hearing the army was not an option. Instead, he was urged to study, and despite his partial deafness managed to graduate (this in a day and age where a lot of the exams were verbal) with good grades. After some years at university, he became a clerk in the Finnish Administration, and spent his free time developing his athletic skills.

Eugen was a good  shot – he considered it necessary to be able to handle a gun to be able to defend his beloved Finland. He was also somewhat unfortunate in love, and there are those that believe his latest rejection drove him to his final desperate action. Whatever the case, Schauman utilised his position in the Senate to plan his attack. And on the 16th of June 1904, at precisely eleven o’clock (Bobrikov was a punctual man and was arriving for a meeting) Eugen shot Bobrikov three times before turning his gun on himself. Schauman died immediately. Bobrikov lingered on for a further 36 hours.

Despite all this hullabaloo, despite assassinated General-Governors, the Russian Empire did not interfere with the Finnish Parliament. After the Russian Revolution of 1905 (which, among other things, curtailed the Tsar’s powers and strengthened that of the Russian Parliament, the Duma), Finland’s parliament was more or less left to rule Finland as it pleased. But I imagine the Russian elite stood by as an amused spectator as the Finnish people took the drastic step of implementing universal suffrage in the 1906 election. Imagine that – not only were men, no matter their station, given the right to vote, but the misguided Finns were also allowing that weaker sex, the women, a say in how they should be governed.

Finland Alexandra_Gripenberg

Alexandra Gripenberg

And this dear people, brings me to Baroness Alexandra Gripenberg. May I present an avid Fennoman, a well-educated female member of the Swedish-speaking wealthy classes who early on embraced the vision of a free Finland, a country in which men and women had equal rights.(And I must say I have to tip my hat in the direction of my Finnish colleague, who expressed such pride in a woman who fought so hard for the female vote. Gender equality is, clearly, almost a genetic quality in Finland)

Alexandra, born in 1857,  was one of twelve siblings, and when her father died she was not yet a teen. The father’s death reduced the family’s circumstances somewhat, and Alexandra was educated by her older sisters rather than at school. There were no opportunities for a higher level education, in part due to her gender, but also due to the overall cash flow situation. Alexandra, however, was an intelligent young lady, and she compensated for her lack of formal education by reading voraciously.

In 1884 she founded the first women’s right association in Finland, and in 1887 she set off to see the world, travelling through Britain and the US, where to her delight she met not only Harriet Beecher Stowe, but also Mark Twain, whom she found deliciously attractive. Most of all, she met women with similar views to her own, and she became an active member of the International Council for Women, travelling extensively while using her pen and wits to promote causes dear to her heart.

Alexandra was not a major fan of the universal suffrage implemented in 1906. She was of the opinion that democracy required the voters to have a certain level of basic education and understanding of the system, and she didn’t believe her countrymen were ready – no matter their gender. Still, she was convinced to stand for election and became one of ten women to take a seat in Parliament, where she mainly focused on women’s right issues, such as banning prostitution.

In her later years, Alexandra became somewhat marginalised within the Finnish women’s right movement, Basically, Alexandra held very conservative views, and vehemently opposed any initiatives that she felt were in contradiction with her Christian values. She was appalled by the young, radical women who claimed the right to choose their sexual partners as they pleased,  she considered it natural that women managed the household – men were not supposed to do such female tasks as laundry. For her, gender equality was about the right to education and the right to work – and she was quite adamant that women were not to receive any preferential treatment whatsoever in the workplace.

In 1911, Alexandra died, six years before that other dream of hers, that of seeing an independent Finland, was realised. Personally, I think she would have been devastated by the events that followed upon independence – seeing your country torn in two tends to have that effect on patriots.

In 1917, the Finnish Parliament declared its independence. This act plunged the country into a brief, but very bitter, civil war, a fight to death between the Reds and the Whites.The Reds wanted to follow in the footsteps of glorious (hmm) Comrade Lenin. The Whites blanched (;)) at the thought of a socialist state.  For close to two years, the country was at war with itself, and in those tumultuous times, one Finnish man stood tall above all others (and he was, actually, very, very tall). This is a man I most definitely had heard of before – namely General Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, commander of the White troops, later to become Finland’s president and even later to become Marshal of Finland and lead its defences against the Soviet Union in World War II, when the gentleman in question was pushing eighty. But this, dear people, is too extensive a topic to cover here. Mr Mannerheim will simply have to wait.

So ends this initial foray into Finnish history, and what better way to end it than by listening to Monty Python? (Although seriously: mountains in Finland? Ha!)

The flutter that makes us – and breaks us

Love Watts_George_Frederic_Orpheus_And_EurydiceToday’s post is about love. Seems sort of apt, given the date…I have a thing about love – in all its forms and guises. Not that I believe myself to be unique in this; most people I know have a thing about love.

Love hurts, they say. I guess most of us would agree, having at some point or other experienced just how much it can hurt. I guess one of the more painful versions is unrequited love. It becomes a couple of degrees more painful if the object of your heart’s desire is made aware of your feelings. Somehow, loving makes us vulnerable, it strips us down to the bone, and this process is barely bearable if the love is reciprocated. It is utterly unbearable if it isn’t.

Cupid Piero_della_Francesca_-_Cupid_Blindfolded_-_WGA17587Love hurts, love twists our hearts into mashed pulp and we are at times quite convinced we will die from the pain caused by Cupid’s arrows. We rarely do. We lick our wounds, repair our hearts, and out we go into the world, looking for someone else to love. We hum along with songs describing love and pain, we prefer it if there’s a HEA to our romantic movies, our romantic books. Life rarely has HEAs, and we know that – of course we do, we’re not idiots – but we want to be fooled, we need the fairy tale sugar-coating so as to find the courage to try again. And again.

Even worse than unrequited love, is to be betrayed in love. In general, relationships where one of the parties cheat are over long before the cuckolded party realises it – or maybe they have realised it but have chosen not to, playing the ostrich to perfection. For some, betrayal is so inconceivable it never crosses their mind it can happen – until it does. And when it does, it is not only the love bubble that bursts apart, it is the self itself that is torn and shredded. Not only did you love unwisely, but you were fool enough not to see what was happening under your very nose.

Serpents-in-the-Garden_pb-lrgIn Serpents in the Garden, one of my protagonists, Ian Graham, discovers his wife Jenny is sleeping with Patrick, the field hand. Humiliated and hurt, he is also beset by vivid images in which his adulterous wife is laughing at him while enjoying her lover’s caresses.

He sent wood chips flying; he chopped and chopped, venting anger and humiliation on the length of timber at his feet. He choked on his rage, a hard knot working itself up and down his gullet. God, how gullible she must have found him!He drove the axe head into the wood, and worked until his shirt stuck to his back.

It helped to gouge his way through the log. With each stroke, the red anger inside of him receded, the heat that threatened to boil over cooled, until he was left with a controlled, icy rage that lay like a lid across the angry whipping thing in his guts.

Ian and Jenny live in 17th century Maryland. Adultery could potentially lead to death (although it rarely did) and definitely to public humiliation. Not a sufficient deterrent for Jenny – she burns for the other man. Does she still love Ian? Yes, Jenny would have answered – at least initially.

Love Image-François_Pascal_Simon_Gérard_006Falling out of love is a much more gradual process than the tumultuous experience of falling in love. Bit by bit, love is downgraded to affection, to indifference, and where once life without the other was impossible to even consider, one day one wakes and thinks life without the other would be quite okay – quite nice actually.

I don’t think Jenny ever reaches the indifference level. Instead, she is swimming in guilt, further burdened by the heavy-handed morality of the times. As Jenny discovers, the adulterous woman in the 17th century had no rights – especially when it came to her children. So why does Jenny risk everything? Anyone who has been in love knows the answer; she can’t help herself.

Love Cupid_and_Psyche_-_Anthony_Van_Dyck_(1639-40)Wounds to the heart can take a long time to heal, and in Serpents in the Garden several of my characters suffer devastating blows, the kind that bring you to your knees while you promise yourself that never, ever again will you gamble the well-fare of your heart on another human being. Fortunately, the heart is a resilient organ. Despite being badly bruised, at times even broken, it heals. The more daring among us will therefore set our heart at risk over and over again – hoping that one day we’ll find the love of our life. And many of us do. So yes; love hurts. But it also carries us through the darkest of days, it gives us wings to fly with, just when we need it the most. That, I believe, is one of the central messages in all my books: love rules, people. Without it, we would be but husks.

*****************************

BRAGI have just been informed that Serpents in the Garden has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion , the fifth of my books to be so honoured. Need I say I am beyond pleased?

I guess this just reflects the fact that very many of us have a thing about love, right?

And should you want to buy the book, why not pop over to Amazon US? Or Amazon UK?

 

 

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