Thursday 30 April 2009

TRAVEL TALK: Cruising in Croatia

I’ve talked about the Switzerland leg of our European holiday here, now it’s time for Croatia.

Left: Cherry blossoms appear in Split, where people still live (and hang out their washing) in Emperor Dioclesian's vast Roman palace, today a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Most people we spoke to as we planned the trip took a boat tour. Starting in Venice, they’d cruise the Adriatic, disembarking at the Croatian ports of Rijeka, Split or Dubrovnik. As I get seasick just looking at waves, we didn’t think this would be a great idea and we decided to do something different.

We flew from Zurich to Zagreb, hired a car and hit the road, spending two weeks exploring charming, complex Croatia. Here are some of my superficial impressions:

Language: As a lover of words, the Croatia language fascinated me. A symbol of the country’s identity it’s complicated, intriguing and enigmatic, as if it doesn’t have a solid sense of a separate identity. It appears to be a mixture of French (“je”), German (“und”), Russian (“da”) and Italian (“vino”). And yet, it’s unique, with an abundance of consonants and not enough vowels.

Right: A view of the National Theatre in Zagreb from the doorway of our private box. The theatre was marvellously opulent and the opera excellent but the chairs, I have to say, were the most uncomfortable I've ever sat in!

On our first evening in the country we went to the old National Theatre in Zagreb to see Poulenc’s “Les Dialogues de Carmelites”. There were sub-titles from the French in both English and Croatian displayed above the stage. I can honestly tell you there was no correlation between the two languages.

People: Like everything else in Croatia, the people were an intriguing mix. Reserved, yet friendly and very helpful, they reminded me of many white South Africans immediately after the Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings in the 1990’s. Having seen a side of our country that made us look at ourselves very differently, we felt as if our very sense of identity had been stripped from us. We became anxious for acceptance in the international community but, reeling from past wounds (self-inflicted some would say), we were an uneasy mix of bravado and courage, hope and guilt. So to are the Croatians: ever anxious for acceptance into the European Union, they appear to be a mix of aspiration and dejection, hope and despair.

Left: This old woman was a vendor in a street market. Her weathered face reflects the endurance of the people; her slight smile their hope.

Religion: A strongly Catholic country (one guidebook said 98% Catholic), there is a predominance of sacred art. From rather creepy 11th century relics reverently protected in delicate gold caskets and reliquaries to towering marble sculptures, the sacred art is breathtaking.

From the tombs of the enormous Mirogoj Cemetery to the ancient Icons in Zadar and Dubrovnik, the faith of the Croatian people is both part of their past and their present. When one walks into a Cathedral or a small parish church in Croatia (many of them over 1000 years old!), there is a silence, a stillness, which thrums with the energy of their devotion. From the little old ladies muttering to their rosaries and dressed in widow-black, to the rows of young men and women sitting waiting outside the confessional booths, these ancient buildings are clearly houses of worship and not just the tourist attractions that so many other great Cathedrals throughout Europe and England have become.

Left: Husband Beric standing in front of the harbour at Split with Dioclesian's Palace and gathering storm clouds in the background.

It's Raining Men: Perhaps this strong connection with a traditional faith accounts for an interesting phenomenon we noticed. While in the cities there is a certain amount of gender mixing, we often noticed groups of men sitting around in café bars and restaurants, while the women worked in stores.

We arrived at the Mirogoj Cemetery – with its long arcades of family mausoleums and its tree-lined avenues, today still used as Zagreb’s burial place – when a funeral was in progress. The men walked in front of the priest, followed by the coffin, which in turn was followed by the mourning family and the procession ended with the women.

Food: Hot chocolate so thick it has to be spooned from the mug. Sheer bliss. Lots of pizza, pasta and risotto, probably a legacy of the centuries that the Dalmatian Coast was under Venetian rule. All delicious and fairly cheap, but after two weeks it was a pleasure to go to the National Restaurant Lička Kuća, where Beric (by now desperate for red meat) had lamb roasted under a bell.

Above Left: Our first taste of Croatian hot chocolate at the lovely Hotel Bastion in Zadar.

: From the institutional rows of council flats, which reminded one of how recently this country was under communistic rule, to the ancient churches such as the 9th century AD St Donat’s in Zadar, built over the Roman Forum originally constructed in 1st century BCE, Croatia’s architecture is, again, an intriguing mix.

Above Right: The exterior of the impressive National Theatre of Croatia in the capital Zagreb.

The Naming of Cats: One of the two main differences between Switzerland and Croatia was The Cats. In both our 2007 and 2009 visits to Switzerland, we saw one cat. That’s it, one forlorn feline and that was in Bern, the most eccentric of the Swiss places we’ve visited. But in Croatia…there were hundreds of cats everywhere. Cathedral cats. Boat cats. Roof cats. Street cats. Cats. Cats. Cats. And one very silly dog.

Above Left: A cat walking along the promenade towards the walls of the old city of Dubrovnik; the Adriatic Sea is in the background.

War & Peace: From the influx of the Illyrians in 1000BC, through the Romans, Ottomans, Venetians and the Yugoslavian Communist Party, Croatia has suffered under the effects of war and conquest. As recently as the war of 1991/95, which started in the Plitvice Lakes and spread to Dubrovnik, Croatia has had to rebuild time and time again. Nowhere is their determination and hope more visible then in these two places.
Below: Dubrovnik harbour burns.

From the rubble of mortar attacks that left many dead, the ancient walls and streets of Dubrovnik have been lovingly repaired. As one wanders down the peaceful Placa (main street) the Old Town, the only reminders of this latest war are the carefully preserved shell holes in the walls of cathedral and homes alike.

Plitvice Lakes was the first place occupied during the 91/95 war. By the end of the war, the infrastructure sustaining this World Heritage site was completly destroyed by the invaders.

Now, it is a piece of Eden. The wooden walkways blend with the cascading lakes that form a jumble of waterfalls. One can see to the bottom of the clear blue-green waters and marvel at the ghostly fingers of algae that shimmer and sway in the currents as they cling to fallen logs and branches. We meandered for hours and hours, from one lake to another, the tumbling waters providing us with the illusion of solitariness amongst all this natural beauty. Our only disappointment was that we didn’t see either a bear or a wolf, the local wildlife that has begun re-inhabiting the area. We did see a furry mouse, but somehow that wasn’t quite as thrilling.

Left & Above Right: The wondrous Plitvice Lakes with their wooden walkways that carried us over still jade lakes and cascades rushing over waterfalls alike.

Best Experience:
After a hair-raising drive through rain as we left Opatija, which become sleet then heavy snow, we arrived in Zadar in an awful downpour. The weather couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to rain or snow. We crept along narrow streets to find parking, and then limped our miserable, cold way to the hotel to book in. As we only had one afternoon in Zadar, we decided to brave the icy winds and try to see some of the sights. Dumping our luggage, we wrapped up and ventured out…into blue skies and bright sunshine (See right). The glorious weather stayed the whole afternoon and Zadar has earned a special place in our hearts.

Worst Experience: Leaving the surprisingly small Zagreb International Airport we collected our Avis car and headed for Zagreb city. Having never driven in a left hand drive vehicle nor on the right hand side of the road before, it was an, er, interesting journey to find our hotel in the centre of Zagreb.

I don’t know who was more scared, me or my navigator husband (who, once he realised that all street names in Croatia appear to have three or four different names, none of which match the maps, threw the maps out the window and proceeded to navigate like an expert). But that first drive was frightful, particularly when Beric cringed in the passenger seat and let out a scream of terror as we went under a bridge. I still can’t understand why he was worried: I barely nicked the mirror on his side of the car. Actually, you could hardly see the dent at all.

Another hair-raising experience was driving along the narrow streets of Dubrovnik and playing chicken with the moped drivers who, avoiding the snarl up of traffic in the oncoming lanes, would pop out of nowhere, fly down the wrong side of the road (MY side!) and then zoom back into their own lane moments before I had a heart attack.

Left: Views of the Adriatic as we meandered through the Marjan Forest in Split.

The intricate detail of a brass swan on the banisters in the National Theatre in Zagreb.

And so now, it’s back to real life. But a life that has been forever shaded, however subtly, by our wonderous travel adventures through Switzerland and Croatia.

Left: A very silly dog. But I suppose I'd also be silly if I was left chained up all day by my owners. Reminds of the poor dog in Louise Erdrich's "The Painted Drum"

Tuesday 28 April 2009

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: The Milk of Human Kindness

"Is she kind as she is fair?
For beauty lives with kindness."
(Shakespeare, The Two Gentleman of Verona, IV,ii,43)
My belief in the milk of human kindness is at an all time high. Have you ever had a stranger help you for no reason at all? Today I've been blessed with an act of kindness and generosity that overwhelms me. In future, no-one must say to me that the publishing industry is cut-throat. Perhaps there are one or two members in the industry who earn that label, but they are balanced by others such as my publishing Good Samaritan.
What he's done for my novel may not lead anywhere. But he did it, at no little cost of his time and energy, and with no benefit to himself.
So, I'm dedicating this blog post to SC and his helper-in-kindness CC, who introduced me to him. And also to all the other professionals in the publishing industry - editors, agents and authors - who, at one time or another, have helped a stranger weather this long and arduous road that is a writer's journey.

Monday 27 April 2009

CONTEST: Win an Autographed Copy of "Silver Phoenix"

For young fans (of all ages) of Quentin Tarantino's superb movie "Hero" there's another treat in store, this time with a literary flavour.

Author Cindy Pon's debut YA novel "Silver Phoenix" is out this week. And you can win a free autographed copy of this by simply clicking on this link:

Hello Ello 2: Contest to Win an Autographed Copy of the Silver Phoenix!!!

Now that's an offer you can't refuse!

Friday 24 April 2009

DISCUSSION: Is there a difference?

What often surprises me is that I'll read a novel and find myself engrossed, only to realise that, at the end, the writing was what I would consider 'flawed'. This raises some questions in my mind: is there a difference between story telling and writing a novel? If so, what is it? And which is more important: to write a good novel, or tell a great story?

E M Forster in his "Aspects of the Novel" talks about Sir Walter Scott as an author who 'has neither detachment nor passion' and, Forster wonders, if a writer is devoid of both how he can create characters who will move us deeply? He goes on to say that Scott's fame rests on his ability to tell a story; he 'had the primitive power of keeping the reader in suspense and playing on his curiosity.'

In today's world is the difference between being published versus being unpublished more to do with whether an author has the ability to tell a good story or whether he/she is able to write a good novel? And can (should) an author combine both story telling skills with the ability to write a good novel?

What do you think?

Thursday 23 April 2009

TRAVEL TALK: Switzerland 2009

On our 2007 visit to Switzerland, a photographer called Mannfred (who reminded me of Einstein, all wild, white hair) recommended that we visit Bern. "You'll find it interesting," he said.

Left: Me in contemplative mode, staring out the hotel room window in Geneva, watching a boat float down the Rhone.

This visit started in Bern and how right Mannfred was! A mixture of old and new, Bern struck me as an example of how opposites – past and future; tradition and technology – can co-exist in a seamless harmony.

From the ancient clock tower, the Zytglogge, which acted as the city’s western gate from 1191 to 1250, with its face criss-crossed with overhead tramlines and staring down at the streets dotted with statues that are also water fountains (see left below) to the crack addicts lighting up in a darkened doorway, Bern is a city of the unusual.

As the capital of Switzerland, Bern is clearly a city, but also has a bucolic atmosphere and its quaint streets, crowded with ancient buildings , have an artistic soul.

Best Experience: Sitting on the Münsterpromenade (built in 1334), soaking up the weak, warm sunshine as I ate handmade Swiss chocolate and watched my husband take photographs of the river Aare.

Left: Beric (bottom left hand corner) strolling along the Munsterpromenade in Bern, loaded with his camera bag and carrying his monopod.

Worst Experience: This was a problem throughout Switzerland: everyone smoked everywhere. For non-smokers, there’s nothing worse than walking into a crowded, hot room filled with clouds of smoke.

After Bern, it was off to Geneva for a few days of work. In addition to several business meetings, my husband Beric presented a paper at a conference for Swiss bankers. His talk, and the new orange silk tie (see left) I gave him for good luck, was well received!

I spent the time re-visiting old haunts and discovering some new ones, as well as enjoying a solitary walk along the Rhône. I could have done without the howling wind, which felt as if it had come straight off the Arctic!

Best Experience: Once again, the highlight was attending a morning service at the Russian Orthodox Church with Beric.

Left: The Cathédrale de l'Exaltation de la Sainte Croix (Russian Orthodox Church) in Geneva.

Worst Experience: After listening to the Geneva Chamber orchestra give a wonderful performance of Die Schӧpfung (The Creation) by Haydn in the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, we went on an unscheduled, unguided late-night tour of Geneva because (wait for it) my husband followed his nose and would not ask for directions back to the hotel!

Our visit to Geneva ended on a high note with the conference formal dinner at the beautiful old Hotel d’Angleterre: a discreet atmosphere, a great table of fellow guests and delicious food made for a good ending!

Below: Beric taking a break from photographing the famous water fountain in lake Geneva.

The next day we left for Zurich. With only half a day available for exploration we didn’t have much time for anything other than a stroll down Bahnhofstrasse to the lake and, on the way back to the Hotel Schweizerhof where we found a handmade chocolate cake welcoming us back for our second visit, we dawdled past the Fraumunster and the Grossmunster.

Right: A swan on Zurich lake

Best Experience: The white, white swans drifting past on a lake framed by the snow-capped alps.

Worst Experience: Zurich has a plethora of the saddest looking dogs I’ve ever seen.

Left: A yacht skimming Zurich lake with the snow-capped Alps looking on.

Then it was a quick nine minute train journey to Zurich Airport in time to catch the plane to Zagreb in Croatia. But that's another story...(continued in next post)

Tuesday 21 April 2009

WRITING TIPS: Word Count by Wordle

You can see I've been suffering blogging withdrawal symptoms! Here's another post for today (the last!).

Have you ever sat and laboriously counted your way through your manuscript to see which words you use too often? I have! But, thanks to WORDLE, that's now a thing of the past.

Justus M Bowman talks about Wordle on his blog Across the Multiverse and what a relief it was to discover such a useful tool!

Here's my first word cloud, formed from the synopsis of my novel:

I'm delighted that the word "love" outshines the rest. Because that is the quiddity* of my novel: love.

*quiddity = new word I learnt yesterday from (meaning the essence of a thing)


Tomorrow is voting day for South Africa!

A critical vote for our country's future. The ANC (African National Congress) will no doubt win, but if their majority can be significantly reduced then ultimately Democracy is the winner!

A strong opposition makes for a strong government, so all you SAffers: let your fingers do the talking and VOTE!

SOCIAL: I'm baaaack!

Hi everyone

I'm slowly getting back to normality after an awesome trip to Switzerland and Croatia, and settling into the new routine of looking after my beloved parents! So, hopefully, I'll soon be back at full blogging speed.

Until then, I'm about to do a short travel diary on our trip and will post that here.

Hope everyone is happily writing and that all you northeners are enjoying your spring while we southerners slip into what looks to be the beginning of a cold, cold winter.

Chat soon!