Smiling like a honey cake horse

December 30, 2013 at 4:28 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Grinsen wie ein Honigkuchenpferd – To grin like a honey cake horse (German idiom)

I love placing my boot against the wheel, and kicking the new cycle into being: December is my favourite month. When else can I indulge my taste for nostalgia, and review a whole year’s worth of diaries without flinching?

2013 held six days in Russia, three meals in the Literary Cafe with bowls of violet borsch washed down with vodka, and a fair few tears shed in the library where Pushkin died. Visit to Berlin: my ninth. Hours spent on the balcony of my apartment in the old East Berlin imagining moving my life there: inestimable.

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Year since I first lived in Brussels: twenty-four. Years since I last lived there: seven. Number of hand-on-heart-moments walking down my old street there, Rue des Chandeliers: five or six. Number of penpals filling our Prague apartment with red lipstick, punk music and bottles of Bohemian Sekt champagne: four.  Our amazing holiday then concluded with visits to three of Kafka’s old houses, eleven  potential band names, and six seconds of twerking in front of the astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Square.

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The year also held nine hours of tattooing, countless swear words, and three blood red Louisiana swamp flowers curling around my right arm. New pieces of taxidermy acquired: one.  German classes: twelve. Number of awkward banjoed up German country songs I sang in class: one, and that was more than enough, believe me. Gigs in Melbourne watching stellar blues bands: thirteen. A blues dancing workshop of eight hours left me with a multitude of new dance moves and many aching muscles. New dances attempted: two, Balboa and Shag. Beats per minute of the latter: 190. Number of bras needed whilst dancing it: two. New cocktail frocks to dance it in: three. Ok, four. Current count of high heels now snaking in a line around my bedroom: 31. And climbing.

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The Year of the Snake has also been deeply, richly rewarding for my ink. There were twenty-eight stories submitted, with eight accepted, seven still pending and five emails from editors with personalised feedback. My work was included in two exhibitions in Melbourne, as well as one festival in Chicago. Number of mulled wines before I was ready to climb onto the stage with a cello accompaniment and read my story: three. Placements in short story competitions: two, for the ABC and the University of New Orleans. Mail from a literary agent in the US complimenting my work: one. Exclamations when I opened and read it: uncountable. Number of short stories written and in consideration for a collection of my work: over one hundred.

this is the story

Excitement at stepping into 2014 and all the stories it’ll contain: inexpressible.

But lord knows, I’m going to try and express it anyway…it’s my job, after all.

May you step into the new year with a straight spine, warm heart, and ink on your fingertips.

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Nyet

November 29, 2013 at 11:52 am (Uncategorized) (, , )

I just couldn’t imagine Dostoyevsky sunburnt.

When I pictured him coming home – and I did, because my life is not firmly rooted in the present, let me tell you – I’d always see him bent low with arms full of, I don’t know, onions and rat poison, collar up against the Russian snow as he trudged down Stolyarny towards Kokushkin Brigdge.

But when I turned the corner and saw his street for the first time, Led Zeppelin blared from a nearby window as I peered through leopard print sunglasses.

Not quite the same, really.

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Managing to get sunburnt my first day in St Petersburg was not what I had expected, but then again, nothing in this exotic, intoxicating city was. Wedding cake pastel palaces sent chunks of stone and plaster crashing to the footpaths below, where women with six inch stilettos and a scowl stepped right over them and kept walking. The Church on Spilled Blood was staggering, the vodka strong, and the Russian people not without a sullen kind of charm. I was, in short, utterly bewitched, and I strode along the Nevsky Prospect with my hand on my purse and a wary eye on the crumbling facades.

And this, my last day in St Petersburg, had me tracking down Raskolnikov, the murderous character in Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment.’ I stood outside the apartment where Dostoyevsky himself had lived, and where he placed his main character. It was not a pleasant part of town, even in his time; if the broken windows and stench of urine didn’t put me off, the groups of men drinking on the street corners certainly did. But part of heading to Russia was the literary indulgence it allowed me, from Pushkin to Nabokov and Gogol, and I was going to feel the spectre of Dostoyevsky if it was the last thing I did.

Plaque to Dostoyevsky

Plaque to Dostoyevsky

And it just might be. I was beginning to get noticed, and it wasn’t entirely enjoyable. I hadn’t seen that many Russian women with flame red hair and tattoos: I wasn’t likely to blend in. So I bent to pocket a small chunk of rubble that had tumbled from Raskolnikov’s roof, and slowly walked across Kaznachelsky.

Steps led down to a cellar bar, and I was instantly transported. This was, surely, where Dostoyevsky had come to drink! Perhaps when he wrote a certain amount of pages, he allowed himself a break? I chose a stool and gazed around as I delved deeper into my fantasy. I’d tell the tale that I sat on HIS stool as I raised a vodka in his honour. Yep, that’s the story I’d choose. But when I lifted the glass, I frowned at the strangely familiar music that tinkled out of a cracked speaker.

When I tell the story, I leave out the part that my toast was accompanied by a cheesy Russian version of Wham’s ‘Wake me up before you go-go.’ No-one has to know, after all.

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Do not feed the rabbits

November 5, 2013 at 8:38 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

‘Yeah man, it’s so cool – it even has a walk-in flower.’

And then they pulled the tram cord and got off. I tried to continue my eavesdropping as they moved down the steps, wondering what the hell I’d misheard. My hand was already feeling around in my bag for my little red notebook.

I collect words.  Overheard conversations, song titles and sleep talk, mondegreens, nicknames and mistranslations. I got a whole story once just from a lipstick colour (Proud Pepper, in case you’re wondering). I’m forever plucking words from menus, manuscripts and mouths, and sliding them deep into my pockets.

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I was in a subterranean restaurant in St Petersburg about eight weeks ago. I’d just come from the study where Pushkin had been carried, mortally wounded in a duel.  It had taken him two days to die. He’d finally lifted himself off his leather sofa, hand over his bloodstained stomach, and solemnly said goodbye to his books. I got a bit teary, I have to tell you.

I needed a drink after that. I headed down some stairs on Naberezhnaya Reki Moyki, into a low ceilinged cellar with cornflowers painted all over the walls. They baked their own sweet rolls, and the aroma was amazing. I scanned the menu, and when I saw ‘Cognac glazed salmon with dill potatoes’ I think I actually sucked in my breath. I painstakingly copied the Russian into my notebook – because, let’s face it, who knows when I’ll need that – and then ordered it.

The waiter had broken English, a shaved head and bright blue eyes. He was very pretty and very young, so when he stood at my table and lifted his shirt, I almost spat out my vodka.

I see you yesterday! I see you in market and I think, I like the tattoos. And then you walk. But now you here!

He nodded at the bright red swamp flowers curling over my shoulder, and the snakes of my Medusa winding down my left arm. His shirt was still held up to his neck, with his entire torso covered in bold dark tattoos of the hip hop kind. I hadn’t seen many heavily tattooed Russians, male or female, and didn’t want to ruin this bonding experience.

I knew I should have told him to drop his shirt, but just between us…I didn’t really want to.

The food was simple, and absolutely astounding. Thick slabs of smoked salmon lay slick with cognac, dotted with small potatoes and tiny feathers of dill. There were probably only four ingredients on my plate, but it was some of the best food I’d ever tasted. I wanted to copy the whole damn menu into my notebook.

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I had to duck through several serpentine corridors to get to the bathrooms. In my cubicle was an old Soviet typewriter with burnished Cyrillic keys. I balanced on my heels to get a good look at it, and then ran my fingers over each and every line. I spent so long wondering who’d typed on it that I’m sure the waiter thought I’d climbed out a window.

Coming back to my table, I passed a small green cage with three wide eyed rabbits in it, heaving their little noses this way and that. Next to their cage was a dusty stack of 1940s magazines showing post-war Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then called, and of course I went through these too.

It wasn’t like any restaurant I’d known in Melbourne, that was for sure.

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Above the cage was a stark white sign proclaiming something in Cyrillic. I stared at it for a moment, my fingers on the bars of the cage longing for a stroke of rabbit fur. But what if it said ‘Beware, these creatures are savage?’ I’d heard the squirrels in Russia were so punk rock they were known to kill dogs. I didn’t want to risk it with the rabbits – I wasn’t sure my insurance would cover it.

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So I copied the sign into my notebook and went back to my table. The waiter brought me more vodka and lifted his shirt again. Neither was unpleasant. He even tried to wink at me when I paid the bill, but didn’t quite manage to pull it off. He did tell me, however, that the sign above the cage said ‘Please do not feed the rabbits – they are fat enough already.’

And with my pockets full of words, all clinking against each other like tiny bells, I climbed the stairs and back into the Russian sun.

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