Category Archives: Languages

Kristallnacht – 80 years on

It has been 80 years since Kristallnacht, and ordinarily I’d feel relieved it is now well in the past, and not a recent memory. But somehow life has moved in a direction that makes another such event feel not in the slightest unlikely. In fact, depending on where you draw the boundaries, it’s already happening. It’s just that some of us would like to feel that it won’t take place anywhere near us.

And then there is the other important K, the Kindertransport, which started almost immediately after Kristallnacht, so that’s another 80th anniversary, and another thing we’d prefer if there was no need for it to happen again.

Both events caused some good books to be written; books I’ve ‘enjoyed’ because of their historical aspects, and because the good that happened after something so bad, was a cause for some celebration. This works for both fact-based books and pure fiction, inspired by these events.

And still bad stuff keeps happening, and we keep getting books based on what goes on in the world. The books are usually excellent, but I would so love for them not to be possible to have been written. Just think. What if these people had not been hunted out of their homes, losing their lives, or having to send their children to a strange country? Whatever great things they ended up doing here, they could have done in their own countries.

Something I read in the paper the other day made me aware that the last couple of years will by now be featuring in fiction, or are about to turn up in novels some time soon. And once I’d had that thought, I felt that I don’t want to read those books. So far everything I’ve read has been removed from me in time or place.

I’m not ready to read about my own daily fears. Maybe I never will.

Kristallnacht was bad, but I believed it could stay in the past. Because we know better now. Don’t we?

(Read this Wikipedia page on the Kindertransport. Then try to envisage the same thing being agreed – in Westminster – now.)

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Findus and the Christmas Tomte

Sven Nordqvist, Findus and the Christmas Tomte

Will he come, or not? That is the question. In this much longer than usual tale about Findus and his Pettson, it isn’t so much whether the Christmas (here known as Yule) Tomte exists, but whether he will come to visit Findus.

Findus very much wants to meet the Yule Tomte, but Pettson has not had much experience of him, for obvious reasons. But he’s a kind cantankerous old man who loves his occasionally annoying beyond words cat Findus and he wants him to be happy.

The problem – of course – is that he knows that the Tomte doesn’t really exist. And that is my problem too. Will this story work on British children who know for a fact that Father Christmas is real? There is little room for doubt.

This book comes with an explanatory page about what Christmas in Sweden is like; describing the Tomte, who is much smaller than Father Christmas, and who comes to your door, asking if you’ve been good. But the doubt is out there. And if it’s OK to doubt the Yule Tomte, can we be sure about Father Christmas?

Sven Nordqvist, Findus and the Christmas Tomtest-2

It’s a conundrum. And conundrum is precisely what poor Pettson suffers from. He needs to organise a live talking Tomte for Findus to meet on Christmas Eve. (I’d have asked the neighbour.)

Anyway, this lovely old man sets about building an automated Tomte, and as we all know who have tried making presents in secret in front of the recipients, this is not easy.

But there is some kind of magic out there, don’t you think? Who was that in the woods? And the gifts that turned up?

We can guess at what will happen. We can’t have Pettson fail, nor little Findus disappointed.

It’s sweet. And everyone is happy, if not exactly sure of what happened there…

(Sven Nordqvist has drawn many interesting inventions and little machines. Plenty to study for anyone with a keen eye. And then there are the tiny creatures that only Findus can see.
The translation by Nathan Large is very good.)

Sven Nordqvist, Findus and the Christmas Tomte

Tell Me No Truths

I loved Gill Vickery’s Tell Me No Truths! Similar to Mal Peet’s Tamar it deals with what happened in Florence during WWII, and we meet three British teenagers who have come to Italy looking for answers to questions they have.

Gill Vickery, Tell Me No Truths

Twins Jade and Amber had an Italian grandfather, and they want to discover what the place he felt he could never return to is like. They speak Italian, as does their mother. Teen artist Nico is on holiday away from his boarding school, with his mum and her latest boyfriend. Nico and his mum are big fans of a crime writer who lives in the area and they want to discover more about this elusive man.

Interspersed with today’s activities, we read a sort of diary from the war, about dramatic things that happened, but we don’t quite know who is doing the telling. But it’s easy to see it has a bearing on what all three teenagers are searching for.

There is romance in the air, as well, and now is a time for families to learn to accept the past and to start again.

There are too few novels about the war from inside another country, like Italy. We don’t know enough, and we need to learn more, as do Nico, Jade and Amber.

Great blend of art, crime and food, against the backdrop of WWII and Florence as it is today.

Witch on rails

Did you work it out? What did last week’s random posts have in common?

That’s right. It was Wien, although not perhaps Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume. It was more Daughter’s Träume to spend her birthday in Vienna. So we did. She flew in, while I revisited my youth and Interrailed. Much as I love trains, I’m not sure I recommend such a lot of train travel in one go. It takes a long time to get to Vienna. On the eve of my departure I realised that three books wouldn’t be enough, so added a fourth. Jolly lucky I did!

The Resident IT Consultant had looked up how to get to the hotel. ‘Easy,’ he said. Underground to Schwedenplatz and then a short walk from there. He reckoned I could memorise that. The hotel was where Daughter stayed last year and loved it so much that nothing else would do. She was right. I’d go back in a heartbeat. Although, not necessarily by rail.

Advised by Keith Gray who moved to Vienna last year, we went for birthday tea in a lovely café. I got up to inspect the cake counter to see what I’d like. ‘Was ist das?’ I asked and pointed. The nice young man told me, and it proved easier than expected to remember. Schwedenschnitte. It was very good.

We – well, I – wanted to see the Spanish riding school, so we went for its daily morning exercise session. Maybe not the best thing to do. I’d no idea that they have seats where you can’t see the ground [and thereby not the beautiful Lipizzaners]. After which it turned out that Daughter is allergic to horses…

The next day was Austria’s national day, which could be why we had tickets for a rather Straussy morning concert at the Musikverein. Luckily it was everything Daughter wanted it to be, except possibly New Year’s Day.

From there we walked to the Palmenhaus to meet Keith Gray and his family, for a chat and tea, sitting on the terrace in the late October sunshine. It was very nice, and a treat to see how the Viennese interact with waiters in cafés. Apparently forthright ‘rudeness’ is the way, and you really do say grüß Gott to everyone, even in the supermarket. And seeing as we never made it to Dunfermline to visit Keith at home, trailing after him to Vienna seemed like a good idea.*

During our remaining time in this beautiful city we squeezed in a few more cafés, purely in the name of research. Obviously. I even tried a piece of Gugelhupf, inspired by Tim in Airs Above the Ground. Books are dangerous.

And then Daughter got on her plane home, and I found my sleeper train. By the time I got to Köln I discovered that German German is so much easier than its Austrian sibling. I also found there is such a thing as a delayed German train, but I still managed to travel all the way home, a steady four hours ahead of Son who was ‘following’ me through that bit of Europe.

Finished my third book on Eurostar, starting on the fourth as I left King’s Cross.

*There is no way of escaping a witch. No matter where you move, she’ll come for her Schwedenschnitte. And you.

Woman in Gold

We return to a film from a few years ago:

What surprised me the most about Woman in Gold was how much it was about the war. That might sound stupid, but I’d mainly thought about the process of getting a stolen work of art back now, long after the war. And the trailer had been mostly lighthearted, with clever and amusing lines.

Woman in Gold

Don’t misunderstand me; I believe the film was better for all its background, reminding us – and in the case of Daughter, showing for the first time – of what went on in Austria not only during the war, but before it as well. Without it, Maria Altmann could have seemed to be simply greedy and grabbing. In a way this was one of those occasions when you feel that both sides are both right and wrong. Were it not for the fact that Austria took away Maria’s right to the life she was living, when they pulled the rug out from under her feet. As I think she said, it wasn’t so much getting the painting of her aunt back, as getting some recompense for what they did to her family, breaking it up, and killing most of them.

Woman in Gold

I had looked forward to seeing more of Vienna, but in the end it was almost painful. I appreciated seeing the old Vienna, as Maria knew it when she grew up. I’m not Austrian, nor quite that old, but I could recognise some of the life she lived.

Had not realised that Daughter didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, but then it had been some years since we read about Maria and her Klimt painting in the news.

Woman in Gold

I enjoyed Woman in Gold, and more so for it being so European, and not just Hollywood gloss. Helen Mirren can do anything she puts her mind to, and Ryan Reynolds was a lovely Randol Schoenberg. Good to see so many actors employed who are not necessarily English language household names, but who were able to portray Austrians in a believable way.

Airs Above the Ground

Like The Star of Kazan, Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground features a stolen Lipizzaner and some fake jewels, plus romance and adventure galore, all set in Austria.

Well over forty years since I last read it, I discovered – again – that returning to a book often improves it. I remembered some things very clearly, and was delighted to find others that I really enjoyed.

Mary Stewart, Airs Above the Ground

Almost newly-wed Vanessa flies out to Vienna, ostensibly chaperoning 17-year-old Tim, who is crazy about horses, and the Spanish riding school especially. Both of them are travelling under false pretences.

A fire in a circus takes them all over Austria, and it turns out Vanessa’s husband leads a more exciting life than she’d hitherto been aware of. (Well, he is a Mary Stewart hero.)

Now that I’m much older than Vanessa (I wasn’t the first time), I can see that she is unreasonably mature at 24. But I like her, and I adore young Tim, who like Mary’s other ‘young men’ is truly lovely.

And as for the horse… well, not a dry eye left.

I wonder if Eva Ibbotson had read Airs Above the Ground? Or if great minds simply think alike? The final chapters in both books are so similar, in the most satisfying of ways.

Besides, it’s amazing how far £20 went in the early 1960s…

The Chancellors, again

I’m going to take you on a journey. Today we revisit January 2014. And there is method in the madness this week will bring:

Another birthday. More old style politics. Aunt Motta would have been 100 today. Like her older sister she was a fervent Social Democrat, and also worked hard in the ranks for a better life for all. (It wasn’t just that she sewed all my wonderful early clothes, or stuck polythene bags on my feet when the grass was wet.)

Aunt Motta & Uncle E

The family always used to refer to when Motta and Uncle E had lunch with German Chancellor Willy Brandt, as though it was a bit of a joke. He obviously wasn’t Chancellor then. He was a refugee in Sweden during WWII. And I imagine the lunch was for more than the three of them. Much of the same age, it will have been the natural thing for political activists to meet.

I suppose it was because Willy Brandt had a more prominent profile than his Austrian colleague Bruno Kreisky, that we didn’t talk about him as much. But they, too, met, as the future chancellor of Austria also took refuge in Sweden during the war. (Think of our reactions to refugee seekers today…)

Neither Uncle E nor Aunt Motta spoke any foreign languages. But luckily the two Chancellors-to-be did. I always think of Willy Brandt as a Norwegian speaker, which is what he was when interviewed on (Swedish) television.

This leaves me wondering if we have young people, who are quite as interested in changing the world for the better, today? To me, Motta and E were always old, and so were Brandt and Kreisky. I can’t help wondering what it was like back then. But it’s too late to ask.