Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The sky stood on the roof and spat.

    A haze of rain and seagull song at the window.  I don't think the ocean would be visible from the high point at the end of the street today.  It seems, rather, like a day for a walk with a seal, up river from the sea, the line where the water stops blurred by the wet air.  Or maybe for strolling in the still-cobbled parts of town, rivers of rain under the eaves of the granite buildings.

    First though, copper plates, acid baths, inky hands and radio dramas.  And tonight, Doric language poetry.  I can't believe that January has almost finished creaking past us, all wrapped up in the longest, darkest nights, and the brightest, shortest days.  I am wondering if, in Scotland, February sometimes wears flowers in her hair.


Saturday, 22 January 2011

Memories rode into the house on a cloud of cold breath.

      I have been thinking of our old house in Japan.  The rickety, unheated, old house where winds rushed up skirts from between the floorboards and where, in winter, a blanket of snow would sometimes rest on top of our bed covers in the morning, having slipped in through the cracks around the windows during the night.  A paper-door maze of squeaking tatami mats and too-low door frames that I was forever forgetting to duck for.

My best-loved bicycle sits just off to the right in a shelter meant for a car, but so much nicer for bicycles and geckos.

It was a house on a street too narrow to have been meant for cars.  There was a small field of vegetables on one side where bonnet- and apron-wearing old ladies would spend their days, while most of the men slept so they would be ready to spend their nights fishing squid in tiny boats strung with lines of enormous light bulbs.  In the winter, the winds that blew off the sea were strong enough to keep you standing if you tried to fall in to them, and always the mountains sat on all sides of us, some of them even standing in the sea.

 Dr. Seuss trees from the bedroom window.

I had been thinking of all this as I stoked the fire this past week, in the time after our boiler broke.  Luckily for me I had two gifts to keep me warm: a hanten brought back from Japan and five pairs of very thick socks (or foot sweaters, as the letter said) knitted in stripes of colour and sent to me from an old friend in Canada (they arrived just the day before the heat went off).  

A hanten is a sort of padded coat for wearing inside during the winter in rural Japan.

Of course, we managed much better here, with the fire and all, and the problem was fixed without too much delay.  Men came shouting at 8AM the other morning, calling to each other from the loft to our apartment, searching out the boiler, and most probably making us very unpopular with all the other tenement dwellers, though they were very friendly to us.  But it seems that once the cold memories had crept in, they were hard to chase out.  I was left thinking of the mountains...

 ... each of them with a name that the very old man next door would tell us as he sketched out maps for us.  He used to surprise me with bouquets of stolen flowers and sit in our kitchen talking (with my husband translating for me) until his wife would come and chase him back to his house, full of the amazing Buddhist statues he had carved or sculpted. 

I've also been thinking of that sea, so different from the North Sea.  In August there is the Japanese festival of the dead, Obon, and after that no one swims in the ocean for the rest of the year, though it stays as warm as bathwater until October.  Perhaps they never know the joy of swimming on the nights in early fall when the sea lights up into an infinity of underwater stars.  The luminescence of the water grows more intense with every swimming stroke, splashing about causing sunken fireworks, star showers.  We came across this phenomenon without warning and, disbelieving our eyes at first, filled with wonder.

And the other wonder of that sea at night, the illusion of bonfires moving slowly across the water at the horizon.  There was a lot of discussion of the possible explanations for this, until, months later, we finally learned that it was the fishermen shining great bright lights to attract squid to their boats.  Still, I doubt that even if we had stayed there a hundred years, that all of the daily marvels of the place would have ever been transformed into satisfying bits of explanation and  fact.


Sunday, 16 January 2011

Little Lights in the Darkness

   Long, windy nights with fever and flu on the loose are the best times for wrapping up in covers with tea.  I have been reading Leonora Carrington's The House of Fear but a few films and things have caught my eye:

  •    Toell the Great an animation from Estonia about a giant who lived on the island of Saareema.  Follow the link in the you tube comments section to read the story of the film first (it will make more sense this way), and maybe don't show the film to small children (nightmares!).  Recently Henk of  Outsider Environments Europe posted about two windmills on Saareema which were made into statues of Toell the giant and his wife, Piret.
  • Sib (Eng: The Apple), an Iranian film about two twelve-year-old girls who have been locked inside their house since birth.  It is apparently based on a true story, with many of the people involved in the story acting in the film.  It was directed by Samira Makhmalbaf (when she was only 18!).
  • Learn how to make your own paneer (a soft Indian cheese for cooking with).  So easy and so yummy in curry!
  • Listen to Hardanger fiddle music played by Haakon Solaas.  There have been a lot of recordings featuring Hardanger fiddles being played around my place in recent months, but not many of them are freely available online, so only the one link.  The first time I heard this instrument it was not being used to play Norwegian  music but something rather more experimental -- but I am a huge fan of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh's brilliant music, both traditional Irish tunes, and tunes of his own making. 
  • And lastly, though problematic, the ethnofiction Nanook of the North is a film I had been meaning to watch for some time.  A much better film to do with Inuit culture would be the Inuit-made, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.  It is a retelling of an Inuit legend and was filmed entirely in Inuktituk (there are English subtitles).  In writing this post I just discovered that all three films of the Atanarjuat trilogy are available to watch in HD online here! I've yet to see the final two films, but I was really impressed by Atanarjuat (the first film) when I saw it in theatres. Though the beginning of it is a little disorienting, it is absolutely brilliant, and really worth sticking with. 
Hopefully something in that list will capture your interest for a little while at least on one of these wintry evenings.  Though it must be admitted, the long nights are slipping away now;  today the sun didn't even set until 4pm! 

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Old Calendars and Fire

   In some parts of Scotland, holidays are still held according to the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one.  A distance of eleven days and nights sits between New Year's Eve celebrations outside and inside of these towns.  In one such place, the fishing village of Burghead, the new year is brought in shortly after sunset with the burning of the Clavie. 

   The clavie is made from an old whisky cask which is fitted on to a post and filled with tar and wood and other flammable things and then set alight.  In the first photo you can see the Clavie King lighting and adding wood to the Clavie.  Once lit, the clavie is hoisted onto a man's back and carried clockwise through the town.

Other people follow the procession through the tiny streets of the village, while others peer out of windows or stick their heads out through attic trapdoors to watch the spectacle go past.

Frequent stops are made, in front of the houses of notable people.  At each stop a man will reach into the fire and pull out one of the burning embers to present it to the people living in that house.  Embers from the clavie fire bring a year's good luck.  Some say they can be used to light the new year's fire, or are tied to first-footing traditions, others seem to say that they can be kept in the chimney to ward off witches.

   After the clavie has been carried all through the town, it is carried up a hill where it is set into a hole in the centre of a pile of stones that rather looks like a chimney sticking out of the ground.  Next, bucket after bucket full of flammable liquids are thrown over it until the flames reach very high indeed.  A good part of the hill also catches fire.

Can you see the clothes of the men in the photo above smoking?  Standing on another hill nearby I could feel the heat.  I can only imagine how the people near the fire must have been feeling.

I do believe that is the Clavie King hopping about the flames.

Men are always coming and going in and out of the fire, and bringing back embers of the Clavie.  People from the town come up the hill holding dampened dishtowels to carry the embers home in.  Some of the embers will be sent on to family abroad.

    And slowly the flames get lower and finally people start to stamp the last of them out.  Then, one by one, to home or over to the pub to hear the singing and eat a free meal of stovies and pea soup until the countdown at midnight.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A flicker of light where a day ran past.

   Short days of tiny wanderings.  A visit to a medieval churchyard, built circular so that there were no corners for the devil to hide in.  A delicious dinner in an old stone house where a family of enormous peacocks, that arrived one day from who knows where, roosts high in a tree.  Some days I spend all my hours happily at our new table (a lucky find by the curb on a late night wander) in a beam of sunlight, working on etchings until the the sun runs off the edge of the sky and the light fails.  An exercise in patience lately, and nothing more, thanks to chemical problems and cold rooms.  I try to console myself with thoughts of Buddhist monks making complicated mandalas that they will  destroy after.  It's so hard not to think of time as wasted when there is nothing to show for a week's work, but even I must admit, it is a very good lesson to remember to make living the true artwork.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Happy Hogmanay!

   Last night we made our way down the coast, into the town of Stonehaven for Hogmanay celebrations.  We arrived early and strolled around the harbour and up the pier, past all the little fishing boats.  Looking up, we could see a line of snow that sat on top of the cliff there, but in the darkness it seemed to hover in the sky.  We stopped into a little pub and brought drinks out with us to sit by the water, with the sounds of rocking boats and people talking and laughing all around.  It was like arriving in a place you have dreamt.

   It was mizzling all around us as we ate dinner, but I would like to think that if there can be "soft days" as a friend from Belfast used to say, there can be soft nights too, and so it was a lovely, soft night and we were hungry and the food was fine. Around 11pm pipe and drum bands started to walk up and down the High Street.

Maybe you can just make out their socks and the tips of their pipes appearing out of the darkness, under the clock tower?

   And then as everyone started counting down the last minutes of the old year, as we kissed and shouted in 2011, a bright glow could be seen on the walls of the houses down at the end of the street near the harbour.  Then two pipers came walking and piping up the street... and behind them fires swung through the air.

A group of white-haired ladies standing next to me called out the names of the men and women swinging the fireballs, cheering them on.

The lady next to me told me there were 45 people carrying fireballs...

... and that there was a long waiting list of many more people who would like to be carrying them.

One of the men there was in his seventies and had been carrying the fires for over fifty years.


She said the festival had been going on for at least 200 years in written record, though it was surely a lot older than that, but no one could say when exactly it had started.

The fireballs swung so close to us, gave off such heat.  Sparks were everywhere and the smell of burning.  Sometimes the men or women carrying the fireballs stopped swinging them for a moment and ran over to the sides to kiss someone they knew.  And then they were off again, twirling the fires round and round them.

In recent years I've had some good times on New Year's Eve -- last year back in Canada and making the first footsteps in new snow as we followed sounds of music always just past the next hill; the year before in a pigeon house built into a mountain in Cappadocia, Turkey; the year before that speaking with a professor, him in Romanian, us in French, on a train through Romania; and the year before that in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains; and before that, on a train again, going across India woken up by our fellow passengers to celebrate the new year.  But all of those were lovely experiences that just happened to fall on New Year's Eve.  As far as New Year's celebrations go, this is definitely my favourite of any year. 

   And finally, the people and fires turned back towards the sea.  All of the fireballs were thrown into the harbour, and then the sky filled with fireworks.

A wonderful happy 2011 to you!