Monday, 25 August 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Emil

Bigger Apples Are Not Always Better

While I was cycling along the river Elbe in former East Germany with my wife this summer, I met a rather interesting man. In Riesa for a day and a night I had left my wife visiting a museum, as she likes to do, while I hung out in cafes, backstreet bars and along the riverfront. It was sitting on a bench by the river that I met Emil. He seemed to be trying to tie a hook on the line of his fishing rod. It was a rough old rod that I could see had been repaired many times. There was almost more glue and tape than rod. Emil was struggling with the task. This was partly due to clumsy fingers and partly due to poor eyesight, I deduced. A keen fisherman as a boy, I eventually offered to help. It was hard for me to watch an old man struggling like that.

The river Elbe meanders from the hills near Prague to Hamburg

"Can ich hilfe mit das?" I asked him, in equally clumsy German.

He smiled, muttered something incomprehensible and handed me the tangled mess.

"Francais?" he asked, "American?"

"Englander," I replied. 

He patted my shoulder. "Ah, English. I learn English in the school. Could you please direct me to the post office?" 

He laughed heartily. Confused at first, I laughed also when I realised this was a phrase he remembered from his English lessons. Putting on my glasses I began untangling the line. Emil introduced himself and began asking me questions about my trip and my life in England. At the same time as satisfying his curiosity, I focussed my attention on the business of tying the hook to his line. The job was soon complete. Offering him some figs and nuts from my backpack, I asked about his own circumstances.

"My name is Emil, I am born in Riesa, nineteen sixty-two," he told me. "I have fifty-two years."

He was younger than he looked. I had him down for around sixty or even more. His lined face intrigued me. I asked him where he lived, whether he worked and whether he was married or had children. He didn't seem to mind me asking such personal questions. He laughed again and banged me on the back.

"Ah this is good questions, my friend, jah very interesting questions."

Emil sighed. I waited patiently for his reply as he muttered to himself, chuckling and repeating the words wife, children and work. Eventually he went quiet, his gaze fixed on dragonflies hovering over the river, squinting against the backdrop of afternoon sun breaking through the willow trees, the trees swaying in the breeze and brushing the water like a dancer's skirt.

"Children no," he said, breaking the silence. "Wife finish, go to Berlin now. I don't have see her for five years. Job no. Working alone. Philosopher!" he laughed again. "Philosopher, yes."

Cautiously I pressed him to expand upon what he had told me about his life. Emil had trained as a mechanical engineer. He had grown up in a communist East Germany and had disliked the factory he had been forced to work in. He had not had any choice over where he worked, he explained. It was dark, noisy and miserable. After years of working in the factory he had become sick. Emil gestured towards a huge derelict brick building in the distance with a blackened chimney rising prominently on the skyline. He tapped his head. 

"Sick by the head, my friend." 

Emil's former workplace. Disused factories are everywhere in East Germany

Emil explained how he had left the single room flat which was tied to his work at the factory. He slept in an old shack by the river that was used to store lime and sulphur. The chemicals had burned his nostrils and lungs and had made his eyes sore. He had lived on soup that his old work colleagues shared with him from the factory canteen when he met them during their lunch-breaks. He had stolen vegetables from allotments and once a chicken, which he found himself unable to kill. Eventually he had found a better place to sleep where the hot water pipes crossed the river. These large pipes came from the factory. The hot water was a byproduct from the furnaces and it heated the blocks of flats in which he had lived. Little by little Emil had set up a diminutive home, suspended over the riverbank. Careful about coming and going, nobody had discovered him in the eight years he lived up there. There he had eked out a meagre existence, even growing his own vegetables in a corner of a nearby field, while he cannibalised old bits of dumped machinery for parts that he sold on the black market.

Eventually East Germany had been reunified with West Germany and Emil found he could make a good living selling recycled engineering parts from abandoned factories to West German businesses. He prospered and moved into a bungalow in a newly built suburb of nearby Dresden. Before too long he was driving a big BMW and eating out in smart restaurants. 

"I have in my house one big TV, refrigerator, microwave, porcelain plates from Meissen," he laughed again, "silk sheets on the bed! Yes yes I am rich. A swimming pool and then a wife. Too much beautiful wife, my friend, too much beautiful. Yes and a spend too much wife, oh yes! When I say stop to spend money she go, away." 

Trappings of the Capitalist Dream

I knew the bad news was coming, long before Emil began shaking his head and raising his hands to the sky. He was still smiling, yet now it was a crazy kind of smile.

"So much shit!" he said, "yes, yes, so much bloody shit! Soon I don't care about this expensive stuff. I am all days with pain, worrying. Then my customers telling me they can to buy cheaper the parts in Romania or Czech Republic. Men tell me I must give them too much money or I cannot go to the old machines. I try to fight them with lawyers but it is too much expensive. Gangsters. I spend so much money, so much. Then my wife in Berlin with another man is request me for divorce. More expensive lawyers. I am drinking so much, and smoking. Too much of stress!" Emil tugged at his thin hair and screwed up his eyes at these painful recollections. "Finally I have nothing," he said, calmer now. 

Emil sat back on the bench and breathed in the fresh aroma of the river on a summer afternoon. I felt uncomfortable having taken him back to these troubling memories. 

"I have nothing once more. And so I am happy. Very happy."

Emil explained how the day he climbed back up to the tiny space between the hot water pipes and found his old home intact, just as he had left it, was the happiest day of his life. He had seen the men arrive in a removals truck outside. He was living in an apartment that he had only recently downsized to, and yet here they were like vultures or wild dogs, ready to take his remaining possessions. He had shoved a few clothes and valuables into a bag and gone out the back way, leaving them to pick over what he had left.

"I was feeling like I am escaping from a prison," he said gleefully. "Jah, I still feel this. I am waking up each morning in my small place between the pipes and when I know where I am, I am laughing. Yes, laughing because I am so happy every day since that time. Communism was shit, but capitalism is not the answer for the problem my friend, no no."

"So what is the answer to the problem, Emil?" I asked.

"Freedom of course!" he replied, laughing again. "Jah, we used to dream of freedom in the communist days, but capitalism is not freedom. Bigger apples is not always better, you know? Sometimes they are not so sweet. I am sorry, I don't like to say bad for another's life, it is a choice for each one, but it is only one more kind of system that force you to do what they say. You can think you will be free but it is a lie. Many blind people my friend, working for another. Working... working for... the man. You understand?" 

I understood. I wanted to ask Emil if I could see where he lived but it didn't feel right somehow. It might have seemed to him that I needed further convincing that his way of life was better. I didn't, and I didn't want him to think that I did. Reaching down into a bag as I left, Emil handed me four bright red tomatoes and a sprig of wild thyme, which I took graciously. I bought some fresh bread and shared them with my wife in the park across from the museum. I think they were the most delicious tomatoes we had ever eaten.  

The most delicious tomatoes we had ever eaten

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Relationship Overhaul

Cycling With My Wife

My wife Lorna is a family therapist so she has a good understanding of where things go wrong in relationships. Our youngest of three children is about to leave for university and it has become clear to Lorna that if we are to enjoy old age together, it would be better if we shared a few interests. And although we do share quite a few, my main pastime of long-distance cycle touring is not one of them. Being semi-retired and mainly dedicated to writing, I am inclined to spend months at a time on my bike. In 2008-9 I cycled 10,000 miles to Japan with my then 18yr old son over a period of 10 months (link to bestselling book Long Road Hard Lessons below). Consequently she could see that she might be living through long periods without me once our daughter Scarlett leaves home, and although we are comfortable being apart this did not seem ideal.

Laos. Sam & I on our 10,000mile ride to Japan in 2009

Lorna has never been attracted to, or enjoyed cycling. It was a shock to me therefore, that last year after my son Sam told me he didn't have time to cycle over the Himalayas with me, Lorna suggested she might train to do it with me. We would need to do a few other trips first, I told her, and she'd need a decent bike. This is how we ended up cycling down the Elbe river in East Germany this summer and down through the Czech Republic. It was a risk, I knew that, but probably a risk worth taking.

The Elbe Radweg (cycle path) is a beautiful route, passing through picturesque countryside and lovely towns as it meanders (in our direction - upstream) from Hamburg to the hills east of Prague. In addition to the benefit of meticulous German cyclepath engineering, the big plus for a reluctant cyclist is that it's almost entirely flat. Decent distances can be covered each day with relative ease, or so I thought. I planned an itinerary starting Lorna off gently with a 35km first day, gradually building up to a few 75km days towards the end. After all, I told myself, when my son Sam and I had been cycling along the Danube cycle path we had generally managed to cover 100km before lunchtime. Hence my feeling that this plan erred well on the conservative side of caution.

The Germans know how to make cycle paths & route maps

We began our ride in the town of Dessau, staying at the modernist architectural shrine of the Bauhaus campus, mostly designed by Walter Gropius. It was an auspicious start which Lorna began with trepidation. The panniers on the back of her new bike caused her problems immediately and she struggled to keep her balance as she lifted a cautious leg over the crossbar. In a moment she was cursing me as the bike fell sideways and the mudguard stays cut her delicate shins while she attempted to steady it. I looked on dumbfounded as dark red blood ran down her legs. How could anyone not be able to manage a bicycle with a couple of panniers? I asked myself. Quickly I taped over the exposed sharp ends of the stays and got us on the road. The path was lovely and we moved along slowly, Lorna wobbling a little but assuring me she was fine.

Walter Gropius' Bauhaus building. A shrine to the birth of modernist architecture.

By mid-day we were approaching our target, the historic small city Wittenburg, where the Reformation began with Martin Luther nailing his ninety-odd indulgences of the catholic church to a church door. That very church tower was in sight when I noticed Lorna was not behind me. I turned to see her sitting in the grass at the verge. I waited but she stayed put. Returning to see what was wrong and dreading a puncture, I met with a very angry woman.
"I cannot for the life of me understand why we did not stop at that last cafe by the river as all the other cyclists had!" she exclaimed in fury.
"They were probably having lunch before continuing to Torgau or somewhere even further," I replied. "We are staying in Wittenburg, therefore we need to find a hostel or pension before the rooms all go. I thought we'd do that then have lunch straight afterwards. There's a hostel just across the road there!"
"I don't care," she snapped, "It's nearly 40 degrees and I am absolutely shattered. You may as well get off your bike because I'm not moving from here for at least fifteen minutes!"

There seemed to be more cuts on her legs. The bike had been thrown down rather than parked on the side stand. I picked it up and sighed deeply. We had only been cycling for a couple of hours along a flat path. How on Earth could she possibly be shattered?

Lorna as she gingerly makes her way on a section between Dessau & Wittenburg

That evening Lorna was quiet and depressed.
"This is not going to work, Mark," she said over dinner, wringing hands.
She seemed emotional and her eyes fixed me with a serious stare. It did not bode well. I admit I was a little scared of what she might do. Violence while I slept that night seemed a distinct possibility. Still baffled by how anyone could be so traumatised by a 35km cycle ride and a bit of heat, I tried to look sympathetic. It was important that she felt I understood, I told myself. Not that I sorted the problem out necessarily, just that I understood and that I was prepared to listen to her. This I have learned about women after years of doing the male thing of thinking when a woman complains that it means she wants you to sort the problem out for her. I credit Lorna with teaching me this lesson... eventually.

After a discussion that appeared calm, and subsequently became so, we agreed that the following day (which I had written down as 50km but was actually over 60) Lorna would spend the day visiting museums etc in Wittenburg, then take her bike on the train to meet me in Torgau. She tried to relent the next morning, not wanting to be a quitter, but I insisted. It was a good idea, even given though there was work on the line and she had to wrestle her bike on and off a coach for the end of the journey. I had demonstrated understanding and she felt good about that. I should say it was not really in my nature. I am a  bit of a "failure is not being knocked down, failure is not getting up again," kind of a person. I enjoy the challenge, even the pain. Lorna never needed to miss a day's cycling the rest of the trip, so my restraint on this occasion was rewarded.

Castles and cathedrals abound along the Elbe (a view from our Meisen pension window)

Both of us were rewarded over the next ten days with beautiful countryside and some lovely towns and cities as we made our way (slowly) towards Prague. Lorna increased her maximum distance to 40km and then to 50. One day without realising it she even managed 63km when we took a wrong turn. But although she was able to cover the distance physically, she struggled emotionally. She felt nervous that she would crash or not be able to manage to cover the distance to that day's target. However much I reassured her that there were plenty of places we could stay and that we were free to do as little or as much as she wanted to, she retained a look of trepidation in her eyes most of the day. I turned to find her riding along crying with the fear of what lay ahead at times. My older daughter pointed out later after we returned home that this is caused by extreme exertion resulting in an outpouring of built-up stress, and so it seemed. It scared me a bit at the time, being the only one she could turn to (or perhaps attack).

Typical architecture - The beautiful town square in Litemerice (Czech Rep)

Throughout our 10 days from Dessau to Prague Lorna felt the cycling was a negative experience, despite thoroughly enjoying what she saw along the way and the places we stayed. Arriving in Prague was a huge emotional watershed for her and by the evening of that day she had begun to have a sense that she had really achieved something worthwhile. For a lot of the way she had doubted she would even complete it. But now, despite not being a sporty person, she could already feel the benefit, not only of her increased fitness but of the psychological barriers that she had managed to overcome. We cycle three further days along the Danube in Austria and Germany after moving on to the lovely Cesky Krumlov in the south of Czech Republic. I had hoped to cycle all the way there but that would have been a mistake.

It was not until we returned home last week that Lorna began to feel the real benefits of the expedition. Not only had she faced up to something that she found extremely difficult emotionally, she had actually cycled 519km without serious incident and she somehow she felt changed. Releasing all that stress had transformed her. She felt cleansed. Not only that, she recognised that there is no way she could have experience all those lovely places so intensely if she had been travelling by other means.

 St Vitus Cathedral, Prague

 Lorna on a happy day without cycling

The UNESCO World Heritage city of Cesky Krumlov

"Mum," our son said, when she related her experiences to him, "it took me a three thousand miles before I was really able to enjoy the cycling and not worry about things. A few more trips like this one and you'll be loving it!"
Lorna looked horrified.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Valentina

The Best Bloody Woman I Know!

"Can I help you with that?" I asked.
The elderly woman looked up from her crouched position over the battered crate. It was full of the most succulent looking cherries and they shone bright reds and purples in the hot midday sun.

"Certainly you can, if you tell me how you knew I spoke English?" she replied, straightening out her aged back in a gradual, cautious movement. She regarded me over the top of her spectacles with a kind of humorous suspicion.

"Ah, well I heard you saying something to yourself outside the shop," I said, picking up the crate.

She hesitated, looking me straight in the eye then opening the back of her little van.

"I like to make preserves," she said, "I was trying to remind myself of what else I had to buy. We do that us old folk you know... talk to ourselves?"

"Oh I do too and I'm only twenty," I assured her. "I write songs and stories so I tell them out loud to myself when I'm walking in the country. I get some funny looks sometimes."

"So what's your name then?" she asked, scrutinising me carefully from head to foot.

"Mark. Very nice to meet you. I'm walking from Paris to Barcelona. I should have been there a month ago but I get sidetracked easily. I've been trying to get to Carcassonne for the past week but to be honest it's been so hot I've had to give up by lunchtime most days. "

The beautiful walled city of Carcassonne, in SW France

"University?" she asked.

"Art college," I replied, apologetically.

"Nothing wrong with art college," she replied. "I was at St Martins. Taught there twenty years."

I gulped. Now I would have to explain why I had taken a year out, I thought. Fortunately, however, she changed the subject.

"And where are you going to stay in Barcelona, might I ask?"

"I'm not sure yet. I'll try to get a job I suppose."

"Get in," she said, sighing. "You'll have to move Percy. He's inclined to growl at strangers but he won't bite. English people call me Val, by the way. Not Valerie! I'd rather be called Gertrude than bloody Valerie. Yes, my idiotic father insisted on christening me Valentina."

Fortunately Percy the ageing Border Terrier took a liking to me and sat happily at my feet. Val drove appallingly, with her hairy double chin resting on the steering wheel. Her cardigan was buttoned up all wrong. She also, I observed, seemed to have little idea of what gears were for, a volley of swearwords accompanying every crunching inappropriate change. Eventually we arrived at a large set of rusting gates with tall stone pillars to either side, looking like they would soon topple over.

"They're not locked," she said, gesturing me to get out. "Pull them behind you when I've gone through and walk up to the house. Go on you get out too Percy you lazy bugger!"

The house, as she called it, was more of a small chateau – but a very derelict one. There were floorboards missing and buckets everywhere in the grand hallway to catch rainwater that regularly leaked from the once spectacular roof and through the ornate ceilings. Books lay piled everywhere. Cats miaowed. Percy grunted at one then strolled over and lay on his bed, keeping one eye open and fixed hard upon me. I placed the cherries on a stone worktop by the sinks once I had cleared a space. Rummaging in drawers and cupboards, Val uncorked a bottle of wine and poured two enormous glasses that half emptied the bottle.

"So was your father Italian then Val?" I asked. "I mean you know,  naming you Valentina..."

"No no dear, he was a Frenchman. He'd been in love with a singer named Valentina and she'd left him when his money ran out. He was one of those impoverished counts, you know the type – a compulsive bloody gambler with a penchant for tarts. Married my decidedly plain and sensible mother on the orders of his elderly aunt, on the understanding that she would to pay off his debts. She left him this monstrous bloody house. He said because she had a soft spot for him, but I'd say more likely to spite him!"

"Is he still alive?" I asked, knowing he was unlikely to be but hoping to flatter her regarding her own years.

"I'd say not! Shot himself stone dead in Monte Carlo after a night on the tables, the bloody fool. Mother never got over it. If it's possible to die of a broken heart then I think she did. God knows why though, he treated her abominably. Now Barcelona... drink up I've got a cellar full of this rubbish. So where was I? Ah yes, Barcelona. I have an old gentleman friend. Friend of the family. Bobbie. He's queer though he doesn't think anyone knows it. Everyone knows of course. Don't worry, he won't bother you, he has a dicky heart and a wooden leg. Ex-ambassador, long retired. Big house up an even bigger bloody hill. He loves visitors though. I'll send him a letter and you'll be able to stay as long as you like. Big on boats. Makes models, usual boyish nonsense. Once sailed the Atlantic single handed and came back minus a leg the old fool. Not even a bloody war wound!"

I did of course offer to cook something for Valentina but she wouldn't allow it. She didn't have much of an appetite, she said, but people in the village always dropped her something by. Personally I thought that unlikely, yet sure enough a young village girl turned up at some point in the early evening with a large pot of rabbit stew and a tarte tatain. The cream in her fridge was green but she still ate it. I stayed for three or four days, helping her to sort out her garden and doing jobs around the house, before the urge to move on got the better of me.

It was nearly a month later before I rocked up at Bobbie's house in Sarria, a genteel suburb to the north side of Barcelona. I was eternally grateful to Valentina for introducing me. Bobbie was a charming host and lived well. As a result I lived well too. One evening after the weather had begun to turn cold, Bobbie asked me to light a fire in the library and he poured us a large cognac each.

Sarria, Barcelona. House in the background was Bobbie's.

"By the way you never said how you came to know Valentina, Bobbie?" I said.

"Val? Ah well I suppose I first met her in London when I was at The Home Office," he smiled. "We'd both have been in our mid-twenties then. Friend of my sister's. I asked her to marry me the same week but she said she wasn't the marrying kind. Asked her every year since for the last sixty one years. Answer's always the same."

"Didn't you ever think about marrying anyone else?" I enquired, cautiously.

"What marry someone else? Impossible! Best damned woman I know. Impossible. She'll change her mind one day, you mark my words, young Marcus. Oh yes she'll come round, you mark my words."

Bobbie really did seem sure Valentina would come round, but at eighty two it seemed unlikely to me.

"I tell you what, d'you know that woman saved an entire village – several villages really? There was a factory down the valley that made chairs. Exquisite chairs actually. You're sitting in one."

I looked at the old chair in which I was so comfortable settled. It really was an exquisite chair, Bobbie was right.

"Well the men of her village struggled when that factory closed y'see, trying to eke out a living farming and what have you, but it was no good. The younger men began to move away to the city. Valentina felt for those villagers and used to ask them to make her things, for herself or to give to her friends – hence your chair there young man. Well one day she decided she needed a particular kind of armoire – a cabinet of a rather beautiful style. So she drew it – fabulous artist is Val, fabulous – she drew it and a chap in the village made it for her. It was beautiful. Anyhow one of Val's aunts, I think it was, came to visit and loved that armoire so much she wanted one to ship back to her house in Chelsea, and in no time the carpenter had orders for half a dozen from the aunt's friends. Pretty soon he'd set up a workshop and got in help, and so it grew. She saved three villages did Val. Half the well-to-do ladies that lunch in London have one of those cabinets y'know. Worth a bloody packet now of course. And she wanted nothing out of it, even though she's been living on two-pence-ha'penny a week for years. Best damned bloody woman I know, Val!"

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Morocco's Travelling Storytellers

Leila's Dowry - Where stories come from

Like many writers, I find inspiration for stories when I'm travelling. Sometimes these stories come out as travel stories in the commonly accepted sense, other times not. Over the years I have travelled a great deal in Morocco. I love the way so little has changed there. Many elements of Moroccan life are still relatively unchanged since medieval times, in particular their street markets, their crafts and the entertainment that can be found around the marketplaces. I could hang out in these places every day for a month and never be bored. They are hotbeds of inspiration for a writer.

Many people have said how much my story Leila's Dowry seems like a historic tale. It is very different to the other stories in the book Special Treatment & Other Stories, of which it is a part. I don't always reveal the inspiration for my stories, but on this occasion I will.

Storytelling was once a daily part of Moroccan life, but times are changing

I first travelled extensively in Morocco with a (crazy) girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. I have been back many times and finally bought a house there when my children were small in order to give them the experience of such a different culture to our own. We still go there once or twice a year and our three children have grown-up knowing it well. One of the things that fascinated me from the start was the fact that you still found storytellers in marketplaces with a crowd surrounding them, transfixed by the telling of some tale or other. Many of these tales were variations on folk tales, yet others were little more than local gossip, embellished by the teller. The storytellers were usually leather-skinned old men. I did not speak much Moroccan arabic in the early days, (although often what I was listening to was in fact Berber) but I could usually ascertain the content from gestures and expressions. It helped me to learn the language quickly.

The tales seemed to predominantly be about love, mystery, and hardship leading to good fortune. There was usually humour too - some of it bawdy. Old women clutched there sides as they roared with laughter. I used to sit for half an hour at a time trying to decipher what was being said. Leila's Dowry is not one of those stories, but I'm sure it draws upon the style and subject matter. Unfortunately, these days in Morocco you see these storytellers less and less. Such is the way of the world.

Storyteller in the Djemma el Fna (square of the dead) in Marrakech

In those early days when the children were young and we were on holiday in Morocco, we frequently found ourselves on long, hard car journeys. The roads were little more than dusty cart tracks and it took hours to travel, twenty or thirty miles in searing heat to get to a market. The children got bored, despite the stunning countryside and scenes of village life along the way that captivated my wife and I.
"Could you tell us one of your stories, Dad?" was a common cry from the back seat.
This usually meant they expected me to make something up on the spot, or at least continue a story I'd made up for them on a previous day. On one such day, driving back to our house by the coast, we got stuck behind a line of overloaded donkey-carts on a winding road. I could see there was little chance of overtaking them. The children moaned. It was hot and bumpy and they were hungry, so I began to tell a story.

The Djemma El Fna in Marrakech has had storytellers for over a thousand years 
Image courtesy of

The story was about a donkey named Hobs. Hobs actually means 'bread' in arabic. I told a story about this poor bony donkey, carrying bread to market for his master, a village baker named Hassan Bin Yahya. The donkey was lonely and longed for a mate. Finally he met a beautiful female donkey on the way to market. Later the master discovered that the donkey's owner, although hideously ugly herself, had a beautiful daughter. As a result he, a poor baker, married a rich woman and lived happily ever after.

Clearly the original was a story designed for small children. They really loved that tale and for years afterwards used to pressure me to tell them more stories about Hobs. Over time and as they grew older the tales became more sophisticated. My three children have all but left home now, yet they still remember those stories. After I formally took on the discipline of being a full-time writer, I found myself seeking inspiration for a story one afternoon. Daydreaming of Morocco, I remembered the stories of Hobs. Since I had never written those stories down, I decided I should do so – if for no other reason than the fact that maybe one day I'd have grandchildren and would wish to remember them. Very quickly I found myself writing something aimed more at my normal adult readership. The result of that exercise is Leila's Dowry. I do still need to get around to writing down those original children's stories, but there are still no grandchildren to tell them to.


If you would like to read Leila's Dowry or any of the author's other stories, follow the links below or enter the title into any internet search engine. Remember you can view an e-book on any computer, tablet or phone, for example by downloading the FREE Kindle Reader App from Amazon or by downloading in RTF format etc from Smashwords.

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Find 'Leila's Dowry' for all formats on Smashwords

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Hobs and Hassan, perhaps

Saturday, 21 June 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Dilip

Dilip's Ship-shape Laundrette

In 1981, sick and tired of doing a mix of badly paid work and collecting the dole, I impulsively got up
in the middle of the night and set off hitchhiking to Paris. I had no more than five pounds in my pocket. But I'd done this before – something always came up. A farmer would offer me a day's work. In Paris I might earn a few francs and a meal by washing-up in a cafe. Good fortune began in the early hours. Cadging a lift from a lorry driver at a local service station I discovered he was heading for the port of Dover. Not only did I get a free ride all the way to Paris, I got a meal on the ferry as a driver's mate. By late afternoon I was walking along the banks of The River Seine.

Tired from a night without sleep, I lay down against a willow tree in front of a big hotel for an early
evening snooze. But no sooner had I dropped off than I was awoken by an angry doorman in a uniform and a peaked hat.
"No no Monsieur, pas ici!" he said, waving me away like a stray dog.
He looked serious so I picked up my backpack and moved on as requested. Wandering through the busy streets around St Denis, I smelled fresh bread. Hungry, I spotted the bakery and went in to buy a loaf of bread, but I was taken aback by the prices. Had they anything cheaper, I asked? The woman looked me up and down as if I were a tramp, which I suppose in some ways I was. Crossly she put a rather charred loaf into a bag and slapped it in my hand, refusing any payment. Her charity, however, did not extend to returning my smile. "Putain!" she muttered, nodding towards the door. Paris seemed a hard place.

I trudged the streets for what seemed an age until my feet ached. Finally at the steps of a large church (Abbey de St Denis) I sat myself down to eat the loaf. It was here I met Dilip, a small, slightly built Indian man from Kerala. We immediately hit it off after he offered me half his pat of runny camembert in exchange for half my bread. He spoke English better than he spoke French, he told me.
"Where do you sleep?" he asked, bluntly.
"Oh, I dunno, I always find somewhere," I told him.
"Hah! Good luck my friend," he laughed. Paris is different. There are many night sleepers, but the police are hard. They move you. You don't sleep more than one hour in a night. I remember."
Dilip looked sad, sitting there shaking his head. It was plain to see that this man had endured a hard life.

"If you go to the centre, try St Lazare Station," he said, getting up to go. "You must hide inside when they lock the gates at 1am. But be careful, bad people with knives will try to rob you. Stick with a group. There are hundreds."

Jumping a free tram south, I got off around Pigalle and headed west, requesting directions for St Lazare. Eventually after several wild goose chases I found the station. There were already plenty of pitiful looking groups of people hanging around with cardboard bedrolls and blankets. They were mostly young, tired and dirty. Some looked positively ill. Drugs, drink, sleep deprivation and the filth of the gutters had ravaged them. I mustn't ever end up like them, I told myself.

By 1am there were indeed about two hundred of us making a vague effort to hide in the shadows of the arches in the outer station foyer, where the taxis and the touts usually waited in the day. In the darkness I heard the gates being slid across with a terrifying crash. There was a period of silence which lasted all of two minutes, after which people came out of their holes like rats on a wooden cargo ship, all eager to grab the best spots to doss down. Scuffles erupted and threats rung out in the dark, but eventually people settled down. Here and there a glow emerged from the dark as dog-ends began to be lit and drawn desperately upon. I had not long drifted into sleep when I was poked roughly in the ribs and asked for my passport by a policeman – or so I thought. No sooner had I opened my backpack to find my passport than he grabbed at it.

"Where is the money, Anglais – whiskey?" I saw his black teeth and dirty fingernails. This was no policeman.
"I have no money," I shouted, "you can look! I was robbed last night in a park, that's why I'm sleeping here."

"Hey conard, laiser l'etranger," someone nearby shouted. Others called out too. I saw their eyes sparkling.
Snatching the remains of my loaf of bread, the man strolled off. This was not a place where vagrancy was tolerated, he called to me, grinning. There was no point going to the police, he added. But inside the cage there were no police, I thought. That was the downside of course. Picking up my bedroll I shifted myself towards the group who seemed to have protected me.
"Merci," I muttered.
"Les rat sont dangerous ici, mon ami," a woman muttered. "Dorme bien."

Every night hundreds of rough sleepers used to risk confinement behind 
the locked gates of St Lazare Station with thieves and cut-throats

Having managed to survive the night without being robbed again, eaten by rats or arrested, I wandered back north-east, rode another tram and found myself a quiet corner by the abbey where I had met Dilip the evening before. I felt drawn to this area. I suppose I had hoped I might see him there, or maybe it was just that meeting a friendly soul here had given the place a positive aura. I pulled out my copy of Orwell's Down and Out In Paris and London and began to read. Intentional or not, it was only about half an hour before Dilip appeared and sat down beside me. He read my face.
"Gare St Lazar is not good sir, I told you that."
"You were right," I replied. "Like something from Les Miserables!"
Dilip laughed, although I suspect he did not know the book. His shiny gold front tooth told me Dilip was not a pauper by Indian standards. I had been wondering about his background.
"So what brought you to Paris then Dilip?" I asked.

Dilip sighed deeply and related to me a long tale of how he had lived in a small village with a wife and five children in the Kerala hills. He and his wife had worked on a tea plantation and his wife took in washing, but their life was meagre. He wanted his children to be educated. Three years ago a French tourist in Kerala had told him he would pay him to run his laundrette in Paris. The money he offered him had seemed like a fortune. Dilip had used their savings and borrowed to pay for the flight, a passport and a visitor's visa. The man honoured his offer but Dilip had soon discovered that on the amount he earned he could send only a little home after paying for food and a room. He worked long hours until late at night and had to resort to sleeping rough after the laundrette closed. Eventually he got sick. He had asked his boss for more money but he became angry and threatened to turn him over to the immigration authorities. Life was still hard now but things had improved. His eldest son had passed his exams to go to university, he told me proudly, and one day he might be able to pay for his wife to visit him here.
Could he not go home to see the whole family, I asked?

"Once I try to leave sir," said Dilip, "I will be imprisoned for visa violation and then deported. No, I cannot leave sir. Not for many years."

It seemed like a life sentence in prison to someone like me. Born with an insatiable wanderlust, the idea of such a restriction on my life seemed unendurable.

"So where do you live now?" I asked. "You're not still sleeping rough?"

"No no sir," said Dilip, smiling, "much better now." Dilip stood up from his crouching position. "Come sir, you must eat breakfast."

Lifting the heavy metal shutters and unlocking the door to the laundrette, Dilip entered and beckoned
me to follow him inside. It was tiny – one of those long narrow laundrettes with machines down one side and just enough room for a line of plastic chairs opposite, where people sat and stared mundanely at their washing turning in the drum. Dilip pulled the shutter back down. It was still only 7am. At the back of the shop he sat down on a short bench and pulled up a plastic washing basket as a small makeshift table. Opening his satchel, he took out a paper bag and produced two large fresh croissant. Not wanting to take from a man so financially constrained in life, I tried to refuse.

"I don't pay for these sir," he laughed. "Lady at the bakery gives me food in exchange for washing overalls. Later she will come with sandwiches and coffee. Eat!"

Starving hungry, I did as I was told. They were excellent croissant.
"Now sir you will see," said Dilip. "I don't show a single soul where I live, but I know I can trust you."

Rising to his feet, Dilip took a small metal handle from his pocket, inserted the end into a hole in the wooden panelling above us and turned. Getting up from the bench, I stood back to see what he was doing. Carefully Dilip lifted the hinged panel and wedged it open with a wooden strut that folded down from behind. There was a smell of incense. Dilip stretched inside the dark space and I heard a switch flick. What I saw in the light of a dim bulb astonished me. In the centre of a space about 2m wide, 1m deep and 1m high, lay a thin mattress with clean sheets, a pillow and a blanket. All around, the crumbling plastered walls were draped with velvet curtains and pictures of India. Souvenirs from shrines, a dried garland of flowers. As my eyes became accustomed to the light I could see a small makeshift shelf of books, a French dictionary, a bodged electrical socket, a transistor radio and a small kettle. A string bag hung at one corner, seeming to contain spare clothes. This was minimalist living in the extreme.

Dilip's walls were covered with mementoes of his life in Kerala

"I make it sir," said Dilip, glowing with pride. He seemed delighted by my incredulity. "Yes indeed sir, one day a pipe man must come to repair the water pipe and I was seeing the space. I was thinking, well in India plenty people live in a slum house so small. It is warm and dry here and nobody can see inside when the shutters are closed. I could live here secretly, I was telling myself. Yes yes, so over the space of some weeks I was gradually collecting materials for my new house. Finally it has become a cherished home sir, as you can no doubt see."

I stood staring into the tiny niche, still incredulous. Cherished it clearly was. There was even a red lacy lampshade over the bulb and a hand painted card saying Home Sweet Home. A few bottles of water and some tins of food were lined up along the back wall.

"You can climb inside sir," said Dilip excitedly. "It is very safe and I am cleaning it every day. Please go inside!"

I did as Dilip asked. Lying there on the bed, looking out at Dilip in the shop I could see how special this must feel to Dilip. In fact after a night among the underworld people in St Lazare station it felt like luxury to me too. But more than that, the simplicity of it all was attractive to me. So little to worry about; nothing to pay for; warmth in winter from the tumble-driers; a sink in the corner and located in the centre of Paris; who needed anything more really? There was even the convenience of a public phone on the wall by the front door.

"I think you like it, Mr Mark sir?" grinned Dilip.

"It's wonderful, Dilip," I replied. "Beautiful in fact. Yes I really like it."

Dilip wobbled his head from side to side and smiled the smile of a man who is so rarely flattered for what he has achieved. It seemed such a big thing to him that I liked it. He actually cried.

"Sir, I want to ask you something," said Dilip, wiping his eyes. I nodded, happy to do anything I could for this charming man. "Sir, I have never taken a holiday. Only to Eiffel tower by bus. You see I would like to go to visit my wife's cousin in Nancy, sir. Maybe two nights. My boss Monsieur Maurice, he goes away for every weekends sir. I have checked many times to be certain. I am thinking maybe you would like to stay here sir. I can instruct you about the work, it's very easy. Mainly to empty the coins and take to the bank. Monsieur Maurice, he does not worry so long as the money comes in and all is ship-shape sir."

Over the next few days I slept on a cardboard box with a blanket in the Laundrette. Dilip was a meticulous worker, I discovered, and he instructed me well. He certainly kept things ship-shape alright! Monsieur Maurice, a busy accountant, had inherited the place and never seemed to visit. Once or twice a month was Dilip's estimate. Sometimes he called up on the public phone, Dilip said and often just slipped an envelope with his wages through the letterbox.
Finally Friday came. Dilip packed his satchel with some clean clothes and a wash-bag, gave me a few last minute reminders, thanked me, wished me a pleasant weekend and then slipped away. There was something in his smile as he glanced back.

The Busy Streets of St Denis, Paris

I really did enjoy the first few days in Dilip's Parisian micro-pied a terre, but I am at heart a nomad. A different kind of person, perhaps an older man, would probably have been happy staying there indefinitely. I often wonder about Dilip and where he is now.  

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, plus his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. Click a link or enter the author's name / book title into your internet search box:

Please note, you can read an e-book without a Kindle or e-book reader. You can download the Kindle Reader App from Amazon for free, to your Computer, Laptop, Smartphone, tablet or i-Pad. Just google it.

Monday, 16 June 2014

People I've Met On The Road – John 2

In Greece With No Shorts – Part 2
Click here to view Part 1
The author aged 21 on Matala beach campsite with long-suffering girlfriend

This man's name was 'Sporran'. He came from Bristol. I wish I knew him now.

Following on from the previous blog, John and I found ourselves in the back of a police car being driven along small mountainous roads on our way to prison (or so we were told) in Heraklion, the capital of Crete. During this uncomfortable and laboriously slow trip I heard how John and his new wife had found themselves there.

"We decided to have an extended honeymoon in Europe," John explained. "Laura's family are from the Alps and she had this kinda Heidi fixation with shepherding in Switzerland. So one way and another we end up with a job in the Swiss Alps, shepherding a large flock down from the high pastures at the start of winter, to the lowlands, living in a basic hut and then back up again in spring. It was hellishly tough but to be honest Laura is tougher. I mean I knew that before I married her but in reality... well I had no idea! She's small and gently spoken but she's almost psychotically determined. Anyhow one day in spring, traversing just above a valley, there was an avalanche. We'd had a few near misses over the winter but this was a big one. We were swept over a cliff edge but lucky enough to land in a snow drift. Laura, however, was buried. In a daze, I hunted for her desperately but I just couldn't find her. I was
looking for her shepherd's crook – we'd been taught how to keep it pointing up if this happened so you could be found more easily. I dug for an hour and just when I was about to collapse with exhaustion a rescue party arrived. After fifteen minutes we found her. She'd fallen onto a big boulder and was badly injured. They radioed for a chopper which came and airlifted us to hospital. We were both bruised and concussed but she'd broken her back. They were worried she might be paralysed. As it was, after a month and a half in intensive care, she recovered. She has to wear this brace thing for at least a year, otherwise I think she'd have wanted to go back and finish the job. That's why we came to Crete – for her to recuperate. Then this happens."

John seemed to be feeling the world had turned against them. It was a wild story and it kind of stunned me. My problem felt minor next to his.

After about an hour, the police car pulled over again as we entered a village. We were waved to follow and were led to a small cafe. The cafe owner and the customers seemed to know them well. They asked the policemen what was happening with us. They laughed a little at first, which seemed like a good sign. We laughed too and they all became more serious. They sat there studying us as they sipped their glasses of Retsina wine and Metaxa brandy.

"For why you are swimming my country no shorts?" demanded one man. His English was slow and deliberate.

That same question again. We began to feel like we were a part of a comedy... but a tragicomedy nonetheless.

"We did not understand," I said. "Other people were naked so we thought it was normal."

"Normal?" he replied, indignantly. "Do you do this in your country?"

"Yes," John and I replied in unison.

"But it is not true!" replied the man, "I have been there, I have seen.

"When have you been there?" I asked.

"In 1932!" he said, seeming to see no irony in his statement.

"For why you are swimming my country no shorts?"

There were three or four similar cafe stops on our way to Heraklion. In each we were asked again why we had come to their country without shorts. What a pleasant life these policemen seemed to heave, we thought. Eventually though, we arrived at the police station in Heraklion. There they studied our passports. We asked to see the British / American consul.

"Closed on Sunday," we were told.

They seemed very casual, despite their serious attitude about our crime. More serious-faced enquiries
about why we felt the need to swim in their country without shorts. We had run out of explanations. Exasperated we now began to answer, that it was simply because we liked it that way. They began to look upon us more as people with a psychiatric problem. We needed to be fingerprinted. This was a comedy show in itself. They had little idea how to do it, but between them they managed. Photographing us was more problematic. They were unable to work their equipment. They argued between them until a more pragmatic officer had an idea. We were put in a car and taken to the central post office. Here we were put into a photo-booth. Did we have coins? No we did not, we said, chuckling to ourselves. They had a whip-round and put in the coins but the machine was broken. Irritated we returned to the police station where they were about to cut our photos out of our passports. I pointed to the section that says the British Queen requires, without let or hindrance etc. They put the scissors away and one officer did a passport photo-sized sketch of each of us.

"You will go to the court this afternoon!" the senior officer told us.
"We need a lawyer," said John.
"We will provide police lawyer," he replied.

Nothing we said seemed to make a difference. They were not aggressive, quite the opposite, but they simply shrugged and our objections. We were taken to the court. It was a large, grand and foreboding building. Inside at the top of a long arching sweep of marble staircase we were ushered into the enormous office of The Prosecutor General. There was no doubting this man's importance. He was dwarfed by his desk. Educated at The Sorbonne, he spoke only Greek and French. He studied the police report and asked us to explain our behaviour. John spoke no French or Greek. I spoke a little of each but it was improving rapidly. One way or another I encouraged this pleasant, educated man to take
pity upon us. He explained that Crete's laws were ancient and strict – far more old-fashioned than the rest of Greece. He hunted through the numerous leather-bound volumes of Cretan law on his towering shelves. He wanted to help us, he told us. In return we told him how much we loved his country. Eventually in frustration he returned to his desk, where we had been given milky coffee. It would be impossible to exonerate us, he explained. We had best put our faith in his explanation of our otherwise good character and hope the court would be merciful. How merciful might that be, we asked? He felt that two years in prison for this crime might be possible, but four was more likely. We would also have to pay a big fine and pay for our keep in prison. We were horrified. He apologised but reiterated that Crete was a very conservative country with ancient laws still in force.

The Prosecutor General called the policeman back in. We would hopefully be tried in court that night, he told us. We could go down to the courtrooms and watch other cases if we liked, while we waited. It would be good to understand how our trials operate, he explained. We did as advised. The police seemed surprised that the Prosecutor General had been so lenient not to have said we should be kept in the cells.

Seating ourselves at the back of the court, John and I watched carefully. My Greek was improving by the hour. In the first court the case seemed to be one of a local family who had been running some kind of protection racket. Demanding money with menaces. Looking at the men, one could see they were just petty criminals living in poverty. Their ageing grandmothers, dressed in widow's black, pleaded with the judges from the sidelines. They were ignored or waved away. The judges whispered to each other behind their papers. The men were sentenced. Ten years, fifteen years. It seemed unbelievable. We left the court so I could relate it to John. He looked horrified. In the next court, similarly draconian sentences were handed out for seemingly petty crimes. We had seen enough. Now we were scared. We returned to the Prosecutor General's office to express our horror and ask for a deferment until we had representation from our consulates. It was not possible, he said, we had to be tried today. Besides the consuls were not usually helpful to foreigners who broke the law. We needed to trust in the fairness of their system. He looked at us with pitying eyes. We waited while again he searched his books, then the phone rang. They could not fit us in tonight, we would be tried tomorrow. We were at least relieved that we could contact our consuls.

"I should by rights, have you kept in the cells tonight," he said in French, "but I am embarrassed about the conditions. They are very poor. I am going to tell the police that you can be trusted to stay in a hotel and that you will return in the morning."
We thanked him. We were scared now. He had also explained to us what the conditions in the prison were like and it had all started to seem rather reminiscent of the film Midnight Express (a major film of the time). The Prosecutor General argued with several policemen on the phone, to the extent of desk banging, and eventually secured an agreement. We were taken to a hotel nearby, from where we immediately phoned the hotel where Laura was staying back in Matala. She and my girlfriend would take the bus in the morning, they said.

Courthouse Heraklion (detainees' entrance)

The following morning the two girls arrived at the courthouse where we again waited to be tried. Watching a further case, the girls were horrified that we might receive such harsh justice for sunbathing naked on a secluded beach. My girlfriend spoke fluent French and discussed things with the Prosecutor General for some time. Outside the office she gave us her opinion.

"Look, this guy is doing his best to help you without actually breaking the law himself. I believe he is trying to help you to escape but he can't actually tell you that. He knows you will get rough justice and he is just hoping that you will decide to run. That's my opinion."

John and Laura looked at her open mouthed. Surely she could not be serious? To escape like fugitives?

We returned to one of the courtroom to watch another case. Ours would be next. The defendant was a
woman who had worked in a bakers shop and had "borrowed" the equivalent of around ten few dollars from the cash register to give her son money for a school trip. Her husband was to arrive later with the money to replace in the till, but the owner had a spot-check and the woman admitted what she had done. She was given a year in jail. We looked at each other and headed for the doors. Unfortunately the police must have read our minds because they were waiting at the door. They were armed, we noticed and one of them began fingering his sub-machine gun nervously as we were ushered along the corridor. We needed to see the Prosecutor General one more time before our case, I explained. They refused but were eventually persuaded. The PG looked up from his desk with the same pitying eyes. Could he just make one last check of his books, my girlfriend asked him. He sent the policemen away. The girls left too, explaining that they needed to try again to contact the British and American Consuls (who were one and the same, he told us).

"You know what to do, don't you?" said my girlfriend (incidentally I have not had her permission to print her name so I am avoiding that). I nodded uncomfortably. "See you at the parrot cafe."

As subtly as I could, I explained to John. The monkey cafe was somewhere by a small, out of the way

B&B where we had previously stayed. He looked down, adjusting his thick glasses. Our passports still sat there on the PG's desk, where they had remained all morning. Could he please see if he hd any other books that might help, I asked? He sighed and went to the other side of the room. Unfolding a step ladder he climbed to one of the high shelves. This was it. Stepping forward I grabbed the two passports and pushed John towards the heavy wooden door. Half expecting to find it locked, I pushed it. The two policemen with sub-machine guns were stood on the landing smoking. Trying to act casually we began walking down the marble stairs, quickening our steps as we descended. Just as we reached about the half way point, the policemen shouted and everyone turned. For a second we stopped and looked up as one of them fumbled with his weapon. The next moment I felt the heat of mid-day hit us as we leaped out of the front doors, down the stone steps and into the crowded street. Both of us waited for the sound of gunfire, which thankfully never came. Along the street we tore, pushing shocked pedestrians aside. Shouts came from behind and we turned as we ran, immediately seeing the police. There were now at least three of them and the two with the sub-machine guns were too close for comfort.

"Next street left, John!" I shouted.

Skidding around the corner we found ourselves in a street market. Looking back it seemed like a scene
from an Indiana Jones movie. Women dropped baskets of fruit and vegetables as we barged our way through. Fortunately the locals were too slow in their manner to clear the way for the police and in no time we were in a labyrinth of side street where we felt safe enough to walk and avoid drawing attention to ourselves. Not much more than ten minutes later we were sitting with the girls at a table in the parrot cafe. They had checked the ferries and flights. There was a flight that evening to Athens and one later to Rome. Laura was for getting flights to Rome despite the high price. Down to the last of our money before we would have to return to UK, I balked at the flight idea, reminding them that airport security was far stricter than at an internal ferry port, but there was no ferry until the next morning at 11am and that went to Piraeus, which still left us in Greece. John was for getting a flight too. In the end we agreed it would probably be safer to separate anyway. Fifteen minutes later, the John and Laura hurried off for the airport. We didn't even exchange addresses. I have never known whether or not they escaped. We stayed a night at the small B&B before getting the ferry the next morning. In fact the nightmare was prolonged for us. About quarter of an hour before the ferry was due to sail, two police cars screeched onto the dock and boarded the ferry. In a panic my girlfriend found an open lifejacket locker with a lock clasp. Taking the small padlock from her rucksack she padlocked me inside. The police searched the boat. Thankfully they could not find anyone with a key to the padlock. They left and the boat sailed.

In Piraeus we thought again I would be detained as we were taken aside and searched. I got to the point
of saying goodbye to her in fact. How we laughed when we discovered they were looking for stolen ship's cutlery from the cafe. I must have looked guilty.

After a few day in Athens to recuperate from the stress, we bought tickets on a bus back to London. The Greek - Yugoslav border was a heart-stopping affair where they kept us waiting for nearly an hour scrutinising passengers' passports, but eventually the bus drove away, and with me on it. I was free!

It may be unsurprising for you to know that in the 36 years since this event, I have never returned to Crete. I do not know if their laws or attitudes have been modernised. But let this be a warning to you. Never swim in someone else's country without shorts!

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, plus his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. Click a link:

Please note, you can read an e-book without a Kindle or e-book reader. You can download the Kindle Reader App from Amazon for free, to your Computer, Laptop, Smartphone, tablet or i-Pad. Just google it.