Saturday, 30 August 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Rainer & Eva

Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention

Cycling along the Vltava river this summer, on the outskirts of Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic, I decided to pitch my tent for the night before I got too close to the town. I didn't want to be forced to stay in a B&B. I'd spent more money than intended by extending my stay in a hostel in Prague. It's an easy place to fall in love with. Camping for a week or so would save me money and might prove more interesting, I had decided. How right I was.

Finding places to pitch a tent was never hard along the river heading south from Prague

This was a quiet stretch of the river and there were a number of likely looking spots for pitching a tent. Leaning my bike against a walnut tree, I picked up a large stick and used it to beat a path through the dense undergrowth just back from the riverbank. Shortlisting a number of possible spots, I continued on, hoping to find something with the right balance of privacy, shade and sunlight along with a soft level surface. Before too long my persistence was rewarded when I broke through some brambles into a lovely little glade with a base of clover and a boundary of camelia bushes.

An Encounter With Rainer
I was just tightening the guy-lines of my tent after returning to collect the bike, when I heard footsteps behind me. My heart sank as I turned, expecting to be told I couldn't camp here. Behind me was a bearded, bare-chested elderly man in a baggy pair of khaki shorts. Thick grey hair seemed to spring from every visible part of his body, almost as if he were a wild-man.

"Hallo, ich bin Rainer, guten abend!"

Pleased not to have been instantly told to clear off, I introduced myself in halting German and explained that I was a cyclist from the UK, making my way from Dessau in East Germany, down through the Czech Republic to the Danube in Austria and from there north-west up to Wurzburg. Rainer looked pleased as he enthusiastically shook my hand. He was an odd looking chap. It did not escape my notice that he was committing the heinous crime (according to my wife) of wearing socks with his leather sandals. Socks with large holes, through which his gnarled old toes were protruding.

"We are coming from Bremerhaven," he told me. I come down the Elbe river with my wife, starting in June but it is so cold and raining so much, jah? You are maintaining your cycle by your own self?"

I told him I was. As I did so I anticipated the reason for his question. No doubt his bike had broken and he was having difficulty repairing it.

"Ach so, perhaps you can help me," he said, placing a hand on my shoulder to guide me, "commen sie mit."

Following Rainer through the bushes and down through a well trodden hollow, we eventually came to a shaded area under tall horse-chestnut trees. Here was pitched an old tent with a washing line strung from the tent to a tree. On the line were some large ladies pants and a few pairs of socks. These also had holes. Ducking under the line and trying to avoid getting caught up in the pants I looked for Rainer, who had now stopped and had begun pulling away some branches, revealing what I could instantly see were the red and a yellow hulls of a pair of kayaks.

"Come look please," he said, "you must come closer please, closer."

Moving in behind Rainer I could see that the two kayaks were in fact joined together side-by-side with wooden struts. The struts were attached to four metal bands that had been bolted around the two hulls in front of and behind the cockpits.

"I am making this from small pieces. Some I must buy but most of them I am finding to the rubbish, hah!"

"Amazing," I said, taking care not to cause offence. "So, why are you doing this?"

"Why, yes of course, why? Yes, because my wife Eva – she is to the town to buy foods – she is having a problem mit... er, mit der..." Rainer rotated his arm and held his shoulder.

"Her shoulder?" I suggested.

"Jah jah, a problem mit her shjoulder. After so much like so mit der paddles each day, she has a big problem mit her shoulder. We stop for some days to rest of course. We continue more but problem comes back all times. For two months now. My job before is engineer. I like to build new machines... from my idea. She say we must buy one boat with motor or go back home. We must like to travel for Budapest. I say boat with motor too much expensive. Eva is sad. Then I am all night in the tent thinking what to do. Maybe this, maybe that. Change to go with bicycle maybe – but no, too much problem for shoulder also. Big kayak for two, I am thinking? Yes but so much small area for the luggages. Then I realise. Maybe I can make Eva's kayak with... with pedals. You know pedals?"

Rainer made a pedalling motion with his hands in case I had failed to understand him. I nodded in accord, trying not to smile.

"So jah, we are with the tent here and each day I am working. I try to make it from one old cycle equipments, but the kayak is too much falling over, ha ha. Crazy!"

"Unstable," I suggested.

"Yes, yes unstables. So more times I am thinking in the nights. Finally I see that I must fix my two kayak boats together and put some driving paddles between the two kayaks, like so."

Rainer pulled the kayaks out of the dark hollow so I could inspect his invention more carefully. Drawing my attention to the footwell of each kayak, he showed me how he had rigged up a crank that passed through both kayaks with rubber grommets to protect the plastic hulls. Onto that he had mounted pedals and in the centre, between the two hulls, a large cog with a chain leading to a set of metal strips fixed around another crank with a smaller cog at one end. He pointed to the metal strips. I was fixing wood pieces to the metal here to make paddles, but they every time breaking. I think about to use plastic from sweeping bucket but it break also.

"Now I ask one man to make metal paddle pieces in his workshop," said Rainer. "I think maybe it works, but I don't know. Here I have it, look!"

Rainer took a cardboard box from the back of the hollow. From it he took a piece of steel about a foot long by about four inches. Holes had been drilled for the fixings.

"I am to make it this day but the bolts he give me is too much small." Rainer threw his hands in the air in frustration. "I need this size but I only have one piece like so. I so much want to make it today but I must walk to the workshop in Hluboka. It is quite far, maybe ten or twelve kilometres, so I must go tomorrow."

"But I can go by bicycle," I told him. "It will take me half an hour. One hour to go and come back!"

"Can you do this?" he asked, his eyes widening.

"Of course I can," I assured him.

After Rainer had drawn me a map of how to get there, I set off at a healthy pace back along the narrow wooded cycle path to Hluboka. The man at the little workshop was just closing up when I arrived but made no fuss about having to dig out some new nuts, bolts and washers in exchange for the smaller ones. I was about to set off back along the path when he called me back. Into my backpack he pushed a brown paper bag, patted my back and waved me off. Inside was a large bottle of beer and a hard sausage.

My Encounter With Eva
Back at the camp I met Eva.

"Guten abend, you are Mr Mark, jah?"

I shook her hand. I noticed her caution at shaking with her right hand. Her shoulder must still be bothering her, I thought. Eva was a large, strong looking lady, well tanned with long grey platted hair. A woman who had wisdom in her eyes and written in the lines of her kindly face. She was folding her washing and had lit a fire with a large pot hanging over it, rather like the way men used to do it in cowboy films.

"Rainer washen!" she said, pointing towards the river and making the universal lathering under armpit gesture that is know throughout the world. "Essen!" she said, lifting the lid of the steaming cooking pot. "Hunchen, gut?"

"Jah, hunchen gut, danke!" I replied. I was not about to turn down chicken stew after my hard day's cycling.

With the light failing, it was difficult to begin fixing the blades of the paddles onto the drum, but returning from his evening ablutions Rainer wanted to at least try the bolts for size before opening the beer.

"Jah jah, das is richtig! Das is zair schoen," he muttered, holding it close to the light of the fire. "It is good I think, Mark. Very good. Tomorrow we can try. Eva is urgent to continue our journey. Her mother is living in Budapest so we must try to arrive before her Oktober birthday. She will have one hundred years!"

We opened the beer and drank a toast to Eva's mother. It was good beer and complimented Eva's chicken goulash well. We sat up late that night with Rainer telling stories of their exploits along their route so far, and Eva correcting him in the same way my own wife does with me. Perhaps we were not so different. I looked across at Rainer. He did not seem to possess a shirt. Like Eva I had covered up immediately the sun went down to avoid the fearsome Czech river mosquitos, yet while Eva and I were still bitten mercilessly, Reiner did not seem to receive a single nip.

"It is because his fur!" chuckled Eva, pulling at the forrest of grey hair on one of Rainer's arms.

"Jah, they are thinking I am a wolf maybe!" responded Rainer.

The next morning Rainer was up excitedly at first light. Hearing the chink of metal I crawled out of my tent to help him assemble the paddle blades on the drum. Like most engineers of his generation, Rainer was a meticulous worker. Carefully he inserted neoprene washers between the steel and the galvanised struts, before tightening the bolts to an equal tension all-round. Finally after assembling the paddle wheel onto the home-made catamaran, he tensioned the chain and motioned to me to help him drag the boat to the water.

First Sea Trials
"The first sea trials Mark, jah!" laughed Rainer.

But for a few minor adjustments the pedal-powered catamaran worked beautifully. Rainer was clearly delighted, although he did not congratulate himself. No doubt there had been many previous launches that had seemed successful at first and then failed. But this one was not going to fail, I could sense that, as I think could he. We continued up-stream for about twenty minutes before turning back. It was a beautiful morning and we watched in silence as swallows dived for insects over the shimmering water. We disturbed a heron hidden in the bullrushes as we struggled to make a clumsy turn in the unfamiliar boat.

"Eva, pack the luggages!" Rainer called out as we rounded the bend in front of our landing point. Eva was waiting at the bank. Her beaming smile said more than words ever could have.

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. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

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, all the way to the sea in 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

My sincere apologies must go to Emil. Within days of me posting this blog he has found himself troubled by people hunting for him along the Elbe near Riesa. However well-meaning, I would ask anyone reading this blog to please respect his privacy and desire for solitude. Thank you.

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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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:

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