October/November 2013 Poland Scandinavia/Novacon Trip

13th October, Montreal

So I’m about to set off for my month-long European trip. I keep second-guessing myself on what I’m taking, but I have made decisions and am packed, all but the computer, and ready to set off in a couple of hours. This suddenly seems like a crazy thing to be doing.

My first stop is Warsaw — well, no, my first stop is Schipol, as pretty much always when I fly anywhere. But my first destination is Warsaw, where I will be interviewed by a lot of radio and TV and newspapers, some of them even before I’ll have had a chance to shower. I’ll be crumpled and sleepy and subtitled. I’ve never been to Poland, I don’t speak the language even a tiny bit, and I’m slightly apprehensive about this, though I’m also looking forward to it a lot. I’ll be there until Thursday, with one public event, a meeting with readers and journalists at Paradox Cafe at 19h00 on Tuesday. If you’re in Warsaw come and say hi… in fact, if you’re in Warsaw email me and we can maybe meet up. I don’t know anyone there except my editor. I love the cover they put on the book. It’ll be fine.

14th October Warsaw

I am in Warsaw.

I slept a little bit on the plane, not much. Warsaw seems like a great city from what I have seen of it so far, lots of architecture, trees, parks, parks with lovely trees, street trees, and interesting detailing on buildings. Akurat’s offices (my Polish publisher) are in a really lovely old building downtown, but get inside and it’s exactly like Tor, books everywhere and a warren of little rooms all leading in and out of each other and the smell of books. Arek, my Polish editor, great guy, met me in the airport and had a selection of Polish pastries waiting for me in the office. He was surprised to learn that I can buy ponki in walking distance of home… Montreal is a cosmopolitan food city.

I’ve been interviewed three times so far, once videoed for 2 blogs, once over lunch for a food and lit blog, and once for a student radio station. I’m due to be interviewed once more before I can sleep. Why aren’t there more food and lit blogs, where people take writers for lunch and they talk about food and writing and then post about it? It seems like a great niche. I had very pretty food. The beet and apricot soup was more like dessert, but the pork stuffed with camembert with redcurrant mouse was stellar. I will be cooking that when I get home.

So far, all the people I’ve met have been lovely and I’ve really liked them. This means I have given them excellent interviews, as the quality of interview I give is directly affected by how much I like the person. If I like them and they ask me good questions, I’ll tell them anything. If I’m uncomfortable, I get really cagey and clam up and can’t think of anything to say. So far so good, I’m having a great time.

The odd thing is that I knew I would, even when I was feeling all apprehensive yesterday before I left. Now I feel I brought all the right things, which are sitting around in this nice hotel room being my things.

Sleep would be nice, but it’ll wait unil after my live radio interview later. And meanwhile the hotel room had a little electric kettle (must buy one just like it) and the new keyboard and stand are making the netbook muuch more usable, and I am drinking tea and listening to my music and posting this until it’s time to go to the radio station.

15th October Warsaw

Z used to believe that people had forgotten how to paint and that modern art was like that because the techniques and abilities of Renaissance art had been lost. I think I must subconsciously have believed that about architecture — that people build and inhabit horrible houses because they have lost the ability to have nice ones. It isn’t money. I mean, it is, but even rich people live in horrible modern houses, not beautiful stuccoed houses with pillars and ornaments.

So 85% of Warsaw was destroyed in WWII, and then they rebuilt it. In the late forties and fifties, they rebuilt the medieval core, the Renaissance and Baroque churches, and half a ton of C.18 and C.19 houses. And they look totally authentic — it helps that nobody’s especially looking after them, so they don’t have that disney look, patches of stucco are falling off just like authentic ones. So they’re modern, but at the same time they have all the ornamentation and statues and plaques and twiddles and pillars and beautiful proportions of window. It makes my head spin. If we can do this, why don’t we? I’m not asking why they rebuilt Britain ugly after the Baedeker raids — well, I suppose I am. But more than that, why don’t people who pay $250,000 for a horrible house have the option of paying $300,000 for a beautiful one? Why is this not on the table?

Oh, and most of the original C.18 stuff was built by Italians, and so the Old Town has a distinctly Venetian feel — it was painted by Caneletto, and when the rebuilt it, they looked at his paintings. I was expectintg it to be like Vienna and Germany, and it isn’t at all, there are Soviet bits and modern bits and the rest of it is more like Italy than anywhere. (No gelato though.) Everyone tells me Krakow is even better, and I’d definitely like to come back sometime and see it.

Also, I have seen the most Romantic statue ever, and as is appropriate it’s of Frederic Chopin. I laughed and laughed. This is it pretty much exactly as I saw it today:


and bear in mind that’s a lake and those are big trees, it’s enormous — and this is it close up:


Nobody deserves this statue more than Chopin. Apparently they have piano concerts there in the summer and being taken to one of those is one of my Polish editor’s first memories. This is in a park that contains also a genuine C.18 palace and several C18 follies — temples, ruins etc charmingly strewn around among the trees and lawns and lakes and flowerbeds. Also the have red squirrels, which I haven’t seen for years as they are becoming extinct in Britain as the grey ones drive them out. If asked I’d have said they were the same, but seeing red ones I immediately recognised and remembered the bigger ears and different shape. Funny how the brain works.

Also on that subject, everyone here looks sort of like me. It’s very weird. Lots of people have hair like mine, and my kind of skin, and they tend to be doughy in the same kind of way. I keep seeing babies and little kids that look just like Z at the same age, and people who look like my father and like me. This is odd and unusual, because I don’t look like my family (except for my father and Z) so I don’t have a lot of experience of that. Of course, this is where my father’s father came from. But I wasn’t expecting trams full of people with cheeks and eyebrows like mine. And people keep assuming I’m Polish and talking to me in Polish, which is also odd because I *know* I look like an anglophone… fortunately my three words of Polish have got me through all situations so far. Polish is an easy language to pronounce, not like French — but it was French that got me through the person giving me their seat on the bus, as “prochain” turns out to be the same in both languages. Oh, and everyone is white except some Japanese tourists. But I didn’t even notice until I was thinking about the way they all look like me.

More interviews in an hour, and then the Paradox Cafe thing and TV interview, and then dinner. The food is really good — terrific breakfast in the hotel with loads of choice without needing to think about bread, and wonderful pierogies for lunch today. I love heavy cold weather food. Not that it’s cold, it’s good weather for walking around and looking at things, and just barely warm enough to sit down outside. Trees are glorious autumn colours, and there are lots of them, including lots of street trees.

23rd October, Stockholm

Stockholm seems to be about a third city, a third park, and a third water. The bones of the earth lie near the surface, and are knobby like bones, so you can see immediately how the Vikings believed the world was made out of a giant’s corpse. It’s an archipelago, all little islands connected by bridges. Gamla Stan, the Old Town, is charming, lovely tall eighteenth century houses reminiscent of Amsterdam and very narrow streets. There’s an excellent SF bookshop there too. There’s also an island of park and museums.

Fantastika was very intense fun — I met a large number of awesome Swedish and Finnish fans, as well as a handful of UK and US fans. Half the program was in English, and I was on it. This went really well, but was naturally exhausting. Great con, about 450 people of all ages.

Since then we’ve had a couple of days of sightseeing around the city and are heading to Oslo on this morning’s train.

25th October, Viking Ship Museum Oslo

It made me cry twice.

You wouldn’t think, right, because it’s a ship museum, and I was expecting it to be cool, which it absolutely is, but not that it would get to me. They have three ships, all of them ship burials, discovered at the end of the C.19, the last one in 1904. That one was a burial for two women, about 870, one aged fifty and one seventy, they don’t know who. It was — they all were — grave robbed by Vikings decades after the burial, so we don’t have gold and silver, but the rest was all there and is all on display. They have the boats as they were, big, in a big hall, and they are elegant and beautiful — two of them in great condition, the other decayed. The one the women were found in has the most beautiful carvings, just so incredibly perfectly right, all the proportions, all the interlocking bits, up the actual prow, just so gorgeous, and incredibly moving just by being right.

They have viewing platforms so you can see them from on top, which are really great, worth going up stairs for.

They have all the bits, sledges and carts and a bed and a chair and shoes and a cauldron and some fabrics. There’s a piece of a Byzantine silk, all horsemen and patterning, and they cut it up into strips for trims, of course they did. All great stuff.

The bed has amazing dragons. The carts and sleds are carved all over, just amazing. There’s a wooden piece with runes that say “little wisdom men”, and nobody knows why.

The other thing that made me cry was seeing Snorri in the shop, the prose edda, a lovely edition with runes on the cover, and I just picked it up and suddenly it had all the weight of the book Snorri gives Saemund to carry home in Sundown, and there it still is, cattle die, kinsmen die, but the book’s still here with the carved wood so we know the stories.

We try to learn, but still so much that we
Can never know for sure, or truly touch.
And worse the unmarked future, there’s so much
Darker and stranger than the pathless sea.
And yet we’re here, and named, and what we are,
And here’s the world as well, so much, so great.
I won’t lament that I got here so late
Or waste my moments yearning for a star.
I see the trees, the boat, the waves, the sun,
The fragments we can gather of the past
The hopes for better futures stretching vast
And so much joy and awe, and so much fun.
Now while we’re here, and live, and breathe, and care,
Let’s look, and talk, and build, and hope, and share.

29th October, Oslo

Oslo is on a fjord. All of Scandinavia that I have seen so far is deeply interwoven with the sea, and woven is the word, warp and weft, like interlocking fingers of a hand. I haven’t been up the Norwegian coast, though I saw a film of it in the Maritime museum, but this is a landscape and a history and a city that makes no sense without the sea. Stockholm is on an archipelago. Oslo is at the top of a fjord, a fractal frond of sea. (“They give a lovely baroque feel to a continent,” as Douglas Adams put it.) The history is all about conquering and being conquered by sea, not by land. They went south to England and Ireland and Normandy and not overland to Finland and Russia. When the Swedes conquered Russia they went by river.

Coming on the train from Stockholm, you come to Oslo through a tunnel, so it happens unexpectedly without any warning. It’s a cheerful cosmopolitan modern European city with excellent public transit — metro, trams, buses, all plentiful and easy to figure out. We’re staying in a thriving immigrant area that has Indians and Somalis and Italians and Turks, all talking Norwegian and seeming to get along well. I didn’t find anywhere like this in Stockholm. Oslo is an expensive city, and we’ve mostly been cooking and eating in the apartment — lots of reindeer sausage and lamb meatballs we bought at a farmer’s market.

We’ve been to a bunch of museums, the way you do when you go somewhere for the first time. The Viking ship museum remains the standout. The Historical museum has a bunch of great Viking stuff, and a display of points that arcs from chipped flints to a modern bullet. Also they separate out all the gold and silver and have it in a treasure room, because it’s treasure and that’s what you do with treasure. (I understand that there may be practical museum insurance reasons for it, but it still feels like that. And they call it a treasure room!) The design museum has some wonderful tapestries. Akershus fortress reminds me of Skyrim.

The Folk Museum has a stave church, a twelfth century wooden church, and a bunch of farms and houses of different periods all brought together to the museum island, Bygdoy — it’s actually a peninsula, but who’s counting? Looking at the farms it’s fascinating how different they are from the Welsh farms in the similar museum at St Fagans — the outstanding difference across all of time is that they have guesthouses, or guestrooms built on. They all do, every one. This is a harsh land where hospitality to strangers is utterly ingrained. There’s an axiom implied in building a guesthouse on your farm, that you will have guests, and they will stay the night.

The Fram museum has the actual ship Fram in it, the ship Nansen took to Greenland and Amundsen through the ice and to Antarctica. It has the whole history of polar exploration, those obsessive men who went through so much to get farthest north, farthest south. The Norwegians weren’t as insane as the British. But walking around the museum and on the timbers of the deck of the Fram, I kept thinking of the Le Guin story in Compass Rose about the women who did it and didn’t leave any record.

Yesterday afternoon I skipped the Vigelund museum and park in favour of sitting in an excellent cafe called United Bakeries which had real tea, great pastries, and a French cook who recognised that I was Canadian. This is the first time anyone has ever recognised my inherent Canadianness, and that normally goes double for when I’m speaking French. Actually though, speaking French was great. It felt like home. I would never in a million years have imagined that. I’ve been speaking English to people who mostly speak perfect English ever since I got to Scandinavia.

United Bakeries, incidentally, is my personal farthest north. It’s the farthest north I’ve been in Oslo, and Oslo is the farthest north I’ve been on the planet. (It’s farther north than St Petersberg, which was Leningrad when I went there in 1987.) This year I also made a new personal farthest south, in New Orleans in February. I appreciate that there’s a lot of the planet south of New Orleans and north of United Bakeries in Oslo, but I’ll leave that for the real explorers, or at least for another year. We’re turning south tomorrow for Copenhagen.

4th November, Copenhagen

The short version is, lots of museums, not a lot of walking around looking at the city because it has been raining relentlessly all the time we’ve been here. It isn’t fair to Copenhagen, but it is offputting, and makes me like it less than the other places I have been.

We’re staying in a big apartment in Charlottenlund, an upscale part of town with a very good local grocery.

The National Museum is excellent, their ground floor starts with the end of the ice age and goes up to the Vikings, and it’s full of stunning displays that are art in themselves. It would be excellent even if they didn’t also have the Gundestrup Cauldron, as it is, it’s outstanding. The top floor does the same with the ancient Mediterranean, with a genuinely useful Cycladian section, and brilliantly displayed pottery. We also saw the Viking temporary exhibition, which was comparatively only OK. We didn’t have time for the other floors, but we much admired the mosaics on the stairs.

The National Gallery is also excellent. AM came out for the weekend and we had a terrific time going slowly around European Art from 1300-1800 and admiring all the awesome stuff. We spent an entire day there.

The Geology Museum is terrific, and when looking at the geology of Denmark section I had the interesting idea of Young Midgard Creationism. Every rock is Ymir’s bone, naturally, and every ammonite or dinosaur is a snake or dragon from Ginnungagap. Every fossil leaf, and there were a lot of fossil leaves, is a dropping from Yggrdasil. Anything anomalous is a shapeshifting Jotun. I kept giggling at exhibits that do not normally make people giggle. It makes so much sense, compared to the Christian version! I also bought a little chunk of Swedish granite in the gift shop, and Elise bought some opals.

We looked into the botanical garden, and we looked into the New Carlsberg Glyptotek museum, which has a lovely cafe, and we walked past Tivoli and some royal palaces. We didn’t take a boat tour or see parks because of the aforementioned rain. We were lucky not to be here for the big storm. There are signs of damage to trees everywhere.

We’re leaving tomorrow for a brief stop in Antwerp and then on to Nottingham for Novacon at the weekend.

7th November, Antwerp

Antwerp is one of those old towns with a gothic cathedral and little streets and squares full of places to sit down and have a cup of tea or something to eat. There are tall houses with gold statues on top just because, and cobbles, and corners that entice you to go around them and see what’s there. It’s also a modern city surrounding this core, of course, with a metro with many stops, no doubt full of people with more serious things to do than buy handmade chocolates and look at Flemish paintings. We weren’t here long enough to explore that.

We got here on Tuesday night, after a fairly gruelling day’s travel from Copenhagen — 14 hours, 5 trains and a ferry, an old man having a heart attack right next to us, dealt with by efficient and kind German paramedics, a strike in Belgium, lots of languages, pine nuts, mozzarella and prosciutto I’d bought in Copenhagen on the train, scampi and potato salad in Koln. The last stretch, the half hour from Brussels to here, we were in the vestibule of a very packed train, where a very kind Canadian girl gave me one of the fold-down seats. This then became an impromptu party, with Elise making pendants for the other people. It was great, as everyone’s mood turned around because art was being made and shared before their very eyes.

But by the time we got to Antwerp at 21.30 we just wanted to get to bed.

So there was only yesterday to wander around the streets and eat and see the cathedral. We had breakfast in a charming little place right outside the hotel then wandered about for a bit. We had lunch with a friend of Elise’s who needed a jewelry repair — great lunch in a pub. I had Flemish beef stew and croquottes. Then we had a little rest and then wandered around for a bit, buying the occasional souvenir, ending up in the cathedral for a couple of hours.

The cathedral is right in the middle, so we’d circumnavigated it several times already, and I’d seen the gothic ttracery of its spire and the geometric perfection of the doors. But it’s also crammed in among everything so you can’t get any perspective on it. It’s enormous. Enormous. And it has perfect proportions, and it’s narrow and it goes up and up.

And it’s full of Flemish art, much of it altarpieces displayed in aisles so you can see both sides of the triptychs, including the chiaroscouro paintings on the doors which people would have seen in Lent when they were closed. I love those. There were four big works by Rubens, who was from Antwerp. The rest were lesser known but still very good Renaissance and Baroque Flemish painters. There was a great war of the rebel angels, and a lovely painting of St Luke painting the virgin in which you can’t tell if they’re in a room with a baroque dome painted with angels or if some angels are just hanging out in St Luke’s studio.

Then I came back to the room and wrote chunk of Apollo snark for The Philosopher Kings while Elise did some shopping and went to mass. First time I’ve done some actual writing since Warsaw.

We had a delicious dinner in another traditional Flemish restaurant/pub.

So it was a lovely restful day in a comfortable city.

And today we’re taking a pile of trains to Nottingham for Novacon, which starts tomorrow.

8th November: To the Person Who Stole My Bag in Brussels-Midi

You didn’t see me and I didn’t see you — I was off buying a bottle of water and a sausage roll while Elise looked after the luggage. But you are a professional, you could have done it to anyone, and you walked off with my laptop bag.

So, what you’ve got. The bag itself was new for this trip. It matches a mug I have. It’s Danica Studio Odyssey bag, and it looks more like a knitting bag than a laptop bag. I liked it, but I hadn’t had it long enough to really bond with it. I don’t think you’ll be able to sell it, so I suggest you give it to your mother to use for her knitting. She’s your mother, she tried to think well of you, she doesn’t want to believe you’re a bad person, no matter what the evidence. She knows you’ve been in trouble, but she still thinks you can turn it around. Bad companions, mistakes made, all of that. Give her the bag, she’ll take it as evidence of how you’re a good boy really. She’s the only person who still believes in you, and you need that. You’ll need somebody to visit you in prison. She can knit in the waiting room. And at the foot of the guillotine. Do they still have a guillotine? Did they ever have one in Belgium? Maybe not.

Inside, well, there’s the netbook. It’s an Acer, with very cool Florence stickers, but I’m going to Florence in a month and can buy more. It has a password on it, and you may be able to get around that or you may not, but it isn’t worth the bother, there’s nothing on it of value to you. Of value to me, yes, especially that thousand words or so I wrote the other night, grr, and all my bookmarks in Firefox, but to you, no. You’d do best to reformat it and sell it. It’s nearly two years old and it cost $217. You have the powercord, with adapters for the world’s electricity, and the awesome little round speaker I bought on the way home from Wiscon, and the headphones I bought on the way to Britain this summer, and the Logitech trackball wireless mouse. The weird thing is a stand so it can be used with a keyboard and have the monitor up high. You don’t have the keyboard, it was in my pack. (You do have the usb key for the keyboard, which makes the keyboard pretty useless.) The stand is a specific one and it was expensive, but almost nobody would want it. I can replace all these peripherals with nothing but money. If you sell the whole lot together on Craigslist you might get a hundred dollars or so. I’d give you more than that to have it back, but that’s not an option is it?

There are two little handmade Viking bags, to which I was very attached. The friend who made them has offered to give me more, which makes me feel better about that. The little one has the charger cord for my Kindle, useless without the Kindle, which is with me. It also has my headphones and two thumb drives. One of them has Protext for Ubuntu. You should try using it. It’s a truly great wordprocesser. Maybe you can write a book and get out of thieving. It’s no way to make a living really. So risky and also making the world worse instead of better. The other thumb drive has Bach’s complete orchestral works and Sassafrass’s Prophecies and Lies. I have them all on CD at home, so that’s fine. Enjoy them. The big one has the powercord and the mouse and the speaker and also a gold chain set with stones. The name of that necklace is Ibidem, and it was made by Elise, the person you did see when you stole my bag. It’s gold and it has special stones and it was a gift from a whole set of friends of mine, but it’s not really sellable. It’s a unique work of art, and very valuable to me, but you wouldn’t get any more for it than the value of the gold as scrap. I think it would be better if you give it your girlfriend. (After you give it to her, she’ll break up with you. She’ll keep the chain, and she’ll pass it on to her daughter when she first breaks up with a useless boyfriend, and she’ll give it to hers and it will become an heirloom in their family.)

Also in the bag are three tins of tea and a mug and a filter. There’s probably about $50 worth of tea, actually, but not resellable, just drink it. The tea in the black tin with the cool autumn trees stickers (I decorated it myself) is pu erh that needs to have the leaf woken — use the filter that’s in the bag, pour boiling water over it, then pour that away. Then pour water at 85 degrees over it and drink that. The handmade teabags are oolong — make the same way, gaba dragon, same way, and rouge et noir, which you just make normally. The little Continental Railways tin, which I’ve had for 25 years and which was a gift from a friend now dead, which makes it probably the least replaceable thing apart from the necklace, has tisanes. Make them the normal way. Give the peppermint to your mother. It’ll be good for her nerves.

That’s all — well, there’s a silk shirt and a pair of underpants, pretty much useless, though I’d rather have them than not.

So you’ve caused me a lot of misery and financial loss, while gaining for yourself, well, maybe a hundred dollars, some music, and a cup of tea. Was it really worth it? One of these days you’re going to get caught, you know you are. Not today, but one day. Not with my bag, but with somebody’s bag. When you’re there waiting for the guillotine, or sitting in a cell waiting for your poor old mother to bring you tea (because once you try it you’re going to get to like it) and news of the outside world, will you be glad you took the risk and took my bag?

I know your life’s hard. But you made my life harder. But writing to you has given me a good sense of what you’re like, and my life is so great and yours is so awful, and due to get so much worse that I suppose I ought to be sympathetic. Tell you what. If you send the netbook, the Viking bags, the Continental tea tin and the necklace to me, care of Tor Books in New York, you can keep the rest and I’ll give you the $300 it would cost me to replace the netbook. I also promise I’ll campaign against the reintroduction of the guillotine, send you pu erh in prison, and let you cry on my shoulder when your girlfriend breaks up with you.

Do we have a deal? Pity about that.


Posted in Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face