Tag Archives: Alice Menzies

Travels From My Sofa: Scandinavia

If 2020 had gone according to plan I’d have posted about our four-day break in the lovely city of Ghent in March and we’d be enjoying ourselves in Northern Italy right now. So strange are the times we’re living in that I’m just relieved that everyone I know is safe rather than disappointed but I can’t help missing the joys of travel so I’ve decided to revisit a few holidays, throwing in links to books I’ve reviewed, some from countries I’ve visited, others I‘d like to visit. If you fancy a change of scene, you’re welcome to join me. This time we’re off to Scandinavia beginning with Sweden.

If memory serves me right, and it often doesn’t these days, our Swedish road trip was in 2004 or thereabouts, beginning with a flight to Copenhagen. We started off in Skåne having crossed the bridge which would become so famliar to us from Saturday nights watching Saga Noren solving cimes in her own inimitable way. It’s a lovely area but what I most remember is our wonderfully eccentric B&B landlady, often to be found in her kitchen with one of her parrots on her head. She also had two gorgeous dogs who liked to sprawl in the sun. From there we headed to Gothenburg, a very pleasant city Feskekorka (Gothenburg)memorable for its fish restaurants one of which is housed in Feskekôrka, a smart modern market whose Swedish name translates as the fish church telling you all you need to know about the importance of fish to the town. The rest of the holiday was spent touring the Bohuslän archipelago with its pretty coastal villages, one famous for its inhabitants wearing their dressing gowns around town, before heading south. Our last stop was Malmö, slick and modern in comparison to picturesque Ystad, a stone’s throw away and home to Inspector Waliander, where I remember having tea in a lovely book-lined café before heading back to Copenhagen and home.

Swedish travels from my sofa: Astrid and Veronika, Wilful Disregard, In Every Moment We Are Alive, A Summer with Kim Novak

Louisiana (Copenhagen)Apart from briefly passing through on our way to Sweden, we’ve visited Denmark twice, each time a winter break in Copenhagen, both of which included a visit to the wonderful Louisiana, a beautifully designed modern gallery, crammed with all manner of treats. Given that both trips were in February, there wasn’t much chance of exploring the sculpture park which makes me want to add a summer trip to our travel list. Much of the rest of our time was spent hanging out in cafes and strolling around the much-gentrified harbour area, although I do remember a trip to a gallery exhibiting exquisite Persian miniatures and a visit to Christiana, a large commune established in 1971. Despite the city’s best efforts to shut it down, Christiana’s residents finally managed to gain a legal foothold in 2012.Cover image

Danish travels from my sofa: Often I Am Happy, This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,

I fell in love with the laid-back elegance of Helsinki while taking advantage of a free hotel room courtesy of a conference H attended in 2006. It was August, a lovely time to explore the city where, oddly enough, I saw my first red squirrel in the botanical gardens. I remember spending a great deal of time in Alvar Aalto’s beautifully designed bookshop, opened in 1969, which on that visit was fantastically well-stocked but sadly depleted nine years later when we revisited the city at the end of our trip around the Baltics. We enjoyed it just as much the second time around, marvelling at the Friday night cavalcade of vintage American cars on our last evening’s walk and wondering if it was a regular event.

Cover imageFinnish travels from my sofa: Letters From Klara, The Winter War, The Summer House

I’ve yet to go to Norway, although I hope I will some day. The gorgeous scenery shots in the Scandi crime TV series Twin and Wisting have whetted my appetite and I’ve long fancied a few nights in Bergen. I have visited it from my sofa, though, thanks to several memorable novels set there: Love, The Waiter, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, The Sunlit Night, Echoes of the City

Remembering holidays may be as close as I get to having one in 2020 but if that’s the worst thing that happens during this strange year we’re living through I’ll count myself lucky.

Any vicarious travels you’d like to share?

The Waiter by Matias Faldbakken (transl. Alice Menzies): Fraying at the edges

Cover imageI’ve spotted Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter popping up several times in the paperback publishing schedules only for it to disappear. I’ve no idea why but I hope it’s because it was selling so well in its neatly proportioned hardback edition that its publishers though better of it. Its publication in the midst of the covid-19 crisis seems entirely appropriate given that many of us used to dining out will have reached a stage when such a thing feels like an unattainable exotic treat. Faldbakken’s novella recounts an eventful few days at an Oslo restaurant through the voice of the eponymous waiter, discombobulated by it all.

The Waiter has been working for over nineteen years at The Hills, an Oslo institution reminiscent of the grand Viennese cafes. Tall and a little stooped, he sees himself as a facilitator alert to diners’ needs, polite and self-effacing yet proud of his work. He’s an observer, more than a little judgemental in his assessment of his customers, and something of a neurotic, thrown into a tizzy when things aren’t just so. When one of his regulars is late, he starts to fret but within the hour all is right with the world when the man he calls the Pig turns up, closely followed by his friend, Blaise. Both seem a tad put out at the non-appearance of their guest. Our waiter has his hands full when his other regulars arrive. Thomas Sellers frequently donates to the art collection that adorns The Hills’ walls and his rowdy behaviour is tolerated as a result. Shortly after Blaise and the Pig depart, a young woman arrives. Beautiful yet strangely nondescript and seemingly at ease with everyone, the Child Lady, as our waiter comes to think of her, will throw a spanner into his carefully maintained works. Over the next few days, the Pig becomes disconcertingly familiar with the Waiter, Thomas Sellers orders his meal backwards and our usually punctilious waiter makes several mistakes, some of them worryingly deliberate. Throughout it all, the Head Chef continues to flambé, the Maitre D’s gnomic utterances become increasingly obscure and even the all-knowing Bar Manager fails to identify the Child Lady.

Diligence and anxiety go hand in hand, I’m convinced of that  

Narrated by the increasingly unravelling Waiter, Faldbakken’s novella is a thoroughly entertaining little gem. Beneath his formal, carefully locked down exterior, the Waiter is a seething mass of neuroticism, apparently rather pleased with himself yet riddled with self-doubt. His musings are often erudite, little disquisitions on art and history coupled with waspish observations on diners’ behaviour. The arrival of the Child Lady, who fails to fit any of his mental templates, unnerves him, while his best friend’s entrustment of his nine-year-old daughter sends him scuttling to his phone, constantly checking for messages from her father and indulging in the very behaviour he despises in others: scrolling through trivia. There are some wonderfully slapstick episodes including our Waiter’s collapse in the face of an appalling lapse in sartorial taste while under the influence of far too many espressos. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment – I loved it.

Black Swan: London 2020 9781784163983 240 pages Paperback

Books to Look Out for in November 2018: Part One

Cover imageNovember’s packed to the gills with goodies, not all of them obvious Christmas presents although I’d be surprised if Jonathan Coe’s Middle England doesn’t appear on one or two wish lists. Set in the Midlands and London, it follows the last eight years through the lives of a set of characters including a political commentator and a Tory MP. Dubbed ‘a story of nostalgia and irony; of friendship and rage, humour and intense bewilderment’ by the publishers, it sounds like the kind of novel at which Coe excels. It feels a very long time since Number 11 and the return of the Winshaws so expectations are high.

A close contender for top of my own wish list is Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living which is set partly in India during the Second World War from which Charlie has returned, marrying, settling on a farm and hoping to turn his back on what happened in the remote mountains of Nagaland. ‘A beautifully conceived, deftly controlled and delicately wrought meditation on the isolating impact of war, the troubling legacies of colonialism and the inescapable reach of the past, Georgina Harding’s haunting, lyrical novel questions the very nature of survival, and what it is that the living owe the dead’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Harding, including her last novel, The Gun Room, which also tackled the theme of war.

Walter Kempowski’s Homeland examines the legacy of the Second World War from a different perspective. In 1988, a journalist is commissioned to report on a car rally, an assignment which will take him back to the place he was born in 1945 as refugees fled the Russian advance. ‘Homeland is a nuanced work from one of the great modern European storytellers, in which an everyday German comes face to face with his painful family history, and devastating questions about ordinary Germans’ complicity in the war’ say the publishers promisingly. And it’s translated by one of my favourites: Charlotte Collins

Gerard Reve’s Childhood comprises two novellas: one set in wartime Amsterdam as a young boy watches the German occupation of his city, the other about a children’s secret society and its treatment of a newcomer. ‘In these two haunting novellas from the acclaimed author of The Evenings, the world of childhood, in all its magic and strangeness, darkness and cruelty, is evoked with piercing wit and dreamlike intensity. Here, the things seen through a child’s eyes are far from innocent’ say the publishers no doubt hoping for the same success that met Reve’s bleak but darkly funny The Evenings.Cover image

I’m polishing off this first selection on a more cheerful note with Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter, set in Oslo where the eponymous waiter works at the city’s grandest restaurant. Our waiter knows his clientele well, tending to their every whim while sharply observing their various shenanigans. ‘Exquisitely observed and wickedly playful, The Waiter is a novel for lovers of food, wine, and of European sensibilities, but also for anyone who spends time in restaurants, on either side of the service’ say the publishers which sounds just great.

That’s it for the first batch of November’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for anything that’s taken your fancy. Second instalment to follow soon…