A Room to Swing a Cat In is a short story inspired by the history behind the house of Nicolas Flamel, 51 rue de Montmorency, the 3rd arrondissement of Paris, while its majestic doors represent my weekly contribution to Thursday Doors.
A Room to Swing a Cat In
What the plague hadn’t claimed was gathered on the streets of Paris for the fête of Sainte-Geneviève. Parades, farces, mocking jokes, they were all washed down with copious amounts of weak wine.
You either have the guts to do it or not.
So he did it. When the crowds broke in laughter his hand was elbow-deep in his surcoat, the parcel secured. Then he ran, the laden weight of a low Parisian sky hanging over his shoulders and him, a moving dot in a monochrome city.
He darted through a passage, away from their cheers, jumping sideways at the call of the chamber pot, slowing down past les gendarms whose hand always fell heavy on his kind of folk. His mother’s kind. Dark, with luscious hair, the keepers of the laughter and of the magic. He was proud of her gift for reading people and foretelling their future. ‘One God,’ she’d taught him, ‘for everybody.’
Yet not all were equal. And God was up. They were in the sewer.
The drizzle hitting his face forced him to bury his head between his skinny shoulders and look down when he reached the church of St Merri, that fed him now. It was the rain wetting his face, not his shame. The rain that also stung his eyes. So he picked up the pace, feeling only his heart hammering in his jacket.
He broke his run near the open market to check inside his coat, sliding on the slippery stones and bumping into a merchant yelling away his ware. His nose crushed into the fishmonger’s raw hand, yet the smell of burning wood glued to his nostrils blocked the stench. The torrent of curses fell on his ribs, but for once he didn’t care, his eyes jabbing inside his coat for a sign of life.
He licked the pink, hairless nose the way he saw its mother doing it. Two perfectly round eyes opened up on him. Hope.
So the remainder of the road he ran, he ran till he reached the tall house that bent over the road, in protection. He ran up the two flights of stairs with their many doors that sheltered the homeless, like them. He ran all the way to their tiny room at the mansard. Cozy, his mother would correct him with a laugh.
There, he stood in the only open spot and removed the kitten out of his bosom. It made a noise like a whisper and opened its round eyes on him again. The boy’s dark face lit up in a smile as big as a heart, revealing a few missing teeth. His mother will be so proud. He spun around three times like she’d taught him, making sure the cat was secure in his arms. He spun around to swing the cat for they had a room to swing a cat in. To keep it, as the gypsy believe said to do if one wanted to keep a cat.
In his father’s home, there were plenty rooms where he could swing a cat in. But an executioner’s son was not allowed to own a cat, what was allowed was to inherit his father’s job.
The House of Nicolas Flamel appeared on our Paris itinerary due to our daughter’s extraordinary interest in the world of Harry Potter.
About the house itself: Nicolas Flamel had the house built after his wife Pernelle passed away in 1397. The house (as well as several others owned by Flamel) did accommodate the homeless of Paris, or at least a part of them. Yet this is the only one still standing. The frieze above the ground floor dates from 1407, when the house was completed:
“Nous homes et femes laboureurs demourans ou porche de ceste maison qui fu fte en lan de grace mil quatre cens et sept, somes tenus chacun en droit soy dire tous les jours une patrenostre et 1 ave maria en priant dieu que sa grace face pardon aux povres pescheurs trespassez. amen.”
“We men and women labourers residing in the entryway of this house, which was built in the year 1407, vow to recite each day Our Father who Art in Heaven and Ave Maria, praying to God by whose grace accords pardon to those poor sinners (who) trespass. Amen.”
Yet Nicolas Flamel never lived here, in what is today the oldest house in Paris.
Update 🙂 I used a 14th century map of Paris to locate the House of Nicolas Flamel and trace the boy’s route:
The day of Saints-Geneviève:
During the Middle Ages, the Parisians had quite a full calendar, abundant in holidays and events that were enthusiastically celebrated, perhaps because of the precarious lives of the ordinary populace. Thus, The day of Saints-Geneviève, the patron saint of the city who allegedly saved that city from the Huns was and still is celebrated on the 3rd of January.
The origin of the saying “there was not room to swing a cat in it”:
There is a superstition in Transylvania, perhaps brought about by the gypsies whose specialty was to bear the seeds of magic and spread them about here and there, as the winds do to those of plants… In this province of Romania it is said that if a cat runs away, when recovered it must be swung around three times to attach it to the dwelling.
The same is done to a stolen cat by the thief himself, if he plans to keep it. This is a rather strange way to induce an attachment to any animal, but perhaps from the point of view of the professional cat-stealer the size of his room is a matter of greater importance.
On the Executioners Who Inherited Their Jobs
Truth be told, for centuries in France execution was a family matter and the job of an executioner was passed on from father to son.
Thursday Doors is a blog feature everyone can take part in, hosted by Dan Antion over at No Facilities – discover more doors from around the world.
Released at the end of a year overshadowed by a pandemic, Fincher’s movie Mank reveals itself like the glowing star atop the Christmas tree, and we look here at the significant symbols and symbolism Mank the movie carries.
Symbolism means an artistic or a lyrical expression obtained by using an image to reveal an idea or an emotion, to unmask a hidden concept or a state of mind.
In a movie, many things can be symbolic such as color, an object, the setting, the use of light in a scene, camera angle, the transition from one scene to the next, even a feeling.
What is exciting about symbolism in a movie, a book, or a work of art is that it can carry different meanings to different viewers, based on their perception and life experiences, and even based on the state of mind while watching the film or reading the novel.
Let’s look at three symbols that appear in David Fincher’s movie Mank. Attention, this blog post contains spoilers.
The Symbolism behind Marion and Mank atop the Scaffolding
Mank’s (Herman J. Mankiewicz) first meeting with actress Marion Davies takes place in 1929 (as we learn from one of his flash-backs), while Marion is filming a glamorous Old West movie on the grounds of Hearst’s massive estate, San Simeon.
Marion is about to be burned at the stake atop a pyramidal scaffolding and, during a shooting break, she asks Mank for a “ciggie”. Mank recognizes her as well as her wit and, although he wrestles a drunkard migraine, climbs the stairs to offer the diva a cigarette, like the gentleman he is.
“Watch those stairs. They’re treacherous,” Marion calls out. “Every moment of my life is treacherous,” Mank replies in jest.
Mank by David Fincher, after a screenplay by Jack Fincher
The two enjoy a vivid conversation atop the scaffolding. We see them profiled against a brilliant sky, lined with fluffy Hollywood-style clouds (with their own symbol).
This scene takes place eleven years before the major events of the movie (Mank’s six weeks job of writing a script for Orson Welles), and both Mank and Marion are on top of the world (see the sky profiled in the background ad the height they are placed on); both are still filled with ideals, and both are still in the process of throwing themselves into their dreams – represented by the brilliant clouds overhead.
We see them standing above the Hollywood crowd, above L. B. Mayer and William Randolph Hearst, who will later reduce both Mank and Marin to pawns.
But we also see Mank and Marion on a scaffolding, like lambs about to be sacrificed if they don’t give up their dreams (Mank doesn’t, Marion does) – for this is Hollywood, and here everything is worth sacrificing for the sake of ‘the magic of the movies.’
The low angle camera shot used during this scene highlights Mank and Marion’s moral superiority during this time in the story.
I thought that this particular shot is a nod towards ‘Gone with the Wind’. It makes a reference to a scene between Scarlett and her father, Gerald O’Hara. His words were:
‘Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.’
Gone with the Wind by by Victor Fleming, produced by David O. Selznick, based on a book by Margaret Mitchell
In the movie Mank, the only thing that matters (for Mank and Marion) is the quality of the work they produce.
Symbolism behindMank and Marion’s Moonlight Stroll about the Zoo Garden Owned by Hearst
Leading to this scene:
It is 1933. During one of Mank’s flashbacks, we join a glamorous birthday party at San Simeon where the Julia Morgan–designed castle and Hearst’s inheritance are located. Champagne flows, all are gay, and a live piano punctuates a careless conversation.
When the discussion turns to Hitler’s speech followed by kissing babies, as witnessed by Marion Davies during the newsreel of a movie she watched recently, only Mank and Marion point out the potential danger of the growing Nazi regime, while L.B. Mayer (MGM’s co-founder and Birthday Boy at Heart’s party) and Irvin Thalberg (Mayer’s right hand and head of production) reveal their ignorance of the Nazi leader. Then the conversation turns to current affairs and the political climb of socialist Upton Sinclair, Marion makes a faux pas and leaves the party room.
Next, we witness a nod from Sara Mankiewicz towards her husband, showing us how well she knows him. Thus Mank, always the emotional caregiver, always the indulgent father, follows Marion into the garden to comfort her.
Mank and Marion enjoy a Moonlight Stroll through Hearst’s Zoo Garden:
We find Mank and Marion outdoors, away from the glitz and glam of the party, and we witness a true camaraderie blossoming between two fellow New Yorkers, both outcasts in their own way here, in Hollywood (Davies the child of a working-class family from Brooklyn, Mankiewicz the child of German-Jewish immigrants). Mank seems to be the only man (in a world dominated by boys) to notice and appreciate Davies’ intellect. While Marion Davies looks up at Mank, asking him for advice to further her career as an actress, and not only as a prized mistress of a newspaper magnate (Hearst.)
And now we discover the symbolism behind Mank and Marion’s garden walk.
It is past dusk, the sky is laden with plumb and here and there, between the trees, we spot Hearst’s castle-like mansion. The gardens Mank and Marion stroll through have pathways bordered with neatly trimmed hedges in heavy shades of iron and charcoal, while Marion’s dress gleams in the moonlight like a gray pearl.
What is the symbol behind Marion’s gleaming party dress?
We don’t know what color her dress is. It could be gold, after all, she is a top-ranked Hollywood movie star, but it could just as well be satin pink, to match her rosy cheeks, as Mank states, or perhaps to match Hearst’s private nickname for her, Rosebud.
Further they stroll, past monkeys in a cage, just as Marion laments that ‘people think because you’re on the cover of “Modern Screen,” they know you.’ The monkeys flare up and Marion turns towards them and shouts out her anger, ‘Nobody, but nobody makes a monkey out of William Randolph Hearst!’ – then laughs.
The monkeys jump on the cage’s walls, yet they can’t reach Marion – much like a symbol for a flash of paparazzi.
And on Mank and Marion’s stroll, under the moonlight, until they reach the maze made of shrubs, punctuated by garden statues and topiary. We get a sense of opulence even here, away from Hearst’s mansion. The maze is a symbol for crafting one’s future, a task that is never a straight walk. The menagerie of wild animals is a symbol for whimsy, for the make-believe that movie-business is.
The scene is lit by ball-shaped garden lights on stands. They glow in the night like one hundred moons, all casting their light on Hearst’s collection of wild animals. Are Mank and Marion part of this collection? We now spot elephants in the far background.
There is a visual game of sharp shadows here, with Marion’s platinum blond curls glowing as if under their own spotlight, even in the darkness of the night, as though she has a designated spotlight forever shining brightly down on her. It is the spotlight Hearst keeps her under by the use of his newspapers, building her fame, for which he spends millions of dollars.
But Marion’s glowing curls seem to be lighting up the garden as much as the ball-shaped garden lights, presenting her like another one of Hearst’s prized possessions. This media-magnate who controls the news and owns a zoo, with caged monkeys, herds of silent elephants, and giraffes too, also has his very own movie Star, always kept under a spotlight, lit from above.
Among all this madness Mank and Marion share a heart-to-heart conversation by the water fountain. He is in the shadows, she is under the spotlight; a man of many dark shades (a big mouth and addictions) and a glowing Diva.
Mank and Marion’s night garden stroll is their last innocent game before all hell brakes loose; MGM gets involved in politics, Marion Davies leaves MGM for Warner Brothers, Mank writes his script based on Hearst (pulling Marion in it).
Mank and Marion’s night garden stroll is a playful exchange of wits. On one side, we have a gifted actress who is clever enough to understand and accept the compromises she has to make in exchange for ‘making an exit’. On the other side, we have an alcoholic writer who chooses the exact opposite course of action, that of being a participant observer who eventually learns that words throw long shadows even after their entertaining value has evaporated.
Their garden moonlight stroll reveals a game of light and shadow, of night and day, of right and wrong, co-existing, much like life at Hollywood must be, for actors and writers.
Mank’s Shades of Black and White
The idea of a black and white film might put off some movie-viewers, yet once watched, the monochrome Mank movie makes sense through its multiple gray-shaded pigments.
It was in keeping with Jack Fincher’s wish, his father and the writer of the original Mank script back in the ‘80s that David Fincher held the production until a production company (Netflix International Pictures) finally accepted to shoot Mank in black and white.
By shooting Mank in black and white, David Fincher forces the viewer to focus on the story and its characters, eliminating the distraction added by splashes of color. The black and white film draws the eye into following the actors, it emphasizes their performance. It is the perfect recipe for a movie that deals with actors portraying other actors.
By shooting Mank in black and white Fincher zoomed in, and brought the story-line and the ‘40s Hollywood drama into focus. His zooming creates an instant nostalgia, but not over a by-gone era, yet over a loss of moral values. It symbolizes Mank’s nostalgia over the debut of his career at Hollywood when all the doors were open, and were gilded, and he seamed to have reached the stars. It is Marion’s nostalgia too, over a time when her career was still on the rise and Hollywood was just that, a movie-making industry, not a business.
Yet Mank is not monochrome per se. It has plenty of silver in it and this gives the film an aura of eerie wistfulness as if Fincher does more than re-creating the past, he communicates with it, just as Mank does with his flash-backs (communicating in a way with his past self). The use of black and white makes the story-line feel more intense, it has immediacy, we sense Mank approaching his six weeks deadline; we taste his impending need for alcohol; we witness his climbing of the Hollywood ladder and his rapid falling out with Hearst.
Because the movie is in black and white, the audience can relate to Mank’s point of view. Hollywood is not all that glamorous as Mank thought it to be when he first arrived, moving from the east coast and trading his career as a playwright and drama critic for that of a Hollywood screenwriter.
Life in Hollywood is filled with threat, layered corruption, even an underworld of crime that creates weaponized movies, and no-one can escape its suppression. Mank believes he can, by going after Hearst the magnate, by exposing him, escaping his toxic friendship. Mank hopes he can free the monkey in the parable of the “organ grinder’s monkey” (see below for the symbology behind the “organ grinder’s monkey”).
Yet Mank, after the release of the American (Citizen Kane) is never to write another script again. He never works again, he never writes an original screenplay again. And he will never fight for credit again.
Shooting in black and white also afforded Fincher his darkness and shadow signature. At times, Mank the movie looks like a glossy ‘40s magazine, especially when it affords Marion Davies to glow in the scene. And this, the old-world glamour, is something Fincher is familiar with since the times he filmed Madonna’s ‘’Vogue,’ and it is how he shakes off any old-fashioned connotations that might come with making a black-and-white movie in the 21st century.
By shooting in black-and-white, Fincher created a delicate, old-world look that is fit for a contemporary of Citizen Kane rather than a film merely about Kane’s creator (Mank). And Fincher, or rather Ren Klyce, the sound designer, gave it a sound fit for Hollywood’s golden age, warm, albeit crackly, popping, that evokes a sense of remembrance, of daydreaming rather than reality.
Black and white (with the many gray shades in between, with the glistening silver, the pearls, the glowing beige) symbolizes the glamour of classical cinematography. Even the music for the movie has been recorded with older microphones.
The symbolism behind Fincher’s use of black and white to shoot Mank resides in the kaleidoscope of shades of greys found between dark and light, evil and righteousness, corruption and idealism. The two timelines that spiral around one another in Mank, each with their own threads of plots, form a symbolic kaleidoscope-like image in shades of grey, as there is no right or wrong in Hollywood, there is no good choice or bad choice, anything goes as long as it’s for the sake of the movie.
Fincher and Erik Messerschmidt (Mank’s director of photography) used a RED specially-made black-and-white camera, the RED Monstro Monochrome (Monstrochrome).
‘The Monstrochrome captures black and white imagery with more precise resolution and enhanced light sensitivity. Capturing monochrome natively is better than shooting in color and then eliminating the saturation in post. What you will get is a real, pure, stunning, accurate black, and white artistic image.’
Fincher tells Mark Harris for Vulture that they shot the movie in super-high resolution, then they softened it ‘to an absurd extent to try to match the look of the era’, and added ‘little scratches and digs and cigarette burns.’
Symbolism Behind the Parable of the Organ Grinder Monkey
The parable of the organ grinder monkey is mentioned only twice in Mank, yet it is what fuels Mank in going after Hearts, it is the motor that pushed the action forward.
Mank is the first to mention the parable of the organ grinder monkey to John Houseman.
John Houseman: Why Hearst? Outside his own blonde Betty Boop, you were always his favorite dinner partner. Herman Mankiewicz: Are you familiar with the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey?
Mank the Movie
What is the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey?
Tagging someone as an “organ grinder’s monkey” means that they do anything a powerful person wants them to do, without having any real power. They make money for their boss without whose presence they are nothing – yet they don’t know it.
Mank first heard about the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey from ‘Willie’ Hearts, during what was to be their last encounter, albeit a drunken one for Mank.
At this moment in time Hearts sees Mank as his grinder monkey, whom he thought to be a “Shakespeare of talking pictures.” Yet Hearts knows that Mank would not have been afforded the audience and the connections he made has it not been for Hearst and his glamorous parties.
And Mank understands the parable of the grinder monkey and his associate with the ape, but it is now, after Sinclair lost the campaign due to Meyer and Thalberg’s smear campaigns; after his friend and co-worker Shelly Metcalf commits suicide, that he just discovers that his words are important. That he can be a monkey without an organ-grinder.
But can he?
It is the same parable, placing Mank as the grinder monkey, that Mank refers to at the beginning of the story, when he chats to Houseman.
Yet Mank sees himself as a monkey who can prove his organ grinder wrong. A monkey who will free himself and will still be able to sing, dance, and receives everyone’s attention. On his own. This is why Mank went after Hearst. This is why he fought his demons and finished the screenplay.
Yet no one can destroy the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey, for without his organ-grinder, the monkey is just a primate. While without his monkey, the organ grinder, by definition, can always find himself another monkey.
Perhaps this is what David Fincher and his father Jack Fincher, who wrote the screenplay, tried to prove in the first place, by focusing on Mank’s character. That the monkey can live outside the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey. As Fincher told Mark Harris for Vulture, in an interview, ‘My dad, […] was a journalist, lived by the axiom that the greatest entertainment was written by people who understood the real world.’.
Have they succeeded in giving the monkey a new life in the spotlight? Had they aimed as high as Mank did when writing his screenplay? Or have they shows that the parable is true and that the monkey’s chance of survival without his organ grinder is just in the monkey’s perception?
Either way, I think that the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey will prove to be that gold thread that will render the movie Mank timeless.
Mank by David Fincher is a kaleidoscope in black and white, portraying the golden era of Hollywood in a modern way, with its good and bad, with its stars adorned atop a scaffolding and its moonlit secrets, and with its monkey and organ grinder too. Perhaps Fincher placed less symbols in his movie than I enjoyed picking, but this is the magic of ‘the magic of the movies,’ isn’t it?
The first snow of December is winter’s first gift, coming from Saint Nicholas, yet not many know its significance. For that sneeze feeling you have in your nose before winter’s first coat falls, that’s just Saint Nicholas’ beard tickling your cheek.
At the beginning of December, the flakes spiral and dance to the ground the same way Saint Nicholas’ white beard floats behind him as he strides along the road. Each winter since that first one, almost two thousand years ago.
But don’t look out for his arrival for you won’t see him on the road. Cladded in a brown cassock, with white hair framing his silhouette like a cloud, and his silvery beard thrown over his shoulder – so he won’t tread on it – Saint Nicholas’ figure is more like that of a majestic tree than of a man. In his right hand, he holds a stick, a branch of an apple tree, and over his left shoulder, he balances a bundle. It isn’t a big sack like some would expect, rather a modest one, well used, and almost hidden by his snowy mane.
What got him going in the first place? What keeps him on the road still? Some say it is his love for God, for helping those in need. Some believe it is the joy he feels in his heart whenever he offers that much-needed contribution.
For the sum of all the joy that December’s first snow brings to all, is equal to the joy that swells Saint Nicholas’ heart when he strides forward one more year, and makes it snow, a sure tell-tell sign of his impending arrival.
The white stone arches of the maritime city of Patara, in Lycia, have long been reduced to ruins, and its once busy harbor is now but a white beach. But once, during the 3rd century, this town founded by none other but the son of Apollo, the god of archery, truth, and healing, was a known harbor at the Mediterranean Sea, and along the trading routes going through Asia Minor. It is said that even Paul and Luke changed ships here.
Saint Nicholas first walked this earth here, in Patara, before settling in the nearby city of Myra. He was fortunate to be born in a wealthy family so he could enjoy a formal education. During those times only upper-class males had such rights. Yet all young Nicholas wanted to do was to learn about God and aid those less fortunate. And helping them he did, for after the timeous death of his parents, he shared his wealth with the poor.
And he did so in a very peculiar way, for he was a rather shy young man who preferred to observe, rather than judge, and to act quietly, rather than boast.
Night after night Nicholas donned a brown cassock and tiptoed around his town, secretly delivering food and gold coins to those families he knew were in dire need.
One such family was that of a widower who had three hard-working daughters, yet they were too poor to even get married for their father had no money to pay for their dowry. Unable to do much work outside the home to provide for themselves as women were not even considered fit for labor, a harsh life, of poverty and uncertainty, was foreseen for his three girls.
It was the coldest winter they’ve ever known, and the wise men of Patra were whispering it was God’s wrath that had fallen over their village, for people had turned away from one another. Work was scarce, food had become a sweet dream, and even wood for fire was a dear sight.
They had never heard such howling, as if not one, but a clutter of lynxes found refuge outside the city gates.
They had never seen such a snow bridge extending the land far into a still sea now, and narrowing the strait to a choke, freezing all activity in the harbor.
They had never smelled so many different kinds of fire, for the people of Patra having run out of the usual amount of wood stacked for winter, had resourced to burning rags, leaves, even old trash to keep warm.
One such night, all that the widower’s family of four had left for dinner were four potatoes they cooked over the shadow of a fire. When dinner was ready the father asked the oldest daughter to take his cooked potato along with some sticks and deliver them to their neighbor, a lonely woman. Nobody saw the young girl rushing through the still village in that icy dark, nobody but a man dressed in a long cassock. He saw the girl’s good deed and the smile that grew on his face was the strength that kept him going forward that night.
For he too was a lone visitor in that arctic darkness, moving silently from one needy shelter to the next.
One year passed and it was time for the oldest daughter to marry, yet both she and her father knew it will not happen for they were, each day, poorer than the day before. And winter had come again.
Except that one morning when they woke up the father and his three daughters found a pouch with gold coins outside their front door. They were merry of the unexpected gift, they shared some of it with their needy neighbors, and it was still enough left for the eldest daughter to marry.
But where did the money came from? The father would have like to know.
But we know, don’t we?
One more year passed and the time came for the second daughter to marry. Yet money was scarce again. Until one early morning, when another pouch with gold coins was discovered outside their home. Merry were they, a happy wedding happened and two neighbors were aided this time.
But where did the money had come from, again? The girl’s father promised himself to find out.
Although we do know, don’t we?
So when one more year passed and winter gripped the village once more, the girl’s father hid outside his home, pulling his cloak tight around him, thin protection against winter’s sharp bite, his hood lowered against the gale, seeking shelter behind their only olive tree. Waiting, more eager to discover the identity of their benefactor than he was worried that chills will take shelter in his old bones. And just as Nicholas approached the poor man’s house the father stepped out of the shadow. Nicholas of Myra took a step backward and threw the pouch through the window, thus it landing in a shoe, then ran. He wished more than anything for his gesture to remain anonymous. The girl’s father only caught sight of a man dressed in a common cassock, departing in a hurry. So he followed him and thus he witnessed more good deeds.
And that winter night the old man felt less and less the bite of the arctic wind, the warm blanket of hope and gratitude settling on his skinny shoulders.
And he even caught sight of their benefactor’s face. A young man, whose eyes spread such wisdom and love, as only the city’s elders’ did. A man who shed a tear outside each needy household, yet smiled after leaving the gift behind. A man whose shoulders hunched more and more upon leaving each establishment, as if for each gift he left behind he chose to take away some of the troubles, the worries, the pain hanging over each family.
It was the night between the 5th and the 6th of December, a date the poor man’s family will always remember, a date that remained in folktales and is celebrated by Christians as the night of Saint Nicholas, Moș Nicolae.
I remember, as a child, cleaning my shoes and placing them by the window, hoping that Saint Nicholas will leave an orange and a few chocolates in them. The hope of being remembered. Small joys for a small child, apart for winter’s first snow.
Some say that if they’ve been naughty they found a small wand made from the wood of an apple tree. Maybe even torn from Saint Nicholas’ staff. It is said that if it blooms when placed in water is sure sign that Saint Nicholas forgave all their naughty deeds and that he smiles again.
How Does Snow Smells Like?
And not only the first snow, but the way the air smells around that first snow. Clean and fresh, soft, as if it’s just been washed, although it hasn’t. Isn’t it? I write from memories.
To me, snow smells of pine trees, woody, of open spaces, of holiday, of promises and of hopes. It smells as if anything ~ good ~ is possible, and as if dreams do come true. First snow smells like that.
I know that the frozen air has the opposite effect on the human olfactory system, and that we actually have less chances of smelling when it is cold outside because the mucus inside our nostrils dries up, so less particles reach the nerve receptors in our noses. Yet I do solemnly swear that I can smell the first snow and that I can smell the change in the air, before it first snows.
And I know that the air is supposed to be extra ionized when it snows, as it hold more moisture. Add it is a drop in temperature and a decrease in air pressure that makes it snows. Yet isn’t it more to that first snow than science?
For there is a change in the air before it snows. Some call it happiness or anticipation. For others it is the emotional charge of childhood.
I am telling you, time stands still in Romania – or in any other place in the world, if one was born there. So let’s all take kindly to it.
We have snapshots saved in our mind, of trees in autumn or summer sunsets peeking between traffic, of old buildings and tramway rides, snapshots accompanied by scents and sounds. Lindens in bloom, snow crunching underfoot, hot summer dancing over asphalt, the first tram echoing in rhythm each morning. Easy to remember, yet forgotten until we spot the same place again, hear the same chime, or a scent washes over us, two decades later. Time stands still in the spot where one was born.
A Romanian saying goes like this: eternity was born in a hamlet. And how much truth lies in it…
A hamlet, the simplest form of rural settlement whose population measures its life between sowing and plowing, its spirit still tightly woven in its ancestor’s web of traditions and beliefs. Here, life is an oasis of peace and eternity.
Sure, 21st century arrived in the form of a train station – soon abandoned for no one got off and nobody ever left. And the modern lifestyle came in the form of a cellphone tower too. For whose benefit is still a mystery, since locals don’t use such modern technology and no tourists set foot along their main road either. Only the cows stir its dirt in the morning, and again in the evening when each one knows exactly through which gate to push to arrive home.
With kerchiefs over their heads, a habit they picked it up as children, and blouses with hand stitched flowers motifs, spirals and crosses too, women here smile a lot, speak little, cook finger licking, simple meals, and worry and pray. And their men look after them, and after their crops and their herds, are quick in temper, yet soft in the look they give you, guarded by thick eyebrows.
And, with their cows coming and going, with the sun rising at the rooster’s call and setting in the hushing of the leaves and the singing of the crickets, these people live for today.
For today is eternal, as much as the clouds are overhead and the land underfoot. Yesterday is gone like the storm, taking its thunder with it. Tomorrow might never come, although it is a promise from God. And He always keeps His word. But today, today is eternal, and because of this time stands still in a hamlet in Romania.
I snapped the picture above while we drove from Sinaia to Bran. Very near this spot was the medieval border of Bran Castle, close to the Bran Pass, that was the 14th century toll gate between Transylvania and Wallachia.
It was through here that caravans loaded with merchants’ goods passed between the two principalities. The mountainous and rugged terrain, the relatively narrow pass and the vast coniferous forests, made the route quite risky for caravans.
But Bran Castle was also a point of defense – especially against Turk invasions – and therefore the establishment of a border point here was necessary and soon became profitable for the entire area.
Prince Mircea the Elder, Voivode of Wallachia, was the one who, through a privilege granted to Brasov merchants, established the customs of Wallachia in 1413 atTurciu (today Bran). The medieval Bran customs point was defended against robbers by guards that were backed-up by guards from Bran Castle. Due to their importance, the customs buildings will be rebuilt and consolidated over centuries. It was at the end of the 15th century that Bran border point became the responsibility of merchants from Brasov, Transylvania.
Just imagine, it was through these woods that Vlad Tepes and his brave men, his Viteji, rode back and forth.
But more about this in my next book 🙂
Time Stands Still in Romania and Taking Kindly to It is my contribution to Becky’s incredible October Squares #KindaSquare blog feature. Do have a look 🙂
Subscribe to my e-Newsletter for fun and informative content on dogs, books, history, folklore and a castle or two:
I discovered this picture I took looking out of the Kinda Old, Corvin Castle, and remembered the question that haunted me, what story do these old stones tell?
‘Follow the main tunnel,’ he’d said, ‘the widest one. Do not set foot into any of the side shafts,’ and he’d let the trap door fall. Blindness shrouding them.
She smelled wet earth, almost agricultural, the freezing temperatures blocking any other foul odors. Her stomach recoiled, a physical sign that her hippocampus, the primitive region of her brain and mother-nature’s GPS system, the same one that helped Homo sapiens navigate and orientate in space by collecting data and building a cognitive map, was protesting. She remembered reading about it, about the human brain’s natural fear of being lost, of losing all receptive signals from the sun, the moon, the stars, even from one’s shadow or the wind. Period. Of not being able to tell ahead from behind, up from down. No horizon. Only gravity to rely on.
She knew her body was telling her she was neurologically ill-equipped to be here. In an underground tunnel. Without a map to navigate by. Without cellphone reception. Only eerie silence. And darkness beyond the flashlight’s shaft. Her field of view blinkered, never reaching beyond the next twist or kink. Down here there was no way to tell time and she did not want to check her wrist watch and discover that time stood still.
No one could tell exactly what these tunnels had been used for. Nor did anyone know for sure how many such tunnels were, scattered underfoot the town. And those who did know, were long reduced to bone. Meanwhile, for centuries the tunnels had been buried. Their gaping mouths filled in after locals complained of smell, their caverns used as underground landfills. But before human junk touched them, no one knew what they’ve been used for. Oh, artifacts had been found and there were plenty of legends too. Legends told by ghosts.
The next step she took, darkness sealed her in. She shook the flashlight, hit it against the rocky wall, yet no light came through. Thoughts accelerated inside her head. She tried to slow them down, but they wouldn’t listen, racing for a way out. The tension in her neck spread to her face and she heard a wheezing noise not realizing it was her shallow breath coming in short, rapid puffs. Her limbs felt heavy to move, although her heart was racing. Like a rabbit running for its skin. Racing to find a way out. Through the dark tunnel, as far as possible, as fast as possible, till it found the exit.
She remembered a moth caught inside her bathroom, at night. Banging against the white walls when she had switched on the light. In an attempt to escape, giving into the primal surge to flee. Till it moved no more, in a corner of the bathroom wall. Dead, yet freed in its own mind, freed from the confined space.
She felt her mind spinning, like an athlete sprinting during a marathon, using all the energy his body could muster, leaving none for later. Life mattered now.
Forward was a black passage and so was backwards, but who knew if forward wasn’t backwards and back wasn’t front?
She let her legs gave way in an attempt to slow down her mind, she felt her body drop to the ground like an inanimate object.