June Newsletter: Zemen Gorge

So there I was, sliding through a series of lush and secret valleys. Pillars of stone passed my train, russet and glowing against steep, green slopes. Under us swung the river Struma, cupped by willows, uncrossed by any human tracks but ours. I didn’t pay much attention to it all because I was having an interesting conversation.

Pavlina’s maternal grandfather comes from a small village near the town of Kyustendil, on the borders of Serbia and North Macedonia. In the summer, It is Expected that we spend our weekends in this village, where the cherries and lizards are plentiful, but there is little internet. And why are you leaving Sofia on Friday evening? Why not Friday morning or Thursday evening? Why do you have to go back to Sofia on Monday?

I teach online classes, is why. I had stuff to do in Sofia. After losing sleep over the question of whether or not Pavlina would want to drive us back, I realized I could just take the train by myself. Liberty! Self-determination! I would spend a week alone in Sofia, cooking with eggplants*.

Man plans, God laughs. My three-legged journey to, from, and to Sofia again included buses, ticks, and a diesel train converted into a low-cost sauna by means of the energy of the sun and screws that locked all the windows closed. But let’s talk about the middle part, from Sofia to Kystendil.

The train was a modern electric, with air-conditioning and an aerodynamic nose. I sat near a father with his son, who played video games and did Yo-Yo tricks for an old, bearded man with a big plastic bottle of chicory stems and some clear fluid. The old man didn’t want to sit down, and had a discussion about liberty and self-determination with the conductor.

She hung around after that, chatting with the bearded man, the dad, and a man with a weed-whacker about the high quality of the train, the beauty of the view, and how nice it was to form human connections with one’s fellow travelers, rather than spend the whole trip staring at a screen.

I smiled at my cell phone. I did want to enjoy the scenery, and I had a general to-do of practicing small talk and connection-making. But there was a very interesting book review on ACX about homelessness in San Francisco.

Yes, I could have done better. At least I didn’t say no when the weed-whacker guy turned around in his seat and asked if I wanted to talk. It’s two and a half weeks later now, when I’m writing this, and he just called me to tell me his name is Ivan.

Ivan told me this rail line was built by the Germans with the intention of linking Sofia to Tirana and by ferry to Italy. The competing interests of large, far-off countries had intervened and now, the line ended in Kyustendil. Another step backward in the march of Balkan unity.

We talked more politics, agreeing about some things, disagreeing about others. I asked Ivan what the old man with the beard was doing with his bottle full of chicory and clear fluid. Ivan told me he didn’t judge.

When we transferred trains, I carried Ivan’s other bag so he could concentrate on his weed-whacker. We sat together.

That was the most beautiful part of the trip. The Zemen Gorge flashed past while Ivan told me how he had climbed those slopes, hunting mushrooms. Those mushrooms in the mountains, they were like steak! A man could live off them for a week. By the way, what’s manatarka in English? Between the two of us and Wikipedia, we found the answer, at least in the US, was “porcini.” Ivan sent a text to his girlfriend in California to tell her how to ask for this mushroom by name.

So now there’s at least three more people in the world who know how to translate manatarka into English. I learned about rail lines, mushrooms, and the cherry-only detox diet Ivan planned to carry out while he was whacking weeds at his own village. It was a good conversation.

We need connections. They don’t have to be deep. Destinies don’t have to be shaken. It’s just nicer to spend a train ride talking to someone rather than reading. It makes you feel like you have a place in the world, that you’re not at the mercy of implacable strangers. You’re a person, surrounded by your fellow people, and far more unites than divides you.

And if the community gets to be too much, you can hop on a train and escape.

In other news, I participated in this year’s Specposium, and gave a 10-minute presentation on Junction and how to set a story in a spec-bio world. You can watch it here.

On my Patreon, I posted the previously-published short story “Film Studies” (part of the Fellow Tetrapod universe), a bit of cursive cuneiform (courtesy of conlanger Yuk-tepat), an alternate-earth rotifer trying to be a fish, and, for patrons, chapter 7 of The World’s Other Side.

And! I finished this draft of Wealthgiver. It’s the fourth or “skin” draft, which means it should have everything it needs to live as a story, but is still a bit embarrassing. To make the manuscript ready for polite company, I need your help! Please tell me if you want to read this story about 19th century Balkan geopolitics and cave-Thracians. Tell me in the comments.

And I read some stuff:

The Five Levels of Attachment by Miguel Ruiz Jr. — a brief but thorough look at one problem people have

The Five Levels of Attachment isn’t as broad as the Four Agreements, but it is deep. It deals with specifically “attachment,” the way people accept a belief, make judgement based upon it, and identify with it. It gave me a good way of thinking about the difference between concern and zealotry, and I appreciated the author’s personal stories. I might have liked more stories from other people, but the book did its job.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik — folkloric history with real history and folklore

I was convinced to read this book by Abby Goldsmith’s review, which reassured me this isn’t another one of those dull fantasies “flavored” with pre-modern Eastern Europe. Spinning Silver takes place (please correct me if I’m wrong) in 13th-century Lithuania, with a new monarchy, Mongols at the doorstep, and everything. I wouldn’t call it alternate history, but Novik took her historical and folkloric source material seriously. These are real people, with real problems, and they really fall in love.

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith — more wholesome candy

McCall Smith now takes up residence in my head in the room next to Wodehouse. I might struggle to remember what happened in which book, but each one is a contented week spent with a dear friend. In this case, I don’t actually remember whether we found out what the guy is doing under Mma Ramotswe’s bed. But I do know she got her van back, and denied her trauma in the best Adlerian way.

Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller — marketing advice appealing to writers

A screen-writer-turned business coach, Miller presents his advice in a language I understand: the hero’s journey. It made sense to me. I can’t say yet if the advice in his book works, but I am taking it seriously enough to try. Expect an update in a few months.

The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner — an interesting premise heavily padded

I’m sure the proposal for this book was attractive: a scientist and a journalist travel the world to test the grand unified theory of humor. It just doesn’t quite work. The theory is interesting: humor is a benign violation. But the travel writing lacks depth and isn’t all that funny. I think it’s because the authors never really test the theory or themselves, or at least they don’t admit to it in the book. I would have liked to see more teeth and vulnerability.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — the hell of consequence-freedom

A gorgeous, lush book. It embodies, as well as describes decadence. I wish we had seen more of Dorian’s corruption rather than just seeing the first and final steps, but maybe that’s just because I wanted more.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude — not as good as Anna Karenina 😉

Haha! But I did stick with it for four months, all the way to the Second Epilogue, chapter 12. There were moments of genius (Napoleon’s ear-pulling and Platon’s cabbage-maggot come first to mind), but not as many as in Anna Karenina. Between were long, dry stretches of Tolstoy’s opinions about history. I’m glad Tolstoy dug more into characters and their relationships in his later writing.

The Heaven Makers by Frank Herbert — an odd little story that didn’t quite live up to its potential

The set-up is promising: immortal aliens are killed by nothing but boredom. They use Earth to generate interesting stories. They get messily, grotesquely entangled with the humans they’re manipulating. Then the story drops a lot of threads. The aliens are so powerful, it’s very hard for the human characters to have agency, and their victories seem hollow. The psychology is interesting, though.

Have a good July

*Pavlina is allergic to eggplants.

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