Torture by Crow

There are many lovely birds in East Africa, but the Indian House Crow is not one of them. Small, but noisy and aggressive, these brutes are everywhere on the Red Sea coast. Thankfully, there is a plethora of other, rather more pleasing birds and an interesting array of other wildlife.

Assab, unfortunately, is overrun by crows, a fate shared by the other large town on the coast, Massawa. The birds are not even big, roughly the size of a jackdaw, but they are everywhere and they are not nice. Even worse, they are not a native species. Somebody, possibly with a long-standing grudge against the entire eastern coastline of Africa, imported them and they have proliferated to the point where they are a genuine pest. These really are birds that could start a fight in the proverbial empty room.

Hilariously, these psychotic birds glory in the Latin name of Corvus splendens, which at least proves that the scientific community is possessed of a well-developed sense of irony. Personally, I would have opted for Corvus absurdis.

Nemesis

The only other bird that exists in large numbers on Eritrea’s coast is the Sooty Gull. These are also quite small for their species, but in contrast to the rancorous crows, are virtually silent. In this, they are not a typical gull. They lead a rather peaceful life and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they used to be more like most other gulls, but once the crows had arrived, gave up any vocal activity as a lost cause.

Unsurprisingly, given the heat and humidity, Assab is not teeming with birds, being especially barren during the intensely hot months of June, July and August. However, a bit of time and patience can be very rewarding and spending enough time there will reveal a few treasures. It’s not the sort of place for a birder to compile a long list in a short space of time – Asmara is a much better bet for that kind of thing – but a couple of years in the area guarantees an impressive collection.

The local stars were ospreys. It was common to see two pairs of these raptors fishing in the Red Sea near Assab. The pairs were in surprisingly close proximity, but presumably the fishing was so good that there were no territorial disputes. Having come to the conclusion that afternoon siestas were not for me, I would often wander down to the coast for a swim and in hope of spotting the ospreys. More often than not, I was rewarded.

Watching them hunt, you realised that catching a fish takes a lot of work, even for these skilled birds. There is a lot of hovering and quite a lot of backing out of dives. The feet-first plunges often produce no result, but when the strike happens, it is spectacular and one of the great sights of nature, as the bird struggles to get airborne with a large fish in its talons. Once the fish is hooked, it is rarely dropped.

It’s much easier to tick off species in the highland areas. Even a day or two in Asmara should provide a sizeable list. Asmara has some pleasant residential areas with lots of gardens and brightly coloured flowers, and these attract plenty of small and often equally brightly coloured birds. Clearly, the numbers depend on the amount of interest of the observer and anyone with an enthusiasm for birds, even quite experienced birders, will find it easier with a book. I was rarely without my Birds of East Africa guide.

The guide book is invaluable, but it’s still hard at times to be certain of something you’ve spotted. A lot of weaver birds, for example, are very similar in appearance and it can be very difficult to be certain of a particular species, even when you’ve been staring at it through binoculars for some time. When even an internationally respected ornithologist advises that it’s difficult to tell the difference between certain species, there isn’t much chance for the rest of us.

Happily, there are lots of birds that can’t be mistaken for anything else. In Asmara, a common sight is that of a smallish brown bird with a long tail and stumpy wings flitting into a palm tree. This is the Speckled Mousebird, an engaging character that scurries around trees searching for fruit and berries. The punky crest on top of the head adds to its endearing appearance, which is indeed rather mouse-like when it is bustling around in the trees.

Speckled Mousebird

Another bird that it is impossible to mistake for anything else is the extraordinary Hammerkop. These moderately large waders are found around lakes and have the appearance of a brown heron that has been hit over the head with a blunt instrument. They also possess an unrivalled enthusiasm for building nests, even constructing them when they are not breeding. Hammerkop nests are huge, built of sticks and often covered in any shiny objects they happen to come across.

Hamerkop

There are lots of different doves and pigeons throughout all of East Africa. Even in Assab, there is a variety of species, including two at either end of the size range. In the heavyweight corner is the Speckled Pigeon, a bulky bird with a very distinctive red patch around the eyes. It is also – forgive the element of surprise – speckled. In the flyweight corner is the tiny Namaqua Dove, which is the size of a sparrow and stands out because of its remarkably long tail, which serves to make it look rather bigger than it really is. Namaquas often feed on the ground and the first sighting of one can take the observer by surprise. They look like pigeons, move like pigeons and, of course, are pigeons, but they look too small to be real, appearing to have been imported from some miniature Swiftian world.

Namaqua dove

Along with my bird guide, I had taken a pair of binoculars and also packed a snorkel and pair of goggles. I did without the flippers, as I wasn’t the strongest swimmer and wasn’t planning to go that deep, but there was enough underwater life near the coastline to keep me interested. The life around the coral reefs is especially diverse and often very colourful.

Unfortunately, a combination of short-sightedness and a complete lack of knowledge regarding marine life rather curtails any in-depth analysis. I can safely say that there were lots of gaudy butterfly fish and a fair collection of crustaceans. One day, I came face to pincer with a substantial lobster. I backed off. I had further uses for my nose.

If the lobster looked as though it could dish out a bit of pain, the sharks that appeared around the reefs from time to time were certainly worth avoiding on that score. These, I learned from the people at the Ministry of Marine Resources, were Black-tipped Reef Sharks. They weren’t, it must be admitted, exactly the stuff of scary movies, being around four feet long, but they were nevertheless sharks and sharks have teeth. Very sharp teeth. They are, however, just as nervous of people as people are of them and making a bit of noise and stamping your feet on the sand was enough to send them scuttling into deeper water.

Black tipped reef shark

While I managed to avoid injury by lobster claw or shark tooth, I wasn’t so lucky with the coral. Corals are, of course, living creatures, marine invertebrates and, as such, animals. It’s probably safe to say that there was no intention on the part of the corals to cause me damage, but cause it they did.

It can often be quite windy on the Red Sea Coast and the sea can become a bit choppy at times. I never used to venture out too far, but even within my limited orbit, it could throw you around a bit. So it was one afternoon when I took a swim. Finding myself being churned around in increasingly vigorous waves, I decided to get back to the beach and struck out with a vigorous breast stroke.

What I struck was a very sharp coral. I’d avoided drowning, which was a distinct positive, but now I had a big gash in the palm of my right hand. I washed it and surveyed the damage. It was bleeding quite a lot, but didn’t seem to be life threatening. I was quite near the group of houses where the UN volunteers lived, so I wound my tee-shirt around my hand and set off for the house of an Australian UN volunteer called Michael. He was bound to have a first-aid box or something similar.

Michael and his wife cleaned and patched me up. I’d live to fight another coral. We had a couple of bottles of beer, which helped to numb the pain a bit. Restored to some sort of functionality, I proffered my thanks and wandered off towards home. When I’d got about a mile down the road, I suddenly realised that I had another, albeit more minor, problem, this one more socio-cultural than physical.

It’s all very well wandering about on the beach without a shirt on, but it’s not really polite to do it in other areas. I would need to walk past the Port Club, the church and quite a few houses before I got home. Of course, what I should have done was to borrow a shirt, but I wasn’t going to walk all the way back to Michael’s house again. I had a shirt, but it was covered in blood. I pondered the dilemma.

It was a simple enough choice. Either I went topless and offended social norms or I put on my blood-drenched shirt. I decided to wear the shirt. It was still daylight and I wasn’t going to hang around in hiding until it was dark enough to sneak home unnoticed. Besides which, more people came out after dark when it was cooler, so that wasn’t going to work, anyway. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter too many people and even better, didn’t bump into anyone I knew. The few people who did spot me, I noticed, kept a considerable distance. I clearly had that authentic street fighting man look.

In my two years in Eritrea, I did not see one snake. They certainly existed, a fact which one unfortunate Norwegian visiting Assab would have testified to readily. He was bitten by one, thankfully without any form of lasting damage. This, however, was the single occasion on which I heard anything about snakes.

I did, after a fashion, see a scorpion. More accurately, I saw the shattered remnants of the creature after it had been battered to death at the teachers’ house. Steve had an even closer encounter with it. Waking up one morning, he distractedly reached out to remove what he thought was a leaf from the top of his mosquito net. What he actually picked up was a small scorpion. Luckily for Steve, the arachnid had evidently been somewhat knocked out by the chemicals sprayed onto the net and was not in any shape to retaliate. I usually wore sandals, but I got into the habit of checking my shoes or walking boots before I put them on.

One common arachnid was the little black and white jumping spider that seemed to be everywhere. As the name suggests, they do not spin webs, but capture their prey by the simple, but evidently highly effective, expedient of leaping on it. They seemed to be able to jump in any direction and with considerable accuracy. Along with the ubiquitous geckos, these spiders were quite welcome in my house. Anything that disposed of insects was a friend of mine, unless it was a crow.

Even the geckos and spiders might have steered clear of the large black wasps, one of which decided to build a nest on the door of my office. Architecturally and aesthetically, the nest was a wonderful domed structure, carefully put together from chewed wood, and really quite impressive. From a practical point of view, trying to bypass an angry wasp protective of its nest and young was not the most appealing prospect. The refinery’s maintenance men duly removed the nest, only for the wasp to start again in the same place. The maintenance men shifted it for a second time. Thankfully the wasp appeared to be aware of the WC Fields adage ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then give up. No use being a damned fool about it’ and duly vanished to rebuild in a quieter spot.

Insects were not in short supply. It would have taken millions more insectivores to keep the population down to even plague proportions. It was almost impossible to be outside for a few seconds without having flies buzzing around your head. I decided to watch the sun rise one morning when I was at the VSO annual meeting in Massawa. I got up at five o’clock and walked to the beach. Even at that hour, it was blisteringly hot and I seemed to have attracted more flies than a herd of cattle.

It’s impossible to forget one sight. We – the Assab volunteers – went to a small restaurant one day to have some lunch. From a distance, it seemed that the place had acquired a job lot of black tablecloths. It was only when you got closer and the waiters started waving tea towels around that you realised that the ‘tablecloths’ were, in fact, vast swarms of flies. Suddenly, everybody experienced a loss of appetite and we settled for a cold drink instead.

And then there were the mosquitoes. VSO must spend a fortune on anti-malarial pills. It’s just as well, because it’s impossible to avoid bites, however many precautions you take. You can cover yourself in all kinds of repellent sprays, creams, gels and liquids. You can sleep under netting. You can – if you can bear wearing extra clothing in such high temperatures – cover yourself up. One way or another, they will get you.

Sometimes, it’s in unexpected ways. On a visit to Asmara, I stayed in the same hotel as John, a UN volunteer who was in Assab as a fishing advisor. One morning, he appeared with a nasty gash above his left eyebrow that made him look as though he had taken up boxing and come through a 12-round bout against a particularly aggressive opponent. What had happened in reality was that he’d had a mosquito in his room. In his desperate attempts to swat the pest, he’d fallen out of bed and cracked his head on the bedside table. Directly or indirectly, they will always find a way to inflict damage.

Usually, though, it comes down to more traditional methods. After a long and thoroughly enjoyable Christmas Day party, which had inevitably involved a considerable amount of alcohol, I fell asleep on the large and comfortable sofa at the large house occupied by Michael. Being clad in only tee-shirt and shorts, I had no chance. A couple of days later, I looked like an overcooked pizza. Things were so drastic that people began to visit my office on the flimsiest of excuses just so they could survey the damage. In fact, they often didn’t have excuses. I took the only reasonable course of action. I locked the door.

One of the many beauties of the air conditioning in my house was that doors and windows could be kept shut, with the result that incursions by mosquitoes and flies were rare. It was easy enough to deal with isolated insurgents. I wasn’t spared irritation, though. Crickets seemed to find ways to get into any house and had a trick that seemed especially vindictive. They would wait until you’d put the lights out and then start chirping. It became a game. Put the lights on and the chirping stopped. Put them off and the racket resumed.

It was hard to know whether the crickets were more annoying than the cockroaches. It was a close run thing. Cockroaches are in no way lovable and Western culture, in particular, has demonised them into a Kafka nightmare. On the other hand, at least cockroaches don’t make an infernal din when you’re trying to get to sleep.

Cockroaches are rather cumbersome creatures and I got a bit of a shock one day when something cold, solid and unpleasant landed on me as I lay on my bed, reading. The cockroach must have been attempting a crossing of my ceiling and fallen off. It certainly made me jump and I flung the thing across the room, where it cannoned off the wall and onto the floor, where is spun around on its back. Seizing my advantage, I kicked it towards the front door and booted it into the street, whereupon it was seized by a crow. It was the first time I’d realised that the crows had any practical use. It may well have been the last time as well.

A more painful encounter involved a beetle, the make of which I have no idea. It was, presumably, some kind of stag beetle and it certainly had a powerful set of pincers. This I knew because they were embedded in my left arm as I sat at the table in my house, writing a letter. How the beetle arrived there, I cannot possibly guess. The point – or rather, two points – was that it had attached itself to me in a very determined manner.

With surprisingly cold and logical judgement, I assessed the situation. Instinct would have been to attempt to pull the thing off. Clearly, this would not be a good idea, as it would involve losing a portion of my skin. I was holding a pen and this provided the obvious solution. With great care, I prised the pincers apart and the insect, with some reluctance, released its grip. I scooped it into a cup and put it outside. My arm suffered a bit of damage and it was a long time before the scar disappeared.

The place had become something of an entomologist’s paradise, but even so, I was reluctant to use the various aerosols and sprays that were available in the local shops. While I wanted to get rid of the battalions of insects, I was worried that I might do some damage to the more welcome visitors like spiders and geckos.

I discovered that geckos had an interesting mechanism to deal with one type of threat. I had been doing some laundry in the shower room and had left some clothes to soak in a bucket. When I went to retrieve them, there was also a small lizard splashing about. It had evidently fallen in from somewhere and despite the renowned ability of lizards for clinging to pretty much anything, didn’t seem to be having any luck in getting out. It was perfectly undamaged, but clearly a bucket of water is not ideal lizard habitat.

Carefully removing the reptile, I was startled as it leapt from my hand and scurried away. I was even more shocked to find that most of its tail was still in the palm of my hand and wriggling around, apparently with a life of its own. As I stared at the writhing tail, somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recalled that lizards could shed their tails when trying to escape danger. I couldn’t have scared it too much, though, as I continued to see the by now tailless gecko scampering around my house and I was able to check its progress as the tail grew back.

Mammalian life was quite hard to find. In the semi desert areas around Assab, one of the few mammals to be found was a small ground squirrel. There are also mongooses, though my only encounter with them was a fleeting view from a car. In the highland areas, it’s not too difficult to come across the Hamadryas Baboon or Vervet Monkey. To find the charismatic, grass munching Gelada Baboon, however, one must cross into Ethiopia, as this species lives only in the Ethiopian mountains.

Gelada

Something that it’s impossible to miss is the omnipresent camel, or dromedary to be precise. These haughty beasts are the symbol of Eritrea and appear on all sorts of official documents. The emblem of the country depicts a camel surrounded by a laurel wreath. Camels also appear in great numbers in real life. In the town of Keren, to the north of Asmara, a wood market is held on Saturdays. The visitor is treated to the remarkable sight of hundreds of camels, bearing enormous quantities of wood, arriving from the surrounding towns and villages.

The intrepid explorer, if very fortunate, can find exotic mammals. A few elephants survive in Eritrea, in areas to the west of Asmara. The same region throws up the occasional report of a lion, though there has been no concrete evidence recently. Leopards are certainly found in Eritrea, though they are largely nocturnal. There are, reportedly, several species of dolphin to be found off the Red Sea coast and the rare dugong is also an inhabitant of the area. Sadly, I had no joy in spotting any such creatures during my very occasional boat trips.

Nor did I have any luck in seeing a bird that I’d always wanted to see, a hornbill. It didn’t matter what sort of hornbill, any hornbill would do. I was thrilled, then, when I heard from Clare, a volunteer (and fellow birder and Scrabble fan) based in Mai Habar, a town to the east of Asmara. Hornbills were, she wrote, regularly found in the grounds of the technical college where she taught and lived.

I had some leave available and Clare invited me to come up for a few games of Scrabble and some birdwatching. This was a very appealing prospect and I duly arranged my flights to Asmara. I caught the bus to Mai Habar and after a bit of confusion, found my way to the college. It was too late for watching birds, but perfect time for dinner, followed by a few bottles of Melotti and a game of Scrabble.

It was, of course, entirely predictable that in the two days I spent in Mai Habar, not a single hornbill would make an appearance. It was a lovely place to wander around, with its abundant orange and lemon trees and we saw lots of birds, but not one of them a hornbill. A few months later, Clare sent me a photograph she’d taken of two hornbills in the grounds of the college (‘just to prove I wasn’t making it up’). It took me a long time and two more trips to sub-Saharan Africa before I saw one, the small black and white Von der Decken’s Hornbill near the town of Mekele in the north of Ethiopia.

Among the birds we saw in Mai Habar were various types of sunbird, relatives of hummingbirds and often just as dazzling in terms of plumage. The highland areas were full of sunbirds and Asmara had its fair share. A trip to the VSO field office in the capital was a pleasant experience; you usually bumped into somebody you knew and you could spend an hour or so sitting in the front garden, having a chat and a cup of tea while watching the sunbirds flitting in and out as they fed on the nectar from the flowers.

We didn’t get too many dazzlingly bright birds in Assab, but one of the oddities of the place was that you could go for weeks without seeing anything interesting and then be completely taken aback. So it was one afternoon when, walking along the beach, I saw a pelican perching on a rock. A few weeks later, I saw another pelican. Even more strangely, they were different species. The first was a Pink-backed Pelican, the second the much larger White Pelican.

If I’d been surprised by the pelicans, the kingfisher astonished me. Walking into town to do some shopping one day, I saw a bird perching in a tree near the port. I didn’t have binoculars with me, but luckily it was very close and it was immediately obvious that it was a kingfisher. I stared at it and puzzled as to why a kingfisher would be here, in this searingly hot place on the edge of a desert. If there were any rivers or streams, I certainly wasn’t aware of them. Nor, as far as I knew, did kingfishers catch sea fish.

In fact, this particular kingfisher didn’t catch fish at all. My bird book was able to explain everything. It was a Grey-headed Kingfisher, a dry-country and completely non-aquatic bird. Hunting from tree perches, it fed on insects and small lizards and we were not short of either.

The only other time that I was completely stopped in my tracks was when I saw a bright flash of purple hurtling into a tree near the beach. The culprit was the glorious Violet-backed Starling, a riot of iridescent purple with white underparts. I’d seen plenty of flashy starlings in the highland areas, but this was the only one that I saw in Assab.

Violet-backed starling

At least this one was easy to recognise. Some starlings can look completely different depending on the light. Two people standing in different spots can look at the same bird and see different things. Bird books can never do justice to the colours. Blue-eared Glossy Starlings, for example, can look bright blue from one angle, but deep green from another. Identification can be hard work and often comes down to a process of elimination. There is an element of the Sherlock Holmes method about it, whereby the impossible is eliminated and the truth is found somewhere among what remains.

It felt just as strange to see the odd bird that gave you a reminder of walking by the coast at home. Now and then, you would spot redshanks, oystercatchers, knots or other types of wader that are so familiar in Britain. It felt odd to see birds like this, as they appeared totally out of context. I was used to seeing them when the temperatures were around 30 to 40 degrees less than they were in Assab.

Something that I saw every day, albeit from a considerable distance, was a flock of Egyptian Geese. They evidently roosted on one of the small islands in the Red Sea, flying back on to the mainland early in the morning. Their arrival usually coincided with my arrival at the gates of the refinery at six o’clock in the morning. Doubtless they returned to their island when the sun went down in the afternoon.

It was crows, though, that dominated the scene in Assab. They were unavoidable in terms of both sight and sound. They weren’t perturbed by people very much, either, being quite happy to treat people with the same naked aggression that they showed towards everything else, including each other. Heather, a volunteer who had very blonde hair, seemed to suffer worse than most among the human inhabitants. Sensibly, she wore a hat much of the time, but even in the sea she was not immune from crow bombardment. There seemed to be something about her hair colour that appealed to the brutes. Nobody else suffered in this way. Even Ursula, another VSO colleague, whose hair was quite fair, had no such problem. Evidently, crows prefer blondes.

I suffered little physical harm from crows, the damage being mostly psychological. I didn’t escape completely, though. I’d wandered out of my office one morning to have a cigarette and I received a sharp clump on the back of my head. The offender, predictably enough, was a crow. My crime had been to walk underneath a nest and the crows, who seemed permanently enraged at the best of times, had taken exception. A pair of them continued to scream at me from the tree under which I’d sought shade and I made my way back to my office by sliding carefully along the wall of the building to make further attacks a trickier operation. I made sure that my future strolls took me in the opposite direction.

At the Port Club one Sunday afternoon, I was having a drink with John. Some people had recently left and their plates and glasses were still on a table near us. One of the glasses had some beer left in it. A crow landed on the table, and finding the plates empty, hopped up onto the rim of the glass. It duly stuck its beak into the glass and slurped up some beer. It did this a few times before being disturbed by another crow. The pair then engaged in a vigorous skirmish, thrashing around on the table, chairs and ground before flying away.

We had to laugh and we did. In fact, we laughed for quite a long time. Lager lout crows. It could only happen in Assab.

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User Requests

A few of Duck Holiday’s regular readers (yes, there are one or two) recently suggested that there is scope for a foray to Africa on these pages. Now, as the blog title suggests, these ramblings are chiefly concerned with Eastern Europe, but since we have had the odd venture into other parts of the European continent, there seems no great problem in having a little look around other parts of the planet.

Duck Holiday has, at various times, ventured south of the Sahara. Not that the word “holiday” should be associated with these particular forays. “Duck Volunteer” might be a more suitable name in the circumstances.

To be precise, Duck Holiday has undertaken service with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) on three separate occasions. By far the longest of these was in the Red Sea coast town of Assab in Eritrea. This posting was at an oil refinery; do not be fooled into thinking that VSO volunteers are largely schoolteachers. Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes; I have encountered carpenters, bricklayers, car mechanics, archaeologists, pharmacists, tourism specialists, marine biologists and even fashion designers over the years.

The Eritrea posting lasted for two years. There have been shorter stints on specific projects in Accra in Ghana and the city of Mekele, in the northern part of Ethiopia. Over the coming weeks, the intention is to bring a flavour of these countries and towns to these pages.

For those who can face it, there is a full and detailed account of the Eritrean venture in the book Life in the Sauna: Diary of a VSO Volunteer, currently available at a remarkably cheap price on Amazon. Those who are interested might like to visit the following link, though if anyone should wish to acquire the book directly from me, he or she is welcome to contact me through this blog.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1785072811/ref=od_aui_detailpages00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Meanwhile, just as a taster, we shall leave you with a glimpse of the wonderfully hectic main market in Accra.

Not Tesco

Gullible’s Travels

(Or: How Not to Travel; a true story)

Jonathan was not a small man. Close to seven feet tall and of some considerable bulk, he was not someone built to be inconspicuous. Despite, or possibly because of, his Gargantuan frame, he seemed to have a need, not to mention an aptitude, to draw attention to himself.

Hair appeared to be purely an optional addition on top of his vast head. When it did emerge, it was of a sparse blond nature, hinting at reddish. When it was absent, his head often revealed the dangers of personal head shaving and he took on the aspect of a man who has had a fortunate and very narrow escape from an abattoir.

It is, of course, difficult for very large people to find clothing that comes close to fitting. Stylishness is a near impossibility, even for the most meticulous. However, Jonathan had the uncanny knack of acquiring clothes that were designed (and this allows for a very loose usage of the word) for people even bigger than himself.

One pair of jeans must have been liberated from a circus. They could only have been made for somebody who walked on stilts. The turn-ups were, possibly, the world’s longest, almost reaching to the knee. The waistband was close to the chest. They were baggy and permanently crumpled.

There was also the bright yellow waterproof jacket. Like all of Jonathan’s clothing, it did not fit and in this case, was far too tight and appeared to be on the verge of splitting open. All it needed was for him to turn a deep shade of green during moments of annoyance and he would have provided a passable imitation of The Incredible Hulk, although a slightly scaled-up version.

This particular jacket was worn in all weathers, irrespective of whether there was the remotest prospect of rain. It gave him a somewhat nautical look, albeit a rather scary one. One uncharitable soul suggested that it made him look like the product of an unholy union between Captain Birdseye and a large marine mammal.

While certainly not dim, Jonathan was not blessed with an abundance of common sense. One Friday, he took his leave from the office at lunch time, quite reasonably observing that it was an especially pleasant day and that sunny days in the east of Scotland were comparatively rare opportunities not to be lost. This was all very well, but nobody was quite prepared for the apparition that reappeared in the same office on the following Monday morning.

Having taken the point that hacking away at the top of your own head with a razor is not always the best approach to personal grooming, he had decided to visit a barber to get the job done professionally. Having received a perfect cranial shave, he then spent several hours sitting in a city centre park and exposing his giant – and by now, very smooth – dome to the burning sun (and Jonathan got closer to the sun than most people). The result was inevitable and took those of us of a certain age back to that 1980s Ready Brek advert and the children with their faintly disturbing nuclear glow.

In the confines of an office and kept under strict observation, Jonathan was relatively safe. True, there were several mishaps and those who were privileged to witness his inadvertent head-butting of a low light-bulb and the resultant chaos are unlikely to forget the experience in a hurry. Generally, though, accidents could happen in a controlled environment. It was when he was out and about on his own that more serious danger threatened.

Of course, nobody wants to live in a totalitarian state, but there are certain individuals who should be subject to travel restrictions, purely for their own good, not to mention the safety of others. Thus, when Jonathan announced that he was taking a holiday, there was a sense of foreboding, which would certainly have been shared by the citizens of the places he intended to visit had they been aware of the fact. It was, perhaps, best for their own peace of mind that they knew nothing.

He was not an experienced traveller, though in many ways this was a good thing. Confinement to a small, known area was by far the safest option. New places and new experiences only increased the possibilities of disaster. There had been an ill-fated excursion into Club 18-30 territory, which had ended ignominiously and uncomfortably as the services of a stomach pump were required. The ensuing enforced rest had, at least, spared any further dangers to self or others.

Naturally, work colleagues were very interested to know about his new destinations, if only so they could plan ahead and scrupulously avoid those locations. It transpired that he was doubling the risk by visiting two countries. He would firstly travel to Amsterdam and after that, Hamburg.

One does not require a mind developed in the gutter to realise that these two cities, full of cultural delights as they undoubtedly are, have a reputation for certain activities of a slightly racier nature. It was inevitable that the suggestion be made that this itinerary could, possibly, involve a trip to one or two of the slightly less highbrow spots of these cities.

Jonathan had a propensity for colouring rather quickly when merely faintly embarrassed, even without interventions from the sun’s rays. On this occasion, the transformation was extremely rapid as his face took on that shade of light for which the Reeperbahn is infamous.

Relatively little is known of the Dutch part of the tour, but it is assumed that nothing too spectacular happened, as no war reporters made sudden appearances in Amsterdam on news bulletins and diplomatic relations with the Netherlands remained in place. The German stage, by contrast, has taken on legendary status, with one particular aspect fully deserving of telling and re-telling. It should, in fact, be a compulsory part of travel guide books as an example of how not to do things.

From the start, Jonathan and Germany did not seem to hit it off. There was an inevitability that things would go spectacularly wrong somewhere along the line (quite literally along a line in this case). There had been warnings of things to come. The altercation with a nutritionist in a supermarket was not a good sign. The young woman had simply pointed out that the selection of foods in Jonathan’s basket had not, perhaps, involved the healthiest options available. Jonathan, in turn, had taken this as a personal slight, an infringement of civil liberties and a bad reflection of Germany and the German people as a whole.

It was, though, the train journey that proved to be either the zenith or nadir, depending on which way you want to view it. Even to this day, there are questions, mysteries and puzzles that quite simply cannot be answered. The great minds of science and philosophy could be gathered at a week-long convention and would still be hopelessly bamboozled. Nobel Prize winners would be reduced to shaking their heads and wandering away to contemplate easier questions, such as reversing climate change or curing all known forms of cancer.

In short, our hero decided that there were no more interesting sights to see in Hamburg after a couple of days. Eventually, after searching though myriad leaflets, booklets and maps, he settled upon Hagenbeck Tierpark, the city’s zoological garden. This would not have been everybody’s choice, but some people like these kind of things and we should not be too critical on that score.

Arriving at the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof station, Jonathan found himself rather overwhelmed by the number of platforms and destinations. Stations, of course, have useful objects such as timetable boards showing departures and arrivals, but these did not appear to help his cause. “They were,” he said rather sniffily and with a certain degree of hurt, “all in German.”

Something else that all large railway stations have is information points and staff who are there to help people. Anyone who has visited any large city in Germany will be aware that a goodly proportion of the population speaks English to some degree (and quite frequently seem to speak better English than the monoglot British tourists that ask silly questions). However, since the supermarket incident, Jonathan appears to have preferred to avoid any form of personal interaction.

He didn’t need to purchase a ticket because he had bought one of those passes that allow one to travel on all public transport within the city. The zoo was comfortably within the distance allowed by the pass, which meant that he’d not need to spend any extra money.

Eventually, after much wandering around the station concourse and considerable deliberation, he was satisfied that he had identified the platform and train that were required. Having boarded, he settled back for what would surely be a ten or fifteen minute journey. The train duly departed within a few minutes.

Twenty minutes later, Jonathan began to have doubts for the first time. Should he not have arrived by now? Also, the train had not stopped anywhere and seemed to be travelling pretty quickly. Was he, he wondered, on the right train after all?

A few minutes later, a ticket inspector appeared. Jonathan dutifully showed his Hamburg pass. The woman stared at him for a moment, probably somewhat in awe of the sheer physical size of the giant in front of her eyes, a common occurrence for those encountering him for the first time.

“Where are you travelling to?” she asked in perfectly good English. Jonathan told her. If she was in any way amused, she had the courtesy to hide it very well. “This train,” she said, “is for Berlin and it does not stop.” Jonathan stared back, partly in disbelief and partly in shock. “I am sorry,” the woman said apologetically, “but you will have to buy a ticket to Berlin.”

Of course, a trip and ticket from Hamburg to Berlin necessitated a further trip and ticket back from Berlin to Hamburg. This meant a return ticket and extra cost, as the ticket had been bought on the train rather than at the station before the start of the journey. An hour later, Jonathan stepped off the train deprived not only of a visit to the Hagenbeck Tierpark, but also of 180 euros. For somebody economising by staying at hostels and travelling on budget airlines, this was a rather expensive lesson in the perils of inadequate planning.

There are some very obvious questions that arise from the adventure. Why, for one, would you go to the main railway station for an overground train when the nearest station to Hagenbeck Tierpark is a U-bahn (underground) station of the same name? Why would you board a long and sleek twelve carriage train when you were intending travelling only a few miles? Did it not occur that it was unlikely that such a large and lengthy train would stop at a group of little suburban stations? And, perhaps most intriguingly of all, why would you want to broadcast to all and sundry about your stunning boneheadedness when you got back home?

None of these questions provide easy answers, unless one knows the character of the person involved. People who think logically and rationally simply do not do things like this, and even in the unlikely event that they do, they are not about to announce it to a wider population or, indeed, anybody at all.

One hopelessly lame explanation provided by the man himself fell into the ‘everything was in German’ category of excuses provided earlier. This, not surprisingly, failed to impress anyone a great deal. The train was going to Berlin and did not stop anywhere else. The German for ‘Berlin’ is, to the apparent surprise of only one person in Europe, ‘Berlin’.

Paranoia had also set in, possibly as a result of the incident in the supermarket. There were dark mutterings of a conspiracy, as though the entire German population had worked together surreptitiously to ensure that a bumbling Scottish tourist was kidnapped and robbed by a complicit Deutsche Bahn.

In fairness, it probably didn’t help that some office wag had written ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ in large letters on a board behind Jonathan’s desk. True to form, he had failed to notice it and when he did, duly apportioned all blame on a completely innocent person. The message was quite splendid in its double meaning, as it could easily have been interpreted as ‘I am a doughnut’ in the way that President Kennedy’s famous line was misconstrued. Either way, there was something pleasingly apt about it.

Jonathan continued to present himself as the unwitting victim of an evil superpower. No amount of reasoned argument could persuade him otherwise and he would not accept any culpability. This, he said darkly, would never have happened in Scotland.

Some weeks later, he travelled to Glasgow for a concert. This would entail catching the last train, which leaves Glasgow at half past eleven, to Edinburgh. Everything went smoothly. He saw the end of the concert and reached Queen Street station with plenty of time to spare.

Congratulating himself on his perfect planning, he sat back for the journey. At the back of his mind was the fiasco he’d endured in Germany. This, however, was Scotland, his home territory, and there would be no such mishaps. He felt himself dozing off, but was unconcerned. The train was going no further than Edinburgh, so it really didn’t matter if he fell asleep. Ideally, he wanted to get off at Haymarket, at the city’s West End, but the final stop at Waverley was only at the other end of Princes Street and it would be nearly as easy to get a bus home from there.

As the train stopped at a station, Jonathan woke up. This, he thought, was even better. He had not slept all the way through and could get off at his preferred stop. He jumped from his seat and off the train just before the doors closed behind him. The train departed on the remainder of its journey and Jonathan suddenly realised that the platform on which he was standing was one of only two.

Haymarket station has four platforms. With some trepidation, he slowly raised his drooping eyelids and looked at the station sign in front of him. It read ‘Linlithgow’.

William Handyside – From Edinburgh to St Petersburg

As regular readers of these ramblings will be aware, Duck Holiday periodically takes a look at Scots who have made their name in Eastern Europe. We continue that occasional theme with another Scottish engineer who is better known in Russia than in the land of his birth.

William Handyside was born in Edinburgh in 1793. He was the nephew of another engineer, Charles Baird, who worked extensively in Russia, notably in St Petersburg. On a visit to Scotland in 1810, he invited his nephew, who was then training to be an architect, to join him in Russia.

Handyside quickly realised that engineering rather than architecture, was his true vocation. Within five years, he assisted in the building of the first steam vessel to navigate the Neva River and by 1824, had completed four suspension bridges. In a city of waterways, bridge building must have been a decidedly useful skill.

Despite the rivalry between Britain and Russia in the early decades of the nineteenth century, there was a good deal of co-operation between the two nations and a number of British engineers went to work on projects in Russia. This was a theme touched on by Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit, in which the talented and good-natured engineer Daniel Doyce departs for Russia, apparently with considerable success.

Handyside’s most notable project was St Isaac’s Cathedral. Working with the French Neoclassical architect Auguste de Montferrand, he undertook the construction of much of the stone and metal work of the cathedral. This was no small project; the colonnade alone was composed of no less than forty-eight granite pillars, each fifty-six feet long and eight feet in diameter. Another thirty-six pillars, only slightly smaller, were fitted around the base of the dome. He was also commissioned by the architect to build the huge cast and wrought-iron dome.

St Isaac’s Cathedral

After the completion of the cathedral, Handyside collaborated with de Montferrand once more, this time in the building of what was then the largest granite column in the world, dedicated to the recently-deceased emperor Alexander I. In 1832, the column was elevated in an astonishing twenty-five minutes, in front of the current emperor Nicholas and a vast crowd of military and civilian onlookers. The monument stands in the centre of Palace Square, in front of the Winter Palace.

Alexander Column

Sadly, the exertions of his many building projects took its tool on Handyside’s health and he returned to Scotland in the hope of recuperation and recovery. He never recovered his health and died in his native city of Edinburgh in 1850 at the age of fifty-seven.

Go West

These notes have, for the most part, covered an Eastern European theme. It is likely, certainly for those of us of a certain age, that we still tend to think in terms of east and west more in a political sense than a geographical one.

It would be fair to describe several of the places featured in these pages as being centrally located in Europe. For example, Prague, Bratislava, Vienna, and Berlin cannot really be described as being in the east of the continent, though clearly the first two would have been thought of in that way during days of Cold War. Of course, part of Berlin was unequivocally in the east in those times. Being a Berliner during the years of the wall must have been a strange experience, possibly even more so for those in the enclave of West Berlin.

If one considers Ljubljana, this lovely city cannot be termed eastern geographically, but because it resided in the former Yugoslavia, it is easier to place it on the eastern side of an imaginary line, albeit a rather wobbly line.

Enough of this rambling, because there is more interesting rambling to be done. Indeed, Duck Holiday has rambled quite extensively and in the coming weeks, intends to diversify a little by looking at some other spots around Europe. Readers are cordially invited to follow us around, wherever we may roam.

Katarina Ivanović

A visit to the National Museum of Serbia in Belgrade turned out to be something of a disappointment, as there were extensive renovation works taking place at the time and much of the museum was closed to the public. There was, however, some compensation to be found as one of the few parts of the museum that remained open was dedicated to an exhibition of work by Katarina Ivanović.

Ivanović was born in 1811 in Veszprém, now in Hungary but then part of the Austrian Empire. Her family were ethnic Serbs and she grew up in the city of Székesfehérvár. A talented artist from her youth, she studied in Budapest, but – remarkably for a woman of that era – also studied at the famous Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. She was fortunate enough to find a wealthy patron, one Baroness Czacki, who funded her move to Vienna in 1835.

800px-Katarina_Ivanovic,_Autoportret_v

Katarina Ivanović – self portrait

In 1840, Ivanović left Vienna to study at the Munich Academy, possibly funded by her patron. It was here that she read about Serbian history and was inspired to paint The Conquest of Belgrade, an oil painting depicting the city’s capture by Serbian revolutionaries in 1806. While she travelled extensively and in fact spent little time in Serbia, she worked in Belgrade for two years during the 1840s and it was here that she painted the work.

The Conquest of Belgrade

The Conquest of Belgrade

She was, though, best known as a portrait painter and her best-known work, a self portrait, resides permanently at the National Museum of Serbia along with The Conquest of Belgrade. She painted a number of portraits of notable Serbian characters including the Princess Consort Persida Nenadović and Simeon “Sima” Milutinović (aka Sarajlija, “The Sarajevan”), a Serb poet, historian, diplomat and adventurer.

Sima Milutinovic

Sima Milutinovic

Persida Nenadović

Persida Nenadović

By the 1870s, she was producing few works and although there are suggestions that she was a largely forgotten figure by this time, she must have retained some influential admirers as she was elected an honorary member of the Serbian Learned Society, later to become the Serbian Royal Academy and ultimately the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Katarina Ivanović returned to Székesfehérvár in later life and died in that city in 1882. Her remains were moved to Belgrade in 1967.

A Novel Experience

This is somewhat off-topic and it’s fair to say that travel in Eastern Europe isn’t involved (though it does get a little mention here and there). I have had my first novel published this year and while I have no intention of parking every single one of the 57 chapters on these pages, there’s no harm in providing a little sampler. Here, then, is chapter one.

 

It was just after three o’clock when Vince Kingmyle arrived back at his office. It had, he reflected, been a worthwhile lunch break at the golf club. He’d had a pleasant lunch; he’d booked the course for the party of tourists that were due in a couple of weeks; he’d also spent a worthwhile hour talking to that new member, Mike.

Mike seemed like a good fellow, thought Vince. The young man had certainly seemed impressed by the brief biography Vince had given him and had appeared eager to hear the story of Vince’s promising football career, so cruelly terminated by injury, and the subsequent success that had followed during his time in the Civil Service and now as a respected local businessman. He also had the impression that Mike would be keen to hear more about the many golf course Vince had played.

Vince frowned for a moment as he thought of George McDougall. He’d been in the middle of describing the majestic round he’d played at the Celtic Manor course when that old duffer had butted in.

“You’re sure one remarkable man, Vince,” George had said.

“What do you mean?” Vince had replied, somewhat tetchily.

“Well, golfer, time traveller,” George went on, a little self-satisfied smirk on his lips.

Vince had glared at the old fool as he waddled back to his seat with his glass of malt. He found George irritating, but had regained his composure and continued his story.

“Jealous as hell,” Vince thought, as he paused at the front door of the office. He took out his handkerchief and gave the sign a little polish. It read ‘Golf King’, the letters of the two words intersected by a large ‘V’. Satisfied with its appearance, he went in.

“Good lunch?” asked Krystyna Czerniatynska as he strode to his desk.

Vince, wholly oblivious to the sarcasm in Krystyna’s question, said, “Excellent, thank you. I’ve booked the course for the party from Yorkshire, so put that on the spreadsheet if you don’t mind.”

Krystyna said, “There are also two other bookings. One group from London and one from Northern Ireland. I have emailed the details to you.”

“Tremendous,” said Vince, rubbing his hands together. “We’re cooking the gas.”

Krystyna frowned quizzically, but merely pointed across the room. “And those as well,” she said.

Vince looked over at three cardboard boxes. “And they are?” he asked.

“The polo shirts,” Krystyna told him. “The ‘King of Swing’ shirts you wanted.”

“Fantastic,” Vince said, jumping from his leather swivel chair and pouncing on the boxes in the manner of an overweight cat attempting to catch a woodpigeon. “Yes, yes, yes.”

He tore open a box and dug around until he found a large size. “Style with a capital S,” he said. He walked across to the door and said “I will be the model. Excuse me, ladies.”

Krystyna glanced at her colleague, Anne, and shook her head. Moments later, Vince was back, wearing the shirt. He walked in front of the two women, performing a small pirouette as he did so. “Stylish, no?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s okay,” Anne mumbled. Vince gave her a sharp look.

“Yes, good, very smart,” Krystyna said, hurriedly.

“We are literally on fire,” Vince said loudly.

Krystyna winced. It was a mental image that was disturbing.

“Perfect,” said Vince. “Everyone who books onto a Golf King tour gets one of these to keep. Is that not such a good promotion? It’s so brilliant, I don’t know why I never thought of it before. It’s advertising as well, you see? People will wear these when they get home, they’ll wear them at their golf clubs and people will see the ‘V’ logo and…” He tailed off. Krystyna was staring at him.

“What’s wrong?” asked Vince.

Krystyna scampered from behind her desk and grabbed a handful of shirts from the open box as Vince gawped at her in amazement. “Oh, my God,” she said.

“What?” Vince demanded.

Krystyna pointed to the lettering that crossed the distinctive ‘V’ on the shirt’s badge. The logo read ‘KING OF SWINE’.

Vince’s mouth opened, but nothing, other than one or two flecks of spittle, came out. He gaped like a stranded fish for several seconds before diving back into the box and pulling out more shirts. He pulled off the shirt he was wearing and surveyed the lettering. Anne let out a snigger at the sight of her boss’s less than athletic torso, but fortunately for her, Vince was too preoccupied to hear it.

Naked to the waist, he stormed across the room, flinging the shirt towards the window, where it caught on a plant and remained dangling. “Who,” he demanded, is responsible for this? Who put the order in?”

Anne and Krystyna exchanged glances and Vince, hands on hips and resembling a badly designed teapot, waited for an answer. Krystyna took the plunge. “You did,” she said.

Vince, giving a good impression of a man about to be struck down by apoplexy, glared at her and shouted “Me? Oh, I see. It’s my fault. I can’t spell the word ‘swing’, is that what you’re telling me?”

“No, I did not say that,” said Krystyna in measured tones. “The manufacturers, they must have got it wrong.” Vince continued to stare at her before realising his somewhat undignified state of undress and snatching his own shirt from his desk and putting it back on.

Anne, meanwhile, had put her jacket on and Vince looked at her. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Home. I always go at half three.”

“Fine, good, go then.”

“Okay, see you tomorrow.”

Vince continued to stare at her as she left the office, before turning back to Krystyna. “Are you sure,” he asked in a calmer voice, “that it wasn’t her? Sometimes I think she’s not quite all there.”

Krystyna said, “No, sorry, it was definitely you. I remember it, you said that you would take care of it. But the manufacturers must be wrong. They must have made a mistake.”

Vince sat down and muttered, “Clowns. That’s what you get. Clowns, imbeciles. Can’t do anything right unless you do it yourself. When did we order them? I must have the email.”

“Four weeks, I think,” Krystyna told him.

Vince spun his chair around and unlocked a cupboard. He took out a red folder, which was full of email correspondence. Vince, to Krystyna’s secret fury, printed out every email that he received. He then placed the print into a clear plastic pocket and put them in a folder. The cupboard was packed with such folders.

He thumbed through the pages and suddenly exclaimed “Ah, got it. Right here. Here we are, email order to Inventive Designs Ltd.” He read down the page and suddenly snapped the folder shut before Krystyna, who had appeared beside him, could see the document.

“You found it…so it was the manufacturer?” she asked.

Vince, who had hurriedly rammed the folder back into the cupboard, said, “Yes, yes, of course, idiots, morons.” He slammed the cupboard shut and locked it again.

“Should I phone them?” Krystyna asked, tentatively.

“No, no, er, no, it’s best if I do it,” Vince said. “Why don’t you get going? It’s been a busy day and I’m not staying late tonight.”

“But I should work until five,” Krystyna replied.

Vince sat back and gave a grandiose sweep of an arm. “No, you get along. I’m going to ring these cretins and give them a piece of my mind. Anyway, you don’t want to hear me when I’m angry.”

“Fine,” Krystyna said. “I’ll go then. See you in the morning.”

“Tomorrow,” Vince said, “I’ll show you that new spreadsheet that I’ve designed.”

Krystyna gave him a slightly sickly smile and walked slowly to the front door. She closed it quietly behind her and leant back against the wall for a second. Then she started to giggle. She found that she couldn’t stop giggling and had to grasp hold of a drainpipe to support herself. Her eyes had become moist and she felt tears beginning to trickle over her cheeks. She wiped her eyes, took a deep breath of air and walked towards her bus stop.

King

Charles Cameron – Scottish Classicist

In our occasional series about Scottish influence in Eastern Europe, it would be highly irregular to overlook the contribution of Charles Cameron, who was offered the position of court architect to Catherine II (‘Catherine the Great’) and whose designs provide a Classicist look in contrast to the prevailing Baroque style of the period.

Cameron was, in fact, born in London in 1745, to Walter and Hannah Cameron. Walter was a Scottish builder and carpenter who had established himself in the English capital. The young Charles – possibly named in honour of the Jacobite prince – was apprenticed to his father and soon began to display considerable talent for design.

In the 1760s, Charles Cameron travelled to Rome and undertook a detailed study of Roman baths. On his return to London, he published the snappily-titled The Baths of the Romans explained and illustrated, with the Restorations of Palladio corrected and improved.

Despite its unwieldy title and somewhat esoteric nature, it seems likely that the book was instrumental in Cameron’s appointment to the Russian court. Certainly, his name was known around Europe and Catherine, eager to present Russia as a modern European country, scoured the continent for architects and designers to provide the expertise she desired.

Cameron’s most notable works were the gallery that bears his name at the Catherine Palace and the Pavlovsk Palace, built for the son of Catherine the Great. The Catherine Palace, incidentally, was built for the empress Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great.

Catherine the Great preferred the Classical style to the Baroque and Cameron was the man to deliver. He redecorated the interior of the Rococo Catherine Palace before setting to work on the new gallery and its attendant park. The gallery, with its myriad statues of poets and philosophers, became the favourite promenade of Catherine.

Cameron Gallery from above

Cameron Gallery from above

Cameron also designed the nearby Sophia Ascension Cathedral. Catherine was eager to build a church that resembled the vast Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The architect was not familiar with the great Byzantine church and the result was more in his usual Classical style.

Cameron Gallery facade

Cameron Gallery facade

Ironically, it was the Pavlovsk Palace, perhaps Cameron’s most famous work, that led to his fall from favour. Cameron built the original palace but fell out with the emperor (Paul) and empress (Maria) over costs. Cameron was dismissed by the emperor in 1796.

Pavlovsk courtyard

Pavlovsk courtyard

Pavlovsk Palace

Pavlovsk Palace

Paul’s successor, Alexander, was more well-disposed towards Cameron and the architect was reappointed as chief architect of the Russian Admiralty in 1801. He also designed the Naval Hospital at Oranienbaum before retiring in 1805.

Pavlovsk (is this Classical enough?)

Pavlovsk (is this Classical enough?)

Despite speaking no Russian and apparently having no Russian friends, he continued to live in Russia and died there in 1812, just before the invasion of Russia by Napoleon.

Nice one, Cyril

In the summer of 864, two scholarly monks named Cyril and Methodius left Constantinople for Moravia, where they remained for the next three years. During that time, they invented a new alphabet with which to transcribes the as then unwritten Slavonic speech. They also translated the Bible and parts of the liturgy.

Cyril, the leading protagonist, came from Thessalonica and his baptismal name was, like that of many emperors, Constantine. In fact, he only adopted the Slavonic name Cyril on his deathbed many years later, but history will forever know him as Cyril and his alphabet as Cyrillic.

Curiously, he chose Macedonian Slavonic as his language for the project, though this may have been the language most familiar to the polyglot monk. It would not have been familiar to the Moravians, whose native dialect was Slovakian. Another good reason for using this language was that the Byzantines were in near constant conflict with the Bulgars, to whom the language would have been much more understandable. What better way than to spread Christianity to the troublesome Bulgars than to spread the word in their own language?

National Library in Sofia: Cyril and Methodius statue

National Library in Sofia with a statue of Cyril and Methodius

Thus was Cyrillic born. While the alphabet has undergone many changes over the years, the basis was laid by Cyril and Methodius. In fact, it would be more accurate to use the plural ‘alphabets’ as each country that uses Cyrillic has developed its own adaptations.

With its origins firmly in the Orthodox Church, it is hardly surprising that those countries that use Cyrillic are ones in which that church is predominant. The following countries use Cyrillic script:

Belarus
Bosnia/Herzegovina
Bulgaria
Kazakhstan
Kyrgyzstan
Macedonia
Mongolia
Montenegro
Russia
Serbia
Tajikistan
Ukraine

Romania is a rare exception of a largely Orthodox country using Latin scripts. The earliest texts in the Romanian language date as recently as the sixteenth century and are in Cyrillic. That script continued into the middle of the nineteenth century, since when Latin has been used.

In neighbouring Moldova, a special version of the Cyrillic alphabet derived from the Russian version was used until 1989, when the Romanian language spoken there officially returned to the Romanian Latin alphabet, although in the breakaway region of Transnistria the Cyrillic alphabet is still used.

There are numerous websites that list all of the alphabets, so we will restrict this article to the Russian alphabet, which contains 33 letters.

А а as in ‘bar’

Б б also as in ‘bar’

В в as in ‘very’

Г г as in ‘gallery’

Д д as in ‘delta’

Е е as in ‘yes’

Ё ё as in ‘yolk’

Ж ж as in ‘treasure’

З з as in ‘zing’

И и as in ‘thee

Й й as in ‘boy

К к as in ‘king’

Л л as in ‘leg’

М м as in ‘man’

Н н as in ‘no’

О о as in ‘more’

П п as in ‘pink’

Р р as in ‘rough’ (though rolled r)

С с as in ‘set’

Т т as in ‘toy’

У у as in ‘loot’

Ф ф as in ‘felt’

Х х as in ‘help’

Ц ц as in ‘lots

Ч ч as in ‘chin’

Ш ш as in ‘ship’

Щ щ as in ‘schtik’ (soft C sound)

Ъ ъ silent hard sign (preventing palatisation of preceding consonant)

Ы ы as in ‘hit’

Ь ь silent soft sign (for palatisation of preceding consonant)

Э э as in ‘bet’

Ю ю as in ‘use’

Я я as in ‘Katya

To western eyes, Cyrillic can appear bewildering at first glance. However, for those of us with English as a first language, there is a logicality to the letters. The important thing is that they tell you how to pronounce a word. In English, we have dilemmas. Should we use a hard or soft C, for example. There are no such mysteries in Cyrillic.

In fact, it’s all relatively simple. A number of letters perform the same, or at least a very similar, function to those in the Latin alphabet. A, E, K, C, O, M, T and even B are much the same in both sets. Once you have fathomed that Cyrillic P, H and X are really R, N and H, you’re a third of the way there already.

Other letters are readily decipherable; the Cyrillic D looks very much like a Greek delta, the G almost identical to gamma and the F (or ph-) like the -th of the Greek theta. The Z is easy enough, too, as many people even in the west write a squiggly Z rather than a sharp-edged one.

As for the Russian alphabet’s best letter, the ‘backward R’, one way to memorise its use is to remember that whenever you see the name ‘Russia’ in Cyrillic, this is the letter you’ll see at the end of the name rather than the beginning.