Day 7 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

I have to admit, I had a lot of fun with this one. Comments welcome.

The Wrong Marina Jensen

She boards the plane, not knowing what to expect.

It seemed relatively straightforward when it started: the email from someone she’d never heard of before, waxing lyrical about her ‘seminal study’ and inviting her to be the keynote speaker at a conference in Romania.

Marina couldn’t believe her eyes when she read it. Yes, she’d recently published a book on Amazon, but she’d considered it light-hearted fluff: a thinly disguised account of her own dating disasters, written in Bridget-Jones-esque tones. Still, if the University of Romania thought it was a ‘seminal study’, who was she to disagree?

After that, everything happened very quickly. She replied to the email; received confirmation via an official letter on university notepaper – which arrived in an envelope made from paper so thin it was almost translucent; downloaded her plane ticket (only economy class, unfortunately – but a free trip to Romania, nonetheless); and confirmed her hotel place online. It was extremely gratifying to think that someone liked her self-effacing novella so much that they actually wanted her to deliver a lecture about it. Idly she wondered if she would have room in her suitcase for any of the paperback ‘author copies’ that she’d purchased at a reduced rate and whether she’d be able to sell them at the conference.

She’s at the airport now, making her way to her allocated seat, fastening her seatbelt at the required time, dubiously prodding the in-flight meal – which claims to be ‘chicken’ but looks like a melted lump of plastic, disguised in a violent yellow sauce. None of this matters: soon she will be landing in … She scrabbles for her downloaded copy of the itinerary, unable to remember where she’s actually flying to. She knows nothing at all about Romania: her extent of things European starts and ends with Alexandr Meerkat – he of car insurance fame.

It’s only as she scans the schedule that she realises, to her horror, there’s been some mistake. She obviously didn’t read any of this properly the first-time round, so overwhelmed with excitement at the idea of having a few days abroad, all expenses paid. Her heart is in her mouth as she checks it again – and again. The schedule clearly says “Marina Jensen, author of ‘Seventeenth Century Swedish Ironing Boards and Their Influence on Modern Society’.” They’ve invited the wrong person.

She can see now how it must have happened. She signed up to Goodreads, adding her name as a Goodreads author, only to find that there were already two other Marina Jensens listed. Her book had somehow mysteriously attached itself to a nineteenth century version of herself who wrote improving manuals for pioneer wives in America, so she emailed the Goodreads librarians, requesting that her book be moved to her own page. She also helpfully pointed out that a third Marina Jensen – who had written several weighty tomes on domestic European history – should also be rehomed; but they’ve obviously combined the two living writers into one, giving our heroine’s contact details to anyone who enjoyed ‘Scandinavian Mangles in the 1600s’ or its sister volume, ‘Pickle Your Herrings The Historical Way’.

When her plane finally touches down, she’s experiencing a mild panic attack. She knows nothing at all about ironing boards – ancient or modern; and in two days’ time she has to address a delegation of experts who will all expect her to make profound revelations. First, though, there is the more immediate problem of what to say to the earnest-looking individual, standing in Customs and bearing a sign that says ‘Marina Jensen’.

She’s too disorientated to take in much of her surroundings as they climb into a taxi and make their way towards the hotel. She forms a brief impression of trees and mountains before her companion remarks, in heavily-accented broken English, that there are salt mines nearby and that she will be taken there the following day.

Even in her hotel room, there is no rest for the wicked. The young man who has brought her here informs her that tonight there is a dinner in her honour and that she will be able to sample traditional Romanian fare. She’s given just seventeen minutes to shower in distinctly cold water and dress in something she hopes is appropriate for the occasion before being whisked away in another taxi – at least, she assumes it’s a taxi: for all she knows, the driver could be her guide’s grandfather or his uncle. Not speaking the language means she has no idea at all of what’s going on.

The dinner turns out to be a strange affair. Marina’s taken to a beautiful, old building: a triumph of eclectic architectural styles and lovingly carved masonry. The people she meets are a varied bunch too: she thinks some might be pig farmers and one is possibly an astronaut – at least, her guide, who is also acting as her translator, seems to be saying the word “stars” a lot whenever he points at the white haired octogenarian who shook her hand so violently when she arrived that she thought he’d fractured her meta-carpals.

It takes a while for the evening to get going. Glass after glass of a ‘traditional’ Romanian spirit are thrust into Marina’s hands. The liquid looks like pond water and burns like fire at the back of her throat; but once she’s had one or two, she feels a nice warm glow seeping through her bones. When they finally sit down to eat, the food consists of a loaf of bread for each person. The loaf’s been hollowed out and filled with a spicy stew: she can taste cabbage, beans and something else which might be meat but is hopefully just a very chewy type of potato. At one point, she tries to ask her guide what she’s eating and he looks at her reproachfully. “You must speak Romanian,” he tells her. “Your book, she says you speak five European languages as well as this one. It is not good not to try.”

She wonders if she can get away with just saying “simples” at the end of everyone’s sentence, then decides that it’s their fault, not hers, that she’s here in the first place. As the evening progresses and she drinks more and more ‘schlorst’, she begins to feel reckless and starts speaking gibberish in a Romanian accent – just for the fun of it. “I’m sloshed,” she tells anyone who’ll listen. “Sloshed on schlorst.” She vaguely remembers dancing on the table and reciting ‘Jabberwocky’ to an enraptured crowd before finally passing out.

The next day, she has a headache when Boris, her guide, comes to collect her for the promised trip to the salt mines. “What do you do when you’re not looking after me?” she asks him curiously. “What’s your job?”

Boris looks confused. “I do not have – how do you say – the words for showing you.” He then proceeds to try to explain – in a mixture of English and Romanian words, accompanied by the most bizarre mimes she has ever seen. From what she can tell, his work involves tin openers and helicopters – although it could equally be fishing rods and windmills. “And every five years,” he concludes proudly, “the government will pay the best people to train others – and that is why we have conference!”

 She’d ask more questions, but they’ve arrived at the mines. Boris hands her a hard hat and motions for her to follow him into a rickety lift that looks older than Hadrian’s Wall and a lot less reliable. They descend slowly and Marina gasps with pleasure: she’d thought salt mines would just comprise a huge pit full of salt, but instead she’s entered a magical kingdom full of sparkling stalactites clinging precariously to the cavern’s ceiling, where chunks of salt glitter like diamonds and the sound of a fairy waterfall tinkles in the distance.

There’s yet another formal reception later on. This time, Marina finds herself chatting to a gloriously over-dressed dowager who could be an impoverished member of the royal family but is more likely to sell shoes in the cut-price hypermarket a few miles away. This formidable matriarch speaks not a word of English, but somehow she and Marina manage to have a lively conversation. What they are talking about remains uncertain – Marina thinks they may be discussing pilchards, but at one point her new friend seems to be quoting ‘Take That’ lyrics. It’s all quite surreal, helped, no doubt, by the inexhaustible supply of schlorst that keeps reappearing in Marina’s glass.

She’s not sure, the next morning, who put her to bed the night before: knows only that she has one hell of a hangover and has to deliver a lecture – in a language she doesn’t know; on a topic she knows zero about – in less than half an hour. As she blearily struggles into her clothes and knocks back thimble after thimble of harsh, black coffee, she’s tempted to get a cab to the airport now and avert this impending disaster – except she doesn’t know the Romanian for ‘taxi’ and doesn’t even have any idea how the currency works.

Three hours later, it’s all over and she’s at the airport once more, trying to work out what actually happened at the symposium. She can remember walking offstage to rapturous applause, but apart from that, her mind’s a blank. Did she channel the Swedish chef off the Muppet Show, she wonders, and just speak gobbledygook for the duration of the speech? (“Stroodle doodle doo, da da da stroodle doodle doo.”) Admittedly, she had a slug of schlorst before making her debut – perhaps it unlocked the part of her brain where language is stored, enabling her to speak to the crowd in a tongue they all understood?

No one will ever tell her that the top she’d chosen so carefully was completely transparent under the heavy lighting, or that her cleavage could be seen by all and sundry every time she raised her arms for dramatic effect. None of it matters: she has been, she has seen, she has conquered – and it’s given her confidence for the life she’s returning to in Britain.

She boards the plane back home, not knowing what to expect.

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