Sunday, April 19, 2015

Mal, Mertiz, My kid and Me

Rebecca Forster
Author of the legal thriller Witness series
My youngest son is a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania.  If you don’t know where Albania is, no worries.  I didn't either. Once he was assigned, though, our family became experts on this Eastern European country half a world away. He’s been gone two years now and still has a year and will serve another two months. Over the years, our Skype talks, IMs and emails are filled with interesting information. These conversations go something like this:

Me: Are you warm?

Eric: It’s below freezing. There’s a hole in the wall of my apartment where the chimney for a heating stove is supposed to go, but birds are living there.  The landlord doesn’t want to disturb the birds.

Me: He’d rather you freeze to death?

Eric: I put a piece of cardboard over the hole and turn on my cooking stove to keep warm. I moved the couch to the kitchen, and I sleep on it. With my clothes on.  And my hat. It’s only a little below freezing.

Me: But are you warm?

Rebecca's son Eric
At that point the conversation veers away from the topic of how a California boy survived two brutal Albanian winters.  He’s 26, this is his adventure, and he doesn't need mom to remind him to put on his galoshes. He also doesn't want to waste precious time discussing the temperature. When the intermittent electricity and Internet connection allow, our conversations are peppered with pictures of the scorpions he finds in his boots and bed in the summer, the gunfire he hears that no one pays attention to, and the cows he chases down the street simply because they are there and he is young and hungry for all experiences. I hear about the ‘grandmothers’ in his town who have adopted him, the students who want to learn English, and the kindness of people who share what they have.

Then there are those personal conversations between my playwright son and me. We cross the miles with talk of family, futures, writing, disappointments, happy times and revelations. Sometimes words fail us, and that is not unusual for those who make their living writing them.  The enormity of a thought is hard to express in pixels or through jerky images on a screen; it needs hands and facial expressions and the intensity of real proximity to make a thought understood.  Often words escape us because what we are thinking seems insignificant, too small to waste precious time on. English, for all its energy, can be limiting; Albanian, for all its convolution is not.

Which brings me to the new words I learned: mal and mertiz. In this intricate language that my son attacked and conquered with relish, all words have many meanings. Mal translates to both nostalgia and mountain. That seemed so right to me. We all have a mountain of nostalgia that has pushed through the ground of our lives and built upon itself.  There are crevices where regret is caught and great bold faces slick with the memories of life-changing events; there are crags and fissures of reminiscences covered with clouds of wistfulness and longing. One day that mountain of memories can be comforting and the next overwhelming – it all depends on the light in which we view it and the place on which we stand at any given moment.

Mertiz is the Albanian word for upset, lonely and bored. That, too, seems just right.  If we are at odds-and-ends, uncomfortable in our own skin with boredom or loneliness, are we not upset and anxious? It is really kind of neat to tie so much turmoil together in one word.  Mertiz is not to be confused with anger or frustration; it is much more subtle than that and infinitely more dramatic.  

I am grateful to know that this feeling I have been harboring for the last two years is simply mertiz, a loneliness for my far-away son, a restlessness that he is not here to talk to me about our shared passion for writing, a twinge of disappointment that he is not sitting at my table eating food I made for him. But I see that mertiz leads to mal.   If I am upset and anxious that my child is freezing, if I am bored because I miss the talks late into the night, the hugs he never failed to give, that only means my mountain has grown. See that new foothold up near the peak? It is mal for the boy who once needed me to keep him warm and now simply needs me to talk to him in a new vocabulary that really just says we miss one another.

My latest book, Eyewitness, was inspired by my trip to a remote village in Albania where my Eric served. I learned about ancient Albanian laws and modern crime. I also learned about the legend of Rosafa. Rosafa, a national heroine, was predestined to be encased in a castle’s stones so that the walls would stand strong. Worried about her infant son, she accepted her fate on the condition that her right breast be exposed to feed her newborn son, her right eye to see him, her right hand to caress him, and her right foot to rock his cradle. The Albanian peoples’ history, resilience, sacrifice for family, and adherence to a code of honor are a reality. Their hospitality to a visitor was humbling.

Available at Amazon

Eyewitness is a story about the collision of two cultures, two sets of rules, and two visions of justice, and the battleground is Hermosa Beach.

About Rebecca:
 As an advertising executive I marketed a world-class spa when it was still called a gym, did business in China before there were western toilets and mucked around with sheep to find out how my client's fine wool was made. Then I wrote my first book. . .
     On a crazy dare, I tackled a project that would prove to be my passion - I wrote my first book. Though I had never written before, I was lucky enough to sell that novel.  Many books later - including the bestselling legal thrillers, the Witness Series, and the USA Today top seller Keeping Counsel - writing is still the most exciting thing I have ever done. Now, with the emergence of e-readers like Nook, Kindle, Kobo and IPad, the world of publishing is getting even more exciting.
     I earned my B.A. in English at Loyola, Chicago and my MBA at Loyola/Marymount in Los Angeles. Who knew that after all that studying I would be writing fiction fulltime? Today, instead of putting on a power suit in the morning, I pack up my computer and head out to Coffee Cartel. This is a wonderful neighborhood coffee shop where I am welcome to write as long as I want.
     When I'm not at my favorite table next to the suit of armor, I am speaking to philanthropic and writers' groups about the brave new world of publishing for Kindle, Nook and other e-readers, teaching at UCLA Writers Program or having a ball at middle schools teaching with The Young Writers Conference.  
    I'm one of six kids and my brothers and sisters are split between Missouri (where I was born) and California (where I grew up). My mother lives close and at 86 she can outrun me. Take a look at the photo gallery to see some pictures of our adventures. I don't know which I loved more, Alaska or Germany.
     Traveling is one of my favorite things  but  when I'm home I  love cooking, quilting, movies (especially zombie movies), the theater and, of course, reading. It will probably come as no surprise that mystery, suspense and thrillers are my favorite novels.  A tomboy at heart, I've played in a local tennis league for the last 14 years. My favorite shot? The backhand volley at the net.
     I have been married for 34 years to a man I met in high school but don't jump to any conclusions. When Harry met Sally could have been our story. He is a superior court judge and helps me when I need to research crucial scenes for my legal thrillers - I always have to fix a special dinner though to get the inside scoop on things.
     I'm am the proud mother of two grown sons. Alex is in film and Eric is a playwright now serving in the Peace Corps in Albania (we'll be traveling to his village soon and I can't wait). Both are exceptional young men and I am proud that they are following in my creative footsteps. 


  1. Wonderful blog, Rebecca. How exciting it is to share in our children's lives.

  2. This is a wonderful look into not only the book but your story and also your sons. Wow, only a little below freezing...makes me ashamed I am cold at 60 degrees inside! Thank you for the insight and the perspective! You ROCK now would you please get busy on another book?

  3. Albanian is an old (although not lost) language and has a lot to say about decoding symbols of old civilizations.
    A few Albanian words:
    al: thes <=> en: sack
    al: ar <=> en: gold
    al: thes + ar = thesar <=> en: sack + gold = treasure
    eg: I found a hidden sack with gold, I'm rich now = I found a hidden treasure, I'm rich now.

    al: ka <=> en: has / there is
    al: s'ka <=> en: hasn't / there is not
    al: ndal <=> en: stop
    al: ska + ndal = skandal <=> en: there's no stopping = scandal.
    eg: How do you avoid a scandal? - by refraining yourself.
    How do you cause a scandal? - by not refraining yourself. There's no stopping you (from making public things that are normally considered private)

    al: andra <=> en: dreams
    al: ka andra <=> en: has dreams.
    al: ka s andra = kasandra <=> en: cassandra = has dreams.
    eg: Who was Casandra? - The woman that warned Troyans to not let the wooden horse inside the city, but they didn't listen her.
    Even today there are people that see the future in dreams, but are not taken seriously.

    al: rrot <=> en: wheel / disk
    al: ka + rrot = karrot <=> en: has + wheel = chariot

    And many more.


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