Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Seasonal cheer

Around the twenty third of December, I suddenly and mysteriously forget what day of the week it is and when the weekend is. I think this is brought on by a seasonal spate of churchgoing: more than you'd experience in a month of Sundays (ho ho ho).

Around December 27, suddenly the day of the week comes back, only to become lost once again in the confusion leading up to New Year's Eve.

Through a haze of post-holiday lethargy I'm going to try and explain the quirks of a British Christmas for any Polish readers still on board. Inexplicably, we are unable to reconcile a twelve course meal with the concept of 'fasting', even if one of the twelve courses involves eating a creature so horrible it has to be fished out of a paddling pool by a specially-armed Babcia. We just go all out and start on the mince pies. Generally, one goes out for a swift half on Christmas Eve (usually to someone's house, now that you have to pay to get into the pub on Wigilia), one drinks three gins and tonic, one totters over to Midnight Mass and one is somehow half an hour later singing 'Once in Royal David's City' all alone in a Very Quiet Church Indeed. Never mind: what's a quarter-tone between friends? (as our choirmaster said consolingly afterwards).
On Christmas day... hands up who remembered to interpret the Queen's Speech? Never mind, you can listen to her on YouTube, she has her own channel. It's not obsession, just a healthy work ethic. Recommended reading for 2009: Bonjour Paresse. In English.

Last year, I tried to capture on film the flambée-ing of the famous Xmas Pud. The technique of dousing in hot alcohol and setting alight is more commonly applied to light, fluffy desserts such as crêpes Suzette. What could be more logical than extending this to a stodgy kilo of currant-studded suet pudding?

But just to make it clear, the following pictures illustrate HOW TO and HOW ABSOLUTELY NOT TO:



Note the prudent match-lighting technique in the top picture.

Do not ON ANY ACCOUNT attempt to emulate the reckless fire-pouring method in the lower picture.

Kitchen cabinets nearly lost their melamine over this.

While we're on the subject of handy tips for Christmas, please exercise foresight in the giving of gifts. Be discerning in your choice of recipients when giving presents which may contain musical components.

They may look innocent. But Beware! These singing reindeer slippers May Seriously Confuse Your Dog.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

So here it is...

So. My friend runs this youth club.

And, sometimes, she asks me to help out.

You see... some kind donor gave them a karaoke machine...

... and then my friend bought it a Christmas CD...

"P.... can we have the mic now??"

Życzę wszystkim Wesołych Świąt!

Friday, 19 December 2008


Last night I dreamt I was in Poland, visiting the mountains.

I know that I must have been in Poland, visiting the mountains, because the only part I remember is being in the bus station office, trying to ask the time of the last bus back to Kraków.

My Polish had clearly suffered because I couldn't remember the word for 'last': I distinctly remember trying variations on później and skończony, but nothing fitted.

At six in the morning, the dog asked, noisily, to be let out.

I woke up, let her out, nodded as finally the search engine pushed 'ostatni' into my brain, and went back to sleep again.

I hope I got the case ending right.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Joy Ride

About ten years ago, having recently passed my driving test, I went on my first solo road trip. It was nothing exciting: just a couple of exits round the M25 and down to Cambridge for an open day. But it was enough to require a supply of Tesco all-day-breakfast sandwiches and big sheaf of A4 paper bearing mysterious legends in 24pt bold Times New Roman*, to the tune of:

'JUNCTION 27, M11'

(I wish I had retained the 'Keep Left' one: I still have trouble in car parks).

But that was ten years ago. This is the age of technology. Now, we all have Sat Nav!

Sally SatNav is a poor companion on a long car journey. When we were small, the voices coming from the dashboard used to read us Five on Mystery Moor or Asterix in Egypt. Now there's only one voice, and it says:

After Eight Hundred Yards ... Keep Right

(and what precisely is the point of that? After 800 yards, do nothing?)

Or, more commonly:

Turn around when possible.

No explanation, no 'never mind, we all make mistakes', just a flat, cold acknowledgement of your failure to follow even the most simple instructions. Somewhere, there'll be a setting that incorporates an electronic exasperated 'sigh' when you're trying to reverse into a parking space.
Worse still, it wakes you from a cosy snooze by beeping in your ear to signal a speed camera. Jolly uncivilised if you ask me.

But I think our Madame GPS is taking her own kind of revenge. Recently she has taken to sending us on detours down slip-roads and laybys, as a charming alternative to the main thoroughfare. Tired of cruising down Beauly high street? Why not take a turn through the car park?
Worse still is her total lack of advance warning. Imagine you are in the lighting box of a small theatre. All your lights have codes, and you need to push the right button at the right moment. But you won't just get a 'Lights NOW!', oh no: first you'll hear 'LXQ 15... stand by' and then, a moment later 'LXQ 15 ... GO!'

Not so with Sally SatNav.
Ease your mind out of the lighting box. Now you're cruising in your car through the Scottish borderlands at dusk. Stunning views all around; one or two nasty drops too. 'More or Less' is playing on Radio 4 and you want to know why Have I Got News For You were the only ones to get it right about the interest rate cut. You're not really concentrating.

Turn Left!

She has a sense of humour, you have to give her that.

Incidentally, does anyone have GPS in Polish? What do they say most? Let's have a Polish SatNav word of the day! (Makes a change from trzy razy Zywiec)

*Because we ahhhr from Sevenoaks daahrling.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Climate Change

Not everyone likes wind farms. I think they look quite dramatic, standing straight on the hilltop, with the setting sun behind them.

Some people say they take more energy to build than they produce. Some say they are an eyesore, and some hate the noise nuisance.

But what really, really gets my goat is when you drive towards rows and rows of them whirring away except for one in every six or seven that just isn't working.

And you can't even go up and flick it with your finger, or blow on it to start it up again.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Snow and power cuts

Classic Travels Without My Spaniel picture sequence including several wonky landscapes, one close up of either leaves or bugs, and one floor shot.

Monday, 1 December 2008

December 1

Right. Now you can start talking about Christmas.

What's different? Well, it's freezing (suddenly). The sun is shining (although it wasn't when I got up this morning). Work has started to ease off a bit. Classic FM* are now playing a Christmas carol every other song. Although since about mid-October they've been surreptitiously advertising John Rutter CDs, getting as far as 'What sweeter music shall...' before cutting the sound clip. Since about the same time, my brother has been asking me for a Christmas list. This basically means a list of CDs, DVDs or books that I might want so that he can pick one and buy it. The trouble is, I don't have any particular wish list at the moment. What I'd like to buy are party dresses and high heeled shoes for all those office Christmas parties that I will spectacularly fail to gatecrash. Which reminds me: what on earth do freelancers do about the office Christmas party, hmm?? Do we just all get together and go to the pub? What about karaoke, reindeer ears, warm cava and being groped by Gary from IT?

Where books are concerned, I'm desperate to get to Grant & Cutler (every language from Afrikaans to Zulu), but unfortunately they don't issue gift vouchers.

It's now getting too cold and wet to run outside, so I've been looking for alternative forms of indoor sport (except for that one: the Dalai Lama says it's bad for you).
These include: running upstairs for the phone; remote Strictly Come Dancing audience participation (best executed right in the field of vision of your fellow viewers) and fencing the dog. This last is largely ineffective, since the Other Dog tends to be unresponsive by day and hidden under the piano by night, while the Spaniel is game to start with but then gets over-excited, potters round in a circle, sniffs her tail and pees on the carpet. I wouldn't mind except that cleaning the carpet interrupts play and causes me to forget the score.

Wait! There's a Strictly Come Dancing section on Amazon! Let's see... 'Dance with Len Goodman', second-hand for £4.98! **

Hm. Christmas. Darkness, singing and pitching a tent in the north aisle of the church for some hardcore anglo-catholicism.

And then, new resolutions for the New Year. This time last year I made huge resolutions to Change Everything and Follow My Dreams. And now I'm still trying to steer things in the right direction and still trying to make it work and still not getting anywhere. What's the solution? I suspect there is none.

*The knob on the bathroom radio is stuck, ok?
**NB: any male member of my family or acquaintance purchasing this item will be subject to Never Being Spoken To Again. Which is a deterrent or an incentive, depending on how you look at it.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

In case you were wondering...

... why I moan so much about Sevenoaks, here is a random sample of the local demographic:

Giles works for a private wealth management firm near St James' Square. He and Annabelle lived in a trendy flat in Pimlico before moving out to Sevenoaks in search of fresh air and prestigious school catchment areas. Although he paid off the mortgage on his Blackhall Lane mansion with last year's bonus, Giles suspects that this year Payroll will not be so generous. At worst, he may have to sell the au pair's Landrover. Giles is keen to fit in with the local community, and has been making advances on the constituency Conservative party.

Annabelle. After graduating from Durham and taking an obligatory year out to travel, Annabelle briefly worked as a temp receptionist for a wealth management company, where she met Giles. Since moving to Sevenoaks, Annabelle has relinquished her tiresome career with a sigh of relief: after all, who has time, what with gym, yoga and collecting the boys from rugby practice on the au pair's day off?

Hannah is relieved she managed to fit in her GCSE History coursework this evening when choir was cancelled due to an outbreak of flu. Tomorrow she has piano; Friday, singing lesson; Monday, music theory and Tuesday is an exhausting combination of ballet and tap dancing. Hannah's singing teacher says she has the voice of a young Maria Callas and ought to spend a year in Italy before applying to the Royal College of Music. Hannah has a pale, hunted look: she quite likes singing but is more worried that her fake ID won't get her into the Angel Centre Ball with her classmates on Saturday.

Lee has lived round Bat and Ball all his life, not like them posh twats up Gracious Lane. He's a delivery driver for his mate's dad's firm and can't wait for the weekend, when he's going to watch Arsenal vee AC Milan with his mates down the New Inn and then go up the Slug and get completely f*cked on seventeen pints of Fosters (f*cking Stella: too f*cking expensive). He reads the Star and wants to batter the f*cking paedos that killed baby P, although he's not above giving his own lad a good thrashing if he gives him any of his f*cking lip, cheeky little c*nt. He also can't stand those stuck-up birds you get round here: f*cking feminist lezzers.

You know what? There are tons of these. I may have to write a Part II...

Excuse the stars: I'm not normally such a prude, but I don't want my blog to get blacklisted.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Just a formality

One of the hardest things in any foreign language is learning to use the formal register.


That was the sound of thousands (read 'one or two') of readers simultaneously clicking their browser windows shut.

French is ok: anything French is normally work and therefore 'vous'. Unless you're elderly, or married to a diplomat, anyone you meet socially is 'tu' (although traditionally apparently it's a bit naughty to ask guys if you can se tutoyer: so that's one to remember when you're out hunting for a sugar daddy on Bvd St Germain). Having said that, it's now a bit trendy to call your colleagues 'tu', especially in a translation company where everyone is under thirty and wears jeans to work. It leaves you a bit confused with older colleagues and the boss's PA... will they be offended because you've made them feel old??

Polish: well, everything about Polish is hard. You can forgive a stupid foreigner a couple of mistakes here and there.

No, the really complicated one is Italian. If you learnt Italian at university, you probably studied abroad on the Erasmus scheme, and you probably hung out with lots of long-haired groovy sociology students who called everyone 'tu'. If you went to a British or American university back home, your professors were probably relaxed enough to slip into the informal at the earliest possible moment (not wanting to distract from important things, like Italo Calvino and Marco Tullio Giordana, with complicated things like personal pronouns).
In the formal, pronouns work in a similar way to Polish: the formal personal pronoun is the same as the third person singular, except with only one gender: everyone is a feminine 'Lei'. Having said that, there's also a very archaic form: 'essi', which I am not too sure about.
Basically you are calling the person 'Her' all the time (hmm - like a Scottish laird: 'is Himself at home?), and conjugating as appropriate (la, le, with or without capital letters).

Now, when you're applying to work for an Italian firm, you send them an email in polite Italian, they email you a test translation in polite Italian, you complete it, they give you a score and ask about your rates, etc, all in nice polite (hellishly complicated) formal Italian. Cordiali saluti all round.

When a slightly harassed project manager sends you your first job request, it's still all 'La prego di consegnare ...' and 'Le mando i files ...' ecc.
And you continue - watching your step, because the more correspondance is exchanged, the more chances you have to slip up - with the polite forms of address.

I can't even begin to list the possibilities for disaster here. Imagine you are a professional linguist with an image to maintain. Imagine that - unlike me, ahem - you have up until now managed a steady flow of dialogue without any typos, or mistaken endings, or bent genders.
Now you are getting to know your project manager better, you want to build up an easy working rapport with them, but at the same time maintain a professional distance. Do you stay formal and risk sounding archaic (imagining mirthful project managers reading out bits of stilted Italian from their English correspondants to peals of laughter)? Or do you slip into 'tu' form and hope they don't notice?
I was doing my best to keep a formal tone, when suddenly, the project manager starts calling me 'tu' (rather offhandedly - 'when you translate, make sure you check this and this, and then spellcheck, and check for uniformity' and so on). Relieved, I started using the informal too, along with all the accompanying dry rot of modern email correspondance (lower cases, lack of accents, etc).

Suddenly: wham! We're back in the formal, effectively Szanowna Pani - ing each other all over again.

Have I offended her? Should I have stayed virtuously formal while she slipped into the second person? Have I won or lost respect through some complex pronomial game of which I was not aware? Did I use some anachronism of antique Italian and is she mocking me??

Find these answers to these and more in the next exciting episode of Pinolona's translation life...*

*Welding glossary not included.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

In the bleak midwinter

Ohhh and I was doing so well with my resolution to post every day a la Expateek. Cue a whole string of unpublished, half-started drafts, left unfinished because I simply couldn't stand to look at the screen any more.

It's been a while since I woke up to falling snow in the UK (actually it's been a while since I spent a whole winter in the UK).

-Wake up, it's eight thirty and it's snowing.

There's no-one like my Dad for giving you a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

It was true: I drew back the curtain and there was a pretty powdering of snow just tinted green by the lawn underneath. A fine dust was falling from the sky, rather like powdered sugar sprinkled onto one of those giant baked jam doughnuts we're no longer allowed to eat in obesity-crisis Britain*.

This time last year I was in Kraków and my brother was stranded at Balice by Easyjet and the Wrong Kind of Snow.

And, talking of the wrong kind of snow, we in Britain are spectacularly bad at dealing with Weather.

When I was small, we used to get up extra-early on snowy days to listen to Radio Kent presenters reading out the lovely long list of all the primary schools in the area that were closed due to 'bad weather' (read half an inch of fairy dust).
Ours never was. And sadly it was only down the road so no excuses there either.

Public transport, now that just shuts down completely. Imagine if, in Poland, or Sweden, or even the north of Italy, trains simply stopped running because the snow was the wrong sort. I kid you not - it's got to be full-on Antarctic tundra for the trains to roll on it: this powdery stuff just doesn't cut the mustard and no self-respecting train driver'll run his engine through that mush (nasty muddy splatters all over the windscreen).

Better still, people go nuts, queuing up for petrol, stocking up on tinned food, working from home...

National Emergency! Three millimetres of snow swamp central Kent! Duck and cover!

In any case, it's immaterial since by lunchtime the pretty flakes had turned to icy drizzle and all the lovely sparkly snow had been washed away - with the exception of a few sad-looking lumps of slush in front of a neighbour's house: their children's forlorn attempt at making snowmen.

*although rumour has it that Alastair Darling may be about to announce pre-Budget Doughnut Breaks so we can all comfort-eat our way through the credit crunch. Save money on heating! Put on an additional inch of lard! Extra Weightwatchers Points for all (although we'll be paying for it with new calorie restrictions for 2009)!

Monday, 17 November 2008


I rather feel as though this blog has lost direction.

Since I'm no longer in Poland, it can clearly no longer be an ex-pat blog.
Note to self - no matter how hard I try at Polskie Delikatesy etc.

And since I don't intend (read can't afford) to travel anywhere at least until after Christmas, it's going to be a pretty poor excuse for a travel blog.

On the other hand, I like to write. Especially when it hasn't already been written by someone else in French. It's just that I'm rather lacking in subject material. I can't just write a blog about me:

"- Ho hum, well today I sat at my desk all day stalking people on Facebook I mean translating ... I took the dog for a walk ... why do we exist? ... Nobody loves me! ... Well ok, I'll have a doughnut, but I'm definitely joining WeightWatchers tomorrow ... got really pissed last night ... etc."

and so on ad infinitum how dull.

As with all Art Dahling, I need an angle.

There are several options (note to self, try to avoid easy-way-out list format).

I could write an achingly dull Bridget-Jones-style account of the trials of being a single girl in her late twenties in a recession (none of this London media lifestyle lark). I could join the abovementioned waist-reduction club, wear lip gloss, sign up for internet dating and recount the highs and lows of my racy singleton lifestyle.

More dull still, I could sit here in my room alone, gazing at my navel (WeightWatchers, I hate you) and regurgitating everyone else's musings on existence (are we the only things that are conscious of living? And, if we were all suddenly annihilated, would the universe still be here with no-one to be aware of it? What would be the point of that? If other forms of intelligent life existed on another planet, what would be the corresponding EU immigration policy, and what would the Daily Mail have to say about it all?) and confirming Polite Society's suspicions about the perils of forcing young girls to read nineteenth century French literature (*involuntary shudder au souvenir du temps perdu malheuresement dans de poussiereuses salles d'université ecossaises*).

How very teenaged.

Or, I could go in another, much more positive direction, and make it All About Work.

I can't write a blog about translation. Do you really want a 'Daily welding glossary'? It's not interesting.

I could turn it into an exciting interpreter wannabe blog and write about dummy booths and Social Fora and how to cram vocabulary and Tips for Language Acquisition, not to mention pages and pages on my struggle with the tantalizingly ephemeral trade secret that is Note Taking.
But that would simply mystify my other readers*.
Plus it requires much more gravitas than I possess to write a Real Interpreting Blog (http://objectifinterprete.blogspot.com/ ; http://iacovoni.wordpress.com/)

Chyba mogłabym pisać (jak zasugerował mi kolega) czasami po polsku, aby doskonalić moj polski pisemny, rozśmieszać polskich znajomych i jednocześnie alienować anglojęzycznych czytelników.

Chyba nie.

I could write a Polish learning blog, but Anna already has that one covered... and very good it is too.

Or I could just carry on as I am, writing sporadically, more in the navel-gazing vein than anything else, and watch my stats dwindling, and wonder when I will ever get around to taking that exam / applying for that course / writing that book / moving out of my parents' house.

*Both of them.

Friday, 14 November 2008

edited highlights

I'm afraid I've been too busy and important (read lazy and distracted) to post anything for about the past two and a half weeks.

Besides which, I don't leave the house an awful lot so I'm starting to lack cutesy, quirky anecdotes to write about and at times I've found myself all too tempted to start a wry commentary on current affairs.
This has been a fairly packed couple of weeks, and luckily, I've been able to resist, so you've been spared the Travels without my Spaniel* version of the following events:

- Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand leaving naughty messages on Andrew Sach's answerphone and the (slightly delayed) ensuing Daily Mail-inspired witch hunt
rather an excessive reaction, particularly since the majority of the 27 000 Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells didn't pick up the phone until after they'd read about the incident in the abovementioned publication.

And Radio 2 is crap on a Saturday morning now.

The US presidential election.
THANK GOODNESS! and isn't it kind of foreign countries to hold their elections for our entertainment in November (see Poland, 2007), thus brightening up what is arguably the most depressing month of the year.

Recent research reveals that these are part of the winter family 'hollyberrium tinsellitis', due to their propensity to bloom ever earlier year on year.

- Strictly Come Dancing
This is English for 'po prostu tańcz'. It's also on at 6.30 on a school night when it's too dark to play outside. (I'll have salsa lessons and a long sparkly ball-gown please).

The New Bond Film
no gadgets? no car?!

*I'd love to say that I'd picked this title as a clever nod to my imminent move to Poland and in tribute to Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels with Herodotus. Let's just pretend that I did.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Bowl of credit crunch, please, skinny milk

Wow, Sterling airlines is the latest budget travel company to go... uh... into a tailspin.
I flew to Sweden with them six weeks ago, booking my ticket rather nervously on the recommendation of the group I was volunteering for and wondering whether or not my return flight would actually take off. However, when I called their UK helpline, a polite young man with polished English answered and I felt rather relieved: it looked like a case of clean Scandinavian efficiency all the way.
Unfortunately it seems a lot of their shareholders hailed from Iceland. Uh oh.

Iceland: a whole country has gone bankrupt! (it's been a while since I got my highlighter out over the Economist). I suppose that's what happens if Kerry Katona is heading your advertising campaign. Where's Mum going to go now?!

This credit crunch lark is mad! I mean - I have absolutely no idea what it's all about. Friends who work in the City are starting to cut down on the heady social life and acquaintances in accounting look a little more nervous than before, but other than that...

Here's Pinolona's guide to surviving the credit crunch:

1/ Housing crash.
Apparently lots of people will end up in negative equity. Mortgage lenders are going bankrupt. General woe abounds. The solution? Rent a flat - in Poland, with students. Or, go for the option favoured by any red-blooded Italian male and live at home with your parents. Ensure they are suitably distracted - e.g. by fitting a new kitchen - and they may not notice you are there (thereby omitting to charge you rent).

2/ Increased food prices.
See no. 1, part two.

3/ High cost of heating.
Make sure you live in a building with permanent communal heating which is included in the rent (radiator knobs not included; fiddling around with wrenches and getting covered in black grease compulsory). This will probably take you to Poland (or your parents' house, see no 1, part 2).

3/ Job insecurity.
Waves of redundancies are rippling across the City like a scythe through ripe wheat.
Avoid the fear by quitting your stable job and becoming self-employed. Hey presto! Permanent underlying job insecurity brings no nasty surprises in times of financial hardship.

4/ Interest rates.
I'm not entirely sure what's going on with interest rates to be honest, but, since I haven't been in credit since 2003, it doesn't really matter. So why not blow all your savings on a costly (and worthless) university education?! Then you won't have to worry about not making any money on them. (plus if you're a student no-one can make you redundant. Winners all round!)

5/ In the absence of any kind of disposable income, indulge in simple pleasures. Such as... watching the snow (snow?!).
Other free spectator sports include: the US presidential elections; the queue at the Post Office; counting SUVs driven by bewildered au pairs trying to do the school run; attempting to spot a happy face among the commuters returning from central London at 8.15 on a school night.

Happy crunching!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Keeping warm

It's late autumn now, the evenings are drawing in and - in spite of the sunlight blazing off the copper leaves during daylight hours - I still feel the irresistible urge to curl up into a tight little ball under the duvet and not come out again until April.

Over the summer, my parents changed the heating system in their house. They now have a condensation boiler: apparently this is the only kind you are allowed due to global warming. I had no idea. In any case, there are no flames in the bathtub. In fact, there is no heat of any kind in the bathroom whatsoever, and the only form of ventilation is to open the window.
On particularly frosty mornings, I am tempted to take the dog in with me for warmth.
Only the dog takes longer to dry than I do, so it wouldn't really be fair.

Now - I'm sure you've noticed - but every building has its own particular quirks, particularly in the noise department. We all know by heart the creaks and gurgles of our childhood homes shifting and settling in the night, and we've all been woken up by the desperate thud of silt in the boiler (disturbingly similar to the sound of someone banging on the back door). I'd just got used to the ice cracking on the back of the fridge on Starowiślna and, well, as a child I almost found babble of the radiator in the family home soothing.

Before I left for Sweden halfway through September the heating was still off for the summer.

Now, suddenly, the new radiators are on, and it's as though the house has started speaking in a foreign language.

I got back from Bratislava on Friday night to an empty house and tried to drift off to sleep. Not a hope. Downstairs, the sound of someone clicking light switches! I crept out of bed: no lights. Then: whoosh! A cascade of water - had someone suddenly turned on all the taps? No. It was just our noisy-but-ecologically-sound central heating.
It's taking a little getting used to.
Incidentally, there is an interesting side-effect brought on by hearing running water tinkling through the system twenty four hours a day.
Unfortunately it hasn't done much for the Spaniel, whose will is stronger than her bladder and who stubbornly refuses to go outside unless you play ball with her for fifteen minutes first.

The Spaniel is now allowed to sleep on the floor beside my bed. I say 'allowed' - she's clever and waits until I go into the bathroom to clean my teeth before sneaking in. I quite like the company, and she doesn't snore too much - although she tends to wake up a good two and a half hours before I do. I wouldn't mind so much if she'd learn to open the door and let herself out too but she hasn't got the hang of it yet. Instead, she accidentally makes some very loud Pino-awakening kerfuffle: either by shaking her ears noisily or thudding her tail ("oops did I wake you up? silly me").
From time to time, when she thinks my guard is down, she will wake me in the night. I hear whatever doggy disturbance she is making, wonder why I am awake and stumble into the bathroom. Upon my return, there in the middle of the bed is a small stubborn mound of curled-up springer spaniel. Her nose is very firmly buried in her own fur so I can't see the expression on her face.
- I'm asleep. It says - slightly muffled, doing a very good impression of a small, white, spotty Cumberland sausage.
I pull her off the bed by the collar. And then go to check the tap, which is leaking.

When I come back, the Cumberland-spaniel-sausage is curled up on my duvet again.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Złota Jesień

I finally uploaded the pictures from my camera. It was a really beautiful couple of weeks, most of the time, and here in auld Kent we're still having our own Indian Summer.

Nowa Huta - yes, really!

The park in Podgórze

On the way to Kopiec Krakusa

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Traveller in Time

Captain's Log, Stardate apparently some time in mid-December 2008

Initially very little seemed to have changed upon my return to the Old Country, but gradually over the past couple of days I have begun to observe subtle differences which lead me to question the true nature of my return journey from Bratislava. Allow me to explain: I appear to have travelled, not only through international air-space, but indeed in time itself.

Do not be fooled by my dramatic air. For an entire day, all seemed normal. I am not attempting to convince you that I have travelled forward into the tortured imaginary lands of George Orwell and HG Wells. Nor have I sped back into some primitive country redolent of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. However, minute tweaks in the fabric of my everyday surroundings lead me to suspect a short skip of a matter of months.

The evidence is as follows:

1/ Absent-mindedly picking up an advertising leaflet from the coffee table in the lounge (to use as a bookmark) I realised that it was publicising a 'Christmas menu' at a local downmarket eatery. While I agree that it makes sense to book in advance, no-one of my acquaintance has ever yet had trouble getting a table at the Riverhead Harvester.

2/ Foraging through my absent parents' larder, I stumbled upon a solid slab of cake in a crackly cellophane wrapper. Closer inspection of the festive red label revealed this to be nothing more than 'Iced fruit cake', but a tell-tale sprig of holly innocently lurking in one corner raised my suspicions.

3/ Marks and Spencers. A short excursion (in search of wine) left me in no doubt. On the end of the aisles: Advent calendars! In the bakery section: Mince pies! Under beers wines and spirits: Mulled wine! (And an intriguing dark bottle labelled 'Chocolate Ruby'. This turned out to be British fortified wine flavoured with dark chocolate. Excruciating hangover guaranteed: any more migraine triggers and it'd be classified as a weapon of mass destruction).

What conclusions can be drawn from all this? When I clambered wearily up the Ryanair boarding steps (trying unsuccessfully to block out the baritone exuberance of several jubilant Polska fans behind me), I had no idea that I was about to embark upon a Journey Through Time. There was no clue that what I took to be turbulence on take-off - apparently caused by heavy rain over central Europe - was in fact the rippling of the Fabric of Destiny. How could I have guessed that a simple two-hour flight would in fact catapault me two months into the future? Why, in Kraków they weren't even selling lamps for All Saints' Day (at least not any more so than usual).

Or maybe it simply took much, much longer than I thought to get through arrivals at Stansted Airport.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Communist Pentathlon

From the window of a train somewhere about thirty minutes outside Bratislava, I noticed a small red-and-white aeroplane grounded in front of a building. As we got closer, I realised it was part of a children's playground.

- Oh look! I squealed to my colleague - A real plane in a playground! How cool is that?!
- Actually, he replied, - it's quite common to have military equipment in playgrounds here. There are plenty of places where children get to play with disused guns, for example. Traditionally it was to train them up to ward off potential attacks from the Forces of Capitalism.

I tried -unsuccessfully - to pinpoint any subtle whiff of Gallic irony.

- Seriously, he continued - my girlfriend had to learn to use a gas mask at school. And one of my American friends, his girlfriend used to do a sort of 'Communist pentathlon'...

The Communist pentathlon, it transpires, involves the following healthy outdoor activities:

i) Sprinting

ii) Shooting at a target

iii) Sprinting again

iv) Throwing a grenade

v) Swimming underwater across the Danube *

vi) Political Questions

I was impressed.

- We never did anything like that at school! The worst we got was throwing the shot putt!
- Me neither! Just think: thank goodness during the Cold War we never attacked them. We wouldn't have stood a chance!

I wonder how different my life would have been had I been raised as a grenade-hurling Slovak girl...

Announcement: The World Premier of the Original Communist Pentathlon (sponsored by Sevenoaks Town Council in conjunction with Laura Ashley) will take place on the Vine Cricket Ground on Sunday, May 10 in the afternoon. Applications to be received by
end of March 2009 at the latest. Tea will be served at 5pm in the Pavilion: all survivors are welcome.

*Author's note: I made this up because we couldn't think of the fifth activity.

Monday, 13 October 2008


There's a pedestrian crossing in Podgorze where the 'beep-beep' has a sort of dotted crochet rhythm (dum da-dum da-dum etc), rather than just being in strict time like all the others.
Also, the pitch is a sort of rather smudgy major triad. The overall effect is rendolent of a French chanson.
By the time you reach the central traffic island, you half expect the little green man to throw his arms wide and burst into strains of:
- Noooooooon, rien de rien!!! Nooooon je ne regret-te rieeeennnnn....


On Friday night I popped into the internet place on the Rynek* to check the cinema listings. There were two young guys, apparently students, slouched behind the front desk eating yoghurt and Prince Polo.
I checked the website and then went back to the desk.
- Ile to będzie? I asked, rather ridiculously since I'd only been online about two minutes.
The guy made a tutting sound and looked down at his hands with a smile:
- Oh... dużo...
I realised with horror that he was flirting with me. In Polish.
- *completely panic stricken* oh no... ile??
The guy sucked in his breath: Bardzo dużo, to nie mogę powiedzić**
Lost for (Polish) words, I must have made some kind of girly eye-widening gesture.
- Złotówka. Said the guy, with a smile, bored of me now.

I survived my first ever (extremely basic) flirt in Polish...

A mate of mine lives just off one of the major party streets in Kraków town centre. Consequently, lots of drunk guys walk past his doorstep on the way home from Gorączka and suchlike, and we all know what intoxicated males are wont to do in doorsteps.
Leaving the flat one afternoon, I bumped into a neighbour on his way in, a portly gentlemen of late-middle-age vintage, and thought it propitious to say 'Dzien Dobry' on my way out.
- Dzien dobry... replied the neighbour, slightly surprised. He was however not to be caught out: quickly he recovered his senses in time to make that long slow intake of breath and say:

- Ale... Wie Pani co...?

Uh oh.

(I hate it when they say this).

He beckoned me outside, where there was a significant amount of something liquid splashed onto the bottom of the door post and seeping onto the doorstep. All the while, he continued to hold forth excitedly on a topic that I was unable to decipher: I thought I caught the word 'dog'.
I took a shot in the dark and interrupted him:

- Ale... to nie moj pies.

- Nie? Pani nie jest Pani Monika?

I shook my head.

He apologised, and I made a swift exit.

I have no idea who Pani Monika is, but I suspect that her dog is blameless on this one.

*Whaddya mean 'which internet place', what do you think I am, bloody Cracow Life??
**The author requests that the kind reader remember that her Polish transcription skills leave a lot to be desired.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

still here

I'm still here.
I'm in Kraków.
There are lots of quirky and amusing things to write about.
But I have lots of work suddenly.
And I am tired.

Sunday, 21 September 2008


Things I noticed about Sweden:

- Language. The language appears to be related to sensible European languages so there are points of reference you can hang on to. Hurrah! For example: 'smak' appears to be taste. There are several things I recognise as being Polish, but this is probably because they come from German. By midday on the first day I managed to order a bus ticket, a cup of coffee and a Kanelbulle.

[Aside: by midday on my first day in Poland I had learnt how to point to stuff in petrol stations and how not to get beaten up by guerilla grannies on the number 8 tram.]

All this is of little consequence however since the average Swedish person speaks embarrassingly good English.

- Road safety. When you reach a zebra crossing, do not be afraid. Step out - however gingerly - and, as if by magic, cars will slow down and stop for you. It's freaky. I also noticed that Swedes do not seem to be afraid of traffic. They do not stand politely at the side of an empty road, waiting for the pedestrian light to turn green, in fear of sudden speeding vehicles squealing round the corner from out of nowhere. When the road is empty, they look both ways, take a rational decision, and step out onto the asphalt.

The first time I saw this happen, I had to suppress the urge to dive out in front of them:

- No! Don't do it!! Save yourselves!

And yet ... nothing happened...

- Bicycles. While the cars won't hurt you, two-wheeled vehicles are definitely a hazard. On my first day in town, I went for a long walk, looking for the city centre. I found a park, with pretty trees, benches, and both young and old on bicycles, coasting by in a picturesque manner.
There was a coffee shop on one corner of the pedestrian area. I decided to walk towards it.
Only.. halfway to the other side of the park, I found myself trapped on a tiny island at a miniature crossroads. Cyclists were whizzing towards me from all directions. How they avoided colliding with each other is a mystery to me. Reaching the other side of the path seemed an impossible mission. Panic set in and I backed further away until I was pressed right up against the tree at the centre of the traffic island.

It felt like a good twenty minutes before I got safely across to that coffee shop...

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

on the move again

I'm in Sweden. I am alone in the flat of a sociology student who has kindly offered to house me for the week. People are not so bad after all. There is a pale sun shining low through the window. It is peaceful. I do not speak a word of Swedish (apart from 'till', which means 'to' and is useful for buying bus tickets).

This is clearly a nation of very obliging people, since everyone says 'tak' all the time...

Friday, 12 September 2008

I have finally realised how much I hate Britain. This is a country full of aggressive, obnoxious, violent people, and I am slowly turning into one of them myself. Not a single day goes by now without my feeling trodden down and furious and wishing that I had a large heavy object with which to thrash the living daylights out of someone. I feel insignificant and powerless and I want to hurt people.

It never used to be like this. I never used to be like this.

What on earth is happening to us?

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Karma repair

I would like to use this post to apologise wholeheartedly to the woman I mistook for a man in the ladies lavatory of Caffe Nero this afternoon.

I regret that this escalated into a full-scale shouting match and I am awfully sorry about your recent throat surgery. Although I was rather alarmed when you shouted from inside the cubicle that you were 'shooting up' and that you were going to make me suck your 'big fat cock', my better judgement ought to have recognised this for sarcasm rather than verbal sexual assault. Indeed, I wish that I had looked more convinced when you bared your breast downstairs in the cafe to prove that you were not, in fact, of the masculine sex.

In terms of the genuinely transgendered population I generally hold a very open-minded view and I do intend to react more positively in future to muscular persons in pink dresses who assertively profess in bass tones to want me to apply oral suction to their nether regions. I hope that this incident will not be taken as a typical example of my attitude towards this minority group*.

I also apologise to your friend, the consumption of whose coffee was interrupted when she felt compelled to aid you in your quest to 'batter' me. I understand that lone 9 stone lightweights in coffee shops are a serious physical threat and must be quashed at all costs.

I am pleased that you work 'in the public eye': congratulations. Yes, you doubtless do earn a larger salary than I do and I am glad that you are able to draw some small comfort from this material superiority.

If you will permit me to impart a little knowledge in the area of rhetoric I would advise that the use of the phrase 'get out of my face' is actually only effective if a person is imposing on your personal space, and not the other way around.

Apart from anything else, I am sorry if I unwittingly touched on an area of pain or low self-esteem. A better person than I would have apologised straight away, ignored the aggression, and let things be.

Please be advised that I am not 'a little girl'. I am a big girl now, with access to lawyers. Let's not do this again.

*I also hope that my blog doesn't get blacklisted for mentioning corpulent male body parts... uh oh...

Monday, 8 September 2008

Gone to the dogs...

Monday. A frustrating day in small town Sevenoaks. Today there were no tiresome offers of freelance jobs to clutter my working day and so I was free to finish off Everything On My To-Do List.

aside: as we all know - and as Radio 4 informs us, repeatedly - Wednesday is Big Bang Day. Scientists at CERN in Switzerland will attempt to reconstruct the beginning of the universe, by making things collide that haven't felt the urge to collide (due to particulate headaches or Top Gear being on at bedtime) for millennia. There is an infinitesimal chance that this will cause the world to implode. At the same time, in another dark corner of Europe, a first-year Polish philology student with an exceptionally quiet social life and no taste for Wyborowa will be in the process of finishing off the final pages of the final book on the first semester reading list.
Do Not Panic! Contrary to popular belief, neither of these two events is liable to bring about the end of the universe...

First up on The List: book eye test (I'm learning to get these things done while in the land of the anglophone). I went into our old local family optician, who have taken care of my myopic Dad and I (and occasionally other, clearer-sighted family members) for years, and booked an appointment. I also bought eye drops, but the minute I got out my Scottish ten-pound note (with 'Sterling' written on it and everything), the woman behind the counter shook her head.

- Oh no. We can't take that.
Me: - Why not? It's from Clydesdale Bank. It's legal tender.
- No. We can't because the bank won't take them from us.

I handed her an English twenty pound note, and - I swear this has never happened to me in the UK before - she couldn't give me change.

- Which bank is it? I asked. 'I'll go over and check with them. Scottish notes are legal currency and they should accept them!'

I marched over the road to Lloyds Bank full of righteous indignation, ready to give the customer services lady a piece of my (admittedly less-than-rational) mind.

- That's strange. She said 'We definitely do take them. But the business itself has the right to refuse them, if they don't have the correct counterfeit detection equipment'
Now I was furious. Not only was I a suspected counterfeiter, but our local family optician had taken up lying to me to avoid taking my counterfeit money! It hurts, Mr Leslie Warren of 82 High Street, Sevenoaks, it really does...

I stormed back to the optician, threw my eye drops onto the counter and cancelled my appointment. Reluctantly, I decided to try Boots. It's so disheartening. Every NGO, every woolly leftie newspaper, every Nice Person tells you to buy organic and to support local businesses and yet these local firms are completely unable to open their minds to accept the rest of the world. We're talking about Scotland, for heaven's sake, not South Ossetia! (now there's a thought. Maybe Alex Salmond and Vladimir Putin are in the process of brokering some sort of liberation deal... 'who's pilfering North Sea oil now, Mrs T? mwah ha ha...' and Russia will officially recognise Scottish independence in time for Hogmanay).
How would these people cope if we were to enter the euro zone?

Incidentally, in Boots, the girl took my ten pound note, showed it to her colleague, put it under a magnifying glass, phoned the central finance department...
I only wish I were that skilled a counterfeiter. Bet it's easier to get into than interpreting.

I don't know why this all bothered me so much. Perhaps because I'm chronically bored at my parents' house with very little work and no disposable income (thanks Career Development Loan - where is this shiny redeveloped career I'm still struggling to pay for? Credit crunch?! Bloody copycats. Being in credit is sooooo nineteen ninety-nine...), and I want someone to shout at.
Perhaps because after living in a beautiful city like Kraków, where you can speak four languages in one day, watch any film, play or concert you like (Sevenoaks can't even keep a cinema open: identikit Giles and Annabelle don't have time after their fourteen-hour days glued to Reuters), and where people are aware that the rest of the world exists and is exciting, it's a little bit galling to be in a closed-up little town where people are suspicious of Scotland. Whatever the SNP might want, right now we're still in the same country! My family are part Scottish, several of us have degrees from Scottish universities, we visit relatives there All the Time and we shouldn't have to change money before going and after coming back simply because Sevenoaks is full of Daily Mail-reading xenophobes!

The second thing on the To-Do list was to pick up this month's Le Monde Diplomatique. See now in sophisticated countries like Germany, Poland - even France are doing better than us on this one - you can pick up international and foreign language newspapers in all town centres. (in Germany you can also get a wide selection in train stations- not just English and French either: I found Polish Newsweek in Saarbruecken Hauptbahnhof). It's not as if Le Monde Diplo is even specifically French: it's an international publication that happens to be written in French, like The Economist happens to be written in English.

I went into WHSmith and waited by the customer services desk. There was no bell, so after about fifteen minutes, I set off the alarm on the stock room door.

- Oh no, sorry. Was the reply. 'There were two independent newsagents that did them, but they've closed down now and it's only us left'.

I appreciate that I've been a pain in the ass all day. But if you lived in a backward country like England, you'd understand my frustration. Why don't we just build a big wall around the coastline and pretend there's no outside world. Could we let me out first please?

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Distraction technique

Just a quick dip into the world of politics to say: John McCain, you sly old thing. Whether you love or loathe Ms Palin (SP is to feminists what Marmite is to ...well... everyone), she's certainly done the trick. Where's the Clinton vs Obama debate now? Two weeks ago, who even bothered thinking about the Republican candidate?

Clever move, Mr McCain, very smart.

ps: anyone else reckon we should get to vote in the US presidential elections? Given that what the Americans do seems to have such an impact on the lives of the rest of us...

Friday, 29 August 2008


I think someone may be interfering with my blog: I had three spam comments about online gambling on the last post and my stats show an abnormal surge in popularity in India (home of the cheap IT department). I'm switching moderation on for the moment. Anyone got any other tips?


Polish products invading my parents' fridge.

Not only did the guy in the shop speak to me In Polish, he even asked me if I had change!


Sunday, 24 August 2008


I know, I know, I haven't written for a long time (and my stats are starting to show it).

While I ponder the purpose of my own existence (if I do actually exist and it's not just memory cells playing tricks on me) and - more importantly - the future of this blog, here are some pictures of Sevenoaks (in case you were wondering):

Saturday, 16 August 2008

W domu dużego brata

Big Brother. It's still going. For the two hundredth season. Yes folks, that's right, in 1808, twelve people selected at random were thrown together in a house for eight weeks in the hope that they would get it on in front of the cameras.

Apparently, some people still watch it, rather than switching the TV off for an hour at 9pm (or changing to BBC, which is not really an improvement these days).

Being in the Big Brother house is rather like living in a student flat in Poland.

No, hear me out: all the girls live in one room, all the boys live piled up in another. The bathroom door doesn't shut properly. Everyone hoards toilet paper. It is impossible to calculate the number of actual occupants (x = y [occupants] + boyfriend A + cousin B - flatmate a(b)/c * PI r squared...). The furniture is made of MDF or plywood. However tight your budget, there's always money for alcohol.

Welcoom to the Big Broover Hoose. Sixteen housemates, one bathroom. Who goes? YOU decide...

Day 1

The housemates arrive. A massive party ensues. Nine bottles of vodka and forty cans of Tyskie are consumed and the fridge is left full of mysterious liqueurs which may or may not have been brewed in dziadek's shed.

Day 2
Housemates A and D (girls) get up early, clean up, and spend the rest of the day looking self-righteous. At 2pm, the boys wake up and sit on the sofa, drinking the remaining beer.

Day 3
A random new housemate arrives. Rumour has it that he is Agnieszka's second cousin, but this remains unconfirmed. The housemates set up an extra mattress in the boys' room.

Day 4
Term has begun in the Structural Design faculty, and the first task has been awarded to one of the housemates: create an interior space with two staircases meeting on a mezzanine floor. Model this in cardboard.
08.55: Housemate D enters kitchen, with cardboard model of room.
08.59: Kettle boils: housemate D -who has been up all night - adds two drops of hot water to 20 grams of instant coffee.
11.20: Housemate A enters kitchen. Housemates D and A hold intense discussion for several minutes. Housemate A takes hold of model, twists it several ways, scratches head, sits down.
11.23: Housemate A makes more coffee.
13.14: Housemates B and C (boys) enter kitchen in underpants. Housemate B takes beer from fridge. They greet A and D, still at the table. More discussion. Housemate C takes the cardboard model.
21.53: There are now nine people in the kitchen. The cardboard model is beginning to look rather the worse for wear. Housemate E (female) enters with Boyfriend A. They greet D. Boyfriend A sits on floor and begins to twist cardboard model.
21.58: Housemate A mixes milk pudding from a packet. Housemates C and B and boyfriend A eat cold frankfurters in plastic. Housemates D and E make porridge.

Day 5
04.17: A loud shriek is heard. Housemate D runs into kitchen, brandishing completed, sellotaped cardboard model. There is private rejoicing.
06.40: Two female housemates get up early and decide to do sit-ups. This sporadic burst of random insanity is never observed more than once in any Big Brother session.


Day 16
02.23: The housemates have now lost all concept of time. Polish winter has fallen and the exterior world is in perpetual darkness, with the exception of a twenty-minute period around lunchtime. Everyone looks at the floor. Someone has left a Coldplay CD playing on 'repeat'.

Day 18
No-one has seen housemates B and C since their Mechanical Economics exam 48 hours ago.

Day 19
Mid-term. Unfortunately, the housemates have failed in their Classic Mime task. Their food budget has been severely restricted. They are reduced to drinking Warka Mocna. The fridge is full of beer cans and free garlic pizza sauce.

Day 21
National holiday. The housemates go home for a week. The next door neighbours break in and use their electricity.

Day 28
The housemates have returned from their holidays to find a message under the door: Big Brother wants to see you in the Diary Room... at 9am...

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Fringe Benefits

It was a damp, drizzly day in Edinburgh. The granite looked even greyer than normal. Sis was texting her boyfriend and I was checking shop façades for Fringe info.

We passed a church.

- Hang on a second: I'm just going in to check the line-up. I said.

I went in and asked the girl sitting behind a table which served as a makeshift box office.

- Sure you can see something: what time?
- Well... now, actually
- There're programmes just in there...

We went through to a room where they were apparently serving tea in the parish hall (not a vicar in sight though). There was a large hatch at one end where two students were perched eating Kitkats and prawn cocktail crisps.

- You know what? I said, emerging from the folds of the programme after several minutes - there is a play on now. And it's a comedy.

We wavered ever so slightly. Should we take a chance, watch a play on impulse, broaden our minds? Or walk on down to Princes Street, spend an hour in Accessorize touching the merchandise and then go for coffee?

- Come on, it's only forty-five minutes!

And that sealed the deal. Five pounds (three pounds fifty for a student) and a mere forty five minutes of our lives and we had not only 'done' the Fringe and improved our minds through culture but also successfully found a way of keeping ourselves occupied during that awkward hour when it's too early for teatime.


And that ought to be the end of this post.

Only... the play was called 'I hate everything'. And it was about all those annoying little things about modern life (like people who listen to their mobile phones on the bus and that tiresome guilty feeling you get when you walk past a tramp).

And you see... there are so many of them:

- When the supermarket cashier says 'I'm closing after him' and points to the guy standing in front of me. This almost exclusively happens to me in Poland (maybe because I'm not a British guy).

- People slightly older than my generation whining about not being able to get a mortgage because of the credit crunch. Aw diddums and welcome to our world. I'd love to shell out on a nice flat but sadly I've got to spend my earnings paying off student loans and funding state pensions for the baby boomer generation.

- Famous people who aren't really famous. It's terrifying that you can be away for just a year and a half and suddenly the magazine racks are full of unfamiliar faces. What on earth is the Dragon's Den? Am I really expected to keep track of all the wives and girlfriends of the England football squad along with their fluctuating body mass indexes? What did Kerry Katona actually do before she started making Asda commercials?

- Headlines in the Daily Mail and people who repeat them in the pub, not realising where they got the idea from. And Express 'campaigns' about issues you didn't even care about: 'Thanks to campaigning by Express readers, local post office/pub in Lower Minging is saved! Now the village's three elderly residents can queue up and complain again, just like in the good old days!'

- Women's fashion that makes you look pregnant. This includes everything at the moment. Who said the Empire line was a good look? And exactly when did the British female cease to have a waist?

- Yoghurt adverts aimed at women. Why do you never see guys talking about feeling bloated and tucking in to a pot of Activia?

- Hair straighteners. It's already straight. And it's just one more thing to worry that you've not switched off when you're already sitting on the bus.

- China winning all the gold medals. It's not fair, there are just more of them...

Wednesday, 13 August 2008


The information age is upon us! Every minute, dozens of kilobytes and thousands of pixels of facts, figures and images are blasted into our brains via every sensory inroad! We learn more useless information in a day than our great-grandfathers learnt throughout the whole of their schooling!

Every day, subtle tendrils of marketing slip tender nuances into our conciousness ... 'buy this' ... 'look like this'... 'love this' ... 'Women! Eat more yoghurt!' ...

Since when did the Whole of Britain become digital? How is it that the five (ok, four) main television channels are now simply animated billboards advertising digital pay-per-view? How can you pick your way through hundreds of sports programmes, dozens of film stations, entire 'man' channels dedicated to Top Gear and Have I Got News For You?

Just when did we become hooked on hours of channel-flipping? How is it that two humble AA batteries are all that stand between human sanity and four hours of the Jeremy Kyle show??

Let us rebel against the information age!! Long live the ear plug! Bring back eye-masks! Deny marketing and publicity! Revolt against digital channel-flipping!!

Vive la revolution!


Editor's note: The author of this blog is at her sister's flat, and can't find the freebox remote.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Auf Deutshe, bitte

I'm in Germany.
The past few days have been packed with linguistic confusion.
From the moment the Pani (Frau?) at the bus stop (wo ist die bushaltestelle bitte?) asked me something and I answered: 'nie wiem... uh... no... crap... ich weiss nicht', I knew it would be disastrous.

It started out well. I bought a beautiful Berlitz phrase book and CD from Borders in Stansted airport (at 6.45am there's not even too much of a queue) and hit the books straight away. With a large cup of coffee.
By the time we landed at Frankfurt-Hahn, I was at least able to ask for a ticket to Saarbruecken. Not bad for a Friday morning. The ticket guy answered by giving me directions, and that's no problem: apart from anything else, it usually consists largely of gesticulation, and how can you go wrong with that?

The bus terminal at Saarbruecken Hauptbahnhof is extremely complicated, with buses in two lanes and trams down the middle (four 'platforms' in all).

I was there for over an hour.

It wasn't even a linguistic problem: I simply couldn't spot my bus (being woken up at 4am doesn't do much for my powers of observation).

Twice I saw the vehicle in question drawing in to land over on the other side of the bus station. I picked up suitcase, computer bag, handbag, waterbottle and passport and legged it across the tram tracks, narrowly missing falling over the steps in the middle platform.

I reached the other side just as it was pulling away.

The second time I made it, presented myself - rather out of breath - at the drivers' doorway, and gasped 'Jugendherberge bitte!'
- You have to go back to the other side.
... said the bus driver, in English.

After another half hour, another six or seven buses which were manifestly not for me, and the company of several different bus stop drunks, I gave up and headed for the taxi rank.

Three days later, my German is only slightly improved: I now know the following:

Ein Weissbier bitte
and 'Ich mochte gern eine Flasche Wasser fur die Dolmetscherin'

The essentials, really.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Scooping the poop

While I'm delighted to be travelling with my beloved canine companion once again

(isn't she pretty?), there are certain - messy- issues which threaten the harmony of our relationship.

Let's take a moment to look at dog owners and their habits in other countries (at least, those that fall under my limited experience).

In France, lots of people own very tiny, mangy little scraps of poodles. When the French mini poodle is hauled out for its daily scamper, the question of comfort breaks doesn't even rear its indiscreet head. One's evening promenade is all about appearances, cherie, and heaven forfend little Milord or Biscuit should disgrace himself in front of the neighbours. As a consequence, you often see these poor creatures desperately trying to hunker over and do what nature intended, while Maman continues to drag them down the trottoir on the end of an extendible lead.

In Poland (at least it seems to me), people in very small flats like to own very big dogs. The principal activity of the Big Polish Dog is to stare out of the window and drool on passers-by.

In the nineteenth century, gardens were cultivated down the centre of the broader, more prestigious streets in Kraków: ul. Dietla and Aleja Słowackiego, for example. These were grassy central reservations, with shrubbery and plant life and so on. It was said that these leafy promenades were created for the health and well-being of the citizens. Actually, they provided a great space for rich Cracovian apartment-dwellers to take uh... 'dobry pies'* out to powder his nose without causing too much embarrassment.

In the UK, local authorities are not so thoughtful. Encouraging little plaques along the pathway helpfully remind you that if your dog leaves a calling card in a public place, you will be subject to A Fine of up to One Thousand Pounds. A good reason to ensure that Rover** went before he came.
In practice, you have to buy a sheaf of little scented plastic bags from the pet shop/supermarket, and watch poor old Rex very carefully whenever he gets that far away look and starts sniffing around at the side of the road.
Please bear in mind: these are special little bags with No Air Holes.

Now. My family has selective hearing when it comes to saving the planet: they do it usually (and quite sensibly) when it coincides with saving them money. For example: they put out recycling bags, because you can use them to get money off the council tax (or something); they walk up into town instead of using the car, but parking fees are a bloody nightmare anyway. And so on.

So, when the spaniel and I go out for our evening constitutional, in the interests of not owing large sums of cash to Sevenoaks District Council, I arm myself with the Tesco bag hanging in the hall (specially packed with pooper scoopers, chewy toys and other exciting goodies for an evening walk).
Not ten minutes down the road and the little mongrel starts to sniff around at the side of the footpath, in an ominous way.
Uh oh.

When all is said and done, she looks up at me proudly and tugs on the lead. Oh no. We're not moving on yet. Now I have to juggle bags and scoopers, all the while holding tightly onto the lead to prevent my kamikaze spaniel from hurling herself out into the main road at the next junction.
Finally I manage to improvise a sort of plastic-bag-over-scooper. Please note. Since - to save the environment - we don't buy extra little bags from the pet shop, this is not an easy task. In the big bag are an assortment of: 1 Virgin Megastore CD bag. A Waterstones A5-size bag. A couple of rather holey polythene vegetable bags from the supermarket. One that looks suspiciously as though it came from a National Trust gift shop. None of them particularly suitable for fitting over a plastic scooper, performing the suave 'inside-out' move and tying in a respectable granny-knot.

Having finally managed to produce a decent and reasonably secure parcel, we move on. But oh no. Our troubles are not over. In the UK, it is widely accepted that small children love nothing better than to put plastic bags over their heads and asphyxiate themselves. So all British plastic bags, no matter how small, feature Tiny Little Holes to let the air in...

* I don't know any Polish dog names...
** Names have been changed to protect identity

Tuesday, 22 July 2008


If you are a single woman aged between 25 and 30, logically, you will want to live in a bustling city centre, where there is plenty of work, plenty of noise after 10pm, plenty of light and movement, and plenty of 24-hour liquor stores for when the company of other single twenty-somethings gets too much for you.

At all costs, you should avoid small, tranquil dormitory towns with a high birth rate and an even higher income bracket.

Like Sevenoaks.

From dawn til dusk, the assault is relentless. The minute you step onto the high street...

.... wham! A straining mass of T-shirt stretched over pregnant belly popping out at all angles!

You keep walking. Pretty smocked tunics flutter over Mummy Gap skinny jeans (with elasticated waistband).
Any shop you enter becomes a feat of navigation (not to mention a politeness contest) as you attempt to sidestep your way around the pushchairs and perambulators blocking the aisles. Do not forget to add a liberal helping of guilt for the resentment you feel towards these poor languishing ladies.
Enormous four-by-fours clog the narrow streets, tiny children perched high up in the vast cabin.
Do not even think about crossing the road.
Particularly if you live on a street with more than one private school.

Sevenoaks is where Giles and Annabelle the Private Wealth specialists come to breed.
Sevenoaks is where energetic sex lives come to die... (their final throes producing young in the Rupert, Zara and Tarquin mould).

Let us picture an innocent scene outside a café. Say, for example, a perfectly common Italian deli-style café serving pickled artichokes and lah-tay* to bored housewives and retired folk.

Two women, with identikit tots squirming on knees, sit sipping skinny latte in the shade.
The waitress arrives:
- Ooh look, Fearghus, here comes your penne rigate!
The child looks suitably excited at the sight of the revolting adult food. At the same moment, another tot - attached to mother's hand - passes, breathes in the heady waft of garlic and sun-dried tomatoes, and says loudly: 'mmmyum, yum!'

Now when I was a child, pasta didn't exist. There was only spaghetti, and you didn't eat it - because it was cold and slidey and clammy - unless it had been spewed out of a tin in a puddle of violent orange sauce.

One would certainly never touch nasty flabby spaghetti snakes if they were doused in pungent garlicky oil and sprinkled with shrivelled bits of charred courgette.

Just what is the world coming to?

*'This isn't latte! This is cappuccino!
Girl behind counter: 'It is latte actually'
Posh customer: 'well I hope you don't mind if I just scoop all this foam off into here then...' (moves to other side of counter and starts to bail foam out of coffee cup into tray of coffee machine)

Monday, 21 July 2008

And all that jazz

Nigel Kennedy, making his Prom comeback big-stylie, is described by the Radio Times as 'a part-time resident of Poland' and part of the 'funky Krakow jazz scene'.

Firstly - I saw only one NK gig advertised in Kraków the whole duration of my stay, and that was a rather sedate concert in the Tempel (or Nowy... I'm not sure - the one on Miodowa, opposite Estery) Synagogue during the Jewish Cultural Festival last year. If he were really deep-rooted in Kraków's jazz scene, he'd be a regular in the cellar at Alchemia. Or in the Jazz Rock Cafe, U Louisa, Piec Art, the karaoke on Grodzka - do add your own. Or giving the Ukrainian accordionists a run for their money outside Kosciół Mariacki. Or even Singing for Fun in Cracow...

But no. One concert in a synagogue... and all beyond the reaches of my measly weekly budget.

As for 'a part-time resident of Poland': part-time my elbow! He's just another Pole-married British bloke who can't work out how to fill in the tax declaration forms ...

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Tuesday, 15 July 2008


- We're still waiting for one or two people...
began the speaker (in French) .. so I'll tell you an amusing little anecdote to get the interpreters warmed up.

Uh oh.

- I'm a farmer, I live in the country, and one day a woman from the city came to visit us. "You'll never guess what I just read in the papers" she said. "There's been an exciting new discovery for beekeepers. It's so clever. They've taught the bees to make the honey... in jars!"

There was a pause.

Silence in the hall.

The speaker stared hard at the tinted glass of my booth.* Why weren't they laughing? Was she broken?

He gave me another puzzled look and continued.

- My nephew - himself a beekeeper - was also sitting nearby. "That's nothing." he replied. "My bees have been doing that for years. Better still: my bees make honey in jars ...

... and
they put the lids on!"

I held my breath and willed the sleepy audience to have just a little giggle.

Faint mirth. Not enough though. The speaker sent a Very Pointed Look in my direction.

- Now I will speak in English.

he said.

- to test the French interpretation...

*It's just me actually - times are hard and English interpreters can put away an awful lot of free food...