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...

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Po Ukrainsku

Much as I love Poland, recent events have engendered a certain curiosity about the lands further east. Ukraine is a big country to the east of Poland. In Kiev there is a Great Gate. Also it is the name of a type of frozen chicken with breadcrumbs on the outside and garlic butter on the inside. And you should never talk about the Ukraine because it means 'the end bit' and Ukrainian people will be offended.

That is the extent of my knowledge about Ukraine before last week.

Here are a few new things I have learnt about Ukrainian culture over the past week and a half:

- Speaking Polish loudly and slowly is not the same as speaking Ukrainian, and no-one is going to be impressed (or pretend to understand you).
- Ukrainian pierogi are not as nice as Polish ones (sorry). Interestingly, the cream cheese goes on the outside. It's very confusing. Not to mention sticky.
- Ukrainian national dances are awesome. I was able to get my yearly Slavic wedding dance fix without going east of Geneva. Plus I got to have another go and the Ukrainian man-snatching dance, and managed to stay on the appropriate side of the gender gap this time.
- You can stand a knife up in borscht. Whereas you could probably swim in a bowl of barszcz.
- Ukrainians - and indeed any other non-Polish Slavic people - are Not Interested when you rave about how great Poland is. Although we managed to find common ground over kwas chlebowy (which is probably not spelt like that in Ukrainian).
- It is possible to turn a Swiss traditional brass band concert in the mountains into a Slavic wedding dance...

I realise there are some gaps in my knowledge. Must do something about that...

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The Flower Lady

At dinner, a sedate-looking British lady of a certain age sat down with us. Her badge read 'Flowers/organisation'.

Now flower-arranging is not necessarily the basis for exciting dinner-table chat (I've never been a gardener - I suppose because I've never had anything more complicated than my flatmate's basil plant to tend), but different things make different people tick, and it's good to keep an open mind.

Soon the conversation was in full swing.

- After retiring - continued our new friend - my husband and I joined the BESO. That's British Executive Service Overseas. It's rather like the VSO actually, but for geriatrics.

- After some time, we were posted to Swaziland. I went to the local girls' school and volunteered to teach biology for free. The headmistress nearly kissed me.
Now, one day I decided to teach the girls about the eye. Normally in England, I would go to the butcher's and ask for a spare bag of bull's eyes for dissection.

There was a pause while the other girls politely made the appropriate squealing noises.

- I went to the local butcher and asked him for a bag of eyes. The next day, to my delight, he produced a huge parcel.

- Of course, he'd only gone and given me the entire head!

She courteously waiting for us to finish squirming before delivering the punchline:

- Luckily, I had my nail scissors handy...

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Sucré Coeur

In Swiss churches they give you brioche for communion!!

It's hard to feel Serious Reverence For The Almighty when all you can think about is how a dollop of apricot jam would go just nicely...

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Brief résumé

Well, I'm touching base for all of about another four hours before jetting off again ('another suitcase in another hall...' etc.).
Here are some of the cool things I would have blogged about it greater detail if I'd had full-time internet access (sigh).

- Bastille fruit and vegetable market: this takes place on a Sunday morning and, by law, stallholders have to stop trading at 2pm. This means that if you oversleep you end up racing between empty crates to brave the crowds, with tell-tale flakes of a hastily-eaten pain au chocolat clinging to the front of your t-shirt. You'll push your way through a whole spectrum of middle-class white Parisians only to have the desperate fruit-seller thrust two crates of steadily softening pears into your arms for a paltry two euros.

- Learning Spanish: this weekend I hung out with Spanish interpreters (rather than Polish ones - not that I don't still love you guys... particularly if you're still reading me...).
I speak French and Italian but I've never learnt Spanish and there's really no excuse, especially since the other Brits there were fluent hispanophones. So I asked one of the girls, over sushi, to write down some handy Spanish phrases for me, not least:
No tengo cambio (I don't have change)
?Has estado en Polonia? (Have you ever been to Poland?)
?Que coche tienes? ?Me llevas? ('what kind of car do you have? Can I have a lift?)
and finally:
Eso no lo hacemos en mi cultura (we don't do that in my culture)

- Brussels ex-pat women's rugby team. They can hold their G&T. I can't.

- Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Any time I go to Paris I find all these quirky, cute, French things to write about, à la Amelie Poulain, and then I go home by plane and just end up ranting about the airport. I do have a point though. Terminal 2 is shaped like a very long, narrow, extended kidney-bean. It is divided down the middle into two very narrow slices, with departures on one side and check-in on the other. The check-in desks are cunningly hidden behind the last-minute ticket sales desks, you have to go through passport control At Least three times, there is only One Place to buy sandwiches in the departure lounge for gates 25-34 (and it's packed out with sweaty Brits) and there are no loos beyond security at the gate (you have to go through a separate security check for each gate).
On the plus side, I discovered that I can throw awantury in French without having to worry about case declensions.
I have a lot of work to do on my karma now.

- The mortification of stepping off the plane, slipping my jacket on for the first time in over a week, and discovering that I was Dressed From Head to Toe In Beige. Like a big toffee.
Even Paris could do nothing for my style: I'll have to bite the bullet and go shopping with my sister. Gulp.

- Plus I have half a sketch book of interpreting cartoons...