Thursday, 22 September 2016

Food and paint

Lola and the chocolate-orange pot
Leamington Food & Drink Festival, September 2016
Another stupendous weekend in the company of Lola II and Mr M, this time at the Leamington Spa Food and Drink Festival 2016. Before they arrived I squeezed in an attendance at Parkrun, deciding not to actually run because of the time it would take out of my schedule (not so much the run but the cleaning up afterwards). My volunteer role was Finish Token Assistant, where I hand the finish tokens to someone else who hands the finish tokens to the runners. Unlike the Token Finnish Assistant who is an unnecessary Scandinavian helper. So that's clear.

Unfortunately Saturday was wet and a bit miserable, but it did mean that there weren't too many people clustered around the Food Festival stalls in the quest for samples. I think we overdid the samples, as usual, mixing sausage with cake with cheese with fancy oil and vinegar with syrup pudding with hot chilli sauce. It all ends up in the same place, but makes for a fairly odd gastric experience. I lunched on an overpriced pancake with maple syrup, which collected in the bottom of the cone and dripped down my coat sleeve. Call me Lola Sticky Hand (and that's not a hand that's like a stick).

Knowing that we would return to the Festival the following day, we had other jobs to do on Saturday. Lola II and Mr M are in the midst of renovation - not to the extent of the LTRP, but they have stolen Ilf who is spending a couple of weeks actually staying in their house while he decorates and fixes various household essentials. Luckily Ilf lives near me and does not have to stay in my house when he works on Lola Towers. Unlike Lola II and Mr M I am not good with visitors, let alone visitors whom I do not know well.

Lola II and Mr M and their possible paint choices
Anyway, there has been much discussion and negotiation about paint colours, and in order to try and resolve the impasse about their choice for their hall and stairs we each chose 2 tester colours from the local Dulux trade shop using vouchers from the Food & Drink Festival Little Book of Vouchers. Because of the difficulty in reaching a decision, I volunteered as intermediary and painted each of the colours plus a few more I had hanging around on lining paper, numbered the samples and Lola II and Mr M rated their choices. Nobody was more surprised than they were that they both chose the same colour as their top choice!

On Sunday we paid a quick visit to a friend of Ilf's to pick up some necessary paint for him, and then back to the Food & Drink Festival. This time we were a bit less enthusiastic with the samples, leaving room for some real food. I had the allium-free vegan option (salad, felafel, houmous, salsa) while Lola II tried hard to resist but went for the most delicious allium-tainted samosa and dip. Mr M met a friend and went round with her so I didn't see his choices. And I'm blaming my week-long self-imposed chocolate restriction, but I bought a huge jar of sponge, chocolate and ganache confection. In my defence I did share it, and even made it last until Tuesday.

Shop assistant surrounded by many shoes
Again we had other jobs to do, and Lola II was after some shoes. The little book of vouchers included 20% off at a local shoe shop, and both I and the shop assistant were 'entertained' for some considerable time by Lola II's attempt to buy shoes. The assistant even tried to sell me some shoes, and persisted despite my clear indication that if he brings me any to try on I may try them on but I'm not going to buy them. Lola II gave him much more to do with different socks, styles and sizes, but achieved her goal in the end. I took a photo of the scene of devastation.

Other notable events of the weekend: the cherry chocolate tart (bad news for the self-imposed chocolate restriction), the disappointing fruity buns, the charcoal cheese, the pork pie and the wood pigeon breasts which are now in the freezer. I hope that the pigeon will be less hassle to cook than the hare that I bought from the same stall two years ago.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Keep Quiet and Carry On

Close up of centre of pink lotus flower
Krakow Botanical Garden, July 2016
There have been a few posts about the insignificant minutiae of my not-very-interesting recent life, and I feel I should address more weighty matters - politics, the NHS, the state of the nation, or at least something new about diabetes. But I seem to have taken a conscious step into the stage of my life that could be described as 'The Apathy Years.' I have probably lived more than half my life and I have no children, which means that I have much less investment in the future than those who wish the world to remain viable for future generations. It's not that I want to bring on the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but I have deliberately become decidedly less vocal about how things should be. This feels very strange, and often takes quite an effort.

For example, meetings. I mentioned a recent meeting which was part of a bigger project that is being 'managed' in a way that I think is very inefficient and likely to be ineffective. But it's not my job to manage the project, and nobody asked me anyway, and I don't understand half of what they're talking about most of the time. In the past I would have been bothered by my lack of knowledge and the inefficiency and poor management and therefore the potentially sub-optimal outcome, now I sit quietly and think 'Oh, well.'  Let it go, let someone else worry about it. If it turns out bad, I'll deal with it. I don't understand it anyway.

Partly this is because of the EU Brexit vote. I voted to Remain and was devastated and astonished and despairing and thunderstruck and furious and disbelieving when I woke up to find that Leave had won. It was like the feeling of reaching for where your wallet should be, and finding it gone, and realising that it isn't that you just put it somewhere else, it really has gone, and now there's all the card cancelling and re-applying for your driving licence and sadness that the lovely photo you kept there has gone and you'll never see it again.

But I've got over it. Yes, I'm still really angry about the result, but here we are and what will be, will be. The UK and the EU and their population may be better off or worse off, and there will probably be a bit of both, and I think we've all learned something about how divisive a referendum can be and how our 'leaders' behave. And the sun will come up tomorrow and there will be another day and we're going to have to get on with it.

This somewhat lackadaisical approach is seeping into all sorts of other places where once I would have stormed and ranted and raised my voice in protest and tried to make a difference to achieve what I thought was 'right', or 'better'. Or at least I might have spoken up to query something that didn't make sense. But now I keep quiet, and it is an effort, but I do it because it makes for a much easier life, and I am older now and I realise that I wasn't particularly successful in changing the world when I was in a job designed specifically to do that, so perhaps I should just take it easy.

Here's another example. People who are unable to take any nourishment by mouth are fed through a tube into the stomach or jejunum, and generally the feed is manufactured to be 'nutritionally complete'. It has become clear that this completeness isn't quite complete, particularly for electrolytes such as sodium and chloride. When this was described in a recent meeting I had to make an effort to refrain from suggesting it might make a lot of sense to add a little salt to the water that is being put down the tube. Let it go.

Another colleague was commenting on the parlous state of the NHS which is now perpetually on the brink of failure and sell-off and privatisation. For example, the retinal screening service in our Trust is now provided by an external company. She suggested that if we are auctioned off we ought to do some sort of management buy-out and take over the shop. Again I kept quiet, thinking that if we are auctioned off it might be a good opportunity for me to retire. I'm getting much better at this 'keeping quiet' business. This must be what it's like to get old.

On the other hand, in the very small zone of 'where I work 90% of the time and the people I work with': the nurse who has been absent for a year has now retired and we are hoping to recruit two new nurses within the next six months. The nurse who has been covering three jobs has done a magnificent job to keep things going, but we are looking forward to being able to do new things with more staff, although it pays to keep a lid on expectations because until contracts are signed there are no guarantees that the nurses we have been promised will actually materialise. But there is the prospect of some new initiatives, and I am looking forward to that.

And then there's the Very Low Carb Lifestyle website. I didn't have to do it and nobody was pressing me for it, although I did include it in my last Personal Development Review (normally you don't get permission to do things unless they're in your PDR). So there is still a little bit of 'wanting to change the world' left inside me. And when a rep from industry came to see us to talk about various projects they are planning, I came over all enthusiastic and suggested that I might contribute to one of them (this is the least likely thing to actually come about). So I haven't yet quite internalised the 'Keep Quiet' approach. Old habits die hard.

P.S. I apologise for invoking the tired phrase 'Keep Calm and Whatever' in the title of this post, but it does reflect what's in the blog post better than most of the blog titles I come up with.

Pink lotus flower

Saturday, 10 September 2016

In which very little indeed happens

Very long dresser with drawers below and jars on shelves above
Pharmacy museum, Krakow
A bonus early blog post today, because I know the weekend's going to be full of stuff so I'd better do this now. However, there is nothing of any particular note to report, just the usual saxophone and clarinet choir on the first Saturday of the month, more slogging in the garden to tame the wisteria, meditation on Tuesdays, Thursday night badminton starting again after the summer, and what is turning into a near-regular Wednesday night pub quiz. And the Great British Bake Off for a few more weeks.

There's been a bit of excitement with postal services - I've agreed to make Lola II another dress and the fabric failed to arrive for ages despite much chasing. I ordered a hard case and a stand for the new baritone saxophone, and there were some difficulties with delivering both of those as well. Luckily I've got helpful neighbours who will accept stupidly large packages, although I had to haul one of the neighbours out in his slippers to move his car from in front of my garage - yes, the car is still going into the garage and I haven't stopped being just a little bit excited every time.

Slightly more interesting were the visit from the architect to draw up plans for the house preparatory to designing the new kitchen, and a Barn Dance. I can't remember having been to a Barn Dance before, but I was almost too tired to enjoy it. It was in a marquee in a field with a fish and chip supper included, and six of us Stripped the Willow and Gay Gordoned along with the natives of Old Milverton until a very late hour.

I've finally started the big Ebay project, which is intended to monetise dad's eclectic collection of postal mechanisation ephemera. Contrarily, I have started with some other random items from the loft so that I get the hang of how it all works and get into the groove of putting things up for auction on a pretty regular basis. It's a project that will probably run for a year at least, so you can expect occasional updates.

At work I have had a slight disagreement with a colleague about what exactly my priorities should be - I was asked to cover a clinic for a colleague at very short notice, which meant I wasn't available for the regular clinic also taking place. The benefit of this contretemps is that there's a chance that my priorities will be assigned formally at last, rather than me having to make my own choices based on nothing more than what I think is the right thing to do.

It's not entirely surprising that my blog audience is not growing given this poor quality of content, although strangely the day after I wrote this my blog audience did indeed increase by one individual - welcome to medusarog! And today there may be another - Parkrun Simon! I like to name check each known reader - I think everyone's had a mention now. If you're reading and I don't know about you (or have forgotten), I'd be delighted to say hello. Welcome to the place where, really, nothing much happens at all, and join the few regular readers in my small circle of family and friends.

Bright corner, dresser and wooden scales
Pharmacy museum, Krakow

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

by Bruce Chatwin
"Kaspar Utz lives in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. He is a collector of Meissen porcelain and finds ways to travel outside the eastern bloc to acquire new pieces. Whilst in the West Utz often considers defecting but he would be unable to take his collection with him and so, a prisoner of his collection, he is unable to leave."
I don't mind saying that I'm not sure what to make of this book. It was perfectly pleasant to read and I thought the story (mostly) made sense, but I finished with the distinct impression that I have utterly missed the point and there was a completely different story being told that I'm simply not bright enough to understand.

Image of the book cover

The Return of Tarzan
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
"Tarzan had renounced his right to the woman he loved, and civilisation held no pleasure for him. After a brief and harrowing period among men, he turned back to the African jungle where he had grown to manhood. It was there he first heard of Opar, the city of gold, left over from fabled Atlantis."
There are a lot of story threads to follow here - Tarzan is associated with all of them, in France and Africa and on a boat and in the jungle and there's Jane and her fiance and her friend and her father... It wasn't bad, I suppose I felt it just went on a bit when you know that he's going to survive and end up with Jane. It took its time but we got there in the end.

Image of the book cover

by Frank Herbert

narrated by Simon Vance and others
"Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, who would become the mysterious man known as Maud'dib. He would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family and would bring to fruition humankind's most ancient and unattainable dream."
This was a performance as much as a narration but it worked so well. The majority of the text was read by one individual, but on occasion the dialogue was voiced by actors, and sometimes there was some underlying 'noise' - not exactly music, more like the sound of a sandstorm outside, or rumbling of something sinister. I think I would have liked the writing anyway, but it was a wonderful way to enhance the words without being distracting or annoying, and I loved it. There are many more books in the 'Dune' family, but I'm not sure I need to read any more than this one.

Image of the book cover

Mr Midshipman Hornblower
by C. S. Forester
"As a seventeen-year-old with a touch of seasickness, young Horatio Hornblower hardly cuts a dash in His Majesty's Navy. Yet from the moment he is ordered to board a French merchant ship in the Bay of Biscay and take command of crew and cargo, he proves his seafaring mettle on the waves."
Comparing this with the first Patrick O'Brian book covering the same historical period, I have to say that this contains far less seafaring detail, more story, but less personality. Both books are great to read, though. I've got a few more in each series, and am looking forward to reading them all.

Image of the book cover

by J. M. Coetzee

narrated by Jack Klaff
"After years teaching Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, David Lurie, middle-aged and twice divorced, has an impulsive affair with a student. Willing to admit his guilt, but refusing to yield to pressure to repent publicly, he resigns and retreats to his daughter Lucy's isolated smallholding."
What makes a good book? This is the question I was pondering as my iPod counted down the hours and minutes to the end of the book and no hint of a resolution seemed to appear. Yes, there was a story, and a very interesting and sometimes gripping one too. There were well-defined characters (mostly unhappy and unpleasant), and there were definitely ideas to stimulate thought. I was baffled by some of it. The narrator was excellent. But what it lacked, and I feel this is true for many 'serious' books I have read recently, is any sort of satisfactory conclusion. Maybe the last chapter is supposed to be taken metaphorically, or perhaps it reflects some greater truth about the events related in the book, which are mostly depressing and grim: the professor's use of prostitutes, his affair with his student and his subsequent dismissal; the attack on his daughter and the theft of belongings and his car, the burglary and ransacking of his house, and so it goes on. I don't need a happy ending with all the plot threads tied up neatly and satisfactorily, but I dislike reaching the last sentence without any idea of what it was all about, what it meant, some hint of a reason why it was written and what difference it makes to anyone, and why it ended there, at that point, in the middle of something, not at the end. The words are not enough; there has to be meaning to it, and I couldn't see any.

Image of the book cover

by Simon Garfield
"In 1856 eighteen-year-old English chemist William Perkin accidentally discovered a way to mass-produce colour. This experimental mishap that produced an odd shade of purple revolutionised fashion, as well as industrial applications of chemistry research."
This could have gone either way. A book on a single subject that I hadn't considered before - previously there have been triumphs (Cod, Gut) but this, despite its potential, didn't pass muster. I think there just wasn't enough interesting material - a guy invented mauve by accident, lots of industrial history follows - who capitalises on the colour, where it led in terms of manufacture and use of dyestuffs, and that's about it. A single issue book, but the issue is industrial chemistry rather than human interest. But if you like industrial chemistry it's probably a real treat.

Image of the book cover

Think Like a Pancreas
by Gary Scheiner
"The book provides the tools to "“think like a pancreas" and successfully master the art and science of matching insulin to the body’s ever-changing needs."
As an book aimed at Type 1's and Type 2's on insulin in the USA, there are some interesting differences between their approach and ours. One is their treatment of fibre - it is subtracted from the total carbohydrate when matching insulin against carbs. Another is the routine use of a drug called 'Symlin' to replace a hormone called amylin which apparently is secreted by pancreatic beta cells, and is therefore missing in people with Type 1 Diabetes. I asked one of our consultants about this, and he'd never heard either of amylin or Symlin, which simply isn't used in this country. Interesting. Lastly, and most importantly, the book is written with the underlying assumption that you're going to be paying for your consultations and your medications and any other equipment such as blood glucose meters and testing strips and ketone sticks or strips and insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitoring (CGM). On the down side this means there may be basic management tools that you can't afford, but on the other hand if you understand how it all works you might get better control by having a wider choice of insulins and having the option to pick the right one for the job in a specific situation. And if you have good insurance you would probably have access to more kit, because for example routine CGM isn't available through the NHS in this country. Overall I think it can't be denied that the existence of the NHS makes the life of a person with diabetes in this country significantly easier, and probably longer.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Long weekend

Pink flower
Krakow Botanic Garden, July 2016
Since the brief flurry of activity my social life has dwindled to its usual state, although I made an exception for Lola II and Mr M's garden party, which was lovely as always.

The long Bank Holiday weekend was extended even further for me given that I don't work on Tuesdays. I started on Friday night by shopping for the week, then making one of the Polish soups that Mr M gave me - chłodnik. It needed Google Translate to work out the extra ingredients needed and the cooking method. I finally finished watching Schindler's List, which took three sittings because of both its length and its intensity. There were a few locations that were recognisable as Krakow.

I had made a bit of progress on the patio weeds before the long weekend, but managed to strain the muscles in my legs and crippled myself for two days. The rest of the weekend contained much, much more work on the patio, which is now fully weeded without further damage to my legs, and the ivy is gone. I wouldn't bet on it being gone for good; it's been astonishingly resilient to everything I've thrown at it. Now I need to return to the wisteria.

I did some more Polish cooking (gołabki since you ask) and watched about three quarters of the opening ceremony from the London 2012 Olympics, only four years late. The only reason I've watched three quarters of it is because it doesn't all fit on one DVD - it goes as far as all the performances about British history and then all the teams coming into the arena, but not as far as the lighting of the Olympic flame. No wonder the Queen didn't look very amused; that will have been about five hours of her life she won't get back even if everyone did love that she agreed to be in the James Bond mini-movie.

There's been a lot of other stuff to do which isn't worth reporting, mostly online research about one financial commitment or another - a joint account, the best mobile phone contract, best buy ISA, hard wheeled case and stand for my baritone saxophone, how best to sell on ebay, and more. Mr M would be proud of me - I've started making use of different offers on various current accounts, but it's making my head hurt a bit.

At work I've presented the website I've created for the Very Low Carb Lifestyle to the relevant Dietitians. They have all been very complimentary about it, which is very pleasing. It can pretty much do without much attention now, except that I hope to put up a new recipe every week or so. This won't be sustainable, so it might have to be once a month to avoid raising expectations. Next will be to introduce it to the new Dietetic Manager and a few potential customers, to see what they think.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Blast from the past

Performers wearing masks in the town square
Krakow street theatre, July 2016
I recently mentioned that Lola II brought me a pile of letters that I'd written in the early 1990's, and I was finding it difficult to read. Most of the content was fairly mundane and I was a bit disappointed to find very little that would be of interest today. In fact, one of the most interesting lines was from a letter of Lola II's that had found its way into the pile. In June 1991 she wrote (about me):
"She's really the official Lola since she was 'my assistant Lola' when we were cleaning the carpet."
So that's definitive evidence of the birth of the Lola, more than 25 years ago.

Another extract from the same period, again from Lola II rather than me, concerns a time when she volunteered for Hospital Radio in Manchester.
"Since I was there last (Hospital Radio) they've perfected a new system. Instead of asking for people to call in and then saying that no-one has called, they now ask people to call in and announce that we've had zillions of calls but no-one has got all 3 questions quite right. Occasionally I would shout out "Oh! the phone, Jenny" to give the impression we were inundated with calls."
The letters I wrote were tinged with anger and depression because of the job I was doing, although I seemed to have a pretty good social life at the same time. One extract that interests me reminds me that I've been an avid reader for a very long time.
"I've been reading a biography of Theodor Herzl, and boy! was he wacky. All those memorials to him in Israel and the general consensus that he was a visionary founding father of the modern state, and in truth he was a completely assimilated Hungarian-born "German" Jew living in Vienna and Paris, whose idea of a Jewish State was formulated as the answer to the problem of Jews not fitting in properly wherever they lived: all fair and good so far. Until you read that the first solution that he came up with was to have them all compulsorily baptized, because then there would be no Jewish religion and therefore no Jewish problem. The Jews would accept it gratefully because they would no longer be persecuted in the places where they were living. And then his negotiations with the Sultan of Turkey, offering to provide him with a nation of accountants in exchange for a tenancy agreement on a bit of land that he owned. Brings one down to earth a bit."
Of great interest to me is a throwaway comment about the terrible trouble I was having with eczema on my hands. This started at school and I had red, raw, itchy patches on my hands for many years. I went to the doctor about it in 1992:
"...he looked things up in his book and found that the steroid cream I'd been using before was based on 'parabens' which is in a special list of Things Which Are Likely To Irritate Sensitive Skin."
I now know that varieties of parabens are one of the two chemical types which definitely cause my problem, but I don't think I picked up on it at this point, or perhaps products didn't have their ingredients listed like they do now. I suffered several more years of painful itchy hands before the penny finally dropped.

This last extract is from a crazy time when PCs were in their infancy and I worked for the NHS in an old and dilapidated building that was regularly burgled. It was demolished not long after my time there. I've written about it before but this is from the letter I wrote home at the time.
"K started work about three weeks ago and is used to a word processor, but the equipment provided for her consisted of one typewriter which didn't work. There were all sorts of high-level and low-level negotiations: F talking to the "Care Group Manager" (whatever that is), D the other secretary talking to the admin manager and so on, all pestering them to supply us with something, if not a permanent machine then at least something on loan. K was going bonkers, and brought in her own personal typerwriter every day (obviously not leaving it on the premises overnight). Eventually I asked if I could join in and I was lucky enough to be the one to whom a computer was entrusted! So I had to go and pick it up (from the main psychiatry site) as a matter of honour, and made all sorts of promises about how of course it was only on loan, and yes we would eventually have to give it back, and yes we could lock it up at night, and other sorts of grovelling. And sure enough, when I passed on how very temporary this was to all the dudes back at Gaskell they smiled knowingly, and winked, and said of course we would give it back; just as soon as we have something to replace it.

"Work is looking decidedly good now that things are moving on my project, and there's nothing proper left to steal that will affect my project (except the computer in my room, which may conceivably disappear one day). The actual conditions of work have been utterly chaotic for as long as I can remember, though. At last we've had the BT men in to remove the system of plastic cups and string that called itself a switchboard and put in something less antique. I wrote about when the video camera was taken and nothing else, and that they cut some wires at the same time: well, one whole corridor had no electricity for over a week. They were conducting their patient appointments by candlelight.

"On another day, there were BT men swarming over the place as usual, including one little red-faced man called A who's worked for BT for 30 years. S the receptionist lost her voice through stress or laryngitis, so we had a temp in to answer the phones. The first thing was when the temp told S about a funny phone call she'd just taken, from the main psychiatry department over the road asking us if we were on fire. Then two fire engines arrived, complete with oxygen gear and the works, and swarms of interested busybodies from psychiatry who'd heard we were on fire and had come over to watch us burn, and security men, and workmen, and all sorts. We told them that as far as we knew we weren't on fire at all, though they were very welcome to check. Meanwhile, little BT A was getting redder and redder, and had to admit that he had a suspicion that he'd caused a short and triggered the alarm. Amid all the confusion and excitement, poor A was on the phone to his boss, saying "Norman? Norman, I'm having a bit of a day..."

"Then last Monday we actually had a working phone system, so there were all the usual BT men (including poor A, who's become almost one of the family now), and two extra sales support ladies here to train us how to use the new system, and of course the glaziers and the maintenance men and the security men and some new unfamiliar faces - some cleaners. This time, the burglars had worked out that unless they broke into the corridor the alarms don't go off, since most of the downstairs rooms don't have movement sensors in them, only the corridors. So they broke three windows, and had a good time in Dr S's room rifling through papers and notes and throwing pot plants about, and a special bonus: loads of blood everywhere because they'd cut themselves getting in. The alarm wasn't triggered at all, so it was discovered late on Sunday when the cleaning supervisor came over to look at the state of the cleaning because of a separate long-running feud with the cleaning department over the way we aren't cleaned. We had a fingerprint man in later too: such interesting visitors."
This is certainly wilder than the situation in the NHS today, but in other letters from the bundle I described meetings that were no different from the one I had this week - no agenda, no minutes, nobody leading, many talking and few listening, and virtually no progress in two hours of directionless discussion full of pointless digression. The main difference is that now I sit quietly and care a lot less about the frustration and futility of it all. In between piping up with "and Dietitians!" every time we aren't mentioned in the context of service delivery, I try and work out how I can write about it here without breaching confidentiality or getting myself into trouble.

Krakow Botanic Gardens, July 2016

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

I have a social life

Yellow flower close up
Paris, April 2016
The trouble with socialising is that it makes me tired. That's pretty much the only disadvantage, so I'm trying to do it a bit more. Matters beyond my control meant that last week I had three evening events on three consecutive days, which was more than I would have liked, but I have survived.

First there was a delayed birthday party for two of us at work, held at the house of the other birthday girl which contains a fully equipped games room with pinball, pool, space invaders, a boxing machine and goodness knows what else. It isn't actually her house; it belongs to her daughter and son-in-law and their three children, but she and her husband live in the annexe. The rest of the family was away on holiday, so we used the games room, ate takeaway curry, and I even had a tour of the house. I can't begin to describe the contents - bling, glamour, expense, and Things Everywhere You Look. Artifacts. Pictures. Murals. It was enormous, extravagant, over-the-top. I can barely manage to maintain Lola Towers; thinking of all the work that would have to go into keeping this mansion in good condition made me slightly faint. It was extraordinary.

The second event was the badminton club BBQ which had been planned for about six months, but on the scheduled day everyone was on holiday or busy and only four players plus one partner were available. So we ditched the BBQ idea and the five of us played pool instead, which was actually great fun. I haven't played pool for many years, but I wasn't too bad at it. All but one of the games I played ended with a foul shot, so I wouldn't say any of us was particularly skillful.

Last was a birthday party held by old friends whom I hadn't seen for some time, with a pirate theme. For a change I put in a bit of effort to create a pirate costume. It was a good do, although I think they suffered from everyone being on holiday in the same way as we did for the BBQ. The live band was tremendous - as the third evening out in a row I would have left well before the end if it hadn't been for the music.

The LTRP has paused briefly, although I'm still trying to make the garden look a bit better. I ordered some perennials (6 random plants of 4 different types for £5) which turned out to be foxglove, lavender, aquilegia and echinacea. They came as tiny plugs and before they all died I've managed to pot them up, They're on the windowsill to see which survive, then they're going into the garden and if they die, they die. It's survival of the fittest out there. [Subsequent note - all the lavender plants seem to have died already.]

The other project I've embarked on is to try and manage the amount of food I'm eating, which has drifted into 'out of control' territory. I spend all day helping other people to manage their intake, coming up with all sorts of plans and ideas, but I can't seem to implement anything sensible for myself. I may or may not write more about this, but it will depend on how successful I am.

That reminds me - I've been working on a website to support people who want to cut their carbohydrate intake to almost nothing (less than 40g carb a day), and it's going really well so far. I've been lucky to have had a bit of time recently to spend on it (because everyone is away on holiday) but I've still got a few more ideas. A few people at work have seen it and they haven't ordered me to take it down, so that's good. There was talk of incorporating it into the main hospital website, but when I initially asked the IT department if they would help they said 'no' so I'm reluctant to relinquish control now that I've done all the work.

Brief car update - since the main dealer pronounced the air conditioning unit to be a terminal case due to stone chip damage, it has been working perfectly. I took it to my usual garage anyway as arranged, and they agreed with me. We concluded that the affair made no sense, commented in a British fashion on the relative uselessness of air conditioning with only one or two warm days a year (although that day happened to be one of them) and I took myself and the car off home.

Moûtiers town square, April 2016

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

I am absurdly delighted about a car in a garage

View of mansion across lake
Compton Verney, July 2016
A few events stand out over the past couple of weeks - my birthday has been and gone without too much fuss, although the presents I was given by Lola II and Mr M are outstanding. I received six different packets of Polish soup, four different nut butters, decaffeinated Darjeeling tea, the piano music for the song 'Let It Go' from the film 'Frozen', and a pack of letters that I wrote to my family in the early 1990's. I've read about half of them, and it's been quite a tense experience. I'm hoping that there might be some suitable material to reproduce in a blog post, but not so far.

Lola II came to visit (and to deliver my presents) and we wandered around Leamington and tried a new lunch venue - a pub called The Drawing Board recently taken over by the same manager who used to run the Red Lion at Hunningham. I'd go again. Lola II went to the optician and we browsed in various shops and ate large slabs of cake before coming back and watching a DVD.

On Sunday we visited Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park and enjoyed most of the collection. We were guided through the Folk Objects and Folk Art, which I think I liked the most - objects and art created by ordinary people rather than professional artists. I am most scornful of a 'sculpture' on the lawn entitled 'Untitled Boulder' which is... a boulder. It isn't even a very interesting-looking boulder. The most that the 'artist' contributed to this 'art' was to decide which way up it should go; he couldn't even be bothered to give it a name. But the rest of the visit was fine.

Room with collection of folk objects
Compton Verney Folk Objects collection
After Lola departed I mowed the lawn and chopped down even more of the garden, and managed to take some of the debris to the tip on Tuesday. And Olf (the garage man) finally completed the work on the garage! The door to the street now has a working lock, and I can now use it as a practical garage. In fact, I have now put the car in it! This is seriously exciting. There is a yellow sign that suggests the road is going to be dug up and resurfaced next week, so parking is likely to be disrupted and having a working garage may be handy.

Car in garage
I cannot begin to explain how exciting this is
Since that happened I've had a bit of a busy spell, not least when I forgot about some patient education I was supposed to be delivering and received a phone call asking where I was. Very embarrassing, and not an experience that I care to repeat. Entirely my fault, too, because it was clearly in my diary. I was only a quarter of an hour late, but still.

And then I went to Carlisle via Manchester where I visited H+B who are as well as can be expected (and thank you very much for lunch and hospitality). I was hosted in Carlisle by H+G whose converted barn is being re-thatched, so I have learned a bit about what that entails (4 weeks, 4 Polish workers, a LOT of money).

Thankfully the weekend weather was glorious, and we walked dogs and went into town to eat at a new Italian restaurant which had been recommended as 'authentic' by a number of people. It was not what we were expecting - in the basement of a converted church, it was a surprise to find it carpeted, with waitresses in smart black outfits and white gloves to deliver the food, which was very tasty. But still, white gloves? Then we danced the night away to Alabama 3 at the most sweaty gig I can remember - Carlisle not being known for its sultry summer weather, the venue really had no way of making things any cooler.

Me and Bill the dachshund asleep on a chair
We'd both walked quite a long way
Then back home via Tebay motorway services (the best in the country) where I bought far too much artisanal goods (meat pie, cheese, crackers, sausage, brownie) and then to Ikea to have a look at their kitchens. And finally on Tuesday a trip to the car dealership so they could diagnose the problem with the air conditioning in my car, which they declared to be terminal. I have made an appointment to get a second opinion from my local garage, but it's not looking good. Thank goodness we only get one or two hot days a year in this country.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

Master and Commander
by Patrick O'Brian
"It is the dawn of the 19th century; Jack Aubrey, a young lieutenant in Nelson's navy, has been promoted to captain, and inherits command of HMS Sophie. A brave and gifted seaman, Aubrey's thirst for adventure and glory is satisfied as he embarks on thrilling battles with his crew."
A very good book that I must have read before, but don't remember at all. Of course I only understand a fraction of the sailing terminology but it doesn't seem to matter - a bit like Shakespeare, the sense of it comes across somehow. I've got some C. S. Forester waiting to be read, and it will be an interesting comparison.

Image of the book cover

The Leopard
by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

narrated by David Horovitch
"The Leopard chronicles the turbulent transformation of the Risorgimento, in the period of Italian Unification. The waning feudal authority of the elegant and stately Prince of Salina is pitted against the materialistic cunning of Don Calogero, in Tomasi's magnificently descriptive memorial to a dying age."
This is one of the classic books I'm reading for my literary education. A bit like the Patrick O'Brian I only understand a fraction of it, but this time because it's all about 19th century Italy, or rather the period around the civil war which somehow united disparate regions into the country that is now Italy. I am now educated, but not much the wiser.

Image of the book cover

Sex & Bowls & Rock & Roll
by Alex Marsh
"Alex Marsh wanted to be a rock star - but it didn't work out. Instead he toiled away in the big city, only to give up his career, move to rural Norfolk and become a househusband. But he isn't a very good one."
The author is a writer whose blog I used to follow until he stopped updating it, presumably so he could write this book. The narrative is a bit difficult to follow because he skips back and forth between various parts of his life, but I rather like his turn of phrase and his utterly childish outlook. And I actually learned a couple of fairly unimportant things about the game of bowls.

Image of the book cover

Coming Up For Air
by George Orwell
"The First World War, eighteen years in insurance, and marriage to the joyless Hilda have been no more than death in life to George Bowling. This and fear of another war take his mind back to the peace of his childhood in a small country town, but his return journey to Lower Binfield brings complete disillusionment."
I read this in the time it took to have lunch in Wieliczka, catch a train to Krakow airport, wait for the plane and fly halfway back to the UK. So it's quite short, and very easy to read, and also rather sad in its depiction of an unhappy man anticipating war and trying but failing to make himself feel better about his unsatisfactory life.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016


King Casimir the Great, carved from salt, July 2016
What a terrific holiday it was, one of the best I've had. Highlights:
  • Spending quality time with Lola II and Mr M
  • A Polish food tour
  • Trips to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps and Wieliczka salt mine
  • Pretty good weather and some cracking thunderstorms
  • The botanic garden (if you like pictures of plants then you'll be happy with the blog header pictures for quite a while)
  • The food!
  • Learning the odd word in Polish. Dziękuję!
We signed up to the food tour first thing - for about £8 each we would be taken to various food outlets and given typical Polish food to sample. Mr M has kindly provided the following report on this section of the holiday.

Mr M here! On our first night, and as the only person who did any non-food related research before the trip, Lola I wisely suggested we should spend our first morning on a food tour.
The tour was run by the free walking tour company, although this was one of their 'paid-for' tours given that we would be trying 10 dishes along the way and, as Dora the guide explained, it would have been very fiddly collecting money at every stop!

The first restaurant was Restauracja Samoobsługowa which was just round the corner from our hostel, and we were offered small cups of Polish cucumber soup (zupa ogórkowa) and a sour rye soup called żurek. Lola II had tried the żurek in a posh tourist place the previous night but this one was much thicker, and contained sausage and was amazing in comparison. We liked this place so much, we returned the next day for breakfast.

We then moved on to a bar the other side of the railway tracks to Pyzystanek Pierogarnia where we tried savoury (Russian) and sweet (blueberry) pierogi and some kompot - a popular Polish soft drink which Lola I & Lola II continued to order throughout the holiday but in my opinion was just like on of those fancy orange squash flavours like 'orange and grapefruit'. The pierogi were good but probably not the food of choice sitting in 30 degree sunshine!

Next was the market and the chance to try gherkins (ogórki kiszona), sauerkraut (kapusta kiszona), two cheeses, two sausages and two different sweets (fudge and chocolate). We were given 10 minutes to wander the food market, and noticed retail differences from the UK, for example Polish onions were sold without the brown skin.
Bigos, and the route of our tour
Next - two kinds of cake including poppy seed cake from patisserie Caiastkarnia Vanilla which we visited again several times. After a short walk we then went deep into the tourist part of the Jewish quarter and a basement of a brasserie (Wręga) for some Hunters Stew (bigos) and bread - and then on to our final stop, a vodka bar where we were forced (!) to try four vodkas: honey, elderflower, plain and quince, which rounded off the official tour (though in my mind, the food tour wasn't completed until we had tried at least four placki (aka latkes)! 

Thanks Mr M! In subsequent forays we consumed more classic Polish fare including cabbage rolls stuffed with barley and meat (gołąbki), buckwheat (kasza) and the potato pancakes (placki) which were Mr M's favourite. In terms of sweet things I tried kremówka, which is like a custard slice, and some more of Lola II's favourite poppyseed cake (makowiec) as well as more ice cream (lody) than I would usually eat in a year.

We ate in a couple of quite fancy places and a couple of basic canteen-style diners where I came perilously close to ordering tripe (flaczki) because it was quite a short word that I would probably be able to remember and reproduce at the till. Luckily someone produced an English menu at the last minute and I switched to something else. The posh meals weren't all that much better than the canteen meals, which cost in the region of £2.50. Our money went a long way.

It wasn't all eating, there was a lot of walking too, and some history. I learned quite a bit about Poland's past, from its founding in the 10th century through the reigns of some imaginatively named kings to its more recent and devastating past in the years 1939-1945, and more recently as it produced the first non-Italian pope for 450 years, and he even came from a communist country. As you walk around a medieval city that feels like many other western European cities, it is easy to forget that it only emerged from communism in 1989. Berlin puts much more of its divided past on show.

We joined walking tours of the old town and of Kraków's Jewish past - we were staying in a hostel on the main square in the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz), and on the Jewish tour we crossed the river to the site of the Ghetto in Podgórze. There is a memorial consisting of sculptures of chairs in the square where selection took place for deportation and from where the trains set off for concentration and extermination camps. Oskar Schindler's factory is here and now contains a museum devoted to Kraków's history during the Second World War with only a very small exhibit about Schindler himself, who turns out to have been quite an unpleasant man. No matter, he saved lives and deserves credit for that.

The visit to Auschwitz made less of an impression on me than I was expecting. It was very orderly, highly choreographed, as I suppose it had to be given the number of visitors that are marshalled through the site. Our guide was a painfully thin young woman who recited her script with a suitably deadpan attitude, but she occasionally picked out one of the group and aimed her speech directly between their eyes. Mr M reported this as being very uncomfortable. I was mostly preoccupied with her obviously malnourished state and wondered distractedly throughout the tour whether this job of relating the worst atrocities imaginable on a daily basis was damaging her health.

Auschwitz is a small camp and now contains exhibits on different aspects of life in its restored brick buildings. Birkenau was built a year or two later as a concentration and extermination camp and contains the remains of gas chambers and crematoria, and is much bigger but has only been minimally restored. It was a hot day when we were there, and the whole trip felt unreal, like a visit to a film set. I remember being much more disturbed and moved by the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem and another holocaust museum in Israel founded by survivors (Beit Lochamei HaGetaot/Ghetto Fighters' House). Whether the Israeli monuments were more skilled at manipulating emotion or did in fact have more of an impact factor I can't say, but I was also much younger and perhaps more impressionable.

One of the large halls inside the salt mine

Chandelier made from rock salt
I had about a day and a half on my own after Lola II and Mr M caught their flight home, so that's when I went to Kraków's botanic garden and the nearby salt mine, which dates back to the 13th century and is inconceivably enormous. Tours are taken round a teeny tiny fraction of the tunnels on three of the nine levels within the mine, and I noticed that they count visitors in and out very carefully. They only stopped extracting salt in 2007, but I'm sure the mine still pays for itself with the numbers of tourist visitors.

The abiding memory of the trip, apart from the culinary delights, was constantly being faced with the choices that were made during the dark days of the Second World War by the residents of Kraków, Jew and non-Jew. If we were faced with those dilemmas, the deprivation, the humiliation, the choice between death or dishonour, what would we have done? How would we have behaved? Would we have fought, hidden, surrendered, dissembled, betrayed others, been brave and strong or craven and weak? Would we have died of starvation, of violence, of disease, or perhaps survived? I think the conclusion that we arrived at was that there is no way of knowing unless it happens. And cling to the hope that we will never be forced to find out.

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