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.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

My 250th blogaversary

Interesting variety of mushrooms
Borough Market, May 2016
Bless me, for I have sinned, It's been two weeks, but I can't help it. I was on holiday last week, and the week before that was all full of stuff and I didn't get my usual Tuesday off and I was getting ready to go on holiday and it was all a bit much. But this is my 250th post on this blog, and I'd like to make it a good one. (The other blog, Student Lola Life, had 531 in about the same length of time, but I had more time on my hands back then. And some of the posts were really short.)

Unfortunately, if I want to finish this before it's three weeks since my last post it will have to be pretty short because I really have a lot to do, unlike usually when I just have a lot to do. Although one of the things on my To Do list is to publish my 250th post on this blog.

In the week before holiday I went to badminton, meditation, work - I delivered one and a half lots of patient education as well as usual consultations. And got ready to go away, notably addressing the issue of taking hand luggage only, which I've never done before and wasn't sure if I'd be able to squeeze everything in that I needed. But it was fine, and it was a great holiday, and I have 147 photos, and I went to a botanical garden so there are rather a lot of pictures of plants which no doubt will appear on here for months.

Since coming back I have performed at our end-of-term concert playing the clarinet and the wonderful baritone saxophone - not well, but satisfactorily, even when my music blew away during our one baritone saxophone solo. And I'm regaining some skillz on the clarinet, unless that's just the contrast between the effort and bulkiness of the sax and the petite familiarity of the clarinet.

Much to celebrate then, in this 250th blog post, but I've really got to go and deal with the drains, and tackle all the letters and emails that have accumulated, and you should see the garden! They tell me it rained while I was away, but I could have guessed. You can hardly tell I'd pruned that blasted wisteria just a couple of weeks ago.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Gradually getting older

Close up of purple daisy with yellow centr
June 2016
The narrative of my mundane existence has been interrupted with the academic treatise about exercise and Type 1 Diabetes, but rest assured there is still excitement going on behind the curtain. I'm breaking down the fourth wall for you, go ahead, take a peek at the state of my life, and don't forget to be thankful for your own.

I have recently been incredibly unenthusiastic about running and have thought seriously on more than one occasion how nice it would be to retire. Not that I dislike my job, I reckon by previous experience it will be another five years or so before I start getting bored and then I'll be closer to 60 than 50. When I was growing up, retirement age for women was 60 - although back then 60 was an incomprehensible age, and has only become solid and tangible in the last couple of years. State retirement age for people of my age is at least 66 now, and I expect it will be 70 by the time I get there. But I digress - I have just been a bit more tired than usual, less motivated to get moving. I hope it's a phase that will pass.

It's possible that some of the lower energy levels relate to the effort of the LTRP, which I have been shoving forward inch by reluctant inch. Olf returned to work on the garage and the roof is now done, but he had a lot more trouble with the lock, and has gone away again to think about it. Ilf also returned and did a couple more jobs, and now we have to wait for me to empty the loft so he can do the electric lights in the room below, and for him to find some suitable wood to make a little house for the outside tap to keep it insulated and warm in the winter.

I have spent a tiresome afternoon up a ladder in the garden trimming the wisteria, after watching Alan Titchmarsh and another fellow on YouTube showing me how to do it. As I reached the top of the ladder I discovered that my neglect over the past few years has resulted in the wisteria making a bid for freedom and heading off for at least 10 meters along the wall between the gardens behind mine. To think I used to worry about killing plants in my garden. I've probably got another two carloads of vegetation to take to the tip, and the grass badly needs mowing again, but the rain has been fairly persistent.

Purple foxglove
Surprise foxglove
I have had a lovely crop of unexpected plants this year, all self-seeded. I don't know what most of them are, but the cornflowers are doing well and a surprise foxglove has appeared. The rest are 'pink flower', 'yellow flower', 'blue flower' etc. Last year I had an aquilegia (I think) but I may have damaged it too much for it to reappear. There's actually a strawberry plant growing between bricks in the paved area, but I'm not prepared to spare the weedkiller even for a strawberry plant. I have also declared war on ivy. It will not be allowed to re-emerge in my garden ever again. Sometimes I think I would like to grow plants of my choosing, like poppies and hollyhocks, but it doesn't look like that will happen any time soon.

Some paving reappears
I have also escalated the LTRP by contacting two architectural designers - I think that's the kind of job title they use - to come and have a look at the kitchen, living room and stairs in order to recommend how things might be altered. The first one came one week and the second one came a week later. We talked about the kitchen, which was fairly straightforward, then we talked about the living room and stairs, which was rather problematic, and when we reached the subject of heating/insulation my head exploded. Too much, too complicated, couldn't cope. So it looks as though the kitchen redesign could happen, the stairs may have to stay as they are but may change, and there ain't nothin' goin' to happen 'bout the cold, cold house. At least not in the near future. Unless I wear a diving helmet for head protection while talking to the second architect.

The loft emptying project proceeds slowly with a couple of boxes of books at a time along with some of the redundant paperwork that has bafflingly been stored up there. I have also given away the trampoline. This was a bit more difficult emotionally, but I look back fondly on its value during exam revision and accept that I'm unlikely to erect it again. I advertised it on Streetlife (which I have mentioned before) and had a most intriguing selection of people who were interested. I sifted through them trying to evaluate who was most worthy, but my first choice of recipient very weirdly decided that if it was stored in the loft then it couldn't possibly be big enough for their child because if it were then it wouldn't fit through the hatch. I responded to say it's a kit and you have to assemble it, but they weren't having any of it, even when I said that you can get quite long poles through a loft hatch as long as you don't try to fit them through sideways. The second potential recipient didn't respond at all, but the third collected it as agreed and gave me a bunch of flowers, which made the transaction rather pleasant.

I have continued going to the Buddhist group, and I'm still enjoying the meditation and the tea break, but the discussions are more difficult. Actually, even the meditation was difficult when we had a guest leader who extended the duration to 40 minutes. Another inexperienced meditator agreed with me that this was pretty heavy going. The discussions focus on some aspect of Buddhist practice, and I struggle to translate the concepts into something I recognise and then struggle further to establish how the information might be helpful in any way. I'm just not cut out for abstract thought, let alone philosophy. But I quite like sitting quietly trying to extend goodwill to my fellow humans.

I have had an interesting time trying to arrange for my saxophones to be serviced - one independent chap was recommended so I sent an email, left a telephone message and sent a text and received no response whatsoever. So I phoned a shop and spoke to a delightful woman who thinks she might be able to service the tenor sax in a single day and have a look at the baritone as well. The downside is that I have to spend a day in Birmingham, but I'm sure I'll find plenty there to keep me busy.

Lastly, I went down to Bristol for a weekend because an old friend who plays in a band had a gig and another old friend who knows us both suggested we meet up there. I stayed in a lovely room courtesy of Airbnb, met the friends, went to the gig and came home via the falconry centre where despite the weather looking very promising the birds declined to put on much of a show.

I can't let this opportunity go by without mentioning the referendum. So there, I've mentioned it, let's move on and see what the future holds.

Foxglove close up

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