Things I miss

It has been over a year now since I last published anything on my English blog.  Nowadays I do not write much on my Polish one, either, but at least I try to put something on there every now and then.

Today’s piece has been prompted by my realising that there are things I miss about England, brought about by my sudden craving for sage and onion stuffing – more on that later.  I visit London every 6 to 8 weeks, which up to very recently  was mainly on work matters, but now it is purely social.

When I went in late November 2015, I came out of the terminal at Luton Airport and it was like a breath of fresh air: people of all shapes, sizes and skin colours milling about the place without sneering at one another or shying away from close proximity, just normal people going about their everyday business without hindrance or judgement from others.  It brought a smile to my face and made me feel truly at home.  I dare say I would not have remarked upon such normal behaviour, had it not been for the xenophobic and racist attitudes I have seen in Poland recently in response to the flooding into Europe of masses of refugees from war-torn Syria and other poor countries. On the one hand, I can understand such attitudes exhibited by a nation that has little knowledge or experience of other races, cultures and religions at home, but on the other hand, Poles are Christians and in that spirit should see the refugees simply as people in need of help, to which the Pope is urging them.  This is a potential subject for a heated discussion so I am not going to delve any deeper here.

I am going to play safe and stick to non-controversial things such as food.  I never thought I would miss English cuisine, but I do:  a few of my favourite things are just not done as well (or not done at all) in Poland.

1)      Fish and chips.  OK, we have fish in Poland and it can be fantastic, but nothing we do here compares, it is just not the same.  The quality of the cod (big, thick fillets) and the batter are what make this dish special and I have never seen it reproduced successfully anywhere else.  Even in England the trendier and more expensive restaurants that aspire to be fish & chips places simply do not measure up to the high street outfit, they just make it too fancy and high cuisine, which kind of misses the point.

2)      The Sunday roast.  Most often enjoyed in pubs or at family gatherings, this very English meal  usually consists of thinly sliced roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and boiled Brussel sprouts, carrots and cauliflower,  with lashings of meat gravy.  Alternatively, the roast can be pork and then apple sauce is added, or a lamb roast with mint sauce (which I hate, the sauce of course).  Many restaurants have a “carvery” for Sunday lunch (or Sunday dinner, if you are working class) where the roast is cut in front of you to your requirements.  A brilliant British invention!

3)      Lamb.  You can get lamb in Poland, but it is not at all comparable to the beautiful English or New Zealand lamb you get in Sainsbury’s.   It is very expensive and either too young, with pink meat that resembles that of a rabbit or red meat that tastes of mutton.  Lamb chops are not too bad, if they are red enough, but you cannot get a tasty shoulder of lamb, a cut that I often used to roast in vegetables.

4)      Chinese food.  In my town, where there are at least 150 restaurants, there is not a proper Chinese one, where you could get a good sweet & sour chicken, sesame toast or roast duck pancakes with spring onions and plum sauce.  I miss those dishes, we used to have them once a week at our local Chinese and they were brilliant!

5)      A great curry.  I love a good curry and so I have tried the two curry places in our town – disastrous!  One served every dish with the same tomato sauce and the other offered lots of original dishes, e.g., samosas, pakoras, onion bhajis, etc., but made them with the wrong flour and fat, so they tasted nothing like they should.   Now I make my own.

6)      Parsnips.  Oh, how I miss them!  They look like large parsley roots, but taste like a cross between parsley and carrot and are fantastic when roasted with your meat joint.  I think they are grown in Poland, but only as cattle feed – what a shame!

7)       Sage and onion stuffing. When living in England, I used to buy sage-and-onion stuffed chicken or shoulder of pork to roast and they were great.  The other day I decided to do my own chicken with the stuffing:  it was not perfect, a bit too soggy, but very tasty. I will do better next time, because I now know what had gone wrong.

8)      Meat pies.  Wonderful heart-warming dishes that you really crave in the winter months, they consist of a pastry casing filled with a meat stew.  The pastry can be a closed pocket of short crust pastry or a flaky French pastry lid on top of the meat stew, but both are remarkably palatable.  The filling can be a beef stew, sometimes with sliced kidneys and/or beer, or any take on chicken stew – for example, with mushrooms or bacon or leek. Cooked in the oven and served with boiled vegetables on the side, pies make a very agreeable meal.

9)      Trifle. This fantastic British invention is a desert  traditionally made with sherry-soaked sponge cake as the bottom layer, a red fruit jelly with large fruit pieces in it as the next layer and a fragrant vanilla custard coat as the last layer. Sometimes there is whipped cream on top and a sprinkling of toasted almond flakes.  Absolutely delicious!  I have been known to decline eating in a restaurant that did not have it on the menu.

10)   Last but not least, the inimitable English breakfast.  Possibly not the healthiest dish on earth, but one to die for, consisting of a fry-up of egg, crispy bacon, sausage, tomatoes, often also mushrooms and slices of black pudding, with a dollop of baked beans on the side, additionally accompanied by toast, fried bread or hash browns (none of which I ever eat, because they fill me up too much).  The quality of the sausage and black pudding make all the difference and they tend to be much better in the north of England than in the south.

You may have gathered by now that I am a foodie, but in my book this is nothing to be ashamed of.

Cooking with gas

In England, the expression “cooking with gas” is used as a metaphor for things going well, for example, when someone proposes an effective solution to a problem, others may well comment, “now we’re cooking with gas”.

Taken literally, it means cooking on a gas rather than an electric stove, which, to me and lots of experienced cooks, is a must.

I remember the electric cooker in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, where I often had to prepare meals without the benefit of any experience with electric cookers. It was a very old cooker, with solid plates that took ages to warm up or cool down, so cooking on them was a real challenge that sometimes made me despair. Yet I survived, but I vowed never to use an electric cooker in my own kitchen.

This was not to be: when we were leaving England, we bought a tiny flat that had no gas, so the cooker had to be electric.  I bought a “state of the art” cooker and installed it there, but soon found that even the strongest cooking rings never reached the temperature you could achieve with gas.  I’m OK with it now, especially as I do not cook a lot there, but in my flat in Poland I have installed a proper gas hob.

Lady of the house

Here and now, back in Poland, I could easily adopt the role of the lady of the house, if it were not for the, all too frequent, interruptions caused by work. I could lord it (or may be lady it) in my beautiful and colour-crazy gardenette (I shy away from calling it a garden because of its diminutive size). I could give elegant dinner parties for 12 people (the size of my classic dinner set) or tea/coffee and cake for 10 (the size of my antique tea/coffee set) without batting an eyelid. Crockery apart, I am a reasonable cook, so the food would be edible and I could probably manage some suitable wine, too.
Unlike Hyacinth Bucket, pronounced “bouquet”, I would not be able to invite the vicar: firstly, there are no vicars in Poland, and secondly, I am not acquainted with any clerics at all. Nor do I wish to be: the priests in my nearest church in town are rather mediocre and those at the church I go to when I am staying at my Mum’s are only a little better, but at least more human. I like the parish priest there – he seems to be wise and pleasant, very unlike the one at the church my mother used to frequent at a village 3 km away from her house: he was bitter and not too intelligent, although he had a PhD in something. It seemed to me that he believed in shouting at his congregation, as if that was going to be the answer to everything. Anyway, he is no more, at least for the moment: after a recent bout of drunkenness, he was sent off to the bishop who promptly expedited him to a treatment place.
On a completely different and totally unconnected subject, I made my first houmous today and it turned out OK, it tasted just right (the recipe can be supplied on request). I love houmous, every time I visit England I buy and eat it, and now I have made it myself, here in Poland!

Publish and be damned!

I write my blogs at night and often publish them immediately. However, there are occasions when I consider that what I have written is controversial or is lame stylistically and then I leave the piece ‘til the following day, so that I can look at it with fresh eyes.
Lately, I have not written much in Polish and much less in English – there just was not the time, I have been so busy with work (in my retirement!). My Polish blog has a few followers, which pleases me no end, but this one is very lonely. I do not mind, I am only writing it for myself and if anybody else happens to read it, then that is a bonus.

Spider business

I feel like a spider that is sitting in the centre of its web, watching out for any interference in any area of the web.  I have a purpose in building the web and, in order to succeed in my plans, I have to be in control of it at all times.  However, that is where the similarities between me and the spider end.  When anything tweaks a string of the web, the spider reacts by running to the location of the disturbance to check it out, because, in most cases, it means a juicy meal.  When I sense a tweak on the web, I have to run to the location of the disturbance to check it out, but then I need to either support the perpetrator of the tweak or put him/her on the right track, if they have strayed.

I believe that what I am doing is known, in human terms, as project management.

This is what has prevented me, over the last three months, from being able to participate in the blog or, indeed, from having any social interaction.

Battle for survival

At  the last place we had lived in in England, a nice house on the Western edge of London with a large garden, I was trying my hand at ‘growing my own’, and a pretty frustrating business it turned out to be.

Soon after moving in, I had planted a cherry tree that was supposed to give nice, yellow cherries with a red flush and not grow too tall. I looked after it well and it grew healthily.  After a few years, the tree started producing fruit, but could I eat it?  Hell, no!  In the first year of fruiting, I managed to harvest four beautiful cherries: the rest were had by huge flocks of starlings which, incidentally, were causing serious problems at the nearby RAF airport, because they would flock over planes that had their engines running in preparation for take-off and would get sucked into them.  ‘Right’, I thought, ‘next time I will be prepared for them!’

The following spring I equipped the tree with a great number of CD disks hung on strings from its branches that swivelled nicely in the breeze, sending glittering reflections all over the tree and its surroundings.  Did it bother the starlings?  Not at all, they came and consumed all the cherries even before they turned colour.

The year after I tried a large, helium-filled balloon that was tied to the tree-trunk and readily moved above it at the slightest provocation from the wind.  That did not scare them away, either.  Neither did the kite in the shape of a hawk that I tried the following season.  After that, I decided that it was easier to buy my cherries than to grow my own.

I also tried growing edible sunflowers, as I love the look of them and am addicted to eating the seeds.  That was another fiasco: I put the seeds in rich soil, the sunflowers grew tall  and produced gorgeous heads of seeds, but, one day, before the seeds had a chance to ripen, I saw from my study window that the  plants were moving unnaturally, nothing to do with the wind.  The culprits were gray squirrels which look like rats with bushy tails and which are abundant in England.  They had effectively consumed my entire sunflower plantation before I could do anything about it.

However, I did manage to grow and harvest some redcurrants, but not whitecurrants.  I had planted a few plants of each and, but, as the whitecurrants ripen a bit earlier than the red, I never managed to harvest any, because they were gone before I caught on. The shrubs were of a manageable size, so, to protect the fruit from predators,  I constructed a frame out of bamboo sticks tied with string  and covered it with plastic netting, which saved my redcurrants, but killed a wood pigeon that got entangled in the netting.

I had also planted a miniature, late-fruiting,  apple tree.  In its first fruiting season, it had only a few apples, but in the following years the numbers grew.  The apples were absolutely delicious: tasty, very crisp and juicy.  I managed to harvest most of them, but one year the whole crop mysteriously disappeared overnight, just the night before I was going to pick them.

I also had an old Victoria plum tree that was there before we moved in. It was sick, but very prolific, so the amount of healthy plums satisfied my needs for jam-making and fed any birds that had an interest.

One crop that seemed to matter little to anybody but me (except snails, perhaps) was dwarf green beans.  I grew them successfully over two seasons, and they were absolutely delicious!

Blogging friends

It is amazing how quickly you can make friends on a blog platform:  all you need to do is comment on somebody’s blog nicely and they repay you by visiting your blog and then by becoming a regular reader.  After a few exchanges of comments, you start feeling close to your respondents – as if you have been friends with them for years.  This is definitely a nice experience and I guess it might mean a lot to very shy people who would not dream of starting a conversation with a stranger.

I am a relative novice to blogging, having done it for only 6 months, but I find that it is, on the whole, a very friendly social medium.  Of course, if you blog, you have to expect some nasty attacks from all sorts of fanatical, disturbed, or only frustrated, people who will use commenting on your blog as a channel for venting their anger and taking their frustration out on you, and there is nothing you can do about it other than bin their comments before they appear on your blog. However, not publishing such comments will not undo the unpleasant feeling you got on reading them when they came up for your approval in the automatic, system-generated e-mail. Fortunately, I have not experienced any such attacks so far, perhaps because I tend not to write about politics or other controversial subjects, but I have seen plenty on other people’s blogs. Just in case I get any, I have decided not to take them to heart or allow myself to engage in an exchange of views with such people, but let us wait and see!

Since I started blogging, I have made two good friends: both have turned out to be writers as one has published a book (which I have read and enjoyed) and the other keeps winning prizes for writing short stories and competition pieces.  Both are very interesting people and I follow their blogs closely.  For some unfathomable reason (as I do not pretend or aspire to be a writer) both have also got interested in my blogs,  visit them frequently and send me appropriate and empathetic comments.

I am enjoying this and long may it last!

My dogs

What do I write about when I have nothing to write about?  My dogs, of course.

My dog, a 10-year old almost-Labrador, was really happy on Sunday afternoon at my Mum’s place, because the weather was gorgeous and, what is more, there were people in the garden and things were happening, which, for him, was miles more interesting than just being let out on his own. And things were indeed going on:  my brother was servicing the little tractor lawnmower to prepare it for the grass-cutting season, my husband was riding his scooter for the first time this year and my sister-in-law and I were doing things in the garden, so there were many opportunities for him to participate (read: make mischief),  his favourite occupation.  He was darting around with a big smile on his face, until he eventually got hot and tired and went off to lie down in the shade. Meanwhile, my other dog, a 12-year old German Shepherd/collie bitch, behaved much more sedately and limped around the garden as best as she could – she has arthritis and is a bit stiff.  She never makes any mischief!

This time, the lad did not get to steal anything, but he enjoyed himself, all the same.  I am sure that the stealing is about drawing attention to himself: he wants to be noticed, so, whenever an opportunity arises, he pinches things that you are working with, such as your mop, screwdriver, gardening gloves or packets of seeds.  The other day, when I was planting newly purchased begonia corms in tubs on the terrace, he had got his teeth and paws into the packet and had managed to knock out a shoot or two before I rescued the rest.  He also got involved in cleaning out the hedge on the terrace: I was removing dead wood and other debris from it and trying to put it all in a bag, but he kept nicking the bigger sticks and breaking them up into pieces all over the place, so I had to go and collect them up afterwards (well, most of them, because he had eaten some).  My baby adores ‘helping’ with anything you happen to be doing!

At one time, when I was still living in England and growing salad ingredients in two small beds in my garden, he ably assisted me in picking radishes.  I was pulling out the bigger ones and putting them on a pile behind me, when I noticed that the pile was not getting any bigger, something that you would be justified to expect as the work progressed.  That was when I had discovered that he liked radishes; he kept quietly nicking them, one by one, from my harvested pile, to carry them off and consume in peace at a safe distance from me. While watching me at work, he also learned where I was getting those tasty radishes from, so afterwards he was able to help himself whenever he felt like it.  The same thing happened with my sweet, crunchy and sun-warmed garden peas:  he just picked them off the plants himself, without waiting for me to give him some.  N.B.  This kind of behaviour is not uncommon in dogs, they stopped being carnivorous a long time ago and like fruit and vegetables.  I remember how one of my Mum’s dogs used to pick raspberries after he had seen her do it.

My poor old girl gets less attention than he does, and I always feel guilty about that.  I have had him from a puppy and he had conquered my heart the minute I saw him, whereas Sheba came into our family from a dog-rescue place as a well-trained two-year old with a difficult life behind her when my baby was 7 months old. Anyway, nowadays I have more empathy with her than with the errant male : he is, in spite of his advanced age, still very agile, strong and playful, while she and I are showing definite signs of aging: stiff bones, aches and pains, etc.

I know, I know, you will conclude from the above that my dogs, especially the Lab, are badly brought up (as a result of my treating them as humans rather than dogs), but I like them that way, they are my babies.  This is not due to lack of knowledge on my part, I know quite a bit about dogs, I have read a few books and I am reasonably adept at observing and noting their behaviour.  In fact, when I was trying to adopt a Labrador as a companion for my one from an organisation that existed for the purpose of re-homing the Labradors of divorced couples who had originally got one because owning one was a la vogue, but neither of whom wanted to take on the responsibility upon divorcing, a dog psychologist who had come to my house to check my suitability as a dog owner wrote in her report that I ’understood dogs’, which made me very proud of myself.

Health care

My hair stands on end when I read some of the blogs about giving birth in a Polish hospital.

I have never had a baby, so I definitely do not profess to be an expert, but it does not take an expert to see that some women have had a pretty nasty experience of it at the hands of the Polish health service.  It seems that, in most of the cases I have read about, it was the midwives in charge of the mother-to-be from her admission to hospital until the birth that were at the root of the problem. Nursing is meant to be a caring profession, but the midwives described in those stories were anything but caring. They treated their patients as objects to be passed along the production line as quickly as possible and with the least amount of effort from themselves. They obviously did not empathise in any way with their charges; they were unable or, perhaps, unwilling, to perceive the situation from the point of view of the prospective mother and seemed to be desensitised by the number of cases they had dealt with. They had a job to do and the patient’s feelings just did not come into the picture.  They did not think twice about making comments such as, “Oh God, I’ve got another screamer” or “I’m lucky, all mine are quiet” within the patient’s hearing. What is worse, some nurses/midwives ignored the patient’s symptoms, did not report them to the doctors and even gave one unfortunate woman orders such as, “Stop moaning, get out of the bed and change your sheets”, when she was totally exhausted after a difficult birth.  I also read some similar horror stories about the totally inhuman treatment of mothers who had suffered the trauma of stillbirth.

I am not particularly interested in the subject; I simply happened to come across those stories on my blogging platform and I was appalled at what I read.

Mind you, bad treatment of patients by the national health service is by no means a Polish prerogative. It frequently happens in Great Britain, too, and I can quote several examples from my own experience, although I had never encountered anything nearly as awful as the stories referred to above.   My first contact with an English doctor was right at the beginning of my English experience.  I had cystitis, a typical complaint of new wives, and I went to see my mother-in-law’s doctor.  The doctor was a 70-year old woman who received me and my husband, who came along to support me in her surgery, after a suitable waiting period.  When she finally called us in, we sat down in front of her desk and awaited further developments. They were long in coming: as soon as we came in, she received a phone call which occupied about 5 minutes of our visit.  From what I could gather, it was from her housekeeper who wanted to know what to buy for dinner.  The doctor spent several minutes discussing various cuts of meat on the phone, after which she finally turned her attention to me and my husband.  She refused to speak directly to me, even though I had said a few words in good English as we came in; she spoke to my husband, as if I were a child or a dementia-afflicted elderly person.  I remember that her behaviour made me feel like an inanimate object, a broken toy that my husband had brought in to be repaired.  In the event, I was prescribed the correct medicine and my cystitis went away, but my ego was severely wounded in the process.

Another example of bad national health service care presented itself, when my GP (General Practitioner, i.e., your usual doctor) sent me to hospital for a D&C or a ‘scrape’, a routine procedure that examines the cervix of the womb and removes any suspicious cells by cauterisation under general anaesthetic.  I presented myself at the hospital on the appointed day and was seen by a Registrar who was trying to persuade me that I had had all sorts of gynaecological problems and operations in the past which I never had.  We argued about it, and eventually, she was called off to answer a phone call and left the file she had been reading from on my bed.  I looked at it and saw straight away that it was somebody else’s file, not mine, which fact I pointed out to her when she returned. She did not seem to be at all put out by the mistake, she just went off to get my file.  After all those preliminaries, they took me into the operating theatre and gave me general anaesthetic.  When I came round a couple of hours later, I learned that nothing had been done, because my cervix was too scarred from previous treatments for the operating surgeon to tell what was what. When my GP learned of this total cock-up, he went ballistic: he grabbed the phone, called the hospital and told them what he thought of such dismal performance: my medical history should have told them what to expect and they should have assigned a more experienced surgeon to the case.  That was very good of him, but it did not help me at all: I still had to spend a week at home, recovering from the general anaesthetic.  N.B. He was an excellent doctor, but when I saw him for the first time, I got really worried, because I could not understand his English – he was Pakistani (or possibly Iranian?  I cannot remember now, it was a long time ago) and spoke with a thick accent.  However, I found that I adapted to it quickly.  He was a very wise doctor and the more I saw of him, the more I appreciated the fact.  I recall a time when I was experiencing a slightly raised temperature for a while and he, having examined all the possible causes, advised me not to take my temperature so that I would not worry about it. He was right, it eventually went back to normal, without any ill effects.   I could quote many other examples of when his advice sounded a bit unorthodox, but was absolutely correct.  He was one of my best doctors ever.

I guess the point of this story is that you cannot lump all medical staff together.  As in all other walks of life, you get the good, the bad and the indifferent and that is to be expected.  However, that fact cannot excuse the all-too-frequent lack of appropriate action by the relevant authorities when cases of negligence or incompetence are brought to light.  It is not necessarily a question of punishing the culprits (although that may be the right course of action at times), but rather of learning the lessons and changing work procedures so as to prevent such occurrences from happening again.


A wedding performance

My nephew married a wonderful girl last year and I, as his Godmother, was really chuffed to be invited to do one of the readings at the service in church.

The church wedding was very important, as the girl and her family were devout Catholics.  Actually, he and his beloved fiancee had married quietly in a registry a few months earlier, for convenience, but, although known to both families, this fact was deliberately not celebrated, because they wanted to enjoy a traditional church wedding with all the family around them.

My nephew had asked his mother to do a reading, but, being a wise woman, she flatly refused.  I, on the other hand, had jumped at the opportunity to show off.  I have always been a bit of an actress, which, at school, expressed itself in me reciting poems in school competitions and singing in the school choir, and which, in my working life, definitely helped me be an effective teacher/trainer – teaching is not unlike performing in front of an audience.

They had chosen a reading for me: it was “Love” from Chapter 13 of the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, the one that starts with, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love”.  I know it well, as it comes up once a year in the liturgy of the Holy Mass. The night before the ceremony, I recited it in my mind a couple of times and was satisfied that I could deliver a passable performance on the day.  Following my tried-and-tested method for ‚public’ speaking, I did not do a live rehearsal, because I knew from experience that I could only achieve a peak performance once and any rehearsals would just spoil it.  I arrogantly declined the offer of the priest who presided over the wedding to visit and acquaint myself with the church before the ceremony, and, in the event, the shock of standing up at the pulpit in front of a church full of people turned out to be something I had not reckoned with.

The first reading was by a very young cousin of the bride who broke into tears while delivering it, which made me a little nervous. Next, a talented brother of the bride sang a psalm, and then it was my turn.  I walked up to the pulpit confidently enough, but when I turned around and faced the congregation, I suddenly felt weak and scared out of my wits. Still, I managed to collect my thoughts and started speaking.  The factual introduction was fine, but as soon as I started reciting the text, I ran out of breath, hyperventilated, felt giddy and was about to faint, and my mouth was dry.  Fortunately, after a few seconds, I managed to regain control over my body by saying to myself, no, I can’t do this to them, I have to get through it.  And, amazingly, I did!  Those who knew me well must have noticed the struggle, but, on the whole, the reading went down very well.  A friend told me afterwards that he had often heard the piece at church, but never took it in until then, which was all the praise you could desire.

By the way, the wedding was truly wonderful. It was done with style and panache, and I will remember it forever.