Monday, 18 June 2018

I Am Served a Stale Croissant

In a very few but nevertheless significant ways, I am a patient and long-suffering person.

For example, I have been slaving away at One of the Most Difficult Languages in the World (TM) for six and a half years.  

I can also put up with Continental argumentativeness from which the average  English- or Scotsman shrinks. 

Furthermore, I can stuff money in a wedding envelope with a cheerful shrug while about me fellow Anglo-Saxons quietly wail or simply refuse to do it.   

Even more impressively, when an extraordinarily rude Polish wedding guest twitted me on the plight of those in Canada whom she called "Indians", I did not name the ghastly pogrom that jumped immediately to mind. (Not that one; the 1946 one.)

But there is a limit. Yes, my friends, there is a limit to what I will put up with on the Continent, and a stale croissant is it. 

This morning  I decided I would go and visit my favourite Krakow art gallery, which is in Plac Szczepański. There is quite a nice French-style bakery-cafe named "Charlotte" nearby. I have happy memories of "Charlotte", having been there with my husband in January.  Then it was full of beautiful Polish young things with rucksacks, all looking hopeful and happy and full of potential. B.A. and I were clever enough to be at the doors when it opened for the day, so we were served promptly 

However, this time "Charlotte" was full of English-speaking middle-aged tourists clearly bored with their spouses/travelling partners, for they struck up conversations with complete strangers, and what was worse, the servers were not as interested in serving today as they were back in January. I stuck it out for awhile, but then decided I had wasted enough time and went across the square to "Tribeca u Sołayskich".

That was a mistake. 

This time I didn't mind the wait because I was outside under an umbrella this time, not in a humid building listening to Canadians starting friendly relationships that would last five minutes. However, when the young blond server brought me a stale croissant with chocolate sauce poured over it, I was outraged. 

I mean, it was stale. STALE. 


I'm not going to pretend Edinburgh is a croissant paradise. To my knowledge there are only three businesses in Edinburgh where the croissants are worth eating: Twelves Triangles (Portobello), The Wee Boulangerie (Clerk Street) and La Barantine (The Bow; Bruntsfield; Stockbridge). But however boring and unbuttery croissants are in other establishments in Edinburgh, they are not STALE. 

Without even pondering "What Would Polish Pretend Son Do?" I was suddenly possessed by the  combative spirit of Polish Pretend Son. Grabbing my handbag with one hand, and the plate in the other, I stormed into (remember this name for avoidance) Tribeca u Sołayskich.

"Excuse me," I said, in Polish. "This croissant is stale."

"What?" said the waitress and some other stuff I did not understand.

"Stale. This croissant is stale."

"I do not understand," said the waitress, so I repeated my complaint loudly in Canadian English, and now that I think about it, I wish I had added a whole lot more, so that she would have to contemplate her lack of  fluency in English and how it had led her to be shouted at by me instead of safe in a cushy job at a bank in London like her cousin Marysia. 

Scowling, she told me that I would have to wait for a fresh one, and I said that was fine although now I wish I had flung down the money for my cappuccino and informed her that at 10 AM there was no excuse for not having fresh croissants ready. 

I wish this for when the fresh or, I suspect, baked-from-frozen croissant appeared it had the overly sweet chocolate sauce poured on it, which I had forgotten to mention was disgusting. 

As a denouement, the museum bookstore was shut, and I suspect the museum was too, as it is Monday, but at the sight of the locked bookstore door, I quitted the Place Szczepański in a very bad humour indeed. Yes, it is June and, yes, Kraków is a tourist town, but trying to palm off stale croissants on foreigners is unforgivable, which is why I am indulging in internet revenge. 

I thought sadly of the Cranky Lady Cafe, and how the lady behind the counter may be cranky--and charge an extra 50 groszy for milk in the coffee--but at least she doesn't serve stale food.

It was particularly galling because I avoid tourist traps, but ended up at two yesterday, thanks to a Russian acquaintance who doesn't mind them. First we went to the Cafe Noworolski, which is actually in the Cloth Hall in the Main Market Square, and according to guide books Lenin loved it. Presumably the staff bothered to serve Lenin, whereas the server the Russian Lawyer approached inexplicably said he had already approached us and would be back in two minutes. 

The waiter lied on both counts, so after a quarter of an hour we abandoned Noworolski went to the "Sioux" steakhouse instead. This had a wooden representation of the face of a First Nations person over the front door, but the wait staff (wearing checked shirts) was kind and attentive and spoke English to the Russian Lawyer and Polish to me, and so as tourist traps went, it was okay. Besides, I cannot think of anything more Central European than a First Nations themed restaurant so un-PC it would kill a member of the Ontario English Catholic Teacher's Association to eat there. 

That said, in future I will avoid setting foot in the freaking Główny Rynek, to say nothing of (remember to avoid) Tribeca u Sołayskich.

To cheer myself up, I went browsing in "De Revolutionibus Books & Cafe", and when I found a  book in the children's section subverting the notions of "man" and "woman", I sought comfort in the Catholic "Logos" bookshop across the street. This had a smaller selection, but I was greatly cheered by the sight of Antonio Socci's Ostatnio Proroctwo: List do Papieża Franciszka

Your correspondent's spoken Polish is a complete mess this week, but at least she can still read.  

Update: Of course, having heard this amazing reflection by Matt Walsh, I now feel rather petty.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Postcard from Krakow

It's a warm and sunny morning in Krakow. I am in my friend the Giant Economist's* top-floor flat in Grzegorzki, a neighbourhood beside the more tourist-travelled Kazimierz. The three-storey block was built in 2006, but it has a nice old-fashioned balcony from which to watch the neighbours.

Many of the neighbours get up quite early and go to the bakery and other shops, returning home with plastic shopping bags. Presumably nobody is being charged extra for plastic bags yet. Because the sun rises at four AM, many of the older buildings are both Italianate and painted ochre, and church bells ring the hour, the neighbourhood resembles towns in Lazio. One of the shopping-bag ladies was stocky, wearing a black dress and sandals, which also added to the illusion that I am in Italy.

Naturally the biggest visual difference between Grzegorzki and Italy is the Polish names on the signs, and instead of celebrating various Italian Freemasons (at last my highly trad blog mentions the Freemasons), the streets are named in honour of various priests with very long names ending in -ski (or, since they are in the genitive case, -skiego).

Yesterday I woke up too early and too little rested to really appreciate the Główny Rynek, or main market square, which is really one of the most beautiful urban sights in Europe. It is even June, so my heart should have leapt like a lamb, but no. I surveyed the sunny square with jaded, baggy eyes and made straight for the Cranky Lady Cafe where Benedict Ambrose and I habitually go to be scowled at while I order coffee and cake.

After a good hour's note taking, I decided that I have too many unread Polish books to justify buying any new ones, and so after an aimless walk around the Planty (gardens encircling the Old Town), observing all the priests and nuns striding hither and thither, I walked back to Grzegorzki to read the Catholic news and start reporting on some myself. After that I could have been anywhere, except that almost all the books on the Economist's bookshelf are Polish and there is an ashtray on the balcony. Oh, and the internet, presumably mistaking me for the Economist, started feeding me adverts for Polish football betting sites.

Eventually the Economist came home, worn out from a day of helping keep the New Polish Economy going, and made supper while I transcribed Jordan Peterson's peppery lecture for PragerU. Conservative Poles love Jordan Peterson as much as Conservative Canadian (Brits, Americans, et alia) do. The difference is that these conservative Poles had to have splendid educations to understand Peterson's Canadian English in the first place, naturally.

This reminds me that my grasp of Polish has not been stellar this weekend. I hope I did not jinx myself by looking the celniczka (woman customs officer) square in the eye and saying "Hello" instead of "Dobry wieczór." For once, I was actually rather nervous of a grilling, since having to explain why I was returning to Poland (on a Canadian passport, too) after having left only a week ago would be complicated, as is this weekend's groom's surname, which after eight years I realised I didn't actually know. (I had to study the invitation on the plane). So I said "Hello" to the celniczka and she hurriedly sent me on my native anglophone way, and that was that.

The Economist went out to watch Spain v Portugal with friends, and I elected to stay behind and finish my JP transcript, not only out of duty but because I didn't want to stay out drinking until 3. Instead I watched episodes of "The Suite Life on Deck" over youtube and went to sleep on the Economist's pullout couch. Oh, the romance of life in Kraków.

This morning I did rather better as a travel writer: I went out in pursuit of coffee and buns at 7:15 AM, passing various Poles with their laden shopping bags. I found a cukiernia (bun shop) beside the famous Hala Targowa (covered market) and ordered a double espresso with milk and a yeast bun in idiomatically imperfect Polish. The word for yeast in Polish is outrageous: drożdże. This means a bun made with the creatures is a drożdżówka. Try saying that before your first coffee of the day.

But I managed and had a lifesaving coffee and a yeast bun with marmalade before returning to the Economist's flat to consult a map. The Economist was still asleep, so I merely plotted a route to Kazimierz, slapped on some sunscreen and went out again. The journey past lovely old houses, a disappointing new American-style mall, and the ivy-bedecked walls of the Old Jewish Cemetery was better than the arrival, as once I got to Kazimierz I realised that there was nothing I really wanted to do there. After an abortive attempt to buy hairpins/Kirby grips/spinki in "Jasmin", I walked back to the Economist's flat.

The Economist had awoken by this time and texted "Where are you?" just as I was climbing the stairs. He made us scrambled eggs, but I perceive that he has now fallen asleep again, so much did he enjoy yesterday's evening out with the boys. I shall have to make some noise so that he wakes up and drives me and my bag to the Market Square, where I am to meet this chap, who is also going to this wedding.

I am reminded of the duelling travel writers in Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond, since I suspect my escort may write about this wedding. Remember how I neglected to write about Polish Pretend Son's wedding so I could use the details later? The next thing I knew, it featured in this  piece in First Things. Fortunately Jozef was less interested in the details than he was in the politics. I see he used the expression "social cohesion." Every time I type "social cohesion," I lose another left-leaning reader.

When I was a young thing of twenty-two, I longed to belong to a "school" of writers, and now I perceive that I do, only it isn't strictly literary or artistic but more academic-journalistic, composed of people who go to the Traditional Latin Mass and write about it and other conservative/traditional/restorationist topics.

It's thanks to that, that I am safely housed in this nice Polish flat, but now I must stop pondering my social ties and go and put on a wedding guest dress.

*The Economist says he doesn't like being called the Giant, which suggests a miscommunication with Polish Pretend Son, who told me he liked it.

Update: I am now in a rustic hotel, suitably if warmly garbed.

*Update 2: I have returned to Grzegorzki, and the Economist says that there is a tax on plastic bags in Poland. This shakes my faith in the thrift of elderly Poles. Perhaps they are bringing old ones from home?  

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Back to Krakow

Just a short note that I am going to the SECOND Polish wedding of the summer. Originally I was going to stay in Poland between weddings, but then B.A. got his diagnosis, and I decided I didn't want to stay away that long.

So stay tuned for yet another travel post!

Sunday, 10 June 2018

After the Wedding

Polish Pretend Son’s Silesian wedding lasted the traditional two days. On Monday I sat outside the countryside hotel’s separate restaurant and admired the formal gardens and Germanic palace opposite while trying not to mind the sun too much. It was blazing away again, and I feared that no matter how often I slathered myself with sunscreen, I would wrinkle into an apple doll before my time. 
Eventually PPS himself emerged from the palace and wound his way around the formal gardens. 

“Beautiful day,” I remarked.

“Beautiful day, beautiful life,” declared the newlywed and went in to breakfast. 

That was the last I heard from PPS. Eventually he and the bride disappeared completely, driven away by the best man, I believe, bound for the airport and Paris.  

There was some confusion as to how his car-less guests were going to get back to the railway station, a repeat of Sunday’s struggle to get 20 people to Mass. There was also a long delay for the Schola had befriended some of PPS’s other traddie friends and planned to return to Wrocław with them. One Trad—the one who looks like a pre-war Austrian officer, being slim, straight-backed, dark-haired, dark-eyed and moustachioed—has a long morning grooming regimen.  

“[Austrian chap] doesn’t do formal,” explained his plump Polish-Canadian pal. He was wearing a T-shirt and smoking a cigarette. Eventually he strode off to the village shop for more tobacco. I tagged along for the exercise and to see this village shop. It was very small, with a friendly lady behind the counter and “Balkanica” thumping over the radio. The Polish-Canadian pal chatted with her fluently albeit with a Toronto accent Polish-Poles at the wedding told him was funny. 

When we returned, the Austrian appeared looking cool and fresh and prepared for a garden party. The village taxicab was summoned, and it was decided that it would take four of us away to the railway station and then return for B.A. and me. It turned out that the cab driver who had charged us double had poached us from this taxicab's driver in an act of inter-village piracy. 

The formal gardens, by the way, had box hedges, and they threw off a wonderful perfume. Wrocław smelled wonderfully, too, thanks to the linden trees. One of the Schola explained that in Scotland it never gets hot enough for our linden trees to fill the air with scent.  As the weekend was simply roasting, whenever we set foot outdoors, we were wrapped in delicious smells. 

After a half hour or more, the legitimate village taxi returned and took us to the railway station, it driver chatting gaily all the way. The little cafe in the railway station had run out of sandwiches, so the lady behind the counter cheerfully allowed us to leave our big red suitcase with her while we walked to that, rather bigger, village for lunch. Sadly, I was still wearing my wedding hat, and so looked rather ridiculous. The hat even inspired a Polish cry of “Look, she’s from England.” However, it was worth it, for we swiftly found a bakery and bought some cheesy pizza bread to eat on the railway platform. The sight of the big Germanic/Polish houses and the romantic Post Office, so conveniently near the railway station, was also satisfying. 

To my joy, the train was one of the old-fashioned ones, with a long hallway and compartments. Even better, as we raced towards Wroclaw, I saw a shirtless young farmer turning over hay with a pitchfork. Such old-fashioned country scenes I see only from Polish trains. I will never forget spotting a farmer, somewhere between Kielce and Krakow, following a horse and plough. (Nor will I forget the Astrophysicist's look of acute embarrassment when I told him of this.) 

The orange castle that is Wrocław Główny railway station swung into view, and before long B.A. was rolling our suitcase towards the Market Square.  We checked into an old-fashioned hotel different from the last, for  I had decided it would be fun to change. B.A. wanted coffee and ice-cream, so after a bit of book-shopping, we found a chocolate shop with tables and chairs on its pavement on a side street. Somehow we both ended up with ice-cream, and it was very good. We enjoyed very much looking at the ochre 18th century buildings and puzzling out the odd chocolate-themed slogans painted on the chocolate shop’s front. 

At the appointed time, we met the others at “Pijalnia” in the Market Square for beer. Our friend the Astrophysicist, who is getting married next weekend, also appeared and, when the Austrian and the Polish-Canadian left to visit the latter’s grandparents, he led us off to classier drinking establishments. 

First there was “Przedwojenny” (Pre-war, i.e. 1930s style), where we ate a number of traditional appetisers and snacks: beef tartar with raw egg and onions, cottage cheese and pork jelly, for example. Then there was a dark and shiny cocktail bar with a glass-enclosed whisky-and-cigar room. Then there was a very long walk hither and thither, around this palace and that monument, as the Astrophysicist led us to a 'Scottish' pub that turned out to be closed because of the lateness of the hour.  I was a bit drunk after my cocktail, so I am unsure as to whether or not we went to two bars after this or just one. I think it was two. 

The Astrophysicist was very eager to buy us a variety of drinks at a variety of places. There was really no stopping him. I recall drinking sweet kriek, which is a Belgian fruit beer, and giving half of it to one of the Schola when the A’s back was turned. The others also drank sliżowicz, which I thought was spiritus and thus a bad idea for non-Slavs. By midnight I was really very tired as well as drunk. When we finished up at “Pod Lantarniami”  (Under the Lanterns), I would drink only grapefruit juice, and when I discovered it was 12:45 AM, I finally made good on my threats to leave.   B.A. came with me, and after a comedy with some gates that seemed locked but weren’t, we returned to our hotel room. 

Alas for your correspondent. B.A., as he invariably does after a (thankfully rare) night of drinking, snored to make the ceiling fall. Also, sad irony, the grapefruit juice was one too much for my tummy, and I was sick. However, the old-fashioned chamber had a door between the bedroom and the vestibule, and the bed was really two singles pushed together. Thus, I was able without waking BA to take my duvet and make a nest beside the loo. The good thick door between the bedroom and the vestibule almost completely stifled B.A.’s snores, and thus I eventually fell asleep.   

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Conversations in Silesia

Our Polish Pretend Son got married in his native Silesia last weekend, and naturally his British Fake Foster Parents were there.

I am not going to write much about the wedding, however, as I have the vague intention of borrowing from various Polish parties and adventures to write a heartwarming comedic thriller tragedy set at a Polish wedding.


Three members of the Men's Schola and I flew to Wrocław on Thursday evening via RyanAir, all sitting apart from one another in "allocated" seats to save money. Going to Poland from Scotland with RyanAir is rather like travelling for 2.5 hours on a crowded bus. It is squashy but mundane. Before you finish your book, you have landed and are standing in a queue to have your passport inspected minutely by an unsmiling customs guard.

Although I know my passport will be scrutinised a lot longer if I speak Polish, I always do. It's daft, for it's not like anyone around is going to yell "You're in Poland: speak Polish" in Polish at me. Meanwhile, the reward for my beautifully articulated "Dobry wieczór" is a look of dark suspicion and the observation that I am in Poland a lot, as if I may have been sneaking into the country to work for zl instead of working decently at home for £ or even $.

Excitingly, this time the Customs Conversation was enlivened by B.A., who had gone before me, not being able to get through the gate.

"Bramka nie działa," I pointed out, which was probably even more suspicious than "Dobry wieczór."

The next conversation was the Bus Ticket Conversation, in which I successfully bought tickets from the young bespectacled driver and accurately answered his "where-to?" His radio was tuned to, apparently, the "Wa-Wa-Wrocław" station, and so the cheerful thump of Disco Polo music accompanied us all the way to the historic centre.

Wrocław used to be Breslau and was flattened near the end of the last World War. However, the historic centre was rebuilt, so it is very pretty.  Well, most of it is very pretty.  The Plac Dominikański, where we alighted, is ugly and modern, flanked by an ugly modern Galleria (indoor shopping mall). However, after I led us all in the wrong direction, the Master of the Men's Schola discovered the way on his phone and we soon found ourselves in our shabby chic turn-of-the-century (i.e. 1903) ex-German hotel.

It was 11 PM, but naturally the Schola was gasping for beer, so we dumped our stuff and found the Main Market Square, which is truly impressive. It is actually a square of buildings within a square, so that one can sit outside one of many bars in the middle and look at the beautiful facades around the periphery. We found a bar called "Pijalnia" ("Open 24 h"), with little tables and chairs outside. It was a very warm and dry night, so we sat down at once and looked about for a server.

It quickly dawned on us that there might not be table service, so the MMS and I approached a waitress coming out of the bar. To my horror, I completely forgot the word for "to order". Dear heavens, the Buying Drinks Conversation was awkward. However, it wasn't a complete failure, for the waitress caught my meaning and told me to order at the bar, which I successfully did.

There followed a lot of drinking of beer, of remarking on Polish girls wearing microscopic skirts, and  of discouraging a Romany beggar. I was longing to get up and look at other parts of the large and lovely square, but B.A. was afraid I'd be stolen. How happy I was when we finally went back to the hotel to sleep.


The next morning I bounced down to the dining-room before the clerk got there and so breakfasted clandestinely. Then I rushed out to see all the square and the square next to it and further around and about. Although it was only 8:30 AM or so, the sun blazed away fiercely. Fearing sunburn, I scampered back to the hotel and had breakfast with B.A. This time I was stopped and checked off the list by a clerk. Polish breakfast clerks are so anxious about their clipboards, there must be a serious breakfast-stealing problem in Poland.

After breakfast the Men's Schola went off together to look at churches, and I went to the Galleria to book a manicure. The Galleria looks just like an American or British shopping mall, only with such Polish shops as Empik (books) and Sowa (cake) mixed in with H&M and Sephora and the entire staff and clientele being white, European and Polish-speaking.

After some difficulty and two short conversations (Mall Security Guard Conversation, Information Booth Conversation), I found "Mani-Pedi" and my brain froze again because I had no idea how to say, "I would like an appointment for a gel manicure, please."

When I resorted to asking if she spoke English, the young lady behind the desk looked like her brain had frozen too. The poor girl called up Google Translate on the computer to find the English for "Do you have an appointment?" She lacked the courage to pronounce the words, so she motioned me over to look. Poor sweet. I knew exactly how she felt. We both had failed the Beauty Shop Conversation.

But the upshot was that Mani-Pedi had no free slots until Monday, and I went to PPS's wedding with bare fingernails. They were tidy, at least, for I bought a package of nail files in the Galleria's Rossman toiletries store.

My feet got blistered during my morning's walk, and although my self-confidence was low, I knew I had to buy some hot weather shoes. To my pleased surprise, I knew all the necessary words, including "I take a size 38" and "I don't need the box", so my Shoe Shop Conversation has vastly improved since that October day I had to buy emergency snow boots in Kraków.

I was due to meet the Men's Schola outside St. John's Cathedral for lunch. As it happened, we met on the way, and after rejecting a restaurant opposite a church as too expensive, we found ourselves in a cheap and cheerful joint outside the old market hall. There I had a Food and Beer Ordering Conversation, which was redundant as the server clearly spoke English.

I should stress that none of these conversations were as fluent as I would have liked, and my ego was getting as blistered as my poor feet. Every week in Edinburgh I have an hour long conversation with a Polish graduate of Linguistics, and I usually natter on comfortably about anything. In Wroclaw, however,  I was having an awful time---until the Railway Ticket Conversation.

Wrocław Główny railway station looks like a long, low orange castle. It has a couple of Polish cafes, a Starbucks, a Costa Coffee, an Empik, a Biedronka grocery store, a McDonald's and a library. It has no ticket machines, so everyone has to queue up and buy his ticket directly from a person. Sadly by the time the Master of the Men's Schola and I got to the front of our queue, it was our person's break time. At the dot of 5 PM he was out of there. Alas.

MMS and I queued up again and eventually approached a middle-aged lady behind a glass window.

"Does Madame speak English?" I said politely in Polish, for this is my great get-out clause.

"Only a little," said Madame in Polish

"No harm done," I said. "We will try in Polish."

Fluency kicked in. Hooray! And what made the Railway Ticket to PPS's Village Conversation particularly sweet was that the Master of the Men's Schola was right beside me and heard it all.

There followed soon after the Coffee-and-cake in Costa Conversation, the Ticket Inspection Just-as-our-station-approached Conversation and, most gloriously, the Very Chatty Taxi Driver Conversation, although we discovered later he had charged us double the going rate. Fortunately, 70 zl is only about £14, so we were ripped off only £7, and presumably he needed it more than we did. Besides it was worth £7 to hear the cowed silence of the back seat. For the first time in history the Men's Schola shut up and listened to me for a solid 15 minutes.

Polish Pretend Son's wedding reception was in a country hotel. Originally a German Schloss, it is now a Polish pałac. PPS, looking slim and elegant (if a little frazzled), greeted us as we got out of the cab and then ordered me to register in Polish. Thus I had the Registering at a Hotel Conversation Polish hotel clerks usually conduct with foreigners in English, actually.  Then, after B.A. and I had taken possession of our luxurious 19th century suite, we went to the hotel dining room to chat with other English-speaking guests, including a priest.

PPS then took all the young men away to his bachelor party, leaving me to dine with the priest, for whom I ordered (Ordering Supper Conversation), as he speaks no Polish. This was quite easy, as the priest had been in Silesia for four days and developed a taste for both chłodnik and pierogi ruskie, which I like, too. Also, both are meatless, and it was Friday.

I was very tired, but after supper with the priest I managed one more Polish conversation. Polish Pretend Son's war-survivor grandmother was dining at a table near us with a blond lady. I recognised Babcia at once for, as it happens, PPS brought her, his father and one of his sisters to the Historical House one day. Instead of sensibly catering for Polish tastes, I had made an enormously complicated, sweet and British simnel cake, complete with marzipan decorations. Babcia had thought it a very strange cake and said so, eliciting giggles from her grandchildren and blushes from me.

I have been afraid of Babcia ever since, but I thought that it would be rotten not to acknowledge her at her grandson's wedding.  I gathered up my courage and, addressing the blonde lady, launched into the Polite Introductions Conversation. The blonde lady was, I believe, PPS's great-aunt, and it soon transpired that Babcia didn't remember me at all.  


The next day, wearing meticulously correct English morning dress, Polish Pretend Son married a beautiful, tall, slim, dark-haired young radiologist. She wore a lace dress, a traditional floral wreath, and a floor-length veil. Half the female population of Edinburgh committed suicide, and t The happy couple returned to the hotel from the famous shrine in a vintage white Corvette.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Fortune in Misfortune

Last night Benedict Ambrose and I left our post-deluge refuge, a small flat in the Old Town, and rode away in a taxi cab.

It took us about an hour to pack all our things, and I marvelled that in four months so much had floated up from the Historical House to the Historical Flat. Between us we packed seven large shopping bags, two backpacks and one large suitcase with stuff. Down three flights of a narrow turnpike staircase they went, B.A. sighing and groaning as he carried his share. I shifted the pile outside and then by the entrance of a close (alley) while B.A. wrote a thank-you note to the cleaning lady and then fetched the cab.

We and all our stuff just managed to fit into the big black cab, and then we went rattling over the cobblestones of the Royal Mile, bound for the New Town. I said it reminded me of the late 18th century migration of the middle classes from the Old Town to the New. This was a cheering thought in the midst of our no-hard-feelings eviction.

(It's now High Season, and Work needed its "holiday let" flat back, which is perfectly understandable to anyone with a glancing acquaintance with the Edinburgh tourist trade.)

"Fortune in misfortune" is a Polish blessing, and I first heard it in the emergency department of the eye hospital in Warsaw in 2016. Polish Pretend Son subsequently texted it from London, and so I got to read it, one-eyed, too: Szczęście w niesczęściu.  

I thought of that yesterday morning as I first went to the New Town to see my flat-owning friend and her kindly tenants who have allowed B.A. and I to rent the bedroom (with ensuite) my friend had retained for her own occasional use. Yes, B.A.'s brain tumour is back again, and we can't live in the Historical House, and we have to have our stuff out by mid-August, and B.A.'s job has been restructured, but at least we will have a roof over our heads for the summer, and it's in the New Town.

The New Town is to Edinburgh what Forest Hill is to Toronto, Park Avenue is to New York, and Mayfair is to London, so if you are evicted, it's a great place to land. After a coffee, a nice chat, and an inspection of the room, I cheered up very much. Szczęście w niesczęściu, indeed.

When I was 24 and living on cheap hamburger in Toronto's Little Portugal with my best pal Trish, I came up with a comforting theory that as long as someone brought up in a stable middle-class household stayed away from hard drugs (and didn't develop anorexia), she would never be homeless or starve to death. I wasn't sure why that was, but I now that I live in a country with a historic, persistent, obvious and obsessive class system, I know the reason: social capital.

B.A works in the heritage industry and I work for a pro-life media organisation, so we don't earn a lot. This puts us at a slight disadvantage when misfortune comes knocking. However, I was taught  from birth, and B.A. from baptism (long story), an intricate system of social skills that lead to employment in the professions, or marriage to someone in the professions, or at very least friendships with people in the professions. As a result, we are on friendly terms with medical doctors, engineers, hoteliers, lawyers and lots of other practical people who managed to like the study of music, philosophy and literature without being fatally sucked into them, as were we.

It is no exaggeration to say that B.A. is still alive because his brother-in-law is married to a medical doctor. People tell me that my tenacity saved B.A.'s life, and that is probably true, but my sister-in-law's intervention was crucial.* And it is also not an exaggeration to say that we are not incurring the horrible expense usually suffered only by the very poor of living in a motel because we have friends who either live in large houses or own rental property and are willing to let us rent from week to week.

(Why we simply do not take a six-month-lease somewhere in another long story; stay tuned.)

When I woke up in the New Town this morning, I felt terribly smug about the cockroach-like survival skills of the middle classes (provided we stay off hard drugs), and then realised that I was probably thinking more like a Marxist than like a Catholic, so I dropped my smirk and said a prayer of thanksgiving.

*At this point, any reasonable person may reflect that this is very hard cheese on anyone in the UK who does not have a doctor in his family.  Yes, it is.  The National Health Service is touted as a boon to the less-well-off in UK society, and ultimately it is a boon.  But for several reasons, including not enough doctors and nurses to serve multitudes of sick people in an ageing, fattening population, the NHS is neither perfect nor as good as other socialised medical systems.

I do not know why everyone acts as though the only alternative to the NHS is an American-style medical industry. It isn't. I got excellent and affordable emergency care in Poland, and at least one friend got excellent--and free--emergency care in Germany. Socialised medicine can and does work;  the question is how to make it work better for everyone.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Saying Good-bye to the Historical House

Ten days after his cancer diagnosis, Benedict Ambrose returned to the Historical Refuge from work to tell me that we will never again reside in the Historical House.

I had made a bolognese sauce, and this is an important point, for usually B.A. makes supper. However, it was Victoria Day in Canada, so I had the day off and (for once) thought it only fair that I should do the cooking.  Thank heavens.  If poor B.A. had had to come home with that news and then  shove a fish under the grill,  he may have burst into tears.

Fortunately, I am a good woman in a crisis. Although I am often overcome by the slings and arrows of daily existence, life-changing news leaves me cool, calm, and collected. I do not know why.

As it happened, I had had a chat with the housekeeper that morning, learned that there was an outside chance we wouldn't be back until Christmas (if ever), and then I resumed looking at properties on

So I told B.A. that I was sorry, boiled up some spaghetti noodles, served up dinner and watched The Good Place (without irony) for an hour. We said the rosary, and then B.A. went sadly to sleep and I went back to

The next day I threw a fit, but I was serene on the bad day itself, so that is something.

Historically the Lady of the Historical House moves on either because she has died or because her husband has. It will be so much more cheerful packing up our belongings with B.A. than it would have been had he died last year. If he hadn't gone to an eye specialist, B.A. probably would not have survived March. He would have gone to sleep, and that would have been that, and the postmortem would have been quite a shock to B.A.'s mum and little me.

Seen from that perspective, having to move out of the Historical House is not really that much of a big deal, even if it was built in the 17th century (with 18th century additions) and it has been our home for nine years.

I would rather keep Benedict Ambrose than the Historical House, and that's a fact.

In some ways, the Historical House was a very inconvenient place in which to live. The ceilings are oppressively low, and we could stand it only because we are rather short. The stairwells on either side are open to the rest of the staff, any workmen who come in and, technically, tourists although I never caught a tourist daring to ascend. The washing-machine had to be kept in the old Servants' Hall, which is in the cellar, so doing laundry meant long trudges to and from the attic.

The fire alarms sometimes went off for no reason in the middle of the night, often when we had guests. It was B.A.'s job to get out of bed, let in the fire brigade and turn off the alarms. When he was in hospital, that was my job, and the alarms "went into fault" THREE TIMES while B.A. was at his sickest.

Naturally we could neither paint nor plaster nor paper, and our searchings of conscience before hammering nails anywhere verged on the Jansenist. Meanwhile, in summer we had to keep an eye out for people setting fires in the fields, and in September we had to discourage conker-thieves from damaging the horse chestnut trees near the House, and year round we were woken by noisy dogs.

On the plus side, the Historical House was a joy to come home to, especially when the cherry tree was in blossom, and we had lots of space for guests. It may be a long time before we can have so many rooms again: a proper dining-room/guest bedroom, a proper guest bedroom, an office/guest bedroom, a library/guest bedroom. We could put up four guests at a time and sometimes did.

We also had a lot of dinner parties and hosted Sunday Lunches, both in the dining-room and, on warm and sunny days, on the front lawn. In latter years when Polish guests were in the house, I took to hanging a Polish flag from the balustrade for our outdoor parties. Apparently this--and our clothing--led to us all being mistaken for World War II re-enactors.

Our last dinner party, which featured Polish Pretend Son and his Fiancee, ended two days before the fatal pipe blew, flooding the bathroom and driving us from our home. Dear me. Come to think of it, this is the end of PPS's most stable Edinburgh home, too. Well, I always promised him a home he could smoke in.

The views, too. I will most definitely miss the views: the Firth of Forth from our kitchen window and Arthur's Seat from the dining-room. Fortunately, a day never went by when I didn't look out the kitchen window and marvel. Strangely, weeks went by without me going for any but the most cursory walk through the woods, and very rarely did I feel like tramping through the fields. I preferred to enjoy the great outdoors from the low-ceilinged inside.

What makes a house a home, I asked myself the other day, when I had made a short visit to the HH for fresh clothing. It isn't a matter of having one's stuff around, I decided. What makes a house a home are the memories it conjures up: memories of happy events like parties and of sad adventures like B.A.'s illness. We have lots of memories from the past nine-and-a-half years, and presumably when we pack up our stuff, we'll pack up the memories, too.

(In case you are wondering,  at the moment my most vivid memory of that House was getting B.A. out of the bathtub last autumn when he was suddenly too weak to stand on his own. I am sorry if that seems rather dark and brutal, but it is what it is. Life is tough, and at least B.A. survived in the end.  The only way I could get him out that day was to get into the bathtub myself behind him and pull him up. It was so incredibly dangerous for both of us, I don't understand why I didn't call an ambulance instead. At any rate, should you ever be in the same situation, don't do what I did. Call for paramedics because you might not be so lucky.)