Sunday, 31 January 2016

Edinburgh Sunday Cool

The McLeans ducked into Edinburgh's new West End café "Noir" this Sunday before Mass. (Hitherto, the beautiful Palmerston Place building housed a typical Starbucks -- ugh.)

We knew from previous visits that Noir's treatment of the heritage interior is superb and the coffee delicious. However, today the music, too, was fantastic. In place of the rap and heavy metal clichés that had marred our first visits was brilliant, swinging, old school jazz.

"Django Reinhardt," said Benedict Ambrose at once, seriously impressing his wife. She knew, of course, that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music, but jazz, too?

The friendly barista likewise approved.

If you have to be in the West End once a week and can't always get your hit of caffeine goodness at hipster "Brew Lab" on South College Street, Noir provides an excellent café experience--at least when they break out the classic jazz.  Well done, them.

The Cute! The South-eastern Polish Cute!

Today the Telegraph reports that Japanese tour operators came up with a list of the 30 prettiest European towns and only one British village--in Wales--was on the list. Hee hee!

Only one Polish village made the list, but what a village! If you are a fan of colourful Slavic folk art, you must see the wonderful photographs of Zalipie. The house paintings are traditionally designed and executed by housewives. Housewife pride!

Doesn't it make you want to grab some paint and transform the shed? Unfortunately, the Historical House doesn't have a shed. And even if it did, it would be a B-listed shed, so no-one would be allowed to paint it. Sigh, sigh.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Cologne Advice Reblog

The very cool Quadrapheme magazine asked to reprint "Not Your Oma's Cologne".  If you're looking for cultural vulture stuff to read, go have a look at their site.

Quadrapheme published a great review of Ceremony of Innocence, complete with a super photo meant to represent Catriona.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Niewinni Czarodzieje/Innocent Sorcerers

"Faith, hope and ...?"
When last we discussed Polish cinema, it was decided that it would come in handy should you find yourself stuck in a house party attended by graduate students of philosophy. If you recall, you have found yourself in this plight because you expect your crush object to turn up. In fact, he may have suggested the party, and as you sit on the sofa with a glass of white wine, you are contemplating his exact words, "Hey, are you going to that party the philosophy students are having?" Did he or did he not say explicitly that he was coming? Hmm.

At any rate, there you are, and thank goodness you decided to go for the full Reads-Sartre-in-a-Hipster-Café look unlike the actual Sartre expert by the fridge who looks incredibly dumpy in her lycra mini skirt. In the right light, you might actually look a little bit like Audrey Hepburn. So that's something.

But what is this? A young man with dark curly hair has turned to you and said, "So what do you think of Deleuze?"

You: I don't think anything of Deleuze. I'm more of a Polish cinema gal. (Seriously hope Deleuze did not write about Polish cinema.*)

Young man: Oh, are you Polish?

You: No. Are you French?

Young man: Point taken. So are you into Polanski or what?

You: Well, it's probably controversial to say so, but I don't consider Polanski's later work Polish cinema, you know? I mean, he's very American.

American Republican-voting Department Outlier in blazer and tie: So what's wrong with that?

Young man: Um, excuse me, we are taking about Cinema. So what would be a good film for a neophyte to see? (To Department Outlier) That means a beginner.

Outlier: Eff you, Gutenheimer, I know what a neophyte is. (Stomps off to the kitchen.)

You: I highly recommend Niewinni Czarodzieje.

Gutenheimer: Nee-eh-veennee charo-whatsit?

You: Cha-rod-jay-eh. Otherwise known as Innocent Sorcerers. It has an amazing late-50s cool. Actually, it may have invented late-50s cool. It has a fantastic jazz soundtrack and amazing visuals. The clothes are great; I wish guys still dressed like that. And there are all kinds of self-referential jokes that actually seem fresh and new, which they probably were in 1959.

Gutenheimer: Sounds good. Like what?

You: Well, it begins with a young woman in a Dior New Look-style skirt and a picture hat walking along a Warsaw street, past a whole bunch of billboards advertising the film Niewinni Czarodzieje. And later a character turns on a radio, and a presenter announces that the next piece is from the film Niewinni Czarodzieje. Later a drunk guy on a spree with his friends starts philosophizing that they are the niewinni czarodzieje  It works. It's a film that doesn't take itself too seriously, you know? Which is pretty awesome for a country just three years out of the Stalinist terror.

Gutenheiemer: Fresh air, new freedom?

You: It definitely gives that impression although both the Catholic Church in Poland and the Communist Party threw fits over its supposed cynicism and frivolity.  I like how the composer--Krzystof Komeda--basically just plays himself in the film. He's in the protagonist's band. Like Komeda in real life, the hero Bazyli is a doctor by day--he works at a boxing gym--and a jazz man by night. Well, Bazyli so-called. I think it's just a fake name he gives to pick-ups.

Gutenheimer:  There are pick-ups?

You: Yeah, that's another reason why the Church and the Commies were upset. It's a bit bizarre. The film is full of girls in 1950s clothes acting more like it's the 1960s and then crying, etc.

Gutenheimer: Maybe the 1950s were more like the 1960s than we think.

You: Probably. The 1960s didn't come out of nowhere. Look at the beatniks. Personally I blame the professors more than the students, you know?

Gutenheimer: What you you mean, blame? The Sixties were fabulous! Free love, no AIDS, cheap grass, Greenwich Village, the White Album, Rochdale College...

You: Er. Um. (Think really hard)  ... Domestic terrorism, total sexual exploitation of women ...

Gutenheimer (trumped by feminism): Well, I grant you.

You:  Which is another cool thing about Innocent Sorcerers. The drama of the story comes from a war of wits between Bazyli and Pelagia, a girl he tries to pick up for his friend Edmund. Pelagia first appears to be an affronted Catholic girl, and then a good-time girl l like Bazyli's usual conquests, but it begins to look like she's something else entirely. In fact, for a film that is supposed to be so cynical, it does suggest that there can be a cure for the biggest problem of youth.

Your Crush Object (having arrived and has been standing, unnoticed, beside you ): Unemployment?

You (blushing faintly and trying not to smile too widely):  No. Boredom.


Curious point: The young, not yet messed up, Roman Polanski is an actor in this film.

Catholic culture score: Komeda remembers catechetical basics.

*Answer: Glancingly. Deleuze mentioned just one film: Bilans kwartalny by Zanussi. You're safe.

Fad Language Diets

How refreshing it would be if, instead of pledging themselves to new diets, every New Year's Day people resolved to follow  new language-learning regimens. The Historical House has witnessed several, some more successful than others.

The 1930s Tango Diet

This diet is based on the thought of Canadian literary giant Northrop Frye that children learn the rhythms of language first through poetry. (Literally, one thought.) Thanks to the magic of music and rhyme, songs are relatively easy to remember.

The dieter meets with a tango aficionado once a week (or so) and tries to translate, without a dictionary, two or three tango songs of the aficionado's nation.

Pluses: Deeply engaging lyrics, improves cultural knowledge, develops excellent party tricks.

Minuses: Arguments over whether all women are like the trollops in tango songs or not. Vocabulary limited to words needed for doomed love affairs. Growing sense that absolutely everything was better before September 1939. Accidental membership in partia KORWiN.

The Fluent Forever Diet

This popular diet is based on the self-help guide Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. It involves making a Leitner box--a collection of carefully spaced vocabulary cards, either electronically or literally.

Pluses: The "no English, no translating, images straight into the brain" philosophy makes sense.

Minuses: It takes hours of time and the discipline of a Desert Father to make and memorize even a few hundred cards, and you can't take a physical Leitner box with you on the bus. Trying to come up with images to illustrate grammatical concepts, let alone sentence structure, is extremely difficult, and just the thought of making a separate card for each case of each noun in (say) a Slavic language is enough to make you cry like a [click: xxx].

The Harry Potter Diet

This ingenious diet involves reading the entire Harry Potter series in the target language, and listening to the audiobooks read by a native speaker.

Pluses: Harry Potter materials are easily found in a plethora of languages and the rapid-paced plots should keep you going.

Minuses: Unless you stop and memorize every word you don't understand in The Philosopher's Stone, you will begin to go crazy. But then the pace will be so slow, you risk going crazy anyway. Also, Harry is clearly so stupid about Tom Riddle, you may lose all patience halfway through The Chamber of Secrets.

The Sienkiewicz Diet

This diet forbids reading target-language translations of English stuff. Tailored for Polish as a Foreign Language learners, the Sienkiewicz Diet involves reading Polish children's classic  In Desert and Wilderness in the Polish original and listening to an audiobook featuring a Polish actor.

Pluses: Virtuous feeling of authenticity. Ability to tell native Polish readers you are reading Sienkiewicz.

Minuses: Vocabulary so complicated and archaic that even native Poles need to look it up in a dictionary, and when they tell you this, your already shaky resolve collapses.

The Polish in Four Weeks Diet

Tailored, naturally, to PFL learners, this highly effective diet employs the textbooks and CDs of Polish in Four Weeks to build Polish vocabulary and listening skills.

Pluses: Each chapter has an engaging plot, featuring the drama and shouting typical to Polish life. Can be tweaked for maximum efficiency (see Brain Blitz Diet below). There is a second volume, also called Polish in Four Weeks.

Minus: Takes much longer than four weeks to complete.

The Brain Blitz Diet

Not for the faint-hearted, the Brain Blitz Diet involves memorizing, not just sentences, but entire blocks of target-language text, repeating them aloud as you write them out again and again and again.

Pluses: It works. The only method that works better than the Brain Blitz diet is full immersion in a country where the target language is spoken + vodka.

Minuses: Involuntary loss of control over speech, leading to a tendency to exclaim, apropos of nothing "Jak to?  Does Sir not know? We're playing France! It is today? Completely I forgot. Good that Sir reminded me. What you think? Have we chances?" Development of errors, in English punctuation. Strain on marriage if monolingual spouse objects to being addressed in target language.

CONCLUSION:  All these fad language diets can contribute to fluency in a target language although the only one by which one can absorb the complex sentence structures of non-Romance languages is, unfortunately, the Brain Blitz Diet. It hurts, but it works.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Snowdrop Season

Benedict Ambrose got up early on my birthday and picked a small bouquet of the earliest snowdrops for me. Beautiful, romantic and cheap! And if the snowdrops are here already, can spring be far behind?

The Scottish Snowdrop Festival begins on January 30 and runs into March. Yes, one of the delightful things about life in the UK is that the first wild flowers appear in January. Snowdrops carpet the woods of various old estates and historical houses, first springing up in patches, and then joining forces to create puddles, streams and whole lakes of humble goodness. The little dears hang their heads modestly; they are sweet.

Scotland is a northern clime, and the sun sets in Edinburgh at about 3:40 PM during the winter solstice. But after that, the days get longer and hope wells up in the Edinburgher heart. By late June the sun hangs around until just after 10 PM.  By February 21, the sun will set just before 5:30 PM. Extra sun plus snowdrops is a great mood-lifter especially after a rainy October-November-December...  Spring begins early in Scotland, and life in the UK makes me realize why June 31 is called "Midsummer."  This really didn't make sense to  me as a Toronto child, for whom "midsummer" must be the end of sweaty July.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Self-Defense in Denmark--a Bargain at £50

News this morning: a seventeen year old girl in Denmark was thrown to the ground by an English-speaking foreigner who tried to remove her trousers. She fought back by spritzing him with pepper spray, and he ran off.

The kicker is that she will probably be fined the equivalent of £50 for having been carrying pepper spray.

One can throw all kinds of fits, or one can ponder what will happen if would-be rapists decide to add pepper spray to their arsenal of weapons against women. On the one hand, one can certainly sympathize with women in increasingly dangerous cities carrying pepper spray in case they are, as was this girl, attacked by a sexual predator. On the other hand, one does not like the idea of men using pepper spray to attack women--or, indeed, drunken women attacking innocent men with pepper spray just cuz.

Outraged Danes have volunteered en masse to pay the girl's fine, and perhaps this is the best solution--besides, of course, better policing. Consider those car owners who are so rich, they park wherever they like and just pay their fines as one of their monthly expenses.  And then consider the woman who so badly doesn't want to be raped, she is willing  to pay her self-defense fines as one of her own monthly expenses. Of course,  as the whole reason for having a state and taxation in the first place--the primary argument for giving up part of your wages to the national bean-counters, which means (in effect) slave labour for up to eight months a year--is protective services for you and your family, so it is quite annoying that the state has so obviously failed in providing protective services to European women in the past few months. But then what's another £50 next to the life-long trauma caused by a stranger tearing off your clothes and ripping up your vaginal canal?*

Naturally such stories harden British hearts even more firmly against the rapist-enabling European Union. As nobody in charge on the Continent seems to know what to do about tens of thousands of illegal aliens arriving en masse and without identification, the Island might be forgiven for rejoicing in its insularity.

*Note to men: You know how in crime shows, the forensic pathologists always say things like "There's no sign of rape"/"She had intercourse shortly before death, but there's no sign she was unwilling"? They're talking about what happens to women's vaginal canals when the women who possess them don't want to "have sex" but are forced to anyway.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Queen for a Day

Illustration by Rima Staines
It is possible to write about one's own birthday without writing about oneself? A way around it would
be to focus on the other central character in the drama of one's birth and ponder one's mother. My mother was only twenty-four when she gave birth to me, and she was terrified, but later she philosophized, "I've had a baby at twenty-four, and I've had a baby at thirty-four, and at twenty-four, it's easier." She has said this so often, her children all can repeat it exactly, right down to the punctuation, even though it is technically inaccurate. Either that or she had six babies, not five, and carelessly left one at the supermarket between the fourth (at age 32) and the sixth (at age 36).

Giving birth to me at twenty-four was quite an accomplishment in my humble opinion. None of her children went on to do anything so momentous at the tender age of twenty-four although my brother was tolerably fluent in French (as was my mother) and very handy with computers by that age. Fertility experts are given to pointing out that it is also easier to conceive babies at 24 than at 34, which is something they might wish to tell high school girls, not panicked thirty-something women who read the Telegraph.

It's all very sad that the last political leaders who were famous for hoping to shore up their nations by encouraging women to have more babies were Germany's Hitler and Romania's Ceaucescu. This makes anyone else who might suggest it feel a little shy--except Vladimir Putin, of course.

(The famous Andrew Cusack, on a flying visit to Edinburgh, asked this weekend if the mistress of the Historical House was interested in studying any new language, and Benedict Ambrose begged him not to encourage her before she admitted that she had some hankering to learn the Russian basics. Naturally, the Russians are dying out as rapidly as the rest of the Europeans--they never really recovered from the hideous massacres of the Second World War--but the thought of endless miles of  fields and cunning little dachas appeals. One imagines ending one's days as a 90 year old subsistence farmer /babushka, feeding the chickens and boiling beets. What neighbours there are to come to the funeral [if, indeed, she does not just totter to the edge of the grave she had the foresight to dig] will remark upon her strange accent and habit of singing a foreign song [i.e. Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver] whenever it snowed.)

The solution to the fertility problem may be free university tuition to all men and women who put off higher education until they are thirty.  As this is my birthday, please indulge me in my social engineering. My planned society looks like this:

Education of European Citizens

I. Babies at home/private daycare until parents go to uni at age 30.

II. State-funded university daycare for children under 6 of university students. Curriculum: family life, sharing, table manners, colours, shapes, seasons, time.

III. Elementary school from ages 6 to 12. Curriculum: arithmetic, science, divinity, reading, handwriting, music, drawing, painting, French (for English*) or English-as-a-Second-Language, history, geography, physical education with martial arts component, family life. (*Heritage language, e.g. Irish, Gaelic, Welsh, compulsory for children in applicable nation.)

IV. High school 12-18 (boys and girls in separate schools). Curriculum: maths, science, div, classical philosophy, literature studies, including composition, music, drawing, painting, modern languages, history, geography, physical ed (still with martial arts component), marriage and parenting studies. Optional but available: Classical languages, computer programming. Prerequisite to philosophy: geometry.

V. Vocational training 18-20 (men and women in separate institutions). Students may opt out of state apprenticeship programs to be apprenticed to family businesses instead, but will be required to take the state exam in the applicable trade/business. All programs to include work-family balance training. Cash bonus for graduates of Early Childhood Education. Alternative option: military.

VI. Marriage, early parenthood, work from ages 20-30. (Family allowance to parent who opts to remain home with child/ren.)

VII. University from age 30. State funding for all who apply for the first four-five years. Graduate education after 35 merit-based. Maximum full-time university education: ten years. Alternative option to soldiers: OTC.

Singles will note that the pressure on singles to marry before 30 will be greater than ever. However, this pressure will fall once again upon men, whose interest in women will be whetted by eight years of educational separation. The fact that they will be in work from the age of 20 is an added inducement to family life. And as most human beings are conventional, they will just want to do what the other men are doing, whatever they say to the contrary.

University graduates in the Arts who behaved foolishly, lazily and wickedly in our twenties, and have ruefully come to the conclusion that undergraduate education is wasted on the young, will appreciate the idea of citizens delaying higher education until the age of 30. Scientists, however, may point out that scientists tend to make their best discoveries before the age of 30. My society may have to make allowances for this.

At any rate, the option of dramatic career change is there. If a citizen dreams of being an archaeologist, that's lovely. He or she will spend two years learning some related trade (like using very fine brushes to clean paintings, statues and fossils), do something immediately practical (like museum conservation) for ten years, and only then indulge himself or herself in reading about dinosaurs or long-dead peoples.

However, if after twelve years of highly specialized dusting, the citizen wants a complete change, he or she can apply to study something completely different, meeting with a career adviser while choosing courses. The career adviser will take into consideration the citizen's hobbies. Obviously a painter-duster who studies French in her spare time is more likely to excel in French Literature--and go on to teach French--than the painting-duster who stares open-mouthed at the telly from her child/ren's bed-time until her own.

The martial arts component is to instill physical and mental courage in citizens, male and female, instill compassion and respect for enemy combatants, and give them the sand to leap upon foreigners who behave exceedingly badly in public.

Well, that's a nice surprise. Instead of focusing on my beautiful self--whose birthday it is--this blog post is almost entirely concerned with the reordering, fertility, enrichment, happiness and survival of European society via education and job training. Which is all one wants on one's birthday besides, of course, world peace and Polish cookbooks.

Update: If a family member who has not already lavished the birthday girl with gifts is wondering what might make a nice Christmas/birthday present, Geometry for Dummies has just taken my fancy.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Burns Suppers

Some iconic Scottish things, like the tartan tat shops lining Edinburgh's Royal Mile, are just for tourists. But some curiously and uniquely Scottish traditions have been adopted by ordinary Scots living in Scotland and are currently part of Scottish life. For example, even Lowlanders will wear kilts to international sporting events, particularly the rugby. Yet another generation of Scots are learning to play the pipes. Scottish schoolchildren continue to learn Scottish country dances at school. And Burns Night has become Burns Weekend. It's not just for sentimentalists in the colonies.

Robert Burns (1759-1796) was a poet from Ayrshire, which is in the south-west of Scotland. He wrote a lot of verse in (mostly extinct, Ayrshire) Scots dialect and the vaguely Scottish English you may have puzzled through in school. Some of the stuff was set to music, and Scotsmen adopt most unconvincingly pious expressions when they sing his soulful love songs. No wonder, as what Burns knew about constancy you could stuff up the left nostril of a garden satyr. He littered the countryside with illegitimate children, tossing money to the poor lassies he got up the duff (and after he died, a hat was passed around for the support of his extended family).

Despite this, Burns is considered a national hero, and if we all grew up with adults who recited "O my luve is like a red, red rose" in all seriousness and credible accents, no doubt we all would take him seriously, too. Probably there is an ocean of value to his literary work over which I am blindly sailing, having been well and truly disgusted by Canadian cod attempts to read his work aloud. However, there is the work and there is the man, and one of the most amusing aspects of Burns night is women trying to cope aloud with his penchant for bedding the hired help.

This was once a non-issue, for Burns Suppers used to be restricted to men. However, women have long since been admitted although laughingly put in our place by the more "traditional" Toast to the Lassies, which will be described later, so as not to put you off the whole concept of the Burns Supper.

For the Burns Supper is great fun indeed, and on January 25 (and the weekend nearest), Scots have private parties for friends or organize public suppers to which they sell tickets. Hosts and organizers peruse  "How to have a Burns Supper" handbooks and pick and choose what they can do. If you don't have a big dining-room or a piper to hand, you might decide to give piping in the haggis a miss.

The haggis is nevertheless central to a Burns Supper, and even if no other Burns poem is referenced, someone has got to stand over a haggis with a knife and read or declaim "Ode to a Haggis." The haggis is disemboweled during the recitation like an Aztec sacrifice, and served up with "neeps" (boiled, mashed turnips) and "tatties" (boiled, mashed potatoes). Haggis is a sausage with the consistency of cooked minced (ground) beef, only richly flavoured. It is much better than non-Scots assume and lends all necessary excitement to the mashed stodge. As with all Scottish comfort food, you do not need teeth to eat it.

A recent church hall Burns Supper did pipe in the haggis. A young piper played "Scotland the Brave" and "Mhairi's Wedding", while preceding a middle-aged, kilted paterfamilias bearing a small representative haggis from the kitchen. (One can order huge haggises that feed dozens of people, but the supermarket variety feeds two to four.) Around the room they went while the crowed clapped the time and stamped their feet. The haggis was delivered up to another middle-aged man, who flourished a knife and recited "Ode to a Haggis" from memory while sacrificing the fat thing to the shade of Burns. The murdered haggis was then marched around the room again to the strains of "S the B" and "M's W" and in the fullness of time all the guests were served a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties.

There had been, earlier on, the Selkirk Grace, or perhaps just an anti-vegetarian spoof of the Selkirk Grace--one table was unsure, so they prayed the RC Grace before Meals. There was the traditional Toast to the Immortal Memory, which involved some fretting over the circumstances leading to the conception of Burns' twelve bairns ("And Burns was a Freemason," muttered a lady at my table.) And there was the traditional Toast to the Lassies (about which more anon) and the modern Toast to the Laddies. But best of all, after all the toasts were done and the haggises eaten, there was dancing.

Ah! The dancing! There was a  live band formed from generous volunteers and a crowd of willing dancers, from young girls in pretty frocks who had never before been to a ceilidh to older Scotsmen in kilts. One handsome gent of naval aspect wore a black bow tie, a studded dress shirt, a Prince Charlie jacket, a waistcoat, a pocket watch,  green kilt socks (freshly hand-washed and air-dried) , and a proper £300 green kilt, in his clan tartan, which outfit he further accessorized with a red-haired wife in a matching tartan sash. He cut such a dash on the dance floor that no-one but the wife could have guessed he hadn't danced the "Gay Gordon" or the (so-called) "Canadian Barn Dance" in almost seven years.

Burns Suppers do not always feature dancing, of course. In a relatively more sedate house party, there are more toasts (e.g. the Loyal Toast to the House of Hanover, which, if given by either by Scottish anti-monarchist republicans or by English wannabe Jacobites, should be called the Disloyal Toast) and readings, recitations and perhaps singing of Burns' prose  and poetry. A friend of mine, who manages to make women's formal tartan attire--the hostess skirt--look chic, does a wonderful rendition of Tam O'Shanter. However, dancing is the only thing that can shake the traditional misogynist Toast to the Lassies out of female heads.

For, unfortunately, here a strict adherence to tradition risks ruining the enjoyment of the crowd at a Burns Supper. As this blog metaphorically rips the skin off  delicately sneers at North African and West Asian men who spit on women's dignity, it is only fair to deplore the subtler humiliations meted out to women by Scotsmen. Pride in one's own Scots heritage and the delight of feeling that one really and truly belongs can be dealt a knock-out blow by the questionable tradition of jokes at women's expense, a Scottish custom often excused under cover of the magic word "banter."

Three deeply traditional, pious and maternal women at my table exchanged looks of acute discomfort as the giver of the Toast to the Lassies did his duty, choosing as one of his themes How Women Talk Too Much. (One dearly hopes the teenage girls weren't paying attention.) Unfortunately, the speaker did his task so well that the lady in charge of the Toast to the Laddies could make only what seemed like a very feeble rejoinder--although come to think of it, her reticence rather gave the lie to the toast she was acknowledging.

A woman who has lived in Scotland for some years might well come to the conclusion that when Scotsmen accuse women of talking too much, it is because Scotsmen want to do all the talking, and therefore when a woman expresses an opinion, some man or other resents her hogging air time that might have gone to him. The men of Scotland could talk the hind leg off a sauropod. Apparently there are Scotsmen who communicate solely with deep sighs and utterances of "Aye-p", but they are rare to my neighbourhood.

Happily, such dark thoughts were laid aside for the duration of the "Gay Gordon", the "Canadian Barn Dance", "Strip the Willow", the "Dashing White Sergeant" and other dances so dear to the Scottish heart, be it male or female. Also, such blatantly misogynist speeches are now considered so old-fashioned, outdated and offensive that they have become rare, at very least in Scottish nationalist circles. There one hears only charming tributes to "the lassies" and equally respectful accolades to "the laddies," reflecting a companionship and co-operation that no-one takes for granted.

No, the greatest danger at a Burns Supper is falling in love with a man on the dance floor, especially if that man is your own husband, and you suspect afterwards that it will be another seven years before you are permitted to dance with him again. This ruins for you any subsequent thought of  dancing, and speaks to a depth and complexity of the female heart generally unacknowledged by Robbie Burns.


Cheerful Update: Ayrshire is also famous for its bacon and the joke, "Is that your Ayrshire bacon?" "No, just warming my hands."

Appeal to Mr Russell Lewis

To:  Russell Lewis
From: Dorothy McLean
Re: "Endeavour" Series 3 Finale

Dear Mr Lewis,

Please allow Morse to have at least one happy day with Joan Thursday. Even if afterwards Joan is trampled by a wildebeest or shot in a train robbery or blown up by the IRA, it would be nice to see Morse totally and incandescently happy for even just half of one episode.

Consider the joy allowed to the Tenth Doctor by Russell T. Davies, and the marital bliss bestowed upon  the contemporary Doctor Watson  by Messrs Gatiss, Moffat and Thompson.

I assure you that no-one will think the less of Morse if he is permitted one sunlit afternoon having a picnic with Joan by a river, be it the Cherwell, the Thames, the Seine or any one of many other potential bodies of water. Or perhaps, reflecting the changing opportunities for women in the 1960s, the two may be permitted to drive together at top speed from one end of this sceptered isle to the other.

Cordially yours,

Friday, 22 January 2016

Collateral Damage

Who did not see this coming?

From the New York Times:

Pope Francis has announced that all Roman Catholic priests have the power to offer absolution for the “sin of abortion” during the church’s Holy Year of Mercy, which began in December. Without changing the church’s orientation on the issue, Francis described “the scar of this agonizing and painful decision” in the hearts of many women he said he had met.

For some women, his words were a source of consolation in the emotional and therapeutic labyrinth they had to navigate.The first thing I thought when I heard it was, ‘Well, at least now he will absolve me,’ ” said a 38-year-old mother of two adopted children who decided, without her husband’s knowledge, to have an abortion for personal and economic reasons. She traveled more than 50 kilometers, or 31 miles, to have the procedure

“It was not the right moment, and I knew it,” she said of having a baby. “Who are they all to judge me?”

Poor baby. Having been judged unworthy of life, I hope his/her end was quick.

Train and Little Drizzle


Pociąg (pronounced "po-chonk" ) meaning "train" is my favourite Polish word, in part because it is the sound the slow, village-connecting, trains make in Poland. They grumble over tracks talking about themselves (Po-chonk, po-chonk, po-chonk) like boring middle-aged women who think they are young. Eventually you long to escape the endless self-referential chatter, but if you are on the slow train, you cannot. You should have spent the extra money on a fast train, or taken the train to Warsaw to get the Warsaw-Krakow express.

Pociąg is also a 1959 film directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Its English titles are "Night Train" and "Baltic Express." It is about a man and a woman who find themselves in the same compartment of a sleeper car in a train to the Baltic Sea. The man--Jerzy--is mightily put out, but the woman--Marta--refuses to leave. Each of them has a secret, and their twin mysteries create a tension that is neither alleviated nor superceded by a sudden police investigation. Marta's secret absorbs her attention more than the ex-flame--Staszek--who follows her onto the train, threatens suicide and generally behaves like a madman.

Meanwhile, the sleeper car is populated by a band of Poles who all seem terribly interested in each other. Every time a woman walks down the narrow corridor, the men all risk whiplash. The only one who responds to them is a lawyer's very bored wife, who does her best to captivate Jerzy. There are two priests, one old and one young, a middle-aged misogynist, and a philosophical survivor of Buchenwald who suffers from insomnia. Everyone is in and out of their compartments all night, with the exception of a staggeringly beautiful girl and her young husband who, despite their beauty, are but bit players in the drama.

As neither Jerzy nor Marta talk very much at first, you don't need the subtitles to understand what is going on. However, once Staszek starts yelling, it is time to press the button. He is played by Zbiegniew Cybulski, "the Polish James Dean", and so is well worth watching.

Polish Cinema is quite fascinating, and American directors like Martin Scorsese borrowed quite a few ideas, angles, shots and plot devices from its films. It is fascinating because it depicts a country, history and way of life few outsiders know much about, and it illustrates the tension between artistic freedom and communist censorship. There is also the tension between the popular Catholicism of the majority of Poles and communism, to say nothing of the tensions between Polish Catholicism and Polish Judaism. And then there all the squabbles about who sucked up too much to the Commies when they were in charge. History judges Jerzy Kawalerowicz such a sinner.

It is also handy to know something about Eastern European film in case you find yourself at an oh-so-intellectual cocktail party, the kind in which philosophy graduate students share in-jokes about the King of France being bald and you are unhappy and would be desperate to escape were your crush object not expected to arrive any minute. If some hairy chap walks up to you and asks, "So what do you think of Deleuze (Lacan, Foucault, Kristeva, the whole dreary gang), you can say, "Print is dead; I get my intellectual kicks pure and unmediated from Polish cinema."  (Try to be dressed all in black and wearing long black fake eyelashes when you say this.)


The students of Polish 2.5 were directed to look at a poem by Julian Tuwim (1894-1953) and underscore all the diminutives. We were not required to translate it, which was fortunate as by then the security guard was  jingling his keys and even Google Translate has problems with "Little Drizzle."

Here is the original (with the diminutives underscored) and what Google Translate does to it. Sadly, I have not been able to find a proper translation, and it would take me at least an hour to do it myself.

Incidentally, Tuwim himself is considered politically dodgy as he loved himself a little too much Stalin.


Jak wesoły milion drobnych wilgnych muszek,
Jakby z worków szarych mokry, mżący maczek,
Sypie się i skacze dżdżu wodnisty puszek,
Rośny pył jesienny, siwy kapuśniaczek.

Słabe to, maleńkie, ledwo samo kropi,
Nawet w blachy bębnić nie potrafi jeszcze,
Ot, młodziutki deszczyk, fruwające kropki,
Co by strasznie chciały być dorosłym deszczem.

Chciałyby ulewą lunąć w gromkiej burzy,
Miasto siec na ukos chlustającą chłostą,
W rynnach się rozpluskać, rozlać się w kałuży,
Szyby dziobać łzawą i zawiłą ospą...

Tak to sobie marzy kapanina biedna,
Sił ostatkiem pusząc się w ostatnim deszczu...
Lecz cóż? Spójrz: na drucie jeździ kropla jedna
Już ją wróbel strząsnął. Już po całym deszczu.


How cheerful million small wilgnych flies,
As if the bags wet gray, drizzling poppy,
Hangs up and jumps rain watery cans,
Rosny dust autumn, gray drizzle.

This poor, tiny, just barely beats.
Even in the steel drum can not yet,
Oh, the young drizzle, fluttering dots,
What would terribly wanted to be an adult rain.

They would like downpour pour down in a thunderous storm,
City network on the bias projectile flogging,
The gutters to rozpluskać, spill in a puddle,
Peck tearful windows and intricate smallpox ...

So, he dreams of kapanina poor
Strutting last ounce of strength in the last rain ...
But what? Look: on the wire runs drop one
Even the sparrow shook. Already around rain.

Thanks in advance to any reader who can supply a good English translation.

As Confused as a Jesuit During Holy Week

 Breaking: a liturgical novelty. 

Dear readers, please remember that you do not have to volunteer to have your feet washed and dried by a man on Holy Thursday. You can--and must--say no to any unwanted touching.

Of course, if you are pleased to participate, it is now permitted by the rubrics. It was not hitherto, which may come as a surprise.

Statement of Dr Joseph Shaw of the Latin Mass Society here.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Gladys at 101

The official story is that Gladys was adopted by a recent Scottish immigrant in Saskatchewan and
brought to Toronto to join "Auntie's" family. This was untrue, but her grandchildren believed it, and it gave rise to speculation that Gran'ma might be part First Nations. Unlike most of us she tanned.

The unofficial stories are, by 21st century standards, just as romantic, but illegitimacy was still considered absolutely shameful by both Brits and Canadians of the late 19th and early 20th century, so Gladys would not have liked any of them. My favourite is that her father was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh and a lodger in Auntie's mother's rooming house. As this so-called rooming house came up for sale a year or so ago and could be visited, it was discovered that this rooming house was actually no more than a rooming flat. 

My least favourite story is that Auntie ran off on holiday to Paris  with her employer's son. Who wants some employer's dodgy son for a great-grandfather when one can have a Edinburgh-trained doctor instead? And although Auntie does seem to have been rather headstrong--the one photo of her as a young woman shows her in costume for School for Scandal--it does seem odd that she would think Paris a holiday destination in 1914. 

Auntie lived to a ripe old age and died in a nursing home around the corner from what is now my parents' house. Gladys was a good daughter to Auntie all her days and, in fact, became a volunteer at her nursing home and died there herself almost 30 years later.  And apparently Auntie was a good mother to Gladys, despite the fact Gladys never got to call her "Mother." "Auntie always made sure I had good shoes," proudly said Gladys, who spent much of her working life on her feet. My own mother is proud that Auntie had laid away so much money for her retirement that she died before the money ran out. This is the kind of thing Scottish-Canadians boast about. 

Back to Gladys. So Gladys grew up mostly in Toronto, but spent two or three years in Scotland--Edinburgh and Perthshire--helping Auntie care for relations, and stayed in school long enough to get a teacher's certificate. When she was old enough, she got a summer job waitressing in a hotel on Toronto Island, presumably taking the ferry back and forth, if she didn't live in. Her extended family of Auntie, grandmother, uncle, infant aunt and possible alia, lived all together, possibly above a fish-and-chip shop. At one point they owed a Toronto chippy, calling no man master; goodness, how far we have fallen since then. 

Anyway, Gladys met a nice red-headed boy named George, who lived a long bus ride away, and he got so tired of seeing Gladys home and then having to wait in the bitter Toronto cold for a bus that he asked her to marry him. They married in 1939, and as Gladys was almost 25, George teased her that he was her last chance, which annoyed her no end. George was already in the militia, so when war broke out, off to British Columbia he went to guard the West Coast against the Japanese. Gladys got a job selling hats in Simpson's department store.

George had a good war until about 1941 when he was sent overseas. Then--we strongly suspect--he had a bad war. Other than worrying about George, Gladys had a good war. She worked at Simpson's by day and played cards with her mother and same-age aunt by night. And George came home alive, although without the lovely red hair, and a year later she had her one and only baby. 

The baby was the apple of Gladys' eye until her dying day, and there was no way her grandchildren could ever get her on side against the Apple, if they even bothered trying. Gladys had no interest in having any other children, and she was somewhat overwhelmed by the Apple's children, and got out of babysitting quite a lot by referring to her Nerves. This was not just a lazy excuse, for the Nerves were real and were passed down to her eldest granddaughter, although the Nerves were probably exacerbated in Gladys' case by her half-pack a day smoking habit. 

Goodness, did she smoke. George did, too. My mother spent her youth holed up in her room studying and avoiding the fumes. George had early onset deafness--we blamed the war until my mother got it too--and so the television roared. Gladys escaped the television in the kitchen, where she played the radio, smoked and sat at the yellow formica kitchen table, thinking. "Gladys' psycho corner," joked George.

But this is the iconic image of my grandmother, albeit not at the yellow table in her own tobacco-drenched house. In my mind, Gladys is forever sitting at my mother's kitchen table (glass, covered with a salmon crocheted cloth, or the yellow-green crocheted cloth) with her cigarettes and that  old-fashioned "Inuit Art" ashtray--a faceless hunter in a parka slowly snowed over with ash--and a pot of tea. Or sometimes she is striding up the sidewalk on Sunday afternoon with a sturdy 1970s plastic shopping bag, wearing trousers, high-heeled sandals, a belted leather coat and a beret. When her hair went grey, she dyed it silver.

Double-pneumonia put an end to the smoking although when she appears in my dreams she is smoking again. It is a relief, as are her perfectly polished fingernails. She gave up the chic clothing, the lipstick and the nail-polish when she went into the nursing home. What a pity. She thought having to grow old, with all of is attendant humiliations, was a pity. She died within days of being diagnosed with liver cancer; her grandchildren had no chance to say good-bye, but on the other hand at least it was quick, and she visited me, at very least, in my dreams soon after to say she was fine, but missing us. Unlike Auntie she was as sharp as a tack until the drugged-up end: another cause for Scottish-Canadian boasting. 

Sentimental Catholic stories of pious grandmothers intrigue me, and I wonder how truthful they are. One beloved old Catholic grandmother-saint of my acquaintance actively deep-sixed her grandson's marital hopes by privately warning his girlfriend that "X has no ambition; just like his grandfather." My Proddie granny usually set food in church only for weddings and funerals, but she would never have betrayed one of us, or our grandfather, like that. 

The sainted grandmother contrasts--so amusing. The grandmothers who cooked feasts--Gran'ma couldn't cook. The grandmothers who baked cookies--Gran'ma brought us store-bought, slightly stale, tasting of cigarette smoke, wrapped in paper towels. The grandmothers who listened to Radio Maria--Gran'ma listened to standard Canadian fare. The grandmothers who bitched about this ethnic group or that--Gran'ma had a kind word for anyone, and the group she had been brought up to despise most--Toronto Catholics--comprised 99.99% of her family in the end. 

The telling thing about Gladys is that it is simply impossible to reduce her to "my grandmother". She was not  a grandmotherly person although she certainly loved her grandchildren. I'm not even sure she was a motherly person, despite her fierce, protective love for the Apple. She was herself, and in an almost frightening way she is me, too, as if all women in the maternal line slowly grow into the template of the their first pattern-stamping mother, whoever she might have been. 

Of your charity, please pray for Gladys on this the 101th anniversary of her birth.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

A Surprise of the Holy Spirit

B.A. as Xerxes, drawn by his loving wife.
The incomparably gifted David Warren has something to say about surprise-of-the-Holy-Spirit rhetoric.

One surprise--as in, "Oh, goodness me!"-- of the Holy Spirit to which the residents of the Historical House can attest is that at the ages of 36 and 37 they met and fell in love. Strangely and wonderfully, each appreciated the other for their love of Christ and His Church. Hitherto, the ladies who had fancied Benedict Ambrose had merely tolerated his gradual conversion to Catholicism. 

Amazingly, the first eligible woman to think Benedict Ambrose's love for Catholicism one of the best things about him was also shorter than he, had red hair like his idol Dame Emma, was capable of ladylike behaviour in public, had been brought up to praise a good husband day in and day out, wrote well and had even done some of those Canadian wilderness things illustrated by his hero Ray Mears on telly. 

Astonishingly, the one man in some years who had thought Seraphic (then aged 37) a pearl of great price had just been received by the Roman Catholic Church, had published an excellent paper on virtue ethics in a peer-reviewed journal, lived in a 17th century house (with 18th century additions), had a kindly, affectionate nature, a handsome face, an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music and an enormous collection of worthy books and had never married.


"It's providential," they told each other and all their friends, who eventually told them to shut up. 

The surprise of the Holy Spirit was not that traditional Catholic doctrine was incorrect or had been superceded by some post-war novelty, but that God's plan for them included a happy Catholic marriage after all. Surprisingly, it involved marrying someone from across the Atlantic Ocean. Surprisingly, it involved no compromise of faith but rather a happy companionship in faith. Surprisingly (for one), it involved going to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass week in and week out. Surprisingly (for the other), it involved living with such arcane hobbies as Polish vocabulary and Pilates.

Another surprise of the Holy Spirit is that they were asked to be the godparents of a little boy whose baptism had been delayed for some time, largely because St. Thomas Aquinas ruled against anxious Christians just secretly christening children in the kitchen sink. One of the godparents may have burst into tears of joy once she was alone.  At any rate, this was one of the happiest moments of 21st century life in the Historical House.

So, yes, the denizens of the Historical House are happy to testify that there are surprises of the Holy Spirit, but they are at one in saying that in their experience these surprises are not in contradiction to the ancient beliefs and practices of the Una Vera Fides.

Update: The Holy Spirit also showers Protestants with such surprises, mind you. The story of the romance and marriage of Calvinist Cath is one of my all-time favourites. In short, she was thirty-something, dressed in her Sunday best (and no make-up, as Free Presbyterian women don't wear make-up), helping serve supper at the minister's house, when an equally intellectual young English Baptist, a medical doctor, thought "That's for me" and began a courtship through written correspondence. Surprise!

Not Your Oma's Cologne

A Canadian Teutonophile was excitedly telling her UK-based daughter about her planned excursion to Munich when the daughter broke in to say "Avoid the railway station right now." And the Teutonophile was sad, for she remembered travelling all over Germany by train in the 1960s, which was only twenty years or so after her own father was at war with the joint. Astonishingly, Canadian girls--daughters and granddaughters of German-slaughtering Canadian soldiers--were probably safer travelling around Germany in the 1960s (and even the 1950s) than they are now.

Here is Breitbart to explain why. If you wish to take it all with a grain of salt because it is Breitbart or because Russians were involved in reporting the story, be my guest. However, you can take it from me that walking around Cologne in 2006 as a solitary female was not unparalleled joy. It turned out that the "male gaze" was neither imaginary nor extinct nor reserved for those women under 35.

How to cope if you are female but want to tour large German cities? Here are some tips.

1. Wear whatever you damn well please.
2. But wear shoes you can run in or boots you can kick with.
3. Adopt the hostile resting face expression of German women on public transit.
4. But be willing to ask for emergency help from older Germans, no matter how hostile their resting faces. They will be on your side, guaranteed.
5. A male family member makes a great travelling companion. However, if he is a young man, don't be under any illusions that he himself is safe from attack. The untold story of the Cologne New Year's Eve is the number of young German men who ended up in hospital.
6. Avoid large groups of men. Don't think you can brazen your way though with a haughty glance and your nose in the air, as in films. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
7. Don't go out at night by yourself; there will be fewer older Germans around to come to your aid.
8. Don't assume you will be safe alone in a taxi cab with the driver, especially if you are drunk. (This goes for British cities, too.)
9. If you go out dancing, note where the bouncers are. (Also good advice for British cities.)
10. Don't strike up conversations with men you haven't been introduced to, especially not to prove how unracist you are. Some men from certain cultures honestly think that any woman who initiates a conversation with a man she doesn't know must be a whore.

And furthermore:

11. Don't assume all German German men are angels, either, but they have certainly been trained at home and at school to assume the dignity and equality of women.
12. Don't mention the Second World War when making friends with young Germans. If you come from one of the Allied nations, they will eventually bring it up themselves. The trauma continues.
13. Praise Germany; no matter how much Germans complain about it, you must stick to "Germany is wonderful" like a broken record. The bread is wonderful. The cathedrals are wonderful. The shopping streets are wonderful (and how). The art is wonderful. Rilke is wonderful. (Read some Rilke before you go.) Goethe is wonderful. (If under 35, read The Sorrows of Young Werther, but don't commit suicide, please.) Germans are perfectly capable of trashing Germany 24 hours a day, but if a foreigner agrees with them on this, they suddenly get cross.
14. If American or Canadian, read Karl May's books about Old Shatterhand and Winnetou before you go. Trust me on this. Be gentle on the subject of the wrongness of dressing up like movie Indians, feathers, warpaint, leather fringes and all because gazillions of Germans love it and did it as kids.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Brick by Brick

Benedict Ambrose counted 77 people at the Edinburgh Missa Cantata on Sunday, including the Girl Guide company. We discovered that the large contingent of students was from Glasgow and that they hope to make it to our Mass at least once a month. We are terribly pleased. Glasgow is only 47 miles away, but trains are not cheap, so this represents a real effort on the part of the Glasgow young.

Some time ago a middle-aged visitor from Ireland remarked cuttingly that ours was not a young congregation, which he meant as a kind of insult. But as a matter of fact, half the congregation (including the altar servers) was under forty. The demographic we're short on is babies. There are parents, teenagers and children, but only two or so babies currently. This may be because the largest contingent of people of child-bearing age are unmarried university students who, after they graduate, will likely move elsewhere.

It is always said when the university students move away. They never call, they rarely write, nidgy nie zadzwonią, a rzadko piszą listy... 

Patrick Archibald wrote quite a good article on getting the hang of the Traditional Latin Mass. Too bad it's in the Remnant, where he is preaching to the choir. Those readers who don't go to the TLM every week may be turned off by the anti-Novus Ordo remarks in the combox.

I think he overstates the difficulties, but it can't be said too many times that the Traditional Latin Mass is bewildering and even boring to many people the first and second time they attend. And without a missal--or a handy-dandy White Sheet picked up at the back of the church--they are going to have a very quiet hour.

However, the most important thing in traddery is that hour. Nothing else really matters in comparison. The after-Mass social is lovely, and making friends with fellow congregants is marvellous, and signing this petition and going to that rally dutiful, and looking for veils online is fun, but what matters most is the Mass.

Monday, 18 January 2016

A Conflict of Values

There comes a point in every Polonophile's New Year's diet when she has to make a decision between continuing on the straight and narrow path of not eating everything she can think of and going to Poland to eat all this stuff while the exchange rate is still 5.8 zl to the British pound sterling.

As a matter of fact, we in the Historical House now make our own kotlet schabodowy by walloping pork chops flat with a wooden rolling pin. You can do this yourself, but if a man lives in your house, you should get him to do it, for even the gentlest, mildest of men gets enormous satisfaction out of pounding a pork chop into a pork pancake.


Soumission (in English Submission) is a highly celebrated novel by the French writer Michel Houllebecq. It could be deemed the French 1984, so you really ought to read it.

In short, the year is 2020 and to defeat Marine LePen and her Front National party in the presidential elections, the Socialist Party throws its support behind the French Muslim party. The charismatic "moderate Muslim" Mohammed Ben Abbas becomes the president and all non-Muslim (and women) professors at the Sorbonne are dismissed from their posts, albeit with a darned good pension, thanks to our friends the Saudis.

 Soumission does not condemn Islam or Islamism as much as it tears the skin off contemporary, secularist, left-wing, sex-obsessed French academia. Houllebecq's protagonist François, a strangely sympathetic anti-hero, is a depressed professor of French Literature at the Sorbonne (in his case, Paris III), who feels his best days ended when his seven-year doctoral study of Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans, a 19th century French novelist who converted to Catholicism, was completed.

To his surprise, he was one of the chosen few students given a university post after graduation, but the privilege doesn't prevent the growing banality of his existence. An only child, he hasn't seen either of his divorced parents in years, he has no friends, and and he is obsessed with sex, which he has with a revolving door of young women (usually students) who dump him when they "have met someone else."  He loves to eat,and describes what he eats in loving detail, but it is almost always foreign: microwavable Indian or Arab or Turkish delicacies. It is only when women (and he) are about to be fired from the Sorbonne that he gets a decent French meal, cooked lovingly by a Frenchwoman. The connection between his French hostess losing her academic post and her cooking him splendid French food is not lost on the reader.

The protagonist struggles to find meaning in his life, and even gives Catholicism a go. The Catholic reader, while probably wanting to skip the passages describing his sexual encounters, which are detailed, may be charmed by the good showing French Catholics get in this novel. The Catholic young are described as typically having "open, friendly" faces. Catholic monks are depicted as being young or middle-aged, happy, tranquil, friendly and compassionate. Meanwhile, the protagonist's inability to appreciate monastic life is well in keeping with Catholics know of virtue ethics. Grace is a free gift, and Houllebecq's protagonist has not exactly asked for it or made himself capable of receiving it. (Is Houllebecq a Catholic?  Despite the anatomically detailed sex scenes, this well may be a "Catholic novel.")

Of course, Catholics may be taken aback at how many Catholics, and how many French "nativists" (French who want France to stay French), have converted to Islam in this projected France of 2020. Still, at least Catholics are the one non-Islamic group the Islamists respect, even as they sincerely hope to convert them. (The Jews, of course, know they are toast, so they flee to Israel.)

Bizarrely the Catholic reader may even see the silver lining in the cloud of Islamic domination: women are paid a handsome salary if they leave work and take care of their children instead, small businesses are encouraged and fostered, unemployment for men is at zero, the Muslim president is, and always has been, a fan of Chestertonian Distributivism, the protagonist stops thinking about sex all the time because he never sees naked female legs in public: in the shopping walls  all women are wearing trousers paired with a long tunic. And certainly the Muslim way of life (for a man of privilege and pension) seems better than the protagonist's isolation, drinking, eating microwaved instant Indian dishes, visiting whores....

For there are rewards for high-status Frenchmen (like Paris University intellectuals) who convert, rewards a man obsessed with sex and delighted by home-cooking can appreciate. Will the protagonist succumb to temptation and submit?

One thing to remember about this novel is it is written entirely from the point of view of a selfish man who is unable to love his own mother, let alone anyone else. He is interested in women, but only in how they please or displease him. He is surprised when he discovers that his clever older woman colleague is married, for it blows his mind that anyone could ever have desired her frog-like self, and he misses the presence of women at faculty meetings because he finds men standing around trying to talk about anything that is not football awkward and boring.

Therefore, we do not see--and are not meant to see--what is happening to anyone who is not a prestigious male French scholar in this revolutionary Islamic France. The only Jew in the story has left, all the women seem happy with their new lot, the monks are completely untroubled by the regime change and--bizarrely--once the election is over, there are no insurrections. No rebellions. My goodness. In Krakow, in real life, if a migrant mob said Boo, the local men would pour into the streets with baseball bats--or so a well-educated Krakow native told me in a Krakow business in Krakow.

However, one has to admit that white Frenchmen seem very unlikely to be moved to vigilantism--or to insurrection against a Muslim government--in Paris, where the response to the most outrageous anti-European violence is to lay flowers on the pavement and play "Imagine" on a piano in the street.
Houllebecq anticipated the request in the title and wrote a novel that imagines what France will be like in 2020 if the situation in Europe continues as it does--for the lefty French male scholar, that is. There is absolutely no hint of the sexual violence meted out to women in the so-called Muslim world, which apparently now includes Cologne.

Update: The British Prime Minister tries to get rid of purdah in the UK, hoping that once all Muslim women are freed, they will have the power to combat extremism.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Selfishness Sweepstakes

A Single reader wrote in to ask about married people and our willingness to visit out-of-town friends. She has noticed that once her friends marry, they are no longer so willing to visit her, although they don't stint on their invitations to her. Was this just the way life was, she wondered, and would she be the same when she married?

The email seemed jocular, so she got a jocular reply. In short, it is a widely known fact that couples gain at least ten pounds after marriage, in part because they become very reluctant to go outdoors after dark. We come home from work, we eat, we watch TV, we go to bed. The next day, we go to work, we come home from work, we eat, we watch TV, we go to bed. If children come along, they complicate matters and make it even harder for married people to go outdoors after dark. Husbands famously never go out with their wives at night, etc.  That was the gist of it.

Well! The Single reader wrote back in what looked like a fury, saying that it confirmed what she suspected, which was that Single people were less selfish than married people, for married people just lived for each other and their children, whereas Single people live for others.

There was sincere regret at the other end for having written the jocular reply, but also some confusion as to how spouses and children don't count as "others" and how a Single woman could conclude, given the contemporary dating climate, that in general Single people live for others.

In fact, the most deeply selfish people I have ever met are Single. However, it could be argued that their very Singleness is a mitigating factor, for it is more difficult to climb into the pits of self-absorption when you are married: there is always this other person there with, like, needs and wants of his or her own, who won't let you.  If you resist, he or she either convinces you to shape up or he or she runs away, and hey presto, you are [functionally] Single again.

It is good to live with other people, for it forces a person to think of others, at least if that person wants to live in peace and harmony. It is a dying to self, and my goodness, the sufferings of real-life, concrete Edinburgh parents who sacrifice so much (especially sleep) for their children fill  me with awe. The childless married person usually has to think just of his or her spouse, which is not that difficult, if he or she has chosen well, and usually involves some kind of housework and never saying "I told you so" or "You never." Still, even the childless have to be willing to sacrifice this dream and that, this anticipated treat or that long-awaited ambition, for the sake of a spouse.

It is not, as a matter of fact, selfish for a married person (or anyone, really) to turn down an out-of-town invitation from a Single friend. In fact, the married person who delivers the bad news is probably doing the unselfish thing in taking the heat on behalf of his or her spouse. "I'd like to see Mary Sue," I can imagine the wife saying. "Can we see Mary Sue next weekend?"

"Next weekend?" wails the husband. "You KNOW what kind of week I'll be having at work. By the weekend I won't want to do anything but sleep and veg in front of the TV. I'm sorry, but driving all the way to Buffalo and back is just too much for one weekend ."

"Well, I'll go see Mary Sue then," says the wife, bravely, for she has never been the same confident driver since that accident that time.

"But you hate highway driving," says her husband. "Why don't you ask Mary Sue to come here?"

"But she came last time; it's our turn to go there."

"I'm not driving to Buffalo, and that's final," says the husband. "And I don't want you white-knuckling all the way down the I-90, either. Meanwhile, I'm barely going to see you all week. Let's spend Saturday at home and then go out for dinner. Mary Sue can come with us if she wants."

So the wife, with some relief, just hunkers down and emails Mary Sue to say "We can't come, but you can always come here!"

And Mary Sue has the choice to be hacked off at the thought of the drive or to be delighted that her friends have given her an open invitation.

There's a married woman in Toronto who is wonderful company but has three children under 7. She doesn't have much time for her Single/childless friends, poor sweet. After (or concurrent with) family obligations, she manages to arrange "play dates" with other exhausted mothers of small children, which are always when the vast majority of her Single/childless friends are working.

This married mother has a childless friend who has visited Toronto once a year for the past six years. When they meet, they never travel farther than the nearest shopping street, and this is almost always with at least one child in tow. Usually what they do is sit in the married mother's house amid a sea of toys and children and drink herbal tea. The childless friend holds one of the children, and the married mother runs around doing this and that for this child or that child or her husband. And the childless friend just sits there with the baby or the toddler, happy as a raccoon at a baby shower--to quote the American car salesman on the British TV advert--and looks at her friend.

"You're doing the most important job in the world," she says to  the married mother, who always looks a little thinner and a little more tired than she did the year before.

"I really hope so," says the married mother fervently.

She almost never writes, she almost never calls, she almost never checks Facebook. She really has no time. But her childless friend waits and looks forward to her next trip to Toronto and as much sitting in the toy-and-child sea as possible because...well, love.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Pan Tadeusz

Gerwazy, the Warden of the Castle
Pan Tadeusz  ("Sir Thaddeus") is Poland's national epic, comprising twelve books of verse, written entirely in the Polish Alexandrine form--thirteen syllable couplets--in the early 1830s. Its author, a Polish-Lithuanian patriot named Adam Mickiewicz, wrote it for fun and relaxation, a light-hearted escape from his more pointed political writings. He had no notion that Pan Tadeusz would become to the Poles what Henry V is to the English.

Pan Tadeusz is set in a village called Soplicowo in what was Polish Lithuania in 1811 and 1812. Soplicowo simmers under Russian rule, the Polish gentry--which basically means everyone not a peasant or a Jew--longing to throw off the shackles of the Tsar, restore the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and kill a lot of Russians in the process. They are hopeful that this will soon happen, for Napoleon Bonaparte has gathered whole regiments of Poles under his banner and if anyone can defeat the Tsar, it will be Napoleon.

Meanwhile, the gentry quarrel endlessly among each other, go hunting, carry out lawsuits, have raucous dinner parties, court women, get married and have babies. Whenever a gentleman is overwhelmed by dreams of freedom from Russian rule, or gets into trouble with the local Russian authorities, he rides off to the Duchy of Warsaw to volunteer for Napoleon.

What is always very amusing for the native English-speaker reading Polish historical works is the contrast between the Polish gentleman of the early 1800s, in his almost Turkish costume, and the English gentleman of the same era, in his proto-tuxedo. The literary Polish gentleman grows giant
moustaches, threatens, brags, yells, sings at the table, starts brawls, weeps with love for father, sweetheart or fatherland--even when there are ladies present. The English gentleman does not.

Ah, another brawl at supper. How droll.

One struggles to imagine Mr Darcy sitting at the table in the castle of Soplicowo when a riot breaks out around him. What would he do?  Deftly step out a window and admire the stars to the sound of glass smashing or with great presence of mind elect to sit under the table? Or would some tightly-bound spirit in his breast burst its buttons, seize a club and explode into the fray? After all, Mr Darcy would be on holiday. When in Polish Lithuania, do as the Lithuanian Polish gentlemen do. ("Sprinkle, sprinkle.")

The English prose translation, which preserves Mickiewicz's literal meaning, if neither his meter nor his rhymes, reveals a number of unforgettable characters, including  Gerwazy, the insanely loyal Warden of the Castle (whose rightful ownership is being contested between young Count Horeszko, cousin of its murdered owner, and the Soplica family), the mysterious and brilliant Bernardine monk Father Robak, young Tadeusz Soplica, who represents Polish Youth (and how), the very young Zofia Horeszko, who represents the ideal 19th century sweetheart and therefore is tragically lacking in colour, and her thirty-something aunt Telimena, who is a delightful female scoundrel, given to flirting with younger men at dinner parties.  As Zofia's primary activities are taking care of chickens and looking pretty (she's only fourteen), the women of Pan Tadeusz would very boring and pathetic without Aunt Telimena. It is true that she wears rouge, but who are we to judge?

The reason to read an English prose translation (e.g. the 1917 edition by George Rapall Noyes here) is to get as close to the mind and talent of Mickiewicz as possible and, while admiring the wonderful metaphors, descriptions, adventures and jokes, to marvel that the author did all this in verse. To appreciate the verse, you have to either know or learn Polish---although of course you can see if you like the efforts of English translator-poets.

Here is an actor reciting the "Inwokacja" (Invocation), which is the very epic-like beginning to Pan Tadeusz: the author addresses first his homeland of Polish Lithuania and then the Blessed Mother of God.

The famous Polish director Andrzej Wajda made a film version of Pan Tadeusz, to which subtitles have been added for the anglophone market. The fighting scenes must be amazing, but no doubt poor Auntie Telimena has been sexed up for late 20th century sensibilities.

All Poles in Poland have to read this book in school, so if you want some insight into the Polish psyche (at very least all Polish psyches born between 1800 and 1989), I suggest you read it.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Anglo-Canadian Comfort Food

It is difficult to pin down a "Canadian" cuisine, for when it comes to food Canada is divided into at least four distinct peoples. As Anglo-Canadians are embarrassed to admit to any divisions whatsoever anywhere for any reason, perhaps it would be best to employ those brassily used in Canada's most exciting city, Montréal. Thus, we may say that Canada's four distinct peoples are les Français, les Anglos (the English, Scots and Irish), les Autres (everyone else except:), les Autochtones (the First Nations people).

Les Français have got their own distinct cuisine, which originated in late mediaeval/early renaissance France and got transplanted and developed in the very different climate of what used to be called Nouvelle France. Apples, maple syrup, pork fat and wild blueberries are key. However, so too are such bizarre dishes as páté chinois, which is actually a beef-based shepherd's pie and can be found preassembled in the freezer section of Quebec supermarkets, and poutine, which is french fries with cheese curds and gravy. Those two favourites aside, traditional Québecois cuisine is fantastic, and les Anglos are a bit jealous of the distinctiveness and non-Americanness of it all.

Les Anglos are haunted by the fear that we may be mistaken for Americans, which is why we never leave home without a maple leaf on our backpacks. We were overjoyed when South Park did its best to make us look different from Americans by giving us weird accents and little egg-heads that flap up and down when we speak. South Park also portrayed us as eaters of something called "Kroft Dinner", which no doubt prevented a lawsuit from Kraft Dinner, which is a brand of boxed macaroni and cheese popular among Canadian university students for its cheapness and its simplicity. Not everybody likes it.

That said, an argument can be made that macaroni and cheese, made with proper Canadian cheddar (not instant cheese powder) and served with tomato ketchup, is an Anglo-Canadian comfort food. It is hot, stodgy and squishy. If you boil the noodles long enough, you don't need teeth to eat it.

Another Anglo comfort food is scrambled eggs on buttered toast, for which you need at least baby teeth. And still another is shepherd's pie (really cottage pie, as it is made with minced beef) with nice fluffy mashed potatoes on top. One could also argue that various soups--chicken noodle, tomato and French Canadian pea--count as Anglo comfort cooking (or comfort heating up, as they usually come out of a can), especially when paired with a toasted cheddar cheese sandwich (with tomato ketchup).

American readers will have noticed that these comfort foods, with the possible exception of French Canadian pea soup, are also rather popular in the colder parts of the USA. This is why Anglos like to pretend poutine belongs to all Canadians and not just les Français.

Naturally les Anglos find comfort in various foodstuffs belonging to les Autres. For example, pierogi belong to the Poles and Ukrainians, but the Poles and the Ukrainians have been in Canada (especially western Canada) in very large numbers since before Confederation (1867), and pierogi are so popular among the Anglo majority, you can find them in the frozen section of your average Toronto supermarket. The Anglo-Canadian variation on the proper traditional fillings is cheddar cheese and potato... Perhaps you have begun to see a cheddar cheese trend.

Another time-honoured Anglo-Canadian theft from les Autres is Chinese food, only we rarely make it ourselves: we just call up our local favourite Chinese restaurant and get them to make it. Naturally what they bring us is not usually what the Chinese eat themselves or what Canadian urban sophisticates order when they are downtown. The Chinese food of my 1970s and 1980s childhood consisted of egg rolls, fried rice, stir-fried vegetables including baby corn and bamboo, sliced pork and honey-glazed garlic chicken, followed by almond and fortune cookies.

Naturally les Anglos stole such Italian clichés as pasta-with-tomato-sauce in its various forms and pizza, rendering them barely recognizable to the Italian segment of the Les Autres population. One favourite pasta dish in my Canadian home is called "Baked Cavatelli", and the recipe probably came out of the "Milk" calendar, a popular and colourful calendar distributed free to Canadian households via the national newspapers at the expense of the Milk Marketing Board.

It is probably the doing of the Milk Marketing Board that the use of Canadian cheddar cheese looms so largely in Canadian comfort cooking---that and all the nostalgic 19th-century themed adverts on Canadian TV on Sunday evenings for Kraft Cheese. Well, without further ado, here is my recipe for macaroni and cheese, taken from the very Canadian Let Me in the Kitchen (1982), whose only nods to Les Autres are "Channukah Potato Latkes" and "Fettucini Alfredo", with a lovely illustration of Alfredo himself wearing a pencil-thin moustache.

Real Macaroni and Cheese (Sue Mendelson)

3 cups (750 mL) macaroni (vegetable or whole wheat is best, Sue claims)
1/2 cup (125 mL) butter
6 Tbsp (100 mL) white flour
2 cups (500 mL) milk
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
3 cups (750 mL) grated cheddar cheese

1. Preheat the over to 375F (190 C).
2. Grate the cheddar and divide into two piles: one 2 cups and the other 1 cup.
3. Fill a big pot 2/3 full of water. Add a teaspoon of salt. Bring water to boil and then add macaroni slowly. Lower heat but let boil for ten minutes. Strain macaroni over the sink.
4. In a medium-sized pot, melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour all at once and stir quickly with a whisk. Keep stirring for a count of 60.
5. Gradually add the milk with one hand while stirring the mixture with the other. (Sue doesn't say so, but you are making a white sauce, the most basic thing in Anglo-Saxon cookery). Keep stirring while the sauce becomes thicker ("Don't lose patience. Keep stirring," says Sue. Words to live by.)
6. After about five minutes, stir 2 cups of the cheese into the white sauce. Add 1 tsp of salt.
7. Turn off the heat. Add the drained noodles to the cheese sauce and mix with a spoon. Smear some butter around the inside of a casserole dish. Pour the noodles and sauce into the casserole and sprinkle with the remaining cup of cheese.
8. Bake for 25 minutes. (Sue says this is long enough to clean up the counter and the pots). Remove from oven with oven mitts.

Serve with tomato ketchup. As comfort foods go, Scottish husbands are likely to find this both delicious and sophisticated--ten times nicer than the macaroni pies for sale in Edinburgh pie shops.

Heartwarming Update: One of my musician brother's first compositions was a song called "Cheese." It went along these lines. "Cheese, cheese, I love cheese. "Miracle" sliced. Kraft ched-dar. Cheese. Cheese. Cheese, cheese, cheese!

A Cultural Boast: Canadians love butter tarts. And nobody else has butter tarts. They are impossible to find outside of Canada. Ah, butter tarts. But they are not a comfort food as they are too sweet.