Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Christmas at the Historical House

First, here is a much better post on the subject of Christmas in an old house. It is by Hilaire Belloc.

I know it is much better than my post before my post comes into being because I am terribly, terribly tired. I am often tired by sunset Christmas Eve and again by Christmas Night, but this was the first Christmas Eve I was tired when I woke up. And I was tired this morning until I went out and walked two miles.

This was not the first Christmas I had hysterics because of a kitchen failure; that has happened at least twice before, years ago. However, it was the first Christmas I had hysterics on Christmas Eve. It was the trifle what done it: the custard I had made from scratch didn't set. I fled from the kitchen and wailed--deep, loud sobs--in the bedroom until I remembered the box of shop custard left over from my most recent attempt to fatten up B.A. I then got up and found my mother cheerfully preparing the custard, having already cut up the cake in 1 inch pieces.

I went to bed soon after. It was fortunate we had planned to go to the Third Mass of Christmas, at noon, not the First, at midnight.

My mother made the Sacred Christmas Bun. She woke up at 6:30 AM to bake it, which was very nice for me, as it meant I didn't have to do it.

Christmas Dinner was splendid: Autumn Vegetable soup with thyme from the planters outside the house; honey-glazed curried carrots; green beans with red pepper and almonds; roast goose stuffed with lemons, potatoes, rosemary and thyme;  cranberry relish; the trifle; mince tarts; mixed nuts; white white, red wine, ice wine. There were five of us to consume it--three had flown from Canada to do so.

After a rest, I left the family in front of "Scrooged" and washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. I was very pleased and proud about my clean kitchen afterwards. Despite the odd attack of hysterics this year and that, I really do enjoy baking Christmas treats and making Christmas dinner. However, I have discovered this year that I was too tired from working 8 hour days, 5 days a week to really enjoy the kitchen marathon. I do not know how other women who work full-time manage it all.

This morning I put away the dishes and then went for a walk by the Firth of Forth, and I felt very glad of the fresh air and exercise. Writing news full-time is a very indoor pursuit. Eventually I found a cafe that was actually open, and a woman in it made me a cappuccino, and I was very glad of that too. Then I walked home and suggested to my mother, brother, and husband that we walk by way of the cycle paths to central Edinburgh, leaving early enough so as to get there before dark (i.e. 4 PM). They agreed, so we all had a splendid walk through the remnants of countryside between the Historical House and the city.

But I won't do the dishes tonight. I am done with washing/cooking/cleaning for the next 24 hours. And, on a week's furlough from the Culture Wars, I will spend as much time outside as possible for the next six days.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Secrets of Learning Languages Part Two B

I may be awfully stupid, but it took me years to drop the idea that one can learn languages simply by
attending courses. It never occurred to me that successful language learning takes an enormous amount of private work, parcelled into a long series of manageable tasks. Today I suspect I could learn even mathematics, so long as the plan of work was divided into sufficiently small parts.

That's why I am hesitant in recommending language classes. However, it cannot be denied that formal classes are a good resource, if only because you have at least one fluent person in front of you serving as a model.

University Classes (Day)

At nineteen, I believed firmly that you found languages came easily or you were dumb at them. Thus, I wasted a lot of time shedding tears over my Greek textbook, feeling stupid and hating myself. I did much better at Latin, which which I was already somewhat familiar. I flunked Irish outright, in part because I hated the sound of myself struggling with the words and so ceased trying. Lord, it was awful to be nineteen.

Were I to wake up and discover myself nineteen again, only--please God--without the fear and the crippling self-hated, I would sign up for Russian and Business and work towards becoming a multi-millionaire. I would locate and befriend my best friend Trish on the proper day, but otherwise I would keep my head down, make a workable plan and memorise, memorise, memorise, speak, speak, speak.

Undergrad university programs are valuable for their resources. Both my universities (Toronto and Boston College) had excellent language labs, but unfortunately I never used the Toronto one. I often used the BC one a for French and German, which seemed to make the Language Lab Librarian happy. They also have exchange programs with other universities, and this is important because apparently immersion really does the fluency trick. Finally, they have professors who are so potty about their languages they did PhDs in them and now need to justify their courses' existence with the numbers of students who take them. Thus if you show yourself keen, they will love you and help you with all their power.

University Classes (Night)

I am a morning person, and I am afraid to be out after dark on my own. Nevertheless, I went to night classes at Edinburgh University for five years to learn Polish and brush up my Italian. The principal Polish instructor is a very dedicated and very clever teacher. If she could make her students fluent in Polish sheerly though teaching, she would.

However, the two big problems with night school classes are that (A) you are surrounded by people who also don't speak your target language fluently and, more seriously, (B) there are no tests.

No tests, no grades. I suspect the "Languages for All" program is shrewdly thinking that adult learners hated tests and grades when they are students, and now just want the fun parts of learning. I sympathise. But testing is HOW we memorise and grading is HOW we can judge our progress. We cannot learn to speak languages very well without testing our recollection. Every foreign language conversation is a kind of test.

In despair I asked my night class teacher if any of her night school students had become fluent in Polish, and after thinking about it awhile, she said yes--one. I think he was Dutch.

But despite that depressing statistic, under her watch Polish night school courses are flourishing. There is a sort of Dumbledorska's Army at Edinburgh Uni marching onward and onward towards fluency, never quitting, no matter how many years they have signed up with Languages for All.

If I were starting Polish 1.2 all over again,  I would make all the vocabulary in Dumbledorska's excellent class materials into flashcards, memorise them, and then read her meticulously written dialogues aloud to captive Polish friends, or cajole them into reading them with me.

Another advantage of night classes is that if you take them long enough, you find yourself with a small band of people just as obsessed as yourself and who (unlike other family and friends) admire you for your stubbornness. And if your mutual obsession is Polish--Hej, chłopcy, bagnet na broń just about sums it up because you are actually becoming Polish by osmosis.

Private Tutors

I have had six private Polish tutors, and one Italian one, and only three of them have been paid. In general I have operated on an Language Exchange basis: I proofread your university papers, you listen to me read Polish.

Paid-in-cash tutors are the best tutors, in my experience, for a few reasons. First, tutors who are friends are too kind and gentle and, unwilling to see me suffer, let me give up too soon.

(That said, one of my friends has been an enormous help by writing me long letters in Polish in difficult handwriting. Although the handwriting has occasionally reduced me to tears, it turns out that the longer it takes to read a word, the better you recall it. Thus there is a virtue in chicken-scratch handwriting hitherto unappreciated.)

Second, paid-in-cash tutors have skin in the game, as the kids say. Mine seem very conscientious, too.

The advantages of paid tutelage over night school classes are very important to me:

1. you, and you alone, are in the linguistic spotlight for the lesson and you have no place to hide;
2. you can meet your tutor at the time of day you are most brainy and/or comfortable;
3. you can reschedule meetings, so you never lose your money's worth; and
4. at the advanced level, you can just have conversations for most of the lesson, which is the best way to reach your linguistic goal, if that is to have conversations with native speakers. *

The disadvantage is that going to a tutor costs more than going to class, if you are the sort of person who never misses a class.

I'm very grateful for my five years of Dumbledorska's night school classes, and I do plan to return from furlough when it's feasible, but I have to say that my ability to converse in Polish has really come along only since I began:

1. lessons with my current tutor,
2. to read a chapter of the Polish translation of The Magicians' Nephew a week with
3. strict attention to the meanings of ALL the words and
4. memorising 5-10 of the new ones every day with
5. meticulous record keeping.

*You don't need a tutor for Latin. Work though Wheelock, then purchase an advanced grammar and a good dictionary, and get to work translating Caesar, Horace and Cicero.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Secrets of Learning Languages Part Two A

Unsuitable for adult learners  
Ponder the six-year-old Polish child. Since before she was born, the Polish child has been, unconsciously or consciously, listening to the Polish language. Her early attempts to speak were met with universal admiration. Her mispronunciations were corrected gently, or not at all. She has been carted around her neighbourhood by Polish-speakers, and almost everyone she has met has smiled at her and asked her simple Polish questions, initially without expecting any reply. If she has difficulties with Polish pronunciation, which is common among Polish children, she will be sent to a kindly speech therapist. Only now is she being taught rudimentary reading and writing.

I have before me the elementary reading textbook for two generations of Poles, Elementarz (1974), and it is hard to read. Here is a random example:

Kto to? To Ala i Ola.
Ala stoi i Ola stoi.
A to lalki Ali i Oli.
Lola stoi i Tola stoi.
A oto As Ali i osa.
As stoi. A osa lata.
Taka to ta osa.

Good luck finding clues to all that in a Polish for Foreigners elementary textbook. It was years before I discovered you can sometimes replace the verb "to be" with "to" and that it makes life simpler. 

Thankfully, just like a six-year-old Polish child, I am now capable of figuring out Elementarz. Unlike a six-year-old Polish child, however, I have been horribly neglected these past six years. Polish ladies don't all smile at me just for living. I don't get daily universal admiration for my Polish skills. My family doesn't slowly and distinctly repeat what I say in Polish. There are no Polish cartoons on television, and I had to find songs for Polish children on my own. 

On the plus side, I am big enough to wrestle my massive dictionary down from the shelf, I am allowed to go the library on my own, and I have enough money for Polish classes. When comparing children's ability to learn languages and adults' ability to learn languages, adults and children have different advantages. But the top lesson from Elementarz is that you should not be depressed if you can't read children's books after studying a language for three years. A three year old native speaker can't read them either. 

But books meant for native children's literacy development are not interchangeable with books meant for foreign adults' linguistic development, so Elementarz should be put aside for a long time, reserved for such advanced japes as reciting its poems at parties. The Adult Way of Doing Language is served by three principal methods: Self-Study Series, Classes and Private Tutors. However, I recommend reading books about learning languages first.  To learn more effectively, it's a good idea to learn HOW to learn.

How to Learn Languages Books and Blogs

When it came to learning Polish, I should have read "How to Learn" books first, but better late than never. I have profited very much in the past two years from reading books about language-learning and about memory-training.  Here are my favourites:

Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner 
Mezzofanti's Gift by Michael Erard.

Mezzofanti's Gift introduced me to the seductive world of hyper-polyglots and their blogs. My go-to online resource for language advice is Alexander Arguelles' Foreign Language Expertise

I am a lot more comfortable writing than I am socialising with complete strangers, so the Benny Lewis Fluent in Three Months advice to go to a bar and start repeating your three weeks worth of gibberish to native speakers and bask in their admiration leaves me cold. And skeptical. 

Self-Study Series

Pimsleur--Ideal for Pronunciation.

Because I was easily embarrassed six years ago, my first attempts to learn Polish involved Pimsleur. I took out the first Pimsleur Polish lessons from the library, and eventually my generous father bought me the whole Pimsleur Polish program as a gift. I will never forget shutting myself in the Georgian linen closet/library/laundry room in our flat with Pimsleur Polish 1 Lesson 1 and my acute embarrassment at repeating "Przepraszam" after the CD. To put this in perspective, I was alone in a huge house with thick walls in a spacious park with no neighbours, and yet I felt mortified. 

Pimsleur programs are both incredibly brilliant and incredibly limited, and I recommend them as starting points because they are all about pronunciation and drilling the basics into your resistant brain and clumsy tongue. There are no reading materials. You will learn very few words, but if you obey the program you will learn how to say them perfectly. 

Colloquial... (Routledge)--Good start to Grammar.

Our church organist very kindly gave me his Colloquial Polish (by Bolesław W. Mazur) set,  and I never gave it back. I never finished it either, which is a pity, and I should take another look. I was working my way through when I began Polish classes a year later.  Like Pimsleur, the "Colloquial" books have crucial listening materials, but they also teach reading and grammar. 

Specialized Stuff--Keeps you going. 

If you are learning one of the Big Languages--French, German, Russian, Japanese, Arabic--you will have no trouble finding self-study courses. Less popular languages for study, like Polish and Urdu, aren't covered by all the big publishing houses. But that's okay because there are smaller publishers who do cater to learners of one particular language. 

The elementary Polish for Foreigners series in Poland (and at the University of Toronto) is Krok po Kroku, but a Polish friend gave me the text for Polish in 4 Weeks, and I read it from cover to cover. I did most of the exercises, and I was sad that the CD was missing.  

After visiting it at the store a few times, I bought Part 2 of Polish in 4 Weeks. I listened religiously to the CD although I see I gave up on the exercises. This is probably because I felt class homework was enough. 

(Suddenly I realise why Benedict Ambrose worried that I did nothing all day for years but study Polish. We interrupt this program so I can go tell him.) 

Although I really loved Polish in 4 Weeks, and it certainly improved my grasp of grammar and listening comprehensions, it didn't adequately pour Polish into my stubborn brain. I now realise--thanks to Fluent Forever--that this was because I never studied the material.  

Eventually I began to memorise the Polish in 4 Weeks dialogues, but I did this by writing out them out over and over again. In real life, you don't write out dialogues over and over again. You speak them. And yes, you do repeat the same things: who you are, where you are from, why you speak X, what you think of X-land, how your husband is doing today, and what you think of the appalling social changes sweeping your own miserable country. 

Preprinted Flashcards

I do have a set of Polish flashcards, which I basically had to go to Poland to get. Although I think flashcards are crucial to learning a language, I think they are more effective when you make them yourself and when you use words taken from an ongoing lesson, book or film.  Flashcards isolated from context aren't great. And, besides, when it comes to words crucial to Polish social life like "oczepiny" (a series of traditional Polish wedding rituals), good luck finding them in a box of preprinted flashcards. 

No matter what self-study series you use, you absolutely will not advance quickly if you do not do the hard work of memorisation and recall, preferably aloud.

Next up: university classes, day and night

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Secrets of Learning Languages Part One

They look a lot more worn now.
I can no longer resist the lure of my blog, so here I am with some Secrets of Learning Languages (Part One).

1. You don't need talent.

There is probably such a thing as talent, a mysterious gift that separates the Very Good from the Outstanding. However, you didn't need talent to learn your native language, and you don't need it to learn other people's languages either. One of the most damaging things a child can believe is that she can't do something because she's simply not talented. Her logical assumption will be not "Try, try again" but "Why should I bother?"

A grown-up told me when I was 19 or so that I wasn't "good at" languages. I had been taught French for twelve years, Italian for three and Latin for one and received A or B grades in them all.  But I believed the grown-up and went on to do abysmally in university Latin, Greek and Irish before switching my major to English Literature because I knew the A's would come easily (talent!), and they did.

I am now reasonably fluent (see #7) in Italian and Polish, and use both languages for work, but this is not through talent.

2. Interest + Application + Time = Language

So you don't need "talent" for learning languages. You need to work. Unfortunately, "how to work" is not often taught in school, and if you sailed through elementary school, you might not have learned it on your own before you hit the wall in high school. Also unfortunately, a capacity to work (in my culture anyway) is treated like a virtue, not a skill, and even then it is second banana to "talent."  So here are the main components of language work:

Language work involves interest, application and time.

Interest: When learning languages it is best to pick a language you have good reasons to learn. However, these have to be compelling and personal reasons, not merely practical. The most practical (and one of the hardest for anglophones) language you can learn right now is probably Mandarin. But unless you have deep personal reasons for learning Mandarin, like an all-absorbing love of China, Chinese cuisine, your Chinese boyfriend, Kung Fu or eavesdropping on Mandarin-speakers on the bus, you are probably not going to power through the pain involved in learning Mandarin.

I picked Italian in high school to avoid Art class, but also because it was the most widely-spoken European language in my city at that time. Learning to speak it was also a sort of revenge on the Italian-Canadians who bullied me in elementary school. Years later it became the Language of Vacations Abroad.

I started Polish to help sell the Polish translation of my first book and didn't quit because a kind friend told me not to bother even trying because I would never, ever learn Polish.
And now that I can read it, I'm too scared. 

Application: I have been studying Polish for about six years, two months, and I have used many different materials: textbooks, class handouts, films, songs, dictionaries, grammars, novels, talking books, prayer books, poetry books, tourist brochures, and food labels. I would have become fluent years ago had I studied a little EVERY DAY. My current level of fluency has come about because I  have studied for at least an hour EVERY DAY without a break since October 8.  But more importantly, I never quit (for longer than one angry night). Never quitting is the secret to language-learning because of the magic of time.

Time: Given what I now know about how I learn languages, I predict that I will be able to function in Polish society without linguistic problems in three years. If I begin Urdu this January and study every day, I will be able to converse biographically in Urdu in three years.

If only I would give Italian half an hour of my daily attention outside of work ....

Well, I don't do that badly chatting to my Italian tutor and translating what Marco Tosatti thinks because I started learning Italian 31 years ago. Every time I have learned, recalled or relearned and (especially) heard or spoken an Italian word since September 1986, my Italian skills have been strengthened.

I have often praised my high school Italian teacher for her excellent teaching, but I was a dud when she enrolled me in an Italian language contest c.1989. (More on the inadequacy of classroom learning later.) To my horror, after three years I couldn't actually speak Italian. (I assumed I lacked talent.)

Flash forward to 1997. At the end of 1997, I decided to relearn French, Italian, Latin and Greek. French and Greek eventually fell by the wayside, but I worked my way through my high school Italian textbook and Wheelock's Latin Grammar. I also borrowed a Passport Books "Teach Yourself Italian" set from the Library. In 1998 I went to Italy for the first time, and I could speak Italian. Not comprehensively, but well enough for touristic purposes. Well enough for my workplace, too.

The fact that I can chat away with my Italian tutor twenty years later probably has as much to do with that intense relearning in 1997-8 as it does with the initial learning in 1986-9. But there is another very important factor:

3. Getting so used to feeling stupid you no longer fear it. 

By embarking on language learning, you are risking feeling stupid at regular intervals for years. That which you have been able to do well in your own language since you were six (or sixteen or twenty for reading and writing) you will no longer do well.  You will stammer, blush, feel stupid and hate yourself. You will think "Language Fail" again and again, especially when the object of your Target Language communication answers you back in English.

But I have many thoughts on this subject, too:

a) even native speakers don't speak their native language perfectly (or intelligibly)* all the time, so even if you achieve "native-like" fluency, you will still make mistakes;

b) governments across the world pour money into teaching children English, and that's why all those young people in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland and even Russia speak at least tourist-level English;

c) humility improves your character;

d) it's scientifically proven that the trauma of embarrassment over mistakes helps you memorise the corrections;

e) the better you get, the more impressed other people are that you speak the Target Language at all;

f) realising that the process of learning a language is psychological, not moral, helps kill shame;

g) the shame wears off the more often and the longer you speak to native speakers.

4.  The highs make up for the lows.

Speaking in Polish is much more difficult than speaking in Italian, but when I use either successfully,  my brain seems to flood with dopamine. I leave Italian class feeling high: happy and hilarious. I'm not quite there with Polish classes although I do enjoy reading Polish very much.

When I finish a week's work on a chapter of the Polish translation of The Magician's Nephew, I feel very satisfied. And naturally I am pleased when I recall enough words to ask a Polish interview subject some questions. However, there is still a lot of fear/shame mixed up in my Polish communications, and it will probably linger for at least another year or so.

Fear/shame is obviously one of the lows. Other enemies to your language-learning happiness are skeptical friends, alarmed members of your family, and unsympathetic or merely clueless native speakers of your target language.  However, you can turn these negatives into plusses.

First, you can use the friends' skepticism as a goad, as I did. "I'll show them" may sound like an odd inspiration, but as I mentioned above, it has worked for me twice.

Second, your family members' alarm will wear off as they get used to your new hobby. Eventually they may start to brag about it. After complaining for six years about how impractical learning Polish is, Benedict Ambrose volunteered me as his hospital ward's Polish translator.

Third, if you can't take the heat of a nation's character, get out of their language kitchen. In general, the French hate French spoken badly. In general, the Poles are blunt. In general, non-anglophones do not understand just how insulting rude English words sound to anglophones, so if Francophones or Allophones tell you in English how you sound in their language, it may hurt more than they mean it to.

The way to deal is to find unusually kindly people who are native speakers of your Target Language and practise on them. These include teachers, but remember that not all teachers are kindly or able.
śłedź! śłedź! yummy śłedź!

5. Yes, you have to memorise. 

The good news is that language classes aren't useless (more on this later). The bad news is that you will have to supplement classes with memorisation.

For about forty years I laboured under the delusion that to learn something all you have to do is go to class, do the homework and cram for the exam. If despite doing all these things, you don't get an A, you don't "have talent", so give up.

What the last six years, two months have taught me is that the only way to stuff hundreds of words and dozens of grammatical points into an adult human head (or my adult human head) is through constant memorisation through testing.

It makes me a little sad, now, thinking about the five years of Polish night school classes I took without spending every other night memorising the new words presented in the lessons. I did the homework, and I participated in the classes, and I never fell asleep once, despite being a morning person. However, there were never any tests, and so I never actually studied, and so my spoken and written Polish progressed but slowly.

I read, yes, and I looked up words in the dictionary. (Working with a Polish dictionary is a skill in itself, let me tell you.) Reading is the easiest part of language-learning for adults. I also wrote letters, and occasionally got a Polish friend to correct them. But I couldn't speak Polish very well, and I had a very hard time concentrating hard enough to comprehend spoken Polish. Eventually I found this so frustrating, I finally began reading books about fluency. And they all said the same thing: you have to memorise.

6. There's a problem with Anki.

The fluency books recommend memorisation though flashcards in  Spaced Repetition Systems like Anki or, for the less electronically inclined, Leitner boxes.

Gabriel Weiner of Fluent Forever believes that using English on flashcards impedes memory so, not being electronically inclined, I made hundreds of flashcards with pictures on one side and Polish words on the other. Drawing passable pictures took SO LONG I gave up and turned to Anki.

However Anki has a big bug. If you miss a single day of review, Anki will present you with more cards than you can cope with. Miss a week and Anki will hit you with a blizzard of pictures. You will go out of your mind with impatience waiting to come to the end of your afternoon-long Anki exam.  The more new words you put into Anki, the worse the problem becomes.

Another problem is that you might not remember what concept you were trying to indicate with your pictures. This is a particular problem for any word not a noun.

Besides, it turns out that Weiner is not quite right. Although young people may learn faster with images, older learners may learn faster with words. This is, in fact, true for me.  I am much more likely to recall text than a picture. I have noticed this while speaking, When I need a Polish word I can't quite remember, it comes floating up before my mind's eye in my own handwriting.

I now have a new Spaced Repetition System to cope with the overload and work with my script-loving brain. After reading a new chapter of The Magician's Nephew, I write down all the words I don't instantly recognize. That came to 144 this week. I divide the list by 6. From Monday to Saturday, I look up the dictionary definitions for a sixth of the words, e.g. 24.

Then every day I look at the list and choose the five to ten most useful-looking words.  I make English-Polish flashcards for them. They go into the "Test tomorrow" part of my Letter box. The next day, after I learn them again, they go into the "Test Sunday" section. After Sunday's test (and relearning), they go in the "Test a Month from Now" slot.

On December 26, I will test myself on the "Sunday cards" from November 26, and then they will go in the "Test in Two Months" box.  This is not at all scientific, but I suppose in February I'll put them in a "Text in Six Months" box. Or maybe I will throw them on a bonfire. It is impossible to count how many words a language has, but my Oxford-PWN Polish-English Dictionary contains "200,000 words and phrases".

That's a lot of cards.

7. Fluency is a continuum.

My Polish tutor is guilt-striken because she doesn't think she is earning her fee. Mostly she sits in a hipster cafe listening to me chatting away about my week. She attempts to teach me grammar, but either I know something very well or not at all. And every week I turn up knowing 30 more words she didn't teach me. What's a Polish tutor to do?

"The problem is that you are fluent," she said.

"No, I'm not," I replied, astounded. I was astounded because, for one thing, I understand only half of whatever she ever says, and for another, the only way I can really get going in a Polish conversation is to travel down the well-worn track of "When I was ..."

It may be truthful to say that I am fluent compared to all my tutor's OTHER clients, or that I am fluent next to the vast majority of non-Poles, or that I can rattle off ungrammatical Polish for five minutes at a stretch. At any rate, it is probably a good idea not to get too hung up on the word "fluent" although for six years, two months I have longed to become fluent and waited in vain for the magical switch I've heard about to flip so I can understand all Polish.

Suddenly I remember the exchange between my night school teacher and me when I was feeling particularly disgruntled with my lack of progress. "I have been studying for X years, and I still can't have a conversation," I said, or words to that effect, in Polish.

"But we're having a conversation right now!" protested my night school teacher.

First year of learning Polish: no grey hair. 

*I have met many English-speaking Continentals who have a hard time understanding Scottish accents for the first few years of their residence in Scotland. Some Scottish accents still give me trouble, and I've been here for almost nine years.

To be continued...

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Chariot or Flying Carpet or Well-Trained Dragon or ...

Every morning I silence the alarm on my iPhone and fall out of bed. After making coffee and doing a quick scan of the latest emails, I shut the computer and begin the day's dictionary searches.

This is because, as mentioned at work, I am reading a Polish translation of The Magician's Nephew. On Sundays I turn to a new chapter, read the whole thing, and write down the words I don't understand. Then I divide the list into six mini-lists. Every subsequent day I tackle a mini-list and choose 5-10 words to memorise.

I am now on Chapter 6, "Uncle Andrew Begins to Have Troubles," which is my English translation of Mr. Polkowski's Polish translation of "The Beginning of Uncle Andrew's Troubles."

To repeat what I said at work, it is very interesting to read a childhood favourite as an adult and in another language. You see all kinds of things you didn't see before. I've already pondered Uncle Andrew's willingness to use children in scientific experiments; now I'm contemplating Uncle Andrew's ability to convince himself, through use of alcohol and dressing his best, that a beautiful witch is in love with him. C.S. Lewis said this was a very grown-up type of silliness. Why, yes.

But another thing I have noticed is how vividly Jadis (the beautiful witch) speaks, and how what she says in Polish sticks in my memory. This is a bit unfortunate, as Jadis does not say things that you can say in polite conversation at Polish weddings, e.g. "SŁUGO!" ("You minion!").

Jadis, the last survivor of a civil war she waged against her "przeklęta" ("accursed") sister, describes the river flowing with blood, and herself pouring out the blood of her soldiers like water ("Potwór," mutters Polly, which means "monster", so is also useless for weddings), and what she said to her sister before wiping out the joint (i.e. "Tak, zwycięstwo, tylko że nie twoje!")

In Chapter 5, Jadis was awe-inspiring, but now in Chapter 6, she is rather funny. I think this is partly because instead of speaking English in Uncle Andrew's cozy London row house, she is speaking Polish. And just as some Poles first arrive in the United Kingdom with antiquated ideas of what the United Kingdom is like, so does Jadis.

"Procure for me at once a chariot or a flying carpet or a well-trained dragon, or whatever is usual for royal and noble persons in your land," says the Queen of Charn to Uncle Andrew.

When I first I heard these exact words at my mother's knee, it seemed perfectly reasonable that Jadis would expect such transportation in Victorian London, which she knew not at all. But after reading Polish Jadis demand, "Postaraj się natychmiast o rydwan (chariot) lub latający dywan (flying carpet) albo o dobrze wytresowanego smoka (well-trained dragon)....," I giggled.

Possibly my adult giggles are unfair to Jadis as my GREAT DREAM is to ride over vast acres of Polish countryside in a horse-drawn sleigh until I am terribly cold and then am returned to the warmth of a long, low country house called a dwór where I am given delicious clear red soup to drink and crunchy krokiety to munch. So far this has NEVER HAPPENED--partly because I am never in Poland in the dead of winter, but also partly because my own Polish friends never seem to have horses. They are utterly mechanised and given a choice would probably purchase snowmobiles, which is not the same thing at all.

Where was I?

Right, Chapter 6. Well,  I must say that a chapter a week is very slow going, but it is much better for my brains than just plowing through a book without looking up all the unknown words, let alone memorising the most useful of them. I read both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Polish in that skimming fashion, and although this might not have been totally useless, it certainly did not improve my speaking skills. However,  working so hard on Chapters 1 through 5 of The Magician's Nephew has certainly increased my oral vocabulary. At any rate, I say "w każdym razie" instead of "at any rate", which I tended to say an awful lot.

While reading something about language acquisition this week, I started to think about using all the knowledge about learning languages I have acquired--after six years of messing around with Polish--to begin learning Urdu. After reading up on Urdu, however, I decided that 2018 would not be the year. One thing I had forgotten was how difficult the first year of learning a non-Romance language is , and I was reminded when I looked at the Urdu alphabet.

The Urdu alphabet has "up to 58 letters", which is a depressing thought, and Urdu is written from right to left, which is not so depressing as it is unnerving.  While reading about this, I was suddenly reminded of my first foray into Polish, which was pronouncing "Przepraszam" ("Pardon me").  Now I can say prze and przy and szcz and styczeń without a problem, but it took a lot of painful and embarrassing work.

Do I have time for Urdu? No, I do not. And when I mentioned this to Benedict Ambrose, he cried out in dismay against the whole idea. He thinks learning Urdu is entirely impractical and was not swayed by the news that those who master Urdu can easily understand Hindi, too. Of course, he also thought Polish was terribly impractical, and yet who was it who explained to his battered Polish roommate in the neurology ward that the police needed to keep his clothing for evidence? Me. So there.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Church, Crisps, Spa, Reduced Sugar: A Better Week

Devoted readers will be happy to read that this was a much better week than last. On Sunday Benedict Ambrose felt well enough to go to Mass. He hadn't been since Assumption Day, and that was in a wheelchair. After a Member of the Men's Schola waved us over and suggested B.A. sit by the radiator in the choir pews, I surprised both B.A. and myself by bursting into tears.

Afterwards B.A. still felt well, so we went to someone's Sunday Lunch across town and had a lovely time until B.A. felt fatigue approaching and I called us a taxi. 

The next day, while I was typing madly away in my home office (formerly B.A.'s home office), he stuck his head through the doorway to inform me that he was going to the nearest grocery store for crisps. I was rather alarmed, partly because it was already dark outside, but B.A. was adamant, and  he returned half an hour later, only a little shaky, with a beer and crisps. 

He repeated this feat on Tuesday or Wednesday; I can't quite remember which for the big event of mid-week was my trip to a spa in the countryside. The various reviews I had read about this spa led me to believe it was heaven on earth, with doting attendant angels. Sadly, it did not live up to the hype. 

First, the spa, which is on the estate of a stately hotel, was a little hard to find. The estate was not well signed. I got lost in the drizzle, which was not at all nice. Then when I appeared in the antechamber of the rustic, rather Nordic- (or Canadian-) looking cottage, the young women at the desk were slow to amble out to greet me. This left me standing about awkwardly, wondering what do to with my wet boots, broken umbrella and damp raincoat. 

Eventually, however, a young woman did come out to greet me. She invited me to sit down and fill out a form, and my heart sank as she handed me a tablet, for the last thing I wanted to see on my day away from my desk was another screen. However, I filled in the electronic questionnaire and put on some slippers and followed my lacklustre hostess around the spa. She swallowed half her words and gave me the impression that she had been doing this for so long, she just no longer cared. Even worse, the sauna area was noisy; a drill split the air and visible through the ceiling-high windows were men building an addition. The "herbal sauna" was quite useless except for women who don't mind sweating in their bathing suits in the full view of construction workers. (Nobody told me to bring a bathing suit, incidentally, so it's a jolly good thing I did: the spa's bathrobe was not voluminous.)

This spa is rather expensive, so I felt rather cross about the noise and the men and the lack of customer service, and felt crosser still when a woman who seemed to belong to the spa (or the work project) in some management capacity began to pull open the door to my mud-treatment chamber while I was towelling myself off. The lazy girl who had showed me into it and given me inadequate instructions as to what I was supposed to do had neglected to turn over the sign that had "Busy" written on the back. 

"What kind of place IS this?" I cried. 

I started writing out my one-star review in my head, but then when I trundled out back to the desk, I was met by a blonde angel of a masseuse/facialist who bore me away to a lovely room with a massage table that was like the world's most comfortable single bed. There I spent an enormously 90 healing and relaxing minutes, and I forgave the spa for my stupid first two hours.  That said, I made darn sure I got the Afternoon Tea that was part of my Spa Day package. 

After I hoovered my Tea and tired of reading fashion magazines, I got dressed and floated back out into the rain.  I caught the country bus back into Edinburgh and went to my Polish lesson, during which I was inclined to be merry. 

In conclusion, the trip to the country spa was worth the time and money and initial aggravation because of the splendid masseuse-facialist and the chance to lounge around in a luxurious Nordic-chic interior reading Scottish Woman, The Tatler and Vogue.

Naturally I returned to work on Thursday, which was American Thanksgiving, so all the American journalists as LSN were on holiday. This meant that the Canadians had to buckle down and write our little heads off for two days. 

Fortunately I felt so great after my spa day that this was relatively easy to do, and I was given a very interesting assignment that involved translating five pages of astonishing revelations about Saint-John-Paul-2-as-Mystic and then scrolling through video to find exactly where the Monsignor was recorded saying those things. The biggest challenge was figuring out how not to translate "piaga" as "plague" and "orde" as "hordes" because, hello, islamists, like nazis and commies, are at any rate human beings. I failed in the latter attempt, but in the former I went with "scourge." I see Tornelli latterly translated "piaga" as "wound", which I like better, too, but is not really accurate.

Another reason I was happier this week than last (a week ago B.A. declared that I was angry all the time) was that I have once again given up wicked, evil, horrible sugar. I did have little cakes as part of my Afternoon Tea at the spa, but that was it. I am now back on the wagon until St. Nicholas' Day. 

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Coming Up for Air

Does anyone want to read about someone who works all the time?  Hot Fuzz, the famous British comedy about workaholic cop Nicholas Angel, was brilliantly funny. It is one of the few films that has literally made me weep with laughter. But in reality....

Perhaps not that interesting.

Nevertheless, my parents still read my blog, so this is what my weekday looks like:

6:50 AM --Wake up, thinking about work.

7:15 AM -- Check Facebook, thinking about work.

8:00 AM - 11:00 AM -- Language study/get groceries/laundry/housework.

11 AM - 7 (or 8) PM -- Work.

7 PM or 8 PM -- Make dinner and eat it with B.A. Think about work. Take breaks to check work. 

8 PM - 11 PM -- Try not to think about work. 

It's Saturday, and I don't want to think about work. Shortly I will close the computer and look up Polish words instead. One brilliant thing about language study is that it is all-absorbing, which means it prevents me from thinking about work. 
Of course, sometimes I translate something for work, which means I am doing language study and work at the same time. 

While I work, Benedict Ambrose sits in a chair between the radiator and the empty fireplace and convalesces. He is slowly gaining weight, but his eyes are still sunken in his lined face. He reads a lot of Catholic news, so when I ask him at supper what he's done today, the conversation becomes about work. 

The change from writing (tops) an article a week to writing up to three articles a day has been nerve-wracking. It's an entire different discipline. In fact, the first activity isn't really a discipline: it's just fun. Well, maybe not ENTIRELY fun.

When I wrote this article, I spent several hours in my guesthouse room or in a cafe reading and translating (with dictionaries) various Polish news articles. Since I had been at the Warsaw Independence March anyway, out of sheer curiosity, it made sense to write it all up the next day and send it to Catholic World Report. I was a year ahead of my time; the western media took more of an interest THIS year, when I wasn't there.

Not being there made it a bit frustrating to write THIS article, but it was morally necessary to write it because of all the fake news in the English-language press. This time I had to contact people who WERE there and would both talk to me and consent to their names appearing in LSN. And now, of course, I have set deadlines, so I usually need people to talk to (or message) me at once. 

Another frustration is that Poland (not just Polish) is hard for the English-speaking world to understand, and the English-speaking world is hard to explain to Poles who don't speak much English. It's like trying to explain the Second Amendment to the American Constitution to Swedes, and Swedish comfort with nudity to Americans. 

One of the problems papered over by the Agents of Diversity is that people--peoples--actually are really diverse. It's not just their foodstuffs, or their religious traditions, or what women wear. It's also their relationship to the physical environment in which they live, and their attitude towards politicians, and their concepts of manhood or womanhood, and their histories, and their borders. 

Diversity is not changing dresses on a Barbie Doll. Sometimes diversity is almost all people in a given area sharing a multi-generational experience of the same place, language and history. That's not how it is in my hometown Toronto, but as much as I love Toronto, I don't think the world is or should be a giant Toronto. 

With the exception of conquest of the Channel Islands by the Nazis (which is almost never spoken of), Britain hasn't been invaded since 1066. Perhaps that's why the English* allowed their borders--mental, religious, cultural, personal, sexual--to have become so porous, whereas the Poles--whose borders have been erased and redrawn dozens of times in the past thousand years--have firm and distinct borders regarding Poland and Polish life. 

Complicating this, are internal Polish battles over what these are or should be. From a conservative Polish point of view, a left-wing Pole (still absolutely furious that the conservative PiS party won the last election) would sell his grandmother on the streets of Brussels, let alone write a whiny article in the Guardian about how awful Poland is. 

Anyway, so much for my attempt not to think about work on a Saturday. Maybe I will flee the Historical House and take refuge in a hipster cafe.

*Update: Britishness, by the way, is by its very nature multi-national and multi-ethnic. Canada has never had colonies--being made up of former British colonies--but it too has always been dramatically multi-ethnic, starting with three major groups: First Nations peoples, French-speaking Canadians (mostly descended from the French) and English-speaking Canadians (mostly descended from, or born in, Britain). 

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Winter's Day

An oldie but goodie from The Clerk of Oxford, reminding us that November 7 was considered the first day of winter by the Anglo-Saxons.

Super-trad Calendar 

I am reminded of Anglo-Saxon class at the University of Toronto long ago, the pleasant melancholy of leaving the old Mediaeval Studies house after an hour or two of group translation of Beowulf. Across the street stretched the wooded Queen's Park in which wicked Grendel might have lurked, lonely and envious of the warmth and companionship of indoors. 

Currently I am reading C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew in Polish, writing down all the words I couldn't generate myself in conversation on cue cards.  I've budgeted a week per chapter, and such is the magic of the Narnia heptalogy, listening and reading to the same chapter over and over again is not at all dull.  

Friday, 27 October 2017

What's This Strange, Light Feeling?

Benedict Ambrose returned home from the hospital with me yesterday by taxi-cab. I pulled out two enormous IKEA bags of assorted clothing, bedding, Spectator magazines, prayer cards, etc., and paid the driver. After settling B.A. on the sofa and getting him a snack, I got down to some work. 

Later, when B.A. had decided to try for a nap, I answered the hallooing of the property manager. She was at the bottom of the stairs preparing the Historical House for Hallowe'en weekend tours. After fussing with bicycles and such other things that had to be moved, I asked the manager if there was any post. She said there was a book-shaped package for me on B.A.'s desk in the office.  So I got my coat and rushed into the beautifully fine and mild October day and suddenly felt---happy. 

I hadn't felt happy in weeks. I had literally forgotten what happy actually felt like. But there it was: happiness. And of course this was because B.A. was at home, alive and tumour-free, and a book-shaped package was waiting for me at his office! 

Happiness is a great, great feeling, and I can see why it is associated with children. All of a sudden, I didn't have a care in the world and I was getting a present! 

It didn't matter that the present was probably from me to myself. It cost only about £3, it turns out, for it was the Polish translation of The Magician's Nephew I ordered from Amazon. 

And now I am happy that the work week is over and I can spend a delightful chunk of the morning writing out long lists of Polish words I don't yet know. 

I can also write an essay on something other than B.A.'s illness. Both my Polish tutor and my Italian tutor must be emotionally exhausted, having doubled as my emergency psychotherapists for months. (My Italian tutor has had a break, however, as I really couldn't keep our appointments these last three weeks.) Not only could I talk all about B.A.'s late, unlamented brain tumour in three languages, I did.  When I told my soft-hearted Polish tutor about B.A.'s post-op rantings about the triumph of the Immaculate Heart (triumf Niepokalanego Serca), she cried. 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Why the American Under-30s Aren't Married

For my day job, I volunteered to read Mark Regnerus' new book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy for LSN. I read it on the bus to and from the hospital and, when I wasn't staring anxiously at him, at my husband's hospital bed.

I wrote a workmanlike article on it, but I wasn't happy. What I really wanted to do was right a proper blog for Single girls. So the next day I did exactly that and sent it in to the editors.

Here it is.

Cheap Sex is a bit depressing, but it's very well written and absorbing. It doesn't pull its punches, and it will give you a good idea of what on earth is going on in the USA (and probably Canada) today. In short, this is not your fault--unless you're cohabiting with some guy, or travelling around the world sleeping with random men, of course. Then you are indeed part of the problem.

Benedict Ambrose Well Enough to Come Home

Just a quick post of thanksgiving to God and everyone who prayed,  emailed, sent a card or gift, made a donation to the Baklinski fund (which made B.A. feel useful), sponsored a Mass, brought my husband's case to the attention of nuns...  Thank you all very, very much.

Today the surgeon called me to say that B.A. can come home tomorrow. Mr S is very pleased--and surprised--by B.A.'s rapid progress. I never really know how to express this with exact doctrinal correctness (given than God is both immutable and apparently moved by prayers), but I am putting B.A.'s recovery down to God's will, helped along/participated in by everyone who prayed for B.A. and me.

So again thank you!

P.S. Apologies for not answering all the emails. I DID read them, and I was grateful for them, but I didn't always have time to respond. I hope you understand.

Monday, 16 October 2017


If I could, I would spend every moment at the hospital. Leaving is just so awful, especially now that B.A. is more or less in his right mind. He's still confused, though, and he looks so sad--not that I am leaving, but that something awful has happened that he can't quite comprehend.

We should be rejoicing, but B.A. has been traumatised. After all, he literally (if skilfully and kindly) had his skull split open. And I feel figuratively traumatised, which is nowhere near as serious, but still tiring. I'm not sure how much B.A. understood when he signed the consent forms, but I understood them all. I have lost count of the times I have watched my husband sign off on death this year. Five?

My big fear now is that I will fall down the stairs or in front of a bus. If that happens, who will make sure B.A. is okay?

Saturday, 14 October 2017

In the ICU

Man (several uncomfortable tubes inserted in his body): I'm sorry, darling.

Woman: Why are you sorry, darling?

Man: I'm sorry that you're suffering.

So far so good ...

My husband is in intensive care, and I am shortly leaving the house to see him again. Yesterday was a bit rocky from a nursing perspective, as B.A. was totally delirious and tried to take out his breathing and feeding tubes. When he got so agitated that the surgeon gave permission for the nurses to take out his breathing tube a little early, he started yelling.

 In a way this was great, for it showed the operation hadn't left him with a speech impediment. In fact, despite all the solemn faces and list of potential horrors B.A. had to sign off on, yesterday he didn't seem to have any nerve damage at all. No strokes, no paralysed face, no motor problems, no death. 

I was so relieved when I saw him conscious and mouthing "I love you" to me, I had to stop myself from weeping. My big dread (for myself) was that he wouldn't recognise me or that he would have a big personality change in which he didn't love me anymore. 

I couldn't make out what else he was trying to say, which was fine, as he sure let me know when they took out his breathing tube. It probably isn't fair or kind to publish one's husband's delirious rantings, so I won't go into detail. The poor man was very, very frightened much of the time. But the edifying thing about B.A.'s rantings was that, instead of cursing like a sailor, as apparently people usually do when they recover from such surgery, he told me over and over again that Our Lady's "Immaculate Heart will triumph." 

It was the 100th anniversary of the last apparition at Fatima, of course, and I think I told him that when I arrived. In fact, on the way to the hospital, I prayed the traditional 15 decades and asked Our Lady not to mark the day with terrors but with a gift, a special gift for me that B.A. would be made totally well. 

So far--God willing--it looks like this may actually happen, at least for now. And Benedict Ambrose, totally addled from surgery and anaesthetics and heaven knows what else, informed me dozens of times that "her Immaculate Heart will triumph." 

I feel weirdly proud that my husband was/is the Terror of the ICU. It's both sad and funny, laugh or cry. It's just so unlike him to disturb people, and it was awful that he was scared. But it was good for me in that the nurses decided that I should be allowed to sit with him all day to keep him relatively calm--and his feeding tube where it belonged. Every time they sent me out so they could do something important, they had to fetch me back to stop B.A. from shouting down the ceiling. 

Meanwhile, in a hospital where a nurse had asked me what she should do with Mark's "necklace", meaning his rosary, it was quite something to have him yell that I must call Father AT ONCE to have a Mass said for him and HER IMMACULATE HEART WILL TRIUMPH!!!!

About 16 more hours, and I'll feel ready to order the Te Deums! Keep praying, and thank you!

Thursday, 12 October 2017

He Has Survived the Operation

The surgeon called. The operation is over, and B.A. has been moved to the Intensive Care Unit. He isn't expected to wake up/he'll be woken up tomorrow morning. And I will be there! 

There was a lot of poking, pushing and pulling at his poor dear brain, so the surgeons won't know what state it is in until tomorrow morning--and even then they won't know for sure for 48 hours what lies ahead. 

But for now I am very, very relieved and happy, and thankful to everyone for their prayers. 

Despite my pilgrimage blisters, Venerable Margaret Sinclair did not convince (or was not able to convince) Our Lord to make the tumour just disappear. I'm not resentful--I'm just throwing that out as data. 

This is the Big One

Benedict Ambrose has been losing consciousness, and his tumour has to go. Today. So I am writing this for more prayers.

It will be a dangerous operation, which is why the surgeons never wanted to remove the tumour. It is sitting near some very important stuff, even as it increasingly presses against even more important stuff.

Yes, "increasingly". We were told in March it wasn't growing or was "very slow growing",  but a fall in the rehab centre early on Monday morning led to an MRI in the emergency ward and then back to the neuroscience department.

He has had the Last Rites--again.

B.A. is very hard to understand right now, but it was profoundly moving how badly he wanted to see our priest. He got quite anxious about him and worried that he would be moved before the priest came, or the the priest would be stopped from coming in. When he saw Father come in, tall in his grey overcoat, B.A's blue eyes widened and he struggled to sit up, while beating his bony breast.

"Don't get so excited, darling," I said.

But now I realise that it wasn't Father he was so excited about. When Polish Pretend Daughter and French Pretend Son-in-Law arrived at the hospital, I asked B.A. to tell them who had visited him that day.

"Our Lord in the Holy Sacrament," said B.A.

He saw his mother, and his mates in our parish Schola, too, and I feel badly that I didn't summon two of his uni pals and his best friend at work, but I thought any more than seven solely human visitors (including myself) would be too many for him.

At any rate, I don't know when I will be writing again, or what I will remember of all this. However, I want to note down while his reason is slipping, B.A.'s faith in the Blessed Sacrament--in all the Sacraments, actually--has stood firm. He loves me, he loves his mother, he loves the Blessed Sacrament and he involuntarily murmured "Yum yum" as I fed him custard.

And now I'm going back to the hospital. It feels like hurrying to Golgotha.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Lessons Learned by Formerly Long-Term Singles

The flock is greatly scattered, but some of my long-term readers have been reading for up to ten years. Many long-term Singles have been married for a few years. Some have had babies. Some have had major struggles: getting the doctorate finished, fertility issues, unemployment, illness, children's illness, husband's illness....

Any residual sadness about being Single has disappeared, but only to be replaced by other kinds of sadness! And this leads me to an open question: what do my now-married, formerly long-term Single readers wish they could have told their long-term Single selves? 

This is not at all to denigrate the sadness and feelings of anxiety felt by long-term Singles who want to marry, or become sisters/nuns/brothers/monks/priests, or at very least settle their what-is-my-vocation anxiety once and for all. That is--and was--very real. 

It is merely to prepare the Single for what could lie ahead. 

For me, my number one lesson would be "Don't assume you can get the same medical help (for fertility issues or anything else) in Scotland that you would get in Toronto." 

I couldn't begin to express how easier life would be for me, if not B.A., if we lived in Toronto right now. However, I don't want to dwell too much on that, or I will get extremely depressed. When I ask myself how I get up in the morning, my answer is "Coffee." If I weren't addicted to coffee, I would still be in bed. 

Okay, time to work. 

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Fruit of Not Quitting

I did a Polish interview via email and translated the results. Here it is. 

This is the result of six years of work (and two dictionaries) although I didn't work THAT hard in the first years. I have no innate talent in foreign languages, so this translation is a testament to the power of work and not-quitting. 

Today I put in a good day's work before rushing out to visit B.A. at the hospital during the late visiting hours. Polish Pretend Daughter and French Pretend Son-in-Law have returned from abroad, so they are back with me. This is great because I find the walk from the bus stop through the dark woods less scary when PPD and FPSIL are in the House. I phone them up on my mobile and natter until I am safely at the door. 

B.A. and I received a wonderful card from long-time reader Emma, who sews habits for Dominicans. (Perhaps other long-time readers will remember Emma.) Actually, it was three cards and two prayer cards, and we were very touched and edified! 

Friday, 29 September 2017

Darkness and Stefan

This morning I woke up at 5 AM, following a bad dream about Pope Francis. I searched my mind for compelling reasons to get up, and I didn't find any, so I stayed put until 7:30 AM.

Staying in bed until 7:30 is not really a good idea because I don't have a lot of time for goofing off. My husband is in a hospital clear across town, and travel time is, there and back, about three hours. I visit him for two hours every day. By the time I get home, I am very tired. Therefore, my best writing time is, as usual, first thing in the morning.

Usually I visit B.A. after 6:30 PM, but I hate walking through the woods to an empty house after dark, so this week I went to the earlier visiting session. I felt guilty and cowardly about being so scared of the woods until B.A. got moved to Stefan's room.

I first saw Stefan (not his real name) a couple of weeks ago. He was an arresting sight as he walked down the hall, even for the Neuro ward. He had two black eyes and a bloody broken nose, and I'd never seen anyone who looked that bad on his own two feet. I thought he must be a car crash victim.

When B.A. got moved to Stefan's room a week or so later, I quickly glanced at the whiteboard over Stefan's battered head and ascertained that he was a Pole. This was unusual for the ward, actually, which is full of Scots patients. The nurses are a little less homogenous, and the doctors are definitely a mix of nationalities, but so far all patients I've seen, except Stefan, have been Scots.

One thing I noticed about Stefan, besides his shaved head, black eyes, broken nose and Polish name, was that nobody ever came to visit him. I felt badly about that and considered going over and trying to have a conversation, but I felt rather shy. Speaking Polish when you're not Polish and, incidentally, living in Scotland is a bit like being a giraffe with five legs--or, worse, Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles.

So when Polish Pretend Daughter appeared one day last week to go home with me after the late visiting hour, I sent her to speak to Stefan, who had gone to the TV room, possibly to escape the sight and sound of poor B.A. throwing up. When I fetched PPD, Stefan was smiling cheerfully, and PPD held the answer to the mystery of what had happened to Stefan.

In short Stefan, who lives in Fife, was walking home alone one Saturday night after drinking, and he was attacked by a group of men who had also been drinking. They kicked his head in, and Stefan ended up in the Neuro ward.

PPD did not ask if men were Poles or Scots. This  would make a difference to the headlines, if not to poor battered Stefan. If the men were also Poles, there would be no real news story. If the men were Scots, however, there might be a "hate crime" angle, which would be very interesting to the newspapers indeed. I have tried to find a report about it online, without success. Any number of men get their heads kicked in on Saturday nights in Fife.

At any rate, I no longer felt quite so badly about going to the hospital during "work hours" because Stefan's bruises and stitches were a daily reminder that Central Belt Scotland is a dangerous place for those who walk alone at night.

I have been feeling incredibly stressed out from trying to do my job adequately between daily trips to the hospital. This morning I made myself phone up an interview subject in Poland, but I forgot to  check the information I received that he was fluent in English. When the subject indicated that he would rather I interviewed him in Polish, six years of memory work simply vanished from my head. Reduced to a gibbering wreck, I took down the subject's email address. It was only after I hung up that I realised that

A) I had never before spoken Polish on the phone and
B) the subject may be "fluent" but some of my fluent-in-English friends absolutely hate speaking English on the phone.

If I still had any kind of ego around my language-learning skills, it would have been thoroughly bruised. However, I know using the telephone in a foreign language is a massive challenge for most language-learners. And three hours later I managed to cover myself in glory at the hospital when a nurse gave up trying to explain to Stefan that he couldn't have all his stuff back.

"The police need it for evidence," the nurse had been saying from behind a curtain. B.A., who has hearing like a bat, had motioned for me to be quiet and was listening intently to the drama. When the nurse hurried past us, muttering that she couldn't speak Polish, B.A. volunteered that I could.

She was very glad to hear it.

So off I went behind the curtain to introduce myself formally to Stefan and explain to him that he couldn't take all his stuff because the police needed it. Stefan said he understood, and off I went back to my habitual seat beside B.A.'s bed to ponder what "evidence" was in Polish (świadczenie, among other words). And I was highly gratified when Stefan, stymied by the more thickly Scottish accent of the next nurse, came in search of me to translate again.

Fortunately for him, I was just a stop gap. There is at least one Polish nurse at the hospital, and she appeared twice, first to convince Stefan that it was time to go home and then to take him out to a cab. The gentle patter behind the curtain, was quite a contrast to my lurching, tortured explanations all in the super-correct Second Person Formal. ("Sir cannot have Sir's things because the police need Sir's things for the court.")

Benedict Ambrose will be in hospital for at least another six weeks,

*I wonder if there are Anglo-Saxon analogues to Long Duk Dong in foreign films.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Pilgrimage to Ven. Margaret Sinclair

My husband has been praying for the intercession of Edinburgh's 20th century saint, the Venerable Margaret Sinclair, for the miraculous disappearance of his tumour.

As you can see from her honorific,  Margaret is only on the second rung of the ladder to full-fledged canonisation. If she is indeed in heaven, and she wants her admirers in Scotland and abroad to know it, then here is an opportunity for her to "do a miracle" in the good old-fashioned way.

To participate more fully in Benedict Ambrose's petition, I am going to go on a walking pilgrimage from our house to Venerable Margaret's shrine at St. Patrick's Church in the Cowgate, which is about a five mile distance. When I get there, I'll go to confession, if I'm there in time for confession.  My friend and I will leave here at 9:30 AM BST, so if you're awake, please pray for us and, especially, for my husband.

Here is an account of the life of Venerable Margaret Sinclair--and a miracle she may have already worked.

(To the non-Catholic reader: we don't believe that saints themselves do miracles. Rather, we petition saints to intercede for us with God, in the same way you might have asked the baby of the family to ask your parents for some particular treat. Naturally it is God who grants the favour, thanks to the intercession of the saint. Suddenly I remember--once again--that time I was naughty at nursery school and the teachers took my cookies away. Seeing I had no cookies, my little brother shared his with me, Yes, I remember.)

Meanwhile, PPS has convinced that Beautiful Young Lady to marry him. I'm so glad she said yes (or, presumably, tak), not only because PPS seems rather fond of her---and I like her---but because he bought the ring before he asked. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Good Nurses

I like the nurses at the hospital. They are professional, attentive and take the obstreperousness of the bantering men in their stride. They bring my husband three meals a day and note down how much he eats. They weigh him. They check his blood pressure several times a day and write that down. They remind him to drink more water.  They remind him that if he doesn't drink, he'll  have to have the fluid tube, and if he doesn't eat, there's a tube for that, too, and it isn't very nice. They also check him for bedsores.

B.A. does what the nurses tell them.


The physio hasn't been by, but B.A. had a second operation this week, so physio has been abandoned for now. I don't even ask about that. I just turn up every day, sit by B.A.'s bed, observe the latest embroidery on his scalp,and which tubes are in or out, watch the nurses, relate the news.

The latest London Tube bombing was a "good news" story, believe it or not, as the bomb didn't go off properly and "just" singed a few people.

My visits are a ward fixture. I'm on first name basis with all the men who were in the room when B.A. was settled into it, and if he's stays, I'll be on first name basis with the young man who came in the day before yesterday. I provide a little supplementary nursing, too, just because I'm there. The other day, I handed a cardboard "bucket" to another man on the ward to throw up in.

Meanwhile Polish Pretend Daughter and her husband have come to stay with me.

This is, of course, only a very brief sketch.

Monday, 11 September 2017

A Much Better Day

Since I have harrowed up your souls with this morning's post,  I must in justice tell you that B.A. is doing so much better now that he has been operated on. He is so much more like his old self.

When I turned up today, I found out that he has got a proper physiotherapist at last. She taught him how to use a contraption he refuses to call a Zimmer frame, and he pushed it down the hall to the Patient Waiting Room where we had a good chat. He is very cheerful and getting along well with his three roommates. They all banter madly together and with the nurses in that inimitable Scottish way.

There is also a chart at the end of his bed monitoring how much food he has eaten. Also, I am delighted to say, he ate three square meals today. My goal now is to make sure he stays in the hospital long enough to gain weight and be able to walk without a prop.

But I am utterly exhausted, so that's it from me for now. When I was on my way for a sandwich from the nearby Waitrose between the two "visiting hours" periods, I got completely lost and spent my whole "dinner hour" taking buses back to the hospital.  I'm chalking that up as one more symptom of "tired brain."

Update (Wednesday): AND I forgot a bag of laundry on one of the busses on  the way home. However, I found it today at the Lost Articles office, so now the clothes are washed and drying on the line.

Astonishing Recollection of a Terrible Week

One day I will return to these posts about my husband's illness and be simply astounded that we went through all this. That's the hope anyway. Occasionally I wonder what I would have done had we had children, but that's simple: they would have been packed off to Canada months ago. It would have been very good for their French, and I suspect my brother would have signed them up at once for karate.

Last week was one of new horrors, and I was furious with myself for having cravenly whisked Benedict Ambrose away from the hospital when he could have been there at least an extra day and  seen a dietician. That said, his mobility was deteriorating there. I didn't cajole him outside for a walk for a few days--the trip home was exhausting enough, and the next day he threw up--but when I did get him outside, he could manage only one circuit of the front quadrangle. He didn't get physiotherapy at the hospital; clearly the physiotherapist saw him only to tick the boxes that said he legally could be sent home. 

Both the hospitals we frequent in Edinburgh have big posters insisting that patients should change out of their nightwear and to get out of bed and walk. A week in bed ages the muscles by ten years, claim the posters. Thus I made myself argue with B.A. to get him out of bed, to put his slippers on, to go outside, to walk the circuit, to walk the next circuit. 

"I can't," said B.A. 

"You CAN," I said. 

But the story doesn't end with B.A. doing a ten mile race alongside cheering crowds. No. Not so far anyway. What happened were two terrible falls, a call to the local surgery, being snapped at by the duty doctor, two paramedics and an ambulance. Because it was true. He couldn't, and he can't. 

That was Wednesday and Thursday. On Tuesday night, I decided to sleep in the guest room across from the bathroom, so I didn't keep B.A. awake, and he wouldn't wake me up with all his frequent wakings and muttered complaints. At 1 AM, I was awoken anyway by the sound of B.A. going to the loo.  I got up, opened my door and saw him weaving in the bathroom doorway.

"Alright?" I asked.

"I'm alright, darling," said B.A. or something like that. I was back in bed before I wondered if I should have taken B.A.'s arm and escorted him back to bed and then---CRASH!

I was out of bed in a shot, and poor B.A. was on the floor moaning "My neck, my neck." And because I had absolutely no idea what to do and because my experience of the NHS is people doing as little as possible, I didn't call an ambulance. I know now that if someone falls and says "My neck hurts," you call an ambulance.

Fortunately, B.A. had not broken his neck, and wasn't concussed (which was all I could think of; neck-breaking never occurred to me), and so I led him back to bed and got in with him, intending to wake him up every hour like the woman on the phone said to do the first time he fell and hit his poor head, months ago.  Instead I slept like the dead. 

B.A. fell again that evening sometime between 6 PM and 7 PM, and that was my lowest moment ever. I had worked all day* on my journalism and reluctantly got up to A) make dinner and B) take B.A. out for some exercise. 

B.A., as usual, complained and told me he couldn't do it and he was tired, etc. I begged him, ordered him, reminded him of the posters, told him his not being able to walk was because he had chosen to lie in bed all day, and shouted before stomping off to make dinner. Not very nice.  And when I returned, B.A. slowly got out of bed, almost stood, and then crashed to the floor, hitting his head on the wall, and then on the floor, grazing his forehead and his nose. 

And I collapsed on the floor myself, wailing and then banging the floor with my fists and screaming  "I don't know what to do. I simply don't know what to do. And I am all alone. There's nobody else. And I am simply not qualified. I have no idea what to do."

Poor B.A. was very dazed. I think I must have helped him into a chair. Blood was seeping from the grazes. 

"The room is spinning around," he said. 

Once again, I should have called the bloody ambulance. However, I had no idea this was "important" enough to call an ambulance. Because, you know, 999 is so sacred compared to the NHS 24 hotline, and I have called NHS 24 so many times already, and a lady on the phone saying "And can I speak to your husband?" wasn't going to get his grazes attended to. So instead of calling 999, I ran about the flat trying to find antiseptic wipes. We were completely out of antiseptic wipes. 

In the end I called my kindly neighbour, and she and her husband came over with antiseptic wipes. At that moment, my sister-in-law, the doctor, phoned, and we had a long talk in the bathroom about how important it was that B.A. see his neurosurgeon. Ma Belle Soeur was really worried that B.A. had been released from hospital without seeing his, or any, neurosurgeon. She was adamant that he must. I said I would call the neurosurgeon's office in the morning. 

The night passed without incident. And in the morning I called the neurosurgeon's secretary's answering machine twice, and went to see my Italian tutor because A) I hadn't had time to email him and cancel and B) I know firsthand how awful it is to lose an hour's teaching wages. And it was very therapeutic to tell my Italian tutor, in Italian, everything that had been going on and then to think of something else, i.e. what are the most frequent grammatical mistakes made by anglophones learning Italian, for half an hour. 

Upon returning home, I called the local medical centre and asked to speak to the duty doctor. The duty doctor called me back, and after I listed off a catalogue of woes, he ripped into me.  Apparently I had called the emergency line THREE TIMES [in history] and ALWAYS ON A THURSDAY.  He had told me the LAST TIME that I should call FIRST THING in the morning because my calling at noon messed up the schedule and if he sent out a doctor to me that would really inconvenience the people in the waiting room, etc., etc. 

I was utterly dumbfounded. And when a doctor arrived, questioned B.A., said he might have a broken   neck and called an ambulance, I thought about that awful duty doctor and wondered how he would feel if B.A. did have a broken neck.  

As directed, I held B.A.'s head straight, and when the phone rang, the doctor answered it. It was Mister [X], the neurosurgeon.  I held B.A.'s head straight with one hand while holding the phone with my other and being simultaneously grateful and impressed that the neurosurgeon had actually called me because, at this point, it was better than--and just as surprising as--Pope Benedict calling. 

Two massive paramedics appeared in the tiny guest room, and there was some discussion about how to get B.A. and his new neck-brace down 3 flights of  late 17th century stone stairs. In the end B.A. walked down,  a paramedic in front and a paramedic behind. He was carefully strapped onto a bed in the ambulance, I got in, and off we went. Yes, I believe there were tourists in the House at the time.  

Apparently the rest of the  staff was terrified for B.A., but they all kept their distance because they didn't want to get in the way. That was very kind of them, really, and the best decision. 

So for the first time in either of our lives, B.A. and I went to the hospital in an ambulance, and although I remembered my keys and phone, I forgot my wallet. However, I phoned French Pretend Son-in-Law from the waiting room, and he came within half an hour and loaned me £20 so I could get home eventually. 

After two hours, I asked if B.A. was out of the x-rays yet, and was sent along to what is sort of the triage department and found B.A. on a wheeled bed. All told, we were in the Emergency Department from 2 PM until almost 11 PM, and the people there were really kind to us. When I asked a young nurse for a pillow for B.A., he remembered to bring it. And a nurse practitioner remembered us from neurosurgery and smile at us often. One of the paramedics asked me how B.A. was doing. So those were the "people helping" Mr Rogers famously said children should look for in sad times. 

Unprecedentedly, we were told, Neurosurgery had called Emergency before Emergency called them, to say that B.A. should be transferred to Neurosurgery as soon as they had a bed ready, and so B.A. and I went by ambulance to Neurosurgery. 

B.A. asked if I could stay overnight in the Family Room because he was scared of what might happen to me going home late at night, but the nurse was reluctant--the Family Room is really for families who come from Far Away (e.g. John O'Groats)--and so was I,  having spent a very poor night in the Family Room back in March. So I went home by cab and phoned the ward to leave the message that I was fine. 

And then it was Friday.  B.A. fasted all day, waiting for the operation that never came.  A surgeon came to see B.A., explained to us why B.A. needed the operation. He was forced to retract his statement that B.A. would be home a couple of days after his op, when I informed him that B.A. would not come home until he could walk.  

"I'm so glad you were here when he came," said B.A., and this was better than a fur coat and a diamond necklace or any other present I can imagine.

I went home by bus before dark. When it was determined that B.A. wouldn't be operated on that day, he had dinner. 

And then it was Saturday.  Thank God, I broke all the visiting hours rules and arrived at 10 AM because I soon discovered B.A. had had a very bad night. He had been sedated and put in solitary confinement. He was still frightened and disoriented when I got there. At his request, I read him all the prayers and readings for the Trad Mass of the day, including the set prayers for afterwards. 

B.A. fasted all day, waiting for the operation that never came.

And then it was Sunday.  B.A.'s operation--his third--happened on Sunday between 12 and 4: 30 PM. Having ascertained by phone at around 8 AM that he was well-rested, I had carried out my usual Sunday schedule. When I got to the ward at 3 PM., B.A. wasn't in his room. 

I was told that he had gone into surgery at noon. I was rather frightened, as B.A.'s last surgery had lasted only about 2 hours.  But there was nothing I could do, so I sat in the neurosurgery waiting room until someone turned on the television, and then I went to the chapel, where I prayed the rosary until I got the call that B.A. was back on the ward. 

I scurried back upstairs, and there was B.A. under an oxygen mask, his beard trimmed right down but his moustache left bushy, so that he looked like a British soldier who had been ambushed in Afghanistan in the mid-19th century and wandered around the desert for a few days before rescue. 

"My beads,"  said B.A.. "They should be in the pocket of my dressing-gown. Are they there?"

His old green bathrobe was lying on the foot of the bed. I reached into the pocket and found the worn old rosary he bought from a Romany pedlar woman in Poland in 1990.  He loves it so much, I don't usually bring it to the hospital, lest it get lost, but it was the only one I had in my bag on Thursday. So after I showed it to him--and he relaxed--I put another rosary into his hand, and put his Polish rosary back in my bag.

I sat with him from 4:30 PM until 8 PM, ignoring the mid-point chuck-out time, and took various buses as far as I could before calling a taxi because have spent so much on taxis. Actually, a friend called the taxi for me, because although my brain is starting to do very weird things (which does not surprise me, since I keep reading popular science books about the brain and what stress does to it), I had the very good idea to go to the home of friends, out of the rain, dark, and cold, and ask to call from there. 

I had bought what the Scots call a donner-kebab, so I sat at a proper dinner table with proper friends and ate my donner-kebab washed down with proper Strong Drink, which I felt I sorely needed. We had a good chat about Cardinal Burke's Glasgow Mass and other interesting things, and then the taxi was called, and I went home and went to bed. 

And now it is Monday, and I am gathering strength for the next battle, which is to keep B.A. under medical supervision until he can walk properly. He didn't break his neck, but he could have broken his neck, and he's not going to break his neck because he's going to get all the medical treatment he needs from his country, no matter what I have to do or say to get it, no matter whose duty roster is messed up or which NHS targets won't be reached.

*Amongst other things, my memory for all the appointments is patchy. I hadn't worked all day because I had taken B.A. to a different kind of surgeon altogether by wheelchair and cab. The bizarre NHS story there is that the receptionist refused to tell me what the surgeon's name was, on the grounds that she couldn't pronounce it. When I asked her to write it down, she told me to ask a nurse.