Acquiring a little Polish

No, I have not been out to buy some Mr Sheen (not even, Baby Mr Sheen – Young Master Sheen?) – but as previously mentioned did spend the first half of the week in Poland. Unusually for a business trip, I did manage to see slightly more of my destination than its airport, an international hotel and the road(s) that link them.

My invite came courtesy of my willingness to harangue a crowd any time, any place, anywhere.  I suppose I would have to admit that the unfortunate crowds can’t find the whole experience too objectionable as I do keep receiving invites to deliver more of my schtick (and the reviews are usually decent, though I blame Stockholm syndrome for this).  This particular crowd whilst not my largest, was still a decent size and one of the most senior and by the far tyhe most international ever subjected to my feeble attempts at vocal wit (cunningly disguised as electricity industry insight).

The gig took place in Krakow, which is a rather beautiful city – though it did its best to hide this fact behind almost constant (very cold) fog.  Still, I did catch a brief glimpse of the Wawel Castle and even managed a chilly stroll to the Market Square.  The fog did reveal a useful insight for the aviator (perhaps a slightly grand title for a chap flying with easyJet) which is to pick a flight that arrives and lands around 1pm – this seems to offer the least fog and so minimises delays (~1 hour each way, a far better performance than most of the other attendees).  Given that Krakow airport is largely a building site at the moment (though I’m sure it will be lovely, eventually) it is not the ideal place to spend a long delay – the seating was pretty uncomfortable (almost as uncomfortable as easyJet’s seating).

The event offered a Gala Dinner on Monday night, which was held in a salt mine – some 135m below ground.  This involved a descent in a very cramped and basic lift (but we were VIPs, normal visitors have to use the 800+ steps) and a stroll through tunnels to reach the particular cavern where we were being hosted.  Dinner was great fun – entertaining company plus folk dancing and a comedic (and pulchritudinous) string quartet.  I saw very few peacocks whilst in Poland (none, in fact) and the folk dancing gave a clue as to why – traditional Polish garb requires a surprisingly large number of peacock feathers.  I suspect any local peafowl have become very skilled at hiding!

Peacock danger

Peacock danger

You will be pleased to know that I was released from the mine and, on Tuesday night, I once again went out for dinner – this time in town (rather than beneath it) to the gloriously named Kogel Mogel.  This involved a smaller group – but still contained someone from Northern Ireland, a Canadian, two Colombians, a Swede and an Anglo-American (plus me).

Before travelling abroad, I like to have at least some simple vocabulary – I view it as a basic courtesy as well as potentially helpful.  I didn’t know any Polish at all, so before this trip I attempted to (more-or-less) acquire the skill to say “please”, “thank you” and “receipt” in Polish (which I think you will agree covers most possible conversations in a foreign land).  I was also aware that Polish is basically phonetic – so, as in the old gameshow Catchphrase, you say what you see (or you would if you knew what you were seeing) – and that it has a mere 8 different vowels.  Whilst wandering around, I attempted to extend this vocabulary based on signage – especially that which, like the Rosetta Stone, had the same phrase in several languages.  I also, thanks to John Peel and Home Truths, knew that the city of Lodz (the L should have a stroke through it, but this seem to be beyond WordPress) is pronounced Woodge.  A fair number of Polish words also have a Latinate root (onion does, for example), which helps with the meaning as I can extrapolate from French or Spanish.

Armed with this very basic knowledge, at the restaurant I attempted to order my food in Polish – reading the words from the menu with my best guess as to the phonetics and with a sort of generic East European accent overlaid on this.  This strategy did prevent me from ordering some items on the menu, where I couldn’t even guess how to say the particular combination of letters, but still left a decent range of options.  I’m not sure if my Welsh ancestry helped (a language, like Polish, not afraid to use consonants), but my attempts were surprisingly successful – or the waitress was being unnecessarily polite.  My fellow diners seemed oddly impressed by my linguistic skills (truly, in the land of the blind etc) – if a little worried by my overt eccentricity.  However, we were soon all attempting to order in Polish – I like to think because I made it look so much fun.   As, indeed, it was – if I am to go further with the language I may have to practise speaking without a huge grin on my face (an expression that will not always be appropriate).  There is something wonderful about speaking a Slavic language (or a tiny bit thereof), I think part of me feels like a master spy when speaking Polish.  Southampton has quite a large Polish community, so I am wondering if I should start exercising my new found language skills on them – if nothing else, it may give them something of a shock as I doubt they often experience the locals trying to speak Polish.

So, I would recommend learning even the smallest amount about the language before you go abroad, it can be a lot of fun.  I can also confirm that many of the folk of the international electricity industry make for great company over dinner: I am now sorely tempted to visit Colombia (not something I ever expected to type).

Bloc party

Sadly, this will not be about the UK Indie band – largely because I know almost nothing about them, other than having admired their lead vocalist’s name (Kele Okereke) for a little while.  He will come in very handy for a game of musician-based Scrabble when stuck with a hand full of Ks and Es.

Over the years I have travelled quite a lot for work (which significant reduces the desirability of travelling for fun).  Several years ago I had the dubious pleasure of using every terminal at Heathrow airport in a single week (though I will admit this was before T5).  As a result, I have spent quite a lot of time in hotels across Europe (and occasionally beyond).  Given the hectic pace of modern life, this often involves arriving very late at night (sometimes beyond midnight) and leaving early in the morning.  As a result, I have little chance to enjoy the hotel’s facilities beyond performing some brief ablutions and trying to obtain a little sleep.

“The man” has regularly been charged more than €200 for me to use a room for barely 6 hours.  Whilst this isn’t my money I’m wasting, I still object to it on principle.  Most recently, I asked the centralised travel agency (which we MUST use) to find me a cheap hotel near my final destination in Munich to spend the traditional 6 hours.  They came up with a rather distant hotel (6 stops and one change on the U-bahn) at well over €200 – and this at a time when we are supposed be reducing travel costs!

I am just back from Poland – a place surprisingly difficult to access from the UK – and realised it was cheaper for me to spend the night at Gatwick Airport than to take a cab from home to catch an early flight.  As a result, and in contravention of the rules, I booked my own hotel at the airport – if you find my bloated corpse floating in the canal, you will know that I have paid a high price for my independence!

This was the bloc hotel (their capitalisation) which sits directly above the South Terminal at the airport – barely a minute’s walk from the station.  This offered everything a chap needs in a hotel room for a brief stay: a large bed (7ft square, so unusually I did not overhang in any direction) and rather a nice bathroom (a wet room, no less).  It also used a tablet to work the lights, so I could easily reduce the room to darkness from the comfort of my bed (at the touch of a single virtual button!).  This contrasts with the usual hotel experience, where the last 10 minutes before being able to attempt sleep are spent wandering the room trying to work out how to turn off the myriad lights (and, at times, failing and being forced to sleep with some of the lights still on – is it less embarrassing to admit to this inability or pretend I’m afraid of the dark, I wonder?).  The room also had a stool and desk-area and very rapid wifi and a TV, had I wanted it.  Another bonus was the RFID room key, so none of the usual fumbling around trying to stick the plastic card in the door slot the right way round (which usually takes me several attempts, but in my defence I am usually pretty tired at the time).

I will admit that my room had no window (an experience I first encountered in Manchester city centre almost 20 years ago), but this is not a great loss at Gatwick airport during the hours of darkness (and for a modest additional fee, rooms with windows were available).  Unlike in Manchester, this was not replaced by a curtain covering a large print of the Manhattan skyline (which I presume fooled almost no-one) but by a large glowing oblong – which struck me as a much nicer (and more honest) option.  The only criticism I can level at the room was that it had only two coat hangers, one or two more wouldn’t have gone amiss.  The room was also unusually quiet – especially for an airport hotel – and so clearly had very good noise insulation.

All of this set me back a mere £64 – and was only booked a day or so before travel.  I would thoroughly recommend the bloc hotel at Gatwick (and might consider it as a decent option for staying in London overnight given the frequency of trains from Victoria).  They seemed to have focused on what one actually needs from a hotel and doing that well – which you wouldn’t have thought was rocket science, but previous experience suggests probably is.  There are (at present) only two bloc hotels in existence, the other one is in Birmingham – so I can but hope that more will appear to make my future travel both cheaper and better.  If nothing else, it makes flying from Gatwick a rather more attractive option – something other airports (I’m looking at you Heathrow and Frankfurt) might like to think about.

The end of days

Our current, soi disant, civilisation has had a good run but I feel it is now coming to its inevitable end.  “Where’s your evidence?”, I hear you ask – well, let me explain.

I have railed against the rise of the superfood before in these pages (so many pages), all of which just seem to be food which is entirely lacking in superpowers (not so much as packed in lycra).  Indeed, these foods are almost entirely vegetative in nature, and neither Marvel nor DC has yet (to my admittedly incomplete knowledge) created a vegetable superhero (or villain).  No, they generally seem to be a foodstuff which some sort of study (presumably sponsored by the growers or sellers of said foodstuff) has suggested might be slightly better for you than a diet of neat lard.

I also object to the infantilisation of vegetables – I could just about cope with baby corn, but now rare is the vegetable that is not offered in “baby” form.  I’m pretty sure that the baby form of most vegetables is the seed (or perhaps the cutting?) – but oddly, this is almost the only form of food not described as baby.  Baby pumpkins as an alternative to pumpkin seeds, anyone?  What they usually seem to mean is small and, in the case of leaves, young.  On which basis, bonsai will presumably be re-named baby trees.  I suppose in the case of garlic or the potato (for example), I could make an argument that we do eat the babies – but again, these have entirely escaped this appellation (perhaps because it makes their consumption seem rather sinister – though it does make being (mostly) vegetarian seem a lot more transgressive).

These two strands reached a head yestere’en when I encountered a packet of baby kale.  Not kale for babies you understand, but small, young leaves of kale clearly marked as being a superfood.  Our civilisation has clearly now jumped the shark and it would be kindest to end it now (rather than let it continue to suffer).

Saturday night

Readers might wonder how I spend a typical Saturday night.  Well, I’m not telling – but I will reveal (some of) how I spent this current Saturday night.

There was no going out painting the town red (or in any other shade) tonight as I am rather tired after all my recent work-related travelling (and associated work-related work) and am “resting up”.  This is partly to repair past damage but also in preparation for next week’s work-based travel.  I’m really not cut out for the life of the international (or intra-national) jet (or turboprop) setter – mostly down to my issues with both powered flight and sleep (though only as they relate directly to me – I have nothing against either in principle and am keen for more of the latter, if it could be achieved).

I must admit that I am not a fan of soi-disant reality television – I feel that there is already a significant volume of reality in existence (possibly even an infinite amount, depending on your preferred cosmology) and there is really no need to create very poor, unconvincing and needlessly gaudy, facsimiles of it.  Nevertheless, reality TV did form the basis of part of my evening…

I have relatively recently discovered the writer Stuart Heritage:  a man who has the world’s best first name (obvs) and is also a significantly more successful and amusing writer than me (though I’ll admit that neither of these last two claims are all that hard to achieve).  He does appear to be a lovely – if sometimes rather shiny – chap.  For at least some of his presumed income, he writes for The Guardian and among his varied duties he has drawn the short-straw and is required to watch X-Factor (so we – or at least I – don’t have to).  He then live-blogs the full horror of his experience very amusingly and I spent part of this evening laughing at the suffering of another.  As well as giving me a good laugh, it also gives me a smattering of knowledge of popular culture (which may be important should I happen to encounter a young person) – though I’ll admit this is very superficial and may not be entirely accurate.

At the same time, I have been speed-reading my way through the thrilling document entitled: French Capacity Market: Report accompanying the draft rules (available from the RTE website, should any of you care to join me).  Whilst the document has much to commend it (not least the fact it has been translated into English – were it still in French, the speed of my reading would have been reduced by several orders of magnitude), I am mostly reading it for work in the hope that I will not appear any more of a chump than is absolutely necessary at a panel discussion in Krakow next week.  I hope it might also help to heal some of the karmic damage caused by tonight’s other main “activity” – though I fear  this hope probably just reveals the extent of my ignorance of the operation of karma.

Clearly, I also ate some food – previously prepared by the author (I cannot safely go more than a couple of hours without calorific intake, such is my pointlessly overactive metabolism).  Tonight continued my autumnal infatuation with soup and a tasty cream of mushroom number I knocked-up (by which I do not mean that it is now expecting my issue, it was the issue).  Good as this was, it is not a patch on my cherry tomato soup which is a thing of wonder.  I’ve been meaning to make more (or indeed any) soup for years – but this year I have finally made good on this promise-to-self.  I think this may have been aided by my discovery of a tomato soup recipe which did not require peeling the tomatoes (which always stuck me as perilously close to hard work) and then discovering how delicious it was (for which thanks to one Gary Rhodes).

Anyway, as you can well imagine after an evening of such over-stimulation I need some rest – so I am off to bed (I can’t afford to forego any hope of beauty sleep in my condition).  Frankly, with a life like this it is hard to believe I’m still single!

Brands

I chose not to focus on the traditional ownership marking of animals, nor on Jo or Russell (the new Farage) Brand, but instead on one of the marketers’ primary tools for separating us from our hard-earned (or ill-gotten) money.

If I recall a little of the history I learned from the television, brands were largely introduced at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.  The driver was the very serious adulteration of foodstuffs with highly inappropriate (and unexpected) alternatives to the purchased product.  The brand provided a guarantee – in the first instance – that flour, for example, was actually flour and not merely an admixture of vaguely flour-like powders.  On this basis, the relatively recent mystery-meat scandals – which are no longer news, but neither is the fact that they aren’t continuing – suggest that brands no longer provide quite the guarantee that once they did.  Still, as a (mostly) vegetarian I could view the horse (and other, perhaps more exotic) meat scandals with a degree of amused detachment.  However, while I have been gadding about this week a much more worrying food scandal has broken.  Apparently, not all goat’s cheese does what it says on the tin!  Luckily, there seems to be no suggestion that it is not actually cheese (sighs of relief all round) – merely as to the animal whose lactation provided the principal raw ingredient.  It would seem that there is a shortage of goat’s milk (something which seems to have been kept very quiet, presumably to prevent a middle-class revolt).  I’m not sure if this is down to a shortage of goats or just poor productivity from the available goats (or both) – nevertheless, if you have a small piece of land, now could be a good time to put some money into goats (probably safer than the banks and with a higher interest rate – assuming you find goats interesting, and why wouldn’t you?).  No, it seems that the milk of the humble sheep has found its way into many a supermarket’s goat’s cheese.  I would like to make clear that I am not blaming the sheep here (though there may be one or two baaaad apples) as I doubt they have the intellectual horsepower to organise a conspiracy of this size – no, I suspect some human agency is to blame.  Or it might by trolls: well, they do have a long-standing dispute with goat-kind – something about a t(r)oll bridge as I recall.

All of this sort of stuff should be prevented by the Food Standards Agency, but I suspect they may be understaffed.  Their website doesn’t give details – it isn’t even entirely sure how many members it has on its board (though they are willing to guess it lies between 8 and 12) – but it is recruiting one new member of staff: a Field Veterinary Coordinator.  The brief job description is comprised entirely of vague business-speak of a sort normally only seen in parodies – but I’m still fairly sure the successful applicant will not be on the front-line of ensuring my cheese is from the correct mammal.  Maybe I need to insist on tasting every cheese in the supermarket before I buy – better to be safe-than-sorry, you understand (and clearly this is not a flimsy ruse to sate my terrible cheese-addiction).

Whilst on the topic of branding, it will come as no surprise to the regular reader that my supermarket of choice is Waitrose.  Whether this is because I am hopelessly middle-class (or over-paid) or because it has been (for the last 8 years) the closest large supermarket to my home, I will leave it for you to decide.  Over these years of use, I have notice a worrying and increasing tendency to support the “brand” with the aid of soi-disant celebrities.  This started with chefs – Delia and Heston – but now seems to have moved on to more general celebrity with Weekend Kitchen joining the ever swelling (tumescent?) line up of cookery shows that infest the weekend mornings on television (does anyone really watch TV in the morning to decide what to make for lunch?).  However, by far the most blatant celebrity on Waitress shelves is the heir to the throne, via his Duchy Originals brand.  It started with a few packets of over-priced biscuits, but now he seems to have his sticky fingers in almost every isle (or every isle containing organic foods).  He seemed to start with milk and then move on to eggs (and an obsession with hen’s tail colour – like the apocryphal Henry Ford, you can have any colour as long as it’s black) – however, this last week I discovered he has annexed mushrooms.  I’m starting to suspect that he’s not doing it all himself – and the kids don’t seem to be helping out down on the family farm.  Has he given up any hope of the throne and is going for commercial hegemony instead?  He comes from a long-lived family, so he can afford to be patient.  I fear that by the early 2020s, no product except those made by Duchy Originals will be available in this country – so we all better start saving now (or taking the Good Life route)!  I’m still trying to work-out how to keep a goat in a one bedroom flat without so much as a window sill (let alone a window box) for it to graze upon…

Car tales

The more obsessive reader may recall that, early in the summer, I decided to release my car from its bonded servitude (or some form of hire purchase as the finance company would prefer I call it) by making the soi-disant balloon payment (sadly, no balloon was forthcoming).  At this point it became mine (all mine!) and I promised the GofaDM reader that I would start to use it on a more regular basis, i.e. more than twice per year.

I am sorry to report that I find myself to be a liar – since making that rash promise, the car has not moved so much as an inch (relative to the surface of the earth).  I will try and blame Edinburgh and volume of work (and work-related travel) for my failure – but would have to admit that I didn’t have any real need to use the poor, neglected vehicle and failed to generate such a need.  I have used the car so little for so long, that I have almost completely lost the habit for driving – and struggle to remember why “normal” people do so.  The traffic in Southampton and dire state of its roads may also act as a disincentive.  The city is oddly traffic-bound for a place so relatively hostile to both pedestrians and cyclists.  I feel it should try and satisfy at least one travelling constituency – and I would suggest that those on two wheels or none would be by far the cheapest and would also require much less wholesale demolition of the city (the Germans did their best during the last unpleasantness and town planners tried to finish what they had begun, but still the traffic-hardened arteries of the city can probably only be eased by a major bombing campaign – which, for the avoidance of doubt, I am not advocating).

I have learned at least one thing from this lack of vehicular movement: I am unable to successfully identify a lime tree.  Unter den Linden always sounds a wonderfully exciting boulevard in Berlin (immortalised both in song and the Kontakte TV series from which I learned my rather limited German) but it would be no place to park your car.  After a mere week or two, my normally red car is rendered almost black – though even this colour is somewhat concealed by the compost-heap of vegetative debris shed by the aforementioned arboreal menace.  In my defence, I would say that I have parked the car under at least three different trees – which to my eyes appeared markedly difference in both leaf and more general form – but all swiftly coated my car in gunk.  I am starting to wonder if the linden is a shape-changing tree – able to camouflage itself to fox the unwary.  Or has the lime been unfairly singled out and, in fact, many trees share its unwanted habits?

Anyway, yesterday my guilt finally overcame my apathy and I took the car out for a little drive.  As a treat, I took it over to Southampton’s main (so far as I know) household waste recycling centre (or the “tip” as I will continue to call it).  This was to dispose of some junk that has been awaiting this trip for a little over twelve of your earth months – it’s best not to hurry such things.  The tip proved functional, though rather poorly labelled compared to my previous experiences in South Cambs – most containers were unlabelled so you have to guess what might belong in them (or ask a tip-man).  It is also right down at the docks – if you go any further you have to join a very long line of container lorries – and not very well signposted (by the time you find a signpost you have arrived – it also helps to know the acronym HWRC is going to be important to your excursion).  Still, my task was a success.  Excitingly, after a mere 39 months the car has finally travelled a total of 2000 miles.  Yay!

Actually, before the drive I had to take the car to be washed to enable me to see out – which kept a band of our eastern European brethren busy with soap and power washers for quite some time.  Still, my car has once again been restored to its rubicund best.  Before the trip, I did a little cycle-based reconnaissance and believe I have found a tree-free location to re-park the old IQ where it is now ensconced.  Passing it on my bike earlier today (after 24 hours), I could see that it remained clean and detritus free – so far, so good.

I should also re-make my oath to use the car more often, declarations made in public (or in front of the modest readership of GofaDM) are supposed to be more binding psychologically – and with winter coming (though, hopefully, without ice-based zombies) there should be more excuses to go for a drive.  If nothing else, it will keep the battery charged and help me to avoid finding out whether petrol has a “best before” date.

Big Fish, Little Fish

There will be no cardboard box – there’s no use crying! – the title has an entirely different derivation.  When I was but a callow youth (as opposed to the callow adult that stands before you today), there was broadcast an American TV series called Big John, Little John.  In this a middle-aged man would revert to being a 12 year old boy at random (or, more plausibly, when required by the plot) as a result of sipping from the fountain of youth.  To the best of my knowledge, I have never partaken of the fountain of youth – and the growing decrepitude of my body would support this assertion – but I oft feel that mentally I swing randomly between Big Fish (a man with a mental age broadly cognate with the physical) and Little Fish (a man with thoughts more appropriate to one with roughly 12 summers under his belt).

In my last post, I was trying to project the Big Fish at salivating hordes that comprise the GofaDM readership – but over the two hours of the film both fishes (oddly appropriate for a chap born in late February) had their part to play.  Given the subject matter of the film, the vast majority of the slightly sparse audience were younger than me – though there was an elderly couple and she clearly had poor eyesight so he had to read any text to her in a rather loud stage whisper (it was like being at an audio-described performance).  Little Fish was rather hoping to spot something in the audience, and was almost disappointed – but finally, it did yield a single chap with a T-shirt advertising a band at the metal-end of the musical spectrum and sporting both a pony tail and curious facial hair.   Either the audience was very low on people from IT, or fashion has moved on from my stereotype.  Does anyone else add this I-Spy element to their people spotting?  Are you more diligent at updating your stereotypes?  Anyway, Big Fish re-asserted himself in time to despair at how little he had achieved (or was likely to) compared to the 29 year old Ed Snowden.

Yesterday, I had a shower: yes, I do like to be able to show a clean pair of heel to my readers.  For some reason, and for the first time in 48.5 years on this planet, I found myself attempting to see how effective my bath towel would be as a toga.  I can’t believe I hadn’t tried this before – though I will have to admit that even a bath sheet is less than wholly successful in emulating Roman garb (a fact ignored by Douglas Adams).  The material is both too thick and lacking in surface area to en-toga the full, fabulous extent of the author.  Little Fish will have another go on laundry day when a real sheet can be put through its paces – though the fact my sheets are fitted (too lazy to make my own hospital corners, I’m afraid) may count against them.

Today, I had to sign some official forms and ask a neighbour to witness my signature (which I will freely admit is not one of the more exciting physical activities which I can perform and could have asked him to witness – I’ll have to save my Dying Swan for another time).  These forms have a rather serious purpose, but Little Fish has become obsessed by the organisation which issued them.  He now wants Alan Eccles job.  “Who he?” you ask, like the easily-led simpletons a lesser author might take you to be.  He is the man in charge of the Office of the Public Guardian and so has the job title of Public Guardian.  I do like to imagine him with a cape and lycra, though his photo on the official OPG website shows him in Clark Kent mode (suit and glasses).  I feel his secret identity would have been better preserved had this website not also revealed both his name and super-hero identity:  Schoolboy error!  (Or if you prefer, and in the interests of gender quality, schoolgirl error!).

Well, I suppose both fishes ought to go off and do something a little more productive this Sunday afternoon – or Big Fish will continue to bemoan how little contribution he has made to the world – but first I think we will both enjoy a pear (the ideal fruit for the bifurcated personality with a love of homophones).