Thursday, 30 March 2023

Desert Thoughts

I have a bad cold and therefore am not carrying out the morning routine I have been following since mid-March: improving the garden, studying Polish, studying Italian, going to the gym and swallowing a quick lunch before work. Instead I am sitting about in a dressing gown sniffing and treating myself to decaffeinated coffee.

I gave up coffee, proper and decaf, for Lent, and I now wake myself up by opening an east-facing window and sitting in the dawn light for up to half an hour. (That's probably how I caught this cold.) The other benefit of dawn sunbathing is that it helps me fall asleep at night. Dr. Andrew Huberman, the health guru of the moment, advises his YouTube followers to bolster the effect by having a good, long look at the dusk light, too. That way, even if you sit before the glare of Netflix before bed, you still get to sleep quickly.

It does seem to work. Yesterday Benedict Ambrose cajoled me to leave my work and sit out on the porch to look at the brightly setting sun, and despite not being able to breathe through my nose, I soon fell asleep and through the night. 

I am sorry for having disappointed anyone who thought I might to a cost-analysis of Lenten meal planning and shopping this year. It is only now that I feel that I can admit that the really hard work of our carefully planned vegetarian Lent that year fell upon poor B.A. I did the planning, and we shared the shopping, but B.A. did almost all of the cooking, and it exhausted him. 

B.A. likes to cook, but he does so slowly. A pot of boiled potatoes, a pan of blanched spinach, and two salmon fillets under the grill: that's what he signed up for. A vegetarian lasagna or cassoulet takes him a very long time to assemble. And that Lent was more Lent for him than for me because I absolutely adore fiddly vegetarian dishes. I love healthy cooking, and I am sure eating pre-assembled fishcakes from the supermarket will kill us before our time. Therefore, this Lent is more egalitarian, except that B.A. will always miss meat and wine more than I do.

Thought of Lent brings me to thoughts of deserts, and I remember writing an article once on the spiritual buds than bloom during Lent like flowers that bloom in the desert. In Scotland, a kaleidoscope of flowers blossom during Lent, most notably yellow, purple, and white crocuses; yellow and orange narcissi; and pink cherry blossoms. 

This Lent, however, instead of experiencing spiritual flowers bloom, I am being battered and frozen by the harsh winds of the ideological battles against the traditional family--and not just the family. The whole late 20th century philosophy of what it is to be a decent, charitable, even liberal person--looking for common ground with strangers, sharing the value of freedom of speech--with an agreement that certain things are not for children's ears or eyes--modesty about religion, respect for local culture, boys-don't-hit-girls, civil servants being both civil and servants--is not just being spat upon, it's being battered and shot. 

Having spent six years with my face to the hurricane, I am absolutely certain that forces want to destroy Western Civilization as we have known it--I just don't know which ones. 

I have already edited out several frank paragraphs, but I will add another one. I believe that the strength of any society is based in natural law and the natural hierarchy of loves and loyalties. That is, the strength of a society is the self-sacrificing love of a man and a woman who risk getting married and having children.

It is, and should be, something of a wrench, because the first loyalties of both should have been to their parents and brothers and sisters. Now these first loyalties are to each other and their children. Of course, they should continue keeping close ties with their birth families in a way that does not betray their new primary ties. (One reason I was so pro-B.A. is because I knew my family would like him.) Men must do whatever they can to make their wives and children feel loved and protected. Women must do whatever they can to make their husbands and children feel loved and protected. Children should obey and trust their parents, not "because I said so" but because they are incredibly vulnerable in every possible way: emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually. In fact, children shouldn't just feel protected; they must BE protected. 

Of course, love and loyalty does not stop at birth families and marriage families--or a wide network of relatives, if you have them. They should also encompass friends and neighbours and co-workers--the people you see around you every day or every week--and so on into ever wider circles to include the whole world, including a solemn obligation to help feed even the very distant poor. (However pathetic, the distant poor must not trump your children or next door neighbour in your affections, however.)

If you find yourself cut out by God and fate or biology or illnesss or misfortune from marriage-and-children, you still have a role in loving and supporting your birth family and the children of your brothers and sisters in a way that does not interfere with their primary ties. This may, in fact, be a way of bolstering the love and protection your brothers and sisters have for their children. And this is more necessary than ever before because there are whole armies of people who want to come between parents and children, robbing children of their parents' protection and robbing parents of their children's love and loyalty. 

I believe the relative success of people of European stock in Canada is down to their traditional family structure and family ties. Whereas Italian-Canadian kids were wrong to tell me in the 1980s that "Canadians" (i.e. local Anglo-Saxons) don't care about family, they were certainly right to fear the devaluation of traditional ties. The long-term misery in which several communities of Canadian indigenous people find themselves is attributed in part to the dissolution of traditional indigenous families in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The effects of the mid-century destruction of the African-American family are obvious and far-reaching. For more on that, we need only read Thomas Sowell. 

The thing is, societies in which the majority of mothers and fathers live together and treat each other and their children decently (and the children respect and obey their parents) are strong, and societies in which the majorities of families are headed by women whose children don't obey them are not. 

Thus, if I were trying to destroy a society, I would do everything I could to break up the traditional family. 

I would convince young men and women that the opposite sex is nothing but thieving cash machine-sex robots and that early marriage is risible. 

I would tell them that allowing their children to be born is irresponsible unless they are over 30 and in a committed partnership, and that they are not ready for either children or a committed partnership unless they have already travelled the world and can buy their dream home.

Because I have convinced them that having children before they are 30 is irresponsible, I would suggest to them that they should overcome their "hang-ups" and try those 100% accidental-pregnancy-free same-sex relationships. 

If they object to this, I will suggest to them that they are moral lepers, i.e. homophobes or even transphobes. 

And if they do manage to give birth to children despite all my advice, I will warn them to keep their human treasures away from their relations' potentially bad influence (Grandma has such antiquated ideas) while encouraging them to buy devices with which their children can talk to strangers on the internet. 

Through the internet, I would tell children all the grown-up secrets their parents won't tell them and suggest that their fears around growing up to become a man or a woman can be resolved by changing their sex. And through the universities, I would make sure to raise up a generation or two of teachers who will tell children the same thing. 

During their every waking moment, I would tell them that "celebrities"--especially entertainers--are the most important people on earth and that they should emulate them. 

As all of these things are actually happening and because they are relentless and so obviously destructive, I am beginning to think that the destruction of my culture is planned. 

And that's very scary for me. I prefer believing the problem is technology (the Pill, the PC) and ordinary human greediness outstripping human intelligence. 


Monday, 20 February 2023

The Waltzing Party

When I was in Vienna, I harboured a secret: a beautifully designed ballgown folded up in a compact square in my suitcase, wedged under a pair of comfortable ballet flats. As life is full of uncertainty and surprise, I was prepared for any eventuality that would serve as my pumpkin coach to the St Boniface Institute Ball: that Polish Pretend Son would suddenly take it into his head to carry his family off to Minsk instead, or that Godling would revolt and seek refuge with her grandparents, or that Polish Daughter-in-Law would be summoned to the Eastern Borderlands to smooth out some family wrinkle. Happily, none of these possibilities hardened into actuality, and meanwhile I had yesterday's Waltzing Party to look forward to. 

Some background:

Ambitious Plan #1

I seem to recall positing in Seraphic Singles the Blog that older, married Catholics should organize social activities for the younger, unmarried faithful. And indeed a few years ago one of the parish mothers and I agreed that it would be a very good thing to organize a ball for all the Trad families scattered across Great Britain, so that the Trad young could meet each other under amusing circumstances in the company of their parents. (I read many Georgette Heyer novels; can you tell?) My friend's lively, pretty daughters, then in their teens, agreed. Unfortunately, I never worked out how it could be done without great expense, bother, and fuss. 

Ambitious Plan #2 

Then before the Covid crisis, as I believe we call it at work, a local Austrian friend disclosed to me that he would like to take a group from our community to waltzing lessons and then carry them off on a pilgrimage to Vienna's waltzing season. I thought this was a splendid idea, but then the lamps started going off all over Europe, as it were, and any waltzes to speak of went underground. 

Not-quite-as-ambitious Plan 

Now the lamps have been lit again and the waltzes have come back upstairs and, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, our local Austrian friend gave me an impromptu dance lesson. So I lost my head and said aloud that it would be lovely to have a party in which the young people could learn to waltz, and our Austrian friend agreed, and some parents also agreed.  

I was asked about it the next Sunday before a young person, and when I explained to the young person what I had proposed, her face lit up like a spring dawn. So I rolled up my sleeves and wrote to various authorities, including the safeguarding officer, to book the parish hall. I did this as a private person, quite independent of our chaplains, following the model of people who book the hall for christening parties and wedding receptions. To underscore the privateness/independence of the party, I wrote out 19 invitations including 29 people, and to underscore my sterlingness of character and cover any official objections, I impressed upon the mothers of any invited guest under 18 that they had to come, too. The invitations I left to our new dancing master to distribute while I was in Vienna. 

Meanwhile, I wrote a goodly number of emails to those governing the parish hall, followed up with a telephone call as time wore on, sent the completed, scanned application form to authority, paid the fee, bought a bottle of squash and a bag of coffee, made a cake, and noted that only a tiny remnant had yet sent RSVPs. I chalked this up to RSVPs being unusual for the Facebook--let alone the Snapchat--generation.  

However, on Sunday morning after After-Mass Tea while the boys were stacking chairs, my old friend Anxiety took me by the hand, gazed into my eyes with false compassion, and asked where all the girls were. The alarm clock on my phone went off at 2:29 PM, and the parish hall corridor suddenly filled with young men of various heights in sharp suits of various materials. There seemed to be a dozen of them. (In fact, there were 11.) And in the hall itself were exactly five young ladies and two mother-chaperones.  

Aghast I rushed into the car park and pulled out my phone. Where were my friend's lively, pretty daughters? (My friend didn't answer, so I couldn't find out.) Where were the Xs, and where was Y? Was some girl I had momentarily forgotten perhaps coming up the road? But no, she was not. 

It seemed to be as I feared. The TLM demographics--which I thought had improved so much--had defeated me. For years the fact that vastly more men than women go to our TLM--a trend not replicated in any other mixed-sex Catholic community that I can think of--amused me. Yesterday I did not think it very amusing. 

However, I managed to pull myself together and remember that God is in charge, so I went back into the hall, appealed to the mother-chaperones' inner debutantes, and we had our party. It began with Austrian Dancing Master bellowing "SILENCE!" at the top of his lungs, which made everybody giggle.

There followed an hour outside our collective comfort zone as the long line of young men and the shorter line of women watched the Dancing Master's steps and tried to replicate them. The first figure was the box step, which wasn't so bad, and then we were asked to pair up and dance it together. And as I was dancing, I looked to the left at all my dancing guests, and Anxiety disappeared. I realized then that everything was fine, and I had nothing to worry about except putting my feet in the right place.

There followed the Right Turn and then the Left Turn, danced to slow pop "waltzes" so saccharine that my partners and I blinked at each other. In vain did I ask for classical music, for whom we were not worthy or ready or something. It was Dancing Master's first time teaching a dance class, so he was a bit harried. We both certainly learned a lot about teaching waltzing, and when we do this again, I will (with their consent) put big red stickers on all the ladies' left shoulder blades to indicate Your Hand Here.

There was a 20 minute break for tea, coffee, squash and snacks, and then we learned--or at any rate were taught--how to transition between the Right Turn and the Left Turn. Those who had partners this time gave it the old college try, and then--after tumultuous applause for the Dancing Master and a kindly round for me--the party disintegrated into a montage of putting the tables back, washing all the dishes, and hoovering the cake crumbs. There was, you see, a Confirmation Class at 5 PM. 

Afterwards my guests dispersed or stood outside the hall in a cozy group chatting, and after locking the hall I took Dancing Master out for a drink. Apparently six guests or so had asked that there be another waltzing party after Easter Sunday, so I think--despite the demographic problem, which I will solve if it kills me--the party was a success. 


Friday, 17 February 2023

"Freezing breath on a window pane"

WARNING: Long and detailed.

So the title is a line from Ultravox's "Vienna", Benedict Ambrose's favourite song of 1980. Sadly, B.A. did not come with me to Vienna last week, for he needed to work on his studies. Thus, I navigated the train route from Vienna International Airport to the Café Tirolerhof all by myself. Happily I did not buy the wrong tickets or choose the wrong train or get lost or even panic when my ticket didn't fit in the validation machine. (It wasn't supposed to.) When I popped out of the wrong side of Wien Mittel station, I admired the cathedral (Stephansdom) before me and then turned around to find the route I had carefully memorized on the train. 


That was Thursday late afternoon, hours before Polish Pretend Son and family were supposed to arrive or Vienna Host was to leave his workplace. Vienna was indeed very cold (as in the song), but it was a dry, refreshing cold. The buildings around all seemed to be beautiful and every corner charming and full of promise. The Café Tirolerhof, with its uniformed waiters, well-dressed elderly ladies, white-washed walls, woodwork, banquettes and newspapers on sticks, was very much like the Vienna cafes B.A. and I had seen on YouTube.

I should mention here that, being deficient in knowledge about Vienna, Austria, and the Hapsburg Empire, I watched a fair amount of improving television shows and YouTube episodes before arriving. I am glad I did because I was in town for the St. Boniface Institute's Catholic Resistance conference and was thus around people who talked a lot about all the above. Also, I knew I could sit as long as I liked in the café and was not even nonplussed when the waiter shouted "Bitte, bitte" at me while slamming down my apple strudel, for I had been warned that the Viennese can be rude. And the waiter soon ceased to be rude, perhaps because I was joined by my Austrian colleague and then by my Viennese Host, who was not Alexander Tschugguel, in case you are wondering, but impressive all the same.  

But of course I did see Alexander Tschugguel at the evening's reception, which was about a half-hour's walk away from Café T in the meeting rooms of some pious or scholarly club. I had toddled along with my colleague and my friend after paying for my coffee and strudel, and duly noted the golden back of the statue of Strauss in the Stadtpark when it was pointed out to me. I admired alone the marvellous baroque buildings lining the streets, my companions remarking that they had got used to them. 

The clubrooms were at the top of some stairs in an amazingly old building and full of young men in Austrian jackets and of young women in skirts. There was also tobacco smoke and glasses of wine and A.T. saying "I know exactly who you are!" I was introduced to two of the conference speakers, one of whom had wanted to meet me and the other happy to chat about U.S. politics, and eventually Polish Pretend Son turned up with his wife and my god-daughter, who also knew exactly who I was. PPS sniffed the air and rushed back down to his car to get his smoking gear. I fetched a Polish storybook from my suitcase because there was very little in the adult (if rather young), German-and-English-speaking party of interest to my god-daughter. Poor tired Polish Pretend Daughter-in-law began to read it to her.


The evening ended after midnight at my Viennese Host's beautiful flat in the northwest of the city. I was given a little white minimalist bedroom that was very restful and conducive to sleep. The PPS family got the principal bedroom, and Godling got a mattress her parents had brought all the way from Poland in the car. We all went to bed very late, and it was noon before we got to the conference and discovered it was now lunchtime. (How happy I am this was not a work trip and that the duty of being on time fell to my colleague instead.) As it was Friday and we couldn't find fish nearby, we all went to the Café Tirolerhof, which at least had non-meat options, and cluttered it up with a stroller. 

The PPS family is extremely anti-carb, so as people familiar with Austrian cooking can imagine, there was quite a fuss, and the appearance of noodles with scrambled eggs caused much dismay. For my part I had creamed spinach with a fried egg and rosti potatoes, and the lesson I took from this is that it takes some planning to eat out in Vienna on Fridays.

After a visit to an eyewateringly expensive men's tailor shop, where Godling could not be dissuaded from playing with the umbrellas, we all went back to the conference. Gabrielle Kuby gave one lecture, Charles Coulombe gave another, and a repentant doctor the last. And then, if I remember correctly, it was time for dinner, so we went to the Naschmarkt, where there was another grand fuss although noodles were avoided. Back in the elegant flat, where Mr. Coulombe had been given a sofa-bed in a small but book-lined office with a parlour palm, cocktails were made and cigars came out, and I anticipated another late start on Saturday morning. 

(I am suddenly reminded that I am to tell a local priest that Mr. Coulombe sends his regards.)


On Saturday morning, though, I decided I was the captain of my ship and mistress of my fate and rushed off into the cold, sunny morning to get to the conference by myself. It took two trams and a short walk, and I got lost for only 5 minutes, and there were jugs of coffee outside the lecture room. The repentant doctor told the story of her conversion, which was very moving, and then Alexander T. gave a lecture on the Cardinal Virtues, which was very edifying. Then we milled about before we were driven out into the street to be given a short tour encompassing a few churches (e.g. the Franciscan, the Jesuit, the Teutonic Knights [?]) and then led down into a restaurant's ancient cellar where 35 of us or so, including now  Viennese Host and the PPS family, waited and were never served.

This was a new level of Viennese waiter rudeness. In fact, when a waiter did turn up and take my party's drinks orders (after an hour or more), another waiter came and shouted at him. Our waiter said something in protest, gesturing to our table, and the shouty waiter shouted "DU MUSST!" So that was the last we saw of our waiter for some time. When he came back with a laden tray, he noted that half the company had left, exclaimed something later translated for me as "I can't do everything," and went back upstairs with his tray. At that moment, PPS lost his temper, Godling, putting salt in her eyes, began to scream, and chaos reigned.

In the end, poor Viennese Host, the PPS family and I ended up in the Café Englander, where we were greeted at once, given drinks within a few minutes, and served Weiner schnitzel with lemon and other delicious things.  

The St. Boniface Institute hosted a ball this evening, and now I fear I will disappoint my readers by confessing that I did not go to this classic Viennese delight but instead stayed in the elegant flat to baby-sit Godling. The men of the temporary household decked themselves out in white tie and tails. Polish Pretend Daughter-in-Law arranged her hair and put on a beautiful dark blue ballgown. Then off they all went, leaving the poor Polish child in the hands of Perfidious Albion. Naturally, Godling was more than a match for me; somehow I found myself reading four stories instead of the agreed-upon two, and giving her a glass of water because I couldn't remember what her mother had said about this. 


I was punished for my lapse of memory at about 1:30 AM when I was awoken by heart-rending screeching. "Ciociu! Ciociu!" wailed a voice outside my bedroom door. Outside it I found Godling in an absolute state of grief and remorse, and it wasn't until she led me back (still shrieking) to the master bedroom and handed me a dry diaper that I realized what had happened. 

So I attached the dry diaper and dispensed with the wet one and read the poor child another story and lay down on her mother's side of the bed to wait for her to fall asleep.

"I want water," said the precious monster in her native tongue.

"No," I said in that language.

"Yes. I want water."

"If I give you water," I said very slowly because remembering how to form the Polish conditional after being woken up from a deep sleep at 1:30 AM is taxing, "you will make siusiu again."

Godling seemed to admit this was so, for she said no more about it.

On Sunday I made another break for morning freedom by going to the local bakery, where I discovered that the lady behind the counter knows no English, that she doesn't take debit cards, and that all the bakery German I learned 17 years ago has disappeared. However, she did take my 100 euro note, so I arrived triumphantly back at the flat with the best danish I have ever eaten in my life.

Then there was an hour of packing the PPS automobile, including with me, and some fuss about who was taking a cab to Mass and who was going in the car. Amazingly, the PPS family, its stuff, Viennese Host and I all fit. On our way to the Oratorians, we passed the world's most beautiful trash incinerator (Spittelau), which has a golden ball on the top. And when we got to the Oratorians there was another fuss about parking, so Viennese Host told me sottovoce to make a break for it. Thus I found myself clambering into an ornate wooden pew in the back of yet another glorious baroque church just after the Kyrie.

This is where I would remark that one wonderful thing about Mass is that it is "the same all over the world" if that were really true. At any rate, for us it was the good old TLM with the Epistle and Gospel read over again in the Vernacular, which I also did not understand, followed by what was probably a very sound homily in the Vernacular, during which I prayed two decades of the Rosary. 

After Mass there was a lot of greeting and farewell and photo-taking amongst the participants in the Conference, and then Viennese Host, the PPS family, Mr. Coloumbe and I found an Austrian restaurant and ate goulash, schnitzel and such other meaty stuff. After paying up, the PPS family and I said goodbye to Viennese Host and Mr C, and we went to the airport, where PPS dropped me off. 

So that is my lightning account of my 72 hours in Vienna, and the only other thing I can think of to say is that I worried beforehand that I would reflexively respond to waiters et al in Polish instead of English, and I was right. 

Sunday, 29 January 2023

"Afford anything" (like Michelin star cooking)

All I know about this finance blogger is her tag line "Afford anything... But not everything. What's it gonna be?" It's a great slogan. It makes me imagine a car fanatic who works out that if he saves almost everything he makes, paying the lowest imaginable rent (as the 4th flatmate, for example) and living on rice and beans, he can buy a Porsche (used). A Porsche is not my idea of a pearl of great price, but I don't even have a license, so who am I to judge?

There are endless possibilities. There may be women in--well, not Edinburgh--Liverpool or London who sleep in box rooms, live on baked beans, and go to work in Dior. Conversely, there may be men paying £600 a week to live in Edinburgh's Moray Place, carefully conserving charity shop finds and dumpster diving behind Waitrose (supermarket). Then again, there may be men and women who live in dank cellars in Leith and emerge, blinking, into the sun to eat Martin Wishart's Tasting Menu with matching wines once a month. 

This last, though expensive, is less expensive than a used Porsche, a New Town rent or (let me check) an asymmetric mid-length skirt from Dior. And as my favourite thing is eating a really good meal with someone/people I love and/or admire, the stellar restaurant would be my choice--but the set lunch instead of the Tasting Menu and only once a year.  (We might stretch to twice this year.)

And indeed once again I chose to go to such a restaurant for my birthday, bringing along Benedict Ambrose to have someone nice to look at. We were at the restaurant at the crack of noon--in fact, we got there before noon and found the doors locked. We were the first patrons of the day, and were led into a not-very-large room decorated in pale colours with pale wooden walls, which made me think of the 1970s, but B.A. said it was more 1930s. We got a table by a window, which was marvellous for looking at the people walking along the Firth of Forth with their maps or their dogs. B.A. sat facing the door, so he also had the fun of observing the other guests arrive and telling me what they were wearing. (More on this anon.)

We ordered the tortellini with roe deer and mushrooms; the braised pork cheeks with Puy lentils, glazed apples and chestnuts and Calvados sauce; and the chocolate tart with ice-cream and salted caramel. We also opted to have the sommelier choose our glasses of wine for the first two courses. 

Naturally we awaited the arrival of the amuse-bouches with great curiosity. We were rewarded with a cube of fried meaty deliciousness, a savoury beetroot meringue stuffed with horseradish sauce, a crispy shell of scallop tartar and a little bowl of pumpkin foam.   

We ate the above and, when we were again able to speak, talked about how good they were. Then the tortellini arrived and we really had nothing to say except how amazing they were. It was like eating the Spirit of the Woods: the soft savoury dear, the tiny mushrooms, the tortellini made as if by an Umbrian grandmother....

It was rather the same with the braised pork cheeks. We ate, saying nothing, and then began to make remarks like "Oh my goodness, this pork!" and "Oh my goodness, this apple!" The apples had clearly been marinated in, or cooked in, sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg, and really, they were better than candy and finding a £10 note on the pavement. The chestnuts were the best chestnuts ever. We will be talking about them on and off for a year. 

The chocolate tart was the best chocolate-caramel dessert we had ever eaten in our lives, and that is all I really have to say about that. Once again, we veered from wordlessness and superlatives. 

In between courses we drank our wine and evaluated our fellow diners who, for the most part, were a dowdy lot because--and it pains me greatly to say this and I wish it weren't true--well-heeled, cultured Edinburghers who eat at Michelin-starred restaurants and, for example, go to the opera and the concert hall do not dress well. There are flocks of elderly ladies who live in Morningside and Bruntsfield and the Braid who wear black slacks and cardigans wherever they go, including Chopin concerts at the French Consul's residence. This drives me mad, but B.A. looked knowing at me.

"It's a Code," he said loftily. 

"A code for what?" I asked. "Is this like Cranford where everyone who counts serves only bread-and-butter at their tea-parties and then despises that poor lady who serves cake?"

I think his response was interrupted by the arrival of another delicious course, for I don't remember what it was. At any rate, I did see one youngish lady in a nice dress, but she was clearly the guest of an older lady who was wearing black slacks and a chunky necklace and ordered the Tasting Menu for two. B.A. spotted a man wearing what looked like a good Italian suit, and he also watched a very elderly man in a tracksuit clatter in with a walker. I didn't see him myself, but my guess is that he has a gold-plated pension, not that he lives in a cellar and scrimps and saves for a once-a-month Michelin meal.

After coffee and bonbons (the nostalgic tears are springing to my eyes now), we paid up and went for a walk, and I constructed an imaginary life in a very snazzy flat for the man with a walker, including his conversation on the phone with the taxi company that delivers him (perhaps once a week) to the restaurant. Having decades ago gotten past the grief, envy and despair of no longer being a Captain of Industry, he now lives entirely for comfort, and shouts at everyone (including the Maitre D') not only because he is deaf but because he enjoys it. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

The Preservation of Fire

A decade ago or so, a visitor from Ireland summed up our TLM community with a dismissive "not a young parish." On the contrary, we had a goodly collection of university students by then. Of course, it was true that we did not have many children or young couples. The tea table was presided over by elderly ladies, two of whom now feature in my prayers for the dead and one of whom is now confined to a wheelchair. The oldest woman in the parish, who was 90 or so, would signal that she was done drinking her tea by taking a linen cloth from her handbag to help with the washing up. She, too, now features in my prayers. 

The tea, incidentally, was strong enough to leap out of the pot and throttle you, and the coffee was the ashy mud for which Britain was once so famous. The biscuits sat on plates, and sometimes they had exciting names like Bourbon or Jammy Dodger or Jaffa cake, and sometimes they were plain, but I never took more than two--at least, at first. Possibly I would sneak back after drinking my tea or coffee and see what was left. Crucially--it seemed--there was always a tea lady to pour the tea or the hot water into the cups of ash. Pouring your own tea was Not Done. 

In fact, the Tea and Coffee of Peace was a sedate affair, and I took the ministrations of the Tea Ladies for granted. It was generally (but not universally) held by the Gin and Tonic Set (to which B.A. and I and Polish Pretend Son belonged) that setting it up and cleaning up afterwards was the privilege of the elderly. Week after week we sauntered off for our gin, shouting thanks to the Tea Ladies over our shoulders as we passed the minute kitchen on the way out. 

One of the Gin and Tonic set was unusually kindly for us, and she began to help the Tea Ladies and, in fact, became the Tea Lady when the others died or became too infirm. Unfortunately, our friend herself was losing her sight, and when an unkind--but probably insane--woman from the NO Mass found this out, there was an unholy fuss. It was, in the Catholic sense of the word, a scandal, and our friend, a recent convert, never returned. 

So, despite being well under 60, I became the Tea Lady and began to duck out of Mass at the first moment B.A. and I deemed allowable ("Chalice veils") to set up the tea. By then our numbers had increased, and as the Francis pontificate gathered steam, they increased even more. The church thronged with young families, which themselves grew and grow, and more and more young people filled the choir pews in the back. 

This expansion brought minor revolutions. For the first time I can recall, someone under 18 was allowed to serve at the altar. Women even younger than I volunteered to make the tea and wash the cups. Parents brought children's birthday or First Communion cakes to share. Men hoovered the parish hall floor. There was even a rebellion within the Tea Lady ranks against the instant coffee of our ancestors and we began to brew real coffee with a machine. We also took to moving the tea table across the doorway to the kitchen, both to create a better crowd flow and to stop children from crashing into us when we returned with hot refilled pots. 

Then our new priest arrived and our old priest retired to the background. I discovered that the former says Mass faster than the latter, which means that to get everything on the table in time, I really have to keep a weather eye on the chalice veils. 

This Sunday, in fact, hosting as organized and sedate an After-Mass Tea as my predecessors was simply impossible. First of all, my trusty second-in-command was absent. Secondly, for some reason, a spirit of chaos reigned. The crowd of children gave up all restraint and made such frequent raids on the biscuits that a 700 gram Tesco Variety Pack was gone in minutes. I put out more biscuits, only to see an empty plate when I emerged from the kitchen with a pot of coffee or a refilled jug of milk, or whatever it was. I put out more cookies although I feared someone would eventually throw up. Sadly, there were no longer any plain ones, and our poor new priest--who always comes late to the table--had to make do with a custard cream. Graduate students were helping themselves to the tea and coffee (anarchy!) and then a blond giant invaded the kitchen to demand to know why I had not told him I was going to Vienna. 

As a matter of fact, I had informed the blond giant by Facebook message, which he had not read, and answered further questioning by saying that I was going to a Conference-and-Ball, although not the Ball.

"Warum nicht?" demanded the blond giant. 

"Because I can't waltz," I said, or words to that effect. 

Then--I'm not sure exactly how this happened--I received an impromptu lesson in the basic waltz step in the hall, and afterwards was dancing in circles in the carpark. I cannot remember a single occasion in which any of my predecessors abandoned their duties to waltz outdoors in the cold. 

But then I had a revelation that although I am a Tea Lady I am not actually ancient, and the social rules for the over-40 set in 1818 do not apply in 2023 anyway, and there is nothing wrong in accepting invitations to waltz in the carpark, or even in Vienna. Also, parishioners may certainly help themselves to tea and coffee, and the children are welcome to eat as many biscuits as their parents allow. For after all, we have become a young parish, and the spirit of youth is upon us. 

(I will, however, keep a stash of plain biscuits back for the priest.)

Saturday, 21 January 2023

A Bicycle Built for Two

Today is the birthday of my late grandmother, Gladys. There are two days in which I think about her most particularly--Christmas Eve and January 21. And when Benedict Ambrose catches me using some long-obsolete Scottish word, I am delighted, for it probably came from my Edinburgh great-grandmother, via Grandma. 

I forget which antique Scotticism I used the last time B.A. noticed, but the one that I remember best (for obvious reasons) is the word "skelp," which is Scots for "to beat." My grandmother never did skelp us, but she threatened to do so on this one memorable occasion. 

I was flummoxed as I had never heard the word and thought at first she had said "scalp." It created in my infant mind a legend that my grandmother, who was born in Saskatchewan--as remote a part of the British Empire you could have a baby on the quiet--was in fact a Native Canadian. At the time, we children all believed the official story that she had been adopted, so it was not as farfetched as you might think. It also indicates that I still got most of my information about First Nations people from westerns on TVO's "Magic Shadows." 

Threatening to scalp (or skelp) us was unusually harsh for my grandmother, who was more likely to dodge requests to babysit because of her Nerves. She loved her grandchildren and she came to visit almost every Sunday, so I think it was the responsibility of returning us alive and unharmed to my parents that danced a hornpipe on her delicate Nerves. She had had only one child herself, so the duty of watching five must have really been a challenge.

Along with the word "skelp," my grandmother taught me the refrain to "Daisy Bell," which was 20 years out of date when she was born. But I am certain I have written about that before.

Friday, 20 January 2023

The Overwhelming Temptations of Travel

Before COVID-19 hit the headlines, an Austrian friend declared that he wanted to organize a pilgrimage to Vienna's ball season. His idea was to train up sympathetic friends and acquaintances in the mysteries of the waltz and then herd us and our formalwear onto a plane. Vienna is about 2.5 hours away from Edinburgh by air, so the scheme was doable. 

But that was three years ago or more, the COVID-19 restrictions having wrecked the scheme, and the Vienna ball season has returned only now. For some reason--and I really don't know why, since I don't waltz--I asked an Austrian colleague at work when a particular Catholic institute in Vienna was having their ball this year.

"I think I sent you the save-the-date," said my colleague and sent me a link to the registration page. 

The link led to information that there was an interesting conference attached to the ball, and so I inwardly committed to going---but with some hesitation. I am neither the kind of woman who makes friends easily in a new place nor one who is supremely confident that she will be asked to dance. Going to a formal ball struck me as something I always think I should enjoy, not something that I really do enjoy.

Of course, my first thought was Benedict Ambrose, who by law (surely?) has to re-learn the waltz and dance it with me. However, he said he was too busy, but that I should go, darling. 

So then I contacted Polish Pretend Son to see if he were going to this conference and ball. Naturally, he knew all about it from a mutual Austrian pal. 

"Are you going?" he messaged back. 

There followed a lot of swithering on my part although I went ahead and registered. In the end I registered for the conference, not the ball, because now I was more interested in the conference and in spending happy hours in Viennese cafes, etc, with friends, and it occurred to me that my time might be more usefully spent babysitting my Polish goddaughter while her dance-mad parents waltzed into the wee hours. I would still like to attend a Viennese ball one day, but preferably with someone who by law (surely?) has to dance with me. 

And, moreover, I purchased flights there and back, even though spending the money caused me great mental pain, pain I could only assuage by plotting out the travel spending for the whole year, and calculating how to do this without creating a cashflow problem or thwarting our short-term financial goals. 

Having become, late in life, a convert to examining how every penny is spent, I have also begun very seriously to ponder how much (and if) I enjoy the things everyone seems to think are inherently enjoyable. (For example, I very much hate going to the hairdresser.) My recent (and relatively expensive) sojourn in Lublin was a mix of good and awful, and it has certainly made me rethink language learning abroad--or how to go about doing it. However, one of life's luxuries that I still believe is definitely worth the money is eating in restaurants abroad with friends. 

These don't have to be fancy restaurants, either. I had two lovely, friendly meals outside a hamburger stand in Wrocław that I remember very fondly. And eating in friends' homes abroad is nice, too--if less of a treat for the hardworking host or hostess. I suppose, therefore, what I really value in travels abroad is "eating with friends" although, yes, it is also nice to explore the historical districts of great cities, and occasionally ride through some countryside on a sturdy donkey. Come to think of it, it is also nice to feel southern sun on my face and to bathe in the Mediterranean. 

So the real temptations of travel (for me) are friends who live abroad and the thrill of having conversations and such mutual experiences as a meal at "Balkan Burger" with them. The exception to this is the Scottish-beach-holiday, where the whole point is to hang out with Benedict Ambrose, swim in the freezing  firth, and eat delicious pastries while reading.