Friday 31 January 2020

The Membership

About eleven months ago, I told Benedict Ambrose we were getting a dog. It was a non-negotiable. However, we still don't have a dog, and I realise that it was actually a negotiable after all. Or, rather, a nice idea.

The other non-negotiable, back in March, was that I had to find some sort of activity to deal with the stress of reading and writing bad news for eight hours a day. Eventually I got a membership to a fitness club--quite a nice one--and that helped really a lot. But while making dog-getting plans, I knew that in order to spend active time with the dog, I would have to give up the daily bus-ride to the club.

The problem is, I like people better than dogs.  And I don't go to the fitness club to lose weight--losing weight is why I am on this punitive low-grain diet--but to relax. And seeing the lovely receptionist and instructors helps me relax. I like being out of the house, and closer to the city centre, and among ordinary Edinburghers of various origins who are dedicated to exercise.

I also like languages. And if you're over eleven, learning languages takes a lot of time. It takes endless practise so that you don't forget stuff. It's hard work--although it's fun hard work. (It was also fun eavesdropping on two different Polish conversations on the bus home from the gym this morning.)

Benedict Ambrose sometimes feels neglected because of my desire to study foreign languages. So imagine a dog.

Then there's travel. We don't actually travel as much as we would like--I work for a North American organisation, so I don't have the European or British amount of holiday time--but we do go to Poland once a year, and to Italy when we can, and I go to the AGM in the USA  every summer and then home to Canada every winter. Occasionally we spend a weekend in the countryside with friends. Oh, and I travel out there to homeschool.

So again, this is not a dog-friendly lifestyle. And, again, I like people better than dogs. My favourite thing of favourite things is sitting around a table with friends or family, chatting and eating. The more I get to do this, the happier I am. If this is in Kraków, Toronto, or Rome, so much the better. Dogs do not facilitate this.

The fact is, a dog is not a good substitute for family and friends back home, which is who I really miss. Friendly, caring women, like fitness instructors, are closer to the mark. And thus my dog plan goes the way of my chicken plan, and my British friends are going to think I never, ever stick to my plans. However, to my credit I'm still studying Polish.

Monday 27 January 2020

Culture Vulture Birthday

I had a birthday this weekend. Thank you, thank you! Benedict Ambrose and I celebrated by having a boozy lunch at a French/Scottish restaurant in the New Town, walking to The Filmhouse to see Fellini's La Strada, and then going home to work on Assimil Spanish Lesson 1.

La Strada, if you don't know, involves human trafficking--in this case a circus strongman buying a mentally fragile young woman as a slave from her grass-widow mother. I turned it off 20 years ago or so when I really couldn't cope with such a story. However, I'm glad I have seen it now.

Once again I reflected that part of Fellini's popularity outside of Italy is the visual quality of his films and the minimum use of dialogue. Still, a year or so of weekly Italian lessons has unplugged my ears enough that I would have understood most of the film without the subtitles--always nice. By the way, one of the things you discover when you really start concentrating on languages is that subtitles are often inaccurate.

Assimil Spanish Lesson 1 was daunting because I didn't know any Spanish and B.A. won a Spanish prize in school. He won't study Italian because he is afraid it will further erode what is left of his prizewinning Spanish, so I thought we could go through Assimil Spanish together.* It is a nice activity to do in the evenings, supplementing the watching of British cooking shows.

It might be a fun project to work through all the Assimils that interest us. A fun but potentially expensive project would be to completely master an Assimil kit that claims it takes you up to the European Union B2 standard and then take the official B2 exam. If you failed, you could write to Assimil and demand a refund.

Saturday 25 January 2020

Not Completely Childless

The other day I wrote a list of children-under-19 to whom I have some sort of tie and came up with 24 of them. That was unexpected and made me feel rather cheerful. The thing is, I do rather like children, as anyone who has read my blog for any length of time must know. That said, the children I meet are usually my relations or the offspring of friends and likeminded acquaintances. I do not know   how I would cope as a full-time schoolteacher. Schoolteachers in Scotland quit in droves

Today, thanks to the deficiencies of the bus station, I missed my bus to my homeschooling gig. I was so cross I got my fare back, went to the railway station and took a train and then a taxicab to my pupils. I had done quite a lot of preparation for a new writing student, and I was darned if I was going to delay my lesson plan. I arrived in time for lunch, after which I had my first lesson with this new pupil. It went very well. Then I had a lesson with my veteran students, which also went very well.   

It is great fun to visit a household of happy, well-behaved children. Well-behaved, in this context, means disciplined enough to have relatively good table manners and amiable enough not to strike or mock each other (much) or talk back to their parents (often). Even in such well-regulated households there are always elements of spontaneity. Someone loses a diaper, for example, or writes a sudden poem, or needs me to see their new fish, or has an observation about the National Hockey League to share. 

I am always grateful to be welcomed into the household of such families. Needless to say, space is often at a premium and children in large families share rooms. It was a shock, then, to discover this week that in Scotland, a couple is not allowed to adopt more than one child unless each child gets his own room. My informant hopes to adopt two children, but the plans have been delayed until this second bedroom can be assured. This makes me think that two lonely or frightened children are going parentless because bunkbeds are considered insufficient for their needs.  

Really, one of the cruellest sentences in the English language must be, "You can always adopt." No, you can't. You might not have enough bedrooms, for a start.  But if you're lucky, you are or become the kind of person who gets invited to be a family friend. 

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Saint Agnes Day

Today is my grandmother Gladys' birthday, which I can't help but remember because love is stronger than death.

Also, hers was the first family birthday of the year and mine was the second.

Meanwhile I cannot imagine what she would have thought, during her life, if she knew I would write about her quite openly on a publishing device than anyone could potentially read. Now that I think about it, I only ever had one philosophical conversation with my grandmother, and it was about the fact that her "adoptive" mother was her real (and unmarried) mother. My poor dear grandmother felt burdened with shame, and I said she shouldn't be and nobody else thought that way anymore.

Okay, she really wouldn't want me writing about that, but it makes me remember my great-grandmother, too, who was slipping into dementia by the time I met her, but she had been an interesting character and a good mother. Imagine being a mother but never being called "Mother". Not Mum or Mom or Mummy. How terrible. However, both Edinburgh and Toronto were sniffy places before the 1970s, and there was indeed a massive stigma on single mothers, so I suppose it was for the best. At least, it was meant for the best.

My grandmother told me that Auntie, who worked and saved until retirement, always made sure she had very good shoes.

Usually when I think about my grandmother, I think about how well-groomed she was. She was of a generation that went regularly to a salon for a wash and set and painted her nails. In very old age, and residing in the seniors' home at which she had previously volunteered,  her fashion sense slipped. But  needless to say, when she turned up posthumously in my dreams to tell me she was fine, she was her soignée self once again.

"My grandchildren keep me young," she would say happily in the seniors' home, which was nice but also a bit of a nerve as she intentionally had only one child, my mother, and my mother would have liked siblings instead of her parents going on expensive holidays. (They weren't Catholic, by the way. Au contraire.) And meanwhile, I think she enjoyed us more the older we got, for when we were children, her Nerves interfered with her ability to babysit more than two or three of us for a time, or for very long.

All the same, she loved us and brought us cookies wrapped in paper towel every Sunday for years and years. They were usually of the sandwich variety and smelled and tasted very mildly of cigarettes. After my grandfather died, she was the only smoker in the family and would sit at the kitchen table drinking tea and smoking away. Thanks to her, I never really mind it when someone smokes, and have discomfited any number of young male smokers by saying, "Oh no, please go ahead. It reminds me of my grandmother."

My family back home will be interested to know that on Saturday evening B.A. and I went to the Brandenburg Concertos at Edinburgh's Queen's Hall. The performance was by the Dunedin Consort, which is a Baroque ensemble. The programme (£2) was so learned that not even B.A. understood it entirely. He said they had pitched it high, which impressed me.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure why I know so little about music when I took piano lesson for at least 8 years and grizzled over my music theory book. Well, I can guess. Last month I spoke to a classmate and discovered that she, too, had the same neighbourhood piano teacher, who was similarly unpleasant to her. On the other hand, I distinctly remember being taken with my brother, when we were both very small, to a Beethoven concert, and whereas I was bored, my brother was utterly rapt.

 I was not bored at the Bach concert, fortunately. In fact, I found it very enjoyable, even though I don't know what it is that musical people experience at concerts. (Do they read the notes in their heads?) The audience was incredibly dowdy, which was amusing. I imagine concert-going Edinburghers think they are not dowdy but unassuming or understated. However, they are dowdy.

One of the spiritual joys of Edinburgh is that it was my grandmother's family's city. I think she would have enjoyed knowing that I live here now, and if she cares about such things now, she does.

Saturday 18 January 2020

Musing over Languages During Cold, Busy January

Personal writing is the one New Year's Resolution I haven't been able to stick to.  Abstaining from eating out more than once a week and from buying any clothes or books turns out to be easier than finding time for blogging. This may be because I am also furiously reviewing Polish for a February trip and working on Italian for work. I'm also eating lots of vegetables and am back on the "Blood Sugar Diet," which for me entails reading a lot of recipes. Then there's the spinning studio.  

This morning I dragged myself out of bed at 7:30 AM and to spin class. I was very tired because B.A. and I went to see "A Hidden Life" in the Edinburgh Filmhouse last night, and we didn't get to bed until after  midnight. I was also crabby because "A Hidden Life" is about Franz Jaegerstaetter and therefore very sad. However, I managed to cheer up by the end of class.  

Edinburgh was very sunny and cold when I emerged from the studio. Because I had forms to fill in and post, I popped into a nearby cafe and ordered a cappuccino. A cappuccino is an exciting luxury when you don't eat out and you're on the "Blood Sugar Diet." When I finished filling in forms, which I had shoved in a puzzle book, I did a puzzle. The puzzle book, a Christmas present from my dad, is a  volume of Polish word searches. It is great fun, and the sort of thing I've been wanting for awhile. 

Anyway, it seemed quite a treat to be sitting in a sunny window of a stylish Edinburgh cafe doing a Polish word search. It was relaxing and gave me a chance to meditate upon the Polish word "wrzesień", which means September, and I usually forget it. For some reason "czerwiec" (June) and "wrzesień" are the hardest names-of-the-month to remember. 

The thing is, I'm going to be the godmother of a Polish baby, which is why B.A. and I are going to Poland in February. I checked online to see if Polish godmotherhood is as big a deal as French Canadian godmotherhood used to be, and jasne, it is. Dozens of Polish women could have been chosen, but the honour has fallen to me. Thus, I had better get my skills in order so as to prove to any doubters that I can be a good Polish godmother despite being, you know, not Polish.  

I have about 40 days to get my Polish in order---which will mean terrible damage to my Italian skills since, try as I might, I can not keep them separate, and last week my Italian tutor opened his eyes wide when I reported on an impreza I had had to celebrate Epiphany. 

The issue, as people who don't know languages don't know, is usually one of vocabulary. Once you have the ordinary everyday grammar down, you're away to the races. However, to participate in the race, you need vocabulary. And to keep vocabulary, you need to USE the vocabulary. In fact, I have learned that it is impossible to learn a language without speaking it as often as possible. This is why after 13 years of mandatory Ontario (non-immersive) French classes, I was still unable to speak French. I could, of course, pass written exams in French, but that was it. 

The same thing went for Italian: three years of Italian classes, and I couldn't speak Italian. Never shall I forget the first time I had anything like an oral exam: a high school Italian competition for non-Italophones. I tanked. I was miserable. I was also miserable when my Italian class went to a performance of Dario Fo's Non tutti i ladri vengono per nuocere. 

In both situations I was miserable because I thought I must be awfully stupid. I now know that it was because I hadn't heard most of the vocabulary before, the vocabulary not being in my Italian textbook or any other text I read for class. By then I was the only student in the class who was not growing up speaking one Italian dialect or another, so it probably never occurred to my Italian-Canadian Italian teacher that I would be utterly overwhelmed. Also, when I turned up at my Edinburgh Italian tutor's door, I knew almost no kitchen words. Coltello (knife), forchetta (fork), cucchiaio (spoon), bicchiere  (glass), bottiglia (bottle) and piatto (dish)  was the extent of it. My theory is that my classmates all knew those words already and were only taking Italian class for an easy A. 

Anyway, when studying a language, or practising a language, it is a very good idea to plan ahead for the kind of conversations you are going to have so that you can master as many vocabulary words pertaining to these conversations as you can. It's good to know general conversation words but also specialist words which, for me on this and work occasions, are theological. 

Therefore, based on past travels to Poland, I know that I will be having the following conversations:

Getting through Poznań airport passport control; buying bus tickets to Poznań Główny railway station; answering people who ask me if that or that bus has left; buying train tickets to a small village; explaining to a hotel employee why we are not paying; ordering dinner; ordering breakfast; making small talk with Poles my age and older; potentially answering questions of a Polish priest regarding my grasp of Catholicism; making more small talk with Poles my age and over; getting the keys to our AirB&B in Wrocław; ordering coffee or meals in Wrocław cafes or restaurants; buying museum/gallery/boat cruise tickets from clerks my age or older;  buying groceries; apologising for egregious mistakes like pushing an automatic door; buying our bus tickets to Wrocław airport; explaining why B.A. can't go through the X-ray; and getting through Wrocław airport passport control. 

The reason why my small talk conversations are geared to the over-45 set is that the vast majority of university-educated Poles, which which this christening will abound, under 45 speak English. They began studying it as tiny children. Those older than 45 had to study Russian instead.  

Anyway, I will be meeting my Polish tutor tomorrow, and I hope she is not daunted by my list. 

Friday 3 January 2020

We are a Pretend Grandmother

Polish Pretend Daughter-in-Law has had a baby, and as Polish Pretend Son is greatly concerned about privacy, that's all I'm going to say about that. I'm not always good at ending stories, so I just thought I'd add "and then they had a baby and lived happily in Poland ever after" to that one.

Besides, when you have no children of your own, it's good to know where you are on the stages of life spectrum. That said, I am actually just shy of 17 years older than PPS. When he was born I was either at a high school dance, sleeping off the effects the high school dance, or writing about the high school dance. Motherhood, let alone grandmotherhood, was far from my mind. On the other hand, I am certainly old enough to have had children who are now grown up so I somewhere on the young-grandmother spectrum.

The "We are a Grandmother" quote can be attributed to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who got no end of stick about it. In the UK, the only person who can get away with saying "We" of herself is H.M. The Queen. I wonder now if Mrs T wasn't suffering already from Alzheimer's, poor woman.

Anyway, I hope to see this Polish infant in the new year. I am sure I will like the wee sprog as, unsurprisingly, I usually like the children of my friends. Admittedly they are more fun to chat with when they are able to, you know, speak. Before then, they limit themselves to wailing their concerns about being alive, human and helpless. Who could possibly blame them? Not me.

Imagine spending most of your awake time staring at whatever or whoever is hanging over your crib. Fortunately for me, I had a pretty mother, and my first memory is of my then twenty-something mother holding a fuzzy yellow doll over my crib, presumably singing "And down will come BABY"--meaning the doll, whose name is Baby, which then zoomed down towards me--"cradle and all."

Baby is an interesting toy of the kind rarely seen today: a doll's face stitched or glued onto yellow velour body that was full of stuffing. If you're dying to know, my next distinct memories are of Cambridge, England and Scotland. My family was visiting Scotland when Saigon fell to the Viet Cong; our B&B hostess thought we might like to know. That, however, is one of the memories one is not sure is a real memory or something one's parents told one after the fact.

"Auntie Dorothy, are you a grown-up?" asked Lily's second boy last month, and I was highly gratified that there was apparently some doubt surrounding the issue.

"Yes," I said. "But I took a solemn oath when I was a child not to forget what being a child is like."

I didn't add that I had made this vow when I was feeling extremely sad, powerless and furious about something that I might find quite trivial today. I'm quite terrified of saying the Wrong Thing to children, the Thing that will mark them for life, and cost them thousands of dollars or pounds to be rid of in the psychotherapist's office.

I'm pretty sure, however, that the Wrong Thing is never "I'm a terrible, fire-breathing Dragon and I'm going to eat you UP!", which is possibly why I am so popular at Lily's house. It is alarming, however, to think that one day the boys will all be bigger than me and capable of picking ME up and shoving me in a handy box or laundry hamper. Let us hope it never occurs to them.

The children of friends are such a great blessing, especially when you have no children yourself. Childless people are in so much danger of skating over life. I have very little idea when the next Scottish school term begins, or what Scottish children think is cool, or what a contemporary maternity ward looks like. I haven't had to get up to comfort a crying child since I was ... hmm.  But I do know what it's like when your husband is very, very sick, so my life isn't completely shallow.

Thursday 2 January 2020

I Love Scotland Because...

As Benedict Ambrose's new socks proclaim, that was The Best Christmas Ever. Invigorating walks in the cold. Telling my goddaughter and her brothers an exciting story about crossing the jungle (written by one of my homeschooled students). Dinner with my dear friend Trish. Brunch with my dear friend Lily. Fetching B.A. from the airport. Christmas shopping in actual malls. The Christmas Eve carol service with which even B.A. could find no fault. The Uber home from Midnight Mass. The incomparable Christmas Day in which all the living family was together for the first time. St. Stephen's Day lunch with Lily and her family. A sojourn in the Eastern Townships including my brother's in-laws, fireworks, Clydesdales pulling a cartload of happy children, Sunday Mass in a monastery....

No wonder I've returned to Scotland with mixed feelings. For many years the beauty of the Historical House took the sting out of annual (February or March) returns from visits to Canada. Last year the almost entirely magnolia-walled new flat plunged me into a depression. I think about a young American friend who married a Scot and lasted--what? Six years?--in Edinburgh before her husband found a job in the US. 

So now, having had a four-hour snooze following our red-eye flight back to Scotland, I am sitting in my favourite room--painted dark crimson last summer--and thinking about what I love about Scotland besides B.A. and the architecture. 

I always think about the architecture. The Georgian streets of Edinburgh's New Town are incredibly soothing. The views of Edinburgh's gated gardens from the New Town flats are lovely, too, although dependent on being invited to meals by the inhabitants of the New Town flats. 

Of course there is the local TLM community, without which I would simply die of loneliness. 

There are splendid croissants, but I am not going to eat croissants this year, so never mind. On the other hand, it is nice to know they are there. 

Excellent clothing. Too few men and women in Edinburgh streets wear the really lovely stylish quality clothing in the shops, but it's good to know that the clothes are there, too.

The proximity of the countryside. Splendid country walks are only a bus or train ride away. 

Cheap and easy travel to the Rest of Europe. 

Chatty, friendly Scots telling me they'd emigrate to Canada if they could.

The nearby river with its swans, geese, ducks and, in the spring, cygnets, goslings and ducklings.  

My favourite hipster cafe with its layers of memories. 

Picking black currants for creme de cassis or czarna porzaczka
Good lending libraries. 

Snow drops in February. Wild Garlic in March. Bluebells in April. Wood anemones in April and May.


Wednesday 1 January 2020

New Year's Resolutions

Happy New Year to all remaining readers! This year I will make time to write for fun as well as for work. If you plant the same crop in the same field over and over again, the soil loses nutrients. Not to get all Pachamama here, but I hope to plant some metaphorical beans and corn among the squash.

The food metaphor is apt, for my second resolution is to eat more vegetables and fewer processed foods. Ever since Boxing Day I have been declaring my intention to eat only "plants and protein" before hoovering another A) Christmas cookie B) croissant aux amandes C) homemade doughnut D) all the above.

My third resolution is to eat out (or take out) only once a week. The McLeans have grown lazy about cooking, and this has had a deleterious effect on both the McLean bank account and the McLean waistlines. This resolution does not necessarily apply to holidays, I hasten to add, although perhaps I can convince the cooking show fan with whom I live that we should emulate his heroes by going to markets and recreating local dishes.

Related to this resolution is the fourth, which is to spend nothing on new clothes, books, and other non-essentials for myself. Call it Buy Nothing Year. I shall be testing the theory that happiness lies not in buying things but experiences, and I want to be sure of the experience of paying off an extra 10% of the mortgage this year.

Have you any New Year's Resolutions you want to share?