Too much coffee. Too much cake.

Burger Recipe. Poland, 2014

I’m sat in a café with a goat beanie baby drinking tea – it’s Assam as anything that remotely tastes of what I’d call normal (Yorkshire tea or Lapsang Souchong) isn’t sold this side of the channel.

My coffee limit has been reached. Not particularly today, I’ve had one cup, but in general over the last two weeks. Tea’s a lighter welcome refreshment.

The overdose of coffee is part of a bigger problem. My entire diet is a disaster.

It begins with breakfast. I don’t fancy meat and cheese first thing in the morning. When we stay in places that offer a complimentary breakfast I’m overwhelmed and just drink more coffee, sometimes orange juice and eat the fruit.

When there’s no breakfast options then a trip to the nearest bakery for croissants and coffee is in order, and I’m not sure that this rates positively on the healthy scale, even if it tastes good.

When we’re self-catering, i.e. a hostel with kitchen or an apartment, then cereal is an option. Of course we can’t carry a cereal box around with us, but cereal comes in minuscule boxes anyway. Small enough that between two of us we can finish a box in three days.

There is little variety in the cereal sold here. And I feel the basic normal cereals are the ones that are missing. If you want something that’s soaked in chocolate and has a picture of a cartoon astronaut you’ll be fine. If you want something with the most minimal number of calories you’ll also have no problem. If you want normal cereal you’re screwed.

We’re darting between city centres so corner shops replace the supermarkets (although there was an underground Aldi in Vienna), this accounts for the lack of shelf space, but mostly I think the problem is that cereal isn’t revered like it is in my house at home where it’s bought 15 boxes at a time.

Meals that aren’t breakfast come under one of three types:
1. Ones we cook or make. Pasta with vegetables or bread cheese and salami.
2. Ones we eat at restaurants. Pizza or local dishes like gnocchi, veal stew or goulash.
3. Cake or pastries.

Three meals a day can therefore look like: croissant, pizza, cake.

Of course we also have snacks. Sometimes cake, but there are also Spar’s budget cereal bars (the banana one really is very bananary), strawberry and cream flavoured sweets originally bought in Hungary and rather unappetising butter flavoured crisps.

We had chocolate but that lasted all of ten minutes.

What food do you miss when you’re away?

Somewhere in Slovenia on the bus.

Slovenia 2014

Hungary presented the first ‘autobus’ diversion. Like this one the train to bus transition was impressively efficient. The coaches stood in lines with competent multilingual men directing people and more men loading bags.

Of course it isn’t ideal, but on the train I was sitting next to a girl who stank of cigarette smoke and here I’ve got the Midget beside me – she showered this morning – and we’re surrounded by older women in gold earrings and coloured scarves.

It”s a different sort of view from a bus. Trains tend to travel across the countryside. Slovenia has stunning scenery, almost 60% is forest and there’s a surplus of hills. Buses however take you through places. Places with houses and allotments.

This bus has a mesh across the windows which stops people looking in, but makes everything outside look slightly hazy. Lucky then that it’s only a short diversion.

[Written on my phone whilst travelling.]

Somewhere in Hungary on the bus

We’re somewhere in Hungary, although it might be Croatia, on a bus. There’s maintenance happening to the train track between Budapest and Zagreb.

The train (bus) passengers are an interesting bunch, due to us surprisingly fitting exactly into the demographic. The racks are crammed with rucksacks. The seats are filled with twenty somethings with bright English accents complaining about the rain, the leg room, the absence of wi-fi and the lack of a dining car.

Of course neither the Midget or I are actually complaining. I’ve got my earphones tight in and a good view to stare out of the window. Plus we shouldn’t be complaining, we’re on the bus that didn’t break down.

This journey is filled with unexpected pauses. We’ve stopped at the edge of the road atop a hill to lend assistance to the other bus and swap ticket inspectors. We stop again when the other bus gives up, and on the train we stopped multiple times to let other trains pass when it dropped to single track.

The Midget is sat watching a film on her phone. I’m watching the geese romp around a garden. If you’re patient then a detour isn’t a disaster.

Bratislava to Nitra: Mind the gap

‘Mind the gap’ is a phrase I’d normally associate with the London underground where it’s plastered on walls and tourist’s treasures everywhere you look. Whilst there does tend to be some gap between the train and the platform, I’ve always found the signs bemusing becUse it’s a very small gap.

That said, I did recently read some article somewhere that told a story of a man who got his leg stuck between the train and the platform. I think it was in Barcelona? I was amazed. Apparently he fell. Anyway, the rest of the passengers, a truly helpful bunch, hopped off and pushed the train over far enough that the man could get his leg out.

A few days ago, I boarded a train from Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, to a town called Nitra in slightly less touristy area when when you say “English” in an attempt to make it clear you didn’t understand the question, you’re met with a slightly fearful look and the body language of ‘I’ll go find my colleague’. This contrasts with the old town of Bratislava where you’ll find Slovakians who speak English better than me and make jokes about kebab shops.

[Side note: If you happen to be passing through Bratislava station then go down the hill, take a left at the T junction onto the main road, and on the right hand side is a lovely tiny pancake house. It’s the yellow building. From what I can tell the locals pop in at lunch time and order crepes to take away, although there are a few tables if you wanted to rest your legs. You can get a plain crepe for 25 cents and then there’s plenty of choice of sweet and savory fillings to add, even bilberry jam.]

So the Midget and I board the train to Surany, where you can switch to the local Nitra train. I clutch the ticket (which has a qr code) and the train timetable and nervously check exactly what time we arrive into each and every station. The Midget stares out the window gazing at the fields as they pass by, totally relaxed, calm as she could be, confident that I’ve got everything under control.

We arrive at Surany five minutes late, grab our bags and get to the door.

Now it should be noted that I’m not great at stairs. I’m uncoordinated when I’m not carrying a rucksack and have to hold on to the banister and watch where I put my feet.

And the platform in Surany (if you can call it that) was a long way down. It was more like just the pavement somewhere far below.

Nobody else seemed at all perplexed.

I jumped. And followed the crowd across the rusty train tracks to the building. Inside I looked for the departure board. There wasn’t one. There was a crackly tannoy system that kindly told me when the next train would be arriving and where it was going to, all in Slovakian.

The Midget leant back on the bench overlooking the tracks and the plant pots. I sat upright, nervously watching the other passengers wondering what would happen next.

I didn’t need to worry. The 11.33 train to Nitra pulled into the station at 11.33. It was the only other train. We stumbled back over the rusty rail track and I clambered aboard whilst the Slovakian women in their beautiful wedges and elegant jackets did so with comparitive ease. The Midget hauled the bags up above our heads onto the rack and plugged in her earphones.

I sat on the edge of my seat and watched the fields of dying sunflowers pass by.

Curl up on a sofa, with a glass of wine and a bookshop.

I have never had lemonade (limonade) like they make it in Bratislava. The Midget mutters about how lemonade should be predominantly lemony, but I’ve been persuaded to disagree. So far I’ve drunk strawberry, raspberry and ginger versions. Each comes in a half litre jug with a straw and sometimes a sundae spoon. The jug is crowded with flavour: your chosen fruit, ice, lemon, syrup and appropriate flavour leaves, i.e. mint with raspberry.  The strawberry version had large pieces of strawberry, the ginger was slightly fiberous and the raspberry left you with seeds between your teeth. Each was incredible.

The coffee here is also pretty glorious. The local bookshop offers 17 varieties of espresso. It offers a similar number of wines too, the Slovakians like their wines and I love their prices.

And this is all within a bookshop. Waterstones could learn a lot. In the children’s section there is a tent set out with cushions, and a chess board and games. Whilst the rest of the shop is immaculately tidy, the children’s section looks like children have been there. In the scrapbooking area there is a table and chairs for workshops, and upstairs, in the centre of the room is an area set out for talks – rows and rows of chairs wait expectantly. And unlike Waterstones where you find a few token chairs and sofas, this bookshop had sofas, stools and chairs everywhere, yet doesn’t feel overcrowded.

It’s not just the bookshop which anticipates what people actually want.

In the square near the Danube there was the same theme of plentiful seating. Here there were deckchairs, beanbags and park benches. Again, there was a chess set, this time ginormous, and books – some sort of free for all library or second hand depository?

I have a good feeling about Bratislava. Have you visited yet?

[Posted from the tablet whilst travelling]

On looking after small people.

If I’m not careful the Midget will have written more about this trip of ours than I have. I’m blaming this on the fact that she’s completely trusting me to have everything organised and sorted. Since we’re travelling with only the vaguest of plans (we’re going to be in Prague in 2 and a half weeks) it means that part of my brain is in constant calculation.

The Midget is a solid leader in many situations, as far as I can tell ever single one in which I’m not around. However I’ve spent years brainwashing her into thinking that my way is the best way. Being the big sister means you’ve got to be aware that this youngerling has spent their life following you.

Hence we were the last (bar one) onto the plane out of Heathrow. And hence the twenty minutes of confused wandering just off the wrong street named mariasomething or other in Vienna. And hence the ‘oh dear all the shops are shut on a Sunday – what are we going to eat – dilemma.

Oops.

And today she missed some of the fishing huts along the edge of the Danube (I have sketches in my diary that I’ll locate when I’ve got a real computer), because I’d worn her out dragging her around viennese parks late last night (yes we almost got locked in – I was too busy prancing around pretending to be a greek goddess). Under the influence of the gentle song of the catamaran engine she fell asleep.

I’m doing ok. As far as I can tell, her biggest complaint is that cake doesn’t constitute breakfast, lunch and dinner. I bought some plums to balance her diet out. It was the first time I managed to find someone who didn’t speak English better than me, it was a lady who only spoke german.

The lady asked me what I’d like, and then a series of would you like that in a bag etc, with me answering first in Italian, Spanish or French and then in English before finally twisting my tounge into German. How do multilingual people cope?

I finally got to “dankeschon” and she laughed bemused uttering a sweet “auf wiedersehen”.

I’m not a natural linguist, although I’m making headway.

We’re now in Slovakia, and since I’m not so lucky as to have learnt slovak, I found myself at that awkward moment of not even knowing how to say ‘thanks’ as we paid for our groceries.

Luckily the very kind man in the ice cream shop (40p for an ice cream…) didn’t mind slowly repeating “dakujeme” until I got it.

[Posted from the tablet whilst travelling]

The misshapen perspective of a child.

books and reading

So yesterday’s Google UK doodle was for the author Diana Wynne-Jones. It was quite a lovely doodle and intrigued me, so I clicked on it.

She’s dead.

When I first saw she was dead I was worried she’d died tragically young. She was 76 when she died. She was born in 1934.

I’d expected her to be younger. I read Charmed Life when I must have been ten or so years old. It had a shiny new cover and I assumed it was a new book, written in the nineties for children like me.

So, on investigation I was surprised to find that the book was published in the seventies for children like the Father. It’s amazing how much we judge from a book’s cover, not only about the story, but about the author as well.

Of course, I’ve never had a problem reading old books. I devoured the Chalet School books by Elinor Brent-Dyer and the first of these were published in the 1920’s.

The Chalet School books I read are all owned by the Short Aunty and live in the Grandmother and Grandfather’s house above the my bed (incidentally previously the Short Aunty’s bedroom and where on occasion the Little Mermaid now sleeps). The bookshelf is conveniently located just above the bed, and beneath it is a reading light.

When I stayed there during the holidays, I read the chalet school books obsessively. I think I’ve done more night time reading at the Grandparents house than anywhere else. It was the only place I was allowed to lay in the following morning, and the only place you could reach the bookshelf for the next in the series without getting out of bed.

I read the Famous Five, Secret Seven and Biggles books in the same manner.

Sometimes I fear that I was a faster reader then than I am now.

I don’t particularly recall reading any Diana Wynne-Jones books, but I vividly recall the cover.

The orphan boy in Charmed Life is named Eric, but called Cat. I can’t remember thinking this was strange when I was younger, but now, for a girl also known as Cat this is unnerving, it’s like finding out that Cat Stevens is a man.

Why was Cat Stevens called Cat?

He’s now named Yussaf (Joseph), after the well-loved technicolour dreamcoat owner.

Who incidentally, according to the Qur’an, married Potiphar’s wife after Potiphar’s death.

Which gives a completely different perspective doesn’t it? She used to be the evil woman, associated with women like Cruella de Ville and Snow White’s stepmother.

I was already worried about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s identification of the Egyptian King as a Ramesses, of use of the title Pharaoh and that in my study of Ancient Egypt I’ve not yet come across a prison. (And I’ve got a book on laws and punishments of Ancient Egypt).

Maybe it was a Hyksos custom? Which wouldn’t make it all that Egyptian at all. More Palestinian like.

[This was the leading train of thought that took me through Saturday morning. It’s amazing how much time you can lose to Wikipedia.]

The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology by F. W. Westaway

In a local charity shop I found a pocket-size blue book, printed in 1926, written by a man called Frederic William Westaway and entitled ‘The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology’. The book’s age and the subject, writing for science, immediately made me want it.

The story of my book

On 22 July 1931 my copy of the book was stamped with ‘Marlborough College’, ‘Second hand book department’ in green ink. On this occasion it was bought by a C. B. Grimaldi. On the 24 October 1932, the book was again stamped with a ‘Marlborough College’, ‘Second hand book department’ stamp. This time in pink ink. Who it was sold to is unknown, but it went for 4/8, whatever that should mean.

The book was also owned by a D. S. Robinson, his or her name is scrawled in blue in on the inside cover.

I know little of the author Frederic William Westaway, but that he was, at one point in his life, one of His Majesty’s Inspectors of Secondary Schools.

Grammar and style

Unlike many grammar books, Westaway doesn’t simply give a list of rules to follow. Rules do exist, and they are stated, but the wonder of the book is the use of examples.

The following is an example of careless stopping:

“Rule, Britannia; Britannia rules the waves”.

There should be a comma after the second Britannia, and the indicative should be replaced by another imperative.

[I believe the use of double quotation marks is of its time. My modern copy of Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own, first published 1929, states in the introduction that quotation marks have been changed from the original double to single for clarity.]

Many more of Westaway’s examples come from academic papers, journals such as Nature, and daringly even other grammar books.

Each chapter begins with a couple of quotes about either writing or grammar – a number of which are from Shakespeare.

How to be a better writer

Anyway, Westaway’s advice on mastering the art of writing?

He who desires to write correctly must train himself to review with a critical eye what other people have written. To understand exactly what the different words in a sentence mean, what functions they discharge, what relation they bear to one another, and what the sentence as a whole signifies, all these things are indispensable.

To which end my suggestion would be Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose.

A very small post.

This is going to be a very small post, mostly because I’m writing it on a very small screen.

Today I shall move house. As you can imagine, the hovel looks chaotic. I have so much stuff! Although apparently relatively few clothes. The bags of books to clothes ratio currently stands at 10:1.

What happens regarding the internet remains a mystery. It may, or may not, be awhile…