Photo of the book “Christmas books”, open in Chapter 1, with the two volumes of ‘Christmas Stories’Yesterday I retrieved my copy of the Christmas books of Charles Dickens, the five of them in a single volume, from the bookshelf where they usually reside with his complete works (the only books on view in our living room). It is a facsimile of the 1876 edition. It was a day late as I usually begin ‘A Christmas Carol‘ on St Nicholas’s Day.

I always finish ‘A Christmas Carol‘ but I have been known to finish all five books by Christmas Day but that was probably before I began blogging. Even further back I might have started on the other ‘Christmas stories’, 15 of them, in two volumes on my bookshelf, but I don’t think I ever finished them by 25th December.

My favourite author?

Christmas simply would not be Christmas for me without ‘A Christmas Carol‘. Dickens has been anyway one of my favourite authors since a very early age, perhaps even the favourite (though Emily Brontë is a strong contender). I am constantly astounded by his power of description, particularly of his characters, and I have him to thank first for my extensive vocabulary. I wish I could say the same about my powers of description in my stories.

I particularly like the preface to the Christmas books, a kind of apology that his characters are not drawn in the detail he usually expects of himself:

“The narrow space within which it was necessary to confine these Christmas Stories, when they were originally published, rendered their construction a matter of some difficulty, and almost necessitated what is peculiar in their machinery.

“I have never attempted great elaboration of detail in the working out of character within such limits, believing that it could not succeed. My purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good-humour of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.”

It works for me.

I also particularly like the opening sentence:

“Marley was dead, to begin with.”

How could I not continue to read after that (“to begin with” is a masterstroke), even if I know very well what follows?

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Picture of the Latvian natural wool socks on my feet

My natural wool hand knitted Latvian socks; teddy looks on enviously

Yesterday was ‘National Sock Day’. Although I believe that ‘National’ in ‘National Sock Day’ (4 December) refers to the USA I celebrated it anyway. My tootsies have been warm and cosy despite the worst that November could throw at us and this has continued into December, thanks to one beloved pair.

Not that we’ve been together for very long; I’m living up to the stereotypical male image and have forgotten our first anniversary, but I’m hoping that by remembering them on the ‘national day’ I might be forgiven.

Natural wool socks from Latvia

They are both immigrants who entered the country not long before we met. It was love at first sight. Born in Latvia, still wearing a kind of national dress in natural wool when they arrived; the white symbols against the background grey might be stars or snowflakes.

We are in a comfortable threesome; I haven’t noticed any tension between left and right and I have no favourite, they are both beautiful and each lavishes the same care upon me.

They are my constant companions around the house and were I able to take long walks as I used to do (30 miles over the Yorkshire moors or through the Dales was not unusual) they would be my constant companions on those too

They were hand knitted by the mother of a blogger, Ilze, who I’ve followed for about two years, becoming particularly close ‘blogging friends’. She blogged about these socks recently herself, at:

Pure wool socks

She has an Etsy shop where you can buy them, either what’s in stock or to order’. You’ll find it here:

Etsy shop ‘FamilyBizzBuzz’

There are also some interesting educational items, for small children, in the shop.

I’ve never been a fan of Advent calendars (usually too many sweets) and for this year it’s a bit late for an Advent calendar but I must mention a free one you’ll find on Ilze’s blog. Last year I used is as intended, cutting a little off Santa’s beard each day. This year I’m doing something different: each day I add a new Latvian word and the English translation. You’ll find the calendar here:

Printable Santa’s Beard Countdown Calendar

RomFlag

The Romanian flag


Only two weeks ago I posted
about Latvia’s 100th birthday. Today (1 December 2018) we celebrate the 100th birthday of Romania – when Transylvania and Banat came together with ‘The Principality of Moldova and the Romanian Country‘ (difficult to translate not to be clumsy) to form Romania. Since then, of course, the meddling of politicians has taken away parts so the northern part of Bucovina became part of the Ukraine and Basarabia became the Republic of Moldova; as so often when outside politicians (usually from the USA and us, the UK) mess with other countries we are still suffering as a result of this meddling, with trouble in the Ukraine and in the Middle East.

In my 100th birthday post for Latvia I suggested seven things which many people might not know about that country. I wonder if I can do the same for Romania. I’ll try, though a couple might be contentious.

Seven things you may not know about Romania

  • Currently about 9 Romanians leave their country every hour in the hope of finding a ‘better life’ elsewhere. The population has been reduced from 23,210,000 in 1991 to 20,170,000 last year. Most of the people leaving Romania are young and highly qualified or skilled, which we and other ‘western’ countries benefit from. There are, of course, also a significant number who do not mind getting their hands dirty (sadly often ‘exploited’ and not given a fair wage), doing jobs which the indigenous population shy away from; again we benefit.
  • Although the oft quoted “Romanian is the second language in Microsoft” may be a myth the American software giant certainly employ a lot of Romanians and established two of their global business support centres in Romanian cities. I can tell you from personal experience the country produces wonderful doctors too.
  • Romanians have an amazing ability to learn other languages. This is only in part (I think a small part) due to nobody wanting to learn Romanian (unlike me). An example is my wife who, starting from just nine words of English when she arrived here in 2004 by 2006 had a command of English sufficiently good to become a fully qualified teacher in UK and began to teach her subject, history, (and others) in high school.
  • Romanians who live in the countryside or buy from there know what fruit and vegetables should taste like. I will never forget when I first tasted a carrot freshly dug, or a bell pepper freshly picked, a tomato or the sour cherries known as ‘visine‘. If you avoid the supermarkets (I’d better not get started on that! – despite the ‘organic’ nonsense now being overtaken by the equally ridiculous ‘bio’) you can still have that taste today. The only equivalents we can find easily in the UK are bilberries from the Yorkshire moors (equally good as their Romanian equivalent, afine) or wild blackberries (mure in Romanian).
  • Although the belief of many Romanians that Henri Coanda invented the jet engine cannot really be supported he certainly did describe and point to practical applications in aviation of what became known as the ‘Coanda effect‘, which we see (or hear) when we fly on commercial aircraft today, when the ‘flaps’ are extended on landing and takeoff.  It is also used in fighter aircraft to allow them to fly at a slower speed. The international passenger airport serving Romania’s capital was renamed from ‘Otopeni’ (a nearby locality) to ‘Henri Coanda’ in May 2004.
  • Although Romanian Nicolae Paulescu developed an extract from a pancreas which, injected into a diabetic dog, normalised blood sugar levels when the Canadian team which received the Nobel prize for the ‘discovery’ of insulin were only just beginning its development, he was not included in the prize. A former head of the Nobel Institute, Professor Arne Tiselius, later admitted he should have been.
  • Just a personal view, of which anyone who has been reading my blog for any length of time will be aware, although many tourists will head for Transylvania when visiting Romania, the area in the north of Romania known as the Bucovina is more interesting, has at least equally beautiful landscapes and delicious food but old traditions are generally better kept. But if you want to see them you should visit soon – they are already less well preserved than when I first arrived in Romania in 1993.
Latvia's flag

Latvia’s flag

Today is Latvia’s ‘Independence Day’. In fact the country is celebrating its 100th birthday today. Two years ago I would not have known that, nor would it have had any importance to me. Now, thanks to the wonder of blogging, I know far more about this small (certainly in terms of current population) country and take an interest in its culture, history and language. Admittedly that’s down to one blogger, Ilze, with whom I’ve developed a particularly close blogging relationship.

Many years ago I did visit Riga briefly, on the way to Helsinki and St Petersburg (it was then called Leningrad), though which way round I don’t remember but probably Finland first as that was work, USSR as it was then was just an interest in the city, as it was for Latvia’s capital. In those days, running my own business with overseas clients, I often used a client visit as an excuse to make an itinerary to take in other places of interest.

Would Riga now be ‘disappointing’?

I would probably be disappointed now by Riga – I suspect that though the architecture would be the same, as in Sibiu in Romania, the culture which attracted me has probably been overwhelmed by commerce – tourist cafes and restaurants, etc. I’m not a city person but nevertheless I would like to see the city again now that I know much more about the country.

Latvians are rightly proud of their independence; they fought hard for it in every sense of the word. Again, thanks to blogging I know not only much of the overall story but even some individual, personal stories.

The general story you can find elsewhere on internet, so I will not repeat it here, but personal insights are thanks to my special blogger friend, which I will not repeat here either. What I will do is pick out some unusual facts which have intrigued me.

Aerial photo of the beach at Salacgrīva

The beach at Salacgrīva

Seven things you may not know

  • Latvia is believed to be now the country with the tallest women, though I believe there are individual women who are taller elsewhere. Although I am well past doing anything about that now it is interesting because I have always found tall women attractive, as anyone reading my short story ‘The Girl in Block 18’ might have concluded.
  • Latvia is a leader in terms of internet connectivity.
  • It is also a leader in use of open source software. Perhaps that is more linked to freedom than saving money. Internet was, of course, intended to be free to all but has been largely taken over by commercial or governmental interests. I use a lot of open source software and had I not been introduced to PCs with an Apple computer (Europa II) long ago (actually 44 years ago) I would probably be using Linux today.
  • I knew of course Latvia had a coastline but I didn’t know it had a beautiful seaside, golden sands stretching from sand dunes to an inviting sea. So, if I ever manage to visit the country a stop in Salacgrīva, the home town of my ‘special’ blogging friend, will be a must.
  • Latvian food is mostly extraordinarily simple but delicious, from what I’ve learned from following blogged recipes from my good Latvian friend.
  • The country in which you will find the most Latvians who have left their own country is right here, the UK. You are all very welcome.
  • Latvia should be referred to as a ‘northern’ country, not an ‘east European’ country. If you know the history you will know why Latvians dislike being referred to as ‘east Europeans’. That’s not just because it is geographically incorrect.

So, on this day especially I wish my good blogger friend Ilze and her family, along with all Latvians everywhere, a great celebration and a bright future.

Photo of a small piece of the soda bread, on a floral paper napkin

I didn’t expect to be writing a post about soda bread so I didn’t take a picture of the loaf. Only today, when I found that it was delicious when a day old I decided to post, by which time this was all that remained.

It is well-known that ‘Irish’ soda bread is good only on the day it is made, or so I have always understood (and that has been my experience). Consequently, I only made it when we had an ‘out of bread’ emergency, as yesterday, with no time to make a more conventional loaf (shop bought bread in the UK is not good, even in my opinion expensive ‘artisan’ loaves. I’ve been spoiled by German breads).

Because there are only two of us I always struggled to make a small enough quantity to eat on the same day (I hate discarding food but the birds were happy).

As Wednesday is one of our ‘veggie days’ we decided yesterday to eat an avocado each followed by ‘iahnie’ (pronounced, roughly, yak-nee-ay), a puree of butter beans for us but of the much larger ‘boabe’ (bwar-bay) beans in Romania, with bread. It’s usually flavoured with garlic, maybe other things like herbs.

No bread so I made a soda bread (but not the ‘real’ one as it calls for buttermilk, which I did not have). We ate it straight out the oven – the iahnie is cold. As usual we had some over so it was put in a bag, hot, still steaming when broken, with the idea of giving the birds a feast today. But, guess what, it was soft and absolutely delicious today when we ate it for our lunches. Poor birds!

Here’s the recipe I made:

250g wholemeal bread flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
200 ml full-fat milk
Juice of a lemon
1 tsp honey

Mix the dry ingredients well in a bowl. Pour the lemon juice into the milk (it’s magic!). Stir in the honey till dissolved. Make a well in the flour etc, pour in the ‘artificial buttermilk’ and mix with a spatula till the ‘dough’ is ‘together’. Shape into a round loaf, put on a floured baking tray (I use coarse semolina), cut a deep cross in the top and put in the oven preheated to 180degC (that’s my fan oven; I guess 200degC for ‘conventional’ oven). Bake for 30 minutes or till it sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom.

Note. This made a very ‘sloppy’ dough, difficult to handle and shape, so next time I’d add a bit more flour.

 

Again you might blame my writers’ club colleague, Jo Campbell, for this story.

But not completely. The 17/18 years old students (at Liceul Tehnologic ‘Nicolae Nanu’, Broșteni, Neamț, Romania) of my former Romanian student, Paula, now herself a teacher of English, so liked my ‘dark’ 5th November story, which was prompted by Jo, I promised to write another for them. Unusually, I have written to the theme given for readings at today’s meeting of our club, Writing on the Wharfe.


Not in my diary

She had been meticulous as far as her diary was concerned. By ‘diary’ I mean journal, not a place to note appointments, meetings or other dates and times to be remembered.

The journal was completed over morning tea each day, relating the most important, to her, happenings of the previous day.

She had noted, on the page for 30th April, ‘St Walburger, witches’ sabbath!’. Born close to the Brocken in Germany, she had always observed this feast.

But, and it’s a big but, Richard, the name of the love of her life she has declared, has never appeared in the journal. ‘My love’, yes; ‘he’ or ‘him’, perhaps; but never the name – Richard.

Photo of the Cow&Calf

The Cow&Calf

It began one day when, as the sun was setting, she and Richard visited the famous Cow and Calf rocks on Ilkley Moor, in Yorkshire.

Not satisfied with standing on the larger ‘cow’ and admiring the superb view over the town of Ilkley and the Wharfe Valley, they descended with a mixture of runs and jumps to the ‘calf’ below. Giggling, they scrambled to the top of the smaller rock and lay out in the fading sun.

Let’s leave our names on the calf,” Richard suggested, “with today’s date. It’s a special day.”

I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Isn’t it better to leave the rocks as nature intended?” Heidi was a keen environmentalist.

One more won’t make much difference; there are so many on all the rocks,” Richard answered as he began to scratch the rock with a knife he always carried.

3, 0, A, P, R, 2, 0, 1, 5,  H, E, I, D, I,  A, N, D,  R, I, C, H, A, R … 

he hesitated as the knife met some resistance from an inclusion harder than the surrounding rock. Exasperated, he put his whole weight behind the blade, lost his balance and tumbled down to the ground.

Eventually the air ambulance arrived – two broken legs, a broken collar bone and a dislocated neck kept him in hospital for several weeks.

The following 30th of April, 2016, early evening, found the couple wandering through the New Forest hand-in-hand in the twilight. As trees began to assume fantastic shapes in the fading light, an impressive oak, its trunk of a girth which the two lovers could not encircle with their outstretched arms, made them stop and rest, backs against the rough but somehow comfortable majesty supporting the now leafy branches above.

I’m going to carve our names here so this tree will remember us,” Richard announced.

If you do, it will remember us with pain. Don’t do it, please.”

Oh, you’re too superstitious. Trees don’t feel and anyway it can’t do any harm to one so enormous!,” Richard retorted, the irritation clear in his voice as he took the knife from his pocket and began:

3, 0, A, P, R, 2, 0, 1, 6,  H, E, I, D, I,  A, N, D,  R, I, C, H, A, R …

a large gasp broke the concentrated silence as the knife slipped to make a deep gash in his left wrist.

Blood, so much blood, fountained from the cut, obliterating the carved letters before covering Heidi’s breast. Quick thinking, she ripped off her blood-soaked shirt and applied a tourniquet.

Nevertheless, Richard lapsed into unconsciousness and the paramedics, who arrived quickly following Heidi’s desperate phone call, told her he was lucky to be alive and would not be were it not for her prompt action.

One year later, 30th April 2017, found the couple on the Brocken, following a visit to Heidi’s parents. 

They didn’t take the steam train up to the highest peak in the Harz mountains but decided to walk, though there were vestiges of snow on the peak.

About half way up they left the road, found a clearing among the pines and sat to eat their picnic. Richard lit the tiny light-weight gas stove and poured bottled water into the small pan they had brought to make a warming tea.

Etching, St Walburger’s Night, Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829

Etching, St Walburger’s Night, Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829

This is a magical place my love; I’m so glad you brought me here.” Richard wasn’t usually so easily impressed.

You just be careful; it is a magical place but it’s witches’ magic, not fairies’ magic,” Heidi warned him.

Oh you and your superstitions. I don’t believe a word of it. Anyway, it’s beautiful. I’m going to carve our names in the dry turf here,” he finished, pulling out his knife.

Please don’t. Just leave it as nature intended,” Heidi pleaded.

But Richard had already completed her name and the first six letters of his own. Turning quickly, his elbow caught the little stove and it was on its side, setting the dry turf alight.

A forest ranger found them in a tight embrace. 

In his police report he wrote: “I don’t understand how the fire burned in a perfect circle with them at the centre, or how such a small fire could completely carbonise the two corpses. Even stranger in a way was that there was a diary lying there next to them, completely untouched by the fire. The last entry was for 30th April; it just read “This is not in my diary!”

§

Photo of chart showing katakanya characters, on my fridge door

Katakanya has joined hiragana on my fridge door

Fifteen days, usually one ‘lesson’ a day, further down the duolingo Japanese course from my post with beginner’s comments, I can say that the claimed “5 minutes a day” is optimistic, certainly for me. I did complete each of the first ten ‘lessons’ in 5 minutes or so but as they became more difficult that extended considerably; I did not time this morning’s lesson but it certainly took me 30 minutes or more. On the other hand, I thought long and hard about each question and made only one mistake.

In my previous post on the subject I wondered whether I should compare the Japanese course with one for a language In which I am reasonably fluent. Let me clarify that: I can read it without a problem, understand it spoken with few problems, but have many difficulties attempting to write it. So, I decided to do the Romanian course alongside the Japanese. In four days I have completed many ‘lessons’, certainly more than 40, with very few mistakes. And I have begun to understand the complexities of Romanian articles, singular and plural, and the use of the diacritical marks, for the first time. So far so good. I’m hoping that soon I will not be asking Petronela “is it ă, â or a in …?”

Romanian on duolingo

Romanian prăjituri

Romanian prăjituri

Cupcakes. Good for children

Cupcakes. Good for children

What is clear is that the Romanians constructing this course are heavily influenced by American English so that there are some bad, misleading translations (eg, ‘prăjituri’ is said to be ‘cup cakes’; the wonderful small Romanian cakes and pastries bear no resemblance to those silly over-decorated buns (as we would call them) which have become fashionable. In fact there is no good English word for the Romanian creations (there’s probably one in German or Austrian as they have similar things). The best I can come up with in British English is ‘fancies’ but it would be better to describe them.

As far as grammar is concerned, the Romanian course developers seem never to have heard of ‘present continuous’, which would often be a more appropriate translation than the present simple given. Admittedly, correct use of simple and continuous was usually difficult to grasp for my Romanian students as they don’t make the difference in Romanian.

Back to Japanese

I wonder if the lack of explanations is deliberate in the Japanese course. If so I think, as a former language teacher, it is rather misguided as when I first began the course many things were totally confusing. I mentioned in my previous post the overall title of the first lessons being ‘hirigana’, with no explanation of what hirigana is, was confusing to me.

Even more confusing was, having completed the hirigana lessons, I was suddenly confronted with the title ‘intro’. Only after I completed a few lessons did it become clear that the ‘intro’ was to a totally different writing system ‘katakanya’. Rather late in the day I’ve realised that ‘intro’ is probably not ‘introduction’ but ‘introductions’.

Then there’s the wonder of large and small characters and diacriticals, which change the pronunciation, meaning or both.

And I haven’t got to the kanji, the Chinese characters, yet! Or I don’t think I have. In fact I don’t really know what I have got to as I have no idea  what some of characters introduced are. But, at last, some kind of logic has begun to appear and I made only one mistake in this morning’s lesson, by deduction. As I said last time, a really good thing about duolingo is the collection of forums, populated with people who are only too willing to help. Without them I would probably have given up.

An important word of warning

Beware of the advertisements. There are all sorts of inducements to view advertisements but some are hiding some well known ‘scams’. Avoid particularly those offering ‘free trials’. They will usually eventually ask for the cost of postage and packing, thereby obtaining your bank card details, and lock you in to automatic reordering of the product at a ridiculous price. At the end of each lesson you are invited to obtain some advantage by watching an ad. I now never do. Duolingo would do itself a great favour by excluding the ‘scam’ advertisements.