Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas In London

MARCELLUS: It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

HORATIO: So have I heard and do in part believe it.

- Hamlet, Act I, Scene I

PAGE: Therefore they thought it good you hear a play
And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,
Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.

SLY: Marry, I will, let them play it. Is not a
comondy a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?

PAGE: No, my good lord; it is more pleasing stuff.

SLY: What, household stuff?

- Taming of the Shrew, Act I, Scene II

The streets were full of people shopping and looking for discount theatre tickets between the Trocadero and Picadilly Circus, and the little Christmas fair didn't tempt me to push through the crowds around the booths, even though they had hot mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. Sometimes I really miss living in France. I went to Fortnum & Mason instead, to see what sorts of treats they had for me, but though I saw several tasty things for sale, there were so many people picking up last-minute Christmas supplies that the lines at the cash registers were daunting. As were the prices; even the discounted gingerbread houses - which were rather small, and quite plainly decorated - had jaw-dropping stickers. I suppose if you've been the go-to London fancy grocery spot for over 300 years you can charge as much as you want. I walked up and down the curving staircases lined with chandeliers and artwork, took advantage of the very nice lady's powder room (as the sign on the door said), and decided to do my Christmas dinner shopping elsewhere. In any event, I still had some wandering around to do, and a train trip back to the suburbs, so I didn't want to worry about groceries.

I'd walked by Buckingham Palace earlier and there were quite a few people there as well, all taking pictures of themselves and each other in front of the tall iron gates. The palace wasn't decorated for the holidays, which is a shame - they could do all sorts of fun things with lights on that massive facade. I did take a picture of the lighted but otherwise undecorated tree at one of the entrances, between the two guards with their tall fur hats.

There were a half dozen street performers in front of the National Gallery, if "perform" is the right word for the way they hang seemingly in midair without doing much of anything else. Santa was hanging around with them.

I opened presents this morning, though not from Santa; Lynne left me a small gift of a blank journal and a cute handwarmer in the shape of a mitten, with one of those chemical packs you activate to generate heat. This one seems to be reusable, with metal buttons that need to be rubbed against each other. I'll probably get quite a bit of use out of it when I go for walks in snowy Scotland and battle the north wind in Norway. The cats had a fresh catnip mouse each, and are now sleeping off their herb hangovers.

It was dark when I arrived back at Kidbrooke station, and the Christmas tree was all lit up. The trains aren't running today, nor are the bus lines, but I'm enjoying a quiet day at home with the intoxicated kitties. Tomorrow, it's back to work - I need to get as much done as possible while I have a reliable internet connection, before heading north.

But tonight, it's the Downton Abbey Christmas special!
Happy holidays to you all.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Brief Pause: The Smartling Dream Dinner Destination

A virtual postcard appeared in my inbox last week, with a cordial greeting once again from a company I'd never heard of. Smartling provides superfast translation of websites, apps, and any other online text using a cloud-based networking system that lets their translators work on mirrored sites so that they can see the text in context, and keeps those sites automatically updated with any changes made to the originals, so that the translations don't reflect earlier versions of the site or app. Their "dream dinner destination" project is focusing on the way translation tools help facilitate communication while traveling, and how the combination of language and food helps bring people together - or perhaps, with mistranslations and errors, keeps them apart. I'm one of the bloggers they've contacted, and in this post I'm thinking about how website translations help, whether looking for a place to eat or for places to buy ingredients to make my own meals. I've decided to plan a meal in Hungary, since I'll be in Budapest in six weeks(!) and will be both cooking my own food and eating out while I'm there.

Smartling is providing no compensation for this post, and all opinions are my own.

My great-grandparents Kish were from Hungary; great-grandfather Josef was born in Kapuvár, about 100 miles to the east of Budapest, near the Austrian border, and great-grandmother Katherine (née Katalin Karolyi) was, as far as I can tell from the naturalization papers signed in 1913, born in Isaszeg, back then a small village a long day's travel by horse and carriage into the city of Budapest. It appears to still be a fairly small town (about 10,000 people) but it's now part of the Budapest metropolitan area. I'll be close enough that I should be able to go there, and perhaps I'll find someone that speaks English at the mayor's office who can help me to look up the town records for the Karolyi family, to see if I still have relatives there. I'd love to visit Kapuvár as well, but that would be an overnight visit at least, since it's several hours away by train from where I'll be living.

This is the first time in a very long time that I'll be spending more than just a few days in a country where I don't speak the language, and that's a weird feeling. I don't know if Hungary will be more like France, where most people I met spoke little or no English, or more like Norway, where pretty much everyone I met spoke it quite well. Noémi, the woman I'll be making cheese with, is fairly fluent in English, but I'll be on my own if I do any traveling into Budapest or elsewhere. I don't have a smartphone (and won't even have a stupidphone like I do now, unless I pick up a cheap prepaid one over there) so I won't have access to any of the multilingual websites that Smartling's translation software helped to facilitate, or even machine translations from Google. I'll have to get some notecards and jot down words and pronunciations to help me on my shopping trips.

There's going to be a lot of meat in Hungary, but I can eat that without a problem. There's fish, too, from Lake Balaton; my high school boyfriend Walter brought me back a cookbook from his semester abroad, and I remember seeing lots of recipes for "pike-perch." And lots of recipes that used sour cream. Dairy is going to be hard to avoid, I think, but that definitely needs to go on my notecards - as well as "where is the nearest toilet?" for those times when I haven't been able to avoid it. In February and March I'm not sure what seasonal vegetables will be available, but I'm sure there will be the usual cold-weather staples of potatoes (burgonya), cabbage (káposzta), beets (cékla), and turnips (fehérrépa).

Midsummer dinner from the Portland Farmer's Market vendors, July 2009.

I hope to get to one of the year-round farmer's markets in Budapest, like the organic market on Saturday mornings at the giant shopping center called MOM Park, or the Sunday market at Szimpla Kert, next to a popular bar. I think I could navigate my way around the stalls fairly easily, unless I came across a vegetable I'd never seen before, like the crosnes I found in Tours. Then I'd have to get help, whether from a human on the spot, or from a machine afterwards - I'd take a picture and try to do a Google image match to find out what it is, and what to do with it.

Looking up where to buy food in a foreign country is difficult if the website is not in English, so I'd either have to get a local to translate it for me, or look for a different site. Which option I'd take would depend on where I was at the time, I think. Since I don't have an easily-portable web-enabled device, any searches would be done at an internet café or at Noémi's house, and if the latter, I'd definitely ask her if she had a minute to help. If I were out working at a café in Budapest, drinking some of the strong local coffee and eyeing the cases full of forbidden pastries, it would depend on whether I spotted someone who looked as if he or she had both the time and the inclination to help. The waiter, perhaps, if the café wasn't too busy; the person at the table next to me, if they looked approachable (and especially if he looked as delicious as one of the pastries). Were I to rely just on the internet, I would definitely look at multiple sites, but I'd also try the machine translations provided by Google on the website itself, or by cutting and pasting into the translator. When doing shopping for ingredients, simply using an online translator for individual words is a good place to start. Although this can lead to difficulty as well, if there are multiple options: édesnemes paprikák means "sweet peppers" but might specifically only mean the ones used to make the spice called paprika; zöldpaprika means "green pepper" but one main variety is actually white or light yellow; and the term paprika is used for both the seasoning and the peppers used to make it, though if you want pepper to season your dish, you'll need to ask for bors.

Translation software can definitely help websites that aren't already translated, because it gives more people access to that information. And a key component of translation is accuracy, in the interest of saving both business owner and customer time and money. Even the top-end expensive restaurant I was researching in Budapest had a few interesting errors on its website. When I think of "dream dinner destinations" I generally think of "places I'd go if I didn't have to worry about money" and the eponymous restaurant Károly Gundel opened in 1894 is definitely on that list. Gundel has been getting awards for decades for the quality of the food, a sophisticated blend of traditional dishes and international influences. Their Chef's Table menu will set you back about $135 including wine (which is actually not expensive at all, so I just might go there, budget be damned) and features smoked salmon and caviar, pheasant and truffles and morels, duck breast and Tokaji wine. Unfortunately it also promises "lukewarm potato fritters." That's the problem with translation, isn't it? Context is everything. "Lukewarm" is a perfectly fine word, and accurately gives you the sense of temperature required, but it's not the sort of thing a chef should allow next to a word like "caviar." One word promises luxury, the other conjures up images of reheated leftovers. This is the sort of problem that Smartling's team prevents, because they've got native speakers on their translation team, who see the word in context, and who (I hope) would choose to use "warm" or "warmed" instead. I'd like to go to Gundel on a Tuesday night for their folklore menu, with gypsy violin accompaniment. Csárdás!

Another restaurant I found while doing this research is Kéhli Vendéglő, which also offers live gypsy music on Saturdays. There wouldn't be a problem with translation there, at least as far as the menu goes, because they offer menu cards in five different languages. I'd still need someone there to help me with phrases like "do you use wheat flour to thicken this sauce?" and "would you please serve this without sour cream?" but while Kéhli's website doesn't cater to gluten- or dairy-free diners, they do offer a fairly robust translation in English. Again, though, there are little oddities. The cheese plate contains "rouge cheese with horse raddish salad" which isn't really Engrish enough to qualify, except for the "rouge" part. The German version of the website says this is Pálpusztai, which turns out to be the actual name of the washed-rind cow's milk cheese that's been made in Budapest since 1890. The B. linens used to wash the cheese does give it a reddish tinge, so I suppose that's where the "rouge" comes in. I'll have to take my own gluten-free bread to enjoy their signature dish of forró fazék, or hot pot, served with a roasted marrowbone.

Noémi has promised to teach me some traditional Hungarian recipes, but my dream is to find an equivalent to the chicken paprikash (paprikáscsirke) Grandma McHugh (née Kish) used to make, which in its traditional form is not something I can eat any more. Unfortunately, a lot of the flavor and tenderness comes from the sour cream used in the dish; my hand-written recipe (that I am reading in my mind, since I left my one remaining cookbook in a box which is now in Mom and John's attic) calls for browning the chicken and cooking it with the onions and paprika, then adding the sour cream and letting it sit off the heat for an hour or two, before finishing it up as a piping-hot stew served over fresh egg noodles, or packaged ones if you don't make your own pasta (as who does these days?), or the traditional egg noodles from the Hungarian vendor at the farmer's market in South Bend, Indiana. I'll do some research into dairy-free sour cream alternatives; replacing the wheat flour for the roux is easy, because cornstarch or potato starch or rice flour work well. It's harder to find a substitute for dairy. Lemon juice would work for the acid that tenderizes the chicken, but getting that unctuous creaminess without the cream - that's going to take some work. I'll let you know how it goes, and whether I found a local to help me (likely), or managed to find a dairy-free recipe site in Hungarian that also has an English translation toolbar (not so likely). And I'll also let you know if this post leads to anything more in the way of fame and fortune (not likely at all, but a girl can dream).

Köszönöm, hogy elolvasta!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Wolcum Yole!

If I'd been in Portland last night, I would have been at the annual Sing-Along Messiah at Central Lutheran. Singing that work with 700 other people puts me in the Christmas mood, and the final high note from the sopranos brings tears to my eyes (in a good way). It just doesn't seem like Christmas without the music, somehow.

Since I'm in London, I went to St. Paul's Cathedral instead, and listened to the Vicars Choral sing medieval plainchant and a William Byrd motet. It wasn't a complete service, but there was a short reflection by the Canon in Residence at the cathedral, the text of which I honestly can't remember. But I'm sure it was inspirational. I had an hour or so of reflection while waiting in line to get in to the cathedral; it was free, and I thought it would be a good idea to get there early, so I arrived shortly before 4pm for the 5pm service, and joined the line that had already stretched halfway down the side of the building.

Jesus showed up about fifteen minutes later, but he acted according to Matthew 20:16 and took his place in line. He left his spot a while later, and walked up to the front of the church and then back, his hand raised, but not in blessing - he was taking a video of the people in line with his iPhone camera, which undoubtedly had a direct high-speed connection to the great iAm.

After the the Canon spoke, the Choristers of St. Paul's Cathedral processed in from the darkness at the far end of the apse, chanting "Hodie, Christus natus est," their silvery voices spiraling up into the gold-reflected glitter under the central dome. They performed Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols" and did a good job of it, too. I'm glad I got there early because I had a seat at the front of the nave (the seats in the central space were reserved for ticketholders) and could hear the harp and the singers even in the softer sections, and I was close enough to the dome to hear how the sound looped up and back down and up again, where it rolled along the Whispering Gallery for several seconds before fading away. I remember being up there, in the Gallery, on that long-ago high school field trip, and being amazed by the fact that I could hear one of my classmates speaking softly on the other side of the dome, as clearly as if she were standing next to me speaking directly into my ear.

The echoes were a little problematic in the already-echoey "This Little Babe" but the final triumphant major chord sent shivers down my spine (in a good way). I remember singing that, too, as one of the Manitou Singers at St. Olaf College back in 1981, at the annual Christmas concert. And I remember getting teary-eyed at our last choral practice session, when we sang "May the Road Rise Up to Meet You," which they're still singing today.

I miss singing.

It still doesn't feel like Christmas; there aren't any decorations up in the house here, and none on the street either in this suburb-y section of southeast London, though some people have lights in their windows, and there's a big decorated tree near Kidbrooke Station. I'm going to walk from Westminster Cathedral to Picadilly next Tuesday after lunch with my friend Pascoe, to see the Christmas decorations at Fortnum & Mason (and to buy myself a holiday treat) and since the sun goes down at about 3:50pm I'll have a chance to see the holiday lights sparkling in the streets of downtown London before I come back here to feed the ever-hungry cats.

Wolcum alle and make good cheer
Wolcum alle another year.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Whole Night Through

It's nearly fifty times as distant, but it looked so close last night, closer than you are now, looking at the same moon - if you're up at midnight, that is, and the skies are clear in Oregon, in the Midwest, in Maine. Vous êtes beaucoup plus proche, mes amis en France, mais encore trop loin. There are some old friends to visit in the months ahead (des anciens amis, et non l'inverse, Bea, Sebastien, Florence [et peut-être Eric?]), and first cousins twice removed; new friends to make of people I've never met, in places where I've never been. It will be good to be staying with people again, for a while. I think I've been alone too long in these housesits, with only the dogs and cats to talk to. Sometimes I don't even talk to them, and when I do say something out loud, it startles me a bit. There are so many words that I need to squeeze out of my fingers each day that I forget how to make the words come out of my mouth instead.

Georgina and Chris come back in four days, and a week later I'll leave for London. It will be nice to be in the city for Christmas, and I plan on doing a little sightseeing to look at lights and decorations, and maybe go back to the British Museum to get through more of the rooms, or try to fight the lines at the Natural History museum and do more musing on the amazing fact of this existence, a tiny spark in the unimaginable span of space and time that surrounds me. It's so inspiring that we're still trying to get off this planet to explore the vastness, that machines are communicating with us from so far away I can't even wrap my head around the numbers. And it's so depressing that there are people who are being pushed off this planet daily by their fellow human beings who are acting out of fear, cruelty, ignorance, hatred, spite, and racism. I read a short story once, though I don't remember who wrote it - Harlan Ellison is the name that comes to mind, but it could have been anyone; I read a lot when I was in my teens. It was about a young man who could destroy metal just by thinking about it, I think? Or being near it, perhaps. I believe he was a soldier who decided that there should be no more killing, and he crumbles all of the weapons on the army base before telling his commanding officer that he's leaving. When the soldier walks out of the door, the officer looks in his desk drawer for his gun, but when all he sees is a pile of dust, he smashes his chair (if I remember correctly) to make a club, and chases after the soldier to kill him. I wish I could turn weapons into dust. I wish there weren't so many people who would immediately smash their chairs.

We are so small.