Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The benefits of bilingualism

A fascinating article on the Economist's website shows the importance of bilingualism for mental health. No only are native bilinguals better able to focus on mentally demanding tasks, but being bilingual defers the onset of dementia by an average of five years. Note: being able to remember a bit of secondary school Spanish does not count - for the bilingual effect to work, you have to be in a situation where you skip effortlessly from one language to the other on a regular basis. "The effects are weak to nonexistent for those who merely have a passable ability, infrequently used, in a second language", the article says.

Working in a totally bilingual environment, speaking English at home and Polish in the street, this is marvellous news. Good news too for my parents - still mentally as sharp as pins - who spent their working lives talking nothing but English; being immersed in English in the office and in the street while speaking Polish at home has evidently proved valuable for them both.

As I wrote the other day, Poles in general are rapidly improving their English language proficiency - and not only English - Poland has become a mecca for shared services centres for global corporates, because it's so much easier to find German, Russian, Italian or French speakers here than in, say, Bangalore. If you want to get on in life - learn another language - but if you want to live a longer, fuller, life - perfect that language and use it as often as you can. A 50/50 breakdown is ideal. I speak Polish at work (at the expense of my Polish colleagues who speak Polish at work and at home, though who are all able to speak excellent English). So hats off to my English-born colleague Paddy, who is spending all this week speaking nothing but Polish.

Much of the fun of being bilingual resides in those linguistic spaces where on language has a word for something, while the other doesn't - today I spent about ten minutes explaining the word 'fuss' to a student (if you are Polish and are unfamiliar with the word, see this post). When there's a word for which there's no direct translation, the fun starts. 'Cat' = kot, 'wallet' = portfel. But what equals 'fragile', 'reasonable', 'pattern' (as in 'I can see a pattern emerging here...'), 'imposter', 'to fail', 'to bully', 'grumpy', 'underwhelming', for example? The list is long. And were I blogging in Polish, there'd be a similarly long list of Polish words that the English language does not have a direct translation for (brakować, mieć pretensje, kombinować, załatwiać sprawę).

I've been bilingual since the age of three and half, when I started nursery school; armed with the words 'please', 'thank you' and 'toilet', I never experienced any difficulties acquiring English language skills, because my mind was young, and my facial muscles were able to adjust to the strain of extreme English vowel sounds. A huge advantage in life.

Are there any downsides to being bilingual? Until recently, researchers held that a child of above-average intelligence would benefit from being brought up bilingual, while one of below-average intelligence would be held back, confused and handicapped by bilingualism. This is now shown to be untrue - children with two or more languages have lifelong advantages bestowed upon them. Accident of birth in my case, but for my generation (especially those couples who were both British of Polish descent), those who took a conscious decision not to speak Polish to their children as they grew up are now seen as having taken away something that could have been very useful from them.

A personal story about my bilingual upbringing in 1960s West London here. And do click onto the labels 'English language' and 'Polish language' below.

This time last year:
Wine connoisseurs - or wine snobs?

This time four years ago:
Crushed velvet dusk in my City of Dreams II

This time five years ago:
Going North, the quick way

This time six years ago:
Glorious autumn dusk

This time seven years ago:
Last man voting?

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Searching for the sublime in autumnal Jeziorki

Like September, this October has proved to be delightful. Top temperature in town today according to the Institute of Physics Meteorology Lab was 18.8C. One is grateful for days like this.

As the day (now an hour and half shorter than at equinox, less than a month ago) reaches its end, time to step out with the camera to bring the soul into communion with the Eternal. Not so long ago, I was watching the sun set over the Firth of Clyde in Ayr - now at home. Watching that orb sink below the horizon makes one aware of the passage of time within the splendour of the vast universe.

From ul. Dumki, looking across the southern pond

Across the middle pond, houses on ul. Trombity

Sun sets over the northern pond

Sunset express: a Koleje Mazowiecki train heads towards town

At the pedestrian crossing, ul. Kórnicka, as the sun slips below the horizon

Ul. Nawłocka, band of cloud underlit by the sun, now set
This time last year:
Enduring Ealing - Victorian and Edwardian klimats

This time two years ago:
Krokowa, Poland's former northern borderlands

This time seven years ago:
Aerial photograph of Central London

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Brompton back in action - fully

Over a year since it had to go in for a service, my Brompton is now 100% what I wanted it to be - thanks to Brompton's superb customer care (stepping in when the local agent couldn't get the parts). I finally got the 44-tooth chainwheel needed to make the bike ride and fold properly. The 46-tooth chainwheel - fitted when the bike went for a service three years ago was a disaster - only two teeth more, and yet twice the chain tensioner snapped while the bike was being folded; and when folded, the rear wheel became immobile, preventing the correct stowage of the left pedal.

Along with the chainwheel, Brompton sent me the basic rear mudguard (the bike was originally fitted with a luggage rack, which I neither needed nor wanted, but it was there on the ex-demo factory bike I bought). This is lighter than the rack and not prone to rust. And a new-style Brompton saddle, which doubles as a carrying handle when the bike's folded.

The bike is easy to work on. To remove the luggage rack and replace it with the new mudguard, I needed to replace the rear wheel. This is slightly harder than on a bike with derailleur gears, because the shifter chain needs to be carefully replaced in the same position as before so that all the gears work. But fortunately, Brompton has a whole lot of technical videos posted on YouTube to help you out (see below).

I fixed the rear mudguard, replaced the rear wheel, pumped up both tyres and moved onto the saddle. This is a huge improvement over the original. The Allen-key bolt allows easy and precise adjustment (it is crucial you get the angle right for comfortable riding). Under the saddle's nose is a sculpted handle that just begs you to pick the folded bike up by it. The new-style Brompton saddle is probably the greatest single innovation brought to the bike since it was originally launched.

Finally onto the chainset. I removed the old, 46-tooth chainwheel using a crank extractor (a very simple procedure if you have the tool), and replaced the new, correct, factory-issue 44-tooth one. Excellent! All of a sudden, the Brompton returns to its original glory. Now it folds and unfolds easily and quickly, just like it did when it was new - I don't need to worry that the chain tensioner will snap or that the chain will come off.

So then - here it is - back to life - my Brompton. The ideal form of urban transportation, used in conjunction with a quarterly travel pass. Lively to ride, a real bike - not a toy like some folders. I've ridden this bike over 100 miles (from Ealing to Bath) and can vouch for its seriousness. Below: as nature intended - no third-party bolt-ons, all pukka factory bits once again.

Below: new Kevlar tyres, new mudguards, grips, cables, brake blocks, chain, saddle - and most importantly - crankset. Note the small wheel on the rear mudguard - this provides rolling support to the back end while the bike is being folded.

Below: the crucial still from the Brompton instructional video, explaining how to correctly adjust the gear-change chain in the three-speed Sturmey-Archer hub. My one's 24 years old and still working fine.

Below: Once folded (which is quick and easy) the Brompton takes up little space. I have no problem stowing it in my office. Here it is in the garage.

Below: the serial number stamped on the frame - one of the first 3,000 built. Since then, over 300,000 more have left the factory, so mine's an early one. I've had it since 1992. Since 1997 it's been in Warsaw - probably the very first Brompton here. Despite the problem with the wrong chainset, the frame remains in perfect working order. Now the drivetrain is fixed, I intend to keep it this way. The most important lesson - had I checked that the right-hand pedal was screwed tightly into the alloy crank-arm, it would not have stripped the thread, leading to a problem that took a long time to fix.

Below: the crucial bits - the rear-triangle fold, crankset, chain tensioner and new Brompton Kevlar tyres.

The Brompton is not a cheap bike, but it is built to last - it is an investment; buy one and it will serve you well and hold its value (like a Morgan or Harley-Davidson). In Poland, you can buy Bromptons at AirBike, just off Al. KEN in Ursynów.

Brompton's website is excellent as is communication with its technical staff, who are very keen to help the customer. Not something one would expect from cheaper Far Eastern fold-up bikes.

The Brompton's fold, invented and patented by designer Andrew Ritchie in 1979, has yet to be bettered by a more practical and robust system. Evolving all the time (minor improvements boosting ride and strength), the Brompton is without doubt the best folder in existence and well worth the investment.

This time two years ago:
Pl. Zbawiciela rainbow gets torched for the first time

This time three years ago:
Why no one is Occupying Warsaw

This time four years ago:
Of electoral sausages and town drains

This time five years ago:
In search of the Sublime Aesthetic at 36,000 ft

This time seven years ago:
London from the air

Friday, 17 October 2014

Nocturnal mist descends on Jeziorki

A foggy night in Warsaw. As my train arrives at Jeziorki, the fog is much denser than in the city centre. I have my camera with me; some atmospheric photography will emerge.

"Train passenger to Radom departs from Track One Platform One"

Stepping out into the milkiness: ul. Karczunkowska, by the bus loop

PKP Jeziorki bus stop 02

Corner of ul. Nawłocka, the Sika warehouse in the distance

The level crossing gates behind me open, cars start to pass

Approaching the turn-off for Biedronka

Midway between Nawłocka and Trombity

Nearly home... Photo shows effectiveness of rear fog light on car

A 715 bus heading west towards P+R Al. Krakowska
And thence homewards to look at the photos on my computer!

This time two years ago:
Heavy rain hits Warsaw

This time four years ago:
The autumn sublime in Warsaw

This time six years ago:
Lublin and its charm

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Hello Pork Pie

Pork pie. One of the culinary wonders of Britain. Over the last 72 hours, I've eaten, quite literally, nothing other than pork pie. Let me explain...

On Tuesday, we launched the second round of the Food is GREAT/Taste of Britain campaign, the largest and most concerted effort ever mounted to see the best of British food and drink onto the shelves of Polish supermarkets and delis. The focus has been on quality premium products. Some have been here for a while (Scotch whisky, fine teas), some are emerging (cider, Cheddar cheese, chutneys, Indian sauces, shortbread) others are quite new (Wensleydale cheese, pork pies).

Pork pie. The defining savoury snack of England. Along with the sausage roll and Cornish pasty, the idea of encasing minced and seasoned meat into pastry, ideal for eating on the go. Britain's answer to the hamburger (from Hamburg) or frankfurter (from Frankfurt).

Pork pie. Two succulent syllables that require seven to articulate into Polish - wieprzowina w cieście. And launching this product on to an audience of food writers, buyers, distributors and importers, we stumble upon a major cultural difference between Brits and Poles.

Do you serve a pork pie hot or cold?

In my entire life, the question has never even entered my mind. Cold, of course. You do not heat the pork pie. That is its essence. It demands to be eaten cold (stored at +6C to +8C, served at room temperature), with chutney or pickles, and to be washed down with a fine ale, cider or a mug of tea. Eating a pork pie hot is a bizarre cultural quirk, rather like drinking tea with milk.

And yet Poles seem to expect that this delicacy be heated through before it can be eaten. And also prefer to eat it with a knife and fork, off a plate, rather than to be eaten from the hand, scattering crumbs on the floor.

Like Polish kiełbasa, pork pies fall into two categories there's the good stuff, and the mass-market product made down to a price point which has little to do with the original concept. Let's focus on the good stuff. The particular pork pies presented in Warsaw on Tuesday are made by Toppings Pies from Yorkshire and Dickinson & Morris (est. 1851) from Melton Mowbray (the home pork pie). Between them the two firms presented a vast range to be sampled - pork pies topped with caramelised red onions, with Stilton cheese, with sage and onion stuffing; huntsman's pie, game pie (where partridge and pheasant replace humble pork), vegetarian pie with spinach and Feta cheese...

Pork pie anyone?
The pork pies delivered to the Taste of Britain/Food is GREAT event were transported from the UK frozen then defrosted for the Big Day; all the samples that did not get consumed now need to be finished off in express tempo. So I'm doing my bit. And enjoying it thoroughly. Accompanied by fresh fruit and veg, man can live on pork pie alone. It contains the protein and carbohydrates, and - all-importantly - the taste.

Ah. and we need some chutney and pickles. And nostril-blasting English mustard (which a Polish colleague described as 'yellow wasabi'). These came courtesy of Tracklements of Wiltshire, a family firm producing premium condiments. The perfect accompaniment to pork pie.

My lunch, today. With a single-estate Pfunda tea by Birchall. No milk.
Pork pies need to be promoted to Polish consumers who've not yet tried them. So we need some celebrity endorsement - Britain's first Polish-born Member of Parliament, Daniel Kawczynski. Mr Kawczynski (who also happens to be Britain's tallest MP) represents the rural constituency of Shrewsbury, home to many quality producers of food and drink.

Daniel Kawczynski MP promoting pork pies in Warsaw.

"Mr Ambassador, the Polish nation awaits your verdict..." HMA Robin Barnett enjoys.

Kruche ciasto z nadzieniem mięsnym = Pork pie

Everything must be eaten by Friday evening, so I take home one large pie and two smaller ones. Moni and her boyfriend Maurycy tuck in. Maurycy asks whether it shouldn't be served hot. After hearing this question many times over the past two days, I'm not surprised. Moni's favourite is the pork pie topped with caramelised red onion.

Maurycy and Moni tucking in. Moni's off to Tel Aviv tomorrow. No pork pies there.

I guess that in 20 years time, British visitors to Poland will say: "It's the little differences. Example - in Poland, people eat pork pies hot." Just as Polish visitors to Britain say "In Britain, people drink tea with milk."

Now all that's needed is a good distribution network to get this culinary delight into Polish shops and thence onto Polish tables.

This time two years ago:
The meaning of class - in England, in Poland

This time three years ago:
First frost 

This time seven years ago:
First frost 
(this week the temperature has not fallen below +10C, not even at night)