Butter update

Apparently there’s a butter shortage in Europe at the moment, and it’s predicted that it’s only going to get worse. The reasons are here, in an article which also contains the title “Slow churn”, which must have amused the author  no end (it amused me, but I freely admit to being sad).

I gather that the shortage has reached crisis levels in some parts of the continent already, but here in Normandy the only obvious effect is that there are several big apologetic signs in the butter section – which to my eyes is just as fully stocked as ever. Mind you, I’m used to Swedish levels of butter, so more than three different types of the golden stuff still make me giddy.

However, I did buy two packets today just in case, thereby helping to increase the panic. You’re welcome.

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Acid Techno and the Trousers of Time

If I’m lucky (?) enough to make it to extreme old age, I’m pretty sure that one of my last memories to fade will be the one perfect moment in my life. Not a sunset, not the birth of my (non-existent) firstborn, not even entering Sagrada Familia for the first time. Although that was pretty close.

No, my perfect moment took place in an arts centre in Cheltenham, on an ordinary weekend evening in the late 1990s.

It’s near the end of the night, and the dance floor is full, and the music is thundering out all around me, and someone’s gone absolutely mad with the dry ice machine so all I can see is white. The lights are flashing away, and I’m right in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a bunch of people I don’t know. The couple of guys I can see through the haze are very straight looking “blokes”, not a dreadlock or brightly coloured piece of clothing between them. Normally we’d not get on. They’d say something sexist or stupid or drunk, or I’d say something sarcastic or patronising or rash. But in the stuttering vision of the strobe, I can see them moved by the music as though controlled by strings, faces stretched in the same broad grin I can feel on my own.

And time…. stops. Imprints everything on my brain.

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I feel it all. The sweet smoke enters my lungs. My eyes accept the light. My booted feet are rooted to the worn wooden floor. My hands are frozen white flowers, my hair like strands of twisted driftwood. I can feel the stage in front of me, the DJ booth behind, the bar in the corner. The people sitting along the edge of the room (Sitting? How can they be sitting to this music?). Outside in the courtyard and in the main bar people are talking, laughing, flirting, telling drunken anecdotes. Beyond that, the street is damp with rain, and the tyres hiss as cars move away from the traffic lights at the corner. And further, further… people everywhere, and we are all people. We are all just people. We are all just part of one big sphere of life and love. And if you could give this feeling, right now, that we’re all experiencing here on this dance floor, to everyone in the world, everything would be fixed.

And then, of course, time starts again and it’s just a really really great night. Which later turns out to be a shit night because we discover that the DJs are leaving and going travelling around Europe, and so this was one of the last times they’ll play here.

But that’s OK, because the music continues, right? Techno is here to stay, particularly this intense dirty in your face energizing obnoxious style of techno. Acid techno.

 

But no, it doesn’t continue. Somewhere in the next couple of years it slips away. The venues that play it in my area close down or change hands or – in the case of this particular one – are sabotaged out of existence by the local Liberal Democrat council. Sad, sanitised dance music appears in its place – some of it even calling itself “acid”.

And this disappearance is something I’ve always wondered about. For me, the late 1990s was a time of hope. Things were going in the right direction. In the UK we had a Labour government with a huge majority. Organic food was on the rise. Pointless packaging was being reduced. Public services were getting the investment they needed. And – on a very personal level – music and music culture was suddenly all about a sense of community, about being part of something, about something that made you feel oneness. Because techno – real techno – was about anger. About making things happen. About finding alternative ways of doing everything – barter, green energy, minimalism, tiny houses, low impact living, permaculture, protest. Everything. Remember New Age travellers? You can’t get a home that’s much tinier or less permanent than a bus. And despite the shaved/dreadlocked/dyed hair and tattoos and piercings, you couldn’t find a nicer, more thoughtfully intelligent group of people as a whole.

Now here’s something weird. I was trying to explain the New Age traveller movement to a friend in the US the other day, and I could find precisely no photos online that show it. (Yeah, there are one or two, but they’re individual people, or individual events, not images that present the reality as I remember it.) This is probably partly a function of a lack of cameras among that particular social group, but really…? None?

So here’s a question. Have you ever felt like somehow you’ve ended up in a parallel world? Where the past is shared with your own world and yet somehow the future – even the present – is completely wrong?

This is something I’ve felt on and off throughout my life; perhaps you can’t grow up with any kind of awareness of the historical relics around you and not feel this. The weird Victorian remains of my childhood island frequently conjured up visions of worlds that were not quite this one. Steampunk hadn’t been invented in the early 1980s, but if it had perhaps I’d have  recognised these strange combinations of rusted metal and impressive feats of engineering.

I know it’s not just me that feels it – I once read an SF short story in which someone pondered on where the 1950s futurist movement was going, and discovered that the destination was in fact a parallel universe.

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Then while I was studying for my Master’s degree, I discovered Gaudi. Now there was a man who was well ahead of his time. Or alternatively had been dragged through a vortex into a world that wasn’t his own.

The late, great Terry Pratchett describes this separation of two strands of a timeline as the Trousers of Time. So you can be separated from the timeline you expected to be on – were perhaps intended to be on – only by the thinnest of fabrics, and yet be completely unable to get back there, and moving further away all the time.

This chap has an interesting theory that the demise of acid techno was brought about by the influence of ketamine. Perhaps he’s right – certainly anyone I ever met who was on it was awfully dreary. He’s certainly got the description of the music absolutely spot on, describing it as “guttersnipe” and “joyously insane”. (I’m also enormously amused at his definition of the acid techno audience as “a new generation of activists, a collection of dissatisfied wasters, slumming rich kids, genuine revolutionaries, new age travellers, shameless drug buckets and total nutters”. Given that this is the music genre I most strongly identify with, and I’ve never been rich, I wonder which one I am?)

My own feeling is that the death knell of proper acid techno was sounded by 9/11 and the excuse it gave governments all around the world to hype the terrorist threat and restrict our personal freedom as a result. So now we’re liable to be searched when we go to IKEA to buy a new bookcase, and expected to put up with it, because if you don’t then you must by definition be some kind of terrorist, right?

You’d almost think that it was a deliberate attempt to put a lid on what was perceived as a dangerous social movement that was leading far too many people to appreciate the value of self-determination on an individual level and try to simply make the world a better place for us all to live in. Or is that just me?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Swedish minimalism is the last thing you want

How long can you go without swallowing? It’s actually a surprisingly long time. How about if you’re really dehydrated and desperate for a nice long drink of water? This week I’ve discovered that again, the answer is “a surprisingly long time”.

Ten days ago I came down with some kind of fluey virus thing. This is relatively normal for me – I get one every six months when my body decides it’s had enough and it’s time for me to stop working flat out every day and most evenings.

However, this time it’s a new variety. The lymph glands in my neck have swollen up to the size of duck eggs, I’ve had the aching all over and the sweating and being slightly delirious (primarily manifesting as dreaming insanely complicated spaceship parking games inspired by reading Iain M Banks before going to sleep). But my head has been surprisingly free of snot and there’s been no cough.

I didn’t bother going to the GP about this – I knew that they’d say “It’s a virus, drink plenty of liquids, get plenty of rest and take ibuprofen”. And that I’d have to beg and plead with the nurse even to be allowed to have an appointment to get that extremely self-evident advice. I had plenty of food in and, thankfully, not too much work to deliver (my body is clever like that – it always picks a week when I can actually be ill without worrying about clients).

Then on Wednesday I got a sore throat. “That’s odd”, I thought. Because I haven’t actually spoken to anyone throughout this entire thing – I’d cheerfully throttle whoever gave it to me and I certainly wouldn’t want an old person to have to deal with this. So where has an additional infection come from? I got out the throat spray that I bought on my last trip to the UK (the Swedes, for some reason, feel that if you’ve got a sore throat you should put up with Strepsil variants and nothing else), and thought no more of it.

That was until Thursday, when it started to get painful to swallow. I thought again about going to the GP. They do a drop-in time every day from 10.30 to 11.30 “for infections”, which has always conjured up images of everyone sitting in the tiny cramped waiting room producing interesting strains of cross-infection as they cough and sneeze all over each other. But it was 11 am and I wasn’t dressed and the GPs is 20 minutes’ drive away, and I did actually have a deadline to make.

“I can go tomorrow”, I thought. “It’ll probably be better by then anyway”.

Big mistake. Big, big mistake. By the evening it was really painful to swallow. Like, really really fucking painful. Like whole body wince painful. During the night I managed about five hours’ interrupted sleep, punctuated by taking a variety of painkillers that did absolutely nothing at all, and spending a good part of the intervening time the wrong side of the verge of tears. Many were the occasions upon which I berated myself for not having gone to the doctor’s the previous day. Especially in the morning, when I got up at 8 am, as dehydrated as a 3000-year-old mummy, only to find that it was a bank holiday.

(I do vaguely remember discovering this last year. Despite the fact that Midsommar is the main Swedish festival of the year, they don’t actually celebrate it on Midsummer’s Day. Instead they wait until the following weekend. To me, that’s missing the whole point of it. If you’re celebrating the longest day of the year, surely you do it… on the longest day?! And actually, if they had done they’d have had lovely weather, instead of grey skies and torrential rain. So nyer.)

So anyway, I finally worked out that there was a clinic open – but not until 5 pm. More self-recrimination. Fortunately I fell upon a combination of painkillers and other things that reduced the pain somewhat (primarily super high strength Sudafed, again imported from the UK because the Swedes only have plant-based medications for use against sinusitis. WTF? Have they ever actually had sinusitis?)

Finally the time came that I could set off. The directions said that I had to go to the grey building on the hospital site. Now, fortunately, I have had to visit said building before, so I knew where to go. But this is another case of Swedish small-town mentality. Because you were probably born at this hospital, you of course know which of these two blocks is “the grey building”. Except if you weren’t, of course, in which case, presumably, fuck you:

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One of these is “the grey building”. Answers on a postcard, please.

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So anyway, I got there. I went in. There was, surprisingly, no queue. I was seen immediately by a pleasant enough nurse. I explained that I wanted a stronger painkiller as I was having major difficulty in swallowing. She didn’t actually physically examine me, but she did take a swab from the back of my throat, which was only moderately agonising, and read my temperature, which was, surprisingly, normal.

After a few minutes’ wait, she came back and said that I didn’t have an infection, but that it was probably a virus. Big shock. She suggested I try Strepsils. “Or why not a warm drink with honey? And ibuprofen or paracetamol are usually quite effective.” I explained again that I really wanted a stronger painkiller as I’d been taking ibuprofen for more than a week and it wasn’t having much of an effect. She said, “but we haven’t found any infection”, as though that was an answer, and I realised that once again a ‘healthcare professional’ was hearing what she wanted to hear rather than what I was actually saying. Presumably ‘Cocking a deaf ‘un’ and ‘Treat the patient like a 5-year-old’ are major modules in Swedish medical training.

So that was that. I drove back home, climbed back into bed (where, despite having a normal temperature, I immediately had to wrap myself in a towel to soak up the sweat) and have been suffering moderate agony every few minutes since. Still, at least I’m no longer berating myself for not having visited the GP. Instead I just call that nurse a bitch.

Interestingly, the job that I’d had to deliver the previous day was a research application for a project studying Swedish doctors’ reactions to a political decision to open up medical records for patient access. Apparently in pilot studies doctors were shocked to discover that this led some patients to question the doctor’s treatment strategy. Or alternatively to check that what they’d said during a consultation was actually entered into their record. Because despite Sweden’s apparent feminism, this is still an enormously backward, paternalistic society in many ways. My feeling is that this is at the root of the hideously long waiting times here. If Swedes were a bit more bolshy then they’d make so much fuss that this kind of delay – in a wealthy country like Sweden? – would be a thing of the past. Instead, it’s the doctor-patient relationship that’s a historical relic.

 

 

 

 


Answer: It’s actually the white and blue one. Yes, really.

I can’t believe you think this is butter

This week I offended a client. I didn’t mean to, I just had to tell her that I couldn’t translate any more of a particular type of text. And it wasn’t the obviously offensive – I don’t do nuclear, or anything to do with the armed forces, or asset stripping, or even intensive farming. No, it was a menu. A Swedish menu. Because the problem with Sweden, even more than its incredibly Victorian attitude to patients’ rights (i.e. you haven’t got any and should simply do what Doctor says)… is the food.

Sure, they make all the right noises, and pretend that they understand the importance of good ingredients. But – visits by the likes of Jamie Oliver notwithstanding – that’s simply not true.

And here’s the perfect illustration. In fact, here are two illustrations. First, the butter section of a supermarket in a small market town near our place in France (population of the entire municipality: 2,553). In this town there are three supermarkets, plus a variety of other food shops, including the best traiteur I’ve ever visited in my life.

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Even if you can’t make out the details, you can certainly see that there are a wide range of varieties and brands. And if you can see it close up, you’ll see organic butter, Breton butter, Normandy butter, butter from Charentes-Poitou, butter with sel de Guérande and sel de Noirmoutier, plus a range of unsalted types, including something called Buerre Devilloise, which I didn’t spot while I was there but will definitely be trying next time.

And second, the butter section of a supermarket in a largeish town near our place in Sweden (population of the entire municipality: 83,191). In this town there are a number of relatively small supermarkets, but this is one of the two biggest.

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I haven’t cheated and taken a photo of only part of the shelf – this really is it. And actually, the Milda (bottom right) isn’t even butter. It’s cooking margarine (that’s Stork, if you’re a Brit).

So in Sweden you can get the following: Salted butter. Extra salted butter (and something that’s extra salty in Sweden is really fucking salty). Unsalted butter. Organic butter (salted).

And that is it.

You can’t get organic unsalted butter.

You can’t get unpasteurised butter.

You can’t get artisan butter.

You can’t get any kind of butter from a region.

What you can get is SMÖR (which, coincidentally, is not entirely unlike the Swedish word for “lubricate”, and that’s about what you’d want to do with the butter in these monopolistic packets).

Because when you can’t even get good quality in such a basic ingredient as butter, the rest of your cuisine doesn’t have much of a chance. And in Sweden, notwithstanding the odd star chef, actual authentic contemporary cuisine is characterised by overly fussy presentation and poorly selected, badly combined ingredients. About like Britain in the 1970s, say.

For example, the dish that made me decide I really really couldn’t stand translating any more Swedish menus was as follows, at an (ostensibly) authentic Italian restaurant:

Pasta, chicken, red pepper, curry and peanuts in a cream sauce.

Now, by my reckoning, that’s at least Italian, Indian and Thai cuisines in a single dish.

Because in Sweden, “fusion cuisine” means “scrape out the contents of the dustbin and slop it all onto a plate”.

Now let’s really take back control

I don’t believe “My country, right or wrong”. I’m not a jingoistic supporter of the England team in football tournaments. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m not at all proud of Britain’s colonial past.

Don’t misunderstand me – there are some things about the country that I’m proud of. The sense of humour, proper pies with a complete pastry enclosure and a good filling (and of course steak and kidney pudding, which is clearly ambrosia with added gravy)… The British plug, which you can plug in safely, in the dark, without the slightest struggle, unlike the stupid bloody continental things. Maps; you don’t realise how lucky you are to have the Ordnance Survey until you’ve tried to navigate through another country with a “map” that was clearly drawn up by a halfwit after an extremely alcoholic lunch.

But the thing that makes me proudest to be British – and which has always done so – is how, as a nation, we have always been able to show a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. You only have to read the Sharpe novels to appreciate how tough the British army and its followers were. You only have to watch the “World at War” episode about the Blitz to admire the resilience and determination of the population as a whole.

And that’s what makes it all the more soul-destroying to see social media filling up today with people confirming that they’re OK, or changing their Facebook avatar to a Union Jack.

A few people have been killed by someone in a car. I admit, it’s sad for them and their families, but it’s hardly a national disaster. And someone else has tried to attack London… using a knife.

Let’s just think about that for a moment. One man. With a knife.

Every year in Britain about 25,000 knife offences are officially reported, and about 1700 people die on the roads. Many of these are not accidental. But we’re not all changing our Facebook avatars over these. Why not? Are people killed by terrorists worth more than those killed by random nutters or ex mates or alcohol?

“But it’s terrorism”, is of course the answer that will be given by the Daily Mail reader in the street.

Well here’s a thought. Today, after the ‘terrorist attack’ on Westminster, which would make these terrorists happier – sober, minimal reporting of their efforts or a wave of hysterical reaction? Aren’t they most likely to be sitting now looking at their computer screens and grinning at the Union Jacks gradually taking over their friends lists?

If you really believe that terrorism is war, then surely you’re just encouraging the enemy by giving any credence to the fact that these attacks really constitute threats to us all as a nation?

Whatever happened to the good old British stiff upper lip? Or are we so weakened by reality TV and Starbucks and wet wipes that we just don’t have one any more? What would Churchill have made of us?

 

So, yeah, I’m fine, thanks. I’m like really traumatised because I have actually travelled through London in the past couple of years, so it was like *really* close, but I’m coping. Just about.

“Look it up” – or why we don’t have a word for “to internet”

 

The other day I was listening to the Escape Pod podcast with the lovely Alasdair Stuart, and he made a claim – I can’t now remember what – then said “Go on, look it up”.

And of course I knew that what he didn’t mean was “go to the library and look it up in an encyclopaedia”. What he meant was, “get online and check the veracity of my words there”.

Which reminded me once again that we don’t have a verb for “to internet”.

I mean, yes, you can Google something. But what if you don’t need to go via Google? What if, instead, you click on a bookmark or type straight into the address bar to take yourself to Wikipedia? What if, like me, you “look stuff up” every day, sometimes hundreds of times a day, using dictionaries, terminology resources, EU legislation and so on – all of which you have permanently open in browser tabs? Am I “looking up” or “tabbing”?

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But then of course looking stuff up isn’t the only thing we do online. We also use social media, waste hours on Bored Panda, try to beat our own records on Sporcle, watch Netflix, flirt on Tinder… And you can’t describe all of those things with a single verb.

It’s that very versatility which makes it impossible to neatly describe the activity. When you “watch TV”, that’s all you do. If you “use the phone” – at least in the old-fashioned sense of an instrument for calling someone who will then turn out not to be at home – again, that is all you can do with it. But the fact that the internet is more of another world than a piece of technology means that it’s difficult to limit the purposes to which we put it with one nice tidy term.

One thing I’m sure that none of us is doing is “surfing”. I have never “surfed the web” in my entire 25+ years of online existence. I’m sure it’s a term invented – and used – by people who would, in a previous life, have called a radio “the wireless” and cars “horseless carriages”. The kind of person who might have used the term “information superhighway” in cold blood.

And anyway, “surf” is such a misnomer. Even if you’ve got a reasonable connection speed, there’s nothing remotely graceful or linear about your progress through/across/in/on the internet. Hopscotch might be more like it, but even that usually involves having some kind of idea where you’re going. My feeling is that if you plotted most people’s online activities, the best description of their movement style and content would be “buggering about”.

And that’s my suggestion. If has the merit of being logical, descriptive and – above all – accurate.

So next time I go to say “I’ll just look that up”, I’m going to make the effort to be truthful and instead say “I’m just going to bugger about for a bit”. And when, 45 minutes later, I snap out of my digitally induced stupor and find that I’m deep into an article about how gecko tape works (it’s fascinating stuff… look it up) then at least I’ll be able to say that I meant to be there all along.

2017 – what a great year!

Well 2017 has been a much nicer year than 2016, hasn’t it? Nobody famous has died, nobody political has said or done anything silly, the climate’s been a bit chilly but nothing unexpected for the time of year, and there’ve been no terrorist attacks. Shame about Leicester, but you can’t have everything.

And no, I’m not deranged, I just live in the real world. Well, OK, the real world with a spot of footy. Since I chose toward the end of last year to stop using Facebook, I’ve saved myself vast amounts of utterly pointless stress and worry. I’ve also gained masses of time to spend on things that are far more relevant to me. Now I live my life, not the life of some constantly connected mid-Atlantic neurotic.

My life involves cleaning up cat poo and cat sick and removing fur from everything. It involves giving myself a severely strained elbow while using a crowbar to demolish two ceilings. It involves eating wonderful food and drinking a bit too much wine and never being able to resist just one more piece of cheese. And dessert. And yes, coffee too, thanks. It involves taking on far too much work because the subject’s so interesting, but I always get it delivered on time, somehow. It also involves – as of December last year – at least 10 minutes’ yoga practice a day, which has actually averaged out to be slightly more than 20 minutes every day, even when I had the flu. And it will continue to involve doing something new every month throughout this year.

My current monthly project is free writing, to a series of prompts set on a writing course two years ago that I hadn’t previously even had the time to look at. I’ve written stories with titles like Paradise, Leaves, Cloud dancing, and Fruit party. And I’ve discovered that my idea of the short story is one in which at least one person dies a violent and unexpected death.

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Fruit party? But where are the bodies?

But that’s OK, too, because my life involves learning things about myself. Not about someone I’m never going to meet who lives half way around the world and who I’d happily treat to a violent and unexpected death if I ever had the chance.

The only thing I miss about my Facebook existence is keeping up with my friends. It’s just not as convenient via email. But convenience is a small price to pay for living my own life.