Katherine Gregor

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Katherine Gregor (a.k.a. Scribe Doll) is a literary translator and scribbler who has also been an EFL teacher, theatrical agent, press agent, theatre director, complementary medicine practitioner, and one or two other things. Perhaps that's why the literary characters she relates to most are Arlecchino, Truffaldino, Gianni Schicchi and Scapin, and feels empathy with crows, squirrels and cats. She lives in Norwich, Norfolk. (Photo courtesy of Rosie Goldsmith @GoldRosie )

Seven Quirks of British Restaurants

No.1

Is everything O.K.?

Have you noticed how waiters wait for the exact moment when you have your mouth full, before they ask you that? I often try and cheat them by staging my forkfuls when they're not around but, almost as though they're watching me from a distance, no sooner am I munching away, than they pounce.  "Is everything O.K.?" Naturally, all I can emit is an unintelligible groan, and a nod.  I wonder if their timing is purposefully strategic.  Perhaps they're trained to schedule their question precisely when you cannot speak.  Yes, I know, as my mother – or the Aunt Alicia in Colette's Gigi – would say, you could train yourself to chew and speak at the same time, elegantly.  But still...

It was a relief going to cafés and restaurants while living in Brussels.  There, nobody comes to intrude on your meal unless you specifically request their attention.  Only at the end, as you're settling the bill, does the waiter ask Ça a été? 

 

No.2

The cake on top of the napkin

I don't know if this is a strictly British practice, but I've not encountered it in Italy, the U.S., Germany, France, Greece or Spain.  You order cake, or a sandwich, and it arrives lying on the napkin, as though it needs to be comfortable on the cold, hard plate.  Surely, the point of the napkin is to be spread on your lap, and used for dabbing your lips and fingers – a point defeated from the start if, by the time you have slid it out from under the cake or sandwich, it's covered in chocolate, cream or dressing.

 

No. 3

The parmesan and black pepper rations

In too many establishments, once your meal is served, the waiter approaches and offers you black pepper.  Then s/he gives the oversized mill a couple of twists over your plate, and walks off.  I might want to add pepper halfway through my meal, but the option is not available.  Is black pepper so expensive, restaurants cannot afford to keep a small mill on the table, together with the salt shaker?

The same discourse applies to grated parmesan.  When your pasta is served, the waiter brings a bowl of parmesan, and sprinkles a spoonful on your dish.  If you say nothing, he sprinkles a second spoonful.  At that point, s/he marches off, unless you specifically request more.  If you do, s/he expresses shock, as though you're being unreasonably greedy.  Sometimes, I tell the waiter, "just leave it here, I'll help myself" and that creates a mini panic response...

 

No. 4

Salt mills

I know this is entirely a matter of personal preference but who actually enjoys crunching large salt crystals? What's wrong with a salt shaker that dispenses fine salt powder which blends in easily with the food? 

 

No. 5

Salt and pepper mills/shakers

"Katia, the table is off-balance," is what my grandmother would say if, while setting the table, I'd forgotten to put the salt shaker in the centre.  Time and time again, I go to restaurants and cafés where there is no salt on the table and I have to ask the waiter to bring it to me.  The other day, I asked why they didn't just keep salt and pepper on every table.  "People steal them," the waitress replied.

I was speechless.  Are we so poor a nation? Or so thieving?

 

No. 6

Iced water

Personally, I think automatically serving water with ice cubes in a country as cold as England is somewhat peculiar.  Still, at least thus far, this is a free country, so people are entitled to order iced water if they wish. But why do waiters insist on bringing me iced water after I've specifically ordered it "without ice"?

 

No. 7

Halloumi, Hollandaise, etc.

I doubt I'm breaking the Official Secrets Act by stating that traditional English food errs on the side of – how can I put it diplomatically? – well, let's say on the side of the bland, and is, originally, far from vegetarian-friendly.  We've come in leaps and bounds since my introduction to English cuisine, at the age of nineteen, when it was meat and two veg, no salt, and pudding consisted in drowning anything at all in custard.  Still, perhaps cafés and restaurants should expand their horizons a little further and, once they've discovered a new ingredient, not it serve exclusively over and over and over again.

Yes, halloumi cheese is lovely, and made a welcome change from mozzarella, after the latter had outstayed its welcome as the successor to cheddar.  Now, however, wherever you go, it's halloumi.  Halloumi burger, vegetable hash with halloumi, salad with halloumi.  Why don't we also try various varieties of goat's cheese, manchego, ossau iraty, fontina, asiago, blue Shropshire, to name but a few?

Another relatively recent feature in restaurant menus is hollandaise sauce.  A tangy addition to many eggs and asparagus dishes.  In small doses, though.  Sadly, British enthusiasm for this perceived bit of sophistication means that   eggs Florentine and eggs Benedict are served drowned in it, the way custard used to drown stodgy puddings.

 

Scribe Doll     

 

(This is a revised version of  a post first published on 24 July 2011)

Recent Comments
Barbara Froman
This really made me smile, Katia. All of it. But cake on a napkin! I'll be laughing about that all day! Thanks! ... Read More
Sunday, 06 March 2016 19:19
Katherine Gregor
I know, it's absurd! Thank you for commenting, Barbara.
Monday, 07 March 2016 15:52
Rosy Cole
I was thinking the other day...it's years since I remembered to put a salt and pepper mill on the table. You know when cooking for... Read More
Monday, 07 March 2016 18:59
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Voice, Stone, Wood and Air as One

I love Early music.  I love its level-headedness, its lack of mood swings.  It's everlasting YES.

 

Part of the reason I listen mostly to Mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque music  throughout the day is because, besides its being soothing and immensely reassuring, it doesn't distract me from my work.  I am a literary translator, and I spend most of my waking hours like the 21st Century version of a Mediaeval scribe, hunched over my laptop, a shelf full of heavy dictionaries behind me, perhaps one or two lying open on the messy table, writing in somebody else's voice, trying to read their thoughts, second-guess their intentions, and "Englishing" them.  I need music in the background to centre me, calm me and, above all, music that will not distract me.  I cannot work with passionate music that throws tantrums, asks questions, is emotionally egocentric, or demands that I get up every couple of minutes to either turn up or turn down the volume. I need music content in its serenity, stable, with certainty that will provide a sturdy, friendly support to the doubts and anxieties that go hand-in-hand with trying to pass for somebody else in another language.

 

So, day in, day out, I am accompanied throughout the day by friends like Léonin, Pérotin, Josquin des Prez, Salamone Rossi, Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Mouton, Guillaume Du Fay or Gilles Binchois and – if I am in the mood for something a little more modern – J.S. Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi, Von Biber, Hume, Tartini or Thomas Baltzar.

 

*   *   *

 

One piece I often listen to is Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre-Dame.  I've had a splendid recording by the Hilliard Ensemble for Heaven knows how long but, like most Mediaeval music, one hardly ever has the opportunity to hear it live.  Then, last Friday, I went to a concert of Lent-appropriate music – mostly Early – at Norwich Cathedral.  The  programme included the Kyrie from Messe de Notre-Dame.

 

 

Although I knew, of course, that early polyphony was intended for the arches and high vaults of Gothic architecture, hearing it for the first time in Norman-Gothic Norwich Cathedral vividly brought home just how flat and colourless it sounds by comparison on CD.  You suddenly realise that this music was intended to come alive when human voices, stone architecture, wood carvings, stained glass and the air itself join as one despite their separateness.  Like a murmuration of individual starlings that form a single, shapeshifting form that swirls, shrinks then spreads across the evening sky.

 

I hadn't until then been so keenly aware that it's the counter-tenor part that is the guiding force that holds everything together and gives energy to the whole piece, like a golden thread weaving through the blue of the tenors, the deep red of the basses, and the purple of the baritones.  

 

The human voices are released into the air, which carries some notes to the wood carvings, as though contact with the latter would give them a richer, earthier sound.  Other notes it sweeps up and hurls against the white stone pillars so that they might bounce off them with more brightness and brilliance.  Others again it slides over the bright-coloured stained glass windows, and lifts them slowly up to the fan vaulting, where they quiver before spreading like a gossamer cloak over the entire cathedral.

 

And, as I sit in the wooden pews where, nearly a thousand years ago, Benedictine monks sat, listened and prayed, I am in awe of this miracle of mathematics, in which human voices, stone, wood, glass and air all come individually alive by coming so perfectly together.

 

 

Scribe Doll   

 

Recent Comments
Barbara Froman
Beautiful, Katia! I, too, have music in the background when I write, often Baroque, for the same reasons as you. It's taken me a w... Read More
Sunday, 28 February 2016 18:28
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Barbara. I first discovered Early music as a fifteen-year-old, early one morning, in Rome. I was loitering in the are... Read More
Sunday, 28 February 2016 20:06
Stephen Evans
Back many years ago I had the opportunity to sing in a concert of polyphonic music at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, Mon... Read More
Monday, 29 February 2016 04:38
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A Tree with a Name Beginning with S

"I need a new tree friend," I say to S.  "A tree like my oak Merlin, outside my window in Wimbledon."

My new friend S. is a children's and young adult fiction writer.  She doesn't find anything odd or unusual about a middle-aged adult being friends with a tree, or, for that matter, that the tree should be called Merlin.  She takes a sip of coffee.  "Have you tried Lion Wood?"

"It's too far to walk and up that steep hill," I reply.  "I need a tree nearby.  Somewhere I can get to easily and say hello whenever I feel like it, without it becoming an expedition."

Through her rimless glasses, S.'s blue eyes look sideways, to that corner of her mind where she probably stores her list of suitable trees.  I know she's making a mental note to find me the perfect rooted confidant. 

I've been within easy reach of one specific, special tree, for most of my adult life.  In Cambridge, it was the copper beech watching over Leckhampton Gardens, and the canopy – practically a tent – offered by the trailing branches of a weeping willow.  In London, there was the wise cedar of Lebanon in Bishops' Park, and, later, in Wimbledon, my room looked onto a large, powerful oak.  It was a tree with stories and insight.  Merlin.  I don't know why Merlin.  The name just kept popping into my head whenever I looked it him.  Him.  Because, for some reason, to me he was unmistakably a he.  On the night of St Jude's Storm, I went to bed with the certainty in my heart that he would not crash against my windows, that he would keep me safe.  And he stood sturdy all night.

*

H. and I were strolling in the Cathedral precinct, a few weeks ago, when I suddenly stopped in my tracks.  "There it is!" I said.

H. also stopped and looked around.  "There what is?"

"My tree!"

"Your tree..." 

"Look! There! Straight ahead."

H. accepts, with infinite patience and warm indulgence, that I was born with a certain amount of madness, so did not query my use of the possessive pronoun but followed my pointing finger with his eyes.  "Wow. That is impressive," he admitted.

WP_20160207_002Before us, at the back of the Cathedral, beneath the flying buttresses, the most majestic of trees.  A cedar of Lebanon.  Tall, dark green, sprawling, some of its branches trailing on the grass, with round cones bobbing gently in the wind.  Alive.  Very much alive.  I slowly approached, took off my glove, and stroked its needles.  His needles.  Immediately, I felt many eyes turn towards me, watching me, studying me.  Quizzical, wary, judging, alert.  A chubby, pale green chiffchaff.  A couple of blackbirds.  A sparrow.  Wood pigeons.  And all the eyes I felt upon me but did not see, could never see with my eyes.  Chirping, whistling, tweeting, cooing.  Who is she? Friend or foe? What are her intentions? Shall we allow her into our world? And then there were all the voices I could never hear with my ears. Among them, a deep, booming voice.  A bass baritone full of warning but also promise.  A warning against contempt, a promise of reward for honour.  I couldn't hear it, and yet I knew it was there.  The voice of the tree.  I leaned against the trunk and ran my fingers on the bark.  His bark.  A name suddenly resounded through my chest.  An ancient name.  S –.  What was that name? Yes, it definitely starts with an S, I sensed again, the healing power of the tree penetrating my hands and my back.  Tremendous power.  The kind of power whose respect you long to earn, whose friendship you want to deserve.  And a storyteller tree, custodian of mysteries, of knowledge.  A keeper of secrets.

I wonder how old it – I mean he  – is.

*

I text our friend J., who is a tree surgeon.  "Are you acquainted with the cedar of Lebanon at the back of the Cathedral? Do you know old it is?"

He replies, "Measure its girth.  One inch for every year."

I take the tape measure from my sewing basket, and recruit H.'s help.  184 inches.  One hundred and eight-four years? It looks older, given its size and sprawl.  I try asking the Cathedral staff.  They don't know.  "Ask one of the guides," they say.  "If it's a historical tree, one of the guides is bound to know about it."

I suppress a snort.  A "historical" tree? Aren't all trees historians, record-keepers of man's fleeting visits?

*

"Let's go and visit S –," I say to H. after breakfast this morning.

"That's an excellent idea," he replies enthusiastically.

As we approach the cedar of Lebanon, as always, I find myself slowing down, stepping with caution, with deference to his awe-inspiring majesty and gravitas.

WP_20160207_004I get it into my head that I would like a cone.  In all the times I've come, I've never seen one lying around.  I ask politely.  Suddenly, I am convinced that I will be given one today.  I start walking slowly on the soft carpet of needles beneath the sprawling branches.  Nothing.  I am surprised, given the recent gales.  Perhaps after the next gust of wind.

There it is.  

I pick it up.  

Thank you, S –.
I hold it gently as I take it home and place in on my work table.  It has a wonderful smell of resin.  It's beautiful.    

It's perfect.

Thank you.

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Monika Schott
As a fellow collector of all things, I imagine your cone inspiring more of your writing. Enjoy all that it feeds your senses. M.... Read More
Monday, 08 February 2016 09:59
Katherine Gregor
Thank you. It really is a beautiful cone.
Monday, 08 February 2016 17:43
Ken Hartke
Excellent post. I rarely go for a walk without picking something up and bringing it back home. Often a pine cone will look so per... Read More
Monday, 08 February 2016 22:47
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Zebras at the Opera House

Last night, I eagerly tuned in to the BBC Radio 3 live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot.  It's one of my favourite operas.  I didn't listen to it till the very end, though, because I wasn't grabbed by the performance.  I found Nina Stemme's Wagnerian soprano too heavy and too lacking in crystalline quality for Turandot.  I felt that her diction was a little sloppy and, on several occasions, I thought I heard her swallow consonants and leave out vowels.  Marco Berti's tenor, for me, was too thin, too deprived of richness, too throaty for Calaf.  I also didn't care for the pace of Paolo Carignani's conducting.  I found it too fast and lacking in drama.  

Some of the above comments are a matter of personal taste and preference.  However, when the Met audience applauded uproariously, sounding as though they were about to bring the house down, I suddenly realised something: the audience always applauds uproariously at the Met or Covent Garden.  It's almost expected.  It's totally predictable.  And I wondered: is it a matter of manners or lack of discernment? Does the audience take its cue from the critics? Does fame equal quality, equal wild applause? 

There was a time when audiences would hurl tomatoes, boo and hiss at performances and performers who failed to live up to their standards.  I don't agree with such abusive behaviour.  Of course I don't.  My many years working in the theatre has taught me just how hard everyone involved in a production works, and their efforts should be met with respect.  But, surely, it should also be an audience member's privilege to express disappointment with a show or a performer, if s/he feels that the quality is inferior to expectations.  After, all, shouldn't clapping and shouting "bravo!" be like restaurant tipping, i.e. subject to the standard of service received? There are many respectful ways an audience can convey the fact that it doesn't like something.  Not clapping, for example.  Another, more drastic, expression could be leaving during the interval.  I know some people do that, but then how come whenever I attend an opera or listen to a live radio broadcast, there's always – always – such roaring applause? Sometimes I almost wonder if it's pre-recorded.

* * *

I first started going to the opera when I was sixteen, in Rome.  The Teatro dell'Opera hadn't been revamped yet, and much of the upholstery was the worse for wear. The place was drab. On the rare occasion when a famous singer was scheduled to appear, you would have to start queuing for tickets at the crack of dawn.  The first person to arrive would take it upon him or herself to tear up little pieces of paper with numbers scribbled on them, and hand them out to anyone joining the queue.   

I have fond memories of many a Sunday afternoon spent in the galleria, surrounded by characters who lived and breathed music, and were not afraid to express their opinion, even in voices that carried across the  auditorium in the silence that preceded the opening bars of the second or third act.

A ticket in the gods cost less than admission to the luxurious Barberini cinema, where the latest films were shown first, so I went very often.  Moreover, since I mostly went everywhere on my own, I found it much less intimidating to go the opera than the cinema.  Nobody up in the galleria found it odd that a teenage girl should turn up without parents, friends or boyfriend.  Before leaving home, I would wrap a piece of milk chocolate in foil and put it in my coat pocket.  By the interval, it would have softened exactly to my liking, and I would snack on it while listening to the other music lovers provide an in-depth, no-prisoners-taken, critique of the performance.  Mostly, they were music students from the Santa Cecilia music academy, and other, older, opera aficionados who could not afford a seat in the stalls. 

In any case, the stalls were where the fur coats sat.  And the fur coats, we galleria regulars all knew, would applaud at anything that moved on the stage.  

I remember a Rossini Semiramide with a spectacular set, and a Massenet Manon (which, my galleria betters, assured me, sounded far better in Italian than in French) where Raina Kabaivanska's dress caught on the banister of a staircase, preventing her from walking down until rescued by a slow-on-the-uptake Des Grieux.  Then, Italy being well known for its art, its fashion, but also for its frequent strikes, there was the time when I attended a chorus-free performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

My first opera was Puccini's La Fanciulla del West.  My heart pounded at the opening bars.  The singing was excellent.  The set, however, was another matter.  At one point, the curtains swished open on several plywood or cardboard cut-out horses.  One of them had an unusual pattern of pink and orange stripes.  The conductor raised his baton.  The man next to me was watching through his binoculars. His voice carried loud and clear across the void.  

"Look at that – they've even got zebras!" 

The conductor lowered his baton amid a crescendo of shushing from the fur coats down in the abyss, and supportive giggles from the galleria occupants.

Now that's what I call audience power.

Please also read 'Turandot – a Story of Redemption'

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Orna Raz
Thank you dear Katia for this interesting post. I wonder if a television production of an opera could ever be a exciting it as bei... Read More
Sunday, 31 January 2016 20:56
Katherine Gregor
I must admit, if I'm not there in person, then I prefer concerts/opera on the radio than on television – at least my imagination c... Read More
Monday, 01 February 2016 21:17
Stephen Evans
I was listening to that broadcast too (though not through the BBC) and had the same opinion about the singers. But what gorgeous o... Read More
Sunday, 31 January 2016 23:29
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