What Exactly is Your Job?

Last weekend, I had the joy of seeing members of the Norwich Stonemasons' Guild perform a Mystery Play outside the doors of the Cathedral.  It was a warm, sunny afternoon, a brief summer interlude before putting our coats, scarves and gloves back on in time for June.  The first Mystery Play to be acted by a Norwich guild for five hundred years – Cain & Abel.

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As an eager crowd gathered outside the Mediaeval Benedictine cathedral, the Beadle of the Guild, in his black velvet cap and cloak, and gold-tipped staff, announced, in imperative tones, "You will enjoy it. You will laugh," triggering the first giggles among the willing audience.

I couldn't begin to describe the sheer delight and fun of this ten-minute performance.  I couldn't do justice to its highly imaginative props, to the brightly-coloured, makeshift set, to the hysterically funny performance by the actors, who, fuelled by the audience's laughter, gave into corpsing themselves, thereby increasing the overall giggling.  There was something so earthy about the whole event, so uniting.  Inevitably, I thought of the Mechanicals of Athens performing Pyramus and Thisbe.  An unwitting trigger to laughter was also the organ player in the Cathedral, where that evening's concert was being rehearsed, whose notes from Fauré's Requiem thundered through the stone walls at a couple of appropriate Biblical moments.

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At the end of the performance, after the cheers and bows, the Clerk came on and spoke of the history of this Guild, and repeated the last line of the performance, "Perfection in an imperfect world." Summa Inter Mediocria, the St Stephen and St George's Guild motto.

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These words sent a tingle up my spine.  I often walk past the Church of St Clement, and catch a glimpse of the stonemasons at work, complete with their square white caps.  Everything about their body language and that of the Master Stonemason who supervises them oozes something we seldom see nowadays: fierce pride in one's work.  A refusal to produce anything less than as perfect a job as any human can aspire to.

Over the days that followed, I pondered over something that has been much on my mind, recently.  Job titles.  Pride in one's job. A sense of achievement when performing a task.  The refusal to compromise quality and "make do".

Stonemason.  Baker.  Translator.  Writer.  Carpenter.  Lawyer.  Priest.  Journalist.  Teacher.  Actor.  The words immediately tells me clearly what the jobs entail.  It took me ages to work out what a CEO did.  Chief Executive Officer.  What's that? What's wrong with "boss"? Or MD.  Managing Director.  What is "manage", exactly? Is it to regulate? To direct? To organise? When I taught Business English, the majority of my clients' job titles weren't words but abbreviations.  I often had to ask them what they did exactly and, in most cases, still couldn't put my finger on what precisely their professions involved.  After many a lengthy explanation, I frequently yearned to ask "What do you actually make? What is the tangible, physical result of your work?"

I once worked for an oil company for two months.  The second month was to work out my notice.  My job title was also an abbreviation.  Much of it seemed to involve entering long serial numbers into a computer.  I wasn't quite sure why.  One day, when one of the top honchos of the company circulated through our department, shaking everyone's hand, and asking what they did, I embarrassed myself.  His question suddenly stumped me and I replied, "I don't know.  I'm not really sure what I do." He laughed politely, probably assuming I was joking, but I was totally serious.  Inappropriate for the occasion, but serious.  I had no idea what I actually did.  I couldn't be proud of a job I didn't understand.

Recently, at the London Book Fair, I asked a woman if she was a publisher.  She replied, "No.  I facilitate publishing."

I stared, totally at a loss.  What's "facilitating publishing" when it's at home?

In one of the very executive London language schools I used to teach ("executive" – another hermetic word for me – executing what?), we weren't called teachers but "trainers".  I wondered if the management considered the word "teacher" to be too authoritative, too passé, or – what the heck – too politically incorrect.  Similarly, students were referred to as "course participants".  I went around feeling like a rubber sports shoe, facilitating learning rather than teaching – which is what I'd signed up to do when I qualified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (there, the word is "teaching"!).  As for "course participants" as opposed to "students", the difference in connotation made me somewhat uncomfortable, the latter suggesting in my mind individuals who were simply required to attend my classes and not necessarily learn from them.

Other job titles that have recently puzzled me are "Community Banker" referring to the advisors/clerks at my local bank, "Presentation Team" printed on the uniforms of cleaners,   and anything with the nouns "Consultant", "Executive", "Corporate" and "Officer" (outside the military) attached.

Stonemason.  Baker.  Translator.  Writer.  Carpenter.  Lawyer.  Priest.  Journalist.  Teacher.  Actor.  These I understand.  But perhaps I'm too simple-minded.

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
It seems that there's a resurgence of interest in the Mystery Play, and in going on Pilgrimage which I understand is gathering mo... Read More
Wednesday, 08 June 2016 16:03
Katherine Gregor
Thank you for commenting, Rosy. Interesting, I didn't know about the resurgence of pilgrimages.
Friday, 10 June 2016 20:41
Ken Hartke
My daughter walked 200 kilometers (just a fraction of the total) on the Camino Santiago last November...a pilgrimage to the tomb o... Read More
Saturday, 11 June 2016 17:32
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4 Comments

Adventures with Chicken Soup

My acupuncturist takes a quick look at my tongue. "You've got a low blood count," she says. 

I smile and roll my eyes, thinking of how my GP had to draw blood and process it for a whole week before working that out.

The acupuncturist carries on her diagnosis with remarkable accuracy.  As part of her list of suggestions, she advises me to have chicken soup. 

"I very seldom eat meat – I haven't liked it since I was a baby," I reply.

"Well, try it," she says, "and see how you get on.  It does wonders for the immune system.  Only make sure you boil a whole chicken, to get all its goodness."

 

"Dearest, will you make us some chicken soup, please?" I say to H. – a meat eater – as soon as I'm back home.

Once he's processed his surprise at my request for meat, and my explanation for it, he stares at me, his eyes momentarily blank behind his glasses.  "Why can't we just buy some ready-made?" he suggests, clearly trying to be helpful.

"Because this is supposed to be for my health, not something in a plastic tub, full of additives and preservatives.  In fact, we'd better get an organic chicken.  So will you make us some clear chicken soup? You keep talking about the one your mother made with Kneidel..."

"I don't know how to make chicken soup..."

It's my turn to look blank. I finally burst out, "Your family were Ashkenazi Jews from Poland – how can you not know how to make chicken soup?!"

"My mother was the one who made it."

"And didn't you ever watch her in the kitchen?" I say, and immediately realise the futility of my question when addressed to a man.  I remember, not without resentment, the hours spent – under duress – in our family kitchen.  My Armenian grandmother would say, in a self-satisfied tone, "Watch, Katia.  Watch and learn."  Being a girl can be so unfair.

"Where can I buy an organic chicken?" I ask no one in particular.

H. gives a constructive shrug.

"OK, I'll go and find one – and a recipe – but I've never handled raw meat, so you'll cook it, right?"

H. nods with deliberate obligingness.

Before my irritation degenerates into an accusatory rant, I grab the shopping bag and venture to the supermarket.

 

An hour later, there's a small, organic chicken on our kitchen counter.  I'm on the phone to my friend Sue.  

"Now whatever you do, don't wash it first," she says.

"Oh, but my grandmother always used to wash meat thoroughly before cooking it."

"So did my mother."

"Then why?–"

"They're now saying it's safer not to."

"'Safer'?"

"Yes.  They tell you to cover every surface with clingfilm, and if any raw chicken touches anything at all, then make sure you clean it with anti-bacterial detergent."

I suddenly remember stories of the extraordinary precautions taken by my mother, when giving me the polio vaccine when I was a baby.  Holding my hands to prevent me from putting them in my mouth.  Boiling or burning any contaminated bibs, towels, or kitchen utensils.

"Why do people eat chicken if it's so dangerous?" I inevitably ask.

"Oh, it's perfectly safe.  They just tell you to be very careful because of the bacteria."

"Who are 'they'?"

"The experts."

Oh, them...

 

After half an hour on the 'phone, I read out all the health and safety instructions to H. 

"Oh, yes, everybody knows that!" he says, casually.

I briefly consider hurling the chicken at him, then remember that, at all other times, I do love my husband.

 

I watch him at work.  As he cuts the string that holds the dead bird together, its limbs suddenly pop apart.  I gasp and jump back.  Perhaps I should leave the kitchen... No, I'd better watch and learn.

 

We take our largest pot but even that doesn't look big enough to contain the chicken.  H. stuffs it in with difficulty.  I hear something crack and feel nauseous.  I struggle to remember why I suggested all of this in the first place.  We cover it with water and add my home-made vegetable stock.  As it starts boiling, some disgusting-looking froth forms on the surface.  Neither of us knows what to do with it, so we take the executive decision of skimming off with a spoon and throwing it down the sink.

 

Then, something unexpected and terrifying happens.  The chicken, the dead chicken, slowly starts to move of its own accord.  It spreads its wings, its legs rise over the edge of the pan, and the whole carcass floats up, emerging from the stock.  

"What the hell is that?" I say, wondering if I should reach out for the rolling pin.

H. is very calm before this unexpected development.  "I don't know," he replies, "but I definitely think we should add some pearl barley."

 

An hour later, the flat is heavy with the smell of fat, the sick ward in a hospital, the sour, musty smell of a second-hand clothes shop.  We sit down to eat.  I stare into the swirls of fat forming shapeshifting paisley patterns in my bowl, stir the slippery barley, keep telling myself this is good for me.  I finally muster the courage to lift the spoon to my lips.

 

A smile is beaming over H.'s face, as he wolfs down his second bowl of soup and reaches out for a third helping.  "Mmm... Just like the soup my mother used to make," he says, dewy-eyed.  

 

I push my bowl away.  The yellowish, viscous liquid has gone cold. 

 

I go and raid the kitchen for bread, cheese and olives.  There's a bag of curly kale in the fridge.  Tomorrow, I'll bake it to a crisp in olive oil and salt.  I'm sure it will raise my blood count.

 

 

Scribe Doll 

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Hilarious! Certainly a prescription for raised blood pressure! ... Read More
Sunday, 29 May 2016 20:43
Katherine Gregor
Glad it made you laugh. I think I'll stick to being a non meat eater...
Monday, 30 May 2016 10:37
Rosy Cole
Very wise. The long and short term health hazards of eating meat are well known to the medical profession. Any in-depth procedures... Read More
Tuesday, 31 May 2016 12:25
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6 Comments

Luxembourg Wine

In Anglo-Viking-Flemish Norwich, a Londoner and a Roman invited a Venetian for dinner at their home.  The Venetian had some Austrian, Spanish, and Moroccan blood, the Londoner originally came from a Polish-Jewish family, and the Roman was of Armenian-Welsh-Cornish descent.  All three were Europeans to the core.

 

While the meal – a Sicilian dish – was simmering in the kitchen, the hosts and their guest sat in the living room, chatting in an English interspersed with Italian words, and an Italian with the odd English expression slipped in, listening to a Bruxellois singer on CD, and sipping wine from Luxembourg.  A smooth, silky, golden, elegant Riesling with a twinkle in the eye.  It had been sent courtesy of a newly-formed acquaintance who was not only very knowledgeable about classical music but – all three agreed – clearly a connaisseur of good wine.

 

There was a strong difference of opinion regarding the absence, in English grammar, of gender for nouns.  The Venetian argued that this lack made English colourless.  The Londoner insisted that there was no logic in arbitrarily deciding that a chair was "she", a book "he", or vice-versa.  The Roman expressed outrage that animals should be referred to as "it", as though they were inanimate objects, then went all sentimental when mentioning that in Russian, белка – squirrel – was feminine. 

"Why? Don't they have any male squirrels in Russia?" the Londoner asked.

"In Italian, scoiattolo is masculine," said the Venetian.

"So are all Italian squirrels female, then?" the Londoner enquired.

 

Nobody answered his questions and, during the brief pause in the conversation, the Roman brought in a steaming bowl of pasta with Sicilian caponata, into which she had stirred some creamy French goat's cheese.  They all tucked into this dinner, the ingredients of which had been thought up by Jews, Chinese, Normans, Arabs and North Americans – in other words, a European dinner.

 

As they ate, they discussed travel.  It's only an hour's flight to Amsterdam, or Paris, or Hamburg.  You're an hour away from Dutch, French and German.  Here, we don't fly for hours and hours and still hear the same language when we land.  Because our small continent is like the colourful pattern of Harlequin's costume, with lozenges of different, contrasting colours, all sewn together.  Over the centuries, we have complemented one another, enriched one another, challenged one another's comfort zones.  Foreign winds have blown new seeds onto our lands, and sprouted into new fruits, and our winds have carried our seeds abroad.  We have destroyed any dams that threatened to turn our limpid, gurgling rivers into stagnant, smelly ponds.  We have knocked down fortresses that imprisoned people within their walls and restricted their human rights.     

 

"Oh, look, there's still some Luxembourg Riesling left," says the Roman, toying with her napkin, wondering what she's going to do with all the food left over despite everybody's triple helpings.  

The Londoner picks up the slender bottle and pours the remaining golden liquid into the three glasses in equal measures.  "What shall we drink to?" he asks.

"To this wine – from a country none of us has been to – for bringing us all together this evening," the Venetian suggests.

"To peace and unity within this dear Old Continent," the Roman adds, raising her glass.

 

 

Scribe Doll      

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
And so began the legend of the Amazon squirrels of Italy. A charming tale.
Sunday, 22 May 2016 17:05
Katherine Gregor
Well, Montaigne did say that a mixed man was an honest man.
Sunday, 22 May 2016 17:33
Former Member
I landed to wait out a fog once in Luxembourg - does that count? Because I really wanted to be at your table!
Sunday, 22 May 2016 21:08
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6 Comments

– and that's Jazz.

It's 7.45 and all the tables are already occupied.  The staff are carrying in more chairs.  Drinks are sipped.  The hubbub of chatter hovers over the room, an evocation of the cigarette smoke of yesteryear.   

 

The jam session is advertised for 8 o'clock and, as always, I wonder why everyone arrives so early, since the music never starts before about 8.30.  8 is when the odd musician strays in, casual, as though he happened to be passing and decided to drop in.  He deposits his instrument on the stage area, then backtracks to the bar.  A couple of other musicians drift in and slowly start tuning up.  They catch sight of a familiar face in the audience, nod, smile, go and say hello.  Totally oblivious to the social convention of time.  Someday, someone will explain to me what makes jazz musicians think they are exempt from the professional courtesy of starting their performances on time.  Classical musicians manage it.  Actors manage it.  The audience don't seem to mind waiting.  Maybe the fact that the performers are free to be themselves, faults included, makes the audience feel loved.

 

Eventually, the musicians start playing and the audience starts nodding and foot-tapping in time with the rhythm.  Everybody knows the drill: about two-thirds of the way into the song, it's solo time.  The double bass player strums, pinches and boings, eyes closed, Dum-dum-dum-ing to himself.  It's the cue for the audience to applaud.  Then it's the turn of the bass guitar.  Eyelids scrunched up together, face tense, suggesting a painful orgasm.  Audience duly applauds.  Last, but not least, comes the percussionist's exhibition.  It's often the longest, with all the hide, wood and metal getting an extensive thrashing that culminates in another hail of applause.  

 

The singer steps onto the stage, with perfected languor and stylised weariness.  She brushes her mane of hair from one side of her neck to the other.  Eyes closed, head slightly thrown back, the mic almost brushing her lips.  It's just her and the song in a private, intimate space.  Shall we all tip-toe out and remove our voyeuristic presence? 

 

I observe that everyone on stage has either his or eyes closed, or half-closed with a vacant, expression suggesting sense-altering, direct communication with an extra-terrestrial dimension.  

 

A jazz trademark seems to be to cut the verse of the song and attack it straight from the chorus.  Maybe doing what the composer and lyricist intended for the song would be too banal, too conventional, too conformist?

 

Ah, jazz.  Jazz is life. Or is it life is jazz

 

Let's just drop all that jazz.

 

 

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Former Member
Happy New Year, Katia. Still out there and always read your blogs with great pleasure. Thank you, Nicholas
Sunday, 03 January 2016 19:44
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Nicholas. A Happy New Year to you and your family!
Monday, 04 January 2016 11:13
Monika Schott
Life is jazz! It's such a treat to read two stories from you in a week - thanks. x
Sunday, 03 January 2016 20:13
1215 Hits
6 Comments

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