It’s not often I meet someone with the same love for English as me because English is not only my business but is also a lifelong passion. I’ve been reading and writing it for as long as I can remember and, false modesty aside, it’s fairly unusual to meet someone who speaks and writes it as well as I do. Add in the number of non-native speakers who meet the above criteria, and you are looking at a very small number indeed. Basically, it’s Marta. Her first language is Polish but her English is scintillating.
I met Marta when I worked with her husband. She is a translator by trade and a linguaphile by inclination. If there’s one thing she loves more than English, its Wales, so you can see how we manage to get on so well.
Now that she and her lovely husband have moved to London, I see a lot less of them, so it was with a great deal of pleasure that I packed my Kindle, crossword and knitting, and got on the train for a day out in the big city with my best Polish friend.
Marta met me from the train and took me to South Kensington. We had a vague plan to go to an exhibition after lunch, so Exhibition Row wasn’t unexpected, but the truly beautiful restaurant just opposite Imperial College was a big surprise. Ognisko means hearth in Polish, as in the centre of the home. The restaurant is very elegant and swish – if that’s what Polish homes are like, lucky Poles.
The waiters in Ognisko really are Polish. I know this because Marta let loose a volley of incomprehensible language as soon as we arrived. I don’t know what she said but it resulted in us being given the best table in the restaurant. I could either look along the length of the beautiful dining room, or out of the window onto Princes Park, which is a lovely little London oasis, hidden among the Georgian buildings and a welcome escape from the craziness of central London, perfect in every way except the unaccountably missing apostrophe in Princes.
The incomprehensible language continued and it became clear that the menu was being discussed with a view to giving me a typical Polish meal. I understood nothing of the conversation and only inferred this from the occasional gesture to the menu and glance at me. I was irked at not being able to understand a word, I’m supposed to be able to speak Russian which is quite similar to Polish, so I was pleased when I finally heard one word I understood – Pirogi. I said “Aha! Pirogi!” and received a blank look from the waiter and an indulgent smile from my friend. I decided to keep quiet and eat what I was given.
The food was very interesting. It’s far more British than Asian food, but still very different from my usual fare. I had a starter of a potato pancake, caramelised onion, black pudding and apple. It was deliciously different in a familiar kind of way. The main course was excellent. I had a goose leg which had been cooked forever and red cabbage which was sweet and piquant at the same time. Again, it was made from very familiar ingredients but given a Polish spin which made it interesting as well as tasty. Polish food is, not surprisingly given the climate, very filling. I was disappointed not to be able to fit in any dessert, the plates being taken to other tables looked very promising, but I knew that if I was to walk around an exhibition, I would need to exercise some restraint.
We took our coffee out onto the terrace which overlooks a lovely little London park, not much bigger than my garden but a peaceful, empty haven from the crowds on Exhibition Row. After lunch we walked around the park and looked at the modern art installations which, ahem, adorn it. I wondered if now that Marta is a sophisticated Londoner, she might be able to make more sense of it than me, but not a bit of it. If anything, she was even less impressed and dismissed the explanatory notes at the entrance, which I was dutifully ploughing through, with a terse “it won’t help”. She was right of course, so we gave up and headed to the V&A where we wandered aimlessly among the spoils of Empire.
18 April 2015
Ognisko, Exhibition Row, South Kensington
The museum was great fun – Marta gleefully joined in the patron saint conversation that I had started with James on the previous day. She told me that the patron saint of translators is Saint Jerome and we discovered that one of the six saints associated with teaching (we need all the help we can get) is called Saint Gregory the Great. I texted this to my colleague Greg (lunch 12) who replied OF COURSE. We also found the rather unfortunate Saint Roch – presumably right at the back of the queue when they were handing out patron sainthoods – he is the patron saint of plague victims.
After the saints, ancient Greeks and the always impressive cast courts, we did what any self respecting person of education does – headed to the jewellery gallery and looked at the bling. There is some seriously gorgeous stuff in there and some surprisingly ugly stuff too, for example the peridots given by the Prince Regent to his daughter Princess Charlotte. We chose diamonds for ourselves, slated the priceless but tasteless and compared the modern jewellery unfavourable to that our of our dear mutual friend Helen (lunch 2).
Time flew by and it was with real regret that I took myself off to Paddington. I had a lovely day in some beautiful places with a very special person.