Olga Tokarczuk on English as an unforeign language

There are countries out there where people speak English. But not like us – we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don’t have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt. 

How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of all the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures – even the buttons in the lift! – are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them – they are accessible to everyone and everything! I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own, one of those dead ones no one else is using anyway, just so that for once they can have something just for themselves.

(from Flights)

sport english ppl playg cricket or rounders on the beach chatel 805 crop.jpg

(English people playing rounders or French cricket on the beach, Châtelaillon-Plage, France, 2005)


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On the train south from Paris this evening, I have the impression that more people than usual are reading books. An Armistead Maupin, a book on Francis I. For my part I’m sorting out photos from the summer. I’ve come across these remarks from two great travellers:

‘Where a man’s Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is, there shall his heart be also’; and, of course, Lemprière, Fowler, Brewer, Liddell and Scott, Dr Smith, Harrap and Larousse and a battery of atlases, bibles, concordances, Loeb classics, Pléiade editions, Oxford Companions and Cambridge histories; anthologies and books on painting, sculpture, architecture, birds, beasts, fishes trees and stars; for if one is settling in the wilds, a dozen reference shelves is the minimum; and they must be near the dinner table where arguments spring up which have to be settled then or never. This being so, two roles for the chief room in a still unbuilt house were clear from the start. (Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1986)


I actually buy my books in paperback, so that I can leave them without remorse on the platform, for someone else to find. I don’t collect anything. (Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, 2007)


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I took the photos on a hot August Sunday in Milan, heading home by train.

On the moules again (2): Loch Fyne, Portsmouth

I went to Portsmouth for a wargame tournament. (My medieval Lithuanian army came third in a group of six, just outside the semifinal places, with three wins, a draw and a defeat.)

Before that, last night, to try and continue the musselly theme, I went to the Loch Fyne restaurant at Gunwharf Quays, one of a national chain. I booked because I believe you have to book everywhere in Portsmouth on a Saturday night. In my childhood in England there were no such things as mussels. I thought that here there would be.

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Headlines: old brick building, old wood floor, cheerful atmosphere with people coming in after an afternoon at the shops. There were mussels and they were pretty good, springy in their texture, though I would like to have had the option of marinière, which I think is the best. (The options were cream, tomato provençale or coconut, which I couldn’t imagine.) The fish soup wasn’t so good, one dimensional, not fishy. I mentioned this when they asked how the food was and got a visit from the manager, a chat and the soup struck off my bill – which I didn’t necessarily want but was impressed by.

I was disappointed the Muscadet was off. I drank some Gros Plant which was less similar to Muscadet than I’d hoped.


Music: inaudible.

Menu: English only.

Bread: £3, which feels ridiculous from a Belgium/France perspective; the butter was cool though not cold, in a china dish, nice and salty. The brown bread was good, the white a bit stale.

Service: keen.

Dogs: “I’m a dog lover myself and it breaks my heart to say no but we’re not allowed.” (Not a problem because our puppy is in France now.)

Water: You can easily have tap water, which you can’t in Belgium, but it hasn’t the taste that the mineral water had at the Ploegmans.

Napkins: paper.

Bill: £31,10 for one, I left a £2 tip.

Pepper: mill.

On the moule again (1): Ploegmans, Brussels

Over the next week I’m going to be to-ing and fro-ing between Belgium, England and France, eating out quite often. I thought it would be interesting to compare the restaurants.

My significant other and I started today by walking up posh Avenue Louise in Brussels and getting the passenger lift down to the Marolles district, where we’d booked for lunch at the Ploegmans. It is in walking distance of the Gare du Midi, from where our separate trains would leave.

Headlines: I had moules marinières and snails. They were disappointing, both were flabby. The broth for the mussels was mostly celery and didn’t leave a good taste, the sauce with the snails was salty.

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It’s a pity because the place feels good inside (old mirrors, tiled floor, wood) and is usually booked up.  We’ve been planning to come back for a while. There was only one white wine by the glass, and it was anodyne. Decent crispy mid-thickness chips, though. The best thing was the hoppy bottled Taras Boulba beer, from the Brasserie de la Senne – though it is not as good as the Delta IPA from the Brussels Beer Project, where a friend of ours works.


Music: 70s Anglo (plus A Tatons by the Belgian singer Axelle Red, who is Flemish but sings in French).

Menu: in French and Flemish (steak tartare: Américain minute, salade, frites / Américain minute, sla, frietjes). My French didn’t work so well: when I wanted wine I got water, when I wanted bread I got offered wine.

Crispy bread on the table without asking for it, butter came with it in a nice little dish but would have been even better cold.

Service quick and friendly.

Dog: welcomed with pleasure, and sat happily under our table tearing up a napkin.

Napkins: paper (luckily).

Water: bottled, in 25 cl bottles, still and sparkling.

Bill: €78 for two, I tipped to €85.

Pepper: in a mill.

Manneken Pistols

This evening in Brussels we went to see the Manneken Pistols. They were good, playing cover versions, and the name of the band is glorious. I wish, though, that they would take Patti Smith’s version of Gloria as their starting point and not Van Morrison’s.

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#energyUK – Littlebrook power station

energy Littlebrook power station near Dartford tunnel train St Pancras-Folkestone 1017.JPG

You can see this magnificent building from the Eurostar track as the train crosses the Thames 15 minutes or so out of St Pancras.

(This morning, I was on not Eurostar but the fast train to Folkestone. We’re bringing a dog to Brussels and you can’t take them on Eurostar. Instead you can get on a taxi in Folkestone and sit on it through the tunnel to Calais. Time: 7 hours compared to 2 on Eurostar. Cost: nearly double. But worth it.)

I looked it up on Wikipedia and found it is Littlebrook D, an oil-fired power station that closed down in 2015 rather than meet rising EU air quality requirements.