When I left Trinity House in 1956 I hung around Hull for a while because the universe was unknown to me, perhaps unknowable. I had to learn to discover where I was, to recognize the barriers from the opportunities.
As far as I knew there were only a couple of possibilities for the lunch break. Charlie Foster’s place on Scale Lane sold the best pies and sandwiches in the area. If you were there between noon and two there would be a queue along the pavement, office workers in the line next to bargees and warehouse personnel and all of them salivating and shuffling their way to the delights of Charlie’s kitchen.
For a less hectic experience I’d make my way to the European Restaurant on Princes Dock Street. It was dark in there, not a lot of customers. The owner, I suppose he was, stationed himself on a high stool in an alcove next to the till. Small chap with a Hitler mustache, swarthy, somewhat over-weight. No English, or very little. Words without grammar. When I read the name of the place I thought of France or Spain or Italy, though I’d never been to any of those countries. But the European Restaurant owed little to Western Europe; most of its dishes were from the east, Poland or the Balkans.
My first time in there they gave me golabki, cabbage rolls with pork and a spicy tomato sauce. That is what Poles call them, golabki, which means something like “little pigeons.” For Czechs and Slovaks, the dish is called holubky, while Serbs and Croatians refer to them as sarma.
You’ll find them in any Polish grocery these days, but back then, and in Hull, this was exotic fare. Cabbage was exotic to me, I’d been turning it down since I was knee high to my mother. When the waitress came to clear the table and give me the bill she refused to touch anything until I’d eaten the lot. And she waited until the plate was clean. She stood over me with arms folded, her hair a mass of black curls, her eyes flashing with mock anger. “Young man like you,” she said. “You need to make muscles, everything you can eat you should eat. Make yourself strong to fight Stalin.”
“Zelda,” the proprietor growled from his stool, “Don’t speak the people.”
“In Gdansk,” Zelda said, backing away from me, “We give the leftovers to the pigs, but here there’s no pigs. Only one.” She glanced at her boss or husband or father; I never discovered quite what he was.
Over the following weeks I learned to love cabbage and most of the East European dishes that came from Zelda’s kitchen. Sourkraut, paprika, noodles, kasha, kiełbasa and a host of different soups. When we didn’t talk food she told me about her other great passion, which was the work of a Russian writer called Dostoevsky. Not a name I knew at the time. But by the following year I’d read Constance Garnett’s translation of The Idiot and was more than half way through Crime and Punishment. I’d also asked the local librarian to find me some of the plays of a guy called Chekhov.
She said she’d do her best.
Time moved on, as it is wont to do. I took a couple of turns and when I came back the European Restaurant was no more. I still wonder what happened to Zelda and her piggy companion. I read my way through most of the great Russian literature before moving on to the rest of Europe and the world. Almost very time I sit down to a meal Zelda is somewhere in the vicinity, making sure I get strong. Unlike myself, she hasn’t aged.
Joseph Stalin died in 1953, but I am fighting him still, have done so all my life without a break.
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