Thursday, 30 June 2011

Just Clouds

I had begun to think that the garden wasn't going to get any rain. Rain clouds seemed to pass us by, leaving just a sprinkle of drops. The most dramatic looking was this very black series. Approaching from the west:

Heading east:

Complete coverage heading east:

Clearing from the west, with just a few drops falling.

Still, there are things to see in the clouds. A duck?

The man in the moon, fallen down and beckoning?

A dragon, though starting to fade and now maybe a plane:

While this formation, was simply stunning:

None of the pictures have been retouched.

As a final thought, a panoramic cloud picture:

Monday, 20 June 2011

National Anthems

I woke up early and it's a dull rainy day, so I've been sitting at the computer going through other blogs, etc after a long break.

Jamie Stoke's comments are often fascinating as well as funny, depicting, as they do, a Poland and Britain I've never come across. His comments on National Anthems led me off to check their words for both countries.

Jamie is just joking, of course, but the idea that Brits regularly start up singing their national anthem is one of his surprises. The words he describes seemed very strange as well. Since I couldn't remember how it starts, I checked the wording. Woodlands Junior School in Kent has a summary. I only knew that there was more than a first verse, with no idea what the rest was.

They also have a full version, which has a rather nice verse wishing the whole world was one happy family:
Not in this land alone,
But be God's mercies known,
From shore to shore!
Lord make the nations see,
That men should brothers be,
And form one family,
The wide world over.

I never knew that existed. It may be a bit too Christian for modern Britain, but the sentiment is pretty good for a nationalistic song. Looking at Wikipedia, however, a problem with the anthem is that no one has ever thought it necessary to decide what the right lyrics are. Wikipedia also has a modern (1836) version by William Hickson that seems to have originated the above verse and which generally is somewhat closer to modern ideas. I wonder if that would have been more popular today if it had been accepted into general usage. Interestingly, the Wikipedia authors do not accept The Official Website of the British Monarchy's definitive claim that "The words of the National Anthem ARE as follows:

God save our gracious Queen!
Long live our noble Queen!
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen.

Thy choicest gifts in store
On her be pleased to pour,
Long may she reign.
May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the Queen.

In any case, in practice, the basic principle is only to play the music for the first verse, with people standing up and singing, moving their mouths randomly or just standing there looking puzzled. (The latter being a world-wide phenomenon: watching to see whether the players sing or not their various national anthems being one of the highlights of international football matches.)

I feel a bit guilty about never having looked up the words of the Polish Anthem, so thank you Jamie for inspiring me to do so. My only excuse is that I thought of it in similar terms to the wording of the English one - Who cares? It's just historic mumbo-jumbo. Wikipedia gives me an English translation:

Poland has not perished yet
So long as we still live
What foreign force has taken from us
We shall take back with the sword.

March, march, Dąbrowski
From Italy to Poland
Under thy command
Let us now rejoin the nation

Cross the Vistula and Warta
And Poles we shall be
We've been shown by Bonaparte
Ways to victory

March, march...

Like Czarniecki to Poznań
After Swedish occupation,
To rescue our homeland
We shall return by sea

March, march...

Father, in tears
Says to his Basia
Just listen, it seems that our people
Are beating the drums

March, march...

Jamie comments on the Polish version from an English perspective, but, personally, I can't get past my routine bemusement at Napoleon's adoration. However, I do wonder to what extent people reading some other country's national anthem assume that it reflects the feelings of the people. I know that I have had the British National Anthem quoted to me as evidence of strong British allegiance to an outdated monarchy, whilst most Brits I have known feel the words are a bit embarrassing, but consider the national anthem to be too trivial to worry about changing. (A bit like the monarchy itself in many cases.) I don't know what Polish people feel about the words of their anthem and make no judgements about the importance of it's details.

On the other hand, it is interesting, once you know the people of the country a bit, to reflect on the way the anthem conversely reflects their more general attitudes. I was asked the other day to name famous World War II British Generals. I could (and can) only think of Montgomery, after which I was given a list of important Polish Generals and their famous victories. It seems a bit more than coincidental that the Polish national anthem and Polish people both set great store by the blood and guts glory of their military heroes, whilst the British and Brits don't. OK, I do know that Wellington's victory at Waterloo against one of history's most bloody dictators, ensured freedom and peace in Europe, but I don't think that balances the numbers (and I probably shouldn't mention it as Norman Davies' Polish wife is reputed to have asked why London has a railway station celebrating a defeat).

You may have figured out that my wife doesn't read these things, as otherwise I'd have hell to pay for that comment: "freedom and peace!". God, Save the Queen! Babcia just told me the Queen is 86 - I wouldn't have known - so he's doing a pretty good job so far. I had to check: the British National Anthem does not claim that God is male.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Driving to and from the Chilly West Coast

I remember those South London days when I, and most people, had no concept of long distance driving. Even regularly driving to mid-Norfolk (to see my Mother) was a chore best started between 6.00 and 7.00am to reduce the two hour drive through the western side of London to the (new) M11 motorway. The roads improved slowly (with one section having its 10 year planning process) until I could do the trip in about 3 hours. The Channel to the south wasn't so much a hurdle, as an impenetrable barrier. Insular England!

Now, it's more a question along the lines of (eg last year) "will it be easier to drive to Italy rather than fly, so that we will be able to use the car when we get there?". Yes, it is. (So far) this year, It's been the long haul west.

We find the best way to do this is to stop overnight somewhere in Poland near the border with Germany. This time, it was Pałac Magnat in Garbicz, a few kilometres off the main road, turning off at Boczów.

Staying at these places is often more a matter of general experience than of getting an enjoyable evening and a good night's rest. The Magnat is such a place. It is an 18th Century Mansion House that appears to have been planned to be redeveloped as a high quality hotel and leisure centre catering to the new international market. It never got there, however. The downstairs rooms when you enter have an attractive old palace atmosphere, but going to the upstairs bedrooms, there was a strong sense of decaying infrastructure, as shown below on the grand portico.

It is an end of the road place: the tarmac extends just beyond the hotel gates. The restaurant was closed when we got there because there was a wedding party, so I don't know what the cooking is like. Breakfast (an additional 20 zl cost) was plain, but acceptable, provided one was willing to wait some time for empty dishes to be replenished. Although it wasn't very expensive - 150zl for three (in two rooms rather than the expected one), it costs more than other places near the border. They don't take card payments, which left us pooling all our remaining cash.

However, for early morning risers, there is a pleasant walk by the lake (after inspecting the unfinished swimming pool). I took the eastern route, which I think is primarily used by fishing locals rather than tourists.

Filling up with petrol before the border is an essential routine because of Poland's low fuel cost. There was a reminder just beside the petrol station of the time when the border was a rather grotty, forced stopping place.

Stops on the journey are rather random, according to needs and fancies. I don't much like the German Autohof's for some reason, but Dutch motorway stops were better. There are many similarities between the Dutch and English languages, so I can only guess that this sign in the toilet had something to do with snooping your underwear.

The return journey is nearly always straight home, whether planned or not: there was no time for an overnight stay this time anyway. Once we get to Poland, we already feel at home and the extra (five or six hours) journey time is just an unfortunate technicality. However, an early stop in Poland for food and, in my case, coffee - the best in Europe for some reason, is an important part of the welcome back process. Zajazd Chrobry in Torzym is often our stopping point.

The pictures are old - from the time when we stopped there on the outward journey, but it remains much the same. The transparently fake castle effects make it very conspicuous on the road side and it's car parking facilities for coaches add to its popularity. The food is good and plentiful and service was fine for one coach plus car based customers. The arrival of several coaches can slow things down tremendously, not surprisingly. I remember the hotel rooms as being a bit sparse, but functional, which was fine. From the website, they are cheaper than the Magnat and they take card payments. There is also a money exchange.

I was looking for a bankomat - a perfect Polish word that should be adopted by the English rather than 'ATM' and other sillier descriptions (eg Hole in the Wall!). I knew there was a sign somewhere, but was getting nervous as the motorway, with its toll booths, grew closer. (They take cards, but cash is easier and there are more lanes.) I found it at Trzciel just before the motorway and just when I wanted petrol.

The petrol station is a bit old fashioned, but the petrol is fine. The bankomat, toilets, restaurant - not used by us, and even a night club are in a separate block behind the petrol station, partly hidden by lorries when we arrived.

Getting to and from the motorway at the Warsaw end is made difficult by the enormous amount of road building and improvements in progress, but otherwise the journey out on a Thursday afternoon and Friday, returning on a Monday, was largely free flowing. There was, however, a large jam on Monday evening in the other, outgoing direction beyond and extending onto the motorway . I wonder whether this is a regular Monday feature following lorry movement bans on Sunday - I didn't see any sign of an accident.

15/16 hours is a silly length of time to drive, but I do manage it. However, I must compare my original English feeling that a 400km round journey was a major event, with the Polish willingness to drive several thousand kilometres - for an extended weekend break. It does leave me exhausted, though.

Recommended places to visit in North Holland are Marken,


and even Ijsselhof Holiday Park, where we stayed. There's a nice walk around the dyke.

Amsterdam is basically ... well ... boring.

If you're going from Poland, remember to take a thick jumper, jacket and something waterproof, whilst you marvel at people walking around in light summer clothing. It's cold out there, even on a sunny day, on the chilly west coast.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Do I Live in Eastern Europe?

This has been described as an East European Expat blog. Although for a very nice reason, it raised hackles.

That I don't like the term 'Expat' is, I know, just a personal hang-up, probably derived from English TV and films. It gives me the impression of people who go abroad and still expect to live the lives they think they would have done back home, with all the rather strange natives still being foreigners. (I buy English teabags, but for a Polish person.)

I also disliked Poland being described as an Eastern European country. This was primarily because of the attitudes of Polish people themselves, with their view of Poland as being a useless and hopeless place, along with all the rest of the East(ern Bloc), except possibly the Czech Republic. Views have changed dramatically over the past 10 years, although I don't know where the consensus now lies - probably on balance positive, but mood swings based on the latest news feeds make it difficult to tell.

Foreign attitudes were less important, but more obvious because of the continuing implication from the communist Cold War era that Poland was (and, for many, is) primitive, grim, grey and cold. I was asked, maybe 10 years ago, whether a visitor would be able to sell blue jeans - well known not to be generally available in Eastern European - at a high price. (No! Everyone wears them.) A visiting speaker also asked, in the sweltering heat of the Polish summer, whether they needed to bring a thick coat and heavy jumpers. (No!) The dark, grey housing blocks are, of course, legendary and, as I saw written quite recently, who could live in a country where everyone lives in places like that? This latter is the most hilarious (as a hang-over of the political extreme of anti-communist propaganda) for anyone who has also known people living in many British council flat estates eg those I knew in South London. (Aren't the Projects also infamous in the US?)

)My location in Poland - Google map picture from 2009.)

However, I did like the idea of being able to tell people that I lived in Eastern Europe with its potential shock value and conversational starting point. However, I couldn't: I had heard that the centre of Europe was in Poland, but east of me. I thought of either the river Vistula or maybe the Bug as being an easily visible indicator of a dividing line.

(Google map picture from 2008. I am digging up some of the 20cm of solid, compacted earth in the garden where the building site access road went around the house.)

I thought it was now time to recheck, finding that the general view seems to be that the centre of Europe is in Lithuania, making me, rather boringly, an inhabitant of Western Europe. One German comment went so far to say: Many surveyors agree that however you refine on the borders of the continent, the center will be somewhere in Lithuania. But it is not really astonishing that some surveyors try to shift the center to Poland. It seems to be just a question of the "right" borders and a question of political influence and it seems not to be a question of mathematical calculation. Do those Polish western car part and clothes shops sell Polish products?

(Google map picture from 2002. You can see the damp area of ground in the lower left quarter that caused us immense problems over the last two very wet years and which probably flooded every spring thaw and in regular severe storms.)

Wikipedia and other sites give alternatives. Two of these, including Torun in Poland, are west of me, so all I can really say is that I live in Central Europe or, more impressively, the heart of Europe. However, as a conversation starter, I suspect this will link me to Germany, which is not the direction I want to go.

Sorry, however, but this isn't an Eastern European blog. I should resign from the competition really, but I feel it would just be ungracious and supercilious. They are just being friendly, after all.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Answer's Blowing in the Wind...

But what's the question?

What do you do on a baking hot day when the wind is near enough to blowing a gale? It's time to go somewhere in the shade and have a cold beer.

Zowierucha is a restaurant just off the Katowice Road beyond Janki outside Warsaw. Heading away from Warsaw, turn left instead of turning right to Maximus, and it's on the first right turn with a second entrance being the next turn. Zowierucha seems to be the Polish Góralski version of the general Polish Zawierucha, meaning 'storm wind' or 'gale'. There's plenty of parking space.

It's surrounded by tall pine trees that gave protection from the wind, whilst it is well provisioned with large umbrellas to give protection from the sun. The Storm Wind was an island of calm amidst the storm wind.

There are grass sitting areas with direct shade from the tree, but everyone seemed to sit in the area around the restaurant.

There's loads of room outside, although I don't think I've ever been there at what might be peak period. It catered for a small office party without any impression of crowding. Nice socks, that man.

It has goats.

There's a mountain restaurant theme, with the noise of mountain music fortunately extending little to the outside to disturb your tranquillity. (I once bought a CD by a band I was told was the most popular of the Góralski musicians, only to discover that the combination of white, pop-reggae and mountain pop can be ranked as some of the most unlistenable music ever produced. The restaurant music was more authentic.)

The staff are polite and helpful in a professional waiter sort of way. The empty bar below didn't need attending as all the clients were outside. It's just too far for me to walk to, so the lack of stools at the bar isn't a matter of personal regret.

The two salt cellars at our table, with two peppers at the next, is one of those fascinating traditions that seem to be part of the Polish restaurant business. For those who don't know, the salt usually has multiple holes, whilst the pepper only one. Sometimes, however, the reverse practice is employed. Zowierucha kindly has the name written on the pot.

All I saw of the kitchen staff was the attractive young woman who came outside for a cigarette break, seemingly wearing only the man's long white shirt that seems to be regular female hot weather kitchen attire. I was only there for the beer (8zl for half a litre), but, from memory, the food is fine, with their barbecued/grilled food being most to my own taste. However, De Volaille with chips and beetroot, for Misia, and chłodnik (cold beetroot soup) and meat pierogi, for Babcia, all went down well. Which reminds me: I never did have that Jamaican goat curry back in England.

For many people, of course, the most important thing is the the quality of the toilets.