Monday, 18 July 2011

Flowers, Birds, Butterflies and Things

The garden and around from April 'til now:

Wednesday, 6 July 2011


Just the name of the town of Zamość immediately raises connotations from Polish historical romance literature. I was very pleased to have a chance to visit when it was suggested that we took the coach to Lvov from there.

It was a damp and dull day and, arriving about 5:00 in the evening, we had little chance to see much beyond going to and round the town square.

There are some individual splendid buildings, such as the Town Hall.

This row of houses beside it were ornately decorated.

The buildings around the town square all have English language plaques explaining who built them. The main single group of builders seems to have been Armenian Merchants. I have seen reference to these in various places in Poland, but I know little about their position in old Poland or their influence on its development: a task for the future.

There was also a plaque on one building commemorating it as the birthplace of Rosa Luxembourg. Although I knew her name and that she was friends with fellow communist Józef Piłsudski, I hadn't realised that she was Polish.

I guess she is (understandably) out-of-fashion in today's anti-communist Poland, which is rather a pity as she is Poland's other most famous daughter for me - along with Marie Curie. Her political position seems particularly interesting within the context of the development of both communist (as it was) and socialist (as it is) thought. More English information is available here. I was told while I was there that she was Stalin's lover, but I suspect that that results from Polish anti-communist propaganda. Her birthplace is the house in the centre of the picture below.

The style of the house is much closer to what I consider to be the standard Polish old town design, with it's limited decoration. (Hence, my pleasure when walking around Lviv. It was also noticeable as soon as crossing the border into the Ukraine that even modern private houses are often built with a much more individual, non-rectangular design than is normal in Poland.)

If I lived in Zamość, I would already have produced a rather fuller history in English than is available on Wikipedia or elsewhere on the internet as far as could find. It may still be a future project, as it provides links into Polish history that are missing from my two local towns. I did, however, find this pdf document on the Jewish perspective of Zamość.

We had tried the internet to book a place to stay over-night,but the few places we found all seemed to be full. We therefore quickly booked in to a small hotel (hotelik) a little out of the centre on the Lublin road side. It is definitely not recommended unless you want to experience an 'ex-communist' hotel. Still we only wanted beds for a few hours (leaving at 5:00am), which were fine and it had warm water. I suspect that there would actually have been plenty of empty accommodation in or near the town square.

If you go back to the picture of the Town Hall, you'll see a small group of people around a blue umbrella. It was 1 July and the first day of the Polish EU Presidency. I've worked through loads of different Presidencies (including British) as a British civil servant dealing with EU issues and it hadn't mattered who had been in charge except in very minor, short term ways. If I hadn't been working on the EU, I probably never would have known about them. I have therefore been incredibly impressed by the way the Polish media has taken it up as a domestic promotional EU campaign.

I have also heard about attempts to use it to promote Poland abroad, which I hope is successful, but I must admit to being sceptical about it reaching much of an audience. introduced me to the promotional video, although I can't find their page which described it as being metaphorical, related to such things as the economic collapse. Unfortunately this immediately led me to relate the dancers to Nero fiddling while Rome burnt. It also reminded me of the English business lobbyist on CNBC Europe's statement (paraphrased) that "People don't understand that politicians have virtually no influence on what really happens... and the worst decision they made was to join the EU". If you haven't seen the video yet ...

I don't know if we've still got Misia's Barbie animated films, but the animated characters look incredibly familiar and I think that's where the association comes from.

Well-mannered People Say Please

I heard Ferdek say this in the Polish comedy series The World According to the Kiepskis. His wife told him to get out of the way so that she could put things in the washing machine and he replied that "kulturalna" people say "please". I'd long wondered about this element of Polish good manners, but I don't take it as firm evidence; it's only a comedy programme, after all. In any case, the immediate reaction in the home was that "he speaks just like" me and I have no empirical support for it.

I must have enthused about the series before, as I do consider it the best programme on Polish television: unquestionably the most intelligent general entertainment production. The Google translated (I think) Ukrainian, Wikipedia page says "The theme of the series is the ridicule of such defects as selfishness and laziness, and the lifestyle of Polish families, for whom these inherent traits". I wouldn't go that far, but perhaps it's meant to mean "those Polish families.

The Ukrainian page also seems to suggest that the original director is local ("neighbourhood'), but Okil Khamidov actually comes from Tajikistan, although he now lives in Poland: the only Tajik(istani) I know. Maybe his independent, foreign influence helped shape the unique character of the programme.

I couldn't even have placed Tajikstan on the map, so Wikipedia, as usual, came to my assistance. It borders with China and Afghanistan.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Lviv: Veni, Vidi, Vicit

It's probably wrong, but it's supposed to mean "I came. I saw, It conquered".

To ask about Lvov in Poland is to be enveiled in nationalistic, patriotic and ethnicity mystique. I therefore went with a completely open mind about what it might actually be like as a place, with, if anything, a fear that it would be rather austere and dull.

I was completely smitten. It felt very much like an old Italian town, with the ornately decorated grandeur of the buildings stretching back into the more decrepit parts of the old area. It was unlike so many old cities where, to the extent they exist in such quality and quantity, these quickly disappear outside the main central area. Much more Paris than Warsaw or Krakow. (I thought I was just being fanciful, but I was relieved to see that Wikipedia describes it as the "Little Paris of Ukraine".

Being on a Polish coach trip, the visit was oriented as part of the pilgrimage to what used to be part of the homeland. First stop was at the Lychakiv Cemetery. I long ago gave up trying to withstand the pushing and shoving to get close enough to hear the tour guide - with the added hazard this time of a couple of old ladies constantly pushing their umbrellas into my head to get through the space I had left outside the mob, but it largely seemed to be about legendary Polish characters (all obscure to me without prior research) plus the Polish war grave area. However, it is a beautiful cemetery and a non-aligned guide would make it worth visiting. The busts representing the dead in this particular part gave a particularly strong impression of real people being there - the picture fails to do it justice. They were Ukrainian and didn't even warrant a moment's pause for the tour.

The Italian feeling extended even to the ordinary cafe bars that were plentifully sprinkled around the city - a feature I very much miss in Poland (and was disappointed not to find in Amsterdam old town). Our first stop after the cemetery was to climb to a popular viewpoint, but on a very wet, cloudy and misty day, I couldn't see the point and we went into an ornate tourist cafe at the bottom. It was beautifully decorated inside, but having got up at 4:30 and by now it being afternoon, the first cup of coffee of the day was well overdue - any place would have done.

There was the inevitable church tourism, but Lviv does have beautiful church interiors. The best, at least in overall impression, was the Armenian Cathedral. (Google translated Polish link, as the English version is not very good.) We only had five minutes, but I was completely struck by the painting of the Burial of Saint Odilon, who established All Saints and All Souls days - researched only now. The spirits of the dead walking beside the bier come out more clearly in the picture than when I was there looking at what appeared to be strange unrecognisable lines. I was told that it was an ancient painting that had been restored in the 20th Century, but the features of the middle character immediately drew my attention by being completely modern. Looking it up now, it is an early 20th Century painting by Jan Henryk Rosen. (Indeed, although the immediate impression is of ancient artwork, it may all date from that period - an amazing achievement.)

Chruches still have their monasteries and places of refuge beside them for people like this wild haired and bearded man, standing at least half naked looking out of the window - every inch an eccentric (mad?) holy man.

Our final destination was the Opera.

The Opera is the perfect size for both intimacy and effect (although one of the chorus seemed to have a set of false teeth several times too big for her). La Traviata is not really a wise choice for me, as a non-opera lover, where my greatest fear is that I start to snore: fortunately, I didn't, even though I had had little sleep in the previous 48 hours. Julia Lysenko was excellent in her lead role and the costumes and scenery were impressive.

All in all, it was worthwhile attending the performance. (I'm not allowed to show pictures like this, but I love it.)

I'd love to have time to stay in Lviv and get properly acquainted with it. I completely recommend it to anyone, especially those of us who consider it a rather exotic destination primarily known from Soviet times. (I don't know how English language friendly it would be, but it can't be that difficult to manage.) However, I don't expect to go back in the near future. Although one hears of the politics of opening up the borders, the aim when going by road seems clearly to discourage visitors. It was described to me as the border guard caring only about themselves and not travellers - closing the border for shift changes and booths shutting while the guards go off for a break. However, this can only happen when people in charge don't want it to be any different. (Both sides will explain why the other side is to blame, but that just shows that political willingness to overcome problems has failed.) I've never seen border guards anywhere - even at Dover in the bad old days - try so hard to match faces to passport photographs - Polish and Ukrainian both. (Photo of the closed border for the Polish morning shift change.)

Actually, I was quite looking forward to a long delay at the border. I thought I would be able to sleep in the coach a bit before driving from Zamość to Warsaw. Unfortunately, a nearby passenger, having finished off his large half of a bottle of Ukrainian vodka, got into extremely load discourse/ prompted monologue on the problems of Poland, etc, lasting from around 9:00 in the evening to past 1:00 in the morning. Although he was asked a couple of times not to speak so loud, this had little effect. He just wouldn't shut-up ... until a very rude Englishman told him to: first in Polish and then, when asked, in English. On his prompting, I finally asked him to "please be silent", on which he finished, muttering little more than "shut up" in English to his mate, which was actually what I first heard him doing in the morning when we were first in the bus (and hence my choice of words). Actually he would have been great fun over a few beers in a pub. I would have like to hear more about his view that life is and the people are much better in Zamość than Warsaw. It's also fun when I find that I know more about Poland than the person talking: in this case about the creation of Polish towns. Who else could have created a town but the great Jan Zamoyski? Hundreds of Polish nobles, as it happens. The completely unknown Jan Rusiecki (or something like that, I haven't rechecked my facts) created local Nadarzyn ... under Chełm Law and all that stuff.

Try flying instead.