Saturday, 7 July 2012

Saint George - the best mature cheese in Poland

The title in full should be "the best mature hard cheese that has been widely available in Polish shops". It was still in Biedronka a week or so back and it is the best I have bought.

It is Portuguese Saint George cheese, matured for at least four months. I suspect the name is deliberately to hint at it being a cheddar type cheese, which it is and which it tastes like. (The unopened packet in the picture is my second one.) It has a good strong taste, without the overpowering bite of the longer matured Australian cheddar I remember in England.

The price was either 6 or 7 zloty, which at therefore either 30 or 35 zloty a kilo compares extraordinarily well with the tasteless to mild, but pleasant tasting, standard hard cheeses whose price seems to be focusing around 25 zloty a kilo. A 3 month matured version had the same price.

(To divert: the wine is a very nice, slightly sparkling dry red. I can't remember where I bought it, but most probably Tesco, although Lidl or Biedronka are possibilities. The price would have been between 12 and 16 zlotys.)

The bad news about Sao Jorge is that it seems to be a short term offering by Biedronka, so I don't know if and when it will return. It was discounted from what was said to be an original price (although I never noticed it at full price). I fervently hope that they will be taking up the Lidl practice of regularly re-introducing 'new' specialist products like this for short periods. Even if they do, however, Sao Jorge may not be one of them: they stayed on the shelves for weeks.

Biedronka is Portuguese owned and I had been wondering for some time if they would, again like Lidl, move to using their foreign retail chain supply line to give alternative products in Poland. The first hint I had of this was a couple of months ago, although it was a range of French soft cheeses, again at about the 35 zloty a kilo mark (discounted price). This was cheaper than Polish camembert and brie, which is sometimes strangely advertised as being like rubber, which they usually are. Whilst a soft cheese expert might have dismissed Biedronka's French cheeses, I am not willing to pay the 80 to 150 zloty a kilo price in other places for what to me is rarely better. I think there was a camembert, but the others were well known regional cheeses. These disappeared very quickly from the shelves. New availability of French products did not mean it was part of a Polish/Portuguese joint marketing approach, but I wondered...

(The long-term availability of Gorgonzola in Biedronka, however, is a sign of the success of Gorgonzola in Poland, not Biedronka's internationalisation: it is available everywhere.)

However, the last few times I have wandered around there has been, in addition to Sao Jorge, a reasonable range of other Portuguese items. Especially interesting were fish products in the freezer: a cod meal/pie without pastry (if you know what I mean), and cod croquettes. Both reasonably priced and still in our freezer, so I don't yet now what they are like.

It all makes Biedronka a much more interesting and worthwhile place to go to for the occasional value for money luxury, rather than being just a conveniently positioned partial alternative.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Around the Bins

It was some time ago now, but Warren asked if I had ever seen people searching the bins. Well, yes, so it's a good excuse to post some old pictures.

Our flat on the Jelonki, West Warsaw housing estate (mainly high-rise blocks) had a kitchen which overlooked the place where the bins are housed. People regularly searched them. Although they were locked, with little effort the internal bolt into the ground could be lifted, allowing both doors to open and making the lock ineffective. The left hand man in the picture below has a bent piece of metal to do this.

This man is searching in a bin that was there for a short time just next to the enclosed area. He has a small trolley/case frame. Other had bicycles.

They weren't looking for food or basic things they needed, but were involved in a private recycling business. They mainly took drink cans, but refundable beer bottles seemed to be an occasional high value bonus. In the early days, electric equipment seemed to be especially prized as well, either for parts or for repair. Increasing ability to buy new in increasingly affluent Poland seemed to stop this. There was a time when an abandoned fridge or TV would have disappeared within a few hours, but they were could later stay for a few weeks until a van collection took them away.

The bin housing also served as the local public toilet, normally a urinal, but not only, much to Mika, the dog's interest.

I would advise you, if you want to use such a place without anyone noticing you, looking up at the building in front of you is just as important as looking left or right.

The bench beside it, intended as a place to put rugs after beating them, also served as a local meeting place. These boys here do seem very skinny from my London background, but I suspect that 'healthily slim' would be a better description. As I regularly hang around school gates (waiting to pick up Misia), I often wonder if English school nutritionists would be pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming preponderance of slim, but in now way undernourished, kids.

The bin area also provided a local, city equivalent to the legendary Polish rural bus stop, where mates gathered to drink beer.

Taking rubbish out to the bins, I got to know one woman in a beer drinking crowd well enough to say a few words when ever we met. She was friendly and completely unthreatening, although sometimes looking a bit beaten, reminding me of the drinkers around Westminster Cathedral (not Abbey) on Victoria Street in London. She was nowhere near as attractive (or young), however, as others.

This looks like malnutrition to me.

The graffiti about the police probably doesn't need translating. Polish people sometimes complain about the level of graffiti, but I was pleasently surprised at how little there was.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Overloaded to Breaking Point

This flat bed van had broken down giving just enough space for vehicles to get past when I was driving on that side of the road.

I was therefore able to pick up Misia from school and get back, taking these pictures from the car, waiting at the traffic lights on the return journey. They had been carrying bricks - some loaded and some taken off - see left, but it had been so heavy that the vehicle simply broke in two.

A vehicle rescue trailer had been there with the driver scratching his head, looking rather bemused.

Thursday, 1 March 2012


I first remember visiting a Biedronka (Ladybird) supermarket in Kielce at about the turn of the century. It was a cheap, but desperately un-cheerful shop, catering for the poor. Under their Portuguese owners, they have changed dramatically and are in the process of trying to establish a reputation for quality. Their advertising promotion of their quality, like that of their rivals Lidl, gives me the impression of miss-truth and manipulation of facts. More valuable to me, is the new design of their shops, which takes away the 'pile em high and sell them cheap' entrance look of the shop, replacing it with a more open and welcoming display.

The positive effect of their quality campaign can best be given by this schoolboy's design of a film for his English lesson:

Name: Biedronka the Shop.
Type: science fiction
Setting: Biedronka
Plot: Radek goes to the Biedronka to buy some sugar. Suddenly, Lidl shoppers attack this shop. Radek takes two cucumbers and defends the shop. Lidl shoppers run from Biedronka after a fierce battle.
Starring: Radek, Lidl shoppers.
Soundtrack: a Biedronka advertising jingle, 'Daj się zaskoszyć, jakością Biedronki' - 'Be surprised by Biedronka quality'.
Special effects: laser cucumbers, big boom grapes.
In my film, I would show high quality of Biedronka products.

Biedronka does have some good things now (and some bad). I mentioned mature cheese some time ago, which is still there, but my current best buy is cornichons with chilli.

My ultimate problem with Biedronka is that they don't accept payment by card. Since the bankomats I know are near shops, it is rather absurd to stop at a shop to get money in order to go out of my way to do shopping in Biedronka. In practice and in several different places, I generally drove straight past Biedronka and went to Lidl.

This Biedronka is roughly half way between Magdelenka and the Lidl in Piasezcno. I normally drove straight past it, but I had a reasonable amount of cash once and bought a few immediate requirements eg rolls for Babcia. I was actually more interested in trying out the coffee in Bar Pychotka: the ordinariness of the instant coffee (Nescafe), being more than made up for by the very pleasant service, although tight shorts in December did seem a bit extreme. I felt cold watching her behind the counter.

I was therefore pleased when, just after the new year, a new Biedronka with cashpoint opened in/just outside Magdelenka. This was just a few minutes detour out of my way, so I could both easily get cash when I need it, and do some shopping in Biedronka. It became my nearest supermarket.

However, from my eight visits, the experience has instead been:

Bankomat not working and leaving without doing any shopping: 5 times.
Bankomat working, got money and did shopping: once.
Already had money and did shopping: once.
Had money, did shopping, but money insufficient. I was told the bankomat was working, went to get money, but it wasn't. Paid for reduced shopping (the cashier called the supervisor to delete items from the bill; other customers forced to wait) and left with less than I wanted: once

An unsuccessful visit when the bankomat was undergoing 'technical maintenance': ie it had broken down.

The bankomat belongs to one of the local banks and I normally go around 9:00 in the morning - the cash may well have run out overnight and not been replenished, so I do not blame Biedronka. However, what should have been a good marketing attraction has instead emphasised how useless Biedronka is as a place for me to shop. My hope to improve my familiarity with and respect for the chain has been completely eliminated.

I assume cards aren't accepted as there is a charge for them, increasing company costs. I would feel some compensation for this if their prices were lower than the other supermarkets I visit, but they are roughly the same. I assume they are using the money for their very impressive expansion programme, with price competition aimed at the more expensive, local small shops.

As for Radek's film idea, I suggest he rips a bouncing bankomat from the wall, to add to his laser cucumber and big boom grape arsenal. I'd be one of the people cheering if I saw that.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Expressing demands in Polish and English

The UK Economic and Social Research Council has financed research that shows that "expressing needs in Polish could sound rude or ill mannered when Polish speakers use them to construct sentences in English". I don't know how much it cost, but they could have given me the money and I would have told them that.

My line of England/English based thought has been that Polish are not polite to each other when asking for things - demanding rather than asking, not saying 'please' and rarely 'thank you'; they do not expect this and there is no social demeanour in this ; they are not therefore being rude; although they are not being polite (which they see as an English oddity) they are not therefore being impolite.

There is a published research paper in pdf format, Zinken_A grammatical environment that focuses on the use of the word 'trzeba', which is generally translated 'it is necessary' and 'one must/should/ought'. This calls on external forces, rather than person opinion, when one person wants someone else should do something.

Looking through the conversations quoted in the paper, it seems to me that the closest English translation in several of them would in fact be 'don't you think you should...?'. There are additional words to give strength of feeling so that my summary translations are:

Boy leaves room without finishing his meal. Father to Mother: "Don't you think that maybe you should bring him back". Mother "I'm going".

Mother playing with children. Father to mother: "Don't you think you should phone Mum?". Mother carries on playing... Mother points "The telephone's on the fridge". Father leaves. (I can almost hear her thinking "No, I don't think I should phone her, I think you should phone her".)

Father has indicated that he will phone to see what time their daughter needs to be collected after a trip. Mother: "It's 3 O'clock." Father nods distractedly. Mother: "Don't you think that you really should call the lady?". Father: " Half past will be fine as they have to stop at another place first."

Joerg Zinken doesn't make this link, perhaps because he is focusing on the apparent non-personal nature of 'trzeba' and attempting to make a single English equivalent for the various uses of 'trzeba'. He is also focusing on the way Polish is different, whilst I feel he is missing out in not trying to analyse what fundamentals are involved in both.

In both versions, the speakers are really saying "I think you should" but in neither do they say anything about themselves. In Polish, there is direct appeal to the external and impersonal power of family obligation: 'family obligation means that you should bring him back/phone'. The English version appeals to the person's view of the family obligation: 'don't you think that family obligation means that you should...'. It is clear from the examples that no one is fooled by the Polish lack of a question as the answers imply 'yes/no' and 'you are right/wrong'. The difference in form seems to be part of the formal language construct not of communication content.

I wondered whether pure justification by externalities might be more effective in dominant relationships, but the sarcastic "don't you think" in English might, if anything, be more powerful. There are variations that might be less so, but will often be toned down versions that don't seem to make the intended assertion eg 'do you think' and 'we should do something', but which still in practice mean 'I think you should'. Doubtless Polish works the same way.

I don't therefore find myself any further forward in considering the inherent, rather than cross-cultural, levels of powerful assertion in Poland. However, I have not personally found 'trzeba' used very often - much less than in the quoted conversations. I am much more likely to be told what I must do, which is very unusual in my English experience. "I think you should", "don't you think", "wouldn't it be a good idea if" are generally irrelevant and unnecessary. There is no less constraint on my disagreeing just because I have been given linguistic commands.

Ultimately, however, this brings me back to where I started. The English don't like being given commands in English because they have got used to a language that makes it seem that they decide for themselves. The Polish don't mind being given commands in Polish because they have got used to ignoring them and equally decide for themselves.

Finally, I have to contradict my own "line of thought' views in the second paragraph above. I am pretty sure that there are levels of politeness in family speech in Poland in Polish. Maybe my cultural barrier is too high to see it clearly; perhaps I am too intimate to the conversation; my language knowledge itself is very rough and such subtleties doubtless pass me by. I keep listening and (since the two cannot be separated in communication) watching, so maybe I will figure out something some day.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Nothing about birds: Maria Dąbrowska

Maria Dąbrowska is most known for her Noce i dnie (Nights and Days), for which only an excerpt seems to have been translated into English.

I haven't found any other of her work translated. As far as I know, this may be the first full piece; it may also be her shortest. It is dated 1958 and comes from 'Opowiadania', literally 'Stories' or possibly 'Works' although 'Selected Shorter Works' may be more accurate. It was published by Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza "Czytelnik" (Readers Publishing Cooperative) in 1977, 12 years after her death.

Nothing about birds

Nothing about birds in the Bethlehem stable. Working animals. the ox and the donkey, came to pay homage to the Baby, heralding a Kingdom Of God on earth, announcing the equality of man to the world, overturning the decree: "you shall labour by the sweat of your brow". The parable of the last person in the vineyard taking the same payment that others long required, is the first declaration of the right of man to a shorter working day. Around two thousand years later we are to forge this for all "with God, and, if it be, despite God", as in the words of Mickiewicz's song of rebellion. We reached far and high, but probably, one way or another, to some place else, as far away from the Kingdom of God on Earth as the sheep from the Bethlehem stable. Never, however, deprived of the hope that we would find it here or somewhere else, like this or like that, in this way or in some other.

Nothing about birds in the Bethlehem stable, but a reasonable amount in Polish carols, though Jesus was born to us in the Polish winter. What about birds in the middle of winter? Ah! Exactly.

The robin is associated more in England with Christmas than in Poland. Shown here in April.

Birds, not ploughing nor sowing, yet focusing man on a path that leads all the way to cosmic space, they are with us always. At the beginning of November this year I saw a flock of starlings on the birch near the house. They whistled and whimpered as if it was spring. They are not, however, our spring starlings. They are Siberian starlings, autumn tourists amusing us for a few weeks only shortly to fly further south. There is such a route — from Siberia to Poland: the birds'.

A starling in March. There have been a few starlings during the winter, but one of my books tells me that Polish starlings now more frequently overwinter here.

A winter-guest here with us is the bullfinch, a proud little bird with its fluffy crimson breast and black skullcap on its head. It likes to sit a long time on the same twig: "a thinker lost in thought". Each winter is different to other winters, as spring is to spring. Not only differing in weather, but the look of plants and animals. Different flowers and birds appear, times of blooming and singing, nesting and flight all differ. Wandering in the forest these December days, I see birds here that, last year at this time of day, were not there. A slender, small bird, an azure coloured shimmer, sings quietly and tunefully. Somewhere there will be some foreign tourists, without visas, foreign currency and passports, yet holidaying away from their northern homes in the warmth of Poland. In the winter waxwings visit us frequently: "colourful their costume, amaranths buttoned below their necks". Actually amaranth flowers are light-coloured, almost pink, whilst the waxwings are dark under their necks, but it resides more in the jaunty plume on the top of their head. Waxwings settle down on trees and snow in small greyish, golden brown groups. This is most often in February. Obviously, they are planning to go elsewhere. But where they fly to - I do not know. These are birds of the far north for which Poland is "a country where the lemon ripens" ... for waxwings, that is.

I may have seen a bullfinch, but definitely no waxwings. How about greenfinches and (I think) a couple of April red-backed shrikes?

Adult male red-backed shrike in August:

We have many gorgeously coloured birds, both migratory and permanently living in Poland; many more than is popularly known. Their colours more easily catch the eye in winter than in summer, when they are concealed in the green massive. There is the woodpecker in a purple skull-cap, a bird cardinal. And below the skull-cap, how many shapes, sizes and colours! A woodpecker in a black cassock, biggest of all. There are woodpeckers large, average and small; many-coloured, green and black-white-red. I know only one woodpecker call - a series of piercing cries that sound like hysterical squealing laughter. One hears this voice most often in winter and it was in winter that I actually SAW the woodpecker that shrieked in this way. The hammering of the woodpecker reminds me of a violent and insistent striking on a door. The pulsating sound, resonant and rapid, even makes people with no interest in birds raise their heads, striving to see what hammers in this fashion. This can even affect city inhabitants, who have never seen this or any other woodpecker. Sometimes when I listen to the woodpecker tapping, I hear the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th.

There is as yet little cover in the garden for birds to hide in. Our most colourful bird is probably the jay.

From our "on constant report" colourful birds, the most commonly known to all, as it is lives in the city, are the tits. And these we see ourselves more often in winter than summer, when they vanish into the green thicket. Different species of tit live with us, but our closest acquaintances are the blue and great tits. These are now just arriving and are on our urban balconies. Exquisite, active, inquisitive, and, in winter, fond of pork fat.

And finally the kingfishers, the real parrots of our latitudes, sapphire, yellow and red-purple. These mainly live near the streams that flow out from the mountains, but in winter they wander widely across all of Poland, yet with no ambition for foreign travel. However, I only once ever saw a kingfisher, in my childhood, over the largest pond in Russów, our home in the country.

There are birds costumed exclusively in black or in black and white as well. These also more easily catch the eye in winter. When I first saw a blackbird against the snow, with his beautiful solid black shape and orange beak, I thought that it was some exotic bird escaped from a cage or the ZOO. The blackbird is the greatest singer of the bird world, and, if the nightingale is the tenor, the blackbird is the baritone of birds . His stout, rich whistle consists usually of six (but sometimes eight, or even ten) different tones. There is no surprise that this is what one hears in some sections of Beethoven. Of the great singing birds, the blackbird is the only one that acknowledges human civilization, partly living in urban areas. Cities of Western Europe, in particular, abound in blackbirds. Here, it is only in Western Poland that there are urban blackbirds. Poznań and Kalisz [in Western Poland] are the most easterly cities in which blackbirds appear, sing, and then in silence spend the winter. Maybe the urban blackbird urban will move still further east as urban civilization and our gardens advance. There weren't even any blackbirds in Kalisz when I was a child. Elsewhere in Poland, blackbirds live only in the forest, spread thinly. Warsaw does not have blackbirds, unfortunately, even in her old parks.

Blackbirds are common both here and around the post-war housing estates in Jelonki, West Warsaw.

In winter in the country, that excellent dancer, the magpie, rarely departs from our sight. No bird gambols about the land so lightly, so high and nimble. Sporting magpies, in black tail-coats with white underneath, remind me of a graceful dancing-circle. Elegant, well known birds, both rural and urban, are the rooks in black velour and the jackdaws with grey napes and necks that make them look like black ladies wrapped in blue fox fur stoles.

Although regular visitors, I've never noticed magpies dancing. No jackdaws in the garden, but I have seen a few around. They seemed the most plentiful of the birds in Jelonki, but that may just be because they are quite big and more tolerant of human proximity than others. The rooks - not balck, but darkest hues of purple, blue and green - are common enough in the area, but only came to the garden when a neighbour left out something (meat?) they wanted to eat.

I have just touched on a tiny fragment of this life in which birds accompany us in winter. But people do not notice this little fragment; for them, nature in winter is dead. Looking at trees without leaves, they are never amazed by what could be a great marvel. Seeing in winter only grey, white and black, they never see its fantastic compositions, shapes and colours.

Nothing about sparrows. The sheer number of sparrows makes them unexceptional, but, if they were rare, the variety of composition of their light and dark brown colouring would have them better respected. It's not long ago that I realised that what I was seeing everyday were tree sparrows, and have been on the look out for house sparrows ever since. A couple of pairs arrived a few days ago, so I suspect they have strayed out of their normal habitat in search of food during difficult winter weather. A male house sparrow is in the centre.

Winter is neither death nor numb lifelessness. Winter is an intensive and colourful dream of spring. Hazels and birches in December are already prepared for Spring. The hanging, yellow flowers of the mignonette are still hard catkins. The buds on all trees and shrubs in December are already prepared for the spring. They stand erect and wait on their branches, branches of silver, golden brown, red and grey, making up a sophisticated arabesque in a hundred shades against a background of snow or emerald winter crops. More than this, for, at the end of December, the remnants of autumn stubbornly endure here and there, bushes are full of berries and small, haughty herbs still lie green on the forest floor. Whilst from Christmas, in the frosts and snows, in the rain and gales everything is already heading towards spring. There can be nothing strange in that the human race has held the end of December sacred from time immemorial, with the most beautiful beliefs and legends. Nor that one civilization passes this crucial season on to the next as an eternally living Festival of Hope.

Mushrooms under forest trees just outside Warsaw on New Year's Day.

(It ends here.)

As someone establishing a garden, the wonder of the survival of plants during the winter is often overtaken by the often realised dread that plants will die completely or be annually so devastated as to be hardly worth having. The great tits around the fat in the picture earlier are on what was described as the fastest growing evergreen in Poland. It didn't survive.

The tits around the fat is, in any case, misleading: they aren't actually eating. It mainly provided them with a good place to sit, eat peanuts and seeds and watch what was happening. The love of tits for fat is so well known that I was given some (pork or cow, I don't know), but I was disappointed. The two next pictures give a more balanced perspective although they may actually exaggerate, for composition purposes, the extent to which tits eat the fat (just behind the peanut holder).

The recent fuss about the ACTA treaty, which I have read, has reinforced in me the awareness that even freely distributing an original translation of a work by an author can potentially deprive the rightful copyright owners of future income, even if I feel it is never otherwise likely to be translated. It is not my right to decide the future in this way (someone might be working away at a commercial translation right now), nor to decide what might be good promotion for the author. I will, as is my usual practice, email the publishers to let them tell me to delete this. In this case, there are complications in that Czytelnik's website no longer lists anything by Maria Dąbrowska and there is no copyright claim in the book to tell me who else I might try to find out how to contact. I even wonder whether, as a 'co-operative' work it was not intended to be copyrighted. I hope my gamble that the translation can only be helpful is correct.

Monday, 6 February 2012

What's unusual in the land of normality?

The garden is pretty much inaccessible, so I've been decorating the living room.

I had just finished doing some fiddly, straight-edge painting with my reading glasses on, when Babcia called out and asked "is this a blackbird?". I wandered into the dining room, looked out the window and then rushed and got my camera.

Even with the wrong glasses on I could see that a sparrowhawk (krogulec) was having its dinner just in front of the window.

Since we are supporting large numbers of tree sparrows (Mazurka, singular) - up to 40 at a time, and great tits (Sikora Bogatka) - up to 20 at a time, I was primarily concerned that one of our two blue tits (Sikora Modra) was the victim. They are still here.

Shortly after, I started getting glimpses of a bird I didn't recognise. It was roughly the shape of a blackbird, but it had a white belly and spots, so I thought it might be a thrush: a turdus of some sort anyway.

Eventually I decided it was probably a fieldfare (kwiczoł), a bird that I only knew by name and wouldn't have been able to recognise. It was this photo of the next garden that decided me.

One of the surprise plants of the garden has been the wild rose that had been the stem of a standard rose that had died (along with all of the others in the neighbourhood) in its first winter. This had a beautiful display of pink roses in the summer, followed in the autumn by deep red hips. I had wondered why none of the birds were eating them. The field fare has been doing just that.

It is a migratory bird that usual comes to Poland in March or April (says the book), so not only have I not seen one before, it may be rare this early in the year.

Looking at the book, I also found that breeding blackbirds (kos) are also migratory, which may explain why I only see a single male and a couple of juveniles at this time of the year. This is the first time I have seen one in the birdtable, but then it is quite new.

None of these may be in anyway portentous, but how about a column of fire appearing above the rising sun? Is this going to be a year of portents with a bloody rain and milk and butter turning to blood (Britain, 685)?

"1647 ... in which manifold signs in the heavens and on the earth announced misfortunes ... and unusual events. ... In Warsaw a tomb was seen over the city, and a fiery cross in the clouds." (Sienkiewicz, With Fire and Sword.)

Haven't I had enough excitement already?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Shops: Memories of Old England

Is there anywhere that hasn't changed in the last 50 to 60 years?

My family moved out of their Brixton flat to a house, 36 Seymour Road, Mitcham, Surrey. It must have been shortly after I was born, as my mother told me about the neighbours gathering around that novel product, a television, to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. I cried too much as a baby for them to go up to London to watch the procession. (Mitcham became part of London, rather than Surrey in 1965.)

This picture is of a house in a different street, but by memory is quite similar in design. Ours was in the middle of the terrace rather than free standing, however.

My mother told me many years later that they moved out of Brixton because the Irish immigrants were bringing down the quality of the place. She particularly remembered seeing out of her window an Irishman standing naked in his flat opposite, hanging up his clothes to dry on the curtain rail. I had no concept of Brixton being an Irish centre when she told me: it was a centre of Jamaican life and culture by that time.

At the back of the house, the original outside toilet had been incorporated by the previous owners into an extension of the house, which included a bathroom. I assume this was quite normal, as the houses on either side also had bathrooms, although on one side, the previous owners hadn't got planning permission and the council was trying to get our neighbours to knock it down. Our extension had a bedroom built over it, giving us a three bedroomed house, with my brother and I having the luxury of separate rooms.

All heating (water and warmth) was by coal - used downstairs only, supplemented by electric fires or paraffin heaters. (We eventually got coal fire based radiators some years after we moved to a different house, although my bedroom was not included. I remember ice on the inside of the windows.) A land mine (ie a very large bomb) had exploded nearby during the war and the structure of the house was said by my mother to be unsound, although I couldn't see anything wrong with it. I think it was mainly that the cement between the bricks had disintegrated somewhat (although whether by the impact or age, I don't know). The floorboards downstairs were full of rot and woodworm: my mother nearly killed herself treating it with preventative fluid (which she then found out contained arsenic).

One of the distinguishing features of the area was that it had been used as a relocation and rehousing area for refugees from the blitzed Dockland area of East London. Some, such as the Heathcotes next door, lived in normal houses, but there were still quite a few of the temporary pre-fabricated huts that had become permanent housing. The Heathcotes had a car. Since we lived next door, we were one of the few families in the area that went out for day trips. Cars were a rare sight on our road.

What ever it's state then, it's still there, being sold in 2010 for 171,000 pounds and 223,000 in 2011: I think there must have been significant renovation work in the mean time. See the value graph below:

The miracles of the internet have made me digress. Such was the area in which I lived. On the corner of the turning at the end of our block of housing was a small shop called Krett's. I remember little about it, but it seemed dark and crowded. It had a counter with a glass show front, with produce scatted across the floor (a sack of potatoes, fire wood, etc) and wooden shelving units around the walls. It was not that dissimilar in internal impression from some of the older style rural shops still here in Poland. It's long since gone, overtaken not, I think, by supermarkets, but by the building of a new block of flats with a shop in the bottom, which is now Jalaram Food & Wine, a sub-Post Office.

I don't recall seeing a single Asian or other immigrant face when I was young. It was only sometime later that my Mother told me that the family at the bottom of our garden were Polish. I would never have known.

Apart from local shops, a distinguishing feature of England was the local pubs. Our district was not a 'pub on every corner' area, but there was one at the top of the road, a short way along the main road. I must have been taken in there once in my early teens. It still had gas lamps on the walls. I'd heard of gas lighting, but had never seen it before. Although they were not used, they were still there 'just in case'. (I suspect that the cost of redecoration was the real reason.) Much of the seating was plain wooden benches, attached to and running along the sides of the walls. It looked a bit like something out of a Victorian picture, compared to the pubs in the centre of Mitcham. I had worked in my school holidays which looked very different. If my Mum was busy, the owners of an old coaching inn, complete with stables for the horses, would look after me at lunchtime. I also went into others. They were modern in comparison. (To protect my Mum's honour as not being a daily pub goer, she had admirers who took her out and, given the lack of money for babysitters, I went along.)

Although I have few specific memories of the Krett's corner shop, the idea of it being there is clear. My mother told me that other people did not like Mr Krett, but that he had been very good to us, allowing us children to stay when she had to go out and couldn't find anywhere else to leave us.

It is only my life in Poland that could possibly have brought the idea up, but is 'Krett' an English name? It was such a part of my growing up that I had no reason to think otherwise: it is not a very popular surname, but there are plenty of those. I even wonder whether other people disliking him because he was Jewish. The wonder of the internet (not for a second even dreamed of in those days) came to my help.

There are a scattering of Krett's in England and Wales and the US, with references found to Germany, France and other parts of Old Europe. And then I came across

Their search facility gave me this Google result, showing that Slovakia is full of people with the surname 'Krett'. I also found some in southern Poland, near to the Slovakian border (I think). It's a reasonable guess that Krett, or his family were from (Czecho)Slovakia.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Shops: an English introduction

Mentioning Jeremy Paxton's book recently, “The English” brings me neatly into the subject of shops.

I feel that food shops in Poland have changed dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years and have been considering the issue of 'quality' shops. My two problems are that the places I know may well be unrepresentative of Poland generally, and that what I take notice of and consider important may be different to other people. I've found this about England.

Jeremy Paxton's 1998 vision of English towns (presumably pre-mobile phone times) gives his perception:

A little bit of Kingston-on-Thames in 2006:

“If one [an old style, red telephone kiosk] still survives it as an ornament to a 'heritage site', as one shop after another is colonized by burger bars and pizzerias. In these places … High Streets are either jammed with cars or pedestrianized, the newly laid cobbles, wrought iron lampposts and litter bins a self-conscious imagination of how the place might have looked in Victorian days... [Comment on city centres in historic tourist centres.] Elsewhere, the small traders have vanished, replaced by branches of retail chains selling anything from kitchen utensils to babyware: a nation of shopkeepers become a nation of checkout operators.”

Cambridge in 2011. The Victorian lampposts have disappeared, if they were ever there. No cobble stones.

What I mostly recognise from his description is people complaining on television about how terrible everything now is compared to the romantic past, eg lampposts and litter bins being criticised as hugely expensive monstrosities, although these were equally matched by (the same type of) people who complained about cheap ugly modern lampposts being out of tune with the architecture of the area.

Canterbury in 2011: changed out of recognition as well?

Not if my 1994 picture is anything to go by. Cambridge in 1994:

Not that those areas are representative of the vast majority of non-tourist centre English high streets, which Paxton tucks in at the end of his description under the 'elsewhere' category. (Why does he go on at greatest length about places which are atypical?) However, his description again reflects a standard TV complaint, which was only ever partially true anywhere and only then applied to the more prosperous city centres.

My normal experience was of predominantly small trading centres. The products sold may well have changed from the 'good old days' and quite a few of these high streets were in serious decline. They were not prosperous enough to attract the chains, but had turned into a row of surviving small shops and cafes, whilst desperate looking (and smelling) cheap, short lease charity shops were a foremost feature (their internal fabric being barren walls as the bailiffs had removed anything of value from the previous shop that had gone bust). However, it was the regularly interspersed empty windows of shops that had failed or were 'rationalised' that gave the strongest impression - many of the Woolworths chain closed at this time, once an essential attribute of any self-respecting High Street, now condemning them to negligence.

Streatham High Road (from those times) springs immediately to mind as a desperate looking example of England in collapse, the impression made even stronger by my starting to work in Poland just about this time. There was even a One Pound shop here (before they became a standard high street feature). Thornton Heath High Street fared better as a small trading centre, perhaps because it had Tesco at one end and Sainsburys at the other, making it a good place to shop, but it was still not rich enough to attract the chains.

Part of Thornton Heath High Street, 2011. This is the type of small shop I remember, although the Halal and Madina ownerships and shop fronts are new. The shoe repairer and the BBC (probably closed, although it was early morning) look just like they used to.

What about country towns? I only really know Swaffham town centre, in Norfolk, which over the last twenty years seems to have changed little, with small local shops predominating. Some have changed, but quite a few have the same owners (and shop fronts). The recent arrival of the supermarket tucked into a small lot round the corner must have affected the food shops, but it also helps others: it has free parking.

I have to wonder how someone writing a book defining English attitudes can only describe something that is not an England I recognise. It may be that Paxton only experienced the affluent world, whilst I saw a much wider spectrum. However, I suspect that all he wants to say is that England has changed and uses clichéd stereotypes (also seen by him on TV) which his intended audience will accept and understand.

I was very pleased to be given the book (thank you Iwona). I am interested in greater understanding the English character, but the views of someone who is either ignorant about my England or is just writing to satisfy a narrow range of potential readers, has little value for me.

Just before the section of Paxton's book I quoted above, he says:

"In ...The Lion and The Unicorn, George Orwell managed to escape the dreamy right-wing pastiche about England being all hedgerows and gardens. Seeking to define a country that corresponded more closely to the lives of its citizens,, he described a place of red pillar boxes, Lancashire clogs, smoky towns, crude language and lines outside labour exchanges. The picture is as recognizable as an L. S Lowry painting, and like a Lowry, it is a period piece."

Orwell still seems closer than Paxton, even though the smoke has cleared and the factories closed.

Having just typed all this, I realised that I didn't know what 'pastiche' meant. From Miriam Webster Dictionary: "a musical, literary, or artistic composition made up of selections from different works". Paxton's "pastiche" therefore seeming to be what people say when they blindly repeat the views of others. A most pertinent description.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Polish Emigration Distribution

It seemed like a good idea when it started, but I'm not so sure now. I have, however, learnt how to paste table into the blog, so that's not bad.

I saw a hit list compiled by a criminal anti-fascist group and, noticing the number of non-Polish addresses on the Polish list (136 out of 480), I thought it would be interesting to see their destination distribution. The list may not be random or widely representative and some of the places may not be the real locations/spelt correctly. (I liked 'Krapowice' on the Polish list.)

The top scoring destinations were:

Co. Cork
Co. Meath
Des Plaines

Ireland 26, England 25, Scotland and USA 3.

With 2 each came the next 14 preferred destination:

Co. Westmeath
Co. Tipper Cashel
Hemel Hempstead

Whilst the 51 runners up were:

Aberdeen Edinburgh Newcastle under Lyme
Armees Egilsstadir Nottingham
Bad Sobernheim Egilsstodum Oxford
Beckenham Evje Pontypridd
Bedord Hamburg Quincy
Braunschweig Hetzerath Rasharkin
Bruxelles Jersey Redhill
Bury St Edmunds Laitila Riverside
Buxton Langenhagen Romford
Carlow Laudun Schenefeld
Chicago Limerick Southport
Clonmel Lydney St. Marys
Co. Kildare Masham St. Leonards on Sea
Co. Louth Meckenheim Staines
Co. Roscomm Nailsea Stamford
Dresden Nesoddtangen Sutton
Dungannon Newbridge Trenton

There's lots of hard data in a Migration Information Source article from 2010. This shows temporary stay destinations in 2008, with the EU lead countries being the UK (650 thousand), Germany (490K) and Ireland (190K). This illustration shows remittances from Polish workers to Poland by country of residence:

To assess the volume of movement to the EU countries, assume that the US level of money sent home has remained roughly stable. You'll have to read the article to assess the reliability of the assumption. If you do this, the increased movement to the UK and Ireland, rather than Germany, is clear (taking into account the article's suggestion that the 2009 fall in the proportion of receipts from the UK and Ireland reflected the economic situation of Poles living there). This corresponds to their predominance in the list I complied at the beginning of this post: I wondered why Germany was not more important. Is this co-incidence?

Friday, 20 January 2012

Money for new rope

Refraining from commenting on public TV, private unsubsidised TV companies have a great appetite for news channels. From the small amount I see, Poland's best at the moment is TVN 24, but I was interested to see from that "a new popular television news channel" is being opened by the Super Express newspaper company. (If they would like a name suggestion, I propose S Ex News'.)

A fun station full of muck raking, distorted stories, inventive journalism and loads of smut would be great and an extension and enhancement to Polish tradition. I was surprise at how little it costs, even though it is described as: 'Benbenek made no secret that that project requires immense investment. “The launching of the channel alone will cost over 10 million zloty [2 million euro],” he acknowledged.' A lot for the company, but not a large sum in today's media world.

The worlds of private and public finance are, of course, very different. The next thing on was the announcement of the opening of "a new music centre" in Kielce at a cost of 15 million euros. I had to check that sum, but it seems to be about right. How can opening a private TV station costs as little as 2 million euros, whilst opening a concert hall costs 15 million?

The Kielce 'music centre' is the International Cultural Centre, the new home of the Świętokrzyskie Philharmonic Orchestra. (Click here for some nicer pictures From Gazeta Wyborcza, Kielce.)

I used to know someone in Kielce who, over a few beers, gave the impression that he ran the Orchestra, although when we went to listen to a (dull) concert he just seemed to play the cello. ("Six [new] pieces by contemporary Polish composers", as played at the International Cultural Centre, would, whtehr good or bad, at least have been interesting. The Orchestra was then playing in the Kielce Cultural Centre, which needed some internal renovation and tidying up, but seemed fine. It still looks much the same from the photos on their website. Miles Davis, a statue on the lower right, is something of a local obsession.

The International Centre is the type of EU funded project which, back in the UK, I would have expected to be looked at closely (but fairly) to ensure it provided real benefit to the development of the area, rather than being a minor interest, political cause. I was never involved in decisions on giving money, but as central advisor on the principle's of support (and writer of the Woods' Manual that set out the principles, not rules), I was often asked on my views about how to deal with projects. (The decision makers were themselves independent from project creators, but
they had to deal with local political pressures and central advice could be reassuring.)

Coming over to Poland, I had to readjust my point of view. The first trigger for this may seem strange, but it was EU Commission officials deciding to refuse certain types of projects that they (as individuals) considered to be a complete waste of money. Anything that such Commission official refuses to countenance must be of some value as far as I'm concerned. If you see this as blind prejudice on my part, fair enough, although I suggest that 15 or so years' experience with such people counts for something. Imagine a group of applicants coming to a meeting with the Commission official when he bluntly says "I'm fed up with road projects so I'm not going to support them". He then went through the list, crossing out the projects he was rejecting and thus letting people know they'd wasted their time and (at that time), considerable money preparing everything. He hadn't even done his homework enough (eg reading project descriptions) to decide the list beforehand. (Quite a nice guy, actually.)

This was an early experience, but it immediately generated my wish to be more open minded. I hope - in fact I'm sure - that I quickly understood the difference between public investment benefits in Poland and in the UK, not only in terms of roads. I remembered the Commission criticism of investing in local town halls - only for the personal aggrandisement of local ruling politicians - when I drove past the completed Nadarzyn Town Hall (self-financed, not EU funded). I immediately saw it as changing the nature of the town, with the potential to lead to development of the area into a modern, thriving, but still small, community. I wonder whether, without the Commission, I would have been much more sceptical and only thought of short-term cost benefits.

More illuminating about my narrow mindedness, was a discussion we had when visiting the Krakow opera house, still under construction at the time. (I can't find the photographs.) There was a combination of Polish, British, French and Italian 'advisers'. The Polish official (Lesser Poland's/Krakow Marshal's Office) thought it was good for the city in terms of encouraging tourism, although he didn't think he'd ever set foot in it again. The Brit perspective was to question the value of a minority interest facility and suspected it reflected little more than a questionable belief that every worthwhile city had an opera house. The French view was a bit fence sitting, but our Italian guy was marvellous. Every decent town (not only city) had an opera house and it was essential that there be one.

Fortunately, we were just visitors, not project assessors. Our remit was to assess whether the system for making judgements was working well. The important thing (as in the establishment of UK principles rather than rules) is that all the right things are considered and not the final balance of judgement, which varies not openly between areas and individuals.

I think we pushed the assessor a bit hard in Poznan, in questioning (as far as I remember) investment in a theatre and stage in the ballet school when the old one was on the opposite side of the road (according to the papers). He was clearly a fervent supporter of the concept (not coldly independent as in the UK), being the person in the region best able to judge major cultural projects in the region (ie a Poznan supporter of developing things like ballet). We had to apologise and explain that we did not want to question his judgement, but just to see if he was considering, not the importance of ballet, but the importance of the project to the region. I'm not sure he recognised the difference, but he answered well.

So what about huge amounts of money spent in Kielce in order to move the orchestra down the road. The facilities are immensely better, but how important is that in comparison to other potential uses of the money?

I liked living in Kielce. I fond the people very friendly and accepting, and there was much more a sense of community than in Warsaw (and, obviously, London.) There was a sense of mission there that Kielce should be maintained and improved as an important regional centre. Although this is all emotional (and infectious) stuff, it is exactly the sense of purpose that assists in transforming a backwater into a thriving centre, recognised on a national scale. The importance here being that it was not a concept generated by the rhetoric of politicians but a broader public (possibly aspirant decision maker rather than general population) feeling. The aim, in my words, would be to establish the city as a place where potential investors in Poland would naturally ask "What about Kielce?".

In contrast, when Babcia in Warsaw was told I was going to work in Kielce, she laughed and said "why?. In a survey, What do you know about Kielce?, the main thing was that everyone carried knives, as was mentioned in a song by a rapper who came from there. I was made an honorary mountain person by the presentation of a folding pocket knife, but I doubt whether this sort of utensil - generally useless to me - was what people thought about when they gave this answer. TV power will have us thinking about a knife that can speedily cause bodily harm.)

New facilities for an orchestra would not be my priority. I suspect that few people in Kielce would disagree with me and, since the money is for the development of the region as a whole, it may well be that the vast majority in the region would not feel it worthwhile. However, I do see how it fits into the overall emotional strategy and, if nothing else, any addition to the limited stock of new, quality designed buildings would be an enhancement to Kielce marketing both in Poland and elsewhere: it actually featured on the English language news website, which is quite an achievement.

I can't imagine that anyone I knew there would ever read this, but if by some strange stroke of fate you do, my heart is with you and all my respect for you and gratitude for your acceptance of me remains with me. The photo contains too few of you,