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Archive for July, 2007

Visited A’s house in the hills to the south of Krakow this weekend. Krakow and the surrounding towns and villages are served by a plethora of minibuses, coaches, charabangs, and lashed-together wheelbarrows powered by stolid peasants. Ok, the last one isn’t true. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable how many companies there are ferrying people backwards and forwards from obscure villages and towns to the metropolis that is central Krakow. Ten years ago I would have gone to town with slightly exaggerated tales of cages full of roosters and maiden aunts hauling bales of hay in their hand luggage, but, alas, it just isn’t true any more. You’re average commuter into Krakow these days has Reeboks, an mp3 player, pension worries, and only the very occasional hayseed between the teeth. How times change, and how quickly nostalgia blooms. I wish I could report that the central bus station is a crumbling, rogue-infested stack of late communist architecture like the one I remember fondly from my Warsaw days, but it ain’t. Not only that, but the actual crumbling, rogue-infested stack of fond memory was pulled down a couple of years ago to make way for a deeply unpleasant billowing object made of blue-tinted glass. Krakow’s central bus station is also disappointingly new and law-abiding. The only bright spot was a slightly inebriated toilet attendant who gave me a pitch-perfect disdainful scowl thereby brightening up my day no end.

The old rogue-infested model. Look, there’s one on the right in the dodgy leather jacket

The old rogue-inhabited model

The shiny new model. Rogues notable by their absence.

The shiny new model

It’s about an hour of disappointingly smooth and well-signposted roads to A’s village. There’s a brief moment of excitement when you have to spot the church looming around the corner and alert the driver that one would quite like to get off please, and then you are decanted into the rural idyl of southern Poland. Giant semis laden with freshly loped spruce trees hurtle past in an imminent-death kind of way, extravagantly-chained dogs are momentarily ferocious for the sake of appearances, and mahogany-tanned tractor drivers stare with open wonderment . I troll my way down the immaculately paved road towards A’s house as late model BMW’s zip past, shouldering the occasional heroic Trabant into the verge. A’s house is set back about 100m from the road along with three or four others. None of them are more than 30 years old and most of them look brand new. Tucked into their back yards however are the original village houses from which this new world was spawned. They are long, single-storey timber structures with clay wattling and steeply pitched roofs, and they’re all empty. The vast majority of these things have been ruthlessly torn down in the past thirty years. Not that there’s anything surprising about that. Having built new houses with insulated walls, concrete floors, and more-or-less running hot and cold it wasn’t a major emotional wrench to turn the old hovels into cashable salvage. Of course, in about twenty years there’s going to be a massive outcry about where all the traditional rural architecture has gone but, for now, blue concrete roof tiles and pvc double glazing are hard to argue with. Imagine pulling down an eighteenth century timber-framed house in an English village to make way for a top of the line Barrat home. There would be national headlines. In Poland it happens everyday without the bat of an eyelid. Of course this would be the perfect time to buy up one of these little beauties, take it apart, and ship it to Wisconsin for a fat profit. Strangely this suggestion hasn’t met with any enthusiasm here so far.

The sunny valleys of southern Poland

The sunny valleys of southern Poland

The weekend kicked off with a double name-day party. Name days, for those of you who aren’t Catholic, are kind of like Birthdays but considerably more important, not to mention religious. Every day in the calendar is associated with a saint’s name and everyone in Poland, with a few sad exceptions, has a saint’s name. The day that is associated with your name is your name day. People here treat the name day with considerably more importance than they do a mere birthday. May I just add at this point that I performed with great distinction on A’s birthday by organizing an international delivery of roses, although it’s true that I failed to adequately read the name-day rules and am therefore temporarily dog-housed. As is the case with birthdays however, it is sometimes more convenient to pretend that they are actually on the weekend rather than, annoyingly, in the middle of the week. Hence the double-name day celebration of A and her mother – who is also an A, but a different one. The rose shop was closed, but that’s another story. I spent a highly entertaining evening eavesdropping on conversations about the sins of contraception and doing my performing seal routine in which I name random objects in perfectly pronounced Polish. Only once or twice did I have to step outside and perform a stranglehold maneuver on my rational-argument glands. There was a great deal of vodka in very small glasses and a lot of extremely hairy aunts from places I’ve never heard of, or possibly the other way around.

It’s a barn

It’s a barn

Woke up bright and early on Sunday morning only to discover that my definition of ‘bright and early’ doesn’t seem to apply in these parts. A’s parents had been up so long they were already considering the possibility of putting on their pajamas and winding down in front of a good documentary about the life of John Paul II. He was born in the neighbourhood by the way. They had been to church, organized a couple of dozen hayfields into neat stacks, and put in a good couple of hours of vital village gossip before my sleepy eyes even had even begun to flutter. I was required to eat a hearty breakfast followed ten minutes later by a hearty Sunday lunch. A came in halfway through my breakfast, having been freshly absolved and fortified by the body of christ, and regarded me with not entirely unjustified disdain. Apparently there is some hidden element of holy communion that also disappears vodka hangovers, which explains a lot about Polish culture. I manufactured some story about being kept awake all night by mosquitos or errant cockerels and fell asleep on the balcony under the guise of sabbath contemplation. I realize I’m giving the impression that the whole setup is deeply religious, which it is, but nobody seems to mind the occasional raving atheist. Apparently the church has recently announced that non-Catholics can also go to heaven as long as they are good people, which is nice of them.

Early afternoon brought a fascinating encounter with A’s grandfather. Now 87, he has lived in the same few acres of blessed Polish soil his entire life and regards me as something akin to a direct encounter with an extraterrestrial. Having been born one year earlier than the late pope it has been his proud post for the last couple of years that he is still alive whereas the pope, clearly, isn’t. It’s quite normal for almost everything in these parts to be associated or in some way compared to the pope. Comments such as ‘we live about 200 km from where the pope was born’ or ‘that piece of halibut was good enough for the pope’ are commonplace.

However, I digress. A’s grandfather spent his entire life as an agricultural labourer and can tell you with unshakable certainty how many weeks of barley beating it took to earn the price of a pair of good shoes in 1947. Recently he has developed some variety of limb-shaking disease that has enabled him to invent a rich seam of conversation about how strong he used to be and how annoying it is to get old and not be able to haul several tons of millet around of a morning. I should mention also that he speaks a dialect of Polish so thick and obscure that A once caused a sensation at Krakow university by using a recording of him in a dissertation. It’s great sport for youngsters to pop round and listen to his funny pronunciations and incomprehensible idioms. We fell into conversation about the history of the land and who had built what and when. It was one of those conversations where family members find themselves saying ‘well, I never knew that’ and other family members reply with phrases such as ‘well, you never bloody asked did you!’ One thing led to another and I was dragged over to the barn to see grandfather’s prized collection of farming implements. There were several hairy moments as he tottered about reaching for viciously sharpened tools but we managed to avoid major loss of blood. This stuff was amazing. He had hand made scythes, rakes, and threshing devices dating back decades. The scythes were particularly amazing. Apparently the scythe was only introduced to the region in the 1930s! It was a major technological breakthrough in southern Poland 150 years after it had been abandoned everywhere else. These people were really poor. Grandfather was actually employed at one time to travel around the valley showing people how to use it, at which they almost certainly said ‘that’s great, but I’d have to sell my favourite cow to buy one.’ I insisted on a demonstration and coaching sessions on how to use a scythe and Grandfather’s eyes lit up. In fact he still uses his ‘good’ scythe everyday to cut grass to feed to the rabbits (pie filling) and set about the task with vigour. You can see his demonstration in the video below. It begins with an in depth discussion of the kind of wood you need to use for the handle (succinctly translated by A), then cuts to a classic whetstone-sharpening session. Notice how all trace of his shakes disappear as he whips the whetstone up and down the blade.

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Wyspianski unwinding

Went for a couple of beers with D on Saturday night. A was unfortunately performing at a festival out of town so I didn’t get to see her until Sunday. Anyway, as is his custom, D dragged me to some obscure bar down a little frequented street. Poor lad spends most of his spare time wandering around Krakow with the pushchair noting down the addresses of obscure bars and muttering to himself “Next time Jamie comes we’ll go in there.. oh yes.. next time.” As usual it turned out to be an alarmingly ‘local’ bar populated by bedraggled characters who once saw a foreigner on TV but assumed it was some kind of camera trickery. We had a few games of pool and spent a fair amount of time wondering whether we should order some ‘szisza.’ Since neither of us knew what szisza was this wasn’t as straightforward as you might imagine. A large sign behind the bar announced ‘bilard’, ‘dart’, ‘karaoke’, and ‘szisza.’ The first three were pretty straightforward, but we were afraid that szisza might be related to karaoke and bottled out of the experience.

At some point on our subsequent wanderings I acquired a copy of a local English language newspaper called The Krakow, not a title that inspires high expectations of grammatical finesse. The story on the front page was so odd that it inspired the title of this blog. The headline read ‘New Wyspianski Building Unwinding,’ which has virtue of being eye catching if nothing else. It turned out to be about a new building recently completed in the Old Town that houses some of the stained glass masterpieces of Stanislaw Wyspianski. Here’s an example. Looks like Gandalf to me but I suspect it’s supposed to be god:

Wyspianski’s god

Anyway, this building has trendy high tech ceramic vanes on the exterior of the windows that can be adjusted to allow more of less light inside to create the ideal viewing conditions for the stained glass. All very 21st century. However, the architect neglected to take account of the propensity of the general public to fiddle with things and consequently they now have to post a guard outside the building 24/7 to prevent people from slapping the vanes so that they spin around like beads in a giant abacus. Highly entertaining, until someone gets a half ton of trendy ceramic vane in the bonce that is. What really tickled me though was the weird tone of the article: In an interview with a security guard “It’s necessary to guard the building because at any given moment somebody is coming… If a guard fails to see someone trying to touch a ceramic plate or we are a few minutes late, the plates are being turned.” The architect is reported as saying “People pull or kick the ceramic plates to see if they revolve… In Japan, where we built a building with a bamboo facade, about 10,000 people came to see it. They touched it but used no force. And it lasted, even though it was less resistant that ceramic.” He regrets that people treat the building as a big toy. “The only thing we can do for now is strengthen the security and hope that the interest (in meddling with the plates) will weaken.” I’m going down there now.

http://www.cracow-life.com/culture/culture_details/1159-Wyspianski_2000_Pavilion

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I have arrived, and to prove it…

Got a taxi to the airport, mostly because I needed someone to help me lift my suitcase. I remember a great episode of Blake’s Seven in which someone had hidden a speck of neutron star no bigger than a dust mote but weighing hundreds of kilos aboard a space shuttle thereby rendering it too heavy to reach orbit. There was a hilarious climactic scene in which our heroes try to push the offending neutron speck, handily encased in a small block of perspex, out of the shuttle door. There was a lot of mimed heaving and hauling involved. Anyway, my luggage reminded me of this scene. It looked like it would be easy to shift, but it wasn’t.

Arrived at the airport far too early and was brusquely repelled by the check-in bod. Queued again, just for something to do, and amused myself by observing the way in which my suitcase was perturbing the velocities of less massive objects, such as airbus A380s. Small children passing by clung desperately to their teddy bears as the fearsome gravity well exerted it’s hold. Perhaps unsurprisingly I was charged excess baggage, which involved waiting again in a similar, but slightly more petulant, queue of people who all had one arm longer than the other.

Landed in Krakow at 4.30ish and employed my years of experience of Krakow airport transit buses to secure first position at the passport control desk. I was in and out like a breeze. The authorities are in the middle of constructing a brand spanking new terminal which will no doubt make the whole process much more shiny and far less convenient, but I suppose they’ve got to do something with the mountains of cash that the EU keeps shoveling in their direction.

A couple of shots of the new place; the view from my window and a fascinating close-up of my trendy decor.

My view

As is usually the case with lush open spaces in Poland, a lot of these gardens seem to belong to the church around the corner. Nuns are perpetually scurrying about out there pruning roses, tending vegetables and slipping behind the potting shed for a crafty pull from a hip flask. Some of it also seems to be privately owned, but I’ve yet to figure who it belongs to and whether they would be willing to invite me round for a barbeque.

My heater

It really is a lovely flat. The setting is amazingly peaceful and secluded although it is literally five minutes walk from the Stary Miasto (Old Town). I even have a mysterious cobwebbed attic space that would be ideal for hiding from SS raids, should the need ever arise.

This person http://www.panoramio.com/photo/1040180 seems to live in the building next to mine and has posted some nice pics of the gardens.

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