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Archive for August, 2007

Shortly before coming out here I traded in my venerable and slightly dented iBook for a shiny new and super sexy MacBook Pro. I’ll pause there to allow you the chance to gasp appreciatively…

Ahhhh, that’s pretty…

Pretty

One of my main reasons for doing this, apart from the obvious goal of wanting to look really cool, was to avoid the situation in which my old machine kicked the bucket, gave up the ghost, or in some other way fell over in a terminal manner thereby leaving me sans computer. It will come as little surprise to fans of irony that my lovely shiny new laptop did exactly that last week (yes, that is what ‘irony’ means and don’t let anyone tell you anything different). Horrible grinding noises were heard, the screen flickered in an alarming manner and smoke curled delicately from the ventilation slots. Ok, the last one isn’t true, but I was left staring at a blank and alarmingly unfamiliar screen with a slack jaw and a growing sense of panic. I handled it very well for the first four and a half minutes. Shortly before the fifth minute had passed I was to be seen bursting out on to the street, wounded computer held out at arms length like a dying comrade, and shouting ‘She’s not going to make it, she’s not going to make it!’ as I made for the local Mac shop. People in Mac shops the world over are wise and good. Us Mac users are bound together by a sense of unshakeable superiority and coolness. We’re a bit like the men from UNCLE. You can walk into a Mac shop anywhere in the world, chuck your laptop on the counter and say ‘what do you think’s going on here then?’ with the full expectation of receiving a sympathetic, well informed and, above all, free reply. Try doing that in a PC shop and see how far you get. They’d slap a hundred pound cover charge on you for stepping over the doormat and chuckle cruelly in your face for good measure, or at least that’s what it says in my official Mac handbook. The guy in the Mac shop had no idea what was wrong with it. But he did lend me a hanky to dry my eyes with. The scary thing was that I had no idea what was wrong with it either. I’m no guru, but I’ve been using Macs long enough to recognize all of the common forms of temporary Mac loopiness, and this didn’t look like any of them.

A Mac guy in a Mac shop trying to get a Mac chick’s IP addressMac guy

Cut to the interior of a deserted bar late that night. Our hero (that’s me!) wearing a pork pie hat (I bought one especially for the occasion) is slumped on a bar stool staring moodily into his empty whisky glass. The grizzled but kindly barman approaches, casually wiping the interior of a tumbler with a grimy dishcloth. ‘Hey buddy’ he barks ‘why dont-cha go home? Ain’t nothing in the bottom of that glass that can help ya.’ I slant the brim of my hat back with a single finger and fix him with a watery stare ‘Then you’d better fill ‘er up again, and keep yer opinion to yourself while you do it.’ He pauses in his endless cloth work and considers reaching for the thorn wood club he’s got stashed under the bar, but his face softens and he pours me another shot instead. ‘Now, you feel free to tell me to mind my own,’ he says ‘but I seen that look on a man’s face before and it spells just one thing – Mac trouble. Am I right or am I right?’ I down the whisky in one (man, they make terrible whisky in this country) and grimace from the bitterness. ‘Ain’t nothing to do with you old man, just keep the whisky commin and your mouth shut’ I growl. He grins broadly and resumes with his cloth. ‘I’m telling you son, they ain’t worth it. Every damn one of em’s not worth the silicon they’re printed on.’ I grunt noncommitally. Briefly he leans over me and says ‘why don’t you do yourself a favor son, forget about her and get yourself down to the PC hire place on 9th, they’ll show you a good time and I got their number right here…’ as he turns away to reach for the business card in his jacket I move fast. The .38 snubnose comes into my hand like a conjurers trick and I squeeze the trigger twice. The shattering crack of the shots is so loud in the closed, stifling atmosphere that my ears are ringing too much to hear him hit the deck. ‘You can keep your cheap filthy PCs’ I remark, and saunter off into the night.

Next morning I tried my computer again, but gunning down imaginary barmen didn’t seem to have helped, annoyingly. There was only one thing for it, open her up and start fiddling around with things I don’t understand. I’m sure many of my female acquaintances over the years will be familiar with the procedure. Actually, all I wanted to do was try swapping the RAM chips around in case one of them had gone bad – entirely within the bounds of normal user activity. I poured over the manual and did quite well in the initial stages. It was when I got to the words ‘unscrew the three small screws on the cover plate. You will need a Phillips #00 screwdriver’ that I began to suspect I might be facing problems. What exactly IS a Phillips #00 screwdriver and, more importantly, where does one buy one in Krakow? These kind of things are the basic building blocks of culture shock. I can think of three or four shops in London where I could reasonably expect to find out what a Phillips #00 screwdriver is and buy one in a single painless conversation. Here I had no idea if similar shops even existed. Clearly it must be possible to buy screwdrivers, I was fairly sure I had seen a number of screwed-together things around and one assumes this wasn’t achieved by sheer willpower. It turns out there’s an electrical goods shop about 50 meters from my front door. This was a step in the right direction, but it left me with the minor problem of figuring out how to ask for a Phillips #00 screwdriver in Polish. By a stroke of luck I actually knew the Polish word for ‘a screw’ thanks to an entirely different episode involving four loose legs and an abandoned table top that we don’t need to go into here. It’s ‘śruba,’ sounds like ‘shrew-ba.’ I also knew the word for ‘to twist’ (kręcić) which sounds like ‘krench-itch.’ Surely, it has to be a combination of these I bethought myself (I find this less tiring that ‘thinking to myself’). Given the infamous double-entendre potential of the word ‘screw’ in English (I’m sure some of you have been making up your own jokes already) I was a little nervous about banding these words around in Polish in case they had similar usages. The last thing I wanted was to end up in a police cell for causing a kindly old lady in a hardware store to pass out from shock. The Brits are already notorious in this town for getting absolutely hammered on cheap beer and organizing naked relay races around the old town square and I didn’t want to add sexual-innuendo-directed-at-old-ladies to our catalogue of crimes. I needn’t have worried. The guy in the shop was about 21 and built like a Stalinist steelworks. I had visions of fleeing down the street in an effort to avoid getting a 2-by-4 upside my head after I asked him if he could ‘twist around and give me a screw.’ The trouble with my Polish is that I know lots of words and phrases so well and can pronounce them in a fairly convincing manner that I tends to give the impression that I can speak Polish, at least a bit, which just isn’t the case. ‘Errrrm…’ I said – the internationally recognized phrase for ‘I’m about to try to say something in a language that I don’t actually understand,’ ‘śruba… errrrm… kręcić… son?’ I added (roughly: ‘a screw, turning, are there?’) with helpful hand gestures. I made ready to run for it. ‘Sure, what kind do you need mate?’ he replied in perfect English. I had forgotten of course that all Poles under the age of 30 have spent at least a year working as waiters/international commodity brokers in London. ‘I’m looking for a Phillips #00 screwdriver’ I gulped. It turned out that he had no idea that cross-headed screwdrivers are actually called Phillips screwdrivers amongst the cognicienti, but was grateful to find out, ‘so that’s why they’re labelled “ph”!’ he said ‘I always wondered.’

Ridiculously long story short, the screwdriver he sold me was too big and I spent another 24 hours banging my head on hard surfaces and wondering what the hell use I was without a computer – anyone need any heaving lifting done? My only option, the next day being Sunday, was to find out where the local DIY superstore was and get myself down there. In my young and innocent days I worked in a DIY superstore for six months or so and I’ve studiously avoided them ever since. The evil but caressing grip of DIY has spread comprehensively to Poland in the past decade and it wasn’t hard to find one of these giant Sunday-Mecca sheds on my map. Watching the exterior of a DIY superstore on a Sunday is kind of like that scene in Logan’s Run where hundreds of people are willingly streaming into the deathly embrace of Carousel. Obi and Castorama (French company) are the big players. There’s a tram that takes you from my street directly to the local Castorama super shed, although it doesn’t seem to be aware of this since it unhelpfully dumps you in a semi-contsructed wasteland on the wrong side of the famous Zakopianka highway (a bit like the A1, but less friendly). I would have biked there but I don’t have a lock and D reliably informs me that an unlocked, unattended bike will inevitably be half-inched and converted into some form of WMD within 5 minutes (one day he’s going to brain me for these comments). Eventually I found the non-drivers entrance – a greasy rat-infested tunnel under the highway – and took my place among the Sunday worshipers. There is absolutely zero difference between a DIY superstore in Krakow and one in Croydon, so I won’t bore anyone with details. It is tremendously depressing to see how easily everyone, no matter what their culture or background, embraces this stuff, but that’s our world it seems. I intend to say a lot more about this in my next exciting-coming-soon-post entitled ‘What ARE Polish people like.’ The only way I could get my hands on a Phillips #00 screwdriver in the end was to buy a boxed set of ten, for about a quid. And there you have it, eleven screwdrivers, a fully operational Mac (Bwaa-ha-ha) and nine screws that I’m not prepared to discuss.

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Ghosts

The thing about writing a blog is that sometimes people who you never imagined would read it, do. Sometimes these are really great people that you may not feel you treated very well when you knew them. Sometimes these people can be upset to read that you are getting on with your life and apparently leading a blameless existence. These people would be wrong to imagine that everything is sunny and carefree in your life, or that they are forgotten. It isn’t, and they aren’t. But it’s easy to understand why they might think this.

Sometimes writing a blog can lead to you having a really bad day, and sometimes it can lead to other people having a really bad day. The kind of day when you wonder who you really are and keyboards are stained with tears. Both of these things make me very sad.

And sometimes, just very very occasionally, these bad days can make you a slightly better person, if you are very lucky.

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The Gnomes of Wroclaw

Last week A and I decided to take a trip together. Originally we had wanted to go to Lvov (in Ukraine) but the fact that A now has a full time job coupled with the fact that I now have a full time hole in my wallet meant that we had to be slightly less ambitious in our plans. It was a toss up between the mountains and the city of Wroclaw. I moaned like a big girl about the lack of urban amenities in the mountains and the high likelihood of having to march up and down perilous slopes and got my own way.

Wroclaw (pronounced something like Vrods-wav) is one of Poland’s Big Four historical cities, the others being Warsaw, Gdansk, and Krakow.
In fact Katowice is bigger than all four, but it’s a dump so nobody goes there unless they have to, and Lvov now finds itself stranded on the wrong side of the Ukrainian border. Like Warsaw, Gdansk, and Krakow, Wroclaw has a fabulously ornate medieval heart and a divertingly ad hoc conglomeration of Stalinist blocks, 19th century avenues and shiny blue slabs of modern commerce surrounding it. Wroclaw is frequently described as the ‘Venice of Poland,’ largely by people who have never been to Venice. Apparently there is some obscure clause of the European Code on Providing Misleading Copy in Tourist Brochures that requires every country to call one of its cities ‘The Venice of…’ The responsible civil service department of each country generally chooses whichever city has the most bridges or is most likely to suffer catastrophic floods and has done with it. Wroclaw has a lot of bridges since it lies astride a complex series of channels, tributaries and confluences of the River Oder. Not surprisingly having so many waterways lying about brings with it the teeniest tendency to the occasional spot of flooding. The last big one in Wroclaw was in 1997. People were finding skeletal trout in the oddest places for years after that one. The city got truckloads of UN and EU money to clean up and very sensibly had a massive party and built lots of shiny new multiplexes with it. The actual priceless buildings and monuments of the old city had been underwater so many times in their history that they barely noticed. There are several amusing photos of semi-constructed residential blocks neck deep in water. These were, of course, sensibly torn down and relocated to higher ground, or so I’ve been led to believe.

Wroclaw is about 150 miles from Krakow and it takes the train four and a half hours to get there, about twice as long as it takes to get to Warsaw which is twice as far away. The main reason for this, as far as I was able to see, was that the track has to go around thousands of massive piles of coal. The whole area to the west of Krakow is essentially a vast coal heap. It’s called Silesia on maps and Hitler got very exited about it because some of the people there have slightly German-sounding names. Wroclaw is the regional capital of Silesia but fortunately managed to escape becoming the industrial centre. That honour fell to Katowice, a city that now looks like South Wales with the glamour removed. There is coal everywhere. Little old ladies have to struggle up and down mountains of the stuff to get to the shops. Before you put your slippers on in the morning you have to tip a couple of hundredweight of prime anthracite out that has gathered in the toes overnight. The train sidles and squeezes its way through these ominous black heaps stopping at a series of spectacularly ugly and misshapen towns along the way. Grimy locals peer up at the carriages marveling at the whiteness of the passengers’ teeth and the brightness of their Nike baseball caps. The occasional student returning home from university in Krakow is heard to emit a heartfelt sign before stepping down onto the platform, which is of course ankle deep in coal dust. After a few hours of this I was becoming slightly apprehensive about exactly what Wroclaw would look like, but I needn’t have worried. Apparently the centuries of ceaseless flooding have washed all the coal away.

The welcoming sight of Katowice train station
The welcoming sight of Katowice train station

Polish trains are, as I think I’ve mentioned before, absolutely fabulous. There are three tremendously exciting things about Polish trains. First, if you look at one end or other of the train as it clamors into the station there’s always one or two incredibly grimy carriages that actually began their journey four days ago in an obscure city on the borders of Kazakhstan – occasionally there’s a wide-eyed Kazakh shepherd boy with a knotted handkerchief on a stick clinging to the roof. Second, they have compartments and corridors. The entertainment potential of a train with corridors and compartments is tremendous, which is no bad thing on a four-hour train journey (it takes 12 hours to get to the coast by the way). Foremost among these pleasures is the opportunity to stand in the corridor leaning on a windowsill and watching the world crawl by. I can do this for hours and find it immeasurably preferable to cramming into a compartment with eight flatulent grandmothers laden down with bags of cabbage. There is something primordially masculine about leaning out of the window of a crowded, slow moving train as it crawls across country, especially if it has the good sense to do this in the small hours of the morning. Unsurprisingly it is an almost exclusively male hobby and a tentative, but very definite, esprit de corps develops among its adherents. The angle of the slouch, the expertise with which one flips the window open or closed, and the occasional wry smile at a particularly desolate scene of rail side depravation are the gestures by which we know and judge each other. A braved the flatulent grandmothers and read a book. There are some things that women just don’t understand. The third thing that sets Polish trains apart from the rather limp-wristed affairs of my homeland is that you have to climb to get on them. There’s none of this messing around with ‘easy access’ or ‘platform-level parity.’ You grab a handrail and haul yourself up three or four pierced steel steps to get on the thing. You actually feel as if you are climbing into a massive and potentially deadly vehicle rather than stepping from a slightly naf environment into a slightly more naf environment that might move. Of course, if you happen to have any kind of problem with getting about or want to do something crazy like taking a pushchair on board you’re in big trouble. Having said that there was a Roma girl with a baby in a 1920s vintage pram who essentially hefted the whole affair above her head and leapt on with minimum fuss.

This is the ancient town hall of Wroclaw, temporarily not underwater
One of the many pretty parts of Wroclaw

We arrived in Wroclaw at about 8 in the evening, the train not having had the good sense to do its cross-country crawling in the small hours, and headed for our hostel. I had the good sense to bring a map. A claims to have been to Wroclaw dozens of times, but her sense of direction is so woeful that I feared a seven-hour walk that would end with us bedding down in a cabbage field on the outskirts of Frankfurt. A claims to have been to hundreds of places in her erstwhile profession of traveling comedy zebra and all round entertainer, and I don’t doubt these claims for a second, but it hasn’t done much for her sense of direction. She tells a great tale about having to ‘turn around in Germany’ as a consequence of poor map reading. On a car journey to the Wroclaw vicinity she and her troupe missed a vital turning and found it necessary to continue along the highway for a few kilometers before they could find a place to reverse direction. Unfortunately Wroclaw is perilously close to the German border so this actually entailed crossing an international boundary in search of a u-turn opportunity. The border guards were apparently most understanding and no doubt recount the tale at every opportunity.

There is a new trend among hostels that is usually advertized with phrases such as ‘4-star accommodation at hostel prices.’ What this actually means is that you get brightly colored Ikea duvet covers and a sprinkling of plastic rose petals on the breakfast table. It doesn’t mean that you get more than one shower per 97 guests, which would arguably be more useful. During a bold reconnaissance mission conducted in my underpants I located a second, unfrequented, shower room on a semi-condemned floor, although I wasn’t able to avoid shocking and appalling several groups of scantily clad young ladies along the way. The place was ok, we had a room to ourselves and as much horrendously bad tea as we could drink.

Wroclaw old town is stunning, but in a way that I have become very familiar with. It was completely trashed during the last three months of WWII. Despite having clearly lost the war by that stage the German commander of the district decided to declare Wroclaw a ‘final bastion’ against the Soviet advance. He spent weeks gently persuading the locals with bullwhips to build earthworks and ramparts on which the tide of the Red Army would break and then buggered off when the visceral stink and noise of that extraordinary body of men actually began to crest the horizon. The Soviets lined up their howitzers and flattened the place with the kind of off-hand ruthlessness that comes from extreme political indoctrination mixed with a big dose of hunger, desperation, and excitement. Some sensitive Poles are a little squeamish about the way the historical cores of their old cities were reconstructed after the rain of TNT had subsided, and there is no doubt that there is a Disneyesque quality to the perfectly rendered fairy tale buildings that resulted, but it’s hard to fault the instinct that drove it. If Canterbury or Bath had been nothing more than a smoking pile of rubble in June 1945 I think we would have done the same. It’s a lovely town with just the right level of dodgy and decrepit stuff around it to add piquancy.

Wroclaw was built on a series of island, not a bad idea when Germans are your neighbours
Some of Wroclaw’s islands

We spent Saturday engaged in the age-old game of ‘wandering around the new place.’ The city was originally based on one of the numerous islands that are sprinkled along the main channel of the Oder and this is where one can find the prettiest and most highly polished examples of medieval church and street building today. There are lots of divertingly odd bridges to cross, several of which seem to have been overlooked by map makers, and dozens of spectacular churches to pop in and out of. It was during this popping in and out that I noticed A was taking particular care to read the times of services on the prominently positioned boards. Of course, I had never looked at churches in this way. For me they had always been objects of aesthetic interest, but for A this is a part of her life and, the next day being Sunday, she was looking for a convenient Mass to attend. That night we found a fabulous pub in the almost completely erased Jewish quarter and had one of those conversations that include explanations of supernovas as well as the serious discussion of miraculous happenings. At some point I agreed to go to Mass with her the next day on the grounds that she wanted to go and wanted me to go with her. It’s a simple formula that’s surprisingly hard to argue with. Sunday dawned with the rapid realization that I may have committed myself to more than I had intended. We made our way down to the nearest church as a growing sense of apprehension took control of my faculties. By the time we had arrived at the selected church (St Elisabeth’s Basilica) my nerve had failed completely and I had to wave goodbye at the door of the church with feeble excuses. After five minutes sitting on a bench in the square, however, I realized that I was being a massive girl’s blouse and went back in. It’s amazing how powerful the fear of the church is among us non-believers. I fully expected rabid Catholics to turn on me with sharpened scythes when they realized I didn’t know the proper words or wasn’t kneeling down at the appropriate moments. Strangely enough they turn out to be the same people that one sees walking about the streets at any other time and have absolutely no interest in dismembering people for non-belief. It was an interesting 45 minutes, although I suspect a lot of the interest sprung from the fact that I had never seen it before. The actual serious part where one has to go forward and drink the sacred wine and eat the host is entirely voluntary and nobody minds if you don’t. There’s a great part where one is supposed to turn to the people around you and wish them ‘peace’ with a handshake or a wink or a chummy slap on the back that rather caught me by surprise. I can get behind that entirely, although I’m a bit skeptical about the Catholic roots of this element of the Mass, it strikes me as a sop to Protestantism, although I may be horrendously wrong about this.

I didn’t attend mass in this church, but I might have
One of many churches in Wroclaw

And, finally, to the gnomes. Gnomes are more naturally connected with Zurich, but Wroclaw has surrealist gnomes. One first encounters Wroclaw’s gnomes walking down the main street that leads to the Old Town square. There are two of the little fellas attempting to move a two-foot wide granite ball by the side of the road.

Apparently harmless Wroclaw gnomes pushing in opposite directions
Apparently twee gnomes

These little bronze sculptures of fairy-tale gnomes are far from the twee tourist-industry icons that they first appear to be. Although they look like the perfect accompaniment to the sugary spires of the cathedral and the gothic overindulgence of the town hall they are in fact a tribute to a remarkable political movement that flourished in Wroclaw during the 1980s as the Communist era stuttered to a close. The Orange Alternative movement was founded by a history of art student at the University of Wroclaw who wanted to voice his opposition to the stifling political climate of the era while avoiding getting his neck stretched. The problem with voicing opposition to fundamentalist dictatorships is that you tend to get hustled around the back of the local army barracks and pumped full of lead. Waldemar Fydrych, for that was his name, hit upon the brilliant ruse of making the authorities look like complete idiots without actually doing anything that would warrant a bullet in the brain. On one occasion he organized a march through the streets of the city demanding the release of Father Christmas. The authorities had banned Father Christmas as a corrupt capitalist institution and replaced him with the rigidly socialist figure of Father Frost. He did this dressed as a gnome. The police felt unable to arrest a man for taking part in an illegal procession of gnomes. Fydrych and his gnome-like cohorts also braved the wrath of heavily armed ZOMO units by freely distributing sanitary towels to women, items that were almost impossible to get hold of by legal means. For this he was arrested and sentenced to several months in jail, but again the authorities had to let him go when it became clear that the general population thought they were being very silly. There’s not much that a battalion of Soviet recruits in hull-down T72s can do against a bunch of nerds wearing silly hats. Brave young men with scarves wrapped around their heads throwing Molotov cocktails are much more satisfying targets, as the Hungarians discovered to their cost in 1956. A classic Orange Alternative trick was to paint images of gnomes on top of the patches of official paint that covered up anti-government graffiti. It’s hard to justify executing people for painting gnomes on walls, but the sheer number of gnomes on walls drew everyone’s attention to how many anti-government slogans were being covered up. Now that the danger is over Fydrych is largely ignored and forgotten. His attempt to run for mayor of Warsaw under the ‘Fools and Gnomes’ banner in 2002 met with little success. He is chiefly remembered by his nickname ‘Major,’ which he acquired by attending his compulsory Polish People’s Army induction interview wearing the uniform of a major. Exactly how he avoided the short march round the back of the barracks on that occasion I don’t know.

Of the 15 gnomes hidden around Wroclaw these were the hardest to spot. I saw 12 out of 15
There are 15 of them hidden around the town

There are 15 of them hidden around the town

Interesting historical fact however for those of you who remember the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004/05: Fydrych and his aging cohort of hard core gnomes were heavily involved in the protests and the Orange Alternative movement gave its name to the Orange Revolution. When Viktor Yushchenko finally accepted presidential office, his face scarred by an attempted poisoning, they placed a 15 meter long orange scarf around his neck. Ok, lets be honest it was a carefully orchestrated CIA / MI6 operation that ousted former communists in favour of Western-friendly government by using grassroots student organizations to ferment mass protest, but the giant orange scarf at least adds something human to the whole affair.

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In praise of A

It has been brought to my attention by a particularly strange dream I had last night that I haven’t said enough about A in these ramshackle musings. She’s great! Ok, that’s a bit vague. She’s kind of like the brains and humour of Victoria Wood packed into Courtney Cox’s body and then shrunk down to a 75 percent scale – it’s a powerful combination. I don’t remember who I showed her stage performance video to so I’m adding it here. A spent a couple of years in a traveling theatre group performing for kids all over the country – a career move that surprised her as much as it did everyone else. Before that she had passed her Polish language teaching qualification and taught in a local school. I should explain that ‘Polish philology’ as it is known is one the most prestigeous degrees that you can get in this country, it’s kind of like philosophy should be in England. She soon discovered that she was as good at writing scripts as she was at performing them and became an invaluable source of material for the company. Last year she decided to have a crack at the Polish kabaret circuit. This is kind of like the Edinburgh Fringe. Kabarets are groups of four or five performers that do short sketch shows on stage, I suppose it’s something like the ‘revues’ of the 60s in England. Last autumn she and her troupe entered the PaKa kabaret competition. This is not easy to get into. It’s a nationally well-known event. The finals are televised and long-established comedy acts perform alongside everyone else. Just to get your script accepted is a major achievement. A’s script was accepted straight off and her troupe stormed through their qualifying round. I know they stormed through rather than just qualified because I was in the audience. Admittedly I understood one word in ten but there was no possibility of misunderstanding the audience reaction. Most of the acts relied on rabble-rousing songs and funny hats for their laughs but A’s script had people engaging their brains and loosening their neck ties. Ok, they didn’t make it to the televised finals (watched with the same kind of avidity as Eurovision elsewhere) but it really was an astonishing achievement to get so far with a completely untried troupe on the first attempt. So far I’m lucky that her English isn’t quite at the level where she can properly criticize my writings, but it won’t be long.

The sketch is about two people who are meeting for the first time after an online encounter (a situation with which I have a passing familiarity). The guy introducing the sketch is A’s youngest brother (his bicycle was later to cause me a great deal of pain). The lad carrying the book has claimed to me an expert on the poetry of Leśmian (sounds like lesh-me-anne) and A walks in a few seconds after he casually positions himself with the collected works in plain view. A’s character really IS a fan of Leśmian and much of the humour revolves around his complete failure to recognise famous quotes. I won’t try and explain exactly what’s going on, not least because my Polish doesn’t stretch that far. I think her performance is spectacularly good, but it’s difficult to appreciate unless you know the real A.

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My average day is spent working at the school. That is to say, doing my work at the school, not working for the school. During the summer they have classes in the morning, from 8 to 10, and in the evening from 5.30 to 8, so I have the place to myself most of the time. This is all well and good and I’m grateful to D for allowing me to use the place, trying to work at home is just a non-starter. However, there is a terrible temptation to get involved in the school rather than settling down to actual work. D is usually rushing about the place being managerial and simply cannot resist the temptation to pop his head around the door every half an hour to make statements such as ‘let’s open a school in Kiev,’ or ‘I think it would be a good idea if we moved all the furniture from this classroom into that classroom.’ Of course I’m being unfair. There was a massive shakeup of the layout of the classrooms in the first week, partly to make it possible for me to work there, and I’m happy to help out in any way I can. Part of moving all the rooms around meant changing the main entrance from one set of doors to another and I couldn’t help but turn my mind to the problem of how to prevent students from using the old door, which now opens into a classroom, and getting them to smoothly transfer to using the new door, which had never opened in the past. Of course the old door would be locked, but this wouldn’t prevent people perpetually trying the handle or whimpering pathetically to be let in, both of which would be rather annoying for the teacher and the class on the other side of the door. The solution was simple – a free standing signpost in front of the old door that would physically prevent people from reaching for the handle and, at the same time, direct them to the new entrance. I made a nice graphic redirection arrow and a little graphic to go on the new door that subtly indicated it’s new openable status. Not a big deal, but it works great and it’s remarkable how satisfying solving little practical problems like that is. Of course, that was just the start.

Among D’s many and varied talents an eye for good graphic design is notably absent. My old Diagram buddy T came up with the logo for the school and later suffered palpitations when I showed him the mangled uses to which it had been put on posters, banners, leaflets and such like. He went quite white and quivery for a while, a reaction with which I sympathized. Again, to be fair, D didn’t have time to sit around while delicate arty-type people came up with a polished corporate identity for the school. He simply handed the logo and a bunch of information about courses over to a local printshop and asked them to churn out some posters. The results were, as I think I’ve made clear, truly horrendous. D of course would disagree with this assessment and insists on pasting these things on every square inch of wall space. All of my subtle attempts to casually rip them down, spill coffee on them, or otherwise render them unusable have been futile – he just gets another one out from some hidden stash. He has them locked up somewhere in a tamper-proof strongbox with ‘beware of the adder’ signs pasted all over it. The retinal assault eventually became so painful that I hatched a plan to do away with them once and for all by coming up with an alternative. I hit upon the idea of using communist era propaganda images with silly captions. It’s a great wheeze that allows for any number of variations. In the future I want to develop some that have captions along the lines of “It’s a revolution: courses only xxx” or “Join us for our autumn offensive.”

Some of my poster efforts (click for bigger)

hang up

Idle hands

No Vodka

Some day

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I bought a bike! It’s green, shiny, and my new best friend. Ok, it’s no longer in the first flush of it’s youth (who amongst us is?) but the wheels go round more or less in the same direction and several of the gears work almost all the time. What prompted a stolid advocate of shank’s pony such as myself to opt for the adrenaline fueled world of bicycling you ask? Was my head turned by the lyrca-clad thighs of lady bikers flashing past in the dying sunlight? Well, yes it was, but what’s that got to do with it? A’s been subtly suggesting that I should pop down to her place and go for a bike ride with her for months. As I’ve probably mentioned before one of the notable features of A’s neck of the woods is its scenic hills. All very nice to look at, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to wobble your way over them in a sweaty saddle. Eventually, having run out of excuses and fake knee complaints (there are only two of them after all) I had no option but to take the plunge a couple of weeks ago. A has her own bike of course and I was to use her brother’s. He assured me that the gears would enable me to tackle the slopes ‘without a problem.’ The fact that the bloke is just 21 and fresh from a 12 month stint in the parachute regiment didn’t ring any particular alarm bells. Anyway, there was the prospect of lyrca-clad thighs at close quarters clouding my jugement. I did surprisingly well in the initial downhill stages and was feeling quietly confident right up until I hit the first incline. As gravity exerted its cloying influence I suddenly remembered the gears and twisted what I assumed was the relevant lever in a random manner. Peddling instantly became a lot easier. Suspiciously so in fact. I realized there may have been some kind of malfunction when my rapid pedal pumping appeared to be resulting in nothing more than a slow backwards motion. About 4 and a half days later we got back to A’s house. I was dramatically oil stained, mud spattered, soaked in sweat and sporting several amusing abrasions. My mood was less than light. A was slightly out of breath. I used my very best sophistry to explain how the wrongly positioned saddle had been the chief cause of my woes. A’s mother was all for calling an ambulance. Through the haze of my pain and humiliation however I had felt the dimly remembered glow of innocent days biking around Pembury rec and the fun of weaving in and out of pedestrians on the Barcelona boardwalk. I wanted a bike.
Shortly before this incident I had got caught up in one of D’s schemes. The practical upshot of this was that we went haring off to some second hand ‘shops’ trying to buy chairs. D was on his wife’s bike and I was on his. It was the first time I had been on a bicycle since my brief two-wheeled tour of Barcelona three years ago. We headed north into the tangle of undecided flyovers and ramshackle streets that constitute most of Krakow beyond the blessed ring of the old town. D had lived out that way until about 18 months ago and was fairly confident about where we were going but, like everything in this country, the situation had not remained unchanged. There were several comments along the lines of ‘well blow me down, that wasn’t there six months ago’ as we pondered the possibilities of circumventing major motorway junctions and once or twice we gave road crews something of a start as we emerged from semi-constructed underpasses at attack speed. Waving our British passports at potential trouble spots seemed to do the trick. Gin and tonic, “boots, boots, boots” etc. http://www.thegoonshow.net/scripts_show.asp?title=s05e18_under_two_floorboards

Second-hand shops in Poland are a hoot. A refused to believe that they exist, which says a lot. We made an impromptu tour of three or four of the best and emerged with a deal for 13 chairs at a bargain price. There was a lot of spirited but grammatically poor haggling that could be translated as something like “60 zloty each! Them old chairs is like the same 70 zloty in pretty new shop! Are you a loony tune?” Much as I hate to admit it D has comprehensively closed the gap that used to exist between us in terms of Polish language skills. Anyway, the chair expedition was a great success and along the way I noticed that these very same shops also sell second hand bikes. D immediately assumed that they were loot from knife muggings while I tried to argue that they were probably treasured items left in wills and such like. D has something of a reputation for cynicism that he carefully guards against in sober conversations. After a couple of glasses of the local brew however, everyone from the bewitching barmaid to the staggering bar flies are pretty much instantly guilty of bribery, laziness, wife beating or some other form of not getting their arse sufficiently in gear. Born 200 years ago he would have happily wiled away his years decimating the wildlife of India with a smoothbore or going hand-to-hand with Pashtuns in the foothills of the Hindu Kush (ok, make that second one ‘born 20 years ago’).

The secondhand bikes played on my mind and a connection was made somewhere on one of the freewheeling sections of the ride with A. I trotted out to a couple of the stores on my own the following week, but all the glittering rides of my memory seemed to have been replaced with clapped out death traps when I got there. One day D and I took a walk across the river with young S asleep in the pushchair to track down a hot tip on the second-hand bike shop front. The delights of these shops were unparalleled. One of them had what I swear was an ex-Spetznatz diving suit among the recently burgled flat screens and hideous paintings. There is more bad amateur art in this country than in the rest of the world put together. Everyone in Poland seems to have ambitions as a major figurative artist and all of them are sadly misled. I spied my future two-wheeled friend languishing in a pile of the now-familiar clap trap and instantly knew I had to have her. Apart from her handsome leather saddle she has a slender but well put together frame that can’t help but set the heart racing. D immediately adopted the pose of hard-bitten negotiator, a stance that was only partially compromised by rocking a two-year-old to sleep. There was a great deal of comedy negotiating as we beat the poor guy down from 400 to 350 Zeds. “400 zloty are you a loony toon! That bike had around 20 years or I’m a monkey’s second brother!” Apparently it’s a Kettler, which might mean something to someone. All I know is that it weighs almost nothing and has all kinds of intriguing adjustable bits. D later claimed that it looks ‘a bit gay’ but I know he wants it really (and the bike).

What my bike looked like when she was young

What my bike looked like when she was young

By the way ‘rower’ is Polish for ‘bicycle’ for those of you who were wondering about the title of this post.

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