Sunday, May 29, 2011

He Hath Come

As the British were quite confused and a little amazed that Royal Fever caught on in the States before the Royal Wedding, I too stood a little confused at the general excitement that President Obama was coming to visit.  I've referred to Obama several times in this blog (only in jokes, actually), but this is the first time I'll take a semi-serious crack at what it means.  In reality, it means almost nothing.  He was here for twenty-two hours, and during that time parts of the city were shut down.  Obama's visit came when Poland is holding the rotating EU presidency, and the general feeling in Europe and around the globe is that Poland really is one of the few countries in the world (in more so in Europe) that has its shit together.  Just look at the comparison between Poland and Ukraine for readiness for the EuroCup.

Granted, not all Poles were enthusiastic about Obama's visit.  To them, it meant that several important arteries were going to be blocked off for three hours at a time, making it so they couldn't get home after work.  But, to others, it meant that the most powerful man in the world was gracing Poland with his presence at long last.  (NOTE:  The Poles were snubbed when Obama failed to show at the Kaczyncy's funeral, choosing to go golfing instead (that volcano eruption was to blame.))  The Poles have long felt that the US has ignored them for a long time and not lived up to its end of the deals (Iraq, Afghanistan.)  They saw this as an opportunity for Obama to set things right.
He gave vague promises that the visa restrictions for Poland would be lifted; he praised Polish democracy (something the Germans would never do (this is a joke for those who don't get it.  Look up what a 'Polish Parliament" is.)); he pointed his finger and Byelarus, a country no one particularly cares about, and said that they muffed things up; he also said/did some other things I have not recounted on this page.

Overall, I'm pretty bummed I missed out on a chance to see the VC-25, but I did get to see a snazzy C-17 that preceded the visit (no picture, sorry.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Most Glorious Spring

Spring has sprung in Poland.  It sprang over a month ago at the end of April.  There were balmy, sunny days in the high-sixties with a slight breeze.  You could walk outside in a T-shirt, but not sweat (and no bugs!)  For one night in the beginning of May, we had a snowstorm.  It howled and everyone was impressed, but left no snow on the ground.  Hopefully, it killed off all the bugs, so black flies and mosquitos will be significantly less pesky this year (one can always hope.)
Now, it's raging into full-on summer.  I've just come inside from the glaring sunshine (reading on the balcony.  I have Kapuscinski's Imperium.)  Coming inside and letting your eyes adjust is something actually rather strange.  It's as if you're wearing sunglasses inside, everything is unnaturally shade.  Then, as the pupils dilate and open up, everything becomes more clear.  The human body is such a neat and wonderful thing.

The noueveau-style of apartment blocks with rooftop terraces and gardens.

Enjoying the sunshine.
The lilacs!  Oooooh, the lilacs.  Heavenly they are.  And this spring they are out in full glory.  Each bush is weighed down under the bunches upon bunches upon bunches or wonderfully scented lilacs.  I often pick them at work and welcome anyone to smell them.  Sometimes, I compose poems and verses about them.

Lilacs come in a variety of colors and scents.

The lilac bunch up close.

The bushes are filled with them.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Noc Muzeów

The brilliant idea of Noc Muzeów (Night of the Museums)  provides an excellent opportunity to get out and take in some serious culture in a light and fun atmosphere.  It's something I've never seen anywhere else, which is a pity, because the whole idea of it is pretty cool.  It's my second time taking part (please see my previous post); however, due to some circumstances I pretty much saw the same exact thing as last year.  Also, my night ended early and tragically sober.
Noc Muzeów helps bring people out and experience their own culture, and gives them a reason to visit museums they normally wouldn't see.  It's before all the tourists come and clog the museums up anyway.  The timing is pretty much perfect: the time before everyone leaves the city for vacation but it's usually warm enough to enjoy a night on the town.  In Warsaw proper (although, the event was held across Poland), they were using it as a push for having Warsaw be the Capital of Culture in 2016.

The line to get into Museum Narodowy.
So, I went to the Museum Narodowy and the Museum Wojska Polskiego.  Bitwa pod Grunwaldem was again not on show, and that kind of sucked.  The line to the National Museum was long, but moved along at a good clip.  I waited in line fifteen minutes.  The Military Museum had some new equipment on show, plus they were letting people climb into the cockpits of various planes and helicopters.
Since my last run-in with the Straz Miejska, I have been awfully wary about drinking in public.  So, I viewed these two museums stone-cold sober.

You could sit in the cockpit of the MiG-29

Polish resistance reenactors.

Plac Zamkowy
The whole experience of Noc Muzeów is a festive one.  There were percussion bands playing on the street; there were people partying hardcore in the trams; there were people singing hymns in front of the presidential palace.
As the night gets longer, so do the lines.  The museums fill up with people and everything moves more slowly.  Most people only see two or three museums tops.  If you went to the Copernicus Center, you probably waited in line for hours upon end and saw only that (I didn't even attempt to do so.)

An old Double-Decker (straight from Londontown).

The An-24.
It's not just museums that were open this night.  Everything from libraries to the National Mint to police stations were open for visits.  The Warsaw University Library did close pretty early, which irked me as I was about to go there.  I can only hope this wildly successful idea is picked up and imitated elsewhere.

At the start of the line.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Old school Polish elevators are something of a curiosity.  They are prevalent in the old blocks, even if one thinks that they violate basic safety codes.  Instead of two doors, these old lifts have a single door that opens outward (it's kind of like walking into a small closet that ascends.)  When the door closes, the elevator rises without an inner door, so you can see the wall climb.  A favorite pastime is to see how fast you can write graffiti on the space between floors before it pass you by.

The new elevators are pretty typical, like you would see anywhere.  Like most things these days—from your toaster to your fridge to your car—they are controlled by microchips that run certain algorithms.  These algorithms, however, are actually pretty shitty and could use a good tune up (imagine your toaster either scorching your bread or barely warming it.  You would say, "What a crappy purchase.  I need a new one.")  Many times have I encountered two elevators side-by-side, that respond to the same button.  Ideally, you would press the button and the elevator that would take you to your destination the quickest and most efficiently would open up and take you (e.g. if you wanted to go down, an already-descending one would pick you up on the way.)  That's not how it works.  Press the button and usually nothing will happen for a space of time, before the least logical choice slowly comes to your floor.  Have an elevator that's one floor away and not carrying anyone?  You're going to have to wait for the one that's thirteen floors away go up in the opposite direction, pick someone up, and then go down to the parking garage, then come to you, all the while the other elevator patiently waits at its floor.  As I said, these elevators need tune ups.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dzialki City

There are spots on the fringes of Warsaw (and most other Polish cities) that harbor vast tracts of land devoted to recreational relaxation.  Dzialki and gardens make up tiny cities within the city.  They turn urban areas into countryside within the space of a few blocks.  Almost every family has a dzialka (sometimes two.)  They are visited in the summer for R&R, but also to grow veggies for the Polish passions of canning, pickling, and eating fresh.

A reservoir on a tin roof.

Grape vines cover a window.

No spare space is wasted on these tiny plots of land; everything is crammed in: fruit trees, raspberry bushes, zucchinis, and—of course—flowers.
Most dzialki have a small cottage on them.  They're more like sheds, often not more than one or two rooms.  Others are complete with plumbing and lofts or second stories for sleeping and kitchens.  It is not unknown for some poorer families to live year round on their dzialki.  Some become farcical mimics of American suburbia, complete with unnaturally lush lawns, mini garages, and vinyl siding.  Their owners strut out in the boiling sun cutting grass on a plot the size of a large party tent.

In Communist times, it used to be that every worker had the right to a dzialka.  The worker could use it, but he could never sell it or pass it off, making the plot more of company (i.e. government) land than a worker's personal plot.  These dzialki sometimes were in prime real estate in the midst of a city.  Now, ownership has reverted to the workers (most are now retired) and developers are snapping them up to put in new blocks and business parks.
Last year, the floods effectively wiped out all the dzialki on the banks of the Wisla.  People came to spruce up the spring garden, only to find an unrecognizable plot of mud and debris.
It's not that dzialki are endangered or going away.  There are still plenty of them, it's just that more and more they are being pushed to the skirmishes of the cities or out of the city proper all together.  People, searching for larger and more opulent dzialki, are buying expensive camps and cottages far outside the cities or districts.  Mazury is a particularly popular place (not just for its lakes and forests.)
One a different note, some wise in the ways of business have learned to use their dzialki for financial gain.  No, they are not selling their veggies (you couldn't make much off that), but there are other ways.  One particular way is to buy up a field or two, then put sheep on it.  See, the EU pays each farmer per head of sheep, so you immediately start making money from the little lambs wandering around on your fields.  Then, once a year you can hire someone to shear the sheep, and profit off the wool.  The proceeds can go to buying more heads of sheep.