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Attending a State Funeral

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This Sunday we had the privilege to attend the funeral of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first prime minister after communism and someone who was at the forefront of the Solidarity movement in the late 80′s. We know the family and were asked if we would like to be a part of the state ceremony – truly an honour and for me, an extemely interesting experience.

We arrived at the Pepsi Arena at 9am to receive our ceremony passes and to catch one of the 10 or so coaches taking friends, family and political colleagues to the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist in the Old Town. Given that Komorowski, Tusk, Wałęsa and Kaczyński, amongst many others were attending, security was understandably tight. All attendees were checked and I saw priests being questioned by security if they didn’t have their clearance passes visibly hanging around their necks. No chances were being taken with so many dignitaries in one place! The vulnerability and high profile of the event became obvious once inside as security guards could be seen strategically placed around the cathedral.

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We managed to get seats on the left hand side of the cathedral, about 10 rows from the front where we could see the pulpit and the coffin once it was brought in. Representatives from each city were present with their flag standards including the shipyard workers from Gdansk and the coal miners from Katowice – each in their traditional uniforms. Most stood standing through the entire service. The political ‘dignitaries’ took centre stage and were all allocated frontline seats in the centre. In my opinion, this area should have been reserved for those who worked alongside Mazowiecki during the height of his political career. I say this because in front of us stood one of his close associates who seemed quite frail and, due to his height, was unable to see most of the ceremony. His emotions at losing a friend and colleague were clear, and it didn’t seem appropriate for him to be so far away from the coffin or family. Careless seating arrangement, but forgivable given the sheer number of people in attendance.

As someone who did not experience the breakdown of the communist regime firsthand or the rise of independence in Poland, it was fascinating to experience the feeling of so much history in one place. The lady at the front of the pew in front of us for instance was the first female tram driver to stop her tram when the strikes started in Gdansk. I wouldn’t have known this had Lucy not pointed her out. The dedications and heart-felt tributes to Mazowiecki from both colleagues and grand-children were touching and genuine. It was clear he had made a real difference to all those that had been fortunate to have known him. Not many people stand for what they believe in to such a degree as he did – especially during such powerfully turbulent and life-threatening times. I also thought the service was conducted in a very neutral manner – there was no preaching sermons or overly political slants; something the family wanted to avoid I think. He was remembered in a very human way, as a true statesman, a teacher to his family and someone who fought for what he believed in. I know funerals only ever touch on the good that people do, but judging by the packed seats in the cathedral, and the crowds that filled the market square outside, it was hard to believe his actions or intentions were anything otherwise.

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(A short history of Mazowiecki’s career taken from Polski Radio) Mazowiecki was a member of the communist-controlled Catholic PAX organization from 1945 to 1955, Tadeusz Mazowiecki was expelled after the authorities believed he was a member of an internal opposition group. He went on to establish, with others, the Catholic Intelligentsia Club in 1957 and became editor of the Wiez magazine. From 1981, he was the first editor of the opposition Tygodnik Solidarność (Solidarity Weekly) magazine which was banned when the communists declared martial law in December 1981. Mazowiecki was arrested during the crackdown and was one of the last prisoners to be released in December 1982. He become one of the main negotiators for the Solidarity trade union during the Round Table talks of 1989 and took over as Poland’s first non-communist prime minister in September that year after the newly elected parliament gave him a vote of confidence. Mazowiecki opposed Lech Walesa in presidential elections at the end of 1990 but pulled out of the contest after the first ballot. He went on to become Special Emissary for the United Nations to Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Balkans war and member of the Polish lower house of parliament for the centre-right Freedom Union: he was also a strong advocate of Poland joining the European Union and a more integrated Europe.

Given the current characters in Polish politics and the way personal triumphs are celebrated over the greater good of the country, it seems that well-balanced and educated advice from great minds such as Mazowiecki’s will be sorely missed.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki 1927-2013

The Warsaw Party Bus

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I didn’t know Warsaw had one – especially a London Routemaster! You tend to see all sorts of strange vehicles cruising around Warsaw on a Saturday night including white, 40ft limousine hummers and old pink cadillacs full of 12-year old screaming girls. But the London double decker was suitably fitting for an ex-pats 40th and as we all piled on at Łomianki, there was a strange feeling of British reminiscence that came flooding back. Until we saw the interior that is…

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Not the standard fit-out for a Cockfosters to Trafalgar Square route. But this is a ‘party bus’ after all and judging from the booming dance music and depleting vodka supplies at the bar, it was converted for one purpose only.

The trip from Łomianki to the centre of Warsaw usually takes 15 minutes at 6pm on a Saturday evening, but at 25km per hour, I can tell you it takes much longer. Even painful to experience, one might say. When we were told that the bus trip would take 3 hours and take us from Łomianki to Emilii Plater, I laughed and said “Impossible! Nothing can move that slow!”. But it really did. It included a quick stop on Krakowskie for a pick-up, as well as a fuel station stop to stock up on more vodka for the bar, but otherwise it was a direct drive. The normal exit route at the back of the bus was covered by a metal roller shutter that prevented any unfortunate accidents whilst on the move - but which simultaneously broke all standard UK health & safety rules (if we were in the UK) by blocking all means of escape in the event of an accident or fire…welcome to Poland.

But it proved for an interesting atmosphere, if not a little too head-achingly loud for my liking (as in NO conversation unless you were screaming into each other’s ears), but that’s probably because I’m edging towards 40. Oh hang on, this was a 40th birthday bash wasn’t it? For a while, I thought I was 16 again and forgot I had two small children to jump on me at 7am the next morning. How irresponsible of me!

Apparently there have been requests from the group for it to be booked again on Nov 30th. No particular occasion this time…other than a middle-aged need to escape reality by dancing the night away and balancing precariously on a moving bus. Nothing unusual in that.

Radom Airshow 2013

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I’m way behind on posts and after spending the summer at home on 3 month’s garden leave, I can’t really think of any excuses right now as to why I am so behind. Maybe I’ve just been enjoying the sun too much! I’ll get back to it, but for now, here are a few photos from today’s airshow at Radom. A huge number of people attended due to the good weather which made it nigh on impossible to buy anything from the stalls without queueing for 30 minutes. So we didn’t. Here’s the boys prepped for the jet fighters’ flyby…

Boys 1

Even though when I asked the boys if they liked airshows, Benji’s reply was “I like boat shows”, they seemed to enjoy most of the day. After sitting on the grass for more than 20 minutes staring at the sky, they started to get bored, so we wandered off to the static displays. Unfortunately with the long queues to sit in the static F-16 and climb into the Tupolev, we didn’t have the patience to hang around. So we sat back down on the grass again, ate chocolate, bananas and crisps and I took some photos.

F-16

F-16 Fighting Falcon

The Russian Mig-29 also gave an impressive display.

Rear end of a MIG

The rear end of a MIG

Miig-29

MIG on landing approach

I’ll be back shortly when I have updated my photos from our holiday in the Polish mountains…

Spring is not in the air!

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A few days ago, temperatures rose above freezing and the garden began to thaw. Outside on our terrace, the snow melted and long icicles defrosted allowing me the chance to take a macro shot of  the arrival of Spring.

icicle drop

Not so. A week later and temperatures dropped again to -5C and the snow storms hit. Yesterday evening I was planning to drive home from the office, but instead chose to jump on the train and asked my very understanding wife to pick me up from the station at the other end. The roads were covered and it would have taken me at least 2 hours to get home. The snow continued through the night and we awoke this morning to this:

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The 22nd of March and I had to dig the car out of my drive.

We were discussing this morning whilst driving to the station how as humans we crave the change of seasons. Already we are looking forward to the freshness and warmth of Spring, but 4 months ago, a morning like today would have made us smile and happily clamber around outside in our winter boots. Living in California sounds ideal, but seeing the same weather day in, day out must get mundane. We are looking forward to seeing the annual rejuvenation of our garden and spending time in it nurturing the plants and trees until life flows through them once again.

The beauty of Poland is that the seasons change overnight. There is no gradual blending, just a few days of transformation from one season to the other. Hold that thought, because April is just around the corner!

Snowboarding in Slovakia

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After a break of two years, a group of us decided it was time to reach for the snowboards again for a weekend in Chopok, Slovakia. This was my first time in Slovakia, and after snowboarding in Korbielow and Zakopane in Poland a few years back, I was expecting something very similar with regards to infrastructure on the slopes. So I was pleasantly surprised by the gondolas and chairlifts that we found and the carefully groomed pistes. There has obviously been considerable investment here and we will definately be returning.

Snowboarding

It felt really good to get back on the board and into the high altitude fresh air again. Since my last boarding week in Austria, I have lost a little weight and have been visiting the gym regularly which clearly paid off through my lack of aches and pains after 2 1/2 days of continuous activity. I shall keep this up now that I have experienced the difference it makes!

The weather was fantastic on the first day and the views clear from the top. After this, unfortunately the top became a howling snowstorm for the remaining two days which proved interesting when leaving the shelter of the gondola station! Being blown down the slope before getting a chance to get your snowboard attached is a very disconcerting feeling! Still, it boosted the belief that we were ‘hardcore’ boarders, even if we were all terrified for the first few hundred metres down the piste. Needless to say, once a day at the top was sufficient. I’m glad we made it to the top when the skies were clear on the first day – the views were spectacular…

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Temperatures dropped to -10C yesterday which was fine, but it did numb the face somewhat after 20 minutes of fast downhill boarding. The only reasonable way to warm up at the bottom was with a varené víno – a glass of hot wine. The downside was that too many of these, and either you became too courageous on the slopes, or started to lose concentration and ended up face-planting on the ice. The latter happened to two of our party who came home with very sore ribs!

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We stayed at the Via Jasna Apartments about 9km from the ski lifts. The hotel was very nice with a spa on the -1 level which had a variety of saunas and steam rooms, as well as a large 8 person jacuzzi. Perfect after a full day of fresh air and exercise. If you don’t mind the drive and leaving early (around 07:50) to get a parking place, I can recommend this as a base. We rented an 8 person apartment for ca. €350 for 3 nights incl. breakfast. Here is a map of the main ski area to give you some idea of the variety of slopes – not the Alps, but ideal for a boys weekend away!

ski-map-chopok-polnoc

 

Teething tricks

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As the boys are at that age where the tooth fairy is visiting their bedrooms at night regularly and they are profiting nicely from losing their baby teeth, it seems that there are others out there taking full advantage of this free money-making scheme. A conversation I had earlier with my eldest went something like this:

Me: “How was school today, Alex?”
A: “Fine”Alex gappy
Me: “What did you do?”
A: “I lost a tooth”.
Me: “Great! Can I see it?”
A: “No. Someone stole it.”
Me: “Why would someone steal your tooth?!”
A:  “I don’t know!”
Me: “Maybe it was the Bone Collector”
A: “Maybe”
Me: “Well, are you going to try and get it back?”
A: “Maybe”
Me: “How much was it worth?”
A: “5 zloty”

Apparently he wrapped it in a tissue after showing his friends and put it on his desk. He went to the toilet and when he got back, it was gone. So whilst one his ‘friends’ is putting Alex’s tooth under their pillow tonight, we are having to explain to Alex that he shouldn’t worry because the tooth fairy only brings money to the person from where the tooth originated.

It’s a puzzling world out there for a 7-year old.

Breakfast talent

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People often ask me what makes a great Dad. In my book, there’s really only one way to become a REALLY great Dad, and that’s to master the complex art of cooking ‘Eggy Bread’. This was past down a generation by my father when he was a scout leader and, from memory, was only ever superseded by his ‘Baked Beans and Tapioca Breakfast Pudding’. For some reason, the latter was never allowed in the house and was only ever cooked over a camping stove which probably added to the flavour. Frankly it needed it. Anyway, I diverge…

Eggy Bread

Bread. Soaked in egg.

Ingredients:

1 slice of brown bread
2 eggs
A small dribble of milk
A sprinkling of basil
Cooking oil
Tomato Ketchup
…and a frying pan.

Method: Beat the eggs, milk and basil in a bowl. Soak the bread for a few seconds whilst the oil is heating in the pan. Once hot, place the bread in the pan and fry until brown on either side. Serve with lashings of ketchup.

The kids love it and its a quick and easy alternative to cereal or toast. Ah, my cooking skills are endless…

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