Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Bowl of credit crunch, please, skinny milk

Wow, Sterling airlines is the latest budget travel company to go... uh... into a tailspin.
I flew to Sweden with them six weeks ago, booking my ticket rather nervously on the recommendation of the group I was volunteering for and wondering whether or not my return flight would actually take off. However, when I called their UK helpline, a polite young man with polished English answered and I felt rather relieved: it looked like a case of clean Scandinavian efficiency all the way.
Unfortunately it seems a lot of their shareholders hailed from Iceland. Uh oh.

Iceland: a whole country has gone bankrupt! (it's been a while since I got my highlighter out over the Economist). I suppose that's what happens if Kerry Katona is heading your advertising campaign. Where's Mum going to go now?!

This credit crunch lark is mad! I mean - I have absolutely no idea what it's all about. Friends who work in the City are starting to cut down on the heady social life and acquaintances in accounting look a little more nervous than before, but other than that...

Here's Pinolona's guide to surviving the credit crunch:

1/ Housing crash.
Apparently lots of people will end up in negative equity. Mortgage lenders are going bankrupt. General woe abounds. The solution? Rent a flat - in Poland, with students. Or, go for the option favoured by any red-blooded Italian male and live at home with your parents. Ensure they are suitably distracted - e.g. by fitting a new kitchen - and they may not notice you are there (thereby omitting to charge you rent).

2/ Increased food prices.
See no. 1, part two.

3/ High cost of heating.
Make sure you live in a building with permanent communal heating which is included in the rent (radiator knobs not included; fiddling around with wrenches and getting covered in black grease compulsory). This will probably take you to Poland (or your parents' house, see no 1, part 2).

3/ Job insecurity.
Waves of redundancies are rippling across the City like a scythe through ripe wheat.
Avoid the fear by quitting your stable job and becoming self-employed. Hey presto! Permanent underlying job insecurity brings no nasty surprises in times of financial hardship.

4/ Interest rates.
I'm not entirely sure what's going on with interest rates to be honest, but, since I haven't been in credit since 2003, it doesn't really matter. So why not blow all your savings on a costly (and worthless) university education?! Then you won't have to worry about not making any money on them. (plus if you're a student no-one can make you redundant. Winners all round!)

5/ In the absence of any kind of disposable income, indulge in simple pleasures. Such as... watching the snow (snow?!).
Other free spectator sports include: the US presidential elections; the queue at the Post Office; counting SUVs driven by bewildered au pairs trying to do the school run; attempting to spot a happy face among the commuters returning from central London at 8.15 on a school night.

Happy crunching!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Keeping warm

It's late autumn now, the evenings are drawing in and - in spite of the sunlight blazing off the copper leaves during daylight hours - I still feel the irresistible urge to curl up into a tight little ball under the duvet and not come out again until April.

Over the summer, my parents changed the heating system in their house. They now have a condensation boiler: apparently this is the only kind you are allowed due to global warming. I had no idea. In any case, there are no flames in the bathtub. In fact, there is no heat of any kind in the bathroom whatsoever, and the only form of ventilation is to open the window.
On particularly frosty mornings, I am tempted to take the dog in with me for warmth.
Only the dog takes longer to dry than I do, so it wouldn't really be fair.

Now - I'm sure you've noticed - but every building has its own particular quirks, particularly in the noise department. We all know by heart the creaks and gurgles of our childhood homes shifting and settling in the night, and we've all been woken up by the desperate thud of silt in the boiler (disturbingly similar to the sound of someone banging on the back door). I'd just got used to the ice cracking on the back of the fridge on Starowiślna and, well, as a child I almost found babble of the radiator in the family home soothing.

Before I left for Sweden halfway through September the heating was still off for the summer.

Now, suddenly, the new radiators are on, and it's as though the house has started speaking in a foreign language.

I got back from Bratislava on Friday night to an empty house and tried to drift off to sleep. Not a hope. Downstairs, the sound of someone clicking light switches! I crept out of bed: no lights. Then: whoosh! A cascade of water - had someone suddenly turned on all the taps? No. It was just our noisy-but-ecologically-sound central heating.
It's taking a little getting used to.
Incidentally, there is an interesting side-effect brought on by hearing running water tinkling through the system twenty four hours a day.
Unfortunately it hasn't done much for the Spaniel, whose will is stronger than her bladder and who stubbornly refuses to go outside unless you play ball with her for fifteen minutes first.

The Spaniel is now allowed to sleep on the floor beside my bed. I say 'allowed' - she's clever and waits until I go into the bathroom to clean my teeth before sneaking in. I quite like the company, and she doesn't snore too much - although she tends to wake up a good two and a half hours before I do. I wouldn't mind so much if she'd learn to open the door and let herself out too but she hasn't got the hang of it yet. Instead, she accidentally makes some very loud Pino-awakening kerfuffle: either by shaking her ears noisily or thudding her tail ("oops did I wake you up? silly me").
From time to time, when she thinks my guard is down, she will wake me in the night. I hear whatever doggy disturbance she is making, wonder why I am awake and stumble into the bathroom. Upon my return, there in the middle of the bed is a small stubborn mound of curled-up springer spaniel. Her nose is very firmly buried in her own fur so I can't see the expression on her face.
- I'm asleep. It says - slightly muffled, doing a very good impression of a small, white, spotty Cumberland sausage.
I pull her off the bed by the collar. And then go to check the tap, which is leaking.

When I come back, the Cumberland-spaniel-sausage is curled up on my duvet again.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Złota Jesień

I finally uploaded the pictures from my camera. It was a really beautiful couple of weeks, most of the time, and here in auld Kent we're still having our own Indian Summer.

Nowa Huta - yes, really!

The park in Podgórze

On the way to Kopiec Krakusa

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Traveller in Time

Captain's Log, Stardate apparently some time in mid-December 2008

Initially very little seemed to have changed upon my return to the Old Country, but gradually over the past couple of days I have begun to observe subtle differences which lead me to question the true nature of my return journey from Bratislava. Allow me to explain: I appear to have travelled, not only through international air-space, but indeed in time itself.

Do not be fooled by my dramatic air. For an entire day, all seemed normal. I am not attempting to convince you that I have travelled forward into the tortured imaginary lands of George Orwell and HG Wells. Nor have I sped back into some primitive country redolent of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. However, minute tweaks in the fabric of my everyday surroundings lead me to suspect a short skip of a matter of months.

The evidence is as follows:

1/ Absent-mindedly picking up an advertising leaflet from the coffee table in the lounge (to use as a bookmark) I realised that it was publicising a 'Christmas menu' at a local downmarket eatery. While I agree that it makes sense to book in advance, no-one of my acquaintance has ever yet had trouble getting a table at the Riverhead Harvester.

2/ Foraging through my absent parents' larder, I stumbled upon a solid slab of cake in a crackly cellophane wrapper. Closer inspection of the festive red label revealed this to be nothing more than 'Iced fruit cake', but a tell-tale sprig of holly innocently lurking in one corner raised my suspicions.

3/ Marks and Spencers. A short excursion (in search of wine) left me in no doubt. On the end of the aisles: Advent calendars! In the bakery section: Mince pies! Under beers wines and spirits: Mulled wine! (And an intriguing dark bottle labelled 'Chocolate Ruby'. This turned out to be British fortified wine flavoured with dark chocolate. Excruciating hangover guaranteed: any more migraine triggers and it'd be classified as a weapon of mass destruction).

What conclusions can be drawn from all this? When I clambered wearily up the Ryanair boarding steps (trying unsuccessfully to block out the baritone exuberance of several jubilant Polska fans behind me), I had no idea that I was about to embark upon a Journey Through Time. There was no clue that what I took to be turbulence on take-off - apparently caused by heavy rain over central Europe - was in fact the rippling of the Fabric of Destiny. How could I have guessed that a simple two-hour flight would in fact catapault me two months into the future? Why, in Kraków they weren't even selling lamps for All Saints' Day (at least not any more so than usual).

Or maybe it simply took much, much longer than I thought to get through arrivals at Stansted Airport.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Communist Pentathlon

From the window of a train somewhere about thirty minutes outside Bratislava, I noticed a small red-and-white aeroplane grounded in front of a building. As we got closer, I realised it was part of a children's playground.

- Oh look! I squealed to my colleague - A real plane in a playground! How cool is that?!
- Actually, he replied, - it's quite common to have military equipment in playgrounds here. There are plenty of places where children get to play with disused guns, for example. Traditionally it was to train them up to ward off potential attacks from the Forces of Capitalism.

I tried -unsuccessfully - to pinpoint any subtle whiff of Gallic irony.

- Seriously, he continued - my girlfriend had to learn to use a gas mask at school. And one of my American friends, his girlfriend used to do a sort of 'Communist pentathlon'...

The Communist pentathlon, it transpires, involves the following healthy outdoor activities:

i) Sprinting

ii) Shooting at a target

iii) Sprinting again

iv) Throwing a grenade

v) Swimming underwater across the Danube *

vi) Political Questions

I was impressed.

- We never did anything like that at school! The worst we got was throwing the shot putt!
- Me neither! Just think: thank goodness during the Cold War we never attacked them. We wouldn't have stood a chance!

I wonder how different my life would have been had I been raised as a grenade-hurling Slovak girl...

Announcement: The World Premier of the Original Communist Pentathlon (sponsored by Sevenoaks Town Council in conjunction with Laura Ashley) will take place on the Vine Cricket Ground on Sunday, May 10 in the afternoon. Applications to be received by
end of March 2009 at the latest. Tea will be served at 5pm in the Pavilion: all survivors are welcome.

*Author's note: I made this up because we couldn't think of the fifth activity.

Monday, 13 October 2008


There's a pedestrian crossing in Podgorze where the 'beep-beep' has a sort of dotted crochet rhythm (dum da-dum da-dum etc), rather than just being in strict time like all the others.
Also, the pitch is a sort of rather smudgy major triad. The overall effect is rendolent of a French chanson.
By the time you reach the central traffic island, you half expect the little green man to throw his arms wide and burst into strains of:
- Noooooooon, rien de rien!!! Nooooon je ne regret-te rieeeennnnn....


On Friday night I popped into the internet place on the Rynek* to check the cinema listings. There were two young guys, apparently students, slouched behind the front desk eating yoghurt and Prince Polo.
I checked the website and then went back to the desk.
- Ile to będzie? I asked, rather ridiculously since I'd only been online about two minutes.
The guy made a tutting sound and looked down at his hands with a smile:
- Oh... dużo...
I realised with horror that he was flirting with me. In Polish.
- *completely panic stricken* oh no... ile??
The guy sucked in his breath: Bardzo dużo, to nie mogę powiedzić**
Lost for (Polish) words, I must have made some kind of girly eye-widening gesture.
- Złotówka. Said the guy, with a smile, bored of me now.

I survived my first ever (extremely basic) flirt in Polish...

A mate of mine lives just off one of the major party streets in Kraków town centre. Consequently, lots of drunk guys walk past his doorstep on the way home from Gorączka and suchlike, and we all know what intoxicated males are wont to do in doorsteps.
Leaving the flat one afternoon, I bumped into a neighbour on his way in, a portly gentlemen of late-middle-age vintage, and thought it propitious to say 'Dzien Dobry' on my way out.
- Dzien dobry... replied the neighbour, slightly surprised. He was however not to be caught out: quickly he recovered his senses in time to make that long slow intake of breath and say:

- Ale... Wie Pani co...?

Uh oh.

(I hate it when they say this).

He beckoned me outside, where there was a significant amount of something liquid splashed onto the bottom of the door post and seeping onto the doorstep. All the while, he continued to hold forth excitedly on a topic that I was unable to decipher: I thought I caught the word 'dog'.
I took a shot in the dark and interrupted him:

- Ale... to nie moj pies.

- Nie? Pani nie jest Pani Monika?

I shook my head.

He apologised, and I made a swift exit.

I have no idea who Pani Monika is, but I suspect that her dog is blameless on this one.

*Whaddya mean 'which internet place', what do you think I am, bloody Cracow Life??
**The author requests that the kind reader remember that her Polish transcription skills leave a lot to be desired.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

still here

I'm still here.
I'm in Kraków.
There are lots of quirky and amusing things to write about.
But I have lots of work suddenly.
And I am tired.