Author Archives: Jamie Stokes

A New Miracle on the Vistula?

Found floating around on the interwebs, the cover of a football fan mag that doesn’t exist, but should.

Created by Anthony Casey (who apologizes for his Polish)

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Krakow – smog city

Air pollution levels in Krakow reached record levels in March and the city has no plan for tackling the problem. Literally no plan. The local government regards slowly suffocating its citizens to death as no big deal. If you want a breath of relatively clean air in this town it’s now advisable to squat down behind standing traffic and suck the fumes directly from exhaust pipes.

Below is a thing I wrote when I was feeling particularly annoyed about this and turned to the infallible weapon of satire. In the cold light of retrospection I feel even more annoyed – a lot of people are going to die younger than they might have because of all the PM10s floating around in our air – you or I might be one of them.

As air pollution in Krakow continues to exceed dangerous levels, surprising advice has been issued to residents. Peak pollution days over the winter saw schools closed and suggestions that vulnerable individuals stay indoors. Recent guidelines include holding your breath for short periods as you walk from your door to your car and a plan to use military helicopters to dispel smog. Inhaling deeply before stepping outside and then breathing as little as possible during short journeys on foot has been recommended as a sensible way of reducing exposure to particulate matter. Laughing, yawning and singing in the open air are also identified as risky activities.

Fresh ideas for tackling the smog itself have also been unveiled. Overflights by squadrons of military helicopters from the nearby Krakow-Balice Air Base have been touted as a way of disrupting the temperature inversions that trap polluted air over the city. On bad days, the helicopters could be used to hover at 500 metres, sucking smut-laden air to greater altitudes. Locals have begun calling Krakow ‘Londyn nad Wisłą’ (London on the Vistula) following a winter plagued by smogs reminiscent of the famed ‘pea soupers’ that afflicted the British capital in the 1950s. Suggestions that vehicle traffic in the city centre should be restricted or that smoke-producing fuels should be banned have been dismissed as absurd.

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From Polish airmen over Malta to Prince William

In Malta over the Easter weekend I stumbled on one of the thousands of World War II grave sites that are tucked away in every corner of the world. This one, the Kalkara Naval Cemetery, like many, contains the remains of a few Polish servicemen. There are also German, Italian, British, French Japanese(!) and, of course, Maltese graves here, but it was the Polish memorials that caught my eye.

I snapped a photo of one of the graves, adorned with a flower that my wife happened to be carrying, and thought little more about it – just two more Polish airmen among the thousands of fallen. It was only when I got home and looked at the photos that the dates struck me. Both men, A. E. Kleniewski and R. Wysocki, died on the same day – December 17, 1942. This immediately suggested to me that they must have been crew members on the same plane – so probably a bomber or a night fighter.

Kalkara Naval Cemetery, Malta

Anyone with any interest in World War II knows that the battle for Malta was one of the longest and most desperate of the entire conflict, but it was won by late 1942. The siege had been lifted by the middle of October and the Allies had gone on the offensive in the Mediterranean (Rommel was on the run in North Africa, Operation Torch started on November 8th). Airfields on Malta were being used to provide air cover in North Africa, but you would expect aircrews lost on these operations to be buried near their targets, if they were found at all.

I googled A. E. Kleniewski. It turns out he has his own Polish Wikipedia page. A decorated and commended airman, Alfred Edmund Kleniewski (born 1918) escaped to France and then England following the fall of Poland where he joined the 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron (307 Dywizjon Myśliwski Nocny “Lwowskich Puchaczy”). By 1942 he was serving in No. 138 (Special Duties) Squadron – the chaps who flew SOE agents, covert radio sets and other Nazi-bothering paraphernalia across the length and breadth of occupied Europe (including into Poland).

Flight Sergeant Alfred Edmund Kleniewski died when his Halifax (DT542 NF-Q) crashed near Żejtun, Malta, shortly after takeoff on the second leg of a flight from Egypt to the UK. He was wireless operator on the flight. Five other crew members (Krzysztof Dobromirski , Stanisław Pankiewicz , Zbigniew Idzikowski , Roman Wysocki , Oskar Zielinski) and 11 passengers were also killed.

Five of the six Polish aircrew (clockwise from top left): Fl/Sgt. Alfred Edmund Kleniewski, Sgt. Roman Wysocki, F/O. Stanisław Pankiewicz, F/O. Krzysztof Leon Dobromirski, F/O. Zbigniew Augustyn Idzikowski.

One of the passengers was Major (Lord Apsley) Bathurst, whose World War I citation for the Distinguished Service Order reads, in part:

Near Kadem Station he was held up by a body of the enemy, whose strength was double his own. He charged, killing 12 with his sword, the remainder being put to flight.

Lord Apsley was MP for Bristol Central at the time of his death (as well as serving in the Arab Legion). His wife, Violet Bathurst (Lady Apsley) took the seat after his death in a 1943 by-election.

In 2003 Lord and Lady Apsley’s son, Henry Bathurst, 8th Earl Bathurst (then 76) was involved in a brief car chase with Prince William (then 21) that got him on the front page of various newspapers. According to the BBC:

The spat happened when the prince’s VW Golf overtook the earl’s Land Rover on a country dirt track in Lord Bathurst’s 15,000-acre estate in Cirencester, Gloucestershire.

It was on Lord Bathurst’s property and so he hit his horn and gave chase. He wanted to overtake the police car but, instead, it stopped him.

Prince William drove on but the police officer had strong words with Lord Bathurst.

… and so the world goes round.

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Polish food again

I’m going to write about Polish food again. Even as I was typing that sentence Poland’s sixth sense of persecution began tingling and a thousand emails beginning with the words “Ha! English kitchen is rubbish” were auto-created on the whirling servers beneath the Ministry of Knee-Jerk Reactions. Nevertheless, I’m going to plough on because there is something about Polish cooking that I would really like to understand. It seems to me that there are whole swathes of cuisine that are entirely absent from the Polish table, but I can’t see why. They are: beef, lamb, hard cheese and pastry.

Polish people don’t see this as odd because they regard these missing elements as obtainable but expensive rarities, in much the same way that a British person wouldn’t think it odd that octopus sandwiches don’t play a larger role in the nation’s diet. But it is odd. In every Western European country I’ve been to people regularly eat pork and chicken but also beef and lamb (or mutton – lamb is always expensive because supply is limited, but it’s certainly not a once-a-year thing).

I know that you, dear readers, can probably lay your hands on a venerable Polish beef or lamb recipe with a wave of the Google wand but I’ve lived here for four years now and you can’t fool me. Have a meal in Poland at a restaurant or somebody’s house or in the presidential palace and nine times out of ten the main course is going to be pork or chicken. I refuse to believe sheep and cows can’t be raised in Poland (the hilly bits in the south look like perfect sheep country and the flat bits are surely made for cattle) so why is there no tradition of raising and eating them?

Pork and chicken are very nice and Poles have a thousand ways of making them even nicer, but their almost complete dominance is very puzzling. In fact, their dominance is so stark that it must be a symptom of a powerful cultural force at work in Polish history. It can’t just be a geographical thing, like the factors that make rice rather than wheat the staple of Asia. But what is this factor? Was it a Communist thing? Were sheep regarded as bourgeois? Are Angus longhorns fifth columnists? When I ask Polish people why they eat beef and lamb so rarely they cite its high price, but that’s just another way of saying that it’s unpopular. If only one person in a thousand ate chicken, it would be more expensive than caviar.

The cheese question is even weirder. The classic Polish cheese is twaróg – a very soft, young cheese made without rennet. All European cultures have an equivalent but, strangely, in Poland it’s the only kind of cheese they make. Here’s an interesting quote from Ewa Spohn, who knows a lot more about cheese than me:

The missing ingredients are bacteria. A good cheesemaker is really a virtuoso in the management of bacteria. Describing how this biochemical miracle works would fill a whole library, but in short, a cheese that does any maturing at all, whether it’s cheddar, Rocquefort or Camembert, starts life as a vat of warm milk to which the cheesemaker adds the right type of bacteria. They are given time and warmth needed them to multiply and create the by-products that give cheese its flavour and texture.

So adding the right bacteria is key and is something that Polish cheesemakers, with a handful of exceptions, don’t do, relying instead on the bacteria that are naturally present in milk. We see the result everywhere: the familiar bland, fresh white cheese that goes sour pretty quickly. Some producers experiment by adding herbs and spices to the basic product. For example, in Korycin, near Białystok, and Wizajny near the Kaliningrad Oblast, members of the Korycin and Wizajny producers associations showed us how they add various flavourings like caraway, olives and basil to their cheeses. The finished cheeses don’t differ hugely from each other and neither type is a million miles away from the typical fresh, white Polish cheese you see everywhere.

Twaróg – the Moon isn’t made of it

The more I think about this the odder it becomes: making hard, mature cheese (an excellent way of preserving the protein in milk for the long term) is an incredibly ancient human discovery, but seems to have passed Poland by or been forgotten. Poles are a lot of things but they’re certainly not stupid, so how did this happen?

The absence of pastry also intrigues me, and it’s something I’ve written about before in The Polish pie mystery. My conclusions from the numerous comments under that post are that:

1) Pastry does exist, but it’s almost always found at the bottom of sweet tarts that I strongly suspect came to Poland through Napoleonic and Austro-Hungarian influence (the fact that ‘pastry’ is just called ‘ciasto’ lends support here I think).

2) There are some obscure Polish recipes that are something like filled-pastry pies, but, again like the beef and lamb recipes, you never come across them in real life so I don’t regard them as real Polish food.

What were the forces that so stunted Polish cuisine? I would genuinely love to know. It’s the The Bourne Identity of food. If you can also shed light on why the screwdriver was suddenly invented in Germany in the 15th century (the screwdriver is only 500 years old!), that would be good too.

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Brits playing Poles

There is no easy way to explain why I was listening to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, so we’ll just assume there was an inexplicable internet protocol error that prevented me from listening to classic rock like a real man and leave it at that. One of the regular features of Woman’s Hour is a drama segment, usually featuring salt-of-the-earth women being let down by their men and achieving redemption through bio-active yogurts and consequence-free affairs with swarthy exchange students – not that I would know anything about it.

Last week it was the tale of a Polish housekeeper and her first-hand account of the breakdown of her employers’ marriage. The segment, billed as a “domestic thriller” was called A Domestic and caught my ear because it was based around a Polish character. It caught my ear even more forcibly when I quickly realised the actress playing the Polish character wasn’t Polish and had a very hazy idea of what a Polish accent sounds like. This became particularly hilarious when they slipped Polish phrases into the dialogue.

Nie ma problemu

Mariola, the eponymous domestic, is played by Lydia Leonard, who is of Anglo-French-Irish extraction. I’m sure she’s a lovely lady and highly talented, but why couldn’t the BBC have found a Polish actress to perform the part? There must be thousands of them kicking around London these days.

From rain to gutter

Maybe there is a good reason why Polish actors and actresses can’t be employed by the BBC – something to do with equity cards or some other sophisticated showbiz shenanigans I know nothing about. This was only part of the problem. The writer, Peter Jukes, seemed to be just as hazy about Poland as the actress was about the accent. Mariola, like every other domestic in the history of drama, is terrified of being sent back to to her rubbish country if she makes any waves, which is a plot device that hasn’t made any sense for a Polish character since 2004. This is partly explained away by making her an ethnic Pole from Belarus, which kind of begs the question why he didn’t just make her Belarusian. She also has some bizarre superstitions. I’ve heard the one about not putting handbags on the floor because it encourages money to escape, but is there really a Polish superstition saying you shouldn’t buy your wife shoes because she will walk away from you, or gloves because she will wave goodbye? Maybe it’s a Belarusian thing.

The BBC television sitcom Lead Balloon also features an “Eastern European” character played by a British actress. Magda (definitely not Polish then), played by Anna Crilly, spends much of her onscreen time being perplexed and stolid, as in this scene where we learn that Eastern Europeans have apparently never come across sophisticated concepts such as lying so as to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

And to finish, a sketch from Armstrong and Miller that looks like it’s incredibly insulting to Poles, but turns out not to be…

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