Author Archives: Jamie Stokes

The shopping problem

I have only one wish in life: I would like a simple, efficient bedside lamp. Actually I have two wishes, but the second one is for a sitcom about former Arab dictators sharing a flat in Brixton (Hosni! Have you been eating my humus again!?), which would be much more difficult to organise. Or at least I thought it would be more difficult to organise until I actually started looking for a bedside lamp. I can’t find one anywhere.

There are two possibilities: either there are no lamps for sale in Krakow, or I’m looking in the wrong places. If the first is true, I’m going to start taking a lot better care of the lamps I have because they must now be worth a great deal of money. If the second is true, I will have to reconsider my prejudice that lamps should be sold in electrical appliance shops and address the possibility that they are, in fact, sold in gardening supply or hat shops.

I have made two extended trips to Galeria Krakowska in the past week, something that is almost as difficult to admit as it is to endure. On neither occasion did I find a lamp to buy. Home furnishing shops, the ones that smell of lavender and are impossible to extract wives from, do not sell lamps but they do sell endless varieties of candles and candle holders. Apparently, a return to burning wax or whale oil is currently the most accessible means of illuminating my bedtime reading.

The big electrical shop, a branch of Saturn, sells every imaginable electrical device apart from lamps and kilowatt range free-electron lasers. I toyed with the idea of buying a 48-inch plasma and playing a looped DVD of a switched on lamp with the brightness turned right up, but apparently nobody has yet released one – a gap in the market I will be leaping on.

21/2 hours of relentless 40-watt action (Bonus Director’s Commentary and Bloopers)

The real problem, and this is not the first time it has become apparent, is that I still lack of proper sense of how Polish urban spaces work. Put me down in a British town that I have never visited before and I am certain that I could find a lamp or a fish and chip shop or a copy of a street map in minutes – I just know what kind of streets to look on for the right kind of shops. I’m sure there are lamp shops out there, but I have no idea what they look like or how to find them.

This is a genuine and annoying problem that previously vexed me when I needed to buy a roll of parcel tape (W H Smiths), but it is compounded by the weird transitional state of the shopping experience in Poland. At first glance, it looks as if Poland has all the shops you could ever possibly want. In fact, at the shiny new Galeria end of the market, there is a superabundance of a very limited number of types of shops and almost nothing else.

In Galeria Krakowska, for example, there are seven or eight jewellery shops, all selling essentially the same watches and earrings, at least 30 clothes shops, also selling barely discernible products, and a dozen electrical shops selling slightly different forms of iPhone and laptop. The rest of the space is taken up with a couple of mega pharmacies, a supermarket and a branch of Empik. That’s it.

I know this is also the case in shopping malls elsewhere in the world, but the problem in Poland is that the glittery Galerias have been laid down on top of a highly impoverished strata of existing shops. Outside of them there are a few absurd hardware stores, an extraordinary number of wedding dress shops, endless second-hand clothes emporiums, the occasional bicycle shop and nothing else. Trying to buy an interesting or original birthday or Christmas present is almost impossible. It’s either standard high-street tat that you could buy anywhere in the world, stained glass angels and humorous Jewish figurines or a spanner.

I suppose what I’m really moaning about here is the lack of a broad bespoke luxury sector to cater to the whims of pampered middle-class folk such as myself – giant Stilton wheels, hand-made Faroe sweaters and things of that kind. With that humbling realisation in mind, I’m off to Ikea where I’m sure they have numerous lamps that will cunningly cater to my supposedly sophisticated eye for good design and solid workmanship at prices that can only mean Vietnamese sweat shops.

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The False Spring

The weather gods are clearly engaged in one of those parties where you drunkenly leave your keys in a big bowl and pick out each others’ spouses/climatic responsibilities. The autumn guy got harsh mid-winter, the mid-winter guy got damp autumn and, as we will soon see, the spring guy probably got tornadoes-falls-of-frogs-and-other-freakish-stuff. So here we are cruising through January in the kind of weather usually reserved for March having just scraped through December in the kind of weather usually reserved for nuclear winters and Götterdämmerung.

This week was the first instalment of spring. I hope you enjoyed it because the next one is due around the middle of August. Looking through my window now I notice a fog so thick I can barely see the other end of my myopia. I guess this means it’s getting cold again. I’ve seen more fog in this town over the past three years than I saw in 20 years in England. I will never take English-fog jokes seriously ever again. When the milk-thick conspiracy clears in the morning I will be greeted by a hideous foretaste of early Polish urban spring—probably the most ghastly season since “Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun” was sold to Cadbury.

Who hath not seen yon limp pale yellow grass so like your hair after a 4-day winter boat of fever

Never visit a Polish city in March, even in years when March has been swapped with late October for no apparent reason—it’s not worth the risk. Apart from the feverish grass and the stick-dead trees and the sunless buildings caked in salt there are the snow-melt piles. Snow-melt piles are, as the name suggests, piles of stuff left behind when piles of snow melt. The piles of snow are created by the incredibly efficient road-and-pavement-clearing people. Unfortunately they do not contain only snow—all kinds of other frozen stuff gets vigorously shovelled into these heaps. As the snow-melt pile melts, several levels of civilisation are revealed:

Day 1
A generalised level of black grime that makes you acutely aware that just breathing city air is about the same a smoking intravenously.

Day 2
General litter consisting almost entirely of discarded leaflets for instant credit being handed out by that dodgy guy still wearing a Santa Clause outfit in the middle of January.

Day 3
An enormous quantity of dog crap. I wish I could put it more nicely, but this is the stuff of urban grit… and speaking of grit…

Day 4
Grit. Grit mixed with 700 thousand cigarette butts. According to my calculations, cigarette butts are the principal ingredient in that stuff they spray on the roads to prevent you gracefully brake-sliding into oncoming buses.

Day 5
Just some amorphous dirt. Where does all the other nasty stuff go? Items two through four are just gone, although there has been no obvious intervention by people wearing hazmat suits and grave demeanours.

Anti-corruption fail

So I’m poking around on the website of the Central Anticorruption Bureau (important journalistic research doncha know) and it occurs to me to wonder what I would do if I was foreigner wanting to report a heinous act of corruption—like my wife scoffing all the Christmas fruit cake for example. I clicked over to the helpfully provided English-language version and followed the links. The results were… discouraging

English-language home page of the Central Anticorruption Bureau.

Hooray, a questionnaire! Kliknąć!


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Christmas caption competition

It’s a Christmas caption competition in the sense that it’s happening at Christmas time. Gather your family around the monitor after Christmas (eve) dinner and encourage them to invent witty alternatives.


…and then Father Christmas murdered my brother and stuffed him in a sack… honest

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President of Poland hypnotised… twice

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Miraculous vodka pool discovered in Lublin

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Does my dictatorship look big in this?

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Polish crowds eagerly anticipate first disaster of 2011


Mysterious Internet superhero Island1 Assange has recently published the contents of six-and-a-half billion pieces of paper he found in the bins behind the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Startling revelations being poured over by the world’s media include hints that Jarosław Kaczyński might be “a bit suspicious” of the Russians and that Radosław Sikorski spelled the word “zucchini” wrong twice on a shopping list.

Among printouts of secret emails sent from Poland’s far flung embassies and notes written on the back of unpaid gas bills are tantalising glimpses of the high-powered world of international diplomacy. Highlights include:

Poland’s ambassador to Ireland, Tadeusz Szumowski, begging to be allowed home before he has to eat his shoes…

An inter-office competition to photoshop the most amusing moustache on Angela Merkel…

Not official Polish policy

Warnings from the the Polish consulate in Nottingham that the locals are getting dangerously close to perfecting a recipe for bigos…

Complaints from embassy staff in Moscow that Putin has hidden all their toys and is a “horrid, nasty man”…

Putin a “big meanie”

An application from the Hotel Kinga, Pcim, to accommodate secret CIA prisoners (rejected on humanitarian grounds)…

Details of a black propaganda operation aimed at ruining the reputation of that “smug bastard” Colin Farrell…

Polish authorities have expressed a desire to “talk” to Island1, who is believed to be in hiding somewhere under the bed.

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