Category Archives: UNDERSTANDING POLAND

Ostalgie

No, the title is not missing the letter ‘N’ – instead the term Ostalgie (along with the phrase Soviet chic) is used to refer to nostalgia regarding life under the socialist systems in former communist countries of Eastern Europe, most notably East Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. I find it a particularly interesting topic, as it combines a retrospective look at history (albeit sometimes through a rose-tinted view), with a look a sociological and psychological impacts of major change. The German response of Ostalgie has been made clear by films such as Sonnenallee and Goodbye,  Lenin! And with clothing saying DDR and CCCP being fashionable, it seems Ostalgie will be here for some time to come.

“Only in the PRL”…?

However, in my time in Poland so far, the touches of Ostalgia have been much more muted, if even visible at all. It took me a while to understand what the PRL was, after I noticed it mentioned a few times in newspapers or on television. However a few days ago while stopped at a traffic light, I received a flyer advertising a PRL tavern. This got me thinking to other ways in which the feel of the PRL is there, but just not in an ‘in your face’ way. While Trabants seem to fit more to East German history, it’s not uncommon to see Maluchs in Poland, still phutt-phutting around. On the culinary front (as well as the above offering), there are plenty of Bar Mleczny to be found in most Polish cities and towns.

Mmmm, I think I’ll have the 1kg meat mix!

The open longing for the past is less evident in Poland than some other countries where Ostalgie is in effect. The major upheavals which took place in East Germany and Russia following the fall of Communism are still evident today, with numbers of the older generations in particular pining for the days of full employment and more relaxed lifestyles, while conveniently overlooking queueing for basic consumer goods, censorship and police states. Poland seems to have strided confidently forward without looking back.

At some point though, history pulls you back. The character Lileth Sternin, known as the ex-wife on the Frasier series, had a great line which resonates well: “With one hand the past moves us forward, with the other it holds us back”.  While Poland is fine with dragging up history from time to time, it seems the nostalgia for the PRL period has not fully kicked in yet. Maybe in a few years, when all the kids will be wearing t-shirts saying PRL instead of CCCP. In fact, there’s a business idea worth jumping on before it takes off.

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The Dunes of Łeba

Unfortunately. no – there will not be a Polish remake of the Dukes of Hazzard, but the title refers to sands near the beaches on the Polish Baltic seaside. The town of Łeba is one of the most northerly in Poland, with nothing beyond but water until you reach Sweden. It lies at the edge of Słowinski National Park, of which the sand dunes are a part of. There are also lakes (namely Lake Gardno, Lake Sarbsko and Lake Łebsko).

Lake Łebsko

Because they are within the National Park, the dunes are not accessible by car, or otherwise motorized vehicles. Thus, there are a few options by which to travel the 5.5 kilometres between the entrance and the dunes themselves – either by foot or by renting a bicycle or by paying to take an electronic mini-train powered by a form of golf cart. The walk takes about 1 hour and on a fine day is a fine way to go, with most of the walk through forested areas, with the sea nearby, so the sound of waves crashing is a nice natural setting. It’s a popular location, with many people making the journey using one of the three methods available.

Forest in Słowinski National Park

The dunes are impressive, with them over 40 metres in height. Considering that they are right beside the sea, it is a big jump up on sands. Due to the winds, the dunes can move up to 10 metres in direction over the timeframe of a year. It’s noticeable also that only part of the dunes are accessible. There are signs posted indicating that there are sand vipers to be aware of so it’s not advisable to wander far beyond the rope barriers erected.

Just 800 metres from the dunes are the sea and the beach. Both feel more natural and wilder than other beaches in the locality, partially because there is no town in the near vicinity, and when it takes 5.5 kilometres to get there, whether by bike, foot or mini-train, then it takes some effort to get there. However, it is well worth it for the wild wind-swept feel and natural beauty.

Enough of the words, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

View from dunes to Lake Łebsko

Boat on Lake Łebsko

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Poland’s Seaside

As Ian has returned from holidays, he has passed the holiday baton to me, as I have been partaking of the few first days of my two weeks off work. Last year my wife and I went to Italy by car – this time we decided to hit the Polish seaside, namely Ustka in Pomorskie. Below are some observations.

Gradual road improvement

A definite positive to come from the European Championships being held here was the push for infrastructural improvement in order to facilitate travel between venues. This was highlighted on our way from the south to the north, with two experiences showing the past/present against the present/future. The town of Włocławek seemed to be one big set of road-works, with most roads being dug up and the remaining ones being an obstacle course in pothole-avoidance. However, not long after the A1 highway began, bypassing Toruń before continuing about 200 kilometres to meet the edge of Gdańsk. From leaving originally to reaching Gdańsk, it took us about 6.5 hours, which seemed faster than expected. Now, it was a Sunday morning when we did most of the driving, and if there was any traffic, most of it seemed to be travelling against us, back to the south or centre of Poland. However the road improvements look like hitting home, although with the Euros finished, the impetus to continue might not be there.


Cold as Ice

When Polish friends and colleagues asked where I was about to go for holidays and I said “the Polish seaside”, the immediate response was almost always, “The water is sooo cold there”. I have to say that I have not felt the extremity of the coldness that everyone was warning me about. For example, yesterday the air temperature was 23 degrees, while the water temperature was 18 degrees. Of course, the water is not exactly warm at that temperature either, but considering that it’s the Baltic Sea, and perhaps factoring in the small difference in air and sea temperature, it did not feel too bad. Perhaps it would be different in the peak of summer in July, with a day of sun and temperatures of 30+ degrees.

Here fishy, fishy

Fresh fish can be seen as a luxury, at least in the south of Poland. There is an understanding in Kraków that if you want to sample the best of the ‘fruits of the sea’, then you have to order fish on Thursday evenings, Fridays or Saturdays, as fresh fish only arrives in town on Thursday. The closer you get to the sea, this luxury becomes a bounty. The past few days have seen menus of dorsz (cod), fląder (flounder), łosoś (salmon), pstrąg (trout) and halibut presented to us, all caught within the previous 24 hours. It almost makes me think twice about being a devout meat-eater. Almost…

Nostalgia – it ain’t what it used to be

The Polish seaside retains a certain charm about it, although more and more Poles will find themselves choosing between going abroad or staying at home for their summer holidays. The seaside has personal historical significance for many Poles as it would have been the main options for holidays when they were growing up.  This would be true even down to the locations which people would visit. My wife told me the story of how she was discussing the Polish seaside with two colleagues from work and found that the three of them all went to the same little town north of Gdynia, even though they come from three different locations in central and southern Poland and would have travelled to the seaside in different years, based on age differences.

The heady mixture of salt air, fresh fish, sand between your toes and the sound of the lapping waves builds memories worth holding onto, which shows why large numbers of the fellow tourists we encountered tended to be Polish families with small children (usually infants younger than school-going age). The only requirements for a successful holiday for them would be a bucket, spade, bathing suits, sun-tan lotion and plenty of gofry and ice-cream. Thus for Poles the sea will always maintain that mystical nostalgia which will continue to bring people back.

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Why is Poland not more successful at the Olympics?

Today sees the end of the 2012 Olympics, hosted by Great Britain in particular, London. We’ve been doing our best to keep up with the goings on but what with being on holiday and all that we’ve not seen much. I suppose thanks to the lateness of the event I’ve recently watched the 10m individual diving events. Fascinating though they were I found myself longing for someone to shock us with a dive altogether less athletic so we could enjoy the simple grace and elegance of a person diving into the pool without the need for 4.5 turns or 2.5 twists to crank up the technical difficulty points. To be expected I suppose, all sport is getting buggered up by something these days.

Team GB have performed extremely well with a haul of medals that is easy to imagine as the best ever. A total of 62 medals so far 28 of which are golden and third place overall behind China and the USA. In recent memory only the last Olympics in Beijing came close with 19 gold and a total of 47. The best performance ever by team GB though came in 1908 when they absolutely dominated with a total medal tally of 146 of which 56 were gold and 51 silver. In second place were the USA with 47 medals including 23 gold.

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The 1908 games were supposed to be held in Rome but an eruption of Vesuvius trashed Naples and so funds were diverted. The UK stepped in and London held the games instead with White City being the main stadium. Hard to believe that the area was arable farmland before being developed for the games. The stadium itself stood until 1985 when it was demolished to make way for the BBC building.

Clearly team GB get a big lift from performing on home soil, which is not something Poland has ever been able to do. Poland are the third best Olympic performer not to have ever hosted the games after Hungary and Romania but don’t let that be a source of too much pride. In round figures, Poland has a population of 40 million, Romania only 20 million and Hungary a tiny 10 million. The UK has 60 million by comparison.

In this Olympics, Hungary has 17 medals with 8 golds, Romania comes second in this mini-league with 9 medals including 2 gold and 5 silver and Poland come last with 10 medals, 2 gold but only 2 silver.

Surely, based on population figures alone, Poland is seriously underperforming? For sure the UK are investing more, recently at least but I can’t believe that Hungary or Romania are spending more on their athletic facilities than Poland so the question is why are Poland not doing better? From what I’ve seen of the Poles they are at least if not more active as a nation than most, so for 40 million people to not translate into medals is surprising. As the Polish Olympic HQ is just down the road from where I live perhaps I’ll pop in and ask them. I suspect I’ll be told funding and politics but is that not just a bunch of excuses. Where’s the individual Poles with the determination and skill to live the Olympic dream? Few and far between.

No excuses please about focusing on the Winter Olympics because that’s even worse.

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Holidays: Home or Away?

It’s that time of the year… you’ve been working hard without a break for a few months, and your ‘legally mandated’ period of 2 weeks off work is upcoming. Now for the key question – where shall we go? It’s probably a curse of modern times that there is almost too much choice out there, in most cases, but especially so in terms of holiday options. For those that have some disposable income, the prospect of a week or two away is not just an option now, but seen as a necessity. But, do you go for a city trip, a sun-soaked loungeabout or a nature trip hiking through hills and mountains? Living in Poland gives fairly easy access to all three and more.

Traditionally Poles would have considered ‘local’ holiday options as the priority in the past, with the restrictions of communism limiting possibilities in terms of location and how much money could be spent. This seems to have developed a strong culture of spending winter/spring in the mountains, while summers would involve trips to the Baltic seaside. People were not just limited to Poland also though, as I’ve heard plenty of stories of trips (usually by car or bus) to Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria or other locations also behind the ‘Iron Curtain‘.

Cheaper fuel, inexpensive flight options and the expansion of the package holiday culture to Poland have then given the options of Mallorca, Fuerteventura, the Algarve, Greece and Cyprus to the available plans of Poles. Even with quite high temperatures in summer and the prospect of a few weeks of sun and ~30 degree heat in Poland – some sea, sand and sangria combined with the sun is an intoxicating prospect. Thus, the recent ‘turbulence’ in the Polish travel industry has made some think twice about how and where they would like to take holidays. Within the past 4-5 weeks, 7 Polish travel agencies have gone out of business. The actual impact of some of the closures could be seen as small, with some of the agencies being more local in size, but when some of the larger ones such as Sky Club and Triada are affecting over 23,000 stranded tourists, this begins to hit the thinking of anyone considering holiday travel. The thought of being stranded in Egypt, Greece or Bulgaria seems a real prospect and while most travellers would look forward to a week or two there as part of a pre-paid package, being stuck there longer than required gives a shock to the system.

Summarising the ripple effect of such closures in the travel industry has been the bankruptcy of the airline OLT Express within the past few days. The German parent company of the Polish affiliate decided that they could not put any further money into OLT Express. The news seemed to come suddenly also. I had a work colleague who found out on the morning of her flight with OLT between Kraków and Poznań about 10 days ago that it was cancelled due to the company bankruptcy. This closure too, has also affected Poles, not just in terms of travel but also with 800 job losses, according to the OLT homepage. The cause of seeing multiple closures in a small time period will surely be something worth investigating. The companies themselves can probably cite a number of contributing factors, such as the economic down-turn, proliferation of internet options and competition from other providers being to blame. However, the managerial planning and strategy has to be at fault also, with the report from thenews.pl indicating that the national Prosecutors Office will be investigating potential fraudulent involvement in the collapse of Sky Club.

Finally, we are left with the question, “What are the options now in Poland, when considering holidays?” With ever more consumers becoming more and more internet-savvy, that will have to be the first option when considering holiday options. With less people-involvement, it can happen that there are further offers and options online, as long as you are willing to do some of the leg-work yourself. Last-minute websites and travel aggregators are now showing more and more offers to entice buyers, and if you are willing to ‘break up’ holiday plans by booking hotel and flights individually, and thus taking more risk yourself, it can be rewarding also.

I also expect that Poles will turn back to Poland (and central Europe also) as a short term backlash against the travel agency closures. But there will still be many that fancy the sun, sea and sand combination. So, the questions will be: Hel or Heraklion? Mazuria or Malta? Kraków or Kreta?

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