Acquiring a little Polish

No, I have not been out to buy some Mr Sheen (not even, Baby Mr Sheen – Young Master Sheen?) – but as previously mentioned did spend the first half of the week in Poland. Unusually for a business trip, I did manage to see slightly more of my destination than its airport, an international hotel and the road(s) that link them.

My invite came courtesy of my willingness to harangue a crowd any time, any place, anywhere.  I suppose I would have to admit that the unfortunate crowds can’t find the whole experience too objectionable as I do keep receiving invites to deliver more of my schtick (and the reviews are usually decent, though I blame Stockholm syndrome for this).  This particular crowd whilst not my largest, was still a decent size and one of the most senior and by the far tyhe most international ever subjected to my feeble attempts at vocal wit (cunningly disguised as electricity industry insight).

The gig took place in Krakow, which is a rather beautiful city – though it did its best to hide this fact behind almost constant (very cold) fog.  Still, I did catch a brief glimpse of the Wawel Castle and even managed a chilly stroll to the Market Square.  The fog did reveal a useful insight for the aviator (perhaps a slightly grand title for a chap flying with easyJet) which is to pick a flight that arrives and lands around 1pm – this seems to offer the least fog and so minimises delays (~1 hour each way, a far better performance than most of the other attendees).  Given that Krakow airport is largely a building site at the moment (though I’m sure it will be lovely, eventually) it is not the ideal place to spend a long delay – the seating was pretty uncomfortable (almost as uncomfortable as easyJet’s seating).

The event offered a Gala Dinner on Monday night, which was held in a salt mine – some 135m below ground.  This involved a descent in a very cramped and basic lift (but we were VIPs, normal visitors have to use the 800+ steps) and a stroll through tunnels to reach the particular cavern where we were being hosted.  Dinner was great fun – entertaining company plus folk dancing and a comedic (and pulchritudinous) string quartet.  I saw very few peacocks whilst in Poland (none, in fact) and the folk dancing gave a clue as to why – traditional Polish garb requires a surprisingly large number of peacock feathers.  I suspect any local peafowl have become very skilled at hiding!

Peacock danger

Peacock danger

You will be pleased to know that I was released from the mine and, on Tuesday night, I once again went out for dinner – this time in town (rather than beneath it) to the gloriously named Kogel Mogel.  This involved a smaller group – but still contained someone from Northern Ireland, a Canadian, two Colombians, a Swede and an Anglo-American (plus me).

Before travelling abroad, I like to have at least some simple vocabulary – I view it as a basic courtesy as well as potentially helpful.  I didn’t know any Polish at all, so before this trip I attempted to (more-or-less) acquire the skill to say “please”, “thank you” and “receipt” in Polish (which I think you will agree covers most possible conversations in a foreign land).  I was also aware that Polish is basically phonetic – so, as in the old gameshow Catchphrase, you say what you see (or you would if you knew what you were seeing) – and that it has a mere 8 different vowels.  Whilst wandering around, I attempted to extend this vocabulary based on signage – especially that which, like the Rosetta Stone, had the same phrase in several languages.  I also, thanks to John Peel and Home Truths, knew that the city of Lodz (the L should have a stroke through it, but this seem to be beyond WordPress) is pronounced Woodge.  A fair number of Polish words also have a Latinate root (onion does, for example), which helps with the meaning as I can extrapolate from French or Spanish.

Armed with this very basic knowledge, at the restaurant I attempted to order my food in Polish – reading the words from the menu with my best guess as to the phonetics and with a sort of generic East European accent overlaid on this.  This strategy did prevent me from ordering some items on the menu, where I couldn’t even guess how to say the particular combination of letters, but still left a decent range of options.  I’m not sure if my Welsh ancestry helped (a language, like Polish, not afraid to use consonants), but my attempts were surprisingly successful – or the waitress was being unnecessarily polite.  My fellow diners seemed oddly impressed by my linguistic skills (truly, in the land of the blind etc) – if a little worried by my overt eccentricity.  However, we were soon all attempting to order in Polish – I like to think because I made it look so much fun.   As, indeed, it was – if I am to go further with the language I may have to practise speaking without a huge grin on my face (an expression that will not always be appropriate).  There is something wonderful about speaking a Slavic language (or a tiny bit thereof), I think part of me feels like a master spy when speaking Polish.  Southampton has quite a large Polish community, so I am wondering if I should start exercising my new found language skills on them – if nothing else, it may give them something of a shock as I doubt they often experience the locals trying to speak Polish.

So, I would recommend learning even the smallest amount about the language before you go abroad, it can be a lot of fun.  I can also confirm that many of the folk of the international electricity industry make for great company over dinner: I am now sorely tempted to visit Colombia (not something I ever expected to type).

Meeting in Milan

Business travel is much less romantic than is often imagined by those bound to these shores by their employ.  One sees little of foreign lands: except for their airports, dual carriageways, international hotels and office blocks – most of which lack much in the way of local flavour or charm.

Earlier this month, business took me to Milan for a couple of days.  The trip had a poor start, as freezing fog cancelled all flights (including mine) from London and I had to wait nearly nine hours before I could head to Lombardy.  Such a hefty delay meant I could return home – despite a two hour journey each way – which seemed preferable to spending the whole time at the airport.  I’m slightly surprised with all of our technology that fog is sufficient to stop all flights (it is hardly a volcano – or even rare) but in partial compensation, the countryside on my return home through Essex looked magical as the sun came out and the thickest, whitest rime I have ever seen bedizening every twig and branch.

Eventually, I did reach Milan and was able to enjoy their efficient and astoundingly cheap metro (less than a third of the price of its London counterpart for the casual user) to trundle around the city.  Still, it wasn’t entirely unlike home as there were huge problems on the mainline trains while I was there (though luckily, this didn’t affect me).

Lunch was in the staff canteen of the organisation I was visiting, but this being Italy coffee was an important epilogue to lunch.  For this we all went to a small, apparently unremarkable, little coffee shop around the corner.  In this country, coffee is now a much more involved process than it was when I was young – much banging, hissing and frothing accompanies the production and it all takes quite a while.  Much the same is true in Italy (though they did some rather quicker and more efficient) but the attention to detail goes one step further than it does at home.  If your chosen beverage includes whipped cream this is produced from an aerosol can in the UK, even in relatively upmarket venues, whereas my modest Italian venue used fresh whipped cream piped using a bag onto your drink.  Here is something we could definitely learn from our Italian cousins!  Sadly, I don’t drink coffee (which marks me out as much more abnormal than was once the case.  Coffee shops fill our high street and shopping centres in the way that Douglas Adams once imagined shoe shops would) – and even I am not yet decadent enough to have whipped cream on my tea.

National stereotyping would suggest that the Italians are more passionate than they are efficient.  Added to which, they do keep re-electing Silvio Berlusconi to the amusement and exasperation of much of Europe (and, I suspect, Italy) which doesn’t do much for their reputation overseas.  My, admittedly limited, experience suggests that they are in fact a fair bit more efficient than we are.  When I woke on my final morning in Milan, a good foot or so of snow had fallen – and more was continuing to fall.  A week or so earlier, half-an-inch fell in East Anglia: so little that I could still cycle quite easily and safely but still enough to close Stansted Airport for some time.  So, I feared my return journey would be even worse delayed than the outbound leg,  but the people of Lombardy are made of sterner stuff than those of Essex and I needn’t have worried.  Despite being dusted in fresh snow as I walked across the tarmac at Linate to reach my plane, the only delay my return flight experienced was caused by a problem at snow-free Heathrow.

There has been much debate about the desperate need for an extra runway at Heathrow (or, indeed, a whole new airport in the Thames Estuary) if this country is to escape from recession.  I find this very puzzling – are there great queues of foreigners keen to spend money in the UK, but unable to land?  Surely, people leaving the country to spend their money abroad can’t be doing much for UK plc?  Or is the idea to pack the recession onto fleets of aircraft and deport it?

As a man of business (a sort of sub-lieutenant of industry), lack of runways at Heathrow has never been an issue.  An inability to keep them open certainly has been an issue as has the excessive cost of reaching the airport and the huge amount of time wasted both when departing and arriving.  Perhaps these issues could be prioritised first: I reckon they’d be cheaper and could be delivered before 2020 (unlike a new runway).  What we do already have at Heathrow is a computerised border – where a computer reads your passport and looks at your face and (eventually) decides to let you in.  I’m sure this is the future and demonstrates the marvels of modern technology.  The one caveat with this system is that it is appreciably slower than a human being carrying out the same process and can’t partake in even brief conversation.  I also fear the cost of each machine would pay a human salary for many, many years – still, that’s progress I suppose,

While the trip was tiring, it had its moments of fun and showed there is much we can still learn from the Italians.  I have been to Italy several times now, but always for business, and I think its time I visited for pleasure:: but perhaps I’ll wait until the weather is a tad warmer!  It might also be a good plan to refresh my rusty schoolboy Latin with something a little more current…

Strange weather

As I may have mentioned before, I am no stranger to the Stevenson screen (invented by the father of Robert Louis Stevenson, apparently) having been a stalwart of the Weather Club when at secondary modern school back in the late 1970s.  Having the keys to the “screen” made me a very desirable chap, I can tell you – not just any lad of 12 could offer a look at his wet-and-dry bulb.

After a few years of cycling around South Cambs, I have realised my understanding of the weather is not quite as great as I might have imagined.  I used to think that fog and strong wind were mortally enemies – wherever there was fog, strong wind would be absent and vice versa.  Either I was wrong, or they have had a major rapprochement since 1979, but I can assure you that strong wind and fog can now often be seen out and about together.  I’m not sure how this works – you’d think a stiff breeze would disperse the fog – but it is nice to see ancient enemies burying the hatchet.

Today, I encountered another new weather phenomenon.  Before departing Fish Towers, I checked the forecast (dry) and the rainfall radar (not a shower within 100 miles of Sawston) and so was slightly surprised by the continuous and insistent rainfall that was my companion as I headed into Cambridge for a little last-minute Christmas shopping.  It would seem that the boffins at Qinetiq (or one of our other, somewhat euphemistically named, defence companies) have succeeded in developing stealth rain!  Yes, finally the dream of rain that is totally invisible to radar is a reality – though, the real breakthrough will be invisible fog (ideal for airports!).  No longer will the UK need recourse to fire- or cluster-bombing of civilian populations in order to undermine enemy morale.  No, in future the mere threat of being able to ruin fêtes and barbecues without warning should quickly bring Her Majesty’s foes to their knees and/or senses;  and how pleasing that we are finally able to use one of this country’s greatest strengths, and bring drizzle to bear in the field of conflict.

Still, bad weather is not without the odd delight.  Last week, while almost freezing rain was being hurled at me with stinging force by a fierce crosswind, I did have the pleasure of seeing a rainbow.  Not just seeing one, but for the first time ever I could actually see the end of the rainbow and where exactly it touched the ground: in a hedge less than 100 yards from me.  No sign of a diminutive Irish chappie with (or without) a pot of gold though.  Maybe all those TV offers to buy your gold through the post had proven too much of a temptation?  Or have the leprechauns all been recalled as part of the attempt to bail-out the flagging economy back home?