I mentioned at the start of the post just below this one that 2021 is the tenth anniversary of my first trip to Poland. I’ve drunk quite a lot of beer since then, both in and outside Poland, and, while Poland has always had a tradition of decent bottled beers (Baltic porters, chiefly), the beer scene is remarkably different now to then.
Back then beers whose attractiveness is best described as ‘cold and wet’ predominated (they still do, of course), but 2011 saw the arrival of the first hop forward beer – ‘Atak Chmielu’ (‘Hop Attack’), produced (under contract) by Silesia’s PINTA – thus getting the craft beer (piwo rzemieślnicze) revolution underway with a view to changing Polish beer drinkers’ tastebuds. Now, you can find interesting – and, indeed, experimental beers, if that’s your thing – right across the country and, while this might be naturally expected in the large towns and cities, even the smaller, more remote locations also have restaurants and outlets where you can find good, locally-produced, fresh beer – usually bottled, but also on draught in some places – which doesn’t taste like every. single. other. beer you tried before. Living in a small, more remote location where such a thing is difficult, I recognise that that’s no mean feat.
As this very recent article quite astutely points out, there are actually two revolutions underway in Poland – not only challenging people’s tastebuds, being the first and most obvious, but turning Poland from a vodka country to a beer country being the second, deeper, one which has major social as well as economic connotations. Both revolutions are, of course, connected.
Poland now produces more beer each year than the UK, despite having a population only 56 per cent of the size, and only Germany among European countries produces more. And, while 80 per cent of Polish beer consumption is from one of the ‘big three’ (owned respectively by Asahi, Heineken and Carlsberg), there are now more than 300 active breweries, many of them microbreweries and larger, but regionalised concerns. Naturally, this success has encouraged the big three to produce their own versions of craft beer in response, although (alongside other more sneaky big beer/business tactics, including the one of disguise) there are several issues here too. However, it seems that craft has been making some inroads: that 80 per cent figure (source: Wikipedia, dating from 2014) seems, on the basis of more recent market share figures, dating from 2017, to have fallen back a bit. Tastebuds are being changed – but progress is slow and likely to be beset by a range of issues of which the impact on social habits and customs of Covid-19 over the last eighteen months, and counting, is only one among many.
Wide availability of good product helps. In Wrocław I expected to find good beers aplenty, both as a result of the history (see post below) as well as a rich economy and a large, young population. Here, for instance, I had a pale ale brewed with New Zealand hops (actually, the first NZ beer I’ve tried) made by a local brewery but, crucially, available in an ordinary restaurant: I didn’t need to step into any of the brewery restaurants which are present even on the main square in the city, such as the rightly-renowned Golden Dog, or a taproom. But in lovely Świeradow-Zdrój – population 4,100 – craft beers were also easily available in bars and restaurants (albeit from another of the Wrocław craft breweries – a 150km distance is still pretty local); in Kudowa-Zdrój, where the local beers came from across the border in the Czech Republic; and in the Bieszczady Mountains, in the far south-east corner of the country and whose towns were largely deserted until the 1970s as a result of the aftermath of the establishment of modern-day Poland subsequent to the Second World War, where the bottled beers from one brewery, the nearest town to which has a population of 5,700, were ubiquitous in restaurants across the villages of the region.
Here’s an advert for that brewery in the market stalls clustered around the bus stop in Ustrzyki Górne – more a destination than a town, really – and, as you can see, not only an advert, too:
Ursa Maior ticks many of the right craft beer boxes – set up by a champion homebrewer in 2013, and a woman at that, it has a solid range of core beers, all of which are entirely vegan, cleverly branded and marketed, is firmly attached to and rooted within its community and proudly champions its environmental credentials. It is open to visitors for tours and for a taproom experience, is youthful, English-speaking, all over social media and with website design which has a modern, fresh appeal. Heck, to judge by the language on its 2021 recruitment advert, it could also have got to the stage, like many of its contemporaries internationally, where it could do with recognising a trade union. Hmm.
Socially therefore, we might well be getting to the point where Polish people might well be asking ‘Is a beer at the wedding a good idea?’, going by the title of this interview with Agnieszka Łopata, the founder of Ursa Maior (a title whose philosophical properties justify a deeper analysis than simply a piece on a wedding planner website, I think) – the point being that Poland is indeed moving away from spirits-based celebrations centred on vodka: still the national drink, but being caught up by beer. There are many factors in this, chief among them being the nation’s alcohol advertising laws (only beer among alcoholic drinks can be advertised and only then when health warnings covering 20 per cent of the surface area of the advert are in place). All this does, however, mean that the ‘alkohole’ shops of yore – grim places in which you’re more than likely to encounter a certain type of clientele shuffling apologetically around (hence the reason for the advertising laws – alcoholism has been a problem in Poland) and often featuring bars over small windows placed high up on walls – are being slowly replaced by modern bottle shops, like one where we stayed in Cisna (population, outside the tourist season, less than 500), well-stocked with an increasingly wide range of regional beers from many different breweries like Ursa Maior lined up on bare, or barely painted, wood shelves which are attractively lit. Sadly, I have no photographs of this one. Busy it was, too, the midweek night I was in.
Alongside a network of good bottle shops which increases people’s opportunities to buy – some 89 per cent of sales in Poland is off-trade, i.e. for the home, according to the factsheet produced by the industry association in Poland – changing people’s tastebuds is evidently the key. Or, alternatively, that there can be more to ‘lager’ than cold and wet, which also has its place in hot countries; or that, alternatively, ale doesn’t have to be ‘dank’; or that good beer doesn’t have to involve a lot of faff around choice, styles, tastes and food matching options; and worrying that you might have got the wrong one. Asking for ‘a beer’ should be simple and, moreover, good beer should always be what arrives.
It’s actually pretty easy to sell a craft product – including beer – to tourists who want to experience something authentic and local to where they are as a key part of their holiday; it’s another thing entirely to be able to do more than just engage in deep cleaning-oriented shutdowns in those parts of the year when tourists are thin on the ground and when the requirement for freshness means getting your product not only out, but sold, in a reasonable time after it emerges from fermentation. The Bieszczady has its off-season too, when winter snows lead to Cisna being covered by 3m of snow, as one hotelier reported to us, albeit that snow brings winter sports enthusiasts alongside walkers looking for a different sort of challenge than you find in the mountains in the summer (and including those presented by hungry, and capable, wild animals).
Being able to sell beer year-round in remote areas means either, or more probably both, of having a good website presence and a clear online sales facility (to which you can also respond in timely fashion) and of selling to locals. In the latter case, this often means overcoming people’s desire just to ‘be like everyone else’ and, completely conversely to the tourist experience, precisely to get away from where they are. In Poland, this might well mean preferring to buy a Tyskie, a Żywiec or an Okocim (or, in the Western Isles, a Tennent’s, a McEwan’s or, ahem, a Punk IPA, Aberdeen’s Brewdog already being the largest independent in the UK). The investment in alternative beer in the spa towns of the west and in the Bieszczady seems to indicate that this key problem of selling outside the main tourist season can be overcome, although a look at the street maps produced by one online giant or another indicates just how recent a lot of this investment is – and, therefore, how vulnerable, too – and an out-of-season re-visit would probably be a good idea, too. An emphasis on the local, the rooted and the community which goes hand-in-hand with being part of a remote area; while an emphasis on fewer food miles, not least in these times of both climate change as well as supply chain bottlenecks, has a lot to commend itself and it may be part of an appeal which is possible to replicate elsewhere. In our corner of Europe, in contrast, getting stock into the major retail outlets does seem to be a problem and that may, in turn, reflect a lack of discretion to local managers as regards purchases, perhaps combined with a large degree of central purchasing.
So, some signs of good progress in Poland these last ten years; but, like anywhere else, the road is both rocky and long, and full of potholes and other bumpy bits. Do support your local producers, wherever you find them: Covid-19 and extended shutdowns has meant that many are barely surviving as it is. In the meantime, it’s good to know that local brewers in the UK can learn the success factors in selling craft beer just as much from the Polish experience, and possibly more, as Polish brewers can from us. That’s also progress.
It’s been a little-more-than-usually quiet on the blog these last few weeks as we’ve been away and, well, a holiday deserves to be a holiday.
Covid-19 and foreign travel
Our plane tickets were booked some time ago but it was a bit of a late decision actually to use them, amidst rising CV-19 cases ahead of the UK’s ‘unlocking’ on 19 July and eventually secured not least as a result of Bulgaria’s decision to close its borders (again) to UK citizens from the same date, it surely not being long before the rest of the EU was likely to follow suit (well, I would, in their shoes). This didn’t happen, as it turned out, but it was a key factor prompting us to take the chance – if borders had been closed again, it might have been some time before we got back to Europe proper.
Getting into Poland was not onerous: a downloadable certificate demonstrating our double-jabbed status; and a passenger locator form in the shape of an A4 pro forma issued and filled in on the plane, and collected by flight staff; if they even passed it to the Polish border guards, I suspect it wasn’t long before it duly found its way into the big round A-Z file. After a steep rise in the spring, CV-19 cases in Poland have fallen dramatically now representing, according to this interactive chart on the Pink ‘Un (set up to show comparative cases/100,000 population in Poland and in the UK), a tiny fraction of those in the UK: given the bureaucracy (and the expense) associated with getting back into the UK from a visit to a country which remains, still, ‘amber list’, things really ought to be the other way around.
Face coverings remain formally mandatory in inside, unventilated places and, while this was usually respected at the start of the trip, the sheer absence of cases and a vaccination programme which has seen substantial progress among the over-18s saw non-observance noticeably rise during the course of our stay. As we’ve seen from the UK this week, however, large proportions of vaccinated people do not mean that cases cannot rise, or restrictions be again under contemplation – other factors are also at work and, in Poland. a fourth wave is indeed predicted for the autumn.
2021 also sees the 10th anniversary of my first visit to Poland (a latecomer on my travels around central and eastern Europe).
Anyway, our trip took us initially to Wrocław and then anti-clockwise around the borders of modern-day Poland with the Czech Republic (via the spa towns of Świeradów-Zdrój; and Kudowa-Zdrój) to the very south-east corner in the Bieszczady Mountains, bordered on three sides by Ukraine and where Poland also borders Slovakia via the Carpathians, and then slightly north to the major city of Rzeszów. Thus, the more progressive, developed and investment-heavy west and the more socially conservative, less developed investment-poor east. The nature of the locations prompted quite a few thoughts about borders, migration and the importance of symbols and language, and I’ve attached these in an extended longform essay below, along with some of the on-theme photos filtered out from the 1,400+ I took during the three weeks, interleaving these observations with a few diary entries documenting where we visited.
We travelled by train and bus wherever possible; planning each stage (travel and accommodation) one in advance. This gave us some flexibility although we were able to retain a broad direction in mind.
Some relatively modern history about borders
I suspect like many others in the UK, I was ignorant until quite recently about the fact that Poland was shifted physically westwards as a result of World War II. Despite being on the winning side, as well as being the casus belli between the UK and Nazi Germany, Poland lost extensive amounts of territory to the east (along the so-called Curzon line which meant the loss of then Lwów, now Lviv and previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), to newly-independent Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania as Stalin sought to push his ‘security zone’ as far west as he could (modern geopolitical history continues to see this frontier very much as contested territory); but gaining the ‘Recovered Territories’ from Germany in the north (Gdańsk and eastwards) and in the west (along the Oder-Neisse line and including Silesia (Wrocław) and up to Szczecin, the latter actually west of the Oder). Modern-day Poland was essentially re-established on the basis of the realm of the medieval Piast dynasty. From being pretty central, even slightly west, of the longitudinal centre of Poland, Warsaw found itself quite firmly in its east; and, while Poland certainly lost territory overall, in terms of hectares (it ended up at about 80 per cent of its pre-war size), this was, at least to some degree although this is inevitably controversial, compensated by the Recovered Territories being more highly developed than the areas conceded in the east. The Poland that emerged was more compact than before, and with two quite distinct halves, and the fault lines that resulted from this continue to affect Poland and Polish society today. Polish agreement to this reduction in its size and influence was only achieved by intense wartime diplomatic pressure as well as, rather belatedly, a recognition of the geopolitical realities.
As we might imagine, the cost in human terms of all this border-shifting was immense as people were forcibly moved, on the basis in some cases of an ‘exchange of populations’, as the Polish nation state sought to reconstitute itself as a homogeneous entity and find room in the Recovered Territories for people leaving lands lost to the east, while itself deporting non-Poles to the east. Ordinary German people lost their homes in lands in which many had been settled for some time to the new Polish nation, being forcibly moved to within the borders of how Germany was now constituted. It is hard to disagree with Norman Davies‘s simple conclusion that:
Inimitably, frontiers were to have priority over mere people.
‘God’s Playground’ p. 379, 2005 edition (re-printed in 2013)
Politicians debating over where lines should be drawn on a map can have no other outcome.
The sheer effort involved is hard to imagine: it consumed much of the next three years and, in terms of German expellees from Poland, totalled no fewer than five million people held and then transferred in conditions which may have been familiar to the Nazis but much less so to ordinary Germans caught up in the war but living lives outside of the Nazi machine. On top of the number of Poles moved internally, and into Poland from beyond its new borders, this was indeed one of the ‘greatest demographic upheavals in European history’ (Davies, p. 422, p. 423) – and it happened within the living memory of many of us. It’s a shame that, collectively, we don’t know, or appreciate, these key events better.
After a night in Wrocław (formerly Breslau), a two-hour bus trip took us back west and a bit south to Świeradów-Zdrój (Bad Flinsberg), for some acclimatisation, cake and a delightful, charming family reunion. Świeradów-Zdrój is a rather genteel spa town, notable otherwise for being high enough above sea level to sustain a winter sports industry in the harsh months of the Polish winter – the highest peak is Stog Izerski, served by a cable car, and, despite being 1107m above sea level (that’s 3,360 feet; for comparison, Mount Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa is 1085m above sea level), it’s still substantially below the tree line (largely spruce, and substantially regenerated since thousands of hectares were lost to pollution and insect infestation in the late 1980s). Finding a view from the top, other than of trees, rocks and blueberry bushes, is a bit difficult other than at the summit restaurant.
It’s also a short, tree-lined walk from the top into the Czech Republic, across a border marked simply by a boardwalk and a few signposts, to the neighbouring (and slightly higher) peak of Smrk (1124m) which has a newly-(re-)constructed viewing tower that does take you above the tree line to views over Poland and the Czech Republic. We repeated this bureaucracy-free border-crossing experience some days later.
Świeradów-Zdrój also has a quite astonishing church which, as you progress down the nave towards an apparently oddly offset centrepiece, the presence of a second, modern nave (added in the 1970s at an angle of around 45 degrees to the nave in the ‘old’ part of the church) slowly becomes evident. Poland is, now, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic (see also below, churches being one of the themes of this trip) but thoughts abounded as to how a dual nave church might be used in multi-denominational Christian countries.
Around the town, English language skills were rarer, though growing, and German was more common. Adjacent to our dinner table at a neighbouring 4* hotel (built in 1907) one evening was a party of elderly, and rather sombre, German men and women, clearly lead by a tour guide, likely to be representing one of a number of associations whose aim is to facilitate visits to the patrimony of German people expelled in the immediate post-War period – i.e. where they, or their parents, grew up. That this is these days relatively uncontroversial – that there are few, or no, evident claims to property restitution – is due no doubt to many things (and things were not always so comfortable in the post-War period) but including among them the peaceful integrationist aims of the EU, and the affirmation in 1990 by newly-unified Germany, within that perspective provided by the EU, of the post-war border between Poland and Germany. The flag display outside that same hotel is a symbolic, and incredibly powerful, representation of what that message of unity between European people actually means and the key role played by the EU in that process:
Additionally, Świeradów-Zdrój offers forest walks and the broad walkways and gently rising elevations of the new Sky Walk tower – a terrifically relaxing place to step into the holiday.
Heading south-east from Świeradów-Zdrój by taxi and then train, our next destination was the border town of Kudowa-Zdrój (Bad Kudowa). Today a youthful and quite lively resort, though replete with the panoply of the formal things that spa towns have to offer, but less influenced by the pull and the wealth of Wrocław, the predominant linguistic note in Kudowa-Zdrój is not German but Czech. This is no surprise since the town is surrounded on three sides by the Czech Republic while the E67, the European motorway stretching from the Czech Republic to Finland, goes more or less through the town, splitting the train station firstly from the lower and then the upper parts of the town. Adding to the Czech notes, there was also a ‘cross-border’ Czech-Polish cultural festival going on, funded by the EU’s Interreg programme.
The attraction here was not so much the spa water as two things: firstly, the opportunity to experience a border not influenced by the natural divides raised by mountain ranges; and secondly the Góry Stołowe (Table Mountains) whose highest peak, Szczeliniec Wielki (919m) is a short bus ride away.
Cieszyn, further to the south-east, might be better known – the border here is a small river brutally splitting the town into two parts in different countries, reflecting a sad history – but the divide in Kudowa-Zdrój splits Mała Czermna (Little Czermna, in the Polish) from the district of Czermna, lying on the north-west outskirts of the spa itself. It’s a short walk to the border point and, while there was formal crossing infrastructure in place in the past, Poland and the Czech Republic are now members of the EU’s Schengen Area and achieving the ‘crossing’ is a simple barrier-free stroll down the road. The Czech police apparently take a dim view of undocumented Poles traversing their territory so what they would have made of an undocumented Schengen-less Brit is anyone’s guess (under CV-19 rules, travel into the Czech Republic for UK citizens is barred other than for essential reasons), though the question didn’t actually arise at any point on our bike trip for a late lunch into the neighbouring, and comparatively rather sleepy, Czech town of Nachod. Essential travel, surely.
Here is the border point, familiar elsewhere on both these early legs of the trip from mountain crossing points; ‘P’ on the one side (for Poland); ‘C’ on the other. Note, however, that this is a re-purposed stone, clearly dating from before 1945:
On another occasion, I re-crossed the border (yes, a repeat offender) to spend some of my remaining Czech crowns in one of the not one, not two, but three pubs that lie immediately across the border, wherein I noted that it was still possible, in one corner of the EU in 2021, to buy a pint for a pound (500ml of beer for 30 crowns; the official exchange rate on the day being 29.9 crowns to the pound). It was the type of continental lager best described as cold and wet – much better (and more pricey) was had from a variety of the craft breweries that now inhabit even the remotest corners of Poland – but, nevertheless, this has its place in some contexts. The cost of food and drink was certainly lower in this part of the Czech Republic than in this part of Poland so, unless there is some sort of currency thing going on, Interreg has some work to do in terms of a number of its core aims.
The other attraction was another mountain to climb. In typically Polish hill-walking style, Szczeliniec Wielki offers steps which, in this case, go all the way to the top (actually dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, when the mountain was part of Prussia) and, frequently, a handrail which, in other than Covid-19 terms, might often have been quite a useful thing. Additionally, signs attached to the trees every hundred metres or so mean that you can rarely lose your way (unless you’re really not paying attention) – all very different from our climb this time last year of South Uist’s Beinn Mhor.
The precise number of steps up Szczeliniec Wielki varies according to what you count, but the common assumption is that there are ‘around 700’; the definitive answer, however, is that there are actually 722 taking you to a summit restaurant, of course, as well as breathtaking views of the countryside and the rest of the Sudetes mountains. The key feature of Szczeliniec Wielki, however, is its monolithics – huge lumps of sandstone carved by erosion and weathering into a variety of interesting shapes and also into rock labyrinths (additionally at the nearby site of Błędny Skały, which we also visited the same day in a monumental day of walking). You get to visit this bit of the mountain after paying the appropriate national park fee – taking you to a few more steps up (and then down). Some of the names of the formations leave a little to the imagination and some are best left undescribed for reasons of not spoiling the (frequently breathtaking) surprise, but here’s my version of probably the most photographed one – a rock formation that could barely better resemble a mountain gorilla had it been deliberately sculpted:
On next to the Carpathians and a first, short-stay base in Sanok – a day’s journey from Kudowa of more than 500km involving a taxi, a train and finally a bus. Sanok is a large town through which flows the River San whose upper reaches form the modern boundary between Ukraine and Poland at the eastern edge of the Bieszczady Mountains and which also featured in the call of Ukraine nineteenth century nationalists for a Ukraine ‘from the San to the Don’ (Davies, p. 115). Sanok has a number of attractions but the biggest is the skansen – a large open air folk museum akin to St. Fagans in Cardiff but covering 38 hectares and featuring some 180 original wooden buildings from the 17th to the 20th century re-constructed faithfully on site (and labelled with basic information in Polish and English). The aim is to provide a sympathetic consideration of what life was like for the peoples of the Polish Carpathians, including both Boykos and Łemkos, long-established Rusyn minorities typically inhabiting the villages of the Bieszczady and the lands adjacent to the west, respectively, and both essentially ethnic Ukraines. The confession of both is Greek Catholic – accepting the authority of the Pope but adhering to an Eastern Christian rite – and the skansen features a number of astonishing wooden churches (cerkiew, in Polish; tserkvas in UNESCO language, as they are internationally recognised as having global heritage) in the different styles of both Boykos and Łemkos.
Both groups suffered hugely in the aftermath of World War II despite a tradition of living peaceably alongside their Polish ‘brothers’ and with some degree of intermarriage. Military activities in the Bieszczady in 1945-1947 by units of the fascist-led Ukraine Insurgent Army (UPA) in support of an updated claim for a Greater Ukraine led to Boykos and Łemkos being regarded as sympathisers and to decisive military action (Akcja Wisła) being taken against them by the new Soviet-backed government. Whole villages in the Bieszczady were cleared, with a total of 140,000 inhabitants repatriated to the ‘Recovered Territories’, and buildings systematically razed to the ground. Many were left as ghost towns for decades and, in some still, orchards with no farmstead and overgrown foundations remain a symbol of the tragedy that arises when nationalism turns people against each other and when people are forced to pick sides.
Cisna, our base for most of a six-night stay in the Bieszczady, was one such clearance village although Cisna has been repopulated from the 1970s onwards as the government sought to open up the tourism potential of the Mountains. The village, which occupies a key strategic position in the geography of the area, retains a Communist-era monument to the outcomes of Akcja Wisła on a small rise in the centre of the village but, although it was cleaned up in 2017 and a new memorial tablet inscribed, parts of it remain in a poor state. The new stone commemorates the ‘Defenders of Cisna and the surrounding area in 1944-47 against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’ and at least this has stopped the graffiti which overlay the original tablet’s commemoration of the ‘Fallen in the fights to consolidate people’s power in Cisna’ although a little has been lost as a result. The frieze, showing soldiers in action in the battles of the time, appears to remain although the open air sections are blackened and indistinct. A new information board at the site tells the story of the actions in Cisna and provides some thoughtful contextual comments, while the main events are also usefully re-told, with photographs, in other places online (Polish language required; or at least access to a translator).
Rain and damp, muddy ground interfered somewhat with our trip here – it is the mountains, after all – but we did manage a couple of small local hills (Jeleni Skok, 777m above sea level; and Hon, 663m – both well below the tree line although the former at least has a viewing platform allowing a perspective on the Carpathians) as well as the main objective – walking the połoniny, Poland’s mountainous wild meadows free of grazing sheep (though neither bears not wolves). We chose the higher for our trip – Połonina Caryńska (1297m) – although most of the mountains hereabout top out at roughly the same level. After some uncertainty as to where to get off the bus, we managed to start the walk in the right place and, while full of gratitude for the stone steps, handrails and clear signs on display throughout, I do have a little beef with the officially-produced tourist leaflets and brochures which promise a walk up of 70 minutes and up to two hours down (to a different destination). These are not times achievable by 50-something occasional, albeit enthusiastic, walkers or indeed by people with babies and young families and there is of course a serious point that mountains need to be respected and, with that in mind, people need not to be encouraged to over-reach themselves in conditions where their own safety – and that of others – may be endangered. It took us, including stops for photos, water and rest, two hours to reach the top and two and three-quarter hours to get down, the last eighty minutes of which was a relentless and frequently steep slog downhill through the forest, often with some quite challenging underfoot conditions as a result of the rain. The walk up Caryńska from where we finished is advertised as two hours – it would have taken us considerably more, even had we started our day there, not least when this is the view after the forest, but uphill, as you eventually break through the tree line:
Nevertheless, the views all around, across Poland and to the Carpathians border with Slovakia and down into Ukraine, were magnificent and the wild flowers, while clearly past their collective best in early August, were nevertheless still showing very well individually. And the top, while crowded (hiking is very popular in Poland) not least with a party of scouts, was not as crowded as some: either in the UK or, notably, at some famous spots further west in the Polish Carpathians.
Having seen some examples of cerkiew in the Boyko and Łemkov styles in the skansen at Sanok, we were keen to see some more examples located within the communities they serve and, aided by a day when we re-located a little out of Cisna, and with the aid of a hire of electric bikes from Robert at Agroturystyka Wojtasiówka and some information from the Icon Trail, now in the process of being renewed, we ventured out. Having travelled across the River Osława, formerly marking the traditional boundary between Boykos and Łemkos, what we found was in the Łemkov style; and we explored no fewer than six (well, it was a Sunday): one in Radoszyce, now re-purposed and re-dedicated as a Roman Catholic church (and only a couple of kilometres up the road from the Slovak border although there’s absolutely nothing there other than expanses of concrete and a picnic table and so we resisted the opportunity to step into Slovakia); two in Komancza; and then the jewels in the crown – one at Rzepedź; one at Szczawne; and then finally the one at Turzańsk which is one of the 16 tserkvas formally on the UNESCO list (the numbers of which are evenly divided between Poland and Ukraine) but which currently has the builders in until next month (the main building, though not the separate belfry, was surrounded by scaffolding when we visited). Most are still in use, all have been renovated (or even rebuilt, in one case) in some way and serving what are quite small, though clearly devout, Uniate communities most of which are likely to have returned to the area once people felt themselves more free to be themselves again following the tragedy (described as such in a commemorative sign in the cerkiew at Rzepedź) of the clearances.
Most of the cerkiew were closed (keys are often available) but the one at Szczawne was open, with a retired geography teacher acting as curator. She was certainly aware of where the Outer Hebrides were, but made it quite clear that she looked only east: apart from Polish she spoke Russian, Ukrainian and Łemko. Her children, nevertheless, had looked west, with three living in the UK (two in Hereford and one in Southampton) and the pain that migration frequently presents – the absence of children and, perhaps, grandchildren – to those left behind not least in the circumstances represented by their own history, was clearly heartfelt. For Europeans, at least, migration is a choice and, while recognising that economic and social circumstances also present something of a compelling force for some people, at least migration is no longer something that comes at the end of a gun. Progress, of sorts. Here, and offered with respect, is the belfry of her church, built in 1889 and renovated in 1973 (bullet holes, remnants of both world wars remain), with the core design broadly reflecting that of the church itself:
An early start for our next move, north to the city of Rzeszów, and two two-hour bus trips with a connection time of eight minutes (successfully made) meant we were there in time for brunch. The day could scarcely have got any better when we picked on an upstairs cafe on the main square where one of the duties of the waiting staff was to flip the record over to play the other side; and when the staff’s choice of vinyl for the day was THIS.
Eventually tearing ourselves away for a tour of the city’s major sights, and after a brief, but comic, interlude one of us enjoyed with the local police (what goes on in Rzeszów stays in Rzeszów), we started off at the ‘Revolutionary Act Monument’ dedicated, it says here, to the ‘fights for freedom that took place in the Rzeszów area’. Built in 1974, and currently rather well-maintained, despite the attention of a glut of pigeons, its location opposite what was clearly CP HQ, which now houses the provincial administration for the Podkarpackie region of Poland (the more things change…), gives the game away that its correct name probably runs something like ‘Workers and soldiers joined in the ultimate and inevitable victory of Socialism’. While we’ve had our own debates in the UK in recent years about the messages that statues send and their continued relevance in different times, there is a clear argument for explaining and re-contextualising the history. Rzeszów city council deserves a bit of credit for not simply pulling the monument down, as has evidently happened in other places – though it has to be said it does also occupy a major space within the city. However, something a bit less mealy-mouthed on the tourism brochures would also help the impression of a confident city which is at ease with itself and with its recent history.
We used Rzeszów largely as a base for day trips out to places which give readers decent experience of the breadth of the Polish alphabet – to Łańcut; Przemyśl; and to Sandomierz – before ensuring that we had enough time to spare to get the UK Covid-19 bureaucracy in place before our return (tests, both taken and booked (and in both cases paid for); and online forms completed. All the trips – respectively by bus/train, train and then bus again – had their merits. Presenting here just a couple of highlights: Łańcut offered baronial splendour alongside a completely renovated synagogue (in its original building) now in use as a museum (as well as being the home of the best beer sampled this trip); Sandomierz a series of 18th century oil paintings depicting – in a cathedral – people meeting their deaths in a variety of bloodthirsty ways, and including, separately, one depicting the blood libel which frequently features in anti-Semitic discourse (well examinedand contextualised here in a piece from 2014 looking expressly at Sandomierz).
The pick of these three trips for me, however, was the mystically-unpronounceable Przemyśl – a city of spires, southern Poland’s second oldest city and an important trading post in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – where the renovated station building, built 1859-1860, offers Baroque style and a station buffet with drapes, plush chairs and fine dining, damask table cloths and all. The city lies close to the border with Ukraine – Ukraine nationalists laid claim to it as part of Greater Ukraine – and the River San flows through it before its eventual confluence with the Wisła a short way north-west of Sandomierz.
The city is multi-confessional and, to some degree, this has been a little fluid: in 1991 the Roman Catholics moved out of one of their two centres of worship – a monumental building whose frontage towers over the street outside, built originally in the 17th century by the Jesuits – to make way for the Uniate community, who had been worshipping in the Carmelite cathedral until that Order wanted it back in the immediate post-Socialist period. The more interesting thing, however, at least in contemporary terms, was this window display in a private apartment immediately opposite the church’s main entrance:
Gusts of wind coming from the wrong direction made the red flag stubbornly refuse to stay the right way out for the camera, but – as might be clear from the logo – it reads ‘Strajk Kobiet‘ (women’s strike) and refers to the mass grassroots protests by women taking place on Polish streets in 2020-21, the largest protests in Poland’s modern history, whose sparking point was a new abortion law but which also, in some contexts, can be seen as mounting an effective opposition to Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS – Law and Justice), the right-wing national-conservative ruling party whose MEPs are now the largest group in the Eurosceptic ECR group (set up by David Cameron) in the European Parliament. The story is not over yet – the leader of Strajk Kobiet has been charged with offences in connection with the protests – but the encounter here this afternoon in Przemyśl was made even more interesting when the young woman who lived in the apartment came down the street behind us as we were taking our photographs and, with a broad smile, asked us if we liked her flags. After assuring her that we did (these things can be misinterpreted), we congratulated her on her placement not least given her location (churches being one of the flash points between Strajk Kobiet and the government, with protesters angry at the Church’s role in the new law -and its powerful role in society more generally – and with leading PiS representatives calling on party members and supporters to ‘take part in the defence of the church’. The language is familiar from our own debates about statues; and, it will not be a surprise to learn, the outcomes of the use of such language were also shared: populists learn very quickly from each other in a globalising world).
It was impossible not to share the woman’s joy in her celebration of her gesture – the rainbow flag was, she said, a replacement for one that had got a bit tatty and had been unfurled only that morning (hence the packaging lines) – nor to escape the massive symbolism of what was going on: here was a woman in the south-east corner of Poland making a dramatic gesture at the surrounding forces of conservatism, symbolised by a church serving the eastwards-facing Uniate community, and turning herself to face very deliberately west in doing so.
The rainbow flag is of course the international symbol of LGBT rights and units of local government in south-east Poland have been at the forefront of the adoption of statements of ‘LGBT-free zones’ or ‘pro family’ charters (including the province of Podkarpackie, whose seat is at Rzeszów, but not Przemyśl as a ‘city powiat‘ within Podkarpackie). Walking around Rzeszów it was impossible not to notice rainbow colours in use on logos and infrastructure and, as it seems, there is a unifying symbol of opposition to the government contained within it, too: it was present, alongside other symbols, in an opposition party protest (actually also sporting flags for a centre-right party which indicates how far right PiS has positioned itself) about media freedom taking place in Wrocław when we returned there before our flight home:
My theme in this post has been borders, language and symbols and the Polish locations we visited on this trip provided plenty of opportunity to consider what these things mean in a modern country located within the EU – and highly secure within its own borders, however much blood and suffering had been spent in the the fight to secure them – and able to participate in a border-free Europe which encompasses not just goods and services but citizens, too.
Below the surface, however, there are difficulties. Poland provides an external border for the EU and, currently, is open to criticism for its policy towards refugees on the border with Belarus – a border it would not have recognised before 1945. Many of these are Afghans – and there is a sizable community of Muslims around Białystok, further north than we went on this trip, hence why the Belarus route has proven attractive – and the position may well deteriorate substantially in the autumn as a result of the current situation in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, it was clearer than ever that freedom of movement is reserved for those who are already in the EU – those on the outside face, in sharp contrast to borderless Europe, fences that are being re-doubled both in their size and in their intent to keep people, however, desperate out.
Aside of its fresh attractiveness to asylum seekers, and evidently in sharp contrast to the will of PiS, Poland is also a country of immigration – there are, for example, 1.5m Ukrainians now living and working in Poland (many of the young men and women serving us in restaurants across the country were likely to have been Ukrainian); these may be the ‘brothers’, but that is rather old language these days and, in a conservative country, while their immediate labour market rights may well be fully protected, their long-term presence is likely to change the country in ways for which it may not be prepared. As will, of course, asylum seekers for whose ‘brotherhood’ people need to look a little deeper than perhaps a country homogeneous by choice for the last seventy five years has been used to.
PiS is able to dominate party politics in the face of a fractured opposition, but the new politics does not take place in the Sejm and there is plenty for people to be angry about, including women’s rights, LGBT rights and media laws as well as public sector pensions, among others, to say nothing of a rights-based clash with the EU (though cynics may be right to point out that, not least with the EU’s requirement for unanimity, little will come of that). Poland is a free country – but it is not yet a society in which all people can feel free to be themselves and the dividing lines, both socio-cultural and geographical, are beginning to show.
Furthermore, much more needs to be done also to deliver growth across Poland on a more even basis – the fissures and fault lines based on development are also clear – and while a ‘Polexit’ might well be extremely unlikely, regardless of the current points of confrontation with the EU, as with Brexit the wider debate about the EU will be won and lost among those that feel they have been left behind and those for whom party politics provides no opportunity to have their voices heard. As we’ve seen in the UK, continual sniping and playing up the confrontation is no solution.
My final photo in this essay comes from the wall of the rebuilt synagogue in Rzeszów, now serving as an archive. On the edge of a public park named in honour of the victims of the ghetto – and which lay within the area of the ghetto itself – the synagogue commemorates in Polish, Hebrew and English those murdered and the whole is a moving, and still, place.
[Edit 7 October: When writing this concluding section, I wasn’t aware that a debate already existed in Poland about the correct term for Nazi offences, as this article from today’s Notes from Poland testifies, highlighting a series of vandalisms of memorials in Warsaw carried out by right-wingers from clubs linked to Gazeta Polska. Regardless of whether ‘hitlerowcy’ has its own connotations, the point remains that something else is needed other than ‘niemcy’.]
‘Hey,’ said my friend Darko, ‘You can’t get back home!’ on finding me, as arranged, one mid-April evening in a hotel bar in Plzen, located mid-way between Prague and the Czech-German border broadly in the direction of Nürnberg. We were there, with other colleagues, to participate in an annual, albeit travelling, conference. I suspected Darko, known for his jokes, was pulling my leg – but ‘No – really: look!’ The TV was showing shocking pictures of a spreading ash cloud from an erupting volcano in Iceland which soon led to airspace being closed, flights grounded and airports shuttered.
Hidden Europe, the regular English language publication dedicated to slow travel and to taking the train wherever possible, and published by a Berlin-based editorial bureau, reminded me this morning that it’s now just over ten years since those events saw me engage in some ‘slow travel’ of my own as I sought some way of returning north-west to the UK as the ash cloud was making its own, fairly leisurely, way south-east.
At a time of a lockdown caused by a different set of circumstances entirely, and with short-haul air travel again being viewed as not so much at a crossroads as at an end, assisted by sustainability concerns, it’s interesting to reflect on how things might have changed for travellers now faced with similar disruption.
I wrote about my experiences at the time on Connected Research, a WordPress blog I used to maintain (daily!) while working as a researcher for Connect and then Prospect. I’m deliberately not linking to it as the blog itself is not so much ancient as pre-historic, although you can still find it easily enough if you’re that motivated. The focus of my post was that, at a time of a communications revolution under which corporations were rapidly saving money for shareholders by locating customer services online, away from central, accessible locations (or at call centres whose lines were constantly engaged), information (and support) was almost unavailable with the result that travellers were being abandoned to the outcomes of their own, frequently poor choices and to chance. So much for customer service in the information era.
My own return journey took me in a rather circuitous way via Prague, Nürnberg, Berlin and Amsterdam (I had flown by KLM and laboured initially under the naive assumption that it was up to KLM to get me home again, or somehow ‘look after’ me) as I sought some resolution in the context of a rapidly dawning realisation that I was being abandoned entirely to my own devices amidst highly-influential stories (perhaps, indeed, sourced from a good deal of theatre; Hidden Europe is probably right there) of people paying exhorbitant sums for cross-border journeys.
This sort of return would be surely less likely to happen today: information is much more widely available to people on the move; ‘roam like at home’ has made data services more accessible to travellers; and smartphones are more ubiquitous than the ‘feature phone’ I then had, offering maps of somewhat less-than-familiar locations and access to pages offering advice on rights, as well as things like Twitter (which I joined six months later), providing hints and tips both from official as well as unofficial ones about what is, and is not, happening on the ground. The evident result of greater information is that critical choices at a time of immense disruption are likely to be better informed. Advice about the impact of CV-19 on impending journeys today features clearly on corporate webpages – see, for instance, the current KLM one.
On the other hand, it is not clear that travel companies have become more adept at the sort of decisive decision-making that lends itself to the ability to make definitive alternative plans in such a situation. Public accountability via things like Twitter can often produce turn-arounds when corporates become aware that they are losing a particular public relations battle – and that’s a clear advantage of the medium – but what is still more likely to prevail, at least in the first instance, is a fear of the outcomes of practical decisions, not only in the sense of claims for compensation, and this tends towards corporate blame-shifting, indecision and sclerosis. In my case, my airline was – like many others – caught on the hop and, as a result, it became invisible (though, perhaps, not as bad as some). Clearly, companies need time to sort themselves out when pressured by this sort of thing and, in the context of volcanic eruptions, the situation changes all the time. Lessons may well have been learned in the meantime – both as a result of Eyjafjallajökull as well as CV-19 – but whether these extend to clarity and decisiveness among corporates is a moot point. [Edit: it’s clear, meanwhile, that the UK government – Tories then as now – hasn’t got any better at repatriating people stranded abroad, with organisational incapacity, communications failures and a desire to save money at its heart.]
Incidentally, returning to Hidden Europe, my experience was not that Eurostar had plenty of seats available. In Nürnberg, Eurostar had no capacity at all from the Saturday afternoon until the Tuesday (and then only in first class) while, returning to the centre of Amsterdam on the Monday afternoon from a fruitless trip to Schiphol, I chanced on a travel agent who told me that a Eurostar had only just been released for the following day, and who wasted no time in booking me on it. An overnight coach from Berlin to London would have been interesting, though.
Did someone say Plzen? Here’s my photo of the brewery gates from that trip:
And here’s where they used to brew beer in the couple of centuries before the 1839 ‘beer revolt’:
I spent Brexit Day in Lerwick, up above 60ºN and some 760 miles from London – further from the carnival in Parliament Square than any other place in the British Isles; and, travelling eastwards from London, you’d have reached Poland before you got as far again.
I was not only escaping Brexit, of course, but attending the 2020 Lerwick Up Helly A’, which pays tribute to Shetlands’ Norse origins, proceeding from pageantry (with costumes of the main squad taking literally years to work up and build because of the intricate details worked into the designs), to the drama of the torchlit parade through the darkened streets of Lerwick, to one massive all-night party, if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to one. The history lies in marking the end of Yule, with the days visibly beginning to stretch out after the winter darkness, and in youths returning from the Napoleonic Wars with an appetite for doing things with gunpowder and, later, barrels of burning tar around Lerwick’s narrow, steep streets. The Lerwick Up Helly A’ – one of 12 fire festivals taking place around Shetland from January-March, is the second in the season and, with (this year) 845 marchers (‘guizers’) in fancy dress, it’s not only Shetlands’ but Europe’s biggest fire festival. It’s always held on the last Tuesday in January and, famously, is never, ever cancelled for the weather – the only time it has been cancelled was when it coincided with Winston Churchill’s funeral. Perhaps this explains why the Proclamation – traditionally posted at 6am on a giant board at Lerwick’s market cross – lists this year’s Guizer Jarl (Liam Summers) as the 100th such, although he actually appears to be the 101st named.
If you’re looking for a video which explains what Up Helly A’ is all about, this Shetland.org video is an excellent explanation – well worth 23 minutes of your time (and for a number of reasons, one of which is that the young woman presenter is a former Jarl’s Squad member (in the South Mainland Up Helly A’)). Though she ought also to have mentioned the magnificent beards on display.
Up Helly A’ is a stamina and endurance event, not least for the Guizer Jarl’s squad – this year numbering 55 people and the only guizers to be dressed as Vikings. Their day starts before breakfast and they’re in costume all day (and then literally all night) – no mean feat when a dose of the ‘flu had affected much of the main squad this year and when Liam’s costume weighed some 30kgs (66lbs), plus axe and shield representing probably an additional 12-15kgs. To get to the end of the night and be as fresh for the last hall as you were for breakfast takes some doing.
Controversially, however, the Lerwick Up Helly A’ has always excluded women and girls from participating as guizers; it is the only one of the twelve that does. Recently, there have been campaigns to change this which have attracted increasing media attention (see here for a Scottish perspective on this year’s event; and here for a UK one) as the festival has become more and better – and internationally – known. This year, ‘Reclaim the Raven’ brought ‘artivism’ to the existing information gathering and letter writing campaign of the more long-standing ‘Up Helly Aa for Aa’, with the group designing their own proclamation and, guerilla-style, attaching it at 5am to the market cross, on the opposite side to where the Proclamation is erected. This was removed (anonymously) at 8am and has not since been recovered even though those responsible were caught in the act on camera.
Whatever the weight of tradition, the reasons for not excluding women from a public space on the grounds only of their sex are surely stronger. Whatever happens next is clearly for the campaigns themselves to decide, but the Guizer Jarls’ motto – (‘We axe for what we want’) surely has something to commend it in the context of the typically expressed change mission of educate-agitate-organise. The spectre of people genuinely applying to participate as mixed squads but being met with point blank refusal – as happened this year (‘Activists attend London event’, Shetland Times 31/1/20, p. 6) – and teachers at Anderson High School having to inform the lads, and only the lads, in their classes about where to go to sign up for the Junior Up Helly A’ squad is appalling. It is unjustifiable and completely unsustainable to continue to exclude women and girls from the biggest fire festival in Europe, and it sends a completely wrong, and unhealthy, message to young girls in particular. Equality must be everywhere – or there is no equality, as the slightly surprised tone of the newspaper editorials linked above emphasise. The Lerwick Up Helly A’ Committee needs to change; and it needs to decide whether it wants to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 2020s or whether it wants to gain some credit, even at this late stage, by choosing to reform itself in line with the really quite modest, and certainly low key, demands of the local campaigners.
Senior level change will take time: with the new, and already magnificently bearded, member of the Committee being elected to take Liam’s place having to wait fifteen years for his shot at being Guizer Jarl, the earliest a woman could head the Lerwick procession would, at this point, be 2036. The world will have changed substantially by then – and hopefully the Committee will not at that point still be fighting the battles of the 1970s – while small (but significant) change can be accomplished immediately by allowing mixed squads into at least the ranks of the rest of the guizers from the 2021 Lerwick event onwards. When even the Shetland Times – not apparently a particular champion of change in this respect – points to the problems to Shetland society of the divisiveness of the debate, and expresses its hopes for Up Helly A’ to continue ‘in a way the whole community can celebrate it’, you know your time is up.
Men dressed as women are a frequent sign in the skits put on by the squads during the night-time partying in the 11 halls around Lerwick which act as party venues – 47 squads were in this year’s event and their routines are likely to be more than recognisable to the squads in 1920, all featuring a mix of music and singing, dance and the lampooning of local and national figures and events, with each taking months to plan, write and rehearse. It was a hugely enjoyable night, not least in the sights of men quite clearly enjoying the liberation of wearing a dress and in the oddball costumes in which some spent large parts of their night. I spent my night at the Mareel arts centre, courtesy of tickets obtained by my nephew, Igor – and, despite the lack of progress on women’s participation, there were other positive signs compared to my last Up Helly A’, back in 2013:
– no act used blackface this year
– one squad (23: ‘Slantiģirt does Oz’) did a thoughtful routine based on the Wizard of Oz and included two men clad in rainbow suits.
Top of the pile for me was Squad 42, whose ‘Swine Lake’ – men in pink tutus and lycra and wearing pig masks dancing to Swan Lake – was a thing of style and no little grace. Honourable mentions, among others, also to Squad 38 (‘London Calling’); Squad 33 (‘Still Game’ and including a spot-on Slosh to ‘Beautiful Sunday’, of course); Squad 32 (‘Post Office Redirection’); Squad 43 (‘Sister Act’); and Squad 30 (‘Man’s Event in Lerwick’).
8.20am and the scene at bedtime.
I went on to spend part of Brexit Day itself at a town hall commemoration in respect of Holocaust Memorial Day, held over from the Monday perhaps as a result of the preparations within the Town Hall for Up Helly A’. The call of HMD to ‘Stand Together’ being made on that day was certainly not lost on the Bulgarians and the Poles present at the event.
Other links can also be made: not only does Up Helly A’ symbolise Shetlanders’ Norse heritage, but the drama of the burning of the boat has symbolic relevance, too. In some Up Helly A’s, the burning galley is launched into the sea, in reference to the suggestion that the galleys of deceased Norse warriors were turned into funeral pyres and put to sea – but not in Lerwick, where the Up Helly A’ burning takes place in a small public park. Here, the symbolism of boat burning, leaving people unable to get home but, instead, having thus exercised the choice to stay, is one that speaks firstly to the settled immigrant that is present in most of us Brits but also in the reference of Up Helly A’ Day to a community coming together to celebrate those same traditions of migration.
I dug out Victoria Hislop’s 2016 collection of short stories from my unread bookshelf to take on our recent trip to Crete. Popularly described as one of the UK’s most ardent philhellenes, and these days at least a part-time resident of Crete, Hislop is a well-qualified companion with whom to discuss – over the written page – modern Greece and its tragedies, as well as its heroism, its lyricism and its love of songs and stories.
The stories in Cartes Postales – quite simply, postcards – were mostly written while Hislop was travelling in Greece, alongside Alexandros, a photographer whose images lavish the pages. They were not taken to illustrate, but to act as a prompt with Hislop tending to spin her stories out of the things that they both saw on the journey. Some of the latter are new, some are modern twists on old stories (the Venus di Milo makes an appearance as does, from a Cretan perspective, Icarus and Daedalus), others are founded in the continuousness of the search for meaning in natural signs with which to prompt human decisions at various crossroads (such as at the Oracle at Delphi). As such, most of the stories have a timeless appeal, even if imbued through a modern lens, not to say a glass of wine.
As in any short story collection, some of them work (Je Reviens being a particularly good example, twisting the fortunes of the people who inhabit modern Greece with the threads of its recent past; while Et In Arcadio Ego is menacing and disturbing), while others do not (Air on a G String is filled with the dreadful romanticism that Hislop seems to have rescued from the floor of Richard Curtis‘s writing room). We encompass otherwise the macabre (Honeymoon), the elegiac (Man On A Mountaintop) and the dramatic (The Boy In The Silvery Suit).
The difference to most normal collections are that the short stories are all linked, all being tales told to a traveller in tavernas, guest houses and in town squares. The traveller in question is not Hislop, except perhaps by some kind of displacement, but Anthony, a man on the run from a failed relationship but whose process of letting go entails the sending of a series of postcards, and finally a notebook, from each stopping point to the address of his lost lover, who has since moved away. There, they are received instead by Ellie, a young woman at something of a crossroads herself; and, intrigued, she decides to head for Greece. After that, well, Richard Curtis may yet be on the phone.
So here we have the first problem: the conceit of the structural idea is bold, but its execution in practice is breathlessly, remorselessly romantic in tone. The contrast between this and many of the stories is sharp, but the effect is not interesting since the romanticism of what is essentially the plot – and a rather thin one, at that – both undermines and subtracts from the stories themselves.
The second problem is a minor, practical one: Anthony is on the run but spends the year finishing writing a book on the sculptures of the Cyclades which, as it transpires, actually plays little role in his re-building of his sense of self. The difficulty is, he spends no time in the Cyclades on his journey, which is based virtually entirely on the mainland, and precious little of that in Athens – and, even there, he doesn’t appear to go to the museum where Cycladic art has been stolen re-located. Perhaps his research notes were all complete but, if it was me, I’d be wanting to visit one, probably both, and regularly, as I was finalising my work. Consequently, the threading of the stories relies on a hook which is both extremely insecure and which, ultimately, actually has little meaning.
Thirdly, the ageless appearance of the stories is fine at a superficial level, but it leaves the characters on the page inhabiting a yesterday world. This affects particularly the women characters who are disappointingly realised, being usually young girls, femme fatales or old crones (while the men are, although not as ubiquitously, portrayed either as weak-minded old fools or young, strong and silent types). There is nothing new about such an objectification of women (and, indeed, men) in literature, although I choose to read modern women writers to escape that sort of thing. It’s not as though Greece – and specifically Crete – has no examples of strong women, both in revolution and in modern times, on which Hislop could draw but the collection here ignores those in favour of sexist stereotypes. Easier, for sure, but ultimately a lot less challenging. I would have liked to see Hislop go a lot further in the direction where Et In Arcadio Ego seemed to be taking her.
In this yesterday world, modern Greece does appear, but only in the linking sections between the stories whereas a collection which really wanted to tell a story of the modern realities of the country would have made the old stories resonate in a more contemporary fashion with some of the photographs. All we are left with, therefore, is a flavour, a taste of the Greece of kafenion and zacharoplasteion – but one drawn more from the Greece of the travel pages than the reality of the modern stories told, to take just one example, by the graffiti-laden walls which we could see even in downtown, and somewhat sleepy, Rethymnon on our visit. The impression is thus of a throwback; of a recall of, and desire for, happier times; and, ultimately, of somewhat middle-class concerns and mores and standards.
Even for holiday reading, I’m looking for a bit more than that.
So, as this is also a bit of a postcard, as well as a review, here’s some graffiti on a bit of shabby house. I’m a little nervous about capturing graffiti in a foreign language because impressions can mislead and my Greek is, well, holiday Greek. Here, however, I think the loose translation would be ‘Under Heavy Manners’. And absolutely right, too.
Just back from a short trip to the mainland, firstly to Dundee (more about which in a later post) and then up to Shetland. My partner lived on Shetland for a while and still has friends and family there. It’s thus a place I know quite well, having visited and toured it quite frequently, although I haven’t been there since September 2015, a year before I moved to Uist.
A couple of postcard snaps will follow (eventually), but I was struck by a couple of things during the visit. Firstly, and flippantly, it was several degrees cooler than on Uist. Arriving at Sumburgh Airport in the early afternoon, the wind delivered a proper and sustained blast of chilled air during the short walk from the plane to the (expanded) terminal building; and, surrounded by guard rails, towards one end of the terminal on the floor sat one massive heater, glowing red and fully on. On 31 May. We do indeed get bad weather on Uist, and perhaps a generally warm and dry spring has made me quickly forget how bad it can be, but it seemed right there and then and for much of the following, largely damp and cool, week that the northern isles do have it worse. Perhaps, being so far north – it is level with Bergen, after all, and half-way to the Faeroes – it’s just that it’s naturally colder as a result of being at 60° latitude.
Secondly, and with greater significance for my post, I was struck – and not for the first time – by the contrasting levels of economic development between the Hebrides and Shetland. Extended Sumburgh terminal building apart, there is an absolutely stunning new campus for Anderson High, the secondary school, whose 900 students enjoy a four-storey, two-winged education block as well as gracefully angled halls to accommodate students from outside the mainland. Despite being next to the Lerwick sports centre, Anderson High has its own sports grounds including all-weather track, grass pitches, nets for throwing events and swimming pool, located at the very front of the campus and sending a clear message for students walking past them to get to their classes about the importance of sporting endeavour. The Island Games were taking place there that Saturday, and raucous cheers spoke of the message being loudly received. There are at least four new food and drink places which have opened up in Lerwick, offering a range of interesting and well-crafted food and each offering extensive craft beer menus (in bottles and cans and on tap) and taking a pride in local produce: Fjarå; The Dowry; and The String as well as an excellent French cafe in C’est la Vie. All were busy, even outside the weekend. It’s not just in the capital: the cafe up at Braewick has also been significantly and beautifully extended. Furthermore, a second brewery (beer being something of a bellwether of development, in my view) – Lerwick Brewery – has added to its range and styles of beer in addition to the continued presence of the longer established Valhalla. And the houses are bigger, more opulent, while Lerwick supports both a Tesco and a Co-Op, in large supermarket form.
The facts confirm the impressions. GDP in Shetland is significantly larger than in the Hebrides and the gap is growing. While the economy of Eilean Siar has struggled to a growth of 12 per cent over the last ten years, the economy of Shetland has bounded ahead, with nary a pause even during the great recession, by over 40 per cent.
(Figures from Eurostat; unit of measure – million units of national currency. See also the Eurostat press release on the release of its 2017 NUTS 3 figures in February this year.)
The major source of the difference is likely to be North Sea Oil which is driving Shetland’s economy via Sullom Voe much more than the agrarian one is driving our own (of course both Shetland and the Hebrides share an agrarian history and, while sheep are still very evident on Shetland, smallholdings and crofting are much less the case there these days). Oil has been a source not only of jobs in Shetland and, therefore, opportunities for people to remain, or return, there but also the high-tech skills with which come high wages and which, in turn, lead to money being spent in the shops (and the bars and cafes). Here, without an oil boom (and despite the rumours), it is not apparent that there has been significant skills transfer from the MoD presence, now in slow and steady withdrawal phase, while we are also faced with the further erosion of the skills base should HIAL proceed with its plans for the remote control of airport towers which my old union, Prospect, is fighting hard.
Both oil and small-scale sheep farming of course have their issues, the first from the highly-effective Extinction Rebellion protests which have led the government to plan to legislate for a zero carbon future by 2050 (though this is indeed less impressive than it looks), and which raises serious questions about whether those prospective oil finds should actually be left under the sea anyway; the second from Michael Gove and Brexit and the extent to which the Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Ireland) government, farm policy being a devolved matter, will be both able and willing to replace CAP payments lost after Brexit.
A green view would be that GDP growth is an inefficient way of measuring economic vitality since it omits much of the voluntary and not-for-profit work that keeps things ticking over; while it is certainly true that it ignores quality of life and greater well-being – the reason many people move to the northern and western isles (though we should also not ignore that several serious health problems associated with isolation are not uncommon) – as well as community life and culture (though it is also possible to find both these things in London, too). And it is absolutely not that there is nothing going on here – the new and very welcome Islands Revival blog recently detailed many of the initiatives now being undertaken on Uist.
What is required is, as Islands Revival commented, not only an end to managed decline – the council response to austerity and driven by the rut of population decline – but continued and further public and private investment. With significant scale private investment likely to follow, or be inhibited by, the dynamics of economic growth, public sources and projects occupy the central position in generating the new opportunities required to stem the decline and inspire regeneration. The energetic and enthusiastic Scottish Islands Team, responsible for a lengthy consultation tour discussing the National Islands Plan, and recently also in Shetland too, needs to take away that message from its trip to Uist and Benbecula on Monday and Tuesday next week. In the meantime, that spaceport up on North Uist (coincidentally one of its rivals is Unst, the most northerly part of the Shetland archipelago) is sorely needed.
I did promise you photographs. Here is a sunny view of the tombolo connecting St. Ninian’s Isle with the Shetland mainland (complete with coo and young ‘uns):
And here, on a rather more dreich day in Lerwick, are boats of neighbours, occupying peacefully adjacent spaces:
I had a quick trip to Brussels last week immediately ahead of the European Council which offered a ‘flextension’ get-out-of-jail card on Brexit (much to the amused interest of people who I’d told where I’d been). (And which, of course, we’ve used immediately for parliament to go on recess.)
Brussels is a place I’ve been going to more or less annually for trips, conferences and seminars, and other events, since about 1994 and I both know it reasonably well (as far as anyone can ‘know’ any city), and like it: it can hide its charms, to some degree, and these might also be somewhat idiosyncratic and easy to mock, as Channel 4’s Travel Man (coincidentally on a repeated showing on C4 Sunday afternoon) clearly uncovered without a great deal of effort. Walking down on arrival at the Gare du Nord to my hotel (yes, I know…), I met the sight of a young man openly making good, if unofficial, use of a street planter in performance art tribute to one of Brussels’s statues (maybe this one, or perhaps this one).
But the airport is well located, just fifteen minutes by train (of which there are five or six an hour) from the centre of Brussels, and without charging rip-off fares; and even the automated passport barriers work without supercilious staff suggesting I take off my glasses like I’m intentionally using them as some sort of disguise (BA/Heathrow Airport seriously take note). And how you can not like a place whose baggage hall has a jukebox:
Unusually, I managed to get from these islands to where I wanted to be the same day (morning flight from Benbecula-Glasgow; a short wait for a flight from Glasgow-Heathrow T5; and then a slightly longer wait than flight from T5-Brussels), though the downside was that this meant this trip was one of the shortest I have ever made (little more than the aforementioned 24 hours, from late afternoon one day to just before dinner the next). I was there for the annual meeting of the Editorial Board of the SEER Journal, with discussion of many interesting ideas, articles and innovations coming the way of our subscribers in 2019/20, but no visit to Brussels would be complete without a meal at Bij den Boer or without sampling a few beers.
24 hours either side of a busy and important meeting didn’t deliver too much opportunity for the latter. (And gentle rain in the evening, persisting more heavily right throughout the next day, didn’t encourage much in the way of trekking or, indeed, of photos.) However, I did manage to make Brasserie Omnibus, a cafe bar with a train theme, my local for the duration, serving a rather good, if sweet, Tripel Le Fort (plus a welcome little dish of bar snacks); while a nearby hotel bar delivered a proper temperature Rochefort Trappist 8 (which currently makes Belgium’s top 50 beers on Rate Beer), offering plenty of chocolatey goodness; while a wander around the corner from Bij den Boer to Cafe Merlo offered some new-style small-batch craft beer via Brasserie de la Senne, whose Zinnebir (a Belgian blonde) provided citrusy dryness to the post-dinner chat with colleagues wondering what the heck was happening with Brexit (my only new observation being that the UK is – or at least was, last week – a country in a state of open revolt in search of a revolution). All beers from bottles, by the way.
So, with a tinge of sadness – this being (possibly, who knows?) my last trip to Brussels as a ‘free’ citizen, it was a farewell to the city of Brussels with at least a hopeful au revoir/tot ziens. ‘Til next time then, comrades (if the creek don’t rise).
A quick check to the photo on the left would confirm – were it to be required – that I have spectacles. I’ve worn glasses since I was about seven years old when my class teacher, (a Mrs Whitehead, I believe, though I might be wrong about that) quite astutely realised that I couldn’t see the blackboard, and told my Mum. (With nothing to compare it with, how was I to know that not being able to see the board wasn’t the default position for everyone?)
So, I’ve worn glasses for nigh-on fifty years, and they are a part of me. ‘Twas not always thus: the silent movies of Harold Lloyd (motto: A pair of glasses and a smile) did much to habilitate me to the things in front of my face. These days, not only do they frame my face, they also frame a major part of my identity: I look in the mirror and I see me, in glasses (I am unable to see me, without!); furthermore, I am who I am in no small measure because I wear glasses: when I was young, a fear of breaking them, and shards going into my eye, or my parents having to contribute some of their very hard-earned cash to replace broken ones (most NHS specs were not free, even in those days), which happened on more than one occasion, were quite a major part of my growing up in some of my very formative years.
Without my glasses, I don’t see very well, being acutely short-sighted and with age yet to do its thing and start correcting it. Consequently, in front of strangers, even ones who mean no harm, I do feel vulnerable. It doesn’t help that my house was once, a long time ago, broken into and my glasses taken off my face and broken by the intruders. My glasses are me and I’d be no more without glasses in front of strangers than I would any other item of clothing.
This is not a post about my passport photo which, taken in the last few years, shows me without glasses on the grounds that glasses were not ‘approved’ (Ali Smith has a funny, and all too familiar, extemporisation on this theme in ‘Autumn‘). But it is linked.
The introduction of new technology in airports takes on a number of guises, one of which is the automation of security control barriers. Here, you are supposed to stand (absolutely squarely) on rough outlines of feet on the floor and stare at a post which takes your picture. Aside of the intrusive aspect of this, and those which raise all kinds of data protection and civil liberties issues, it doesn’t work for people who wear glasses: light flashing off the glass, apparently, confuses the technology (quite why, when cameras, including on mobile phones, are quite used to dealing with this, is a different matter).
‘Take your glasses off, sir,’ is the call when red lights flash and I have to seek assistance at the gate into security.
‘I can’t,’ say I, by now quite practised at this charade and also quite genuine in my objections. ‘You need technology that works and, if I have to deny my identity, your technology doesn’t work.’
This time, just yesterday, having this debate with the officer on duty, at a major airport in the London area, who manually checked my documents and waved me through. The added twist this time was the expressed thought that glasses – and, by implication, my own – could be used to disguise identities.
Coming eventually to the gate for my domestic flight to Edinburgh, I find similar technology and, putting my bar code face down on the glass, I am confronted again with red lights and a familiar, and growing, sense of helplessness. I again have the conversation with the airline staff at the gate about the vagaries of their applications of technology and that, no, I am not taking my glasses off.
Checking my details takes some time and everyone else has gone through by the time the gate staff tell me that the person they have a photo of on their screen isn’t me.
Bidden, I take a look. The horrendous head and shoulders caricature I see on the screen before me in a peculiarly detailed black and white x-ray style photo, distorted and twisted, with my head apparently bigger than my body, arms flowing from shoulders in an oddly-shaped way, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu, even I don’t recognise as me.
‘We can’t let you board the flight, sir’,’ say the gate staff, ‘ Your biometrics don’t match up with our records.’
And indeed they don’t let me on. Amidst the course of several conversations about the whys and wherefores of this, the security implications for those on my flight as well as another, unknown, one on which this apparent stranger is booked, and not least the implications for my later flight out of Edinburgh to Gdansk, my plane is backed away from the stand. It appears to all, including myself, that someone else’s picture has become associated on their systems with my boarding pass. I have been denied boarding, and through absolutely no fault of my own.
Resolution appears in the form of senior staff, who have the ability to call up what seems to be a higher resolution, albeit still peculiarly negative, photo. ‘That is him,’ says one, to the doubts of others. ‘Sir, is this you?’
A second, more sustained look at this second photo gives me pause for thought. It does seem to be me – the coat (critically by now in my carry-on bag) but framing me in the photo is the same and I have a button-through shirt, although I don’t appear to be wearing my glasses. Nosferatu has, however, been replaced by a figure a little closer to something I would recognise as myself. ‘Yes,’ I think out loud, ‘It might well be me.’ Too late, of course: my flight has long gone.
Photo retaken, manually, glasses still on, by one of the senior staff and I’m free to go away and stress with others about my chances of catching the next flight and whether it gets me there in time to catch my connection. (A side note: even these new photos still don’t trigger the gate barriers when I try and use them to board the next flight.)
As to where this earlier photo came from – who knows? Ignoring conspiracy theories, it can only have come from photos that were taken at the gate into security but which, however, were for some reason insufficient to let me pass through.
Ostensibly, of course, the photo is there to capture an image of people so that boarding cards can’t be swapped once people are air-side, although it seems to me that a stage is being jumped and that some form of retina recognition is already being implemented. This raises a few other issues, including that this – if true – is not being as widely publicised as civil liberties indicates it ought. More generally, however:
1. A technology that requires people not to be wearing glasses is not a functional one. There are quite a lot of us who wear glasses. Most people might be comfortable doing as instructed and taking off their glasses; unfortunately, I’m really not one of them.
2. To be useable, a technology has to do the job required of it. A technology which seems to be capable only of producing such a poor quality image, and which is dubious even at higher resolution, is simply not doing the job required when, at least on the surface, much better and more useable technologies are available.
3. And it has to be easy to use. A photo that even the subject himself can not recognise, still less hard-pressed gate staff with a really important, front-line job to do in the security of all of us, and with only seconds or less to spare per passenger, is not useable. People with glasses frequently look a lot different without them.
In Glasgow at the weekend and, following a walk along the River Kelvin and through the grounds and museum at Kelvingrove – still no pub called The Kelvin, I note, dammit, anywhere in the area – we wound up for a few whiskies and a bit of entertainment at the legendary Park Bar, just a few hundred yards from the museum. Star of novels and radio productions (forthcoming), The Park Bar is a bit of a legend amongst Uibhisteach and western isles folk more generally – and with very good reason as it is something of a home-from-home down there in Baile Mòr offering traditional music, good food and drink, some familiar faces, experiences and points of reference and a bit of a chat (not least when Runrig are also playing The Last Dance, and the islands have therefore emptied).
Satisfying myself with a few Schiehallions before switching to a Bruichladdich (or two), and enjoying Scott Harvey‘s slimmed-down trio of keyboard, accordion and drums, I couldn’t help a wry smile at this sign posted to the wall just to the right of the wee stage and warning of the Park Bar’s zero tolerance policy:
An image which is somewhat shaky (and therefore reduced in size here as full scale really does appear like the lens has been smeared with vaseline), not as a result of the Bruichladdich(s), I swear, but genuinely as a result of being bumped by dancers doing their best to throw a few Highland shapes in a bar that was *absolutely mobbed*. That’s the story I’m sticking to, anyway.
A period of radio silence for me, then, as a trip to Poland for a bit of holiday and a wedding was accompanied by a deliberate decision to leave behind my trusty laptop in order to make extra room in my suitcase for a few more shirts – better clothed sartorially I might, perhaps, have been but also somewhat more naked in that, like a lot of us, my life centres on the connectivity provided by my laptop in ways that are more flexible and easier to accomplish than they are via a purely hand-held, if rather old, device. (Even if, as is the case even in remote Poland, just a handful of kilometres from the border with Lithuania, 3G connectivity is a lot better than it is here in the UK.)
Imagine my surprise, then, to find out that, after a trip of 200 miles from our base here on the islands down to Glasgow, a 1,250-mile airplane trip across Europe to Warsaw and a 150-mile drive up Highway 61 () to the outskirts of Augustów, and then a bit further still towards Suwalki, our initial base at the small village of Dowspuda was just 1km out of Szkocja:
Szkocja was indeed founded by Scots who had been called across to the north-east of the Duchy of Warsaw in the early years of the nineteenth century to provide specialist agricultural advice to the local landowner, a former general in Napoleon’s army who was allowed to build a somewhat grandiose palace and mausoleum at Dowspuda, specifically on crop rotation systems as a way of making more productive use of the land. To those familiar with the history of the Highland Clearances, under which working people were, usually forcibly, evicted to make way for sheep as a way of making more productive use of the land, this is a somewhat ironic footnote in the history of Scots migration, not least given today’s general lack of visible sheep in much of rural Poland.
The army general concerned supported the rather ill-thought out November (1830) Uprising against the Tsar, and subsequently fled abroad, and so little remains of his Palace today other than an impressive portico and a tower, most of the rest of the stonework having been removed for use in local projects elsewhere (the windows, for example, found their way to the church in Suwalki), and the remains were subsequently destroyed. There are, however, plans to re-construct the palace as a five-star hotel – something which raises interesting points of discussion, regardless of the Polish historical context, about whether culture is really better served by looking backwards rather than forwards. Nevertheless, the former guardhouse has been beautifully regenerated as a tourist centre providing well-appointed rooms as well as very welcome employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
As for the Scots farmers, they came, they stayed and were allowed to build houses in a village they deliberately called home, constructing their lives there in the way that migrants have always done. Interestingly, there is at least one other Szkocja in Poland. Travelling the length of our Szkocja, we did see signs naming the village but none with the name crossed through in the way in which the geographical limits of Polish (and other east European) towns and villages are routinely identified – thus seeming to prove that there is, indeed, no end to Scotland. Rumours that the local Polish dialect is influenced by Gàidhlig have, however, still to be confirmed at the time of writing 😉 .