Friday, 25 March 2011

The Internet.....

What a wonderful invention!

Not only does it allow me to write this thing, and if I feel like it surf some entertaining websites in the evening when I'm stuck in a hotel somewhere, not to mention keep in touch with my football club's results and performances - pretty good this year, after relegation last season - AND buy decent music for my iPod, books to read in airport lounges and gifts for my family (flowers at Valentines are always good for brownie points)'s the best way of keeping in touch with my friends, flung to all corners of the globe, and my folks back home in England, and Poland, and Canada and Australia.  Free Skype messaging and cheap phone calls.  E-mails.  Facebook (but forget about Twitter...I just don't get it!!!).

I love it.

And today.....well, it's my birthday.  All day I've had greetings hitting my Facebook account.  I've just hit the Lounge at Geneva airport on my way home, logged onto the free wifi service here and opened Skype (blocked on the client site) and I'm swamped by greetings from people there too....from Singapore, Saudi, Paris and I dunno where else.  All through this wonderful invention. all of you: sincere thanks for your greetings, they are much appreciated and have made this Old Man very very happy!

Happy travels to one and all.  Be safe and stay lucky.

Travellin Bob

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


I've never been to Japan, like most people I suppose, so my perceptions of the country and its people are based - again like most people's - on flimsy experience.  On hearsay.  On apocryphal tales of cruelty during WW2, and earlier in Samurai times.  On the undoubted quality of their consumer electrical goods.  On excerpts from bizarre TV game shows on Chris Tarrant on TV and suchlike.

First impression came from dad.  He fought in Burma during the war, and although he never talked in detail about it to me, he carried a hatred of all things Japanese until his dying day.  I found out after his death that he had been on many patrols in the jungles where, before setting out from their base, he and his comrades had drawn lots to decide who would be last in line on the patrol.....the most dangerous position.   Apparently the Japanese soldiers, hiding close to the jungle paths in the undergrowth, would slip silently out behind the last man, a hand over the mouth and a bayonet in the spine, slit throat or whatever.  My dad lost good friends in that way and it affected him deeply.   The carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, to him (and many others of his generation and experience), scant compensation for the brutality of the Burma railroad (see the movie Bridge on the River Kwai for an idea of that) or the occupation of Singapore and Burma (see Goodnight Mr.Lawrence, or from BBC tv Tenko).  Some years after he died, I was offered - and accepted - a better job with a Japanese bank: my mother was furious and saw it as a betrayal of my father and all he had been through.   In end, for other reasons, I didn't take the job, but her feelings then made a deep impression on me.

I read James Clavell's book Shogun, and thoroughly enjoyed it (although the film series with Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne, the heroic English sailor who joins the house of a major warload and helps overthrow the ruling Emperor and replace his rule with his own shogunate -  based on a true story, apparently - was crap).  But the book, and its sequal King Rat (about survival in a Japanese PoW camp during the war) gave me further insight into the Japanese culture.   I'm sure both are highly derivitive and exaggerated - as all fiction is - but it was a starting point.

From the game show clips, it was obvious that there was something very different - alien even - about their culture, and Tarrant and, on BBC, Clive James lampooned it mercilessly throughout the 80s and early 90s.  Understandably so - in a country where the game show was stuck in the realms of Celebrity Squares,  or Countdown, or Bullseye (enjoyable enough but dull and quintessentially English all of them), the sight of young Japanese men and women dressed typically in white judo suits and samurai-style headbands submitting themselves to bizarre and invariably cruel ordeals to entertain the viewers and win a colour TV or something was, well, odd.  The one that sticks in my mind was where the guys had see-through plastic helmets on their heads - plastic bags really - from the top of which was a breathing tube.  The game was to pour Kirin beer through the tube, in such quantities that the contestant (or victim if you prefer) had to drink the stuff or drown.   The guy who lasted longest, and hence drunk most, before ripping the helmet off and puking everywhere before passing out, was the winner.   Another featured girls being locked in plastic tanks and doused in live cockroaches, snakes and God alone knows what else.....again, the last out was declared the winner (invariably in tears and shaking with barely controlled terror and disgust).  It was hilarious!  Oh, how we all laughed at these funny little people on the other side of the world.

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And while we laughed, the economic miracle that had been quietly gaining strength throughout the post-war years, came to fruition, through the incredible work ethic of those same funny little people on the other side of the world.

In 1945, at the end of the war and after the almost total destruction of the industrial centres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the only two atomic bombs let off in anger in the history of the world, and comparable damage to Tokyo and other cities by more conventional means, the country and its people were on their knees.  If the Germans were universally villifed (quite rightly) for the horrors of the Holocaust and occupied by victorious armies, the Japanese were equally villified for Pearl Harbour and their atrocities in the Asian jungles and occupied by their conquerers as well.   Both countries were all but destroyed, totally defeated and in ruins, morally and physically.  It's a supreme irony that both countries recovered better and quicker than many of the victorious Allies (including Britain and France), and became the strongest economies in the world after the US.

I'm not a historian, and I've never studied the reasons for that, especially in Japan's case - although some day I must get around to it.    But it's clear and a historical fact that both Germany and Japan dragged themselves out of their ruined state into vibrant democracies and industrial and economic powerhouses within 30 odd years.  It perhaps took Germany a little longer, and a little more effort, as the country was partitioned and West Germany was left to foot the not inconsiderable bill for unification after the fall of Communism in the early 90s.    But happen it did, and because of the distance between Japan and Europe, the Japanese did it with little publicity - unless you were actively involved in business activities with Japan (banking say, or import/export) it was not in the least bit obvious.  Until better quality Japanese goods became available in the UK at cheaper prices - your Decca black-and-white TV replaceable by a Sony colour TV with a bigger screen for the same price, for instance.

Not only was the stuff good, it was innovative too.  The Sony Walkman changed the way we listened to music-on-the-go forever, and after tapes gave way to CDs the Sony Discman forced a similar sea change for CD listening.   And both forged the way for music downloads, MP3 players and the now ubiquitous Apple iPod or iPhone.   They paved the way for cheap computing and laptops - Sony again -, higher and higher quality TVs (Sony of course, but also JVC and Sharp) that have ultimately led us to huge flat screen plasma sets, with high definition pictures and now increasingly 3D enabled.  And home cinema kits that allow you to play your DVDs on those TVs with cinema quality surroundsound.   All brilliant stuff.

Their car manufacture is not far behind, and has gone a long way towards demolishing both the US and British car industries.  As sales of Ford and GM and British Leyland have tailed off, so those of Nissan and Honda and in particular Toyota have exploded to take up the slack.  I now drive a Toyota that I'm very happy with - I've had it for about 5 years, done a lot of mileage and never had a days' trouble with it.  The most fun car I ever had was Japanese too - back in the early 90s my company car (at least for 6 months, to run the lease down) was a Mazda RZ7 2 seat sports car.  OK, it was a poor man's Porsche but I loved it.  Motor bikes went the same Norton, no BSA, no Ariel, very few Triumphs (great British manufacturers all of them) but millions of Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki.....

In the banking area, too, the Japanese made huge strides.  I can remember when there were relatively few well known Japanese banks, and only a handful had small London offices.  By the early 90s one of them, Nomura, was the biggest bank in the world and employed several thousand in plush new premises close to the Old Bailey.  Competitors like Nikko, Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Fuji had major presences in the City and globally.   The Japanese stock and bond markets out-performed pretty much everywhere else for several years, and whole new markets in Japanese company debt were created.  I remember a boom time in the early 90s when Japanese banks were issuing billions of dollars worth of corporate bonds for the likes of Sony, JVC, NHK, Mitsui Steel - there were, at its peak, several new issues a day.  The bonds typically came with warrants (exchangeable for shares) attached, that could be "stripped" and sold separately.  There was huge demand and it was a licence to print money.  At the time the UK papers were full of stories about bankers' bonus payments and one guy from the American firm Goldman Sachs (dubbed Goldmine Stacks by the tabloids) was widely reported to have earned nearly GBP2m in the previous tax year - he was dubbed the Richest Banker in London.  He wasn't.  A salesman at my company had earned over GBP2.5m that year - the third in a row - but as we were a private company it was never made public.  They were happy days.

Of course, since then there have been market crashes that have affected everybody, and Japan has not been immune from them.    Their economy has suffered along with those of the US, Britain, Germany, France and pretty much every other developed country in the world.  But the economic miracle put it in a better position to withstand those waves of attrition over the past 10 years than many competitors.

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From all the books and films and travel shows I've seen over the years, Japan looks like an extraordinarily beautiful country.   Mount Fuji, the volcano close to Tokyo, is one of the most evocative and well known panoramas in the world......a perfectly regular, snow capped, volcanic cone.  It could be a text book illustration (and often is, in geology and geography books).    There are, to the north of the country, mountains good enough to have hosted the Winter Olympics at Saporro.  To the south the land is rich and arable and well tended.  There are countless bays along the coasts of all the islands in the chain that make up the Japanese nation that offer good fishing and swimming and beach vacations.

The whole country is criss-crossed by a network of some the most efficient and well run high speed trains in the world, travelling at speeds greater than any HST line in Europe.    They link all the major cities cleanly and efficiently and as quick as any local airline service could.   The cities, especially Tokyo, are extraordinarily modern, dazzling neon-lit skyscrapers mingling seamlessly with more traditional wood-built housing.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki have risen from the nuclear ashes and reclaimed their places as major industrial centres - but both with museums and gardens of remembrance dedicated to the tragedies of 1945.

But the country has a single drawback - it is located smack on one of the largest tectonic plates, the Pacific plate, and is thus subject to regular (almost constant) earthquakes.    The majority are small tremors, and the people have grown accustomed to them.  Architecture and buildings, even the tallest skyscrapers, are designed and constructed to withstand even the most violent tremor.  But inevitably there are times when even the most modern design and construction is not good enough.  Thirty years or so ago, a major earthquake destroyed a large portion of the city of Kobe, killing tens of thousands of people.

And now it's happened again.  Last week, a massive quake, measuring 9 on the Richter scale, occurred about 100 miles off the north eastern coast.  It didn't cause a huge amount of destruction, although buildings as far south as Tokyo (nearly 200 miles away) suffered minor damage.  But the resulting tsunami, coming ashore a matter of a few hours later, in the midst of a huge number of aftershocks of varying intensity - some of them up to scale 7 - devastated huge areas.   Whole towns were washed away, reduced to matchwood.  Fishing boats and coaches were picked up and deposited on the roofs of 4 and 5 storey buildings.  One of the most modern nuclear power plants in the country survived the tsunami, but sustained significant damage that has led to radiation leaks or fires in all four reactors, that have led to a massive evacuation in an exclusion zone of 20 miles.   And at least 10,000 people have lost their lives.  The stories being broadcast round the clock by news networks like CNN and the BBC are heart breaking.

The quake last year in Haiti was terrible, and that poor country - bankrupt before the quake hit it - has been suffering terribly ever since, with hurricanes and cholera epidemics.   But somehow the pictures coming out of Japan are more shocking, as one of the most technically advanced countries on earth is devastated by an irresistable force of nature - a force sufficient to pick the entire main island of the Japanese archipelago up and dump it a couple metres closer to California.  Sufficient to tilt the entire planet's axis by a few centimetres.  Extraordinary statistics......that prove that when it comes to mankind standing up to Mother Nature (or at least trying to....) Mother Nature wins every time.

Right now, the Japanese people are suffering terribly, and will do so for months to come.  But in the end they will clear up the mess, rebuild and carry on with their lives.  They will mourn and remember the dead, and rejoice at their own survival, and do their best to ensure that when the next disaster strikes (as it surely will) they will suffer less and recover quicker.  It's what the Japanese do best.  Look at Kobe and Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Tokyo and Osaka, all of which have recovered from similar devastation during my lifetime.

Japan.  An extraordinary place and an extraordinary people.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The cool clear mountain air.

Szczyrk is a fairly typical small Polish town.  First of all, as you can see, its name is entirely consonents, not a vowel in sight (not my favourite....that is the wonderfully named Zrzn, on the way to Lublin).   Second, the road through it is in a state disrepair....plenty of potholes and ridges where old repairs haven't quite worked how they should.  Again, this is not uncommon - even the national roads (equivalent to say the A40 or A21 in England) are like that.  It can make a long journey a bit wearing on your car's springs as well as your nerves.  The architecture is a mix of traditional Polish country house and functional communist block - not too pretty on the eye, but comfortable enough once modernized.  There are plenty of stores, small corner shop affairs that sell pretty much everything, as well as a couple of supermarkets, a good selection of souvenir shopes, restaurants and hotels.

What sets it apart is its location.  It's a ski resort in the Beskidy mountains in the south west of the country, a few miles from the border with the Czech Republic.  The Tatra mountains, about 50 miles to the east, close to Krakow, are a higher and more impressive range of mountains (this time bordering both the Czech Republic and Slovakia) but I'm told the skiing in the Beskidy range is better.  Never having tried a pair of skis on in my life I couldn't comment.  But Szczyrk is popular, and one of the leading resorts in Poland.  There are regular competitions, often featuring leading winter sports competitors....a couple of weeks ago there was a world championship held here in the discipline of cross-country skiing, for instance.  Right next to the guest house we rented is a championship quality ski jumping hill, complete with floodlights and three hills of varying height and difficulty.

So it's a good place, and when we were invited by some close friends to visit with them this week we had no hesitation in accepting.  Marcin and Monika are good friends, we've had a couple of boating holidays with them on the Mazurian Lakes, and their kids, Mateusz and Maciej, are good mates with our two.

So, done deal....

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It's a drive of some 300 km from our place, through Czestochowa, Katowice and Bielsko Biala.  The trafic was pretty light all the way, odd for a Saturday, and the kids behaved impeccably so it was pretty painless.  The main bottlenecks were through the major towns of Czestochowa (a historical tourist city that houses in its cathedral the medieval Catholic relic of the Black Madonna, making it a year round place of pilgrimage) and the industrial connurbation of Katowice and Chorzow, a still flourishing mining area close to the Beskidys.  But we left home around lunch time, took our time (with a couple of comfort breaks along the way) and arrived at the pension soon after dark, around 5:30.   There was surprisingly little snow to be seen in Sczczyrk, despite the temperature being around -10C, but the ski-jumping hill next door was certainly well covered (though not in use).   There was in fact more snow back home in Warsaw.....

We stayed at a small pension (a self-catering Polish guesthouse) and it was lovely.  The basement area - in fact it was sort of half under- and half over-ground - had been recently converted to provide accomodation.  It had three bedroom/bathroom/sitting room affairs surrounding a small central kitchen area, all with stripped pine floors and furniture (a double bed and 2 singles, wardrobe, chest of drawers and flat screen tv in each).   Our suite also had a comfortable settee and pine cottage style dining table and chairs.  The walls were pine clad and the low ceilings had a novel undulating finish that made them look like cave roofs.  The bathrooms were brand new and tastefully decorated, with good sized shower cubicles.  I've stayed in a few places over the years, mostly on the Baltic coast, and this was by far and away the best.

On the Sunday we went for a drive up into the mountains, and it was a delight.  10 km outside of town and 300m further up the mountain was a different world, one of thick snow and blue skies.  We went to one of the ski slopes and took the kids sledging.....the boys enjoyed it but Ally was not keen - "Too cold, daddy!"  We stayed for an hour or so, then headed further up to another place called Wisla.  Close to here the river that bears its name springs from the mountains and flows 900-odd kilometers through Krakow and Warsaw and Torun, the ancient and modern capitals of Poland and its university city birthplace of the astronomer Copernicus, before flowing into the Baltic at Gdansk.  It's also the home of Adam Malysz, probably the country's most famous sportsman, still one of the best half dozen ski jumpers in the world and a local hero - there is a museum dedicated to his career in Wisla.  We walked here along a ridge in brilliant sunshine, the snow ankle deep, through a pine forest, and to our right views across to the Czech Republic.  More sledging, and again too cold for Ally.  We ended up in a roadside cafe across from the car park, drinking hot beer flavoured with raspberry juice and herbs, hot chocolate for the kids and potato pancakes.....delicious.  We went back there later in the week, when it was even colder after another snowfall and the skies were even clearer, the bluest sky I have ever seen.....quite gorgeous.

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We enrolled Kuba and Maciej for ski lessons at a school in Sczczyrk.  Marcin and I took them off and they were fitted out with skis and boots and helmets, and then on to the nursery slope where they each had individual tuition.  They had four sessions in all, over the rest of the week, by the end of which they were happily skiing downhill on their own, slaloming their way without having to clutch their instructors' hands or poles for balance.  At the end of the week they each were given signed diplomas to show they had completed the course.....a proud moment!  Marcin and Ania are already experienced skiers, so Marcin treated himself to a two day course on the snowboards, while Ania settled for a couple of runs first on the nursery slopes with Kuba, and later, solo, on the Black Run at another slope.....she loved it.  On the Thursday it was my turn......and what a day!  We went off on a ski lift to the summit of Skrzyczne, at over 1200m one of the tallest peaks in the region.  The views on the way up, literally through a thin cloud layer, were quite stunning, and the top under clear blue skies was a snowy wonderland.  There was a cafe there, so we went there to warm up before hitting the slopes.  It was Kuba's second last lesson, so I stayed in the warmth of the cafe drinking hot chocolate while Ania shot off another 60 odd pictures of Kuba.  Ally fell asleep in my arms, and I had to wait a couple of hours before Ania came to relieve me and sent me off to the instructor.  This was my first time, ever, at this game and by the time I got out on the slopes my legs were already aching from the unaccustomed load of heavy ski boots I'd been hobbling about in for several knees, weak from old football injuries, were on the verge of giving up the ghost.  I clipped on the skis, with my instructor's help, then I stood there hanging on like grim death to the poles he was holding across him horizontally as an aid, while he gave me a string of incomprehensible instructions in Polish (a great guy, his English was on a par with my Polish - that is to say pretty much non-existant).  I caught the words "lewo" (left) and "prawo" (right), and then we were off.  Top man, he took it nice and slow, skiing backwards in a gentle slalom, while I clutched onto the poles, desperately trying to keep upright and turn when he did.   Somehow I managed to get to the bottom of the slope without falling arse over head and breaking something....but my knees!!!!!  Agony is probably too polite a description......  I could hardly stand, and it felt as though my knees were about to burst.  We were at the base station for a little pulley system that dragged us back up the slope, so I grabbed one of the handholds and slithered back up, still miraculously managing to keep my balance.  At the top, you were supposed to let go and turn right, back onto the flat at the top of the slope.  I managed that ok, but then began to slide backwards.....  Nothing for it, my legs finally gave out and I collapsed.  That was the end of my point in continuing, the way my knees were....I could hardly stand, never mind hit the slopes again.  But it was great fun, and maybe I'll give it another go one day.
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There are a lot of restaurants and hotel in the town, but we tended to use one more or less in the centre of town that had a kids play area inside and served a good menu of Polish, Italian, Greek and Mexican cuisine.  We tried several differnt dishes across the menu and it was all much as you could eat, well cooked and presented, washed down with a fine selection of local and imported beers.  And all at a very reasonable cost.   While we adults ate and drank, the kids were quite happily playing with train sets, building blocks, colouring and puzzle books, dolls and a whole host of other stuff, often with other kids from other families.  The evenings were as enjoyable as the days, and we all slept well.

The town also had a small spa kind of place, in a big house on one of the back streets.  One of its features was a large room that had somehow been converted to a cave, with natural mineral salt like deep sand on the floor, and the walls and ceiling covered with mineral salt deposits and was very cleverly done.  In the room were perhaps a dozen sunloungers and the obligatory kids play area (this time with toy JCBs and dumper trucks, beach buckets, spades and rakes) and a family ticket priced at 32 zlotys gave you an hours' relaxation, breathing the enfused air and chilling out to a soundtrack of gentle music with the sea and gulls cawing in the background.  It was all very kitsch, really, but a pleasant way of spending a quiet time, and the salty air did my sinus the power of good.....I'd been carrying a virus for weeks, coughing and sneezing, and none of the many over-the-counter remedies seemed to help, but after the two visits here we made, for at least a couple of hours afterwards my nose and throat were fine and clear.

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So all in all, we had a great week.  It made a change from the normal daily grind, and the change of scene from city centre to clear mountain terrain was exhilerating.  Kuba thoroughly enjoyed his skiing and wants to do it again, even Ally got used to the cold eventually and enjoyed herself in the snow.

I'm guessing we'll do it all over again next year.