So. It’s been three weeks since my last epistle (well viewed, too – thanks everyone) so I thought it’s about time I gave you, Gentle Reader, an update to my currently mundane life. Of course, the fact it is mundane explains the lack of posting – it’s very difficult conjuring anything readable out of basically nothing. It could be argued that I’ve actually been doing that for three years now, but surprisingly perhaps there are shades of Nothing and right now I’m in a very deep and not very meaningful Nothing.
A lot of that has been to do with the continuing work shortage. Contracting is all well and good, but it’s also very frustrating at times: more than I had expected. The increased earnings (and it does indeed pay better than a salaried position, at least in my sector) are welcome, but the potential spells sitting on your arse doing nothing are difficult – especially if for whatever reason you’ve not managed to save a lot of spare capital from the last gig. Then the sleepless nights eventually kick in when the cash reserves are depleted with no sign of relief in the form another gig on the horizon. I’ve suffered from insomnia for years anyway so I should by rights be used to the wee small hours by now, but I’m not.
But happily things seem to have been resolved, and all things being equal I will be boarding a plane again soon. New destination too – watch this space.
Making things worse lately have been some private issues. I won’t go into any detail at all, but for the past year and more we’ve been caught up in a very unpleasant set of events that frankly make unemployment concerns trivial. They’re not getting better any time soon. The Dark Thoughts that keep me awake and restless at night, and make each day difficult to get through (thank God for my kids!) will be with me for a long time yet. But still, the situation is making me as miserable as sin and short tempered with my family, and that depresses me more than anything – they don’t deserve any of it. And I can only say sorry….
But anyway that’s depressing and this blog is never planned to be that (even if depressing topics like wars and despots and matters political are often discussed). What have I been up to the last few weeks?
Well, I had a quick trip to England. I needed to take care of some family business, so boarded my WizzAir plane again to Luton. I stayed just under a week, and saw pretty much everyone who matters back in my homeland, and it was good, if at times trying. Successful visit? Yes, I think so.
It was not without its mishaps, mind you. When I got to the car hire place at Luton Airport I found I’d left my driving licence at home – first time I’ve ever managed to do that. A call to DVLC confirmed that I had a clean and valid licence (even though I couldn’t remember which address was on the thing) and that meant that National Cars were happy to release the Astra to my tender loving care, in exchange for another eighty quid (returnable) to do away with the insurance excess. It was a nice shiny new car with less than 10,000 miles on the clock, but dreadfully underpowered. I’m not sure what engine was under the bonnet, but whatever it was it was not good enough for the car. Acceleration was always poor, especially uphill, and overtaking, even dropping down the gears, was heart-in-mouth stuff at times. Living and driving in Poland (and other European countries) means that overtaking other cars is part and parcel of the driving experience, and drivers generally do the sensible thing when being passed – which typically means easing over slightly to allow a bit more room and perhaps checking speed just a little and just for a second, to allow safe passage. But except on motorways – and even there not in every case – British drivers seem not to like being passed these days. Off motorway, I made perhaps four overtaking manoeuvres in a period of six days and over 500 miles of driving, each time on nice clear straight stretches of road, with no oncoming traffic or restricting signage or road-markings. And every time – EVERY time! – the cars (and in one case a bloody great articulated truck) I was passing speeded up as if to prevent me going by, tooted their horns, flashed their lights and/or pulled out (rather than in) – none of it good in my underpowered Astra. Now why on earth is that? Has Mr. Cameron made overtaking illegal or something? I don’t remember it being like that before, but quite definitely it’s been getting worse in the years since I moved away. Most odd.
I also had the chance to enjoy the splendours of the British railway system again, as I had to run into London from Norfolk for a business meeting. The train journeys themselves, through the lovely Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, and Hertfordshire countryside were very pleasant, and even the Tube was quite comfortable – new trains since last I used it: thank you Boris! But parking at Kings Lynn station was a bit of a challenge. The two car parks were both full, so I had to run half way round an unfamiliar one-way system to find a multi storey. Plenty of spaces, but the ticket machine took a maximum payment of 4 hours at a cost of £8, and accepted neither notes not credit cards. No good to me then. Back round the one way system, and I took the wrong road, and found myself leaving town. U-turn in a factory estate, and back in again. To the station, one car park full, into the other – also full. But what’s this? Ah! An overflow, its entrance between two overgrown bushes that obscured the signs, and in any case on my original visit had been blocked by a National Rail Transit mini-bus. Plenty of room and a machine that accepted all denominations of coins, notes and credit cards – and just £2-90 for a full day. Result. Mind you, I’d missed my train by then, and had to call from the platform to move the meeting back an hour and a half. But it was a good day, and excellent fish and chips on the way home from the chippy in my sister’s Norfolk village.
I like the new skyline that is developing in London these days. It’s always had its tower blocks, and glass office skyscrapers, but for a while in the 80s and 90s was beginning to look very shabby I think. The Docklands development started to change all that (I worked there for a while, and on a brief return last year was surprised by just how much even that had changed over the years) but there is a new burst of construction going on. The Shard at London Bridge (80% empty, but still the tallest building in Europe) is an extraordinary piece of work, and across the river in the City there are perhaps another half a dozen blocks going up. The one that most caught my eye is opposite the Lloyds Building (itself a lovely piece of work but old now) and right next door to the old Commercial Union building. I went for an interview there once, many years ago, with a US bank that occupied the top three floors, and remember well the view from the bank’s Reception area, north across Liverpool Street station towards suburban London and Essex and Hertfordshire beyond. Well, the new building dwarfs the CU tower – it must be double its height, and while not in Shard territory matches anything at Canary Wharf. It narrows dramatically from ground (or at least concourse) level, and I imagine each floor as you progress upwards is a bit narrower than the one below – it certainly resembles the cheese grater that I think gives it its nickname.
I spent a good bit of time with my sisters as well. One evening, Win and Alan and myself sat up until nearly 1 a.m. discussing the internet: I am of course a great fan and supporter, whereas they are of the equally strong opinion that it is the font of all evil and refuse to have anything to do with it. We failed to agree on anything (and in all honestly we’re probably both right in our views) but it was a great discussion for all that. With Shir it was different: she is recovering from back problems and still suffering greatly, but on one day I took her and my niece out for a drive. We went into Edenbridge, where we both grew up, and put flowers out on mum and dad’s grave, then headed out into the country through Chiddingstone (where Shir had spent the first years of her married life and my niece had been born), then out into the Sussex countryside to Crowborough in search of fish and chips (the shop, when we got there, was closed) and back into Rusthall and Tunbridge Wells. It was fun, we talked and laughed a lot, and enjoyed it immensely.
It was good trip.
Then we had Easter.
It’s very different here to the UK. In a previous life, I would give and receive many chocolate eggs of different sorts, and eat them in a mad frenzy over no more than a couple of days. One year I was given no less than 8, and ate them in two sittings on Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, and was sick for a week. Later on, in adulthood, it was a weekend of football (my club usually played at least a couple of matches) and of course drinking. And eating chocolate eggs. After I married and had my own kids, Good Friday was typically a day to go to 3 o’clock Mass then off to either the local garden centre or DIY superstore (or both) and stock up on plants and paints and wallpapers and so on. Saturday would be spent decorating or gardening (depending on the weather), then on Sunday Mass again and a roast turkey (or maybe lamb) dinner, and on Monday carry on with the decorating or gardening (depending on the weather). And eating chocolate eggs.
One year, in my US banking days, I had to go in to work on Good Friday – not a holiday then in the States. I was one of a dozen people minding the shop, since the entire European and London market was closed. We sat around drinking coffee and playing Trivial Pursuit until New York opened, at which point the handful of traders went home and left us back office grunts to keep New York happy. I had a call from my counterpart there telling me about a problem with another bank in London (actually it wasn’t a problem as such, and wouldn’t become one for at least another six days) and demanding I call them immediately. I politely informed him that it was Good Friday, part of the Easter weekend, and we were the only people working in the entire City. He went berserk, and insisted I call them at home. I explained that I didn’t actually have the home telephone number of every settlements clerk in London, and even if I had they wouldn’t answer as it was Good Friday, part of the Easter weekend….. He got even madder and insisted I did something or he would report me to HR, my manager and the Chairman of the Board. I told him to fuck off and we all went home.
Over here, it’s different. Despite spending 50 years under the yoke of Communism, Poland is one of the more religious countries in Europe. So much so, in fact, that throughout all those years, the Party hierarchy did not dare to do anything to suppress Catholicism in the country, and most people still went to Mass regularly. After the Fall of the Iron Curtain and its obscene ideologies, strongly supported by the Polish Pope (who deserves his recently granted Sainthood for that alone), the Polish people were able to celebrate their Faith openly for the first time in a generation, and continue to do so in huge numbers to this day.
Easter, of course, is central to that faith. On Good Friday (a holiday of course) we went to Mass as I had in England with my first family. Our old thatched parish church of St. Francis de Sales in Hartley would fit in its entirety at the front of my local cathedral-sized neighbourhood church here, in the space where is the altar, seating for 9 priests and about 16 altar boys. The place was packed to the rafters, including the balconies at the back, and standing in all the aisles, the entrance halls and steps outside. It’s usually full anyway, even on a normal mundane Sunday service, but Good Friday was exceptional. We arrived at the wrong time, as one Mass was ending, so were able for once to sit down, close to the front. The Catholic Mass seems to me to lend itself well to a church setting, with its prayers and chants and bells ringing, and in our Church with the big organ and a (very good) choir it sounded magnificent. The rolling, consonant heavy Polish language added to the spectacle too. Even though I understood very little that was said, and in any event can hardly remember the Creed or any of the other liturgies that I could actually mumble in English (I was never confirmed or baptised Catholic so never had to learn it all), I tried to join in, and spent some time in contemplation and my own version of prayer. I hoped for a clue or something to put my mind at rest about the complications I mentioned earlier in this post, but I failed – the Dark Thoughts were (and are) still there. One man, however, was in what I can only conclude is an ecstasy of faith (that may be too strong a term, but never having experienced one myself that’s the way it looked to me). I’ve seen him there before and marvelled at his devotion. He spends half the Mass on his knees, often in the middle of the aisle directly in front of the altar, so that communicants have to step carefully around him to receive their Hosts, and seems intent on breaking the world record for genuflections in one hour. He is always dressed in the same grubby-kneed khaki chinos, held up by a piece of what looks like curtain cord, short sleeved shirt and jacket, no matter the weather – hot days, wet days or bitterly cold winter days are no different to this pilgrim. I’m not sure whether to admire him or sympathise with him. I saw him again on Tuesday, when I was cycling to school with the kids – he was crossing the road, dressed the same and clearly on his way to his next devotions. It may be uncharitable but frankly I found it a little unsettling.
Saturday is spent preparing the Easter basket for blessing. The tradition here is that you take a small decorated basket of food (hard boiled eggs, some bread, sausages, salt and pepper) to church to be blessed by the priest – this is believed to ensure you won’t go short of food over the next twelve months. The eggs are hand painted, and eaten as part of the Sunday breakfast. Of course we enter into the spirit of things and every year our own family tradition dictates that I decorate my egg with the Polish flag on one side and the English flag (cross of St. George, not Union Jack) on the other. Incidentally there is usually not a chocolate egg in sight – but this year I brought some back from England, so for the first time my kids had the opportunity to sample traditional English Easter fare. They were not keen…. Anyway, we had the basket blessed in a once again packed church, this time in a spacious basement chapel, with a life-sized depiction of Christ in his tomb, fronted by rows of seats for prayer and contemplation. It was decorated with many candles and flowers, and looked very pleasant. The mood was noticeably more sombre at our church than at others we’ve been to on other Easters. I wonder why.
Then Sunday we got up and prepared the usual Easter breakfast, of salads, hard boiled eggs (decorated with a home-made mushroom sauce), various hams and cheeses and fresh breads. We dressed in our best suits and ties – MUCH more formal than back in England! – and of course took many photos. Then to another packed Church again for Mass, before a dinner of roast goose with baked apples, asparagus and roast potatoes. It was the first time Ania had cooked that bird and the first time I had eaten it, and I have to say it was delicious.
Monday was a day of rest. But no chocolate eggs.
In the wider world, the search for missing flight MH370 continues, with sadly no result.
This is such a tragic and mysterious disappearance, and despite reams of speculation by experts and idiots no-one so far has a clue what really happened. Apart from the plane turning back and reversing course for no obvious reason, with all communications and transponders apparently disabled, no-one knows what happened or where it went. There were two possible alternative route options – one northerly, ending somewhere in the region of Kazakhstan, and the other over the southern Indian Ocean – suggested by satellite tracking tools, and the main search has been on the second alternative. The northerly route would have taken it over several countries, and some sensitive border areas so was deemed highly unlikely. But after more than 50 days now, there is still no trace of wreckage and the black box pinger batteries are long exhausted. Some signals were picked up a couple of thousand miles off Western Australia, roughly on the possible southern route and at its very limit, but despite exhaustive searches by planes and vessels from many countries (including the US and Britain) still nothing is found.
Throughout these weeks the conspiracy theorists have had a field day. Some of the ideas are frankly ridiculous – alien abduction, anybody? – and most of the rest far-fetched to put it mildly. The CIA seems to head the list of potential Villains Of The Piece, closely followed by the US government, the Chinese (despite the bulk of the 260-odd passengers being from that country), the Israelis, Arab terrorists (hijacking the plane to Pakistan to convert it to a massive flying bomb to attack an unspecified but probably American target) and the Malaysians themselves (who panicked when the flight did its about turn and shot the plane down by mistake over the jungles or the Malacca Straits, and have been covering up ever since). More believable, perhaps, is a report that came out of the Maldives the day after the plane disappeared. In this, a group of people on one of the more remote, outlying islands reported seeing and hearing a low flying plane heading south just offshore. The report has never been properly investigated and the Maldivian newspapers have run various articles denouncing the authorities for not taking the report seriously. There seem to be two chains of thought on this one – first, the plane was actually crashing at that point and so the wreckage is to be found somewhere quite close by, and second, that it actually landed on another outlying island, was re-fuelled then flown to the US bases on Diego Garcia (the CIA conspiracy again….). To me, the first option seems the most likely – indeed the most likely explanation of the lot – and I can’t really figure out why it apparently hasn’t been taken seriously.
And while all this has been going on, the friends and relatives of over 250 people from several countries are suffering the agonies of not knowing…..whether their loved ones are dead or alive, what happened, where they might be – whether they suffered. I can’t begin to imagine what that must be like.
I personally don’t think we’ll ever know the truth.
But their distress can be nothing compared to that of the parents of the 300-odd schoolchildren drowned when their ferry capsized and sank travelling to a holiday island in South Korea – the school-trip from hell. It appears from reports that the crew were grossly negligent when the ship hit something and began sinking, telling the victims to stay in cabins and restaurants until help came – which it never did. In this internet age, the text messages saying things like “Good bye” and “I love you” to parents that were sent by these 16 year old kids waiting to die found their way into newspapers all over the world and are truly heart-breaking. What a world we live in!
On a brighter note – much needed after the last few paragraphs – The Polish Pope John Paul II was Beatified last weekend, only 9 years after his death – apparently a record. Another, pre-war, Pope, John XXIII, was Beatified with him. The ceremony was watched by a crowd of a million-odd pilgrims, and no doubt a huge global live television audience – it was naturally carried live on most local stations here. Like all such Catholic ceremonies, it was a splendid spectacle, the sort of thing that the Church does supremely well – a bit like the English and Coronations and State Funerals.
Whether Catholic or not (and I’m not) Jan Pawel Drugi - as the Poles call him still – was an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life. He was even a goalkeeper, like me, in his youth. To be made a Saint you need to have been credited with I think three proven miracles. I’m not sure what his were (from memory, I think one was a documented case of a nun who was cured of Parkinson’s Disease after a visit by him), but to my mind his steadfast leadership and support for anti-Communist groups world-wide, notably the Polish Solidarity movement, that ultimately brought down the Iron Curtain and dispensed with the undoubted horrors of Communist oppression across Europe and gave freedom and prosperity (to varying degrees) to millions of ordinary people is worth a Beatification on its own.
Top man, that Karol Wojtyla.
And now we come to the May Bank Holiday weekend. The weather looks good, so it’s barbecue in the garden time for us all here. Out on the bikes too, no doubt, and for sure shift a few Tyskie (or Lech, or Zubr….or all three). I’ve just seen a piece on the local news about this weekend’s traditional barbecue session – always the day after May Day is a barbecue day. This year of course, the day falls on a Friday……which as every good Catholic knows is a day of fish. So in his infinite wisdom the bishop of the dioceses on the east bank of the Wisla has refused to provide a dispensation to allow people to eat meat, whilst his counterpart on the west bank has allowed it. Fortunately, I live on the west bank, so I’m in the clear so to speak. But really – how ridiculous and how petty!