Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Soggy skiing in Zwardon

Back in the 80s I had a Chris de Burgh album called Into The Light.  One of the songs (I can’t remember which one and I lost the cassette years ago) had one of my all-time favourite lyrics:

                “The cafés are all deserted, the streets are all wet again,
There’s nothing quite like an out of season holiday town in the rain.”

It’s simple and evokes, at least for this Englishman, a crystal-clear picture of resort towns like Hastings and Clacton and Skegness and Blackpool when the tourists have all gone home, the pier is closed for winter renovation, the pubs and chip shops and cheap amusements arcades are empty, and the wind and sea is howling in on a wave of salt spray.

The song came into mind last week, but not because I was at the coast.  I was, to paraphrase, in an end of season ski resort in the rain……

For the past 6 years, we’ve taken a week in February to go to Szczyrk in the Beskidy mountains bordering Poland and Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  The kids have learned to ski, my wife joins them, and I rest my knees and hips, aching from the cold, either in the snug warmth of a mountainside bar nursing hot chocolate or mulled beer, or (more frequently these days) work in the lonely confines of our hotel room. 

I remember the first year the snow was deep and crisp and even, we tobogganed on the slopes near the hotel between ski lessons, and it snowed every day.  It was a winter wonderland to match anything on offer in Switzerland or Austria, France or Italy, but considerably cheaper, and we had a great time.  In successive years, although we always go the same week (since we’re locked into the winter holidays from school) the amount of snow has decreased progressively and the temperature risen so that last year the slope at Krasnal Ski School was open thanks to snow machines and surrounded by hills and forests that were more a grubby green than sparkling white.  Climate change or global warming, or as my mate insists “merely a cyclical adjustment to the prevailing weather patterns” (and he has the cheek to say I use too many words!) is immaterial…..it is not as cold nor as snowy as it was five years ago.

But we go anyway, for the change in scenery and a breath of fresh air.  This has been particularly welcome this year as for some weeks Poland in general and Warsaw in particular has been smothered by a blanket of acrid smog several times heavier than is generally considered safe (or admitted to by the PiS Government).

But this year, unable to book in Szczyrk (we left it a bit late) we settled for a hotel in Zwardon.  This is a small town about 30 kilometres from our usual base, at a slightly higher elevation, and less developed.  It is literally on the border with Slovakia: the road from the village centre up to the hotel has a fence along one side that marks the frontier, and this swings round behind the hotel and back up to the road at the other end of the village where the main road crosses into the Slovakia.  More of which in moment….

The drive down was less than pleasant.  There was patchy fog and drizzly rain for the whole 245 mile drive, and roadworks close to Czestochowa forced a 10 mile detour off the highway and along some less than well-maintained country roads.  There had been little snow when we left home – the previous week had seen temperatures rise a few degrees above zero causing a thaw – and as we headed south even this dusting  thinned still further.  By the time we passed Katowice, with perhaps 70 miles to go, there were only a few patches here and there and we were seriously concerned about whether there would be any ski slopes open for business.

In the event, we didn’t need to worry.  As we passed Bielsko-Biala the road was rising up into the mountains and we saw the amount of snow increasing.  Then, just after Milowka, we went through a half-mile tunnel and came out into a blizzard.  In 15 minutes or so we slithered up the drive of the hotel on thick ice and knee deep snow.

The hotel, the Dworek Szwajcaria (in English, Swiss Manor House) stood just outside the village, on the side of a hill looking across into Slovakia.  It’s a big, rambling old place as the name suggests, operating as hotel since 1928, and before that as a private residence.  There are 18 comfortable and modernized rooms, a bar with adjacent kids’ playroom, a cosy restaurant serving very tasty and inexpensive Polish food, and free Wi-Fi throughout.  The staff were all very efficient and very friendly, and gave us some good recommendations for trips out of town.  No complaints at all, and I’m sure we’ll stay there again.

Zwardon itself is much smaller than Szczyrk, and apart from the single ski slope there was nothing else there.  Not a gift shop in sight, only a couple of grocery shops, a station (trains to Katowice every hour on the hour), some houses and that was about it.  Not even a restaurant that we noticed.  The slope itself was good, higher and steeper than our old friend Krasnal, with a chair lift and very reasonably priced ski passes.  At the bottom was a good café to buy your coffee and chocolate and tea and (of course) warm beers, as well as burgers, chips, pizza and zapiekankie (like a French bread pizza – delicious), and behind it a shop to rent your gear if needed.  The kids have their own stuff, but Ania rented a set of skis one day.

So while I beavered away at the hotel, with our cat for company (the hotel is pet-friendly so we were able to take her with us) mon famille were having a wonderful time on the slopes.  At least for the Sunday…..

Then the weather changed.  The temperature shot up several degrees and the rain swept in.  The snow began to thaw, and the whole place took on a grubby bedraggled look, as is usually the case when there is a snow-melt.  On the Monday afternoon, in need of some fresh air and tired from a morning skiing in drizzle, we decided to go for a drive into Slovakia.  We set off and crossed the border five minutes later in proper rain rather than drizzle, heading for a Slovakian ski resort a half an hours’ drive away according to the satnav on my wife’s phone.

A mile or so over the boarder we drove through a sizeable village and the difference a few extra years’ of EU subsidies makes became clear, as the well maintained Polish roads gave way to a single lane bumpy and pot-holed Slovakian road.  The houses and small grocery stores and roadside cafes were not dissimilar from those we are used to, but the pavements looked as ill-maintained as the roads and the poles carrying the telephone lines leaned this way and that.  There was little traffic about, and even fewer pedestrians.

A mile further on and the satnav turned us left onto a side road rising up between forested hills.  In better weather, it’s probably a nice road – there were some pretty detached houses in good sized plots along both sides – but in the strengthening rain and melting snow and ice it was less than pleasant.  A little further along, on a sharp left bend, we were directed to turn right onto another side road that looked more like a track between scruffy looking farm or light industrial sheds.  The snow was deeper here, packed and rutted and we decided further up it might well prove impassable.  We decided enough was enough, about turned with some difficulty and headed back to Poland.

We passed through Zwardon and headed on to Szczyrk.  The place has not changed at all in the year since our last visit, but like everywhere else on this wet and miserable day was uninviting.  We stopped in the middle of town, bought some delicious smoked goat’s milk cheeses called oszczypek at a road side stall (lovely served hot with lashings of cranberry jam), then crossed the street to a restaurant for a lunch that was as usual excellent and filling, the portions huge.   After that we headed back out of town, up into the higher elevations and through the resort of Wisla (from the hills just outside the village is the source of Poland’s main river of the same name that meanders all the way through the country, nearly a thousand miles, to the Baltic Sea) where we stopped at an ice-cream and coffee bar for a tasty cappuccino and ice-cream sundaes, then along the spine of the Beskidy range back to Zwardon. 

The rain continued unabated through Tuesday and Wednesday, and my loved ones skied between the showers while I carried on working at the hotel.  We drove out to Milowka and found a very good pizza parlour for evening meals, and on the Thursday spent the day on the slopes.  By now, much of the snow was gone, but the skiing was still ok on packed snow, and I was totally impressed by the improvement my kids showed since last year.  It was my wife’s birthday, so we had a good meal in the hotel restaurant in the evening, and sampled the local brew (it was actually Slovakian, but a very nice, strong, dark lager).  We packed to return home on Friday.

It was a better drive, with clear skies through mountains that were now virtually devoid of any snow, no fog or rain to delay us, and we made good time.  Then about 50 miles out of Warsaw it all changed, and we ran into a full-on blizzard.  By the time we reached home the front of the car was coated with an inch or so of packed snow and ice, the number plates invisible and the lights dangerously dimmed.

We were glad to be home, but it had been a good trip, despite the weather.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Here we go again - as 2016 passes to 2017

So here we are.  Another New Year – 2017, and I creep ever nearer to a pensionable age that until the last 18 months or so seemed a distant speck on the horizon but is now a mere 15 months away.  Doesn’t time fly when you’re enjoying yourself?

So 2016 was a strange year, in many ways.  I started it in Amsterdam, ensconced in a project that promised a full diary for another three years at least, and before the year was half finished I was out of the door.  “A new focus” within the bank prompted it – way too many expensive contractors like me on the payroll, so a whole slew of us were unceremoniously pushed through the Exit.  A shame – not least for the bank, that now has some alarming knowledge gaps, given the work I and others were doing there, that it will not be able to fill internally for quite a while.  I hope it doesn’t damage the bank too much, because it was a good place to work and there are some great people there.  I saw rumours of a merger with another bank being discussed, so I’ll be following that story with interest.

But it at least gave me a decent summer break – two months.  July was spent, as usual, at the Baltic coast, and was as good as ever.  In August the kids went away for a couple weeks’ summer camp, each to a different location to do different things.  It gave us all some freedom to try new things (at least in the kids’ case) or just relax and do not very much at all (in my case a bit of job hunting).  At the end of August we teamed up again for a short trip out of town, spent idyllically canoeing along a quiet and deserted Polish river in hot sunshine.  It was a lovely end to a lovely summer.

Then back to school, and, in my case, back to work.  I managed to find something very quickly, and ended up spending the last three months of 2016 in Israel.  It’s a country that I had never had any wish to visit – to that extent no different from others I’ve been to overs the years, like Kazakhstan, Trinidad, Latvia, even Poland – but for very different reasons.  I’ve blogged before about the political situation in the Middle East as a whole, and the part that, with its hatred and genocide against the Palestinian people (who themselves are far from blameless) Israel plays in the continuing carnage. 
But the offer was an excellent one, and with no firm alternative I took it.  It has been an eye opener, but one that has not changed my opinion that much.  Tel Aviv is an interesting city, cosmopolitan and less Orthodox than elsewhere (in many respects it’s little different from other Mediterranean resorts like Benidorm or the Balearics or Greek islands) and the people I have met at work and elsewhere have been very friendly and welcoming.  I have never felt threatened, probably because I continue to avoid places and situations that could put me in a (shall we say) difficult situation, and I try to avoid any political argument here. 

And yet…. Palestinian dissidents (or terrorists if you prefer) continue to attack the country.  In my time here, there has a been a nightclub bombing in Tel Aviv (a week or so before I started work here) and just this week a truck driver in Jerusalem drove his lorry at high speed through a crowd of off-duty soldiers (including young women) then reversed back over them to make sure they were dead, before being gunned down himself.  All in view of closed-circuit tv cameras, providing some disturbing images for CNN et al.  And yet…. the Government continues to stoke the fires by building more and more settlements for its residents, on land recognised internationally (by the UN amongst others) as Palestinian, hence rendering them illegal.  And moreover…. calls for a pardon for a young soldier convicted of cold-bloodedly shooting a wounded and unarmed Palestinian dead after the wounded man had himself stabbed an Israeli.  Rather than allow the Palestinian to face justice in a court of law, the soldier executed him – is that not murder?
It seems to me the country, by its actions and insistence of being always “right” and allowing no other point of view, secure in the support of its biggest ally, the US, brings much of these terrorist actions on itself and leaves itself wide open to a criticism that is rarely voiced publicly by world leaders who just may be able to make a difference to a sad situation.  All the time hard-nosed and often corrupt leaders like Sharon and now Netanyahu run the country, nothing is likely to change.

There have been, for me at least, three major news stories this year (that’s besides the birth of my three lovely grandchildren, a boy and twin girls, to sons of whom I am more proud than ever before – and that’s going some!).
First, the continuing slaughter and tragedy in Syria where Assad continues to indiscriminately bomb his own subjects, particularly around the besieged second city of Aleppo.  The siege ended just before Christmas, after four terrible years in which countless innocent women and children lost lives and limbs, while many thousands of victims risked (and often lost) everything including their lives in the mass refugee “invasion” of Europe.  Despite many fine words and waves of shuttle diplomacy by UN diplomats and, in particular, US Secretary of State John Kerry the siege only ended when Russia joined in, on the side of Assad, and introduced even more lethal weaponry to the conflict during 2016.  Accusations of war crimes abound but are highly unlikely to ever be prosecuted let alone proven.  The rest of the world should hang its collective head in shame for allowing such events to drag on for 5 years so far – that is almost as long as World War 2.

The second story has been the emergence of an orange, bewigged, reality tv star, sometime property magnate and multiple bankrupt The Donald Trump as President Elect of the US.  Right up until Election Day, most “experts” continued to insist that Hillary Clinton would win and continue the Obama project.  But Trump managed to tap in to a nationwide dissatisfaction with the American political establishment in a way that Clinton (part of that Establishment) never could, and despite an often brutal and always offensive campaign that showed him to be a racist, misogynistic bully without a policy worthy of the name – and that was just the primaries that won him the Republication nomination – he won the race and will be inaugurated next week.  Even now, the arguments rage as he takes to Twitter in a daily rant against anyone who has the audacity to either disagree with him or (God forbid!) criticise him in some way.  Oh, and he likes Vladimir Putin, another bully with an aversion to free speech and opposing opinions.  Is it just me, or will the world be a tad more dangerous (or a lot…..) after January 20th?

And the third, inevitably for an Englishman I suppose, is bloody Brexit.  The unlamented ex-PM David “Call Me Dave” Cameron called a referendum on membership of the EU, to honour an election pledge from 2015 and more importantly shut up the anti-EU element in his party. And then proceeded to lose and resign in, one hopes, embarrassment.  The campaign dragged on interminably – or at least it seemed interminable: in reality only a couple of months (how in hell do the Yanks put up with a two year campaign every four years?) – and both sides argued and bickered, lied and misinformed to an equal degree, and threw reams of statistics at us to prove their points.  And all without giving us any clear information or idea of what life would be like if we voted to Leave (we knew already of course what being In would be like).  

In the end it came down to LCD (Lowest Common Denominator) Politics – which side came up with the best scare story, trumpeted it the loudest and most frequently.  And in that, led by everybody’s best boozing mate, the loathsome UKIP oaf and leader Nigel Farage (“We want our country back!”), everybody’s favourite buffoon and Have I Got News For You regular Boris Johnson (“Turkey will be in the EU soon opening our borders to 35million Muslim terrorists!”) and the dreadful, smarmy, backstabbing Education Secretary Michael Gove (“Look, you don’t need experts, just listen to me!”) – the Out campaign succeeded.   Like The Donald, the Out campaign had managed to tap into a deep mistrust and anger in a population tired of austerity and nervous about losing jobs to lower paid immigrants from both within and without the EU, and with the In campaign offering little more than “More of the same” they won hands down.

Now, just over six months later, we are no closer to knowing how things will end up.  Legal challenges were made, not about the result per se (though to hear the vitriol being thrown around by Farage and co you would never know that) but more broadly whether further acts of parliament are needed to enact the Exit instead of using Royal Prerogative for this and all other referenda.  The Scots, who voted overwhelmingly to Remain, are increasingly agitating for another referendum of their own (this time whether to break away from the UK).  There are no clues about what leaving will actually mean, apart from a rather vacuous statement from PM Theresa May (conspicuously absent during the campaign….) that “Brexit means Brexit”.  Boris, now Foreign Secretary (dear God…..) says that we will negotiate a deal that allows us to take advantage of the best bits of the single market without the rest (and lacking specifics about what those “best bits” are) and is echoed by Liam Fox (Minister of Foreign Trade) and David Davies (Minister for Getting Out of the EU) – who seem to be continuing to squabble between themselves about who should be doing what and who is more important.  Farage, meanwhile, continues to say “The people have spoken” – true – and “the Government should listen and just get on with it” – true-ish – and “I want my life back!”.  He also supported The Donald on the stump, became the first overseas politician to meet with The Orange One after his win, and would like to be Britain’s Ambassador to the US (even though, as BoJo and May pointed out, politely, there is no vacancy).  Gove seems to have disappeared completely, hopefully up his own arse.

So 2016 has been entertaining and eventful, depending on which way you look at it – and that is ignoring the Euro Championships (another cock up by England, but at least the Welsh did well), the Olympics (in which Britain did rather better than expected), Wimbledon (another win for the now be-knighted Sir Andy Murray) and a plethora of tragic deaths bookended by David Bowie in January and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia from Star Wars) at Christmas and her mum, actress Debbie Reynolds, the next day.  Sad.

And now we’re in 2017, what to expect?  I have no bloody clue! 

I hope somehow solutions are found to end the mess in Syria and Iraq and Libya, and everywhere else where anarchy and IS currently have the upper hand.  I hope The Donald turns out to be a better President than people expect (but I’m not holding my breath on that score – the man seems a dangerous loose cannon lacking either common sense or common decency: I hope I’m wrong).  I hope the UK Government gets its act together and manages to extricate Britain from the EU relatively easily and cheaply (but I have little confidence the politicians charged with doing so have the quality to succeed).  I really really hope that people across the world – and particularly in Britain – re-discover the tolerance and understanding that once, briefly, allowed diverse societies to grow and flourish in London and New York, Paris and Berlin and elsewhere, before the demons of bigotry and xenophobia were released from the bottle over the last few years and stalled that process.
On a personal level, I pray that my kids, all five of them, and my grandkids, and my wife and extended family of sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins scattered all over this world remain fit and healthy and happy (a bit of wealth wouldn’t go amiss either), and any trials and tribulations they are facing – I know there are some, quite serious – sort themselves out soon and without too much suffering.  And I hope they all stay happy and keep smiling……

Me?  I want to stay fit too, and healthy, to enjoy that extended family.  I want to stay in work, both here and elsewhere, and keep enjoying it, the travel too (though it becomes increasingly difficult with each year that passes).  I want to – no, I WILL – finish and finally publish The Match, and make progress on my memoirs (Living), and keep finding inspiration to carry on these scribblings, more often than for the last couple of years.  I’ll also get this website up and running to pull it all together and put it out there.  I want to stay happy too.

Happy New Year, everyone.