Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Workers of the World...Snarl!!!

Poland is an interesting country in that there is an entirely old and new way of doing things. The youth and people up to their mid-40s experienced either no "communism" or, in the case of people my age, the end of communism as they were entering into adulthood.

However a huge portion of the population lived through a devastating war followed by 45 years of communism as it came to be implemented and practiced in Eastern European countries. Stalin may have said that trying to make the Poles into communists was like trying to saddle a cow, but the cow was in fact saddled, and for some time. 20 years on saddle marks remain.

For instance there is the interesting habit of lining up "queing" in former Eastern Bloc countries including Poland, which involves not lining up at all but simply walking in front of the dutiful Canadian dolt (me) who has been patiently waiting in the line which I have apparently conjured up in my mind. Apparently this trait comes from enduring many years where you had to wait in line for bread and everything else. At Wawel Castle waiting to buy tickets, countless seniors just barged in front of me, got theors, asked all sort of questions and left. One guy even invited in a number of friends to join while I stood there behind unsure whether to say something or just continue to smile. What was I to do? Tell the old guys to push off? I tried that once in Hungary in a train ticket line up to no effect. So I didn't say anything; if I had the old men would have all said something I couldn't understand in Polish, rolled their eyes and continued to butt in anyway.

Most notably this clash of cultures in terms of behavior under communism and the new reality comes to the fore when one experiences "customer service".

Restaurants are often described by Poles or other Eastern Europeans in terms of "bad communistic service" or "good service".

"Bad communistic service" is where the servers either ignore you for hours chatting with each other for hours or glare at you if you try and make eye contact. You eventually have no other choice but to get up, gather the menu yourself then walk back to the table, read the menu then walk the distance back into the restaurant, up to the bar and place your order (1 small beer please) with the surly wait staff who roll their eyes, huff and then say: "Yah, yah, ok, ok..." as if if one was an unreasonable nut who had just dashed in from the street, demanding ice cream immediately, instead of having sat patiently outside on the patio in their full view for well over 30 minutes.

There is also, I think, a new "mid-level of service" where they ignore you, glare at you and snarl when you order, but then smile very sweetly and thank you in a faux Swedish accent when they bring you the bill in order to try and elicit a tip.

The real "old guard" of customer service however are the civil servants whose bread and butter comes from working for the public purse. All are leftovers from the days of communism when, apparently, you couldn't get fired even if you tried. I understand it: if everyone is equal, why the hell should I treat you super nicely? No one treats me that way? We're all in the same boat and so it goes.

Many older Poles are in fact quite disenchanted with the novelties of free market capitalism, especially with the recession, and are worried about their pensions, the right to a job and a steady paycheque.

But in any event, retro "communistic" customer service practices can be experienced anytime in the many museums in the country. The huff and rolled eyes are interspersed with the necessity that they answer an important personal cell phone call(the ring tone "Living La Vida Loca")

Nowhere else was the service style so poignantly played out as in the Pawiak Prison Museum.

Now Pawiak Prison is a horrible place the Gestapo and SS used as their torture, imprisonment and interrogation centre throughout the 6 terrifying years of German occupation. 100,000 Poles passed through its gates before being murdered, tortured to death or sent on to concentration camps.

As one of the most moving testaments to the horrors the Polish nation endured under the Nazis it was with profound respect that C and I (and many others) go to Pawiak.

Unfortunately the old man and woman who run the joint had a different idea. First we angered the staff by going on a Friday, but this is not a Jewish museum: ultra Pole. No Shabat considerations it was just close to the weekend.

We arrived at the museum which closes at 5:00 pm at 3:52 pm after walking what seemed to be for an hour crossing tram lines, highways and scary apartment blocks.

Pawiak is not a big museum: some glass cases with clothing and personal articles from inmates; photos of the many dead and tortured; art from an inmate reflecting day to day life in the women's quarter and then a story about the tree monument that sits in the yard. Finally there are the actual cells where people were kept.

Yet as we toured the museum the old guy and old woman, followed us from room to room, rolled their eyes and then locked up every exhibit we had been the moment we stepped out, just to demonstrate that there was no coming back for a second look.

I missed half of everything and when I tried to go and review one exhibit I found it dark and my entry barred by Mister Chuckles (a name I soon gave to all "communistic style employees") muttering something at me, keys in hand.

Somehow the couple managed to flush us out to the entrance like hunted partridges.

An eager tourist stood outside peering through the now locked bar door. He asked if he could come in. Snarl "Proseh"..."nye, nye, nye...CLOSED". It was 4:27 pm.

We then realized the couple had turned all the lights out in the main display area and were busy shutting down the rest of them. C inquired as to whether we could see the rest of the exhibit and the woman pointed at her watch. "Frinch minutes, Frinch minutes" signing 5 fingers. C and I checked the time: 20 minutes before 5 pm.

Seeing that we intended to perhaps force them to turn back on the lights, the lady resorted to an old Stalinist trick: "the bribe". She grabbed some cheap and awful post cards featuring the torture cells and stuffed them in our hands: "Gift...gift"

I think I sounded like John Cleese: "Well, I guess we should go then. Thank you, thank you very much. Jenkooyeh, Jenkooyeh" and then we were pushed out on to the stairs with our trinket bribes and the iron door locked soundly behind us.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Krakow: Lager Louts, Bugles, Pitbull and Dragons

Krakow is a buzzing town. My father advised me that when he came here in 2000 it was completely dead in the main square. Things have clearly changed. The city has scores of townsfolk crowding the many stores, restaurants and bars. A tour guide today joked that Krakow, being the most Catholic of all cities, has 159 churches...and 870 restaurants. For a country that only 20 years ago had everything rationed, the Poles have raced to make up for the former shortages.

The city has been inundated by tourists, most notably lager louts from the UK who come here for stags or a group bender. They appear to enjoy the excitement and novelty of vomiting on a foreign street rather than their usual road right outside the local pub.

One can see such chaps mostly on the weekends but you always encounter a few when you are having breakfast in a cafe around 10 am. They are the ones drinking beer. For example a few days ago C and I were having some wine (not at breakfast) in the square after a day of sightseeing. A group of UK louts were sitting at a table nearby barely able to stand. One poor fellow was wandering around between the tables hitting on the waitresses, offering to buy them a drink and leering down their tops. Unfortunately the strength of Polish beer had led the man to believe that he had been transformed from an obese, ginger haired thirty something in too tight football clothes and sporting a terrible sunburn, into Brad Pitt. Alas any flirations with the gorgeous Polish waitresses went nowhere and our friend was told to take his drink and sit down.

Other than faux British pubs, what do the tourist come to see? Well first off there is St. Mary's church in the square which rivals San Chapel of Paris in beauty. A mainstay of the Krakow church is the trumpet/bugle call which is played to the four directions every hour. Originally the towers were the highest structure in the city and lookouts would be posted to advise of hostile forces. Once the bugler started playing that meant you were about to be attacked. Interestingly the bugle ends abruptly...sort of like the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where they find the inscription in rock: "the final resting place of Holy Grail lies in the Castle arrrrggggggghhhhh...." The knight reading it advising that the inscriber must have died while hammering out the message. Thus the bugle call just cuts off mid-note because, as the story goes, the poor lookout got pierced in the throat by a Tartar arrow while rousing the city.

Where most tourists flock is the fabulous Wawel Castle at the end of the old town. There is the usual host of imperial apartments and a lot of discussion of a strange habit Poland got into some years ago of electing their kings: they elected a Swedish King, then a French King and as for the rest, I am still muddled. The divine right to elect kings?

Underneath the Castle one can visit the fearsome Dragon's Den. When the town was set up and the Castle built it was great real estate; except for the fact that the king had built the Castle right over the lair of a fearsome Dragon: Smok Wawelsia. Smok, being a very greedy dragon, enjoyed eating the local livestock as well as maidens (although in some versions of the story he has his way with them, I wonder if he too drank the strong Polish beer?)

In any event the King, King Krak decided to fool the dragon by making a fake sheep, filling it with sulphur and throwing in the dragon's den; sort of like what Herby the Dentist Elf did in "Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer" to attract and disarm the Abominable Snowman. The dragon took the bait and thus filled with the sulphurous sheep ran to the Wistula River and drank to calm his stomach until he exploded. If the river was in anyway, as dirty as it is now, I think it more likely the dragon expired from waterborne illness rather than an explosion.

Finally another interesting note about Krakow, but more particulary the East (let's say a country called Romania) is the weird habit of all drivers: taxi, bus, private or otherwise, to blare hit radio for one's entire ride. While on the long public bus ride to Auschwitz yesterday, we must have cycled through the same Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga songs about a hundred times (although in Poland, strangely, Lady Gaga's name gets changed to "Lady Gagi" - must be the fondness for "ski" endings). Luckily in Poland this horrible custom is only reserved for transportation. In Romania it is featured as "background" music in all restaurants, played of course at ear splitting volume, particularly nice in the case of the many radio ads.

Thus by now I am heartily sick and tired of hearing Pitbull ad nauseum rapping: "Unos, dos, tres, quat...Rumba..."

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Parade of the Daschunds

The following is a true story which has not been embellished in any way and no I am not high:

This morning we attended an important function in Krakow society, described in one British guidebook as "the barmiest event in the city": The Annual Parade of the Daschunds.

Somehow' and no knows how, it got started that every September Daschunds would parade down the famous "Royal Way" of Krakow, known as the "Route of the Kings" accompanied by a fabulous brass band.

Today hundreds and hundreds of people come from across Poland and now Europe to parade their Daschund.

The participants gather in the famous Barbican fortress at the beginning of the Royal Way; anxious Krakovians line the route, cameras in hand waiting for the march to begin! The brass band handsomely outfitted in formal wine uniforms starts the proceedings playing a splendid fanfare Polish March. Children dance. Standing in front walking backwards are TV cameras and photographers covering the march. Then come the Daschunds!!!

There are hundreds and hundreds of them parading down the cobblestone street while the crowds jostle and push to get photos. People bend down to street level as getting a good sausage dog photo involves getting down to their level. This is very painful for me, in light of my black and blue bruised knees, caused by having tripped running to the bathroom on a tour in Romania run by a time Nazi, who wouldn't let us stay in any one castle room for more than a minute before we were summarily forced to walk on.

Many of the weiner dogs are dressed in elaborate costumes (they will later be judged in a contest) and people strain to get a photo of the most unique. They are all there: a bride and groom; a Bavarian mountain climber with flag; Queen Elizabeth I; a knight royale of Poland with little helmet, armour, sword and shield; the Pharoh himself with attendants and, I thought quite brilliantly Michael Jackson in a handsewn glitter jacket, with hat ala his "Smooth Criminal" days, white socks and yes, the one sequined paw glove.

Once the sausage dogs have completed the route it is into the great medieval square of Krakow to the stage where Polish TV, Radio and Movie stars, and some little blond girl who I'm not sure what she's doing there, wait to judge the dog costumes.

The entire event is covered top to bottom by media crowding the giant stage. Each dog is paraded on the platform and introduced. I go behind to get the backstage action in this most tense of events. The stars are shining brightly tonight and no more so than in the Krakow square!

This is not to say the contestants are all good natured. Being front runners for the prestigious awards to be won, a number are quite the little (and I mean little) prima donnas. Back biting abounds and I mean that literally not figuretively. Also back sniffing. A little sausage dog dressed as a Polish Policeman complete with tiny, hand sewn police hat is barking his face off at his fellow nominees. I guess getting into the part. The knight dog is more good natured and only barks when his tiny metal helmet slips down and covers his eyes. His barking alerts his owner who pushes it back up.

In the end the judges retire for 20 minutes to confer and the winners are announced: The skunk Daschund wins! The Polish Policeman wins! But the winner of the coveted "Best Prize" goes to Pharoh Daschund who with full King Tut headgear and necklace, is carried on a litter born by two attendants dressed as Old Kingdom Egyptian. I thought the hooka pipe on the litter was a nice touch.

But in such contests for every winner there must be a loser and so, there are also hopes dashed and dreams destroyed. The owner of the Michael Jackson Daschund is inconsolable, near tears and tearing off his little costume, including so sadly, the little white sequined paw glove from his tiny foot. She must wait another year and maybe then, maybe then, it will be Michael's turn to shine.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Bits and Bites of Romania ;>)

1) New Business Ventures

C has decided to create a business wherein she, for 1 Euro, corrects all English mis-translations that plague Eastern Europe. It's like "Chinglesh" without the weirdness, more a matter of context and spelling mistakes that change the meaning of things:

- for example: Bucharest - a major company which produces ice cream launched a new line of fruit smoothies (Romanians are mad about ice cream treats or any new way of eating chocolate or frozen fruit). They had spent a great deal of money for a lavish brochure/menu distributed throughout Romania which advertised the following:


I was a bit confused..."portions"? However C advised me that they really meant "potions" as in "Love Potion Number 9" not "portions".

Unfortunately the menu continued from there:

most alarming) MYSTERY PORTION" (does it contain Rohypnol I worried)

She believes, as do I, that she will soon be rich in light of the many odd signs: One of my favourite was in a posh hotel bathroom in Bucharest: "We have taken the utmost to ensure that all premises are uniquely hygenic. However if you inadvertently find a defect please advise our staff." I wonder how one "inadvertently (finds) a defect"; do I slip and fall on the floor and see some gum behind the toilet?

2) Corruption

Romania has been listed by the UN as the most corrupt country in the Northern hemisphere. It may in fact be a world leader as I was actually quite shocked when I came across the statistic in some guide I was reading.

Case in point, on the train to Transylvania, we encountered the most odious man I have ever met. Trailing beind him was his pathetic mother, wife and baby. He was decked out in (what else?) skin tight fitting spandex football wear and gold chains (he looked like an ugly tanned version of Tony Soprano, a character not known for being even remotely 'hot') However later he got into trouble for being in 1st class despite his second class tickets.

When confronted by the sweet, blue suited conductor, he began screaming and yelling and when brute force didn't work, actually pulled out a wad of bills bigger than my fist and offered a bribe.

Given that he has such an amount of cash in the first place, I couldn't begin to understand why he just didn't spring the extra $5.00 for the first class ticket. Such is Romania.

The saddest story however is that of a guy we hired to drive us from Transylvania to the airport in Bucharest to save us a trip of multiple train, bus and eventually airport changes.

His friend had spent three years in police college, had written the final exam and was poised to graduate. However the head instructor knew the student had "two cars, not great ones" as our driver explained. Thus the headmaster told the student that unless he gave him a bribe of so many thousands of Lei, he would be failed. In the end, the student sold both cars, gave it to the instructor and now he is a policeman.

Our driver had considered going into the police force: a good, steady paycheque for any young man in Romania, however he told us he didn't have the money for the bribes. Thus left with no option despite speaking three languages and just having graduated from University with a Degree in Economics, he dreams of going to America where he might get a job doing construction work.

3) Dracula

Yes, this is what everyone holds out for. However despite the general overall creepiness of Transylvania (I actually did get a tad antsy in a graveyard C decided to hang around in just to read the inscriptions on all the grave stones) there isn't much vampirism to be seen. As I have noted, nasty old Vlad Tepes the Impaler is a hero here, having impaled 20,000 invading Turks causing the follow up army to turn tail and flee. Thus they don't think him as a 'bad man'.

Somewhat vampiric in theme, I did note that on our tour of Peles Castle, our guide who was in her mid 30s, actually sounded like the brilliant Chloris Leachman character "Frau Blucher" in Young Frankenstein. Every time she began to describe a exceptional piece of carved linden wood I'd start giggling her voice bringing up the following diaglogue: "Vood za doctor care for a night cap perhaps...zum varm milk...Ovaltine?"

However the most authentically undead one encounters are lots of tacky, cheap toby vampire mugs with blood drooling from fangs.

We did however visit Castle Bran, a creepy looking and absolutely authentic medieval castle where poor old Vlad was imprisoned by a fellow nobleman for three days before escaping.

I did have to say that I was a bit chilled that our guide left us to assemble in a very small, grim chamber for five minutes only later to tell us that we were in Vlad's 3-day dungeon.

I guess in the end, the most scariest thing we saw on the visit was a Romanian father of two children, aged approximately 4 and 6, who throughtout our visit to Castle Bran kept doing a frightening "BWAA HAAA HAA HAA" laugh from horror movies and jumping out each time the poor kids walked around a corner.

We last saw the oldest boy running crazily down the ankle wrenching steep cobblestone hill away from the castle in tears, followed by dad's "laughter" while his younger sister stoically trudged along in front of her father blocking her ears with both fingers.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Land that Time Forgot

Romania is a very odd place. When the guidebooks said that it was a land of the 19th century, I thought quaint villages with alot of hay and carts, not, in some circles, the mind set of a committed 1938 National Socialist Brownshirt.

In Poland there was a guide which advised tourists in the very sweet and literal style of bad translations: "Do not be afraid to come to Poland if you are a Gay". However the converse might be said of Romania. It should read: "Do be afraid to come to Romania if you are a Gay".

We can start with sexism. In terms of gender relations some people are one cobble stone misstep away from walking on all fours.

We first got wind of this at the Bucharest airport where C and I kept wondering why there were such a considerable number of prostitutes. Not just us, but a pair of university students, ironically from Orangeville, one of whose parents are Romanian, kept whispering to each other about the frankly whorish dress of every woman standing there. Don't take this the wrong way. I go to Pride and haven't ever blinked an eye. However every woman's skirt was so short it would make Britney Spears on a concert night blush. Tops that barely covered one's nipples revealing full and unabashed cleavage. One woman didn't even do up her buttons on her shirt; that's a new one. 5 inch spiked gold (or white - what's with that?) pumps that would cause Tina Turner to painfully turn an ankle. Turns out that's normal women's wear for much of the under 35 set.

Men however are men and wear manly things. Things such as jeans, tanks tops, baggy shorts, belts and t-shirts: precisely the thing little me wore throughout my travels. Turns out I was dressed as outlandishly as if a quite masculine guy decided to put on a low cut Chanel dress and wander around Scarborough on a Friday night.

I didn't just get stares; rather outright hostile glares and quiet frightening whispered conferences amongst men in tightfitting spandex football outfits whose diminution was directly in ratio to their hefty girth.

Thus C and I slowly began to side with the Count Dracula of literature with respect to his treatment of the locals.

Afterall, the national hero is in fact, Vlad Tepes: Vlad the Impaler. He not only impaled invading Turks, a practice involving the spearing of a person from rectum up to armpit without touching a vital organ, but in a novel poverty reduction strategy, decided to do the same to the poor and disabled because he felt they were messing up the landscape of his kingdom. No wonder the other nobles dispatched him after six years of rule and only when his back was turned.

The country is an oddity in other respects. The fall of Communism, like in so much else of Eastern Europe hasn't been all a happy event. On our excellent tour of the Castles of Transylvania our guide pointed out scads of huge German based supermarkets which had sprouted about the outskirts of medievel Brasov. He said: "You see these beautiful new supermarkets. In Communist times we had money, but no supermarkets and in the markets nothing to buy. Now after Communism we have supermarkets and many things to buy, but now we have no money."

Likewise he commented wryly on the change in culture: "In Communist times it was terrible. We only had 2 hours of television a day, so we had only to read books and to spend time with our family. Now we have television 24 hours a day and internet and we no longer read books and spend no time with our family."

Next up stories of Dracula's Castle, corruption and C's new idea for a money making career: correcting Eastern European translations.