Category Archives: links

What they write and what they say…

How Europe has changed over the centuries

74 years ago today, just over 2 weeks after the start of the Second World War, Poland was invaded by the Soviet Russia.

A month or so earlier, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been signed and as a result Poland’s territories were divided, this time between the Soviets and Nazi Germany. The European borders were redrawn again.

A few days ago I came across an interesting video animation (see below). The video shows how Europe’s political map has evolved over the past thousand or so years. And while I cannot guarantee the video is completely accurate (although I have no reason to believe it isn’t), it shows how turbulent our collective history has been.

If you keep your focus on Poland in the centre of the screen, you’ll see how the borders have moved throughout the centuries. They changed their shape numerous times, expanded east, then shrunk again, then the name Poland disappeared completely before re-emerging after WWII with the country’s current borders.

A great crash course in the history of the continent.

The Guardian devotes a week to Poland

I noticed something different about today’s Guardian. The front page felt very Polish. It was white and red, like the Polish flag. And had I had my morning coffee, I would have realised instantly that it wasn’t a coincidence. But instead, I needed a few more minutes to notice a very obvious Polish theme running through the paper and its website today.

Poland has become the focal point of this week’s edition of The Guardian’s New Europe mini-series, which over the past three weeks has focused on Germany, France and Spain. This obviously makes me happy. This means that Poland is no longer just a supplier of sexy baristas and enthusiastic plumbers. It’s a country people want to explore and get to know better.

So has Poland succeeded in its attempt to readjust to the new reality, to being part of the European Union? How are the Polish enjoying the New Europe? What should the British know about and maybe even learn from the Poles? This, I hope, The Guardian will show us on its pages over the next few days.

Timothy Garton Ash, who knows Poland inside-out, and who has seen it many times before when it was still a Communist country, writes that Poland is getting to grips with being normal and gives countries like Egypt hope. (Coincidentally, he also mentions the widely-used English words I wrote about in February). You can see modern-day Poland through the eyes of a typical young family from Krakow, read about what life is like for young people in Poland and how the country prepares for Euro 2012.

There’s a great gallery of images from Warsaw by David Levene, there is some Polish business, lots about the Polish culture and Polish food. There is also an article on Polish stereotypes. Are Poles really homophobic?

This week The Guardian will also publish podcasts focusing on Poland and football, and Polish literature; there will be a look at how emigration has changed the face of Poland and how new waves of emigration could continue to do so. Also, something close to my heart, a look at the Free Silesia movement (many Silesian people will declare “Silesian” as their nationality in this year’s census – something I should perhaps write about more soon).

The Guardian did a great job. They are even sending someone to Krakow and they will explore the city solely based on tips received via Twitter. (You can tweet your tips to @BenjiLanyado)

A few years ago I set out to write this blog and tell the world more about Poland than a few old stereotypes. I’m glad that in 2011 a major British newspaper does the same.

Spread the word…

It’s like the BBC, but from Poland

I’ve recently introduced you to a new Polish cultural site aimed at the English-speaking world, and here we have another one.

This time it’s all about the latest news.

thenews.pl is run by Poland’s equivalent of the BBC World Service, Polskie Radio dla Zagranicy. It’s published entirely in English and is mainly focused on Poland or Poland-related issues.

You can also listen to English-language bulletins there and the site also offers Polish press reviews translated into English.

If you are really into all things Polish, you’ll find their micro-site on the upcoming presidential election particularly useful.

I found the new site particularly useful during the recent floods. While the BBC and most British media outlets completely ignored the disaster (American and Middle Eastern news outlets seemed to be more interested), thenews.pl had regular updates on the situation.

And just out of curiosity: HOW MANY of you are actually interested in daily news about Poland in English and is the existence of such service justified? I’d love to read what you have to say.

The Economist on Poland’s success story

Warsaw

When I started this blog, I wanted people to change their view of Poland. Out with the old, in with the new.

Glad things are changing. There are more and more Polish cultural events in the UK, I see more and more people who come to London just to visit – not to work – and 2010 also looks promising for the Polish economy.

Out of all European Union states, Poland was the only country which actually enjoyed a positive economic growth in 2009. And people are beginning (at last!) to look at Poland in a different way:

Outsiders often have fixed ideas of Poland: a big, poor country with shambolic governments, dreadful roads and eccentric habits. Old stereotypes die hard, but the facts paint an increasingly different picture. By the grim standards of recent centuries, Poland has never been more secure, richer or better-run.

This is the beginning of a great article I found in The Economist last week. Horse power to horsepower is a must-read for anyone interested in economy, politics and, er, Poland, of course. I’m not going to quote from it extensively here, just wanted to share the link with you.

But I’ll repeat myself: glad things are changing!

Image of Warsaw © jesuscm via Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence

Stamps and stockings

Polish stamps

I should perhaps dedicate this post to everyone who still complains about the Royal Mail in Britain.

Have you ever tried its Polish equivalent, Poczta Polska? No?

I’ve just read a post on one of the Wall Street Journal blogs dedicated to Central and Eastern Europe about the weird experience that is Poczta Polska. And I couldn’t agree more.

Malgorzata Halaba describes her frustrating experience of using Polish post offices, which somehow have failed to notice that the Communism collapsed some 20+ years ago.

Just to clarify, I think that Poland has largely made massive progress when it comes to customer services, something we all thought would never happen.

Every time I go back I am mostly positively surprised by how some places – even within the public sector – have changed and improved their services. There’s still a long way to go, but, unlike even 15 years ago, it’s not unusual to be greeted by a polite smile and served in a nicely lit, clean office.

However, it would seem the Polish Post Office is till trying to catch up. Quite often the service is still bad, and many post offices – presumably to improve their income – have turned into part-time markets, selling everything from stockings to board games and washing powder.

The author of the WSJ post compares her experience of using post offices in Warsaw to a journey in time – back to the 1960s:

It warms my heart every time I have to pick up a registered letter. Usually, after waiting the required 20 minutes, I approach the window and hear an angry bark: “What the does the letter look like? Is it large?”
How am I supposed to know? I wasn’t the one who sent it. I watch the nervous clerk produce three cartons of letters and start to shuffle through them in search of mine – sometimes without success. “Come back in an hour, or better tomorrow,” is what you might hear in the case of misplaced letters.

Yep, sounds like the post office I remember. Although I have to say, I found the post offices in Warsaw particularly bad, so hopefully things have in fact improved elsewhere.

But just like the Royal Mail lost its monopoly in 2006, its Polish equivalent will go through a similar process in 2013. So expect some changes there.

Until then, don’t be surprised if instead of stamps and envelopes your local branch will try to sell you some lovely stockings.

Image of Polish stamps © Florence Craye, Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence

What should Stephen Fry’s gravestone read?

Stephen Fry © chase-me via Flickr“ME AND MY BIG MOUTH”

These are his own words by the way. Of all people on this planet Stephen Fry would be the very last person in my opinion to express disparaging remarks about other nations. Yet, quite uncharacteristically for him, he did. Publicly.

How did that happen? Stephen revealed everything today on his blog, where he wrote:

I was asked to appear on Channel 4 news to comment on the Conservative Party and their decision to ally themselves in the European Parliament with the Polish Law and Justice Party, a nationalist grouping whose members have made statements of the most unpleasantly homophobic and antisemitic nature. I usually decline such invitations, and how I wish I had done so on this occasion.

As I always say, trust your gut instinct. But anyway:

Words tumbled from my lips during that interview that were as idiotic, ignorant and offensive as you could imagine. It all been proceeding along perfectly acceptable lines until I said something like “let’s not forget which side of the border Auschwitz was on.”

Ouch. This is quite a stupid thing to say, in the heat of the moment or otherwise, Stephen.

The Polish government has been trying for years to eradicate the tendency of the Western media to refer to Auschwitz as “Polish concentration camp”. Yes, geographically Auschwitz is in the city of Oswiecim, which is in Poland. But that’s it. Everyone knows – and the government in Warsaw has been trying to reinforce that message – that it was a Nazi camp, in which thousands of Poles were murdered.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that any suggestion – intentional or not – that it was a Polish camp will be met by anger. To say the least.

But Stephen Fry knows that and he did realise he’d done something really bad.

Once the interview had been transmitted I started to receive the odd invitation to talk on Polish radio, explain myself to Polish journalists and make apologies to the Polish people in general.

And this is where Fry’s genius lies. He admits the whole storm initially got him riled even more and that he refused to apologise. But he eventually admits it was a rather irresponsible thing to say, bearing in mind the (still) sensitive nature of the subject and the public outcry following his comment. So he apologised today on his blog:

I take this opportunity to apologise now. I said a stupid, thoughtless and fatuous thing. It detracted from and devalued my argument, such as it was, and it outraged and offended a large group of people for no very good reason. I am sorry in all directions, and all the more sorry because it is no one’s fault but my own, which always makes it so much worse. And sorry because I didn’t have the wit, style, grace or guts to apologise at the first opportunity.

I hope my fellow countrymen – used to seeing cynical politicians who get offended and offend on purpose and without any apology – will see Stephen Fry’s post for what I’m sure it is: a genuine apology for a genuine mistake.

After all, as Stephen Fry himself says:

My father and squadrons of school teachers correctly reminded me throughout my childhood and youth, “Stephen just doesn’t think.

If only all people who offend by mistake had Stephen Fry’s class and style.

Image © chase-me via Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence