Les gens qui ne rient jamais ne sont pas des gens sérieux

Be who you are and say what you mean, those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christmas in Brussels

I hear they have carp, among other things, in Poland for Wigilia.

Well, this year we had an English Christmas in Brussels.

No matter how much I enjoy trying out new things, there's nothing quite like Christmas turkey...

For more Christmas photos, click on my Christmas dinner...

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Merry Christmas everyone!

The office Christmas party is over, the advent calendar has only a couple of chocolates left in it, the mince pies have been eaten and my bags are packed for my homebound flight. Er, ok well they will be by the time they're needed this afternoon anyway...

Anyway, my point is that time has run out. The preparations this end of Europe are done and now all that is left for me to do is fly to Brussels, meet my parents and Canadianised brother and enjoy Christmas.

Wszystkiego Najlepszego to all of you!!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

See you in 2006.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Now this is what I call wintry weather...

Remember this?

Well, today it looks like this:

Nice huh?

Apart from all the times I've nearly landed bum-first in the middle of the street, and the ache that results from the discovery that I need to exercise under-used leg muscles to stop myself from doing so, I like snow.

It outlines shapes in a nice way. People smile more than it snows than when it rains. True, the gritting machines spit salt at you if you're standing within 100m of them and when you go inside you have to remove far too many layers of clothing, but I can deal with that for a couple of months.

A tip from me to you: If you have to walk on snow try to stick to streets with cobbles, or at least smaller paving stones. Better grip. You're welcome.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

And then there's ours...

So, you have this huge impressive tree in the centre of Warsaw, the metres and metres of strong diagonal lines, immense flashing lights alternating between jolly gold and red and subtle moody blues and purples. There's the mighty backdrop of the Palace of Culture and Science adding its own gold stars into the picture, and the people skating around on the rink at the tree's foot. It makes you think of Christmas.

Then, there's our tree... I mean, I wasn't expecting us to replicate the Warsaw 'Millenium Choinka', but really...

It's a little feeble isn't it? It's one of those ones which leaves its kneedles all over the place. We used carefully selected decorations from the landlady's cupboard (oh, what? We're going to tell her we're using them!) and the odd lebkuchen which hadn't already been eaten. There are no glittering lights because they were inevitably broken and the tree has tinsel around its bottom to hide the maze of string that is tying it to the table and stopping it toppling onto its head. You can't tell from this picture but it's on a par with Pisa's tower and is threatening to fall any day.

Still, it does add a Christmassy touch, despite it being a totally pathetic example of a Christmas tree.

One day, when I have a job that pays real money I'm going to get myself a huuuuge tree. Maybe not on the scale of Warsaw's, but almost.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005


Warsaw may not have a Christmas market but we've got one hell of a whopping great Christmas tree.

When they started putting up what looked like scaffolding a few weeks back, and a tree shape gradually emerged, I for one, was not at all convinced. I thought it would look too false, too tacky even for Christmas. But now it's finished and all lit up, it seems to match the scale and absurdity of the Palace of Culture and Science. They'd never have found a real tree that managed to do that.

In front there's a cute little ice rink, and especially today, with the freshly fallen snow, and smell of waffles in the air, there was a really festive atmosphere.

Roll on Christmas, I'm ready for you now.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Practical Polish

So there I was, all beaming and happy after my end of course Polish test which I came out of with 67.5 out of 70 (I thank you, I thank you). The rain was trickling down my back in that way reminiscent of English winters but I didn't care because I had a free afternoon to feed soup to poor sick Marek and think about what presents I should be out buying.

I remembered the parcel that was waiting to be posted to my family in the UK and decided I'd just pop into the post office and put my Polish to practical use, before returning home and hiding from the cold damp weather for the rest of the day. After all, I can manage 'I'd like to send this parcel to England: Priority please' in Polish. Easy.

When, oh when, will I learn?

Yes, I can manage that in Polish, what I can't manage is keeping the frustration at bay while I stand in a queue for 45 minutes watching the people behind the counter carry out their amazing magical trick of managing to be very very busy without actually serving anyone in an efficient manner.

The next thing I can't manage, once my number comes around, is having a crowd of people jostling behind me, because they have the next five numbers and wish to guard their place at all costs.

This all paled into insignificance however when the scowling lady behind the counter looked at me and in a withering tone asked if I had the form. Er, the form? I want to send a parcel. Priority. That's all, no form. She tutted and sighed and handed me the form.

I tried not to panic at all the words that had not formed part of my Polish course so far and figured out the main points. I handed it back, ignoring the muttering from the crowd gathered behind who had all thrust bits of paper through the small opening, trying to attract the scowling woman's attention.

She looked at me over her glasses, I gulped. She started talking very fast and pointing at one of the boxes, stabbing it with her finger and saying something I interpreted as 'look you ignorant girl, this is not filled in the way it should be. Are you totally stupid? This box clearly asks for your coffin preference for when you collapse sobbing in a heap and the frustrated crowd behind you trample you to death. Don't you get it?'

I took a deep breath, asked her to repeat and tried to fathom what the hell her problem was. Turns out that I'd filled in a box that wasn't necessary. Apparently, if you specify a value for the contents of the package, they have to verify the contents and repackage it in special paper and tie it up with string in exactly the right way and they have to check your father is in a respectable profession, and things just get a bit complicated. So once we'd agreed that we'd draw a line through that and just send the package PRIORITY as I'd asked and keep things simple turns out there was no problem. Of course, I had to call Marek to establish this.

Yes, I called Marek. Yes, I made the scary woman speak to him. Yes, she hated me even more after the call.

This was in no way an atypical visit to the Polish post office.

Let's face it, until I have got 67.5/70 in a test that covers sentences along the lines of 'What the hell is your problem you ignorant witch?' or 'Don't scowl at me just because you have such a crappy job, ever heard of customer service?' my Polish is only going to be useful in certain situations, when talking to reasonable people. How practical is that?

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Er, did you say TEN days to go?

Somehow I've managed to avoid the fact that Christmas is just around the corner. It crept up on me in a way that is totally inconsistent with past experience.

Christmas celebrations have been getting earlier and earlier my whole life. I'm used to blocking out visions of Santa and trees and presents for a couple of months before I allow myself to think about Christmas. This year's been different though.

The shops in Poland are fairly restrained and only start spraying the fake snow around and plastering walls with stars and glitter in late November. Shops in the UK have been known to put out Christmas promotions when it's still September and a similar approach is common throughout Europe, and I'm sure North America.

I guess this explains partly why I've got to ten days before Christmas without writing a single Christmas card, without really thinking about what presents to buy people and without putting up a single Christmas decoration in the flat.

I did make Lebkuchen... German Christmas biscuits which are meant as tree decorations but they have been such a hit that there are very few left and as yet there is no tree in sight.

I have also managed to buy my Dad something I think he'll like, but only because it was over the internet, because I could have it wrapped and delivered directly to Brussels, and because I have known for a while that I'm going to buy that particular thing for him.

While I was in the UK I stocked up on mincemeat and last night I got round to making a couple of mince pies. I'm going to have to get my skates on though if I'm to use up the mincemeat before leaving for Brussels in just over a week.

Now I've realised it's really very close I'm looking forward to Christmas. On Saturday we'll get a little tree; I'll make some more lebkuchen for it and if we're lucky a couple of sparkly decorations; I'll try and finish the Christmas shopping and email a card to everyone (thank you internet) and then I think I'll sit with a glass of mulled wine and a pile of mince pies and sing jingle bells at the top of my voice.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Poland got the UK's best ambassador

From: Charles.Crawford
Sent: 08 December 2005 05:36
To: KDarroch; Nicola.Brewer


This Budget thing is already dragging on too long. So here is a draft speech for the Foreign Sec or PM to use next week to bring it to a rapid and successful conclusion:

"OK, partners, here is my Budget final offer (Puts a large naff kiddies alarm clock on the table).

We all know that the hypocrisy and absurdity of this process are passing any reasonable limit.

I am being asked to give more UK taxpayers money to an EU which for years can not produce properly audited accounts. Mon ami Jacques with the support of most of you is nagging me to give the EU more money while the refusing to surrender an inch or even a centimetre on the CAP - a programme which uses inefficient transfers of taxpayers money to bloat rich French landowners and so pump up food prices in Europe, thereby creating poverty in Africa, which we then fail to solve through inefficient but expensive aid programmes. The most stupid, immoral state-subsidised policy in human history, give or take Communism.

As for the new member states, we like you so much that we are proposing in the Budget a huge new transfer of funds to you on a scale which will give your people the greatest boost in 1000 years. I will be attacked by my scary new teenage Tory opposition for building roads and hospitals in Poland and Hungary, rather than in poor areas of the UK. We - unlike most other old EU MS sitting here - have opened our labour markets. HMG have created more jobs for Poles in the past year than the Polish Government. Yet not one of you nor a single newspaper in any of your capitals has expressed a single word of gratitude or appreciation for the UK position in all this. So much for solidarity.

Shame on you all. Enough is enough.

In a moment I will press the button on this vulgar clock, made cheaply and well in China. It will ring loudly in exactly an hour's time.

At that point I will ask everyone round the table whether they accept our current offer. Yes, or No.

If anyone says No, we end the meeting. The EU will move on to a complete mess of annual budgets. Basically suits us - we'll pay less, and the rebate stays 100% intact. My ratings will go up.

However, despite the rudeness and ingratitude of the new member states as expressed here today, we in London do want to help them So if the Budget deal does end in an hour's time, we will take action alone.

I have here with me a draft press release which says the following:

Following the failure of the EU Budget talks today because most EU member states refused to accept a generous, innovative new budget proposed by HMG, the UK Gov announces that it is going to set aside a good chunk of the money it was prepared effectively to deduct from its rebate under the current proposals, 5 billion pounds, to set up a new Strategic European Development Fund - the Mother of All Know How Funds, but on steroids.

This Fund will be accessible for those of the V4 plus Balts who agree to join its programme - if they all feel too humiliated by our lack of EU solidarity to join, that's great - we'll keep the money for ourselves. If only some of them join, that's great too- those who do will get proportionately more.

The Fund will cut out all the bollocky EU bureaucracy which comes with the current spending round, which means that for every pound we pay into the EU pot for Structural Funds for new MS about a [make up a suitable percentage] goes in sticky transaction costs, local and Brussels corruption, overhead and other rubbish, and so does not benefit the intended recipients.

The Fund will go for any sensible strategic development idea that comes along, with emphasis on R&D and Innovation, plus reform of the region's abysmal legal systems, the main Communist - era legacy problem in Europe. But if you want to build some new roads, that's OK too.

The Fund will be managed according to state of the art transparency and efficiency:

· Internet procurement

· 90% money spent to require matching private sector funds, so as to encourage new private investment on a vast scale

· top-level auditing

· explicit buy-in by recipient governments to compensate the fund on a 'triple damages' basis for any losses proved by independent auditors to be due to official local corruption, and to prosecute the people concerned

· up-front urgent action by recipient partner governments to set up their own streamlined procedures and new laws to allow this money to be spent fast

· oversight by independent all-party experts and bankers/business leaders in each country to ensure scrupulous honesty and agree national priorities

· hard targets set for spending with regular public updates

· hundreds of short-term fellowships to enable the brightest and best from these countries to see EU best practice in action in the UK

· [Aside: PM Marcinkiewicz: you asked me recently to help with ELT in Polish schools - spend 100 million of the Fund on this, so that every kid learns English, plus save money by shutting down French and German language classes!]

· and so on

This Fund mean that the UK's money goes much further, much faster and much more efficiently into the regions concerned than it possibly could under any EU programme.

Five billion pounds spent this way equals far more than 10 billion spent through the EU, by building in good incentives at every level to encourage openness, free enterprise, creativity and honesty.

The Fund will give the UK and British expertise and the English language together a dominant economic, political and intellectual position in the most dynamic region of Europe for decades to come, forcing legal and business reform on a huge scale according to the purest Anglo-Saxon principles.

And it will be incredibly popular in the countries concerned, since it will force the region's governments sitting shiftily round this table to be far more honest and accountable than they are at the moment.

More! The roaring success of the Fund will set in motion the accelerating downsizing of all EU-level spending and a fundamental rethink of global aid philosophy. UK voters and voters all across the EU will love it because it spends their money well, plus highlights the wastefulness of what the EU is doing at the moment and cuts out completely the blathering European Parliament. Wider public pressure for reforms along UK lines will become irresistible.

Basically, a terrific deal for the UK, for the modern European ideal of well-coordinated light-touch integration, and for the populations of the countries concerned.

End of draft press release.

We nonetheless remain willing to sacrifice all that in the interests of discredited, inefficient, socialistic, EU 'solidarity' - if that is what you really all prefer - to sign up for the latest offer for the
Budget which is on the table.

Over to you, mes chers amis!

(Presses button on alarm clock. Silence. Broken only by loud ticking)

I have a suitable alarm clock if that helps.


Charles Crawford
HMA Warsaw

Shame not everyone got the joke...

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Wir sind zuruck

That was nice. Really nice. The mulled wine, the sausages, the potato pancakes, the beer, the pancakes, the grilled meat, the roasted potatoes. Did I mention the food and drink? It was great.

The weather cooperated, the atmosphere left us in no doubt that Christmas is fast approaching, everyone was in a fantastic mood and, oh dear Lord, the food, the drink.

It was interesting being in Germany with a group of Poles. They picked out the things about Germany that I had noticed a lack of when I first moved to Warsaw.

First, the driving. On German autobahns people change lanes to overtake. They drive fast, but generally there is pretty good lane discipline and rules are adhered to. In Poland the drivers are fast and chaotic. Drivers change lanes according to how best to weave through the traffic, and near-misses happen all the time. It's much more relaxing in Germany.

Secondly, the eco-friendly life in Germany really contrasted with life in Poland. After living in both Germany and Belgium where rubbish gets sorted in various mutli-coloured sacks and taken away as much for recycling as land-filling, Poland's technique of throwing it all into a bag and forgetting about it was a shock to me. Even in the UK they are starting to pick up your recycling in the bigger cities but Germany takes it to another level. Public rubbish bins in stations and airports for example have different places for different kinds of rubbish, nobody is given plastic bags at supermarkets but takes their own linen re-usable ones, and it's so much a part of life that it just stops being an effort.

The third thing that kept getting remarked on was the way Germans leave their bikes, motorbikes and scooters in the road. They're locked but still... they aren't afraid they'll get stolen! I guess some stereotypes about the Poles being a band of thieves are held as much by Poles themselves as by other nationalities.

The only thing that seriously messed with my head this weekend was the language. 90% of my time was spent trying to decode and respond appropriately to the conversations going on around me in Polish. The other 10% was spent trying to dredge the back of my memory for my German and translate between the two languages for the rest of the group. Nightmare.

My previous theory that Poles are taking over the world and that it's not possible to go abroad without bumping into them gained some more supporting evidence however. We were spoken to in Polish by several stall holders at the Christmas markets and heard as much Polish being spoken by tourists in Cologne for example as French and English. Who said learning Polish wasn't going to be useful?

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Friday, December 09, 2005


Yay! We're going back to Bonn this weekend, leaving in a couple of hours (really must get round to packing).

We're going to sample the delights of the Cologne christmas market: looking at all the beautifully made handicrafts while eating our fill of reibekuchen and bratwuerste washed down with gluhwein.

I just hope it doesn't rain the whooooole time.

Bis Sonntag!

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Naughty naughty

Oh what a bad little blogger I've been, abandoning my faithful readers for the excitement of a five-day volunteer workshop culminating in the oh-so-monumental International Volunteers' Day which was celebrated on Monday. Yes, I thought you might have missed that. Nevermind, it's International Volunteer Week for another couple of days so spread the word...

Remember those dance lessons? Well, I missed last week because of the whole baby worship thing, but we went back yesterday and had a highly amusing evening.

I remember my parents telling me how one of the biggest arguments they had was when they were decorating (stay with me, it's relevant, really). They were trying to wallpaper a room with pretty high ceilings and it required a huge amount of teamwork and patience. Well, apparently it ended in a huge row, with balls of wallpaper being chucked across the room and lots of shouting.

Dancing is a bit like decorating. You need to rely on the other person to do their thing, and you to do your thing and at the end it should all look nice. Patience and teamwork are key.

I'm actually pretty proud of me and Marek, we had a couple of moments of 'hang on, aren't I meant to be twirling you?' and 'ow, not that foot' but in general they are taking it easy on us and we could follow what was going on.

Others were not so fortunate. The whisperer was back, and this time she wasn't whispering. At one point her long-suffering partner was standing in front of her being berated for not doing it right and he just snapped and started showing her that he could do it, and look, I did use my left leg forward. I felt for him but it was really very funny. She kept getting at him, not even trying to keep the exasperation off her face, and he fought back, oblivious to the couples gliding around him, trying to stop themselves smiling at the silliness of it all.

Another couple got so fed up with banging into others that they just stood at the side and watched the others for the last dance or so, not talking to each other. I also saw one woman who gave her partner to one of the un-partnered women to have a go: she'd obviously had enough.

It all seems so ridiculous because it's supposed to be fun. We're all there to learn how to dance certain steps, so that we can dance together on fancy evenings out, or New Year, or whatever. The arguing lot seem to have forgotten this.

Beware the danger of dancing lessons, or decorating come to that.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

You asked for it Keji...

The weekend was fab. I saw Keji* at the beginning and the end and she reminded me how there are in fact things, or more accurately people, I miss in England. It was really great catching up - ta chuck, and don't forget to book that ticket to Warsaw once the big freeze is over.

My family was the same as ever, except slightly transformed by the cuteness of that baby. There's something about a baby, especially a fantastically behaved one, that brings the best out in people.

Since I've been back we've had the Andrzejki experience, Polish lessons, and in between trying (pretty unsucessfully) to read blogs and reply to emails I've done a bit of work and started a five-day workshop with a big group of volunteers leading up to International Volunteering Day on Monday.

I'm going to be absent for a couple of days yet, but don't give up on me that easily... I'll be back.

* Oh, how she's going to love me for sharing that photo... shame I can't witness her face when she sees it for the first time. I imagine it'll be about the same as when I let her middle name slip into a conversation with a friend who she'd been hiding it from... classic.

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