Sunday, August 21, 2005

Cultural differences in Poland

The true origins of vodka remain a matter of dispute. Russians, of course, consider it their national drink. But the Poles claim that it originated in their country... and whatever the truth of those claims, they certainly do take it seriously. Restaurant and pub menus boast long lists of vodkas, ranging from ordinary Smirnoff to the quirky and delicious. There is zotgdkova, which is easy on the stomach; wisniowka, which is cherry-flavoured; and my favourite, zubrowka (bison vodka), which is flavoured with grass from the Bialowieza forest on which bison feed. It lives up to its name by leaving a pleasantly grassy aftertaste - although, not having eaten grass recently, I may not be a reliable source.

Vodka in Poland is traditionally drunk neat, and in one gulp. If that intimidates you then beer is your best bet. There is no shortage of delicious piwo in Poland, and no shortage of ways to drink it. Just last night the woman in front of me ordered a glass of beer, and then watched approvingly as the bartender lifted a small pot and poured black tea into it. I also saw young men and women drinking beer through a straw, and was later informed that warm beer is often drunk through a straw, and that it is not uncommon to add jam for extra flavour. Many Poles also like to quench that hard-earned thirst by heating their beer in a microwave. Perhaps this last habit can be explained by the Polish climate, but jam and tea?? I left my comfortable home in Canberra expecting to be confronted with cultural differences, but this is surely beyond the pale.

The site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps is about two hours drive from Krakow. It is largely overrun by tourists, but the sheer horror of the place prevents it turning into a theme park. What really struck me was the size of the camps. Birkenau, just three kilometres from Auschwitz and also known as Auschwitz II, covered about 425 acres, far larger than Auschwitz. Birkenau held up to 100,000 prisoners, and for a period there 10,000 new prisoners arrived daily. New prisoners arrived by train, entering through the "Gate of Death" before being offloaded and examined by a doctor. The doctor sent most straight to the gas chambers, remains of which survive at the site. I was also struck by the clinical nature of the killing. The gas chambers held up to 2,000 people at a time, it would take about 10-15 minutes for the Zyklon B gas to kill them, and then a further period to burn the corpses in the crematoria. It was such an efficient operation, all worked out to the finest detail - mass murder by mathematics. After four or so hours at the site of the two camps there was really not much to say - the horror is so overwhelming that it had long ago worn me down. A memorable, moving day.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The British Experience

The first thing I noticed after arriving in London was that someone had turned the volume down. Catching the subway in New York, my carriage companions were two extraordinarily round African American women who enthusiastically broadcast their conversation to anyone in the Lower 48 who cared to listen. On the London Tube, of course, no one even so much as sneezes lest it be mistaken for an invitation to exchange small talk. After a week of glorious, but voluble, New York, the relative reserve of London came somewhat as a relief.

There are many pleasures to be had in a short stay in London. There is tea in the afternoon - or morning, or evening, or whenever else it takes your fancy. The British, I have learned, are the largest per capita tea consumers in the world, and (spuriously or not) nothing could have communicated "Britain" to me so clearly as my afternoon spent sipping Earl Grey in a Fulham tea house. There is the predictably unreliable weather, which struggles to reach low-20's under grey skies in this, the warmest month of the year. For some reason it was a source of comfort to me each morning. There is the Tate Modern art gallery, housed in an old power station and containing thrilling thematically-arranged exhibitions of the gallery's permanent collection. The gallery sits across the River Thames from St Paul's Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 and one of the most enlightening church experiences a non-believer could hope to have.

Not many things are more British than Chicken Tikka Masala. It is rated as the most popular dish in Britain, and in 2001 the foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, described it as "Britain's true national dish". One night E and I sought out some CTM in Brick Lane, a thin strip of road overflowing with Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants. Touts approach you from all directions, and the idea is to work up an appetite haggling before eventually sitting down to your meal. "Did next door offer 20% off? We can offer 25%, and a free bottle of wine." After fifteen minutes or so we were worn out and more or less chose the restaurant closest to our sore feet. I was determined to have a "British experience", so I ordered the CTM (mild, sweet and bright red) and the "lamb curry" (thin and watery). Whether or not the food was worth the exhaustive pre-dinner negotiations, it was far better than what Brick Lane diners were once accustomed to. One restaurant used to offer free curry, ladling it out from a large cauldron to Brick Lane's bravest customers. But on one particularly busy day, the curry supply went low and 30 people got food poisoning - it emerged that the restaurant had not been emptying the cauldron at the end of each day and the food at the bottom was somewhat aged.

We are now in Aberdeen. We are lucky to be here, as industrial action by the caterers and baggage handlers almost prevented us getting on a plane. According to our pilot, it was "all a bit of a shambles". He was quite forthcoming with all sorts of information, including hints on when we should look out the window to see points of interest, the type of aircraft ahead of us in the landing queue and, of course, the fact that our bags weren't going to be joining us in Aberdeen. But he said everything in such an endearing Scottish accent, and made such liberal use of the word 'wee', that we could hardly begrudge him the bad news.

Updated New York photos and incredibly cute photos of my nieces - London and Scotland to be posted soon

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Dizzy in the Apple

New York City has 5 boroughs, and in an 8-day visit the most you can hope for is a superficial acquaintance with one of them. E and I spent most of our time in Manhattan, blistering our feet and working through our meagre sock supplies as we hiked the length and breadth of the island. We made appearances in as many different neighbourhoods as possible. We sampled soul food in Harlem, stellar cupcakes in Greenwich Village and grunge chic in the Lower East Side. On one adventure we followed tangled streets deep into the belly of Chinatown and felt like we were in another world entirely. We ate a cheap and colourful dinner at an eccentric little place so different from anything we had encountered that it was almost a shock to emerge and discover we were still in NYC.

I've filled my head with a motley collection of observations over the past 8 days - here are a few. The serving sizes are massive! As I write this I am sipping coffee from a cup tall enough to get into most rides at Coney Island. But the buildings, of course, are much larger. I've spent a lifetime being looked down on by people, but nothing quite dwarfs you like an island of brick-and-mortar giants. It left me feeling off-kilter, and I was relieved to visit smaller-scale Brooklyn and feel the lifting of a strange dizziness brought on by Manhattan's huge structures. But if you'd like to own an apartment in one of these buildings, bring your chequebook - the average 2-bedroom Manhattan apartment costs US$1.5m, and $3.6m for 3 bedrooms. The recent boom in housing prices is making Manhattan inaccessible to all but the very wealthy, with the result that most people (and culture) are heading to the other boroughs. The smallish Manhattan apartments do not discourage New Yorkers from owning dogs, however - and lots of them. Owners (and paid dog-walkers) often take them for walks late at night, sometimes three or four on a leash, ranging from poodles to greyhounds. The dogs were probably doing much better than us at coping with the heat. NYC is renowned for its summer heat, and in Manhattan it's a little hotter because the heat gets absorbed by the concrete and asphalt. But it's the humidity that makes grown men cry, and in this respect the city proved generous.

New York lives up to its reputation as a melting pot. The mix of people (35% white, 25% black, 27% Latino, about 10% Asian/Pacific Islander) is obvious pretty much everywhere. The city seems mostly comfortable with this mix, but the odd exception arises. The day before we arrived, for instance, a tour bus employee reported that a group of "suspicious looking" men had boarded a city tour bus. Police halted the bus, then in the middle of Times Square, and ordered all passengers to put their hands in the air. They were taken off the bus one by one and asked to stand off to the side. All were released except for five "South Asian looking" men, who were handcuffed and ordered to kneel on the footpath. Dogs scoured the bus for any bombs they might have planted, but none were found. The five men were questioned and later released without charge. Later a spokesman for the tour company defended the employee's actions, saying something like: "And what if we hadn't reported it and something had happened? What would people have said then?" According to that logic, I guess any number of suspicious looking men could find themselves handcuffed on New York sidewalks.

Lots more photos here