Tuesday, December 27, 2005

p3 on the BBC

Barely has this little blog taken its first, faltering steps into the world – it still needs to be burped regularly – and already worldwide fame has been thrust upon it. Well, kind of…

I was sitting at work on Friday, picking my nose - I’d finished writing my remarkably average and slightly underwhelming Business Week program early, and idle hands make the devil’s work – when an email came in from Peter van Dyke at the BBC World Service.

He had been wondering what to do in the final 15 minutes of his program, World Have Your Say, on Friday night. He came across our blog, saw my carp post and got the idea of doing something about different Christmas traditions around the world. He asked me if I wanted to be a guest on the program and talk about our mud-eating, slightly evil looking, fishy Christmas companions.

I stopped picking my nose. Great! A good way to get a mention for our blogs! And it means that I am now officially the BBC’s Correspondant for Polish Mud-Eating, Slightly Evil Looking, Fishy Christmas Companions. They said I could have my own desk! And a secretary!

Come 7.40 in the evening the phone rings and it’s the most silky smooth, BBC-like voice that you have ever had on the other end of the line - ever. They put you on ‘hold’ as you listen to the programme until your time comes.

Millions and millions are listening to the BBC WS – in all sorts of countries. They make the listening figures of Radio Polonia look like a local community radio station.

Finally it was my turn, and I did the bit about the carp in the bath, etc. They seemed to like the idea of a carp swimming moodily around the bathtub, as a poor, slightly inebriated Polish guy hovers outside in the hall with a hammer.

Then Anna, a Pole living in London, came on the line and we had a little chat. Then a Muslim living in Hungary turns up and starts on about the main dish on Christmas Day in Budapest – fish soup. And then there was someone from Nigeria…and so on.

Near the end of the programme the guy asked me if I wrote about food often. I didn’t know how to answer that, so I launched into a plug about p3, how it’s a collective blog and how we are going to take over the world just as soon as we can be bothered to get around it.

It just goes to show that producers don’t only get their ideas from mainstream media anymore – they go fishing for blogs as well. It also goes to show that when we post something on blogs, someone, somewhere reads them. Just occasionally it might be the BBC.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Winter WonderPoland

I'm writing to you now from a small internet cafe in Krynica, Poland. We're in the south, just a few miles (sorry, euro-friends) from the Slovakian border. When we stepped off the train we both had the same impression: This is a fairy-tale.

It's mostly a resort town boasting loads of pensions and health resorts. Right now, there are about 18 inches of snow on the ground and the air is brisk. So very refreshing and relaxing. The natural springs flow abundantly so the water is cheap. And I guess if you drink enough of it you get healthy. I feel better after a few days of drinking the stuff.

We went to the top of the mountains in a gondola today. We were, of course, surrounded by skiiers, but nevertheless it was a touching moment. Nothing but tree-covered mountains anywhere you look. The trees up there look like they've been dipped in sugar--so white and crisp.

I inadvertently booked us into a health spa generally aimed at the geriatric set. We're the youngest people in the hotel by at least 30 years. But it's cheap, comes with food, and is nicely located (set on a hill with a good view from the windows). Meals are served in what used to be a majestic ballroom, but now shows signs of age.

Time's up! More later!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Would a Turkey vote for Christmas?

Well, in Poland, turkeys vote ‘Yes’ for Christmas by a landslide.

This is because Christmas dinner tables around these parts do not groan under the weight of a 10-kilogramme bird stuffed with horse chestnuts and sage. Christmas tables in Poland groan under the weight of (traditionally) twelve different dishes, the centrepiece of which is a carp.

They eat the Christmas carp in many different ways. You can bake it, steam it, fry it. You can stew it in beer and raisons, have it accompanied with a sweet and sour source, stuff it with almonds, or even have it (yum, yum!) jellied in aspic.

Not really my cup of tea, but most Poles just love the Christmas carp. Total production of farmed carp in Poland amounts to around 22,000 tons annually, most of which is consumed at this time of the year.

The best way to buy your carp (say fishy aficionados) is alive and kicking and swimming around a small tank at your local grocers. The fish is then taken home, and, quite often, kept in the bath until it has to be cooked.

The problem then comes, of course, when you have to kill the wriggling, slimy little beast. The best method, I am assured, is by a quick and accurate whack over the head with a small hammer.

But not everyone can face this most brutal of tasks. It’s the man’s job, traditionally. But not all men are man enough to get hold of a fish that is as determined to see what’s in its Christmas stocking as the rest of us, haul it out of its watery Death Row, and put an end to its misery.

So many try to find novel ways of doing the deed. Getting drunk before you have to is, understandably, one of the favourites. Another way is to not drink the vodka yourself, but give a bottle of it to the fish – that way at least the poor thing will die with a smile on its face.

I have even heard of one traumatised carp killer who decided that he was not going to bash it over the head after all, but electrocute it. This bought him more than he bargained for when. After putting a steam iron plugged into the shaving socket into the bath with the carp, the whole of the block of flats where he was living plunged into darkness.

Carp Liberation Front

But concern is growing among ecologists and fishy freedom fighters about the treatment of carp during the Christmas period. An organisation called Gaja has been organising marches in Poland in protest at, what they say, is the cruel and barbaric conditions in which the carp are reared, transported and killed. Gaja (known to their friends, possibly, as the Carp Liberation Front) have been buying up lots of these fish from supermarkets and then liberating them back into rivers.

But a carp in the bath can have positive consequences. A British man I know lives in Warsaw with his Polish wife. A few years ago they were staying with their Polish in-laws for the Christmas holiday. It was the morning of Christmas Eve when they decided to stay in bed and have a bit of yuletide rumpy-pumpy. Being a good catholic girl she used the so-called ‘natural method’ of contraception – which involves, among other things, the wife getting up after they had finished and going to wash in the bathroom to have a bit of a wash. Of course, when she got to the bathroom she was confronted by the carp swimming away merrily in the bath. But what to do? She couldn’t get in the bath with the carp – modesty forbid! So she just returned to her husband in bed, unwashed.

Nine months later a little baby girl was born.

So, as I go into the grocery stores on the run up to Christmastime I’m always looking into the large vats they have full of carp swimming around waiting for there own little private Year Zeros and I think of that little girl.

But I swear that one carp caught my eye in the shop this morning. It was trying to tell me something. It was saying that it was not looking forward to Christmas in Poland, would not have voted for it if it had been asked, and wished, just wished, that it were a turkey.

Merry Christmas to everyone at p3 and beyond.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

I met a very old man today

I just bumped into him on the sidewalk, right outside my apartment building as I was stepping out this morning.

He had been in Auschwitz.

I learned this because he was looking for a particular address on my street, and his search was somehow connected to his status as concentration-camp survivor. Someone from this address had contacted him and wanted to give him a package - or so I gathered, as an old man's garbled speech can be especially tough for the non-native to decipher.

But this was unmistakeable: Ja byłem w Oświęcim.

It's hard to know how to respond to such statements. I helped him find his address and went on my way, but later on this struck me as an especially Polish experience.

Since living here I have come to know people who were imprisoned in concentration camps during the Second World War, and who have told me the stories first hand.

This is especially relevant in light of what the president of Iran has been saying lately.

In Poland, living contradictions of that evil tripe are walking down the street.

The old man's cataract-scarred eyes reminded me though that those of us who have heard the stories bear a special responsibility to future generations.

The attempts at historical revision we're hearing today are just the beginning.

We won't be bumping into the truth on the sidewalk forever.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Potholes in a cul-de-sac

There have been a few emails flying around of late by p3 members about the ‘future direction’ of the blog, etc. So I thought I would put my response, and start the debate, right here on the p3 blog, where it should be.

For instance there has been a suggestion that we blog about “identifying common areas of concern among ideologically diverse people. For example, even if a straight Pole has a moral issue with gay Poles -- well, they both have to use the same roads, bridges, parks, administrative services, trams, etc,” This is, apparently, an attempt at forming a ‘pothole politics’ and “identifying common areas of concern among ideologically diverse people.”

Excluding the bit about e-democracy – whatever that means – this sounds a bit like the manifesto of my dear friend Lech Kaczynski when he was running for mayor of Warsaw. Perhaps we should rename p3, PiS3?

I’m sorry, but I am just not interested in making common cause with bigots, nationalists and religious cranks. In a country where gays don’t even have the same rights as skinheads to march in protest down the same potholed streets of Warsaw, Poznan, Krakow, winging about the state of the roads seems rather petty to me.

I can tell you from first hand experience of being on these marches that when you are having eggs, bottles and rocks thrown at you by these trogs, the last thing on your mind is the lamentable state of Polish highways.

If you are bothered about the state of the roads in Poland then I highly recommend that you engage politically with real and basic human rights struggles in Poland. And I promise that if you do, then you won’t even notice the potholes under your feet, or the colour of the rubbish bins that the skins are throwing at you.

But it is true that all the good blogs have a quite narrow and well defined area. And I am into making that area on p3 more clearly defined.

But I must remind everyone where this blog is coming from. The story of how p3 was born has been dealt with by Kinuk and Gus elsewhere. I’ll just say that the idea came over a few drinks after Gus and I met the first time, when we were talking about our common passion of blogging. So the meeting of the bloggers came before the idea of the blog. P3, therefore, is really just a continuation of the conversations that we have at these gatherings.

At the moment p3 is about whatever the members want it to be about. If you would like to make the thing more focused then I would like to be part of that discussion.

But as far as ‘pohole politics’ is concerned, you can count me out.

ps. Big respect to Dezso for nominating p3 in the “New Blogs’ category in the Fistful of Euros ‘Satin Pajamas’ blog awards.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Christmas markets

I love these little things! We have one in Chicago, but it doesn't have the same feel as the markets in Poland and (I assume) the rest of Europe.

I spent 6 zloties on 300 grams of bigos and a big piece of thick bread then stood in the snow (read slush) falling all around me--seeking out my feet to soak and freeze them--while I ate it. Had there been grzaniec, I totally would have had some. That's mulled wine and it can be super yummy. Soul warming.

Kraków has a nice Christmas market. How about Warsaw?

Polish Christmas

I've been asking my students lately about Polish Christmas traditions and all they can come up with are things connected with a) food and b) church.

Agh! I've just used the dreaded "connected with" construction.

Anyway, Christmas here is just the same as Christmas all over the world, really. Except for the carp. They eat carp here.

I heard a story once from an American about his first Christmas in Poland. He went to the bathroom to do his duty and found a live carp merrily swimming laps in the bathtub. Needless to say, he switched bathrooms. I think he felt guilty when he ate the carp later that night.

Carp notwithstanding, everything else is basically the same. Families get together. People cuddle on couches. One uniquely Polish element of Christmas (as far as I know) is opłatek. This is a small wafer (like a communion wafer) that you share with everyone else. It's a long, drawn-out affair that involves lots of cheek kissing. Not quite my style.

Any more thoughts on Christmas in Poland?


I have a recipe for German Christmas biscuits in English and Polish that you just have to use. They are easy to make, taste damn good and can be used as Christmas tree decorations if you've broken all your baubles...

200g butter 200g maslo
200g honey 200g miód
100g sugar 100g cukier
1 egg jajko
450g flour 450g mąka
50g cocoa 50g kakao
1 level teaspoon cinnamon płaska łyżeczka cynamonu
1 level tsp. cloves płaska łyżeczka goździki
1 level tsp. cardamom płaska łyżeczka kardamonu
1 level tsp. baking powder płaska łyżeczka proszku do pieczenia

Put butter, honey and sugar into a saucepan and let it melt on a low heat, stirring all the time.

Włożyć masło, miód i cukier do małego garnka i podgrzewać na małym ogniu ciągle mieszając.

When melted bring it to the boil once then pour into a large mixing bowl and let it cool completely.

Po wymieszaniu się składników doprwoadzić do zagotowania i przelać do miski, gdzie zostawiamy wszystko do ostygnięcia.

Mix the egg with the cold butter mixture.

Do wystudzonej masy, dodajemy całe jajko.

Sift the flour, spices and baking powder together and add to the butter mixture little by little.

Przesiać mąkę, przyprawy i proszek do pieczenia i dodać do masy.

Kneed well.

Dobrze wyrobić.

Roll out to ½ cm thickness and cut out shapes. Make holes for string with a cocktail stick. Line baking sheets with greaseproof paper and bake at 200ºC for 10-12 minutes.

Rozwałkować na placki o grubości ½ cm i wyciąć dowolne kształty. Wykałaczką zrobić dziurki do zawieszenia na choinkę. Piec na papierze do pieczenia w temperaturze 200ºC przez 10-12 minut.

Decorate when cold and hang on the tree, if they don't all get eaten first...

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Whistleblower project to expose Polish corruption

We all hear about the "c" word in Poland and have probably heard about the latest Transparency International Report on corruption in Polska. PolBlog interviewed an official from the local TI office last month, and both Warsaw Station and the Beatroot had something to say about it.

In response, PolBlog introduces "Whistleblower 24/7." Whistleblower is an e-Democracy project to shift the balance of power from rulers to those ruled. By allowing citizens (in Poland) to anonymously post instances of corruption (in Gov't or Business) on an open forum for all to see, those who engage in shady behavior will be exposed more conveniently and to more people.

Any citizen in Poland, at any time of the day/night can register an instance of corruption in this "Whistleblower" forum. This makes the whole process incredibly easy as it avoids phone calls, lines in administrative offices, and bureaucracy that make filing corruption complaints unpleasant, time-consuming, and rare.

Whistleblower is not the end of the process, but rather the beginning...once a complaint is posted (with an optional survey), we will notify the appropriate officials, directing them to the site to read the post.

To go to the forum, click HERE

A similiar initiative was launched in Estonia (or, E-stonia as it is called in cyber circles), and it is quite popular.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Electronic English Petition Project Begins

ee-Petition Project

Upon returning from an invigorating conference in London on e-Democracy and Blogging, we thought an experiment was in order. While not the first project of its kind (starting in Scotland and Germany), e-petitioning is just what English-speakers in Poland need! We did some research, and did in fact find a Polish-language E-petition project already up and running. Amazing! We will be cooperating with the Polish site by cross-posting any successful e-petitions on PolBlog to their site -- so PolBlog's ee-Petition Project will be the first cut, the proverbial editor's chopblock.

To vote on a proposed Electronic English Petition, or to comment about one in the forum, or just to simply (but importantly) vote on a petition, you need to go to the ee-Petition forum. To vote on a petition, you must register (so we can verify that you live in Poland). But other than that the forum is open and anyone can propose a petition (although we reserve the right to remove any bullshit).

The petition must be addressed to local or regional politicans and have something to do with the economic, ecologic, educational, religious, civil, health, atheletic, etc., state of Poland.

Our first ee-Petition requests that the Warsaw government re-paint the city's ailing recycling bins while running a public education campaign about recycling. Make your voice heard!


Help! We need some Paint!


1)Polish Sejm Site

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Take-away – po polsku

Wherever we go these days we are confronted with similar options for a take-away. But this na wynos globalization has its local varieties. In Poland, these varieties can be quite bizarre.

For instance, when I came here the first time in 1995, the streets around Plac Konstitucji in Warsaw were lined with hamburgery and hot dogi stands, selling nasty stuff that emerged steaming, damp and limp from microwave ovens.

But what could be good were the ‘bar orientalny’, selling what they claimed was ‘Vietnamese food’.

To this day, Poles must think that a typical family in Saigon sit down to Sunday lunch and tuck into sweet and sour prawn balls, five spice beef and spring rolls. Maybe they do. Strange, then, that the food they call take-away Vietnamese in Poland is remarkably similar to what in Britain we call take-away Chinese.

But take-away Chinese food in London has nothing much in common with Chinese food in China. Someone from Shangri probably never heard of Chop Suey or Chow Mien. That’s because these dishes were invented in the Chinatowns of America, and designed for American taste buds.

The Vietnamese in Poland have designed their take-ways for the Poles. The first time I had one of these dinners in plastic pots they served up the chicken and cashew nuts and rice with a large dollop of sauerkraut on the side. I was shocked. But it went down quite well. I became hooked.

Other variations and culinary ad libs are not so successful.

What must bring tears to the eyes of an Italian boy in Warsaw, and make him miss his mama back home very much, is what they do to pizzas in this country. Why, oh why, do they smother their margarita in tomato ketchup? This culinary abomination has become institutionalized by the telepizzas of Poland when they ask you if you want ‘sauce’ with your hawaiian.

Things have got so bad that many Italian restaurants – such as the great Nonsolopizza in Ochota – have signs on the tables advising that the tomato sauce is already on the pizza – it's that red stuff under the mozzarella – and not in a bottle on the table.

My theory is that this nasty habit started in the late 1980’s with the first Polish street food, zapiekanka.Basically just a bread pizza with cheese and mushrooms, it cried out for ketchup. And ketchup is what it got. Lots of it.

If the sticky goo doesn't dribble down your chin then it goes straight down the sleeves of your shirt. Nasty.

And have you ever wondered why kebabs just don’t taste like they do at home? The first time I ordered a szysz they asked me if I wanted ‘thin or fat bread’? I said I wanted neither – pitta bread would nicely, thank you. But a kebab will never taste right in Poland because it is made, not with lamb, but with beef. Making a kebab from beef is like trying to cook up galonka using chickens feet.

It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.

So I think it’s time we got our own back on take-away po polsku. I am going to open a little kiosk - take-away po angielsku - selling bigos made from fermented newspapers, and pierogi stuffed with politicians' toenail clippings.

Friday, December 09, 2005

I'll buy that for a Złoty!

Last Wednesday night, I was visited by a resurfacing arch enemy, the toothache. Mind you, I don't have your average set of teeth. Nearly every dentist says I can thank my birth parents and their kin for my set of choppers. As my mom recently wrote, "Your teeth have always been rotten." Thanks for the support, mom!

This ache wasn't your run of the mill tooth pain. This was an old mercury crown from I'm not sure how many decades ago, and either it, or what was left of the tooth below it, was loose. For the last year this tooth would ache for a few days then go away. Only once before while climbing in the French Alps did the pain get bad enough to take some killers. Wednesday was different.

As the night progressed, the pain worsened and stretched from my lower jaw to my neck, middle of the back of my head and then continued down my spine. Did I also mention a fever? This little loose tooth came on with a vicious infection that sent me spiraling towards a black hole of misery. I was freezing and sweating, my hearing was amplified so any noise was supersonic, my loose tooth had to come out, so out came the pliers...but to no avail. Back to bed, still freezing with a half meter of covers on me. I was so cold that my teeth, as sore as they were, were chattering uncontrollably. I even used a sock. Jill slept through all this, by the way...

5:30 a.m. she wakes to my convulsions and moans and takes my temp: 103.7 F (39.8 C). Not good. We (she) scrambled and started making calls for emergency dentists that would hopefully speak English. My condition was surreal, much like when I was experiencing high altitude mountain sickness after summiting Denali (Mt. McKinley) in 2003, I could move and make decisions, but my motions and thoughts were slower than a snail. Jill thought I was going to drown myself in the bathtub as I couldn't physically quite get to the tap to shut it off.

Dentist #1 was a lovely Polish lady who hung up on her. #2 spoke just enough English to say the doc wasn't in. #3 repeat of #1. #4 was Lux Med and they said come in ASAP. Small vicotories.

Even in my state, I was still fearful of what this Polish medical experience would be like. The hospitals here haven't had any good press here for nearly a century. At the clinic, my stomach didn't agree with the mixture of sterile hospital smell and the cigarettes being smoked in the entry way, three times, so at least they knew I wasn't kidding about being sick. From then on the clinic did a marvelous job of providing someone who could translate for us and take care of this bastard child in my mouth.

I was smart enough to bring my dental records and x-rays from the states. I thought the Polish dentist would just want to yank it, but he actually wanted to save it. Turns out it was the last tooth on that side that hadn't had a root canal yet! So I ended up getting the old crown pried off and got the fastest root canal I've ever had in my life. The implements (files) were similar, but not as coarse, and he didn't take the time to continually widen the hole, but he did keep dropping in the toxin they use to kill off the rest of the living tissue. The work was complete in 10 minutes. No gloves, no assistant, no sucking thingy hanging off my lip, no soft rock/classical music. But unlike the states, where it'd be a thorough scouring for hours and a temp put on the same session, he left my new hole in my tooth wide open, refused to give me any antibiotics and told me to come in the next 2 days for a 'rinsing' of the hole. If things were bad, then he'd issue the antibiotics. Oh, and I had to eat with a wad of cotton covering that side of my teeth. For comic relief, try it sometime when you're trying to impress someone like the in-laws.

The next three daily visits (an extra was required, apparently) were all with different dentists at the same clinic, and all had various forms of poor English. Since it was just a 'rinsing' no translator was really necessary. The last woman dentist (2 male, 2 female, btw) put in the temporary fill after re-poisoning the tissues again and sent me on my way to schedule the next appointment, where we'll prep for a crown. My pain and misery reduced relatively quickly, but it took several days to recover from the high fever, as I was still weak on Tuesday (6 days).

And the cost for all this suffering and modern Polish dental medicine and procedures at a private clinic, where they didn't even bother asking if I had insurance (was it that obvious?!)?

50 Złoty! ($15)

Hopefully it's not a 'you get what you pay for' experience, but so far so good (no infection, yet!).

Perhaps I'll invest in a new set of Polish choppers while I'm abroad!

Bring on the novocaine!


Monday, December 05, 2005

Amazing Barmen

Not quite sure how or why, but every bartender I've met in Poznan (and I'm assuming the same would hold true for Warsaw) speaks English amazingly well. I know one guy who used to teach English and is now tending bar.

And this isn't your usual "What can I get you" or "Large beer" English. These folks can really carry on. Most have spent upwards of one year in the UK. Doesn't really motivate me to learn Polish.