Friday, July 14, 2017

Hello There!

Thanks for dropping in to my page; 'tis nice of you to visit :-)

Hmmm ... where to start? Let's see. I'm guessing that, like most people who arrive here, you already know me in one way or another. So I'll skip the usual autobiographical stuff, and tell you why this page exists. Basically, Ranting Manor is a partial record of my thoughts and adventures over the past eleven years, as promised to various people before I left Australia in 2005 to spend a year teaching English in Russia. That move abroad turned out to be just the first step in a much longer journey, and hence 'The Manor' has survived ... and grown far beyond its originally intended size.

There are some travel stories here, a bit of classroom-related stuff, and other random thoughts about the odd corners of the world I've ended up in at various times.

Btw, regarding my present whereabouts: I'm currently in a small Czech city called Liberec, about half way tnrough a European train-and-bicycle tour (my favourite kind of holiday these days). So by all means read on if ... well, if that sounds like it might be worth reading about :-)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Together again

A few days ago I took part in a wonderful reunion.

In 2015, while staying in Prague, I rewarded myself for surviving a year of extremely hard work and personal drama by buying a beautiful new bicycle. I then rode said bicycle to Katowice in Poland – a city which I feel oddly guilty about, because I’ve travelled through it so many times and never once really treated it as a destination in and of itself.

After overnighting in Katowice, I caught a train up to wonderful Warszawa (Warsaw) and noodled around there for 10 days, before heading to Ukraine where I spent almost three weeks with my son Timur, my friend Scott and my bicycle.

All-told, then, in that summer I rode about 500kms – sometimes in short bursts, other times from town to town in day-long rides.

At the end of all this, I had a problem: there was no obvious way of getting the bicycle out of Ukraine, because no-one in Lviv could offer me a suitable box to pack it in – not the post office, and not the numerous cycling shops I visited. So I gave it to a Ukrainian friend called Nataliya on ‘extended loan’.

I have to say, I was glad that the bike was going to a good home, but parting with it wasn’t easy. When I saw it in the bike shop in Prague, it was love at first sight, and by the time I’d finished taking it for a test-ride around their car park I was deeply smitten. And since giving it away, I’ve missed it a lot – as would be evident to anyone who’s seen the photo of it on my computer desktop.

(Feel free to think that's sad, btw, but I'm not ashamed. Some people have cars on their desktops, and cars are a stupid plague upon the Earth. So there.)

Anyway ... cut to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where I’ve been living and working for the past two years.

There was a time when I relished the challenges of residing in this city, but sad to say, that time has now passed.

The reasons for this are numerous, but I won't run through all of them here – partly out of respect for the many good people I know and have met over the years in Almaty, and partly because I don't want to bore you, my dear reader.

However, given that we're talking about bicycles here, I do need to rant about one particular negative aspect of Almaty life: namely, the fact that it's a TRULY, EPICALLY SHIT place to be a cyclist.

For a start, the whole city is basically a mountainside – or at least a giant foothill. Not only that, but most of the footpaths are utterly broken. This is courtesy of the city council, who appear entirely comfortable focusing on the 'making money from property development kickbacks' side of local government, while blatantly ignoring the 'providing residents with basic requirements like a reliable water supply, a functioning police force and a decent public transport system' side. This bunch of self-important jackasses really ought to be put on trial in the main square – except that (thanks to the council's own spectacularly bad urban planning 'strategies'), the main square is a crap place to do anything.

Sorry ... tangent.

To these issues, one must add the childish aggression of Almaty's drivers. Not being a professional demonologist myself, I don't claim to understand the process by which raging demons are able to possess the souls of normally calm and amiable Kazakhs whenever they get behind the wheel of a car (or indeed a bus). But in any case, it happens. These demons delight in doing things like slowing down at a pedestrian crossing, waiting until you're directly in front of their cars, then surging forward so that they're nearly touching your legs – a pointed, aggressive warning that if you don't hurry up and get off 'their' road, they'll be only too happy to break your shins.

Probably needless to say, the demons are not at all ‘cycle conscious’, and to the extent that they even notice the presence of a bicycle in their domain, I imagine it annoys them even more than the presence of a pedestrian.

And then there’s a question that I’ve repeatedly posed in my mind over the last couple of years: if I had a bike in Almaty, where would I actually ride it to? To work, in 40-degree summers and treacherous, ice-bound winters? To the hideous shopping malls which have sprung up around town, reinforcing the illusion of 'progress and modernity' that's regularly foisted upon the citizens of developing countries like Kazakhstan? To the city’s one and only sizeable 'park' (dedicated to the President of course), where Almaty's citizens are permitted to walk along two or three more or less perpendicular paths, but not permitted to bring in bicycles, pets or skateboards, to have picnics, to walk, sit or play on the grass, or to do pretty much anything else that free people think of when the phrase "Let's go to the park" is uttered?

No thanks. I’ll pass.

And so, for the last two years I’ve frequently pondered the question of whether I should brave the dangers and become an Almaty cyclist; but ultimately, the final decision has always been “Nope, It’s just not worth it".

Now cut again to last Thursday.

We’re in Lviv, Ukraine – a quietly grand, thousand-year-old city where almost nothing is more or less perpendicular (except for the regrettable Soviet-era apartment blocks which most people now live in).

I’d arrived two days earlier, and my friend Nataliya was sadly out of the country on holiday. So by prior arrangement, instead of showing up at her flat, I went to the school where I used to work and where she works now. And there it was, waiting for me, behind a vertical blind in the accountant’s office.

The Apache X5 Cross. My beauty!

I’m fairly sure there had never been another time when I was so pleased to be reunited with an inanimate object.

As I took off across Petrushchevicha Square, I felt totally elated. Finally, we were back together – me, and the thing I’d spent two years craving. It was blissful :-)

I stayed in Lviv for a week, visiting my son. But of course, knowing in advance that the bicycle reunion was coming up, I’d also planned a little adventure to follow.

And so it was that, at 5:30 this morning, I dragged myself out of bed and started the long process of getting the trip underway.

The process was long because, in Ukraine, couriering anything is a major undertaking. I had a suitcase which I wanted to send to Warszawa, where my journey will once again end. But half a day of traipsing around Lviv, trying to find willing couriers (since none of them would answer their phones and their websites either didn’t exist or didn’t work) proved insufficient. So on the morning of my departure, I still had the suitcase.

I grabbed a taxi to the bus station and put the case in the locker room there. Then I went back to the hotel by bus, grabbed my panniers, loaded up the bicycle, cycled back to the bus station, bought a ticket to Poland and retrieved the suitcase from the locker room – all of this before 8am.

A bit over two hours later we reached the border and, after a long and tedious crossing, arrived in Przemysl, Poland’s easternmost city. It’s a place I know quite well, having done this border crossing more times than I could count – and yet, never before had I dragged a bicycle and a suitcase through Przemysl at the same time, looking for a DHL office that turns out to be located on a parallel plane of existence which is invisible from our own mortal realm. It’s not an experience I’d recommend ;-)

In the end I gave up and went to the post office. There, with immense patience and good cheer, a woman packed my suitcase inside a black garbage bag and secured it with (at a guess) about 15 metres of Scotch tape. We then attached the relevant documents, along with my name and reservation number, so that the hotel would have some idea of why this giant garbage bag had turned up on their doorstep.

And the cost of this service, including the Scotch tape? About 8 Euros.


Around 17 hours after my journey had started, I arrived here in Katowice, where I’m staying the night – and once again feeling a bit guilty about using it as nothing more than a transit hub.

Tomorrow I’m crossing the rest of Poland en route to Dresden, a place which (despite many glowing recommendations) I’ve never visited before. I’ll stay there for a couple of days, just to have a look at the city, to shop for a few things which are either unavailable or insanely overpriced in Almaty, and to relax a bit. After that, the cycling will happen.

Much adventure lies ahead; I’d better get some sleep.

More from me soon, no doubt.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Returning Thing

Over the last decade or so I've travelled around quite a bit, and my hunger for seeing new places hasn't diminished. I try to make it a rule, in fact, to visit at least one 'new' country each year. (This year I've managed two  yay!)

At the same time, though, there are also places that I find myself returning to again and again  either because of work, or personal commitments, or just because the places themselves keep drawing me back. 

The Nerd, The Sea, The Flag of Estonia
Tallinn-Helsinki Ferry, Baltic Sea, 19.07.16
A classic example of this is where I am now: inside a hydrofoil ferry on the Baltic Sea, crossing from Estonia to Finland. 

I'm not sure how many times I've made this journey, but it's enough that I have a bunch of memories associated with it. There was the time when I jumped on a ferry at 7am, not having slept and still drunk from an evening of revelry in Tallinn; the time when my suitcase broke as I stepped out of the ferry terminal in Helsinki, spilling my belongings all over the road; the time when boarding meant that I'd reluctantly but definitively parted with a woman; and then a bunch of other disembodied moments, mostly involving me standing on the outside deck, just savouring the Baltic winds and the 'uncluttered' feeling of being on the open water.

I really do enjoy the 'Returning Thing'; it gives you a chance to see how places change and develop over time. Also, every time you come back to a place, you've developed a little as well, so you see it through different eyes and notice different things.

Lviv, Ukraine, 13.07.16
One place I return to quite often is Lviv, because my son lives there. It's very much a multi-layered kind of place, and each visit gives me a new perspective on it. And within moments of arriving, I've invariably whipped out my camera and started capturing the things that are grabbing my attention this time around. 

This year I tended to focus on small details, like this shrine to the 'Virgin' Mary which I noticed in the stairwell of a dinghy Soviet-era apartment block. (Sorry for the blurry pic; it was dark in there, and I only had my phone.) Last year I stayed for a lot longer and I snapped quite a few different things, including some of Lviv's wonderful older architecture (always a great target for the camera lens) and anything which related to the war in the East. 

Monument to The Victory Over Nazism
Lviv, Ukraine, 05.09.15
I also got to do sth I'd planned for a long time: spend half an hour with Lviv's amazing Monument to The Victory Over Nazism, which stands a little way out of the centre in an open square. Like the Moscow Olympics Bus Stop (mentioned in the previous post), this symbolises the city's complex relationship with Russia and with its the Soviet past ... but it's also just an incredible piece of brutalist statuary.

Cosmonaut's Column
Victory Over Nazism Monument, Lviv, Ukraine, 05.09.15

At the front of this monument stands a huge column, into which a 'cosmonaut' and two soldiers are embedded at different heights. The effect is striking, as the figures stand starkly, heroically against the sky. 

Behind this is the main part of the monument, on which a series of interlocked vignettes depict fierce hand-to-hand struggles on the battlefield as well as other scenes from life during wartime. My favourite of these is probably the one below, in which a Ukrainian woman hands a loaf of bread to a soldier. The looks on their faces  especially the soldier's steely, determined glare  are quite mesmerising, because they seem full of cryptic hints about how the victors regarded themselves when the monument was designed. 

A Loaf to Save A Life
Victory Over Nazism Monument, Lviv, Ukraine, 05.09.15

I've got a lot more pictures of this thing which I could show you ... but you get the point :-)

Another of my 'former home towns' is Tallinn, it's and one that I particularly enjoy returning to. These days, I generally only have time to pop in overnight  but even that can be a great pleasure in its own way. 

Still Loving The Old Digs
Tallinn, Estonia, 19.07.16

It's been said that Tallinn has become somewhat over-commercialised, and that it's lost its former charm in the process. I don't know that I'd agree. It certainly seems more developed these days, and the tourism industry has pretty much achieved Full Specturm Dominance on the port side of the Old Town. Likewise in the slightly seamy little 'Club District' that has spread out through the streets around Viru (one of the main medieval gates). 

The thing is, though, Tallinn has always been commercial, and it's always had its seamy side. But if you know your way around, you can still get away from the main tourist drags and find the quiet, tranquil bits. And architecturally, it's as breathtaking as it ever was. So I have to disagree: I still think it's a marvel.

Actually, the main reason why I started thinking about this whole business of 'returning' is something that happened to me when I arrived in Tallinn yesterday.

I was booked in to a place called the '16 Euros Fat Margaret Hostel'. Fat Margaret is one of the 34 towers that form part of the city's medieval wall, and it's one of those that you can enter through, sort of around the back of the Old Town. I know this because the school where I worked in 2009, International House Tallinn, was located across the road from it.

I have very fond memories of working in that school. Probably more than anywhere else I've taught, it was what some people like to call a 'family school', where the Director of Studies and the receptionist were one and the same person, every teacher knew every student (and in the case of kids and teens, often their families too), and where there was always a hot cup of tea waiting for you when you came up the stairs to the reception area.

However, it was also a school in crisis: struggling to pay its bills, it'd had its heating switched off more than once during the bitter winter months, and there was even talk of trying to re-open one of the bricked-up old fireplaces, just to keep the teachers and students from freezing to death while they studied. Serious conference calls with the building's owner were commonplace, as were less-than-rosy predictions of the school's future.   

When I saw the address of the Fat Margaret hostel on my printout, I thought "Oh, I think I know where that is  just go past the IH Tallinn building, head up the road, and turn left." I was quite looking forward to passing the building where I used to work, just to see if it was a) still there and b) still a school.

As I got closer, though, it seemed there was something wrong. I'd drawn more or less parallel with the school, though I hadn't actually looked at it yet, and from here the map seemed to be telling me there was a road forking off to the left. But I can usually recognise a road when I see one  it's one of my professional skill sets  and I definitely couldn't see one here.

I glanced over at the school, and got the shock of my life  well, ok, maybe not quite, but certainly the shock of my month. Over the door was a sign: "16 Euros Fat Margaret".

The hostel was the school!!

Formerly My Workplace, And Now My Hostel
'Fat Margaret' Hostel, Tallinn Estonia, 19.07.16

Checking in was weird. There was a new reception downstairs, and the guy gave me a key and directions to my room, which was on the upper floor, where the classrooms used to be. As I ascended the stairs and walked down the hallway, I passed old classrooms, their doors now marked with private room and dormitory numbers. And when I finally came to my room, in a far corner, I realised that I'd actually taught where I was now about to shower and sleep!

This was definitely one of the strangest 'returns' I've experienced anywhere.

I had to talk to someone about this, so I tried explaining to two staff members that I used to work in the building. It seemed like they weren't quite sure whether to believe me, or to conclude that I was slightly unhinged and delusional. I guess that's what comes from working at a hostel for too long: you meet so many weirdos, and hear so many tall tales, you become skeptical about anything that sounds a bit improbable.   

Anyway ... at any moment now, I'm going to experience another return. The ferry is pulling in to Helsinki Harbour. From there, I'll wind through the familiar streets of the city centre to the railway station, and grab a train to 'my' part of Finland, the region known as Kymenlaakso. This is one of my favourite 'Returning Places' of all  and much to my joy, delight and general hooray-for-me-ness, I've got nearly a month to savour it. 

I'm sure to be in a ranting mood at some point during that month ... so you'll hear from me soon :-)


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Vitaemo! Please Enjoy our Bus Stops

Hello Everyone!

Well, I'm in Ukraine now. The word "Vitaemo" is Ukrainian for welcome ... and what a welcome it's been!

In fact, it started before I even got here. Last night I stayed in Przemysl, on the border – a place that you could almost call a 'frontier town' between the EU and the Badlands beyond. 

I've done this border crossing many times, and my usual place to stay in Przemysl is called the Hotel Europejski. They generally give me a dingy room on the second floor, in which I smoke out the window until I fall asleep, and then they serve me a horrible wobbly-egg breakfast the next morning. I then head over to the bus station (about 200 metres away) and grab a bus over the border to Lviv.

This time the folks at Hotel Europejski went a step beyond: they gave me the room directly over their neon hotel sign. I went to the shops to grab a supermarket dinner, then settled in, ate, and opened the window to smoke. And ... yeow! It was a frikkin' spider's paradise up there!

Seriously, the whole sign was covered in webs, presumably to catch the many insects who are attracted to its neon glow. And in some of those webs, directly outside my window, were arachnids of a size that you'd normally expect to see on a trip to Asia or Australia.

Clearly, I was getting close to the Badlands*.

To be fair, they made up for it with a slightly better breakfast than usual. (Maybe they'd read the review I wrote a few years ago on, in which I suggested going to the local bakery instead.) But still ... ick!

Anyway, so I jump on the bus to Lviv. Sitting across from me are two English-speakers: the guy a Brit, the girl one of those whose accent is difficult to place. They spent much of the journey bickering about the pros and cons of hiring a car; the guy was obstinately refusing to entertain the idea and being a real ass about it, while the girl was using the opportunity to bring up all the sacrifices she'd made for him so far during their trip, and airing her theory that he was a bastard and didn't love her anymore. 

This reminded me of one of the joys of travelling in places where you don't know the language; sometimes it's much better if you have no clue what people are saying ;-)

We got to the border and all the checks went smoothly, so then we crossed into Ukraine, with about 80kms ahead of us before we arrived in Lviv. So far, so good.

About 20 minutes later, the driver pulled into a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, and both he and the conductor got out. There was a problem; something to do with water levels and overheating and stuff like that (said the most mechanically ignorant man on the planet). 

While the two men tried to work out what to do, three of the passengers  myself, the British guy and a smiling, gold-toothed Ukrainian man from somewhere east  jumped out of the sweltering metal tube for a cigarette and some fresh country air.

It was then the Brit and I noticed we hadn't stopped at just any bus stop. This was a work of art; an outlandishly designed thing, covered in mosaic tiles and depicting figures of almost mythic prowess, standing starkly against a horizon of fields and meadows.

Bus Shelter Olympians
Road to Lviv, Ukraine, 12.07.16

My new British acquaintance was amazed because he'd never seen anything like this before. I was amazed too, but for kind of the opposite reason: I recognised this artwork as a genuine vintage Sovietskaya Ostanovka (Soviet Bus Stop). 


At this point, I feel I need to say a few words about the Sovietskiye Ostanovki, because they're one of my absolute favourite things about ex-Soviet countries. There are thousands of these bus stops dotted throughout every republic, often in startlingly remote locations, and like the awesome avant garde monuments of Bulgaria (see here), they're a stunning reminder that we Westerners never fully comprehended the USSR. 

The architects who designed these bus stops were given license to let their imaginations run wild. The authorities saw them as a way of bringing art to the masses, on a small, uncontroversial scale  and many designers took the reins with both hands, and really went for it.  

The resulting range of designs is enormous. Some of them are ethnically themed, to emphasise the cultural and ethnic diversity of the USSR (something that Moscow was very keen to promote in later postwar years). Others feature playful, almost childhood nursery-like colour schemes, UFO/flying saucer motifs, or wild avant garde designs like the 'shell' pictured here. 

You also see some brutalist ostanovki with sturdy stone figures and/or wonderful crisp angles, as well as some semi-monumental ones that celebrate Soviet achievements (like Yuri Gagarin's space flight). And there are others in the 'Islamic republics' that look like tiny roadside mosques, with majolica tiles and ornate domes and so on. In fact, pretty much any style you can think of has a bus stop to represent it.   

On the way from Almaty to my partner's dacha, we're lucky enough to have about a dozen original Sovietskiye Ostanovki spaced out along the road at 2km intervals. As is often the case, ours are in pretty awful condition, and the locals don't seem to appreciate them much. But for me, passing them is by far the highlight of our journey. 

Last thing I'll mention before getting back to the story: there's actually a book about this, called (astonishingly) 'Soviet Bus Stops'. It sold out almost instantaneously on its first printing, but Amazon is currently promising that the new edition will be in stock soon. 

If the phenomenon of the Sovietskiye Ostanovki is new to you, I highly recommend that you take a break from my blah-blahing and check out the video links below, which relate to the book. Whether you're an 'ex-Sovs person' like me or notI promise you'll be impressed.

1: Soviet Bus Stops (Vimeo)
2: Soviet Bus Stops (Youtube)

That's it: tangent over :-)


Oh yeah ... Ukraine. Broken down on a roadside, taking photos of a Soviet Bus Stop while the driver and conductor tried to work out why our bus didn't want to take us any closer to Lviv.

While we were doing this, the gold-toothed Ukrainian guy came over to the Brit and started trying to tell him something. I could see the language barrier was pretty much insurmountable, so I strolled over, hoping that my nowhere-near-as-good-as-they-should-be-by-now Russian skills might help a little. 

Amazonian Archer Babe
Road to Lviv, Ukraine, 12.07.16

The Ukrainian guy was offering a theory about the bus stop: it had probably been built, he conjectured, to commemorate the 1980 Moscow Olympics. 

This was an awesome thought, because if true, it dramatically signified how much has changed in this area over the last few decades. We were standing in a region where anti-Russian sentiment probably runs higher than almost anywhere else in the world, and yet here was this thing from less than two generations ago, celebrating Moscow's Olympic triumph. Incredible. 

The bus eventually got back on its feet somehow, so the three of us boarded, and we took off through the picturesque western-Ukrainian countryside. However, this particular bus seemed to have an MUOR (an acronym I've just made up  it stands for 'Maximum Uninterrupted Operation Range') of about 30kms. It broke down twice more on the way to Lviv, seemingly from a different problem each time. 

There was also a foul smell on board, clearly coming from the air conditioning. For the first half of the journey, the driver didn't turn it on. However, someone must have complained, because later there was conditioning ... but it was causing some very odd things to happen. Most worryingly, the TV was drenched in water that was leaking from the conditioning unit  not a comfortable sight at all!

Drippy TV
Road to Lviv, Ukraine, 12.07.16

I just hoped at this point that we'd get there eventually, and not have to call taxis out to the wilderness. 

On our third break-down stop, the driver disappeared with a small petrol drum; it appeared we'd actually run out of gas, about 5kms short of Lviv's central railway station! This was incredibly inconvenient, because I'd booked an apartment, and the custom in Lviv is to meet the landlord/lady at the apartment at an agreed time. That time was now approaching.

I had a SIM card, but there was no balance on it. All I could do was wait for the landlord to call, and explain why I wasn't there yet.

In the end I was about an hour late, and I had to wait in the street for the landlord to return, with passers-by eyeing me suspiciously. At one point, a neighbour came out and asked "What are you standing here for?". I replied that I was waiting for the owner of a rental apartment, and she said "There are no rental apartments here." 

Had this been my first visit to Lviv, that would've worried me. But this woman was from the 'older generation', and I knew what she was really saying was "I don't actually know if there are any apartments here, and I don't want to appear ignorant, so I'll say there aren't."  This is just one of those cultural quirks that you get used to as you go along: older Ukrainians must seem authoritative at all times on all subjects, and it means you sometimes have to take what they say with a grain of salt. 

Btw, if you're planning to visit Ukraine (and you should  at least Lviv and Kyiv), this will probably happen to you at some point. People will confidently tell you that things don't exist when in fact they do, and that things do exist when in fact they don't. It's part of the fun ... adds a bit of mystery to your holiday :-)

Anyway, I've officially arrived now, and I'm looking forward to more (mis)adventures over the weeks to come. Of course I'll keep you updated as always.


(*Btw, if citizens of Ukraine or any other ex-Soviet country are reading this, I'm using the words "Badlands" a bit sarcastically here. It's mainly a comment on how some people in Europe see Ukraine, not about how Ukraine actually is. So please don't be offended.)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Riddle of Swinoujscie


So, err ... yesterday ended on an interesting note.

I washed up in Poland, at a Baltic port town called Swinoujscie. This put me a bit less than two hours away from the extraordinarily-named city of Szczeczin, where I was hoping to end the day's travelling.

The port area of Swinoujscie is separated from the rest of the town by a channel where international ferries dock, and the railway station is on the port side. My ferry from Sweden turned up at 8pm, which (according to the Polish Rail timetable) meant I could jump on a train at 8:30pm and be in Szczeczin by a little after ten. 

Great, except that I hadn't booked any accommodation there, because I hadn't found an open wi-fi connection all day. I'd spent most of the day on the Baltic Sea, which is not known for its fantastic wi-fi coverage.

The upshot: I had half an hour to get to the station (ten minutes' walk from the port), buy a ticket, take advantage of Polish Rail's free wi-fi to quickly find a hotel, and jump on my train.

Except ...

Well, except that Polish Rail is what it is.

So ... first, there was no 8:30pm train, according to everyone in the station. They didn't say it had been cancelled  they simply acted as if it had never existed. I could see it on the departures timetable printed on the wall, but to everybody else, it was like the dirty family secret in an old British detective novel. 

"A-HEM! We, er, don't speak of the 8:30pm train. It's just that ... well, I'm sure you'll agree, Mr. Nerd, that some skeletons are best left safely in the closet. So, I suggest we simply forget you brought it up; shall we?"

The next and only train, they insisted, was at 10:30pm.

That was the first issue. Second: no wi-fi in the station, or anywhere nearby. Clearly, Polish Rail's attempts to supply a free access point in all their stations hadn't reached this far northeast yet.

In a vain effort to circumvent these issues and put together some kind of plan, I even took the foolish step of having dinner at a cafe that adjoined the main railway building. I thought there might be wi-fi there (as the sign on their door promised), and booking a hotel would at least get one of my problems out of the way. 

As they brought me an unconvincing impersonation of a sausage, resting on a bed of sour cabbage that looked as if it had been harvested from the bottom of the sea and then sat wilting for a month before being served on a slightly chipped plate, I asked "Tutaj ma vee-fee?" (Is there wi-fi here?).

"Vee-fee nema" (There isn't wi-fi), came the answer. "Na dworcu kolejowym" (In the railway station).


Third ... when I went back to the station to investigate this late train more closely, I discovered the following things: it was bound for Warszawa, a journey lasting around ten hours; and the sleeper cars were fully booked. 

"So", I thought, "I guess I'm staying in Swinoujscie".

Next question: "How the heck do I get across the water and to the town? I can't swim with a wheelie bag."

That question was answered when, quite unexpectedly (for me at least), a little car ferry suddenly came into view. As it drew nearer to the port, a crowd appeared almost from nowhere, standing near what looked like a terrible bar but turned out to be both a ferry terminal and a terrible bar

This car ferry, I learned, was free for locals. Tickets for non-locals existed in theory, but they were were certainly not available anywhere I could see. I thought about asking upstairs in the bar, but a woman was sitting on the stairs, crying and being sick, with an almost-equally-drunk man attempting to comfort her. There was no way I could get past them ... and nor did I particularly want to see what was at the top of those stairs, if this was any indication.

So ... time to blend in!

Car Ferry
Swinjouscie, Poland, 09.07.16

By the time I got to the township, it was almost 10pm. Then began a long search for a hotel ... and I mean a really long search. There was a hotel district, apparently, but it was on the opposite side of Swinjouscie to the ferry terminal. And when I finally reached it, the pricing options were not ideal. 

Wondering why on Earth this place was so expensive, I dragged my wheelie bag into and out of about eight hotel receptions. The town wasn't overly well-lit, and in the darkness I could barely see anything. But I heard groups of people singing football chants, came across old aged pensioners sitting quietly on fences, and passed an eerie kind of amusement park (closed due to the late hour, but dimly lit) with big clown-face statues hanging over it. I just couldn't work this place out  what kind of town was I in?

And all the while, I was despairing more and more of finding an affordable bed. 

I was just about to give up and hand over 300 złoty to the nearest overcharging hotelier, when I came upon a place that actually did have a reasonably priced room. 

The owner and receptionist was friendly, and spoke to me in German (the closest thing we had to a 'common language'), and the room turned out to be great. Seemed like my search had ended well :-)

Once in the room, I opened a bottle of cider which I had with me, smoked on the balcony, then collapsed on the bed and fell asleep without finishing the cider. It was almost 1am.

I woke up six hours later to the sound of two giant, Northern Europe-sized seagulls squawking outside the window. What were they doing here? 

Again, more questions about Swinjouscie. This place was turning out to be quite a riddle. 

After breakfast, a little wi-fi chat with my delightful partner in Kazakhstan, and other readiness-making activities, I left the hotel and headed in the general direction of the ferry terminal. I was in no hurry, because my schedule had been completely thrown off, and there were no trains until 2pm.

Heading Downtown
Swinjouscie, Poland, 10.07.16

And this is when Swinjouscie finally revealed itself as the charming little place it is. Even the downtown (or at least parts of it) was a haven of green, with spacious parks, cute little heritage buildings, stately manors and shaded, tranquil streets. That, plus the sea frontage, explained why it felt like I was in a holiday spa destination, rather than just the uneventful port town I'd assumed it would be.

Communist Car Party!
Swinjouscie, Poland, 10.07.16

In one of the parks, I was also lucky enough to catch what looked like a weekend gathering of Communist-era car enthusiasts, sitting around chatting about their Trabis (the East German car of the period), Skodas and so on. It was awesome :-)

Super-Cute Trabi (if you like that sort of thing)
Swinjouscie, Poland, 10.07.16

So that was the riddle of Swinoujscie solved. What kind of place is it? A very nice one, like so many others in Poland :-)

I'm now in Szczeczin, learning how to pronounce it properly (you say Shche-CHIN!, using the same rhythm you'd use if you were imitating the ch-ching! of a cash register) and planning my next move. Have to get from here to Ukraine, which is never easy due partly (once again) to the vagaries of Polish rail.  

It looks like, in the end, I won't be able to avoid what I was trying to avoid yesterday: namely, doing an overnight journey in a sitting compartment rather than a sleeping one. Poland is bigger than most people think, and I want to go Szczeczin-Warszawa-Krakow-Przemysl (on the Ukrainian border) in a single day. That's a hectic schedule, so the sitting-up overnighter seems like it might be the only option. 

It's also going to require a long and exhausting battle with a Polish Rail ticketing machine. This is, again, something to be avoided if you value your sanity; and yet, it's still better than standing in the queues at the ticket sales window. Much as I love them, Poles have this annoying habit of going up to the window with a shopping list of questions, and then pre-purchasing every ticket they plan to use over the next 12 months, one by one. Personally I suspect that standing behind them while they do this probably qualifies as a form of torture under at least one article of the Geneva Convention. So ... machines it is. 

On the up side, I got to be an 'accidental tourist' in Swinjouscie today, and I also got to travel to Szczeczin in daylight, which meant taking in the scenery around the vast and beautiful Szczeczin Lagoon. I also had a chance to wander around some of this city, which is certainly not without its beauty either. And I must say, rail dramas aside, it's always great to be back in this country :-)


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Sound Recycling

A few years ago, I finished a degree which made me, in effect, a qualified linguist.

Among other things, this means (at least in theory) that I'm qualified to go and live in a remote community whose language has never been written down or codified, and create the first written record of it. 

The number of languages for which no-one has ever created a dictionary and/or a written grammar is higher than you may think. Finding one usually involves going someplace quite remote in Asia, Africa or the heart of Australia, so it means adopting a lifestyle quite different to what you're used to  although last night in Copenhagen, I met an American guy who told me that a ‘linguist friend’ of his worked on an undocumented language in regional Sweden just a few years ago.

Nice work if you can get it :-)

Btw, about Copenhagen: I stayed there for six days, enjoying the utterly fantastic hospitality of my friends Matt and Ally. I can't honestly say the city blew my mind it struck me not as the kind of place where you walk around going "Wow, amazing!" on your first visit, so much as the kind that works its way gradually into your affections.  

Copenhagen - A Grower, Not a Shower ;-)
Copenhagen, Denmark, 08.07.16

I've had that experience with a number of cities (Helsinki springs to mind), but obviously it takes more than six days. Matt and Ally emigrated to Copenhagen from Sydney almost a year ago, and it has definitely worked its charm on them. Since both are old and dear friends, it made me very happy to see them so delighted with their new home :-)

Meanwhile, in between catching up, meeting one or two of their new friends and applying for a Ukrainian visa (always an adventure), I got to play tourist for a couple of days. I walked around the city, which is pleasantly spread over several islands, visited the 'free city' of Christiania (more about that in another entry), spent an afternoon at the Louisiana contemporary art gallery on Copenhagen's outskirts, and took a train out to Roskilde, to soothe my inner Ragnar at the Viking Ships Museum.

Prow of A Viking Ship
Roskilde, Denmark, 07.07.16

The museum was obviously a clear highlight. It's here because, some years back, an amazing discovery was made on the Roskilde fjord: five beautifully preserved, thousand-year-old boats were piled up on top of each other at the bottom of the fjord, apparently in an attempt to prevent other vessels from entering the harbour. 

Archaeologists dredged up the first boat and then tried to work out how they could preserve it in the open air  an undertaking which required them to invent completely new techniques for the preservation of wood.

Now well established, the museum acts partly as a research facility to support the theories of historians (at the moment, they're re-creating a voyage from Denmark to Greenland, in a reconstructed long boat). They also periodically offer two-day courses in how to sail Viking ships  a fact which had me in a state of high excitement, until I realised that I'd missed this year's course and would have to come back another time.

Probably the best thing about the place, though, was simply being able to get so close to the incredible artefacts. Incidentally, that's why I chose a close-up shot above: you all know what a Viking long boat looks like, but imagine being this close to one, being able to smell it, seeing the curve of the hull, all the imperfections in the wood etc. etc. That was pretty magical :-)

Also, as a fan of the Vikings TV series, I got a little bloodrush when one person on the guided tour asked "Are there more ships under the fjord?", and the guide replied "Yes, we think there are a lot more, especially if you go out to Kattegat.

As he said that, he pointed in a direction that indicated "It's over there, a bit further out on the fjord". But it was the place name that caught my attention: 

Kattegat? Really? We're near frikkin' KATTEGAT? 

I silently lost my shit for a second. 

If you watch the show, you'll know why: the story of Ragnar Lödbrok (a hero pulled from the Norse sagas) begins there, and I never imagined I'd be in a place that probably shares the same postcode. So that was a bit of a thrill.

Later in the local graveyard, I saw the burial monument below, and thought "You know, you can take the paganism out of Northern Europe, but you can't actually take the paganism out of Northern Europe." This part of the world may be nominally Christian, but the withering eye of Odin still watches over it, without a doubt.

Burial Marker in A 'Christian' Cemetery
Roskilde, Denmark, 07.07.16

Something else which I've spent a lot of time doing this week is going "Ah, this thing works so well! I must be in Northern Europe!". I've said/thought this about all sorts of stuff, from billpay websites to school yards to public transport systems. The ingenuity of Nordic design is an endless source of satisfaction, and it applies in every area of life. And when you're constantly thinking to yourself "Y'know, whoever created this really thought it through, and now my life is a tiny bit easier", it almost acts as a partial antidote to cynicism. So that was fun too :-)

But hey, I massively digress.   

Let's get back to the 'qualified linguist' thing.

Of course, you don't see too many job ads for the kind of field work I described before, so most probably I won’t spend a couple of years of my life being the first person to write down a lexicon and grammar description for Language X.

That leaves me with ... well, a nicer CV, I guess, and a few extra tools when I argue with other teachers. (We sometimes like to debate the more contentious points of English grammar, especially while drunk. Unless you're a committed masochist, avoid us when we do that.) 

Beyond this ... um, really not that much. But one thing I do quite enjoy, and which the degree certainly helps with, is simply considering words. It’s fun for a Word Nerd like me, especially when I’m travelling around and coming across different languages.

It may sound odd, but I'm often struck by the sheer number of words that are out there in the worldI mean, you’ve got about 5,000 or so human languages, each with a huge vocabulary. And humans can only make about 200 speech sounds  many of which are the ‘exotic’ ones like African pygmy clicks, that turn up very rarely. So with the small number of sounds we have left, how do we manage to make enough words to fill all those vocabularies?

There are lots of answers to that, but one is just that different languages use the same combinations of sounds for different purposes – which is to say, we recycle the same words and syllables, but give them different meanings. 

Today I’m experiencing a rather fun example of that. When I woke up this morning I was still in Denmark. I then took a train to the southern tip of Sweden, before jumping on a ferry which is currently approaching the north-western coast of Poland. And all day, I’ve been using this combination of sounds: “tak”.

It’s an enormously useful syllable in this part of the world. In Danish and Swedish (spelled with an extra 'k' but pronounced the same), it means thank you. So you're always using it there. In Polish, tak is just as useful, because it means “yes”. So I’ll be continuing to use it over the next couple of days, but for different reasons. 

But it doesn't end there. When I get to Lviv (Ukraine) the day after tomorrow, I'll be in a bilingual, tak-friendly environment. Some people in Lviv speak Russian, and they use tak to mean “so” (especially when they're thinking aloud – you can walk around a room going taaak ... taaak ... taaak ... while stroking your chin thoughtfully, or moving newspapers and cushions in the hope of finding your keys). Others prefer to speak Ukrainian, in which tak has both its Russian meaning and its Polish one. And many locals are inclined to switch between the two languages. So it's going to be indispensable for some time to come. 

This, as I mentioned, is one of the ways we humans manage to stretch a very finite number of sounds and syllables out over thousands of languages and lexicons.  Call it 'sound recycling' if you like :-)

It’s also, incidentally, why certain words from one language can sound a bit rude in another. A memorable example is the word 'Fahrt', which is journey in German. You can wish someone a ‘guter Fahrt’ in that language, and enjoy a moment of adolescent amusement (though, to be fair, Germans use gute Reise, which means ‘good travel’, far more often). And Vater (meaning father and pronounced "farter") is at least as pleasurable.  

I get this all the time when I speak English around Russian-speakers: I'm chatting away when someone starts laughing, and I ask “What’s funny?”. I'm then told that a totally innocuous word I’ve just used sounds a bit sweary to the Russian ear. It could be a child’s word for genitals, or a very strong verb describing a particular sex act, or whatever. Russian seems to have a limitless stock of these words, making it almost impossible to avoid saying “So, how have you been? Have you blown anyone lately?” at some point.

So yeah ... these are the random thoughts that assuage my mind as I sit on the ferry to Poland, doing my second sea voyage for the summer (and still rather loving it as a form of transport).

I should probably get an early night tonight. This is what sleep deprivation does to my brain ;-)

See you!