Farewell Bydgoszcz!

Posted: September 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

Well, after 2 years in Bydgoszcz and 3 in the wonderful place that is Kujawsko-Pomorskie as a whole, I finally had to leave the place in the middle of September this year. As I have family there now, in a sense, I will naturally be back, so this blog will lay dormant but not dead. But, as a regularly maintained blog, this is farewell from “A City Called Bydgoszcz.”

Anyone who would like to follow my new adventures, after my move to Lisbon are more than welcome here. In the meantime, if you have any questions about Bydgoszcz, do feel free to message me. Powodzenia!

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So, after many months of Spring flirting with us in Bydgoszcz, with a constantly changing combination of warm sunshine and torrential rain, it seems we’ve finally evened out into what can really be called summer over here now. And with the milder season have come a few things of note.

First of all, right next to where I live, in Kochanowskiego park, there is a new water fountain installation which has a dancing water show with music and lights, three times a week. I happened upon it when walking by last Friday evening and was rather impressed. As you can see in the video below, it’s a nice thing and really brightens the place up. Previously, the fountain had been out of order for more than a year and in the last 6 months had been surrounded by corrugated steel fences during renovation, so this is definitely a positive. Shows are on Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Friday was also my first evening of this year sitting outside until a late hour in the fading sunshine. It’s amazing how many bars & restaurants have outdoor areas this year: Merlin, Strefa (of course), Widzimisie and more besides, as well as the usual suspects in the Rynek, Barka, Kubryk and so on.

Saturday saw me volunteering with a friend as a stooge for my school’s treasure hunt. We readied ourselves at our station just before the scheduled 3pm start only to see this appear over the horizon.

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Within 5 minutes of this photo, the blazing sun from the right had been replaced with torrents of water and all of Thor’s rage in the form of a terrific to watch thunder and lightning storm. This is what happens when British people organise an outdoor event of any kind. Fortunately, with our wealth of experience, the indoor alternative activities were well received and the afternoon and evening that followed were excellent.

Sunday arrived with a jolt – thanks to 5 hours’ sleep – and soon after I awoke, I was greeted by the information that Myślęcinek’s zoo had acquired some llamas. Generally speaking, I don’t need much encouragement to spend a sunny afternoon at a zoo, so the presence of llamas made it a certainty.

While the llamas were a bit timid and stayed quite far from the fence, in spite of my calls of “hey, Mr Llama!” the general zoo experience was pretty positive. The cages for the Japanese Macaques are a bit small and the birds of prey could do with some space, but generally the animals seem well looked after and quite jolly. I was cheerfully able to pet the goats.

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Hey Mr Llama! Really though – come here!

 

 

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Such a bloody showoff, this guy. His cage is bigger than it looks, by the way.

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Goats are soooooo delicious, errr… cute! 🙂

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At the end of my zoo trip, I was to witness a bit of a surprise. In a huge enclosure in Myślęcinek, you can find a small pack of wolves. They seem quite laid back and disinterested at the gawping masses, such as myself. But this time it was different. Some crows, sitting amongst the trees above the really quite hot and bothered wolves, decided this would be a good place to have a squabble. The culmination of this was a crow wrapping his feet around another one and tossing him to the ground. The wolves, usually unperturbed by intruding birds, were obviously a bit sick of this whole kerfuffle and took decisive and murderous action. With one swipe of a lupine paw, there was a distinctly former crow lying on its back. The crows in the trees were mortified and began shouting at the crows, like a cacophony of disgruntled politicians (all bluster and absolutely no chance of anything approaching action). The wolf, having made his point, simply toddled off and sat down somewhere else.

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IMAG0798 I heartily recommend to other crows not to tick wolves off. Doesn’t end well one bit!

I took that as my queue to do the same. So begins my last summer in Bydgoszcz.

 

For those poor unfortunates who have never visited the great country that is Poland, it may or may not come as a surprise to you that most Polish cities are centred around a Rynek or town square. These would have served as the market in the old days and now serve as a social hub for cities. You can normally find people meeting friends, lovers, pigeons (if that’s your thing) and generally being social.

Bydgoszcz is no different in this regard and I myself, many a time, have said to people “meet you in the rynek at 6” or whatever. But the rynek in Bydgoszcz is a strangely dichotomous place. I think the reason for this is that it’s absolutely huge and has nothing at all in the middle of it. Come to the city during the latter part of autumn or winter and this is the view of the rynek that greets you:

Grimness that places like Halifax would be proud of.

This, however, brings me to the content of today’s blog and Bydgoszcz’s annual resurrection. For, you see, when the sun begins to shine at the end of spring, the rynek is transformed. Every pub and restaurant situated around the square’s edge flings open its doors and lays great sets of decking, with tables and chairs. Hell, the city even allows an extra bar to open just for the “ogródek piwny” (beer garden) season. I struggled to find any decent pictures today, but this is more or less how it looks once the tables are laid out:

What these pictures can’t communicate, because of the lack of people in them (they were taken early in the morning, over the last couple of summers) is just what a transformation this brings about in the whole vibe of the town. There is a real part atmosphere, all of a sudden, and it begins to feel like a warmer, more sociable place to be.

This year, the outdoor tables are only just starting to appear now, at the end of April, but it’s hoped that for the Majówka holiday weekend, next week, the Bydgoszcz beer garden square will be in full flow. It’s a great opportunity to go and experience a warmer side of the city.

On a similar theme, this year Bydgoszcz’s council have commissioned some new sculpture pieces around the city, which people can really get involved with. The first of which is on Wyspa młynska – the windmill island – and takes the form of a giant chair, beside the Brda. Lots of children (and adult children like myself) have already taken the opportunity to climb on it and sit in the sunshine. More of this kind of stuff please!

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Basically, get out there and enjoy the city. There really is no better time to be here. Make the most of it!

 

First of all, I will warn you that you may feel a strong desire to kill me, as a result of the pun in the title. But if you want to find out some information about a really great new restaurant in Bydgoszcz, then read on and fetch your axe later.

It was Easter weekend and I was enjoying the liberties of being a teacher and having an extra 2 days off, either side of the regular holiday when I decided that I hadn’t been out for lunch with my girlfriend in far too long. I’d been galavanting off to other places most weekends and I thought that us having a day off at the same time was a great chance to have a date of sorts. As we both love food, lunch seemed like an obvious choice. So we walked down to the city centre and strolled from restaurant to restaurant, not really sure of where to go. Finally, after being attacked by a bug infestation at Warzelnia – the only place with a decent sun trap to sit in – we elected to try the new(ish) Polish restaurant, Stara Szuflada (The Old Drawer – see what I did there?)

I had been here once before, with my friend, for a coffee and had been impressed by the ambience and the service (and also, the coffee, come to think of it) but I’d never tried the food. The theme is of an old fashioned place – homely and full of non-matching antique(?) furniture. They take care to light candles for all the guests, as it doesn’t have a lot of natural light and the “old drawer” motif is displayed everywhere, with your menu arriving in one and various others being used to hold candles and other decorations up on the wall. The atmosphere is homely and welcoming.

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The menu is not that extensive, but has some original ideas and, after we’d got seated and very quickly served by a friendly young lady, I ordered a beer and the Kurczak Myśliwsku. This translates to Hunter’s Chicken, pretty much and involves chicken cooked in a plum and chilli sauce, with rice and a side salad. My good lady ordered some pancakes with Mexican chicken. 

Our waitress moved us to a different table, as the one we had chosen was too small for beer glasses and dinner plates. She did it in a cheerful, unfussy way and was more than happy for us to just choose a new table for ourselves, as it was pretty quiet. My beer came out and I noticed right away that they must really look after their beer here, as it was one of the richest tasting Warkas I’ve had from a barrel in a good while. And I know my Warka. We were pretty happily chatting away when, after a short wait, our food arrived. 

My food looked good. It was a large portion, and I could see there were quite a lot of prunes in with my chicken and sauce. I tucked in and was really quite surprised to find an excellent blend of flavours with the sweetness hitting your palate first, followed by the bite of the chilli and then the rich dark-fruit-taste of the plums at the end. I was expecting something that was quite good and had got something much better. My girlfriend’s pancakes were full of Mexican chicken and associated “Mexican” vegetables and then topped with cheese and finished either in the oven or under the grill. She enjoyed the taste, but felt they could have done with a little more spice. Still we were both very happy with our meals and quite full. I tried to take a photo of my meal, but my camera on my phone is hopeless indoors.

Far too full to manage any dessert, we decided to just have a couple of affogatos, both made with smooth, strong coffee and tasty ice cream. When we asked for the bill, we were brought a coffee bean grinder – with the bill in the drawer, naturally – and we were offered a shot of their homemade coffee cream liqueur, on the house. Some of my friends have said this is too sweet for them, but I really like it. And it’s home made. And it’s free!

So, if you feel like trying somewhere new to eat, with great service, more than decent food, a nice ambience and which will not hit your wallet too hard, give Stara Szuflada a go.

As someone who doesn’t really get any overt joy out of the process of shopping, I tend to avoid going into shops, other than when I have to buy food and drink. As such, I tend to forget about the nuances of shopping over here, relative to most developed consumer economies. I do witness the generally apathetic approach of supermarket staff and the looks of contempt they give you on realising that you don’t have the exact change required for your 27.58 zloty shopping bill. But, having recently been positively frightened when engaged in an extremely jovial and in-depth conversation about my flight, country of residence and raison d’être in the Birmingham Airport branch of Marks and Spencer, perhaps I prefer to be under serviced in this area?

But I digress. Today was an opportunity to buy a luxury item – in this case a mobile WiFi router to see me through to the end of my stay in Bydgoszcz – and so off I popped to the Play store in Focus Park. Focus Park is the largest mall in our fair city and is by far and away the most central, so I had assumed that this would be the most likely place to find said product. In I walked, with a lazy Tuesday morning smile on my face and a couple hundred zloty burning a hole in my pocket. A lady made her way from her seat and the back of the stool and said “słucham” – “I’m listening” to you and me. This is a little bit abrupt, perhaps what you might expect at a busy bar, rather than a deserted phone store but, unperturbed, I made my enquiry about my product. Her face immediately soured and she told me that she didn’t have it. Still trying to remain upbeat, I queried whether this was an internet-only product (I had found it on Play’s website) or if I might find it in a different Play store, elsewhere in the city. “I don’t know, but I don’t have it!” she spat at me. I replied that this was fantastic and thanked her more than a little sarcastically for her ‘help.’

Artist’s impression of shop assistant

I left the store in something of a state of rage, at this total lack of customer service that simply would not be stood for in another country. What perhaps grates the most though, is knowing that a fair number of people in the city are unable to find work at all, while this miserable hag sits on her high stool in the store, biting customers (metaphorically) for having the audacity to want to buy something.

I should take pains to point out that, after this, I went into Saturn and was greeted by two really helpful fellas, who even offered to switch to English to make life easier for me. I was really impressed by this and, despite them not having the product I was after, I departed feeling much less tension.

This got me thinking more generally about the whole customer / seller relationship and I have found it to be truly remarkable, some of the things which are considered “norms” here. For instance, my girlfriend works for the CCC chain, the biggest shoe company in Poland, with a store on every high street and in pretty much every shopping centre. The returns policy in this store is absolutely bewildering. If you have a pair of shoes which, it becomes evident, are faulty, what, dear reader, would you do? What I would do, is take them back and request either a new pair of shoes, my money back or, as an absolute minimum, store credit. In CCC, when you take your shoes back, the company takes the shoes from you and has a period of 2 weeks to inform you of their decision as to whether they will refund you, exchange your shoes or repair your shoes. If they decide they ought to be repaired, they will then also set a timescale for the repair. As a man with a non-stellar income, I only really have one season-appropriate pair of shoes at any given time. According to CCC’s policy, I could face walking around without shoes for up to a month, for something that is their fault. While I disagree with the throwaway policies of British culture on clothing and shoes, the disparity between the rights of the consumer and the seller seem to be way off here. I’m still not sure, incidentally, whether that policy is in fact legal under EU law. 

One thing that is encouraging here though, on a positive note, is the real step change in the approach to service in the catering industry. Even since I’ve arrived in Poland in 2011, I’ve seen that a friendly, attentive approach to service – particularly in restaurants – has gone from being a pleasant rarity to more or less what I expect. The hope is that this trend will continue and spread to the retail industry, where some places seemingly have a long way to go!

Those worrying that this is a Daily Mail/UKIP sympathising post can relax. Rather, this is a reflection on just how many foreigners there seem to be in Bydgoszcz, of which I am of course one. For me, this is great news. I love the diversity that migrants from different nations bring (it would be pretty hypocritical, as a migrant, if I didn’t!) and in an endeavour to meet both more of them and, indeed, more locals who will either tolerate my grammatically disastrous Polish or even want to have a natter in my mother tongue, a few months ago, some colleagues and I decided to set up a monthly language exchange club. After some umming, ahhing, and general faffing about, one of our number – my colleague Judith – set up a meeting with a likely establishment to host the thing. With furious speed, the following month breezed by and, on the ominous date of Friday the 13th December, we had our first “Language Zone” meeting, at the wonderfully chilled café bar Strefa.

We had about 30 guests, from as far and wide as Spain, Portugal and Egypt. It was a really nice night and everyone who attended made at least one or two new contacts, with whom they could meet for more coffee or beer. In a city that is, as I’ve mentioned before, quite difficult to meet people from scratch, it was a real success. We quickly liaised with the wonderful Ewelina, who organises the events at the café, in order to book another event and so it was that our next event was booked up for the middle of January. This time it was on a Saturday night and we were hopeful that, thanks to a bit of word of mouth advertising, we might increase out attendance by half.

When the night finally came around, I found myself at the end of the kind of week where I felt like I’d done everything it was possible to do apart from sleep and relax at all. I was cream crackered.  So, I found myself mulling over whether to brave the freezing weather, or just tuck myself like an old man with lots of tea. Realising that while I am a reasonably old man, I still have the maturity and common sense levels of a 20-year-old who’s spent the majority of his life in a cupboard, I put on a jumper thicker than a prison wall and headed out.

What waited for me when I arrived, some 15 minutes after the event had kicked off was quite astonishing. The place was jam packed and there were so many new faces. I found some friends of mine and took a seat, finding my way to a beer, as I did so. A short while later, a Polish English-language-teacher stood up and insisted that people begin to mingle and, using the languages written on their name badges, try to find someone new to talk to.

More or less everyone did so, and the whole event erupted into a whole night of chat, laughter and getting to know new people. I met people from as far afield as Armenia, as well as some really charming local people, and everyone I spoke to had had the same experience. Now everyone is eagerly awaiting the next event and, even though I have a very exciting holiday planned before then, I can’t wait for the middle of February!

Here are a few snaps of the last event. If you are in Bydgoszcz, be sure to check out Strefa on Facebook and come to the next event, to speak English, Polish, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, or whatever you like! There’s bound to be someone to talk to you!

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This is the first of two posts I’ll be serving up today and is, I promise, the last one (for a while at least) about weather. As regular readers will know, over the Christmas period, I wrote about how unusually mild this winter had been – a phenomenon which has affected most of the “cold bit” of Europe, while the folks in the USA are freezing their bits off in one of the worst winters of the last few years. Anyway, over the last week or so winter arrived, and has been a particularly vicious, biting one at that!

On Monday morning, I awoke and took a look at my weather forecast, as usual, so I had an idea of what to wear. It, rather shockingly, told me that the day temperature would be -12 and that we could also expect “freezing rain”. Now, I’m no meteoroligst, but to me, that sounds like snow. You know, when it’s cold, the water freezes and – yay snow! This was peculiar. Curious, I had a look at wikipedia. It told me that freezing rain was when rain was released as liquid and turned to ice as it falls. Fair enough, but it still sounds like snow to me. Anyway, I drank my coffee and wrapped up warm, before heading in to work.

Less than a minute after leaving my door, I learned what freezing rain is. One thing it isn’t, is snow. Snow can be annoying, at times. It’s difficult to walk in, trains, buses and cars are horribly delayed, you tread grit and sand everywhere, when you go indoors. It’s a pest. But, at the same time, it looks pretty and, as far as I know, never commits assault on your person. But this freezing rain stuff is an entirely different matter. Imagine, if you will miniscule shards of glass falling at speed at a 45 degree angle, and you’re pretty much there with freezing rain. It was like having a really annoying person breaking a window over your head FOR THE ENTIRE TIME YOU ARE OUTSIDE. Mercifully, this monstrosity disappeared after Monday and has yet to be seen since. Long may that remain the case.

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Bydgoszcz’s main city park, thoroughly snowified

After the horror of the freezing rain, I’m happy to be able to report on one really pleasurable effect of the cold snap. Yesterday, also while walking into work, there was something quite different in the air. Due to a brisk wind, a glorious burst of sunshine, and lots and lots of snow and ice all around the place, we had the wonderful experience of what appeared to be falling glitter. Tiny ice crystals were being blown about in all directions and, because of the low height of the sun above the horizon, each tiny one was lit up in a quite spectacular show. It was like being inside a (bloody freezing) snow globe. Here’s a short video clip. You can’t get the full effect, but maybe it’ll give you some idea.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZRTd-OKvxk