And so to ZW Part 3: Mystery over Chopin`s birth, Eurovision, a Purcellian mix up.

   

Frederick Chopin gave his birthday as the 1st March 1810. Indeed this was the day his family celebrated his birthday. Yet according to the parish record of the baptism, lost until 1892, he was born on 22nd February 1810.

 

Now, whether the local witch had deemed 22nd February and the subsequent week inauspicious dates for a birthday or whether a complicated family trust excluded beneficiaries born before 1st March or on even number days or something like that, frankly we shall never know. All we can be sure of is that on 23rd April in Brochow church Chopin was baptised for the second time. Yes, the second time.

 

Nothing is ever straightforward in Poland but the double baptism is easy to explain. Chopin was born sickly and was not expected to survive until a church baptism could be arranged. It is every Christian’s duty to ensure that no child leaves this life without the mark of the Cross, the mark of salvation, on its forehead. Thus, he was baptised by a member of his family shortly after he was born in a wing of the manor house at Zelawola Wola on 22nd of February 1810. That much is certain.

 

I have to admit that I myself have served the function of a self-appointed baby-baptiser though not, thankfully, because the newborn was dying. In London, I used to babysit for a friend of mine whose father was a clergyman. Perhaps as a reaction to her own upbringing, much of which had been lived in the precincts of Windsor Castle, it was her belief that her child should decide her faith for herself. Thus, there would be no baptism until she was old enough to take the decision. This troubled me.

 

One evening, on watch over the cot, I felt moved to do my Christian duty.

Naturally, with grandparents on both sides of the family practising Christians, I may not have been the first to have had the thought, nor to have done the deed. But, I did it.

 

When Lara was baptised by her grandfather the bishop eleven years later at the font of Kingston-upon-Thames Parish Church, a church where Anglo-Saxon kings had been crowned, I suspect he might have been on replay.  In fact, he would have been failing in his duty if he were not.

 

My most recent visit to Brochow church was on 22nd February of this year. The cold and the snow and the short black days were enough to turn the most cheerful dispositions into depressives. Frankly, I was not looking forward to the trip to Brochow.

 

Brochow is just off the western approaches to Warsaw and that afternoon the lorries were many and slow. The 45 kilometre journey, plus a wrong turning, took 2 hours. I was late and I was sure the church would be cold. However, my fears proved surprisingly groundless.

 

The church looked beautiful, decked with white lilies and carnations as if for a smart wedding. The television crew had already set up and a huge industrial fan was blowing hot air effectively into the church. The orchestra and choir places were ready and, together with the Steinway concert grand and the television booms, they took up half the church.

I had prepared the choir for a Haydn Te Deum and was going to sing the alto part in Come, ye Sons of Art  by Henry Purcell.

 

If there was any doubt about why we were performing Purcell in a celebration of Chopin`s birthday, this was dispelled by the television presenter who announced to the assembled audience of local bigwigs, most of whom who had never heard of Purcell anyway, and the live Eurovision audience, that Purcell was France’s leading Baroque composer. Chopin was half French, he died in France, he is partly buried in France, so French music was appropriate. Many of the orchestral musicians, seated in front of the cameras, were unable to stifle a snigger.

 

As an Englishman, I glowed with pride. Despite having at his disposal Corneille, Moliere, Rameau, Lully and Charpentier to mention but a few, here was proof that when the Sun King needed quality he had to turn to the English language, an English poet and that most English of composers, Henry Purcell (call him a Frenchman if you want, I thought). If only. Europe might have been spared the War of the Spanish Succession, if only.

 

But then, from where would that saviour of Europe of Churchillian provenance have come? I refer to Sir Winston Churchill, descendant of Sir John Churchill, Ist Duke of Marlborough, the greatest English general of the 18th century, humbler of the French, founder of the dynasty and uncle of Louis XIV`s great marshal, the Earl of Berwick, son of England’s King James II and Churchill’s sister Arabella. Marlborough’s descendant, Sir Winston, named after the Duke’s father, himself a Member of Parliament, I hope needs no introduction.

 

 

The concert in the church was not bad at all. However, someone rang from Germany to say that TVP, Polish state television which had broadcast the concert, had cut off the last ten seconds of the last work in the programme, the Chopin Concerto No 1, in order to begin the news on time. I ask you.

 

Of great interest for me was the audience. Apart from the men’s dowdy clothes, mainly very ill fitting business suits, probably only in use for weddings and funerals and civic occasions, their behaviour was entirely in keeping with Chopin`s time and before. Authentic. The real thing. They never stopped talking. The whole idea of participating in the concert, of adhering to modern concert etiquette was totally alien. They even missed out on the opportunities to applaud, which is most rare for a Polish audience, which usually relishes a bit of active participation. Were they to blame? Were they being disrespectful? Not at all. Why?

 

Well, to be blunt, they did not know any better. They have never been taught to listen. Most of these people were local government officials and their wives. (The women reminded me of WS Gilbert’s immortal lines from The Mikado: The lady from the provinces Who dresses like a guy, And who doesn’t think she dances But would rather like to try.)

Local government agencies do not usually attract the most educated. And what passes for education outside the big cities, or even inside them, is not what most of us would recognise as an education. The absence of cultural education is total in most rural areas. So, the question arises, how can we build a civil, creative, innovative society if there is no music and drama in schools? You tell me.

 

Sitting at the front of the audience was the most important man in the region. Don’t ask me to explain the many layers of local government in Poland, just accept my word that the Voiovod is it, the number one. We first met three years ago at the Debutantes Ball at the Royal Castle, thanks to Roza Thun, now a Euro-deputy.  (Yes, Warsaw has an annual Debs Ball.) I often see him at concerts and vocally he supported my picketing of the recent Beethoven Festival in Warsaw. I believe that we should build infrastructure before we have international music festivals of questionable quality that export Ministry of Culture money and don’t leave anything behind. However, this is a subject is for another place.

 

The Voiovod has a daughter who has just graduated as an opera director. She invited me to her final show, a staged performance of Purcell’s great Dido and Aeneas, in the Warsaw Drama Academy’s useful Baroque-like theatre.

 

Actually, she asked to meet me whilst the project was still in the planning. She told me that the British Council had been approached for funding. They were very interested. Really? I didn’t know there was a role for ethnic disc jockeys in Dido.  Why not, though? The action takes place in Carthage (North Africa.)

 

And, she added, the British Polish Chamber of Commerce was keen to get involved. I gave up being a member of the BPCC because the last thing that seemed to interest them was classical music. Good luck, I thought, though I would be miffed if she, as the daughter of a politico, got the help from them that I, as a member, was never able to do. In the end, neither organisation lifted a finger as I suspected they wouldn’t. Interest comes cheap here.

 

I offered my services with textural coaching but she let the offer drop because, apparently, as I learnt from her later, she was afraid I wanted to exploit her father’s influence. As far as I can tell, the Voiovod doesn’t have much influence being, as he is, above politics, a bit like the Queen but without the income. A pity, anyway. I genuinely wanted to help. However, people perceive the motives in others that they want to perceive.

 

I went to one of the many well attended performances and as soon as the singing began I regretted that she had not made use of my skills. The pronunciation and word colouring were poor, though, to be fair, most of the singers conveyed some understanding of the text. The acting was patchy.

 

Aeneas was vacuous. A man of empty gestures, a poseur, a small town politician, hardly the stuff of the Trojan hero nor anywhere near the man who would have roused the passions of the Queen of Carthage who, in this production, was very sexy.

 

The witches were brilliant, the high point of the show, a mezzo and two counter tenors, two Cerberus-like guards of Hades, whose agility, menace and dramatic ability were memorable.

 

The most depressing moment of the evening was the sailors` chorus. The solo sailor, who obviously did not have the slightest idea what he was singing about, exhorts his fellows to weigh their anchors, leave their woman and get back to the ship. His body language, with his arms flopping by his sides, was in limp contrast to how I imagined the rest of the crews` members.

 

The great thing about this production, with all its short comings, was that the audience loved it, proving that Baroque opera has an appeal for a modern audience, a universal appeal. Sadly, this production was a great deal better than they could have hoped to see at Warsaw’s famed Opera Kameralna, not that most of the people in that audience were old enough to get in. Hardly a grey hair to be seen.

 

The Warsaw Chamber Opera is one of the jewels of Polish theatre or, at least, it would be if it were properly managed. It is a 120 seater opera theatre with a full compliment of singers and orchestral players. In 2001 they celebrated the four hundreth anniversary of opera with over 60 productions of mainly Baroque and classical operas. Mad yet magnificent.

 

However, as you can imagine, the standard of performance is so variable that I have long given up going there. Admittedly, tickets are hard to get because there seems to be a loyal, if aging audience that attends everything, night after night. In a way, the Kameralna is to Warsaw’s “cultural” elite what the bingo clubs used to be to England’s working classes. Somewhere to go and be known and pass the time of day. And how much more preferable opera is to bingo. But what will happen when the audience finally dies? Perhaps the standards will rise.

 

The concert at Brochow over, we were all invited to the local school where I had some of the best cheese cake I have ever tasted. The house where Chopin was born at Zelawola Wola was just a few minutes ride away.

And so to ZW Part 2: Brochow, the Rolls and an artist destroys his own work.

   

One morning last autumn M rang me up.

 

” Feel like a ride in the Rolls? Make a day of it and have a picnic at Brochow?”

 

I looked out of the window. Overcast, possibly rain.

 

“Love to. Thanks.”

 

 

I have learnt so much from M about liking cars. My childhood was wrecked by having cars in the family. The rows my mother and stepfather had about her spending on me and his spending on cars made me hate these competitors to an extent that I have remained immune from cars all my adult life. The big Aston, the little Aston, the Mercedes 300, the Daimler with the C Type engine, the Jensen, the Lancia and all the others, few of which managed to get you from a to b without some drama. Mind you, it was his money.

 

M relishes the craftsmanship, the style, the theatre of setting out in his elderly Rolls and, I must admit, I love it and love him for it.

 

When I was a child the whole idea of going for a “run” in the car was quite normal. In those days, cars had to be used or they would seize up (though ours seemed to seize up anyway.) So with the Rolls. Like a horse in a loose box, it needs to get its exercise to remain in form. This, in a sense, justifies going out nowhere in it. Of course, I don’t know what the Rolls does per litre, and I shudder to think what its carbon foot print is, but it has to be used. So there!

 

The church at Brochow is immortalised in Polish history. For one thing, it is where Chopin was baptised. For another, it is where his parents got married in 1806. (Wrong order. Sorry. Habit. My mother was baptised before her parents were married!).

 

However, unlike so many Polish monuments carbuncled with deliberately inappropriate or thoughtless modern building or renovation, it is utterly unspoilt.  A medieval foundation, most of the fortified red brick church dates from the 16th and 17th centuries. It stands on a small hill, a lake at its feet, slender silver birch and the weeping willow, characteristic of the region, drinking at the rim. Actually, I suppose the willows should be replenishing the lake with their tears, more in keeping with the thinking around here.  But anyway, a timeless spot.

 

To make the most of the comforting beauty of the view, M swerved right at the church and hurled the Rolls down the hill towards the lake.

 

“Won’t we get stuck?”

 

Sometimes he really surprises me. He is the sort of chap who will attack the slightest blemish on the paintwork with the ever-to-hand chamois leather and a large dose of elbow grease. Then, see a muddy track across a rain drenched field and he goes for it like a dog to water, carefree, relishing the thrill, wagging his mental tail for the joy of it as his foot  presses the throttle.

 

We parked the other side of the lake so we could look up and absorb the full beauty of the golden hue of the church against the white sky. On with our coats and hats, out with the RR blankets, the hamper, wine and deckchairs.

 

Actually, now that Christmas is approaching, I know what I should buy M.  Deckchairs. His are the one weak link in an otherwise perfect ensemble. He bought them at a local supermarket. They look the part but when you sit on them the thin plastic arms have a random habit of bending upwards. They are not strong enough for the weight of the sitter. Once the arms decide to bend, then the rest of the chair gets the message that its time to go home, folds in on itself and you, the sitter, go over backwards.

 

So enthroned, claret in one hand, caviar on a crisp bread in the other, the youth who passed us twice quizzically wondering what these two middle aged gentlemen were up to under the rain laden clouds in the middle of a damp field, had no idea how precarious our situation was. You get no warning from the chair. It simply says to itself, “Now” and you have to get up quickly. Michael, being much lighter than me, suffers less from these idiosyncrasies. They tolerate his weight much more willingly. Impishly, I suspect he rather enjoys the discomfort of his guests.

 

I first went to Brochow with a painter friend of mine, a delightful and passionate Pole whom I met in London in the 1990s through a mutual friend. Soon after I moved to Warsaw we met by chance on a bus in Nowy Swiat, near to the Academy where he taught. Coincidentally, we lived in neighbouring streets.

 

One night he invited me to his flat. Like most painters he was impecunious and his flat was full of unsold masters. Not modest about his work nor needing to be, he began to take me through his repertoire. One painting, a series of nine skyscapes, nine canvasses in one frame, really appealed to me.

 

“Will you sell it?”

 

“It’s awful.”  He thought a bit.  “How much?”

 

I had no idea. I asked him to suggest a figure which he did. I agreed. But then he said,

 

“That’s too much. If you like, you can borrow it. Then, if you like it you can buy it.”

 

Very reasonable, I thought even though I was quite ready to buy it then and there. I am sure he needed the money.

 

I hung the big square frame in the most visible place in my flat. It looked splendid and the Swiss Ambassador, a great connoisseur of modern painting, admired it.

 

A few months later, I invited Janusz for lunch to celebrate his birthday. We drank at my flat, went out for lunch, came home, drank again. I noticed that Janusz had become moody.

 

“Why did you take that picture?” he asked in a menacing tone.

 

“You said I could”.

 

Grabbing me by the throat,” You forced me to give it to you, you bastard.”

 

“I don’t think I did. Take it if you want it.”

 

He let go, laughed and put his arm around my shoulder. He poured more wine for both of us.

 

How odd, because there was real anger. Could he have interpreted my interest as droit de signeur which he could not refuse? Poland was for so long subjugated to the whims of foreign powers that maybe even in 2000 the western masters had merely substituted the eastern tyrants. Certainly, a Polish friend of mine was outraged when he saw my name at the top of the programme when I sang Rinaldo at the Opera Kameralna in 2001.

 

“Typical Polish subservience. Why do they always put the foreigners first?”

 

“Because the cast list is in order of appearance and I open the opera!”

 

“Oh! So we are learning.”

 

“I think its normal practise”.

 

Janusz continued to brood, glowering at the picture, muttering to himself. Suddenly, he leapt to his feet, grabbed the picture from the wall, rushed onto the balcony and hurled it the two stories to the pavement below. It was raining heavily.

 

“Are you mad?” I shouted.

 

I made for the door.

 

“Leave it, you bastard!”

 

“Fuck off”

 

I ran to the pavement. The frame had absorbed the shock and the picture, though wet, was undamaged. Still wet, I put it back in its place on the wall. Provocation? Yes, but I was quite enjoying the drama. A trial of wills. I wanted to see how it would end.

 

More drinking, more glowering. I listed the people who had admired the painting.

 

“Idiots”

 

I could see the thought forming in Janusz`s mind but what could I do? Anyway, I didn’t know how passionate he might become if I tried to intervene. He might really strangle me. The picture went out of the window.

We both ran down stairs. Me to retrieve it, Janusz to destroy it. He had the greater motivation, pushed me away and beat me to it.

 

He stuffed it into a concrete bin on the street, smashing the frame and using unrepeatable language. I wondered where he had picked it up.

 

He warned me not to touch the painting but to leave it where it was if I wanted to remain in one piece. I waited till he had ranted his way out of sight on his rickety bicycle. Despite the violence the canvasses were remarkably undamaged.

 

Early the following morning the bell rang. Janusz. Charming.

 

 “I want my picture. Have you seen it? Where is it?”

 

Perhaps he came back for it himself in the night and assumed I had it. Perhaps he didn’t. Anyway, I gave it to him hoping he would let me keep it.

 

“Excellent. I was thinking. It’s very good. I’ll have it for my exhibition. What shall I ask, 18.000 pln?  What do you think? Much more than you offered, anyway”.

 

“I don’t think I actually offered anything, did I?”

 

He took it home and replaced it in his pile of unsold paintings where it remains.

 

—————————————-

 

One day he called me saying he had a brilliant idea.

 

“You have a car?”

 

“You know I do.”

 

“Very good. Is it working? ”

 

“It was last time I used it and, being Japanese, it usually does.”

 

“Good. We must go to Chopin`s house.”

 

“Why?” expecting a concert or something.

 

“I think it would be a very good idea. Have you been there?”

 

“No”.

 

“There”.

 

I agreed. We went. And what I remember 10 years on is a warm summer’s day and the peaceful, red bricked church at Brochow, sitting on its hill above the lake, bathed in blue light, undisturbed by time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so to Zelawola Wola: Part 1. The Polish woman who inspired James Bond.

My mother was never very charitable when she heard about other women having babies out of wedlock.

 

“What about you?” I’d ask.

 

Bewildered and angered by my lack of understanding, she would say

“That was different!”

 

Right.

 

Why in her mind it was different was a secret she took to the grave. But the denial, the suppressed guilt, may be why she died so badly two years ago. After a month in hospital with a broken leg I had to make the decision to stop medication. The doctors assured me that if she recovered physically she would never recover mentally. The morphine had cooked her brain.  She was somewhere else.

“She is out of it. Dead to the world.”  

But they were wrong.

 

She was still aware enough to understand why  the Anglican chaplain, the harbinger of death, was standing by her bed, to grab her arm with an iron grip and scream “”Help me, help me, help me, help me””, until she sank, not weakened but distraught and hopeless and angry with the awful realisation, back onto her bed of death. The priest, shocked and hurt, had never seen nor felt anything of such primeval force. The Last Rights should calm the soul, ease the transition not enrage and torment. The torment is yet to come.

 

At her inquest, the doctors could not explain this sudden surge of awareness and strength. Writing now I suspect that it may have been something to do with the unanswered question, the suppressed guilt that festered unresolved. The horrible fear of impending judgement for something she did with another woman’s husband:  unbeknown to both women, a man who had already proved that he had a loose sense of morality when it came to fidelity.

 

But I would not judge her any more than I would judge him. I who have never lived through war. War changes people. It changed her. It changed my Polish father. In five short years their worlds became places of no return. I hope God shares my thinking.

 

During the short time my mother was with my father and he was away from his wife and son, a murder occurred in London which was both news catching and of vital interest to me though still unconceived.

 

 In June 1952, Countess Krystina Skarbek was murdered in a South Kensington hotel. Krystina Skarbek was the second most decorated woman of the War and probably the model for Ian Fleming’s female protagonists in Casino Royale and From Russia with Love. Her stabbing in the hall of the cheap hotel was tragic and squalid.  Her murderer was a deranged seaman who had been stalking her for since the War. Earlier, on the morning of her death, she had gone to Croydon Airport, London’s main airport, with the intention of flying to the Continent and leaving England for good. There was fog and the plane could not fly. Thus, unwisely and inconveniently, she returned to South Kensington and to death. The man was waiting for her in the hall. He hanged. My father told my mother that she was a cousin.

 

When I was small my mother remembered the stories my father told her about his childhood in Lwow and Gdynia and his time in the AK, the underground army during the war. She often sat on my bed and told them to me confidentially and passionately as if she was giving me a gift. Indeed, she was, though perhaps she was telling me more for herself, from a sense of inferiority and a need to gain my respect than for my benefit alone. She was creating a heroic, romantic figure: her lover, my father, Poland. Whatever the reason, she was giving me my roots, an awareness of which made it very difficult for me to feel entirely English. I doubt whether she had really considered the consequences since she would never have thought of her son being anything but English. Nor am I very sure she even knew where Poland was. But she opened a door for me to Poland.

 

When I was in my early teens a book was published about Countess Skarbek.

 

 “Yes that’s the woman”, my mother confirmed.

 

So if she was my father’s cousin, my name might be Skarbek?

My mother could not remember my father’s Polish name. She said it was very long and began with an S. Well, Skarbek began with an s but it is not very long. As it happens, it was neither. It was Bylicki, which is short, quite difficult to pronounce properly but remarkably like Berkeley. Berkeley/Bylicki. Drop an i for an e and a c for an r and you have it.

 

My father changed his name for a number of reasons though mostly a desire to integrate in England, fear of being traced by the avenging post war Polish communists and a pathological hatred of Poland. Actually, name changing became a bit of a habit. He changed his name three times in all: twice during the war and once in England. But it never began with an s.

 

He also changed his provenance. My half brother, who grew up with him, understood that he was of Russian descent. So Russian did my half brother feel thawrote and played a one man show about Tolstoy.

 

Polish? No, we are Russian.

No, we are Polish.

O God!

 

When you are in middle age, to be told you are not something you have always thought you were is a bit of a shock. I imagine it’s rather like discovering you are not of Christian origin but Jewish, when you may, even,  have been brought up to feel anti Semitic.

 

 My mother got the same story about the Russian bit and told me that whilst my father was mainly Polish, there was some Russian blood. Thus, I invented a life for my great grand parents at the Russian court and even told my music teacher that my family had known Tchaikovsky. As it happens, my great grandfather probably did since he was a noted critic and musician in the Russian Empire. But we are not Russian. On the other hand, my great grand mother may have been German. Her maiden name was von Tannenhof Nurnberg or something, which seems pretty convincing, though according to my Polish cousins, she was not German, but Polish, as Polish as Chopin, who was half-French. German? Imagine. Is there nothing in a name? Clearly, not if you are Polish and it is German.

 

Older Poles, and perhaps not only them, have a problem with the Germans. A friend told me that whilst her father, a noted historian, would always welcome a Russian to his home, never a German. The Germans knew better. They had been touched by the hand of civilisation which they had spurned and betrayed. The Russians had no chance. They were wickedly kept ignorant and uneducated. Many of the soldiers who invaded Poland with the Red Army had never even seen a tap. So how could they be blamed?

 

Marcel Reich Ranicki, in his autobiography, “The Author about Himself”, answers a question that has always perplexed me. Why did the Jews stay in Berlin when every day their world was shrinking around them? Why didn’t they get out if they could? Because it was Germany!

Ranicki`s family moved from Wloclawek to Berlin in the 1920s. He describes being at school when the Nazi rules were introduced. Few children took them seriously. Being children they saw the absurdity of it all. They laughed at teachers trying to make them Heil Hitler! So did their parents. Yet, he describes eloquently how the absurdity slowly became the reality.  How criminality replaced morality. How members of his own family had their property requisitioned and redistributed. How their world, like water in an emptying sink, disappeared down the drain.

But it was Germany. These things did not happen in Germany. But they did.

 

Following the publication of the Skarbek book, I dug a bit into the Skarbek history and quickly discovered that the Skarbeks and the Chopins we inextricably linked. So, I was related to Chopin too!

 

The record club I belonged to had loads of Chopin recordings on offer.  I bought what I could. Though from Boots the Chemist, which used to have book lending libraries and record stands (a time when mental and physical health were treated together), outstanding in my memory from that period is the wonderful, but now long and  inexplicably  deleted recording of the Preludes by the playboy French pianist Samson Francois. From the club I bought the famous Marta Agerich/Claudio Abbado recording of the first concerto which I can still remember playing for the first time and playing over and over again.

 

From the maps I got to know the Warsaw countryside and from the Polish tourist office I obtained information about Zelawola Wola. Zelawola Wola, the Skarbek estate where Chopin was born.

 

And so to Zelawola Wola

A Ride in the Lazienki Park: Part 11

The Marriott Bar, the lost Jews, What I said to the Mayor, What the Press wrote.

A small crowd gathered, wine was offered, the Mayor arrived and Alex Kloszewski, president and founder of the Warsaw Destinations Alliance, made the opening speech. He mentioned that though we were now friends, I had been highly critical of the WDA/BBC World’s first attempt to advertise Warsaw. Men on Harley Davidsons and clinically clean streets is all I remember about it.  I thought it was a wasted opportunity and, as a member of the WDA, I made my views known. Warsaw is unique amongst the western capitals, yet, in their attempt to attract the corporate world they made it seem like any other middle European town. They hid its warts, they ignored its history. They made it safe, sanitised and standard. This is hardly fair to the city, though unsurprising. The WDA is mainly funded by the hotels, most of which are foreign owned even when part of a Polish brand: the hotels have big conference rooms, restaurants and lots of look alike rooms which they need to fill. When you are in them, you could be anywhere. In Warsaw there is little other choice.

 

BBC World itself did a programme on the effects of global corporate travel on cities. What they concluded was that whilst without doubt more money comes into the cities, it falls into relatively few tills, mainly those of the corporate hotels, restaurants and shops. Yes, they pay local taxes and employ staff, but the profit goes to the shareholders abroad.  That is capitalism and, on the face of it, not unreasonable. But there are very negative side effects. One consequence is to push up prices in the vicinity of the big hotels thus excluding locals on local incomes. Another is to drive out local traders. The local traders are replaced by corporate traders and, as a result, the streets become standardised. Certainly, Nowy Swiat, Warsaw’s main street, has all the food and beverage brand names associated with any shopping centre anywhere in the world, but without any of the local colour you would expect to find in a great capital city. Not that there was much colour in Warsaw before the corporates arrived. This lack of colour is, without doubt, a result of the War.

 

Between the 1860s and World War II Warsaw was a multi ethnic city, by and large living happily with itself, vibrant and rich. It was 40% Jewish and the Jews were involved in all aspects of society, from the Arts and professions to trade. Many were shopkeepers and restaurateurs. After the war, this colourful society had gone. As a leader of the Jewish community said to me recently,

“The Jews added the spice. Now the spice is in short supply”.

 

Through his work this remarkable man is trying to raise the stock.

 

During the war, thousands of young Jewish soon to be orphaned children were sheltered by Christians who, at great risk to themselves, claimed them as their own and gave them a chance to live. These children were brought up as Christians, quite unaware of their origins. Yes, they were very lucky to be alive. And yes, they owed their adoptive parents a great debt of gratitude. Yet, roots matter. And however hard families try to hide it, the truth will out. There are so many stories of people, of these lost Jews, who even quite late in life, discover the truth and are drawn irresistibly to the faith of their ancestors. This man and his organisation ease their journey.

 

 Tourism is a question of balance. It would be mad not to encourage the corporate world which, on the whole, is preferable to the cheap-beer-brigade: the bum-baring British louts who, like their Viking ancestors, pillage, ransack and rape where ever they turn up. Cracow, Poland’s one true candidate as City of Culture, is a marked victim of the airlines that operate the long boats and cattle wagons of the skies. As a result of the airlines` policies and bad local government, central Cracow has become extortionately expensive and, on Saturday nights, it is not a place for the God fearing and delicate. Warsaw has its fair share, though being much bigger, is more able to absorb it. High landing fees at Warsaw airport also act as a barrier, a manmade barrier that actually keeps the invader at bay.

 

There are alternatives to the corporates and bums. The over 50s with disposable income are attracted by history, nature and the almost lost advantage of lower prices. The slower pace, the more authentic life has great appeal. More should be done to encourage them.

 

The civilised young like Warsaw too.

 

Three years ago my godson, Tom Verney, bought his choir, the Tiffin School Choir from Kingston upon Thames, to Poland. Warsaw was their first stop and they were determined to have a good time. They saw much of what is recommended in the guide books. After a day of visits, one senior girl said to me,

 

” You can really feel something happened here, cant you? You can feel the blood in the stones”.

And she is right. I was moved that she was moved.

 

The choir gave four concerts in Warsaw. On the Sunday morning, a sung Communion service in the Anglican Church in Krakowskie Przedmiescie. Well, it’s not quite true to claim that the Res Miser is the Anglican Church but is where Cardinal Glemp gave the Anglicans permission to hold weekly services. There were more singers than people in the congregation. What delighted me most was to hear the English organist improvise over the hymn tunes. This is something that it is almost impossible to get a Polish organist to do, simply because they don’t learn to improvise. This is as bad as a jazz pianist being unable to do anything other than play from the notes. Of course, examiners find it much easier to penalise for wrong notes than to praise and give points for imaginative playing.

 

The second concert was in the garden of the British Residence. Charles and Helen Crawford put up a stand in the middle of the lawn and invited the local big wigs for tea. The sun shone, the children sang and played and an unmarried ambassador asked me who the tall, handsome, confident 17 year old singer and trumpeter was. My godson, I admitted with pride.

 

That evening all 55 children took over the jazz club in the Palace of Culture, got out their instruments and had a jam session till 1am. I wish some Polish music educators had been there to see what ordinary non “music school” children can do. We invited them but… none came. Indifference, I suspect. They would have been as amazed as I was.

 

At the BBC launch, Alex Kloszewski was not the only person to speak. The lady for the promotions office who had commissioned the campaign said here piece. Then the lady from the BBC spoke. The Mayor spoke and then I was invited to say something. I declared what a privileged it was to live in Warsaw. I admitted how proud I was to have long roots here through my great great grandfather who was city architect. I lamented that the Majewski Baths, his only surviving building, was in such a condition of neglect. I protested that the police were both unwilling and unable to stop whoever it is who is slashing my tyres. I warned that we need to keep British beer-bums off the streets and out of sight and remonstrated why we, the tax-payers, should have to foot the bill to clear up after them.  I suggested that music was important not only in the concert hall to attract tourism but to develop a civil society, which would be far more attractive in the long run than mere cosmetics. I thanked the Mayor for giving me her time only a few weeks previously to put my case for more investment in music education. I appreciated her help.  I urged us all to support the mayor in her task of transforming the city.

 

After this bravura speech, there was not much applause mainly, as someone said, because few people spoke English. However, all the speeches were in English. Maybe I just tried to say too much.

 

Anyway, everyone liked the film. I had my photo taken with the mayor. I asked her whether she could unblock the bureaucratic jam her help had got us into. Pawel explained the details. She thought she could not. Procedure. Proceedure is the usual excuse for inaction.  

However, something did happen, though possibly unrelated.  Three months later we lost our city subsidy. The reason? The director of the Culture Department was and remains unavailable for comment.

 

As for the BBC commercial. It caused a stir. The next day the papers were full of outrage. Why had I sat on the grass in the park? Sitting on the grass is prohibited. Worse still. Who had allowed me to ride my bike in the park? The park authorities were apoplectic. A dangerous precedent which must be suppressed.  The promotions office pointed the finger of blame. Not much chance of negotiating a fee then?

 

 The director of promotions had promised to make me famous. Why should I care if I am famous in Asia when its here that I want to be known? A bit of fame at home would have been very helpful for our work. Now, no such luck.

 

Thus, though world has seen me on my bike in the park, in Poland this subversive film has been suppressed, suppressed in case any one else dares to take a ride in the Lazienki Park. I suppose they are right. But don’t blame me. Blame the others. They got paid.

A Ride in the Lazienki Park: Part 10

Concerning my car tyres, my neighbours, the Marriott Hotel and Poland’s great victory

 

The week before the showing of the finished BBC World commercial, my car tyres were slashed for the second time in 5 weeks. But,  instead of two, all 4 of them were irrepairably damaged.

 

I live in a quiet, residential street of mainly pre-war buildings in Mokotow, possibly the St. John’s Wood of Warsaw. My flat is one of four on the top floor of a four story block, the rear block, divided into two stair wells. We are separated from the road by another identical block with a large and pleasant courtyard in between the two buildings. Five of the eight families on my staircase are council tenants with a controlled rent. The rest of us own our flats which were privatised. The common parts and the attic still belong to the pre-War owners who, quite possibly, could get them back if they went to court. However, they would not have a chance of getting the flats. Not fair? No, but that’s the way it is.

 

My neighbours are civilised. A retired widow and a widower; a young family with a daughter, a Labrador and a macaw that screams incessantly when left alone;

Two families of four adults. In one, the father is a security guard, the eldest daughter a student at the nearby Warsaw Business School, the younger a nurse who, judging by her friendliness, is, I am sure, a very good nurse. The other family of four has two late- teened children and an Alsatian. The mother is loud voiced and flushed.  Perhaps, like my mother, she is fighting the symptoms of the menopause with gin and tonic.

 

Another flat contains a widowed father and adult son who doesn’t seem to have a job but spends his time struggling with the rust on his elderly white Fiat Panda.  With a brush and a pot of paint he wages a constant battle against the elements, not unlike the painters who maintain the San Francisco suspension bridge. A skirmish by comparison, I agree but, nonetheless, a full time challenge. Despite its gleaming exterior, the car rarely moves from its parking spot mostly because some part of it is in the cellar being renovated or replaced. The smell of welding, of paints, the smells associated with a garage often waft up the stairs, penetrate my front door and fill my flat. Hard to live with, I know, but how else is he going to spend his days?

 

Finally, there is a middle-aged working widow, always willing to pass the time of day, who has taken it upon herself to continue the garden that I began, which is as I intended someone should.

 

The flats have two rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and a balcony all in a space of 52 sq metres. For me, as a single person, or even for a couple, the space is fine. But as a space in which to bring up children, especially with large dogs, which three of the eight families have, it must be very difficult, almost unbearable in the winter when it’s too cold to open the windows. Communism allowed a living space of 7sq metres per adult. I am very lucky.

 

Though not a problem in my block, alcoholism is a major problem with my neighbours opposite, where there are two or three men who are constantly sozzled. A father of two is often at the gate doing battle with the electric lock code, his face covered with blood where he has fallen and cut himself. Once I found him lying in the middle of the road close to the bend. Not a good place to be napping.

Another time I saw him run to the rescue of a drinking partner who was having a sever fit of the DTs.  With remarkable speed, he got to the shop and returned with a bottle of vodka which his friend downed in one. Although my step father was alcoholic, I had never seen DTs before. It is quite shocking.

An ambulance soon arrived. I anticipated a one way trip. But, a few months later he reappeared on the street, resurrected and sober.  Since then I have not seen him drunk once. I dread to think what happened to him in the primitive public health service, but clearly something did, something that put the fear of God into him, something that perhaps we could learn from in Britain now that everyone under 25 seems to be drunk.

 

Did one of my neighbours slash my tyres in spite, jealousy or for a simple prank? They may have stolen three of my cycles to buy vodka but I don’t think they did my tyres. More likely, according to the neighbours, though unproven, is a man who lives at the bottom of the street. Elderly, brooding, he watches his parking space like a hawk. He has claimed it from a time before many other people had cars, before new, richer residents arrived, before the students of the prestigious Warsaw Business School had rich daddies who could buy them big German cars to show off in and park on his spot. He does not like other people using his space. But he doesn’t slash the tyres when the offender is parked there. He waits. He remembers the car. Then, at night, when it is parked somewhere else, he takes his revenge. Luckily for the students, they don’t park here at night when Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde.

 

No, it’s not just me he has in his sights. But he has punished me more than the other trespassers.  And it is not just me who has complained to the police. But, as the officers ask, where is the evidence? Isn’t that their job?

 

Foreigners who register a car in Poland have a Y at the end of their car registration number plate. Why, I don’t know. It is a sort of apartheid practised by the Polish government which has, I believe, more outstanding claims against it in the European Court for breaches of legislation than any other country. Perhaps, as a foreigner, the slasher, who ever he is, thinks I am easy prey. He is right. Without doubt, there seems to be little I can do.

 

I thought of putting up posters offering a reward for information leading to an arrest. But in this climate, that might only lead to even more suspicion and mistrust. I can even imagine people taking the blame in order to get a share of the money. So, better not.

 

Why am I telling you all this? Simply because the night following the slashing we had the grand launch of the BBC World TV commercials promoting Warsaw as a City of Culture.  All the big wigs from the city were coming, including the mayor. If her police would not do anything about my tyre problem, perhaps she would, if I asked her publically, especially since I was now representing Warsaw, a city of culture, worldwide.

 

The launch was to take place on the 40th floor of the prestigious Marriott Hotel. The Marriott Hotel was the first international hotel to be built in post War, post Communist Warsaw. It paid for itself in three years thanks to the influx of Westerners bringing investment to Poland and the shortage of hotel rooms for them. A dowdy, ugly sky scraper, it stands as a sad testimony to the worst the west has given to Poland: thoughtless capitalism and speculative building. Although it has been surpassed in ugliness, it serves as a constant reminder of our darker side.

 

The bar on the 40th floor is not large but, as you can imagine, it has splendid views of the city and beyond. The western bank of the river is higher than the eastern but from this height everything looks completely flat. Flat to the east, flat to the west. Flat to the north, flat to the south.  It is hardly surprising invaders have come so often. There is nothing to stop them except diplomacy and brute force, neither of which the Poles excel in.

 

Given the flatness of the country it is quite remarkable to think that one of Poland’s greatest military victories involved mountains. In 1692 the Turks besieged Vienna with a force of some 300.000 men. The city looked lost. The Emperor was on the verge of surrender. The Turks believed that their position was unassailable. They had command of the plains and no attack could possibly come from the mountains. So, enjoying the carefree life of the confident besieger with wine, women, song and boys, they were content to wile the time away until the city was starved into submission.

 

However, a small surprise was in store for them. King Jan Sobieski, for reasons better know to himself, decided to relieve Vienna. Now, there is a case to be argued that if he had not decided to do so, Austria would have been decimated, the rise of the German peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries would have been postponed and most Continental history rewritten, possibly for the better. But this is purely speculation. The Turks might have done even more harm than the Germans.

 

As it was, Jan Sobieski undertook the super human feat of taking his army and his heavy ordinance over the mountains, down onto the plain and, with his ferocious cavalry, famous throughout Europe, and his great guns, he blew the unready Turks from their lavish tents to the four winds.

 

Did the cringing Emperor invite him in for a cup of tea and a Viennese cake? Not a bit of it. Not one word of thanks. Even today in Vienna, there is only one little statue commemorating the saviour of the Holy Roman Empire, the Polish king.

 

King Jan himself was made of much nobler stuff. Despite the enormous hardships of warfare and kingship, he never once forgot to write his daily letter home to his beloved wife. A lesson for all of us.

 

Tomorrow, what I said to the big wigs of Warsaw.

 

 

A Ride in the Lazienki Part: Part 9

Shooting in the Old Town finished at about four. This gave me time for a rest because the crew needed a couple of hours to do some other filming.    We agreed to meet at 7 at the Lowicka Culture Centre in the district of Mokotow, conveniently close to where I live, and where the orchestra was rehearsing. Recently renovated, from the outside the building looks modern, almost trendy. But in the basement the lavatories tell a different tale. Mutton dressed as lamb. This is not unusual in newly renovated buildings in Poland.

 

 We hold our monthly orchestral family concerts in the Centre. These are great fun not only for the children but also for the parents and grandparents when they choose to get involved, which most do. We sing, dance, clap, make animal noises, learn about the instruments of the orchestra, hear them play and even, if very lucky, at the end have a chance to conduct the orchestra ourselves. I must say that some of the 4 to 8 year olds are much better conductors than many professional conductors I can think of. Not only do the little ones have a clear beat but they are rhythmic and seem to really connect with music. And there are no shows of temperament. What more could you want in a conductor?

 

As far as I am concerned, far too many conductors pirouette around in front of the orchestra and never feel the music or connect with the musicians. They are far more concerned with image and the sound they hear in their heads than the reality of the performance that is going on under their baton.  Of course, sometimes you can’t blame them for not wanting to share in what the audience is suffering.

 

As I said, not all the parents at our family concerts manage to get involved as much as they should. Some find it very hard to sit quietly and listen. They just can’t stop talking or texting.

 

 At last Sunday’s concert one youngish father even couldn’t be weaned off his newspaper. Fine, I appreciate as much anyone the delights of reading the weekend papers on a Sunday morning. But he came with his children to listen and, surprisingly, people have to learn to listen. It takes effort. Clearly, he had neither the will nor the ability to do either. He was somewhere else and he was making a statement about it.

 

There are two types of listening: active and passive. The man with the paper was decidedly passive, sitting there in the middle of the audience with his paper spread out across his knees, giving the finger up to everyone who was trying to do some work. Active listening involves being present, making the effort to concentrate and allowing the imagination to engage.

 

If this newspapered father has set a fashion and more parents come with papers thinking we are going to tolerate this sort of behaviour, we shall have to come down hard. Texting is bad enough. Why expect the children to listen and participate if you yourself are so obviously unwilling?

 

Listening is an essential skill for almost every aspect of the human condition except, I suppose, when we are dead. Though I may be wrong about that. Oscar Wilde`s extremely scary but delightful  Canterville Ghost did a lot of listening once his spirit had been broken by the relentlessly modern, materialistic and American Otis family, who simply refused to admit that he existed, even though they knew he did.

 

Earlier today, a coach at my gym was telling me that many children don’t even know how to run. They are great on computers: their fingers move faster than a centipede’s legs, but when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other at anything faster than a snail’s pace, they either give up or fall flat on their faces. Their culture has simply rendered redundant the need to run.

 

Yet, very small children will run spontaneously if stimulated, in the same way that they will move, sing and story tell when they hear music. Compare the inability to run and the loss of listening skills and it tells you something about the future of the nation.

 

Once the camera track and lighting had been set up, we were ready to role. The only problem was that I had not told Pawel that the BBC wanted me and not him to do the conducting. I rehearse the choir and I am chairman of the orchestra but as for conducting it, I have never done it.  Pawel has built up the orchestra and it’s his baby.

 

I was not afraid of conducting; in fact, I was rather excited about it, as anyone would be. I was simply too scared to ask Pawel if I could, which is pathetic, I know. But it’s a bit like asking a good friend if you can borrow his wife for an evening.

 

I began negotiating with the director to see how we could get around the problem. Not unreasonably, his first suggestion was that I should do the conducting.

 

“I have to see you conducting, it’s vital to establishing your character. So why don’t you do it. You’re chairman, aren’t you?”

 

“Absolutely. But it is a sensitive question. A question of egos. Conductors can be very difficult. I don’t think he’d like it.”

 

The director’s next suggestion was that Pawel could wear my jacket and trousers and pretend to be me. It could work if he shot from behind, even though Pawel is a little shorter than I am. However, I didn’t think that Pawel would want to wear my trousers, especially since I’d been filming in them all day and they were slightly soggy. The sun had done its best for us this early September shoot, lots of sun and warmth and I had been jumping off and on a bicycle all day.

 

His next suggestion was that I should ask Pawel if I could conduct which, on the face of it, seemed the obvious solution. So I did. He couldn’t have been nicer and even offered to lend me his baton.

 

Now, to the lay man lending someone a bit of stick to wave around in the air in front of an orchestra may not seem like a big deal. And it is not something you can understand unless you have been shopping for batons with a conductor.

 

I went with Pawel to a little Dickensian shop in London, terribly famous for batons and just off Upper Regents Street. I can’t remember the name though it’s a delightful place. Full of fiddles hanging from the ceiling and a large self standing case devoted to batons.

 

Choosing wasn’t easy. Lots of getting them in and out of the long tubes they are kept in for safety.

 

If you’ve ever seen Anton Walbrook in Michael Powell’s 1948 masterpiece “The Red Shoes” you will remember how tempting  it is to snap a baton in half, especially if you are playing the role of a highly jealous, temperamental Continental conductor who, when he cant get his own way, does just that,  hurls it to the floor and stomps out.  Very tempting.

 

Together with the shop assistant, I watched Pawel for some time waving batons around, feeling the air resistance, flexibility, weight, balance, like a fencer testing a rapier. Putting one aside and then another, putting one back and taking the other. I apologised to the assistant,

 

“Polish, you know.”

“Perfectly normal, sir. It’s a difficult choice.”

I nodded. I didn’t want to show my ignorance any further by asking why.

 

Eventually, he settled on one from India or it may have been China, anyway, no where local, which I thought was a pity.

 

“Why come to London to buy an Indian baton? Can’t you just get it off the internet?”

“You have to feel it, the smoothness, the length, the wood. It changes the sound.”

“Ah!”

 

With Pawel`s baton in my hand I mounted the podium, gave the up beat and we were off. It wasn’t a piece of music I knew and I found myself responding to it rather than leading it, which is to be expected if you don’t have the score in front of you.

 

Whatever the reason, Pawel kept shouting,”You`re behind the beat” which didn’t matter at all since we were not recording the sound but it didn’t stop him shouting. I think he likes to be bossy. Conductors can be like that.

 

We only needed a couple of takes and then we were done. I thanked the orchestra telling them that they had done their bit to promote Warsaw as a city of culture. They looked duly proud. The rushes looked really exciting.

 

Whilst the camera man was taking some footage of the orchestra rehearsing, the director asked me to come with him to van to record the BBC script. No expensive sound studio, just him with a mike in the back of the van.

 

“I’ve got plenty but I’d better have it in case they insist.”

 

And, as it turned out, it seems that they did.

 

 

A Ride in the Lazienki Park: Part 8

For the last two days I have been delivering invitations in hand-written envelopes to most of the ambassadors in Warsaw. No, I am not an embassy groupie but every so often we hold an event called Taste of the Classics. It’s aimed at getting people of influence involved in classical music through food and drink and high quality musical interludes so that, eventually, I can go to them and get them to give me money for the orchestra or for our educational projects.

 

Ambassadors are usually highly regarded by the business community. Quite often, they are better educated than the average CEO and, even if they are not, they are more prepared to lead the way and entertain with cultural events. Many have supported Taste of the Classics both privately and through encouraging business people to use it as a tool for corporate entertainment. I act as host and I like to flatter myself that people come for my wit as much as for Beethoven, though I may well be wrong.

 

At one Taste of the Classics, devoted to ambassadors and attended by fifteen or so embassies from America to Pakistan, Ukraine to South Africa, I displayed a photograph of my step-grandfather with that scoundrel Joe Kennedy, taken when he was ambassador to London in the late 1930s. Both men were on the board of the English Speaking Union and joint chairmen of the Boston Lincolnshire, Boston Massetutes friendship society. This photograph cut ice with the audience. Ambassadors are a very clubby breed and this was just the sort of thing they like. There was a gasp of approval. By association, my stock went up. Sadly, all of those ambassadors have been replaced and I have to start again.

 

I repeat, I am not an embassy groupie but, of course, as a breed they exist in Warsaw as elsewhere.  One elderly lady whose very existence seems to depend on embassy events particularly comes to mind. Whenever we meet her opening line is something like,

” Are you going to such and such embassy party? No?  

Then I say,

“Are you going to the British?” because I know she is not on the list.

“No!” she replies in a whisper.

 I pause for it to sting a bit then add, “Neither am I.

Then she will said in a hushed tone,

“Oh, look, there is the Ambassador of….”

You turn expecting to witness a combination of the Culinor Diamond and the Second Coming only to see an undistinguished person dressed in dingy grey.

 

On occasions I’ve suggested we combine forces to build a net work for Taste of the Classics but clearly this holds little appeal. Hardly surprising, I am not an ambassador.

 

The present British ambassador and I fell out the moment he arrived and we are not going to make up. He even complained to the vicar that I have written too many disparaging emails about him to the Foreign Office, especially for a church warden which, since this April, after 6 years I am no longer.  It is true, I have written. 21 times by my reckoning. I don’t mind him wrapping himself in the Rainbow flag and posing in a sandpit as the Warsaw mermaid, so long as he supports what I am doing, but he doesn’t. So, he must bear the consequences. The only area where we seem to share any common ground is in belief that there should be a bloody big statue to Sir Winston Churchill in Warsaw. And, if not a statue, at least road named after him. At present, there is nothing to commemorate his service to Poland during the War, much of which the Poles have got completely wrong through miss-information. There is a statue to that ungrateful Frenchman General De Gaulle for his service to Poland, but in the Polish-Russian war of 1919. The snub to Churchill is iniquitous.

 

Through a certain diffidence and, if I am honest, disillusionment on my part with regard to ambassadors, with the departure of the last American ambassador, a gifted people person and a Baptist, my stock has dwindled to the Representative of Flanders: a good friend, whom I shall greatly miss when he and his wife move on, as diplomats always do. He is one of the best representatives of his profession I have come across. Whenever he can, he generously supports Taste of the Classics and for the promotion of goodwill between nations nothing is too much for him. A really good man. Many could learn from his example.

But, ambassadors attract money:   I need heavyweights.  Battleships rather than cruisers. Hence my hand written, hand delivered envelopes.

 

Not all has gone smoothly in my role as delivery boy. At about 5pm two days ago I arrived at the Israeli Embassy. Just as I was getting off my bike two chaps came out of the building on their way home. Judging by their build, their earpieces and that look in the eye of people who are trained to be suspicious, I assumed they were in security. I asked them if they could take my letter. They refused.

 

 “Come back in the morning! Who are you anyway, we don’t know you!”

 

I said who I was but they were unimpressed. It really is not nice when people show no recognition of who you are. Indifference to other people is the greatest sin and one of the easiest to commit. That said, they were not intentionally unfriendly, merely curt.

 

“Come back in the morning!”

 

So I went, though not with the best grace, I must admit.

 

Yesterday morning I returned. Before I had even rung the bell, a man had come out of the building and opened the street door. His dress and demeanour were similar to the men I had already met.

 

“My friend told me you were here last night. Put it in the post! We don’t accept letters”

 

“So why was I told to return?……

 

Fine. If that’s the case, I will. Or rather, at this point, I wont. The ambassador can stuff it.  

 

Pausing before I turned my back, it dawned on me that accepting the letter was not the problem. It was the envelope. Anthrax? I took the letter out of the envelope and, lo and behold, what did he say?

 

“That I can accept!”

 

So why didn’t he tell me that in the first place? Back he went into the embassy reading the letter as he went. A private letter. So much for manners, unless he was the ambassador which I assume he was not.

 

Of course, I understand that the Israelis have to be more security conscious than other nations, but they are also in need of more goodwill than most. It seems perverse to be so unwilling to court it.

 

Actually, if I were a terrorist hell-bent on doing harm to the embassy, I don’t think I would present myself on bicycle, in a bright green rubber waterproof and argue with the guards and then come back for more. However, this may be exactly the profile they are on watch for:  I’m not an expert in these matters.

 

From the Israelis, I went to the Belgians, Chinese and Lithuanians. Doors opened, I was respectfully treated, even beneath the chilling Red flag. On my first round, the German guard even knew my name.

 

The Lithuanian Embassy is a handsome building on the east side of the Aleja Ujazdowski. That side of the road has the best cycle route in Warsaw. It is wide, it is usually pedestrian free (unlike many others) and it flanks the gardens of the Ujazdowski Castle and the Lazienki. Until the Communists divided them with a dual carriage way these parks were continuous. Indeed, my ancestor, the architect of Warsaw, built a huge wooden grandstand for the coronation of Czar Nicholas I as King of Poland on the boundary between the two gardens where the road intersects.

 

Cycling slowly past the gate of the Uzadowsjki Gardens I noticed a seated statue. I recognised the unmistakeable head from the bust in the Hotel Bristol, the hotel he built: Paderewski. I got off to investigate. No cycling, swimming banned, said the sign on the gate.  Is there a pond here? In all my 10 years in Warsaw I have not seen this statue nor been into these gardens. A surprise was in store.

 

To the right of the statue is a wooden bandstand. Behind it and to the left are landscaped lawns and flowers and sculptures and rare trees and benches to sit on, either in the open air or in the shade of the trees. Best of all is an almost Japanese waterfall with reddish boulders of all shapes and sizes and a pond full of duck. This was designed by a Mr. Lindley in the 1890s and recently restored. Well done everyone. It made me forget my treatment at the embassy until I saw a park warden eyeing me from a secluded park bench.

 

No, I am not riding my bicycle. I am not a flower pincher or a flasher. Why are you looking at me like that?  There was something in his gaze that reminded me of the guards at the embassy. Is this paranoia?  Perhaps he knows I once road my bike in the Lazienki Gardens?