Seldom Said

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Tall devil

I first heard about Manufaktura before I arrived in Lodz. It's such a big deal here that my Polish colleagues can hardly believe that the whole world dosen't know about it. They first mentioned it when they were explaining why it was proving difficult for them to find a hotel for me. "There's a big event here next week," they explained. "Lots of people are coming and most of the hotels are already full."

The event in question was the opening of a new shopping and entertainment complex near to the centre of the city. Now, I must admit that I was a bit mystified by this. I struggled to remember if the Trafford Centre in Manchester, which was the nearest equivalent that sprang to mind, had thrown a launch party. Even if they had, I'm fairly sure that it wouldn't have attracted a huge influx of hotel guests. I obviously needed to understand what was so special about this Manufaktura place.

I learnt that the big launch party had been on Tuesday night - during all that rain! - complete with fireworks and VIPs, but that Manufaktura was now officially open to the public. There had been a plan for us to go en masse, but this rapidly evaporated. In the end, the tirelessly friendly and helpful Rafal took me along after work, picking up his fiancee (they are getting married on Saturday!) on the way, and we went along to find out what all the fuss was about.

The car park wasn't quite finished yet and there was a fair bit of wet concrete around, but as we approached the buildings it became clear that this was going to be something quite special. Rafal had explained that the project was a very deliberate exercise in urban regeneration, turning an old abandoned factory into a vibrant new cultural and commercial space. As we approached, encountering and admiring the wonderfully restored brick facades for the first time, he told me that an important feature for him was the new 'market square'. This was where we headed first.

Lodz has existed as a village since the Middle Ages, but it apparently leapfrogged townhood and became a city practically overnight with the sudden influx of a hundred thousand workers in the 19th century. Hence it lacks the natural centre of most other Polish towns and cities: the traditional market square. This new space at Manufaktura - more grand plaza than humble market square - will, Rafal hopes, become a new cultural heart for the city. It was certainly jumping when we arrived, with hordes of people and a huge stage and speakers filling the space with music.

There were more of the wonderful brick buildings surounding the square, now housing shops and restaurants, and an ultra-modern glass and steel shopping centre at one end. There were nice little touches that made it all feel very thoughtfully done. As the music ranged from rock to dance to classical, we watched stilt-walkers and other people in fancy dress, trying to get everyone dancing. A very enthusiastic chap up on stage was doing his best to lift the crowd's already fairly bubbly mood. Their palpable excitement was infectious and I couldn't help grinning.

We had a bite to eat in a newly-opened branch of Green Way (the veggie place on Piotrkowska that I'd eaten in earlier in the week) and sampled a drink that was apparently made from an (as-yet-untranslated) tree. Tasty, but peculiar! My newfound Polish friends confessed to being enormously proud of this new facet to their home city and I could easily understand why. Both of them had made a conscious decision to return to Lodz from Warsaw, in spite of its apparently grim prospects, and saw in this new development - as well as others like it all around the city - a real sign of hope for the future.

Later, after the soon-to-be-newlyweds had apologetically rushed off to finish their final preparations, I wandered around some more by myself. They'd been interested in the parallels that I (inevitably) drew between Manchester and Lodz, and I had quickly realised that my original comparison with the Trafford Centre had been hopelessly wide of the mark. I should have thought about how it had felt to see the heart of Manchester ripped out by the IRA bomb, only to re-emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes to become the prosperous place it is today. Manufaktura certainly has more in common with places like the PrintWorks and the Triangle.

Granted, the shopping centre was as soulless as any other that I've visited (the Triangle included), although the structure itself is impressive and visually stunning in places. I hunted the place for an identifiably Polish shop without success, but I guess that's not really the point of a place like this. If Lodz does manage to attract hordes of foreign visitors, then they'll be right at home here, but I couldn't help worrying that this place, with its designer clothes outlets (and the occasional surprise) might be drawing too sharp a distinction between the haves and the have-nots.

As I reluctantly headed for home (resorting to using my GPS gizmo to figure out which way that actually was), I paused to marvel once again at how faithful the restored brick buildings remained to the neglected old shells that they'd once been. A lot of love seemed to have gone into this transformation, as evidenced by a bright and hopeful piece of informal art on the end of one of the buildings. And there's more to come too, apparently, with plans to turn the remaining empty structures into a hotel in a year or so's time. Good luck to them, I say.

Inevitably, I noticed yet another grand old building next door and couldn't help wondering what it had been and what it might yet become. In the end, though, it was the sight of the magnificent main entrance of Manufaktura that stayed with me in the taxi back to the hotel.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Confusion rains

Rained in

I didn't manage to see any more of Łódź yesterday, principally because it started to bucket down at some point in the afternoon and showed no signs of letting off. Hence I decided to have dinner at my hotel.


Things started promisingly: they had an English menu, which even included some vegetarian dishes. I asked about the soups and whether or not they were suitable for a veggie and the lady serving me recommended the cauliflower. I'm finding it surprisingly easy to identify some of the Polish words for food and my colleague Rafal explained why yesterday. It seems that, at some point in its history, Poland had an Italian queen, who insisted on bringing in all of the foods that she knew from home. Naturally, the Poles, having no names for these foods, based their words on the Italian. Hence I could readily guess at the nature of zupa pomidorona (tomato soup). Feeling cocky, I ordered pancakes with marinated mushrooms and a cucumber salad. I also ordered a local beer and sat there feeling cheerful, watching the downpour through the window.

The soup, when it arrived looked and tasted good - until I found the lumps of meat floating around in it. This didn't do much for my appetite, but I didn't want to kick up a fuss so I just put the offending articles on the side of my plate and forced myself to eat a little more. You tend to get used to this sort of thing as a veggie abroad. No comment from the chef/waitress.

Then the main course arrived: sweet pancakes, smothered in fruit and chocolate sauce and cream, with side dishes of mushrooms and cucumber. I held my head in my hands and tried to concentrate on the funny side, but my host merely commented that she thought my order had been a little strange. Couldn't she have said something, I thought? Or perhaps even apologised for the confusion? Evidently not.

After a certain amount of additional confusion about the concept of savoury versus sweet, she acknowledged that the potato pancakes (also on the menu) were 'salt' and promptly went to make some. I ate these with the (disappointing) mushrooms and salad and then made a brave attempt on the huge pile of sweet pancakes. Ah, well. At least the beer was good.

I retired to my room, feeling rather fed up. Łódź has been all about contrasts for me so far: contrasts between the old and the new, the shiny and the decrepit in the city itself, but also contrasts between my extremely friendly colleagues and pretty much all of the rest of the people that I have encountered, who have been reserved at best. Perhaps it's just because I don't speak Polish; it certainly makes me feel incredibly awkward. Or perhaps it's just a cultural thing. I just hope that other visitors to the city find a warmer welcome than I have.

I also found it a little disconcerting that I had to go and ask for more toilet paper this morning: my room doesn't seem to have been serviced at all since I arrived on Sunday. Perhaps this is evidence of more confusion, or perhaps that's the norm in a 2-star hotel in Poland. On the plus side, my unhelpful host from last night at the hotel did prepare me a resolutely veggie breakfast, so I have to acknowledge that she, at least, is making a bit of an effort.

Thankfully, the sun is shining again today.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Manchester of Poland?

The little engine that couldn't

Before I came, I read that Lodz has been described as the "Manchester of Poland", so I was certainly expecting a city with a conspicuous industrial past. And I have to admit that walking around streets full of desolate old factories and warehouses is not so very different to parts of central Manchester (those that haven't been converted into trendy loft apartments, that is). What I do find a little overwhelming, however, is the sheer scale of it all.

I had another long wander around yesterday, rather losing my sense of direction on a number of occasions. Once again, I found that almost as soon as I strayed away from the hustle and bustle of Piotrkowska, I was immediately surrounded by empty or rundown buildings peppered with occasional gems.

What an incredible place this must have been in its industrial heyday! Even now the remaining infrastructure is an impressive sight: great wide boulevards strung out in straight lines for miles, with trams running down their centre; huge municipal parks and magnificent public buildings; colossal factories and warehouses. Another relic of the glorious industrial past that seems to be slipping through Europe's fingers.

Curious little remnants of that not-so-distant past in Lodz are everywhere. On Sunday I came across an defunct jet fighter, which had been turned into a monument outside a empty building of indeterminate purpose. Yesterday I noticed a small steam engine on display outside another building. The business centre where my Polish colleagues have their offices was formerly a mill of some sort. After lunch yesterday, I spotted an old piece of machinery in the cafe there, with a little brass plate detailing where it had been manufactured: Manchester, of course.

On my way back to the hotel, I strolled through a beautiful park, stumbled across a huge shopping centre called Geant and then - lured by the sight of my trusty cooling towers - bumbled ill-advisedly into an desolate industrial estate. It reminded me of the particularly grim parts of north-east Manchester. Not a pleasant experience. I think perhaps I'll use a taxi next time.

My colleagues tell me that Lodz is enjoying a period of regeneration at the moment; clearly it still has a way to go yet. Then again, it probably would have been fair to say the same about Manchester a few years ago...

Monday, May 15, 2006

Feeling a bit Lodz


This week I'm on assignment in Poland, working in the city of Łódź.

Getting here yesterday was a bit of an adventure, starting with a rather nightmarish experience 'queuing' at Stansted (it wasn't like any queue I've ever seen and seemed to take forever to move). The flight was actually OK, but the landing was more than a little scary: we came down in a rain storm, which meant that the plane was lurching around all over the place and people were screaming. We did all give the pilot a round of applause when he landed safely, though.

Finding my hotel was more difficult than expected: the taxi driver had to stop and ask for directions. It is a pleasant and obviously quite modern place and my room is spotless and well-appointed. It is situated a little unfortunately, however: right next door to a gigantic (ex?) power station (complete with huge cooling towers) and on a main road (complete with regular trams).

I went for a long walk yesterday evening, travelling almost the full length of the city's renowned Piotrkowska street (at 4km, the longest commercial street in Europe, apparently) and back again, stopping for a rather disappointing pizza on the way. My first impressions were shaped by the rather utilitarian buildings closer to the hotel, but I soon encountered some spectacular churches, old and new, as well as beautiful facades on several other buildings. These were, however, made all the more conspicuous by being situated alongside buildings every bit as decrepit as they are glorious.

I finished the day feeling a little footsore (having walked 5 or 6 miles) and a bit disconcerted by my first experience of Poland, but I'm pleased to say that I feel a lot more cheerful today. My colleagues at Teleca Poland (who I'm here to train) are a friendly bunch and with their help and advice I had a nice lunch (cheese and potato dumplings, with a carrot and cabbage salad). I look forward to the rest of the week.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

In camera

It's mainly my brother's fault.

Disappointed by the 'prosumer' compact digital camera that he bought to go on holiday to the Antipodes, he decided (some weeks ago) to bite the bullet and get a digital SLR. Then he ummmed and aaaahed and discussed the options with me and even took me along to try some of them out, which naturally made me curious to investigate further. Then we went to see the perennial delights of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum (now on tour) and I noticed that many of the winners use some of the very same cameras. I guess the result was kind of inevitable.

So, yes, I have a new toy: a Canon EOS 30D. And after putting it through its paces at home and in the garden on Friday, I was really hoping for some decent weather for the weekend. This being a British Bank Holiday weekend, however, I was prepared for the worst...

Imagine my surprise when Saturday turned out gorgeous. We headed up the the Lake District bright and early and embarked upon a fantastic 18km walk along a ridge of hills beside Derwentwater, starting at Catbells and ending at High Spy, then descending from the foot of Dale Head to return via Borrowdale and the lake shore. It was a little hazier than I'd have liked, but the views of the lake and the surrounding fells were still spectacular and the temperature was perfect for walking. We were also treated to the sight of exhibitionist crows swooping overhead.

Naturally the rest of the weekend had more typical Bank Holiday weather: overcast skies and intermittent drizzle. Still, that gave me plenty of time to go through the photos that I'd taken. I was irritated to find that minute dust particles on the sensor had produced little dark spots on many of the images, especially where they featured a lot of blue sky. I was also a little disappointed with the exposure on many of the images; I simply hadn't been paying enough attention to this and had (foolishly) trusted the various automatic modes on the camera to do it for me.

Fortunately the spots were mostly taken care of with a spot of editing and I was quite pleased with a few shots, but it certainly made me realise that I have a lot to learn...

Inconsequential thoughts rarely worth muttering out loud