Not in Kansas anymore

English: Kapitanska-captain's Polish vodka

English: Kapitanska-captain’s Polish vodka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I became blase about travelling to Poland. After all, I’d been to Warsaw several times before. I remember one trip in particular when we went for a celebratory meal in a restaurant. It was a very cold January outside. Inside, it was like entering Dante‘s inferno. We travelled downstairs where the inside of the restaurant glowed red from the infernal heat of the kilns.

As we took off our coats, a waiter approached us brandishing a bottle. In heavily accented English he asked if we would like some vodka. We declined and asked for the wine list. He looked puzzled and offered the bottle again with a single word “vodka?” We gave up on the wine list and used one of the few Polish words we’d learnt. I held up 3 fingers and said “Pifco” indicating we’d like some beers. “Vodka?” was the reply.

The vodka was so cold that we found it refreshing in the searing heat of the restaurant. However, it didn’t last. The warmth of the surroundings seeped into the vodka and as the temperature rose, the drink became more and more chewy. The relief when the last of it disappeared was palpable. I couldn’t believe it when my boss called the waiter over and asked for another bottle. We all looked at him dumbfounded and he explained “We can’t just drink one bottle – they’ll think we’re poofs!”

This particular trip, however, was not to Warsaw – it was to the industrial heartland of Katowice. The plane was so small that the pilot gave the safety briefing. Katowice airport had exactly one gate, exactly one luggage carousel, exactly one x-ray arch and exactly one runway. Yet all the signage was strangely reminiscent of a larger airport. A young guy picked me up – a sheet of paper with our company logo the sole means of communication between us.

The hotel was an old KGB headquarters and seldom have I stayed in such a dour building. I checked in after a game of charades with the receptionist. Upstairs a bizarre Benny Hill style sketch played out between the prostitutes leaving cards with their phone numbers everywhere and the hotel staff getting rid of them.

I went down to the bar. Getting a drink was easy enough. Not only did I know the Polish word for beer, but there was a nice big pump I could point to. I asked for a menu and the barman looked puzzled. I mimed shovelling things into my mouth and the penny dropped. He gave me a laminated sheet which was no use to me at all – everything was in Polish characters.

I kept asking if anyone spoke English and after a while, someone had a light bulb moment. They dashed off and returned with a boy wearing a ridiculously large rubber apron and rubber gloves that looked like they might fall off any second.

“Please?” he said.

“Do you speak English?”

“Please?”

I thought what the hell and asked for a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. He nodded as if he understood and disappeared off to the kitchen. I sat back, wondering what manner of food lay ahead of me. After a short delay, a waiter appeared with a massive silver platter topped with a handled dome. With a flourish, he revealed my meal. Underneath was a beautifully prepared salad, topped with two slices of toast upon which stood a cube of cheese.

I couldn’t help but smile.

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Are all gold medals equal?

English: Finland top-beachvolleyball player Ri...

English: Finland top-beachvolleyball player Riikka Lehtonen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’d asked me how I felt about the Olympics a few days before the opening ceremony to London 2012, I probably would have shrugged my shoulders. To be honest I was a bit nonplussed with the whole event. After the triumphant opening ceremony, my interest started to grow.

Now after a whole week of competition, I am caught up in Olympic fever. I’ve been checking websites and watching coverage with the best of them. I regret not applying for tickets now. Some of the events leave me awestruck.

When I see the athletes leaping and pirouetting through the air in graceful somersaults one after another, it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. When I see a gymnast swinging at fantastic speed from bar to bar in the asymmetric bars, I watch transfixed. Somehow what they do seems so completely impossible that you expect them to fall at any moment.

When the guys on the rings hold themselves in the crucifix position before forcing themselves upwards slowly and gracefully, I find it hard to contemplate the strength and control that is required for such a manoeuvre. It’s not just the gymnastics. The synchronised diving takes my breath away. How can they perform such complicated dives and remain almost entirely in synch is beyond me. Lots and lots of practise I guess.

The endurance events like triathlon and marathon are also impressive but, because of their slower pace, they impress in a different way. The versatility required in the decathlon demands respect, and the swimming disciplines are exciting to watch. I’m a sucker for anything that floats, so I love the sailing, canoeing and rowing events.

When it comes to the beach volleyball, I can’t take it seriously. We already have proper volleyball, played on a court like we used to at school. Why do we need to have the game you play on the beach when you’re on holiday? I think it’s a sport which struggles to even take itself seriously. Maybe it’s the bikinis. Maybe it’s the bum-slapping after every point. Maybe it’s the Benny Hill music that plays in between games that sets it apart from all the other fine and noble sports that are part of the games.

Beach volleyball is entertaining to watch and I have no doubt that there is a lot of skill involved, and they need physical fitness, but does that put the sport at the same level as the others which seem so much more demanding? When I watch beach volleyball, I can’t quite shake the feeling that it’s a “sport” in which anyone could become proficient given the practise. When I look at the other events, they simply don’t seem that accessible.