Kraków – and I’m in a dilemma

imageKraków is Poland’s second city and one of its most beautiful. Unlike the capital, Warsaw, Kraków survived World War II relatively unscathed (despite being the NAZI HQ in Poland) and its exquisite architecture dating back centuries put the city on the first ever UNESCO World Heritage List.

Situated in the Lesser Poland region in the south of the country close to the borders with Slovakia and the Czech Republic this is where I will be heading later this month, my first time in both city and country and I must say I’m a bit nervous.

Friends, family and readers of this Blog will know that I’m a seasoned solo traveller with a good head for navigation and a heart for exploration. I have met many Poles in the UK and have them as friends and sometimes as neighbours and I find them lovely, friendly, hard-working, polite and respectful.

I guess any nervousness centres around two concerns. The first is that this is my first venture into Europe since the intense worsening of the ‘migrant crisis’ caused huge social shock waves across the Continent. From what I see in the News, tensions remain very high in most countries, especially in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. Eastern European countries in particular have displayed some of the most xenophobic reactions and outright hostility to the thought of taking in hoards of dark-skinned, Muslim refugees. My skin is a browner shade of white, being born in India of half Asian, half European stock. How will I be received in a Poland that has lurched politically to the right after the recent elections and is now at odds with the rest of the EU?

My other concern is that Kraków is at the epicentre of one of the most horrific episodes of man’s inhumanity to man as the closest city to that infamous NAZI temple of butchery and sheer evil – Auschwitz. I will be staying in what was the former Jewish Quarter in Kraków, not far from the restored factory made famous by Oskar Schindler and where Spielberg’s famous film was made. I am a long-time friend of Israel and the Jewish people, a calling I have had right from childhood, yet my choice of Kraków as my next destination was based more the British Airways Winter Sale (2 nts in a 4-star hotel, room only, plus scheduled return flights from Heathrow for £129) than any noble motive to pay tribute to the fallen. Now, I’m wrestling with my conscience as I contemplate a trip without Auschwitz and I’m wrestling with my emotions if Auschwitz is included. My very first visit to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem brought me to my knees in tears and there I was only seeing images and hearing tales of the horror of Auschwitz and many other places that share its infamy. To visit Auschwitz will be to actually be there where it happened and I’m just not sure I have the bottle for that yet.

To be continued…

Related: Heading East

Heading East

imageI’ve a lifetime Bucket List ambition to set foot in every country in Europe. There are some 50 European states, so Wikipedia tells me, not including the 4 home countries of the U.K., the Channel Islands or Isle of Man. I’ve set foot in 23 of the 50 and next month head toward my 24th.

It was also once an ambition to visit all of Europe’s capital cities. There, too, I’ve not done bad though have been to less capitals than countries: London, Dublin, Reykjavik, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn, Paris, Brussels, Luxembourg City, Rome, Vatican City, Monaco, Athens, Bratislava, Vienna. There are some capitals left on the list that I can’t see wild horses ever dragging me into, including that of my next destination.

My 24th country lies in the east of the continent and ironically has strong connections with the part of London I live in. During World War 2, its Government in exile was based here and my part of London has particularly strong connections with my destination including a large community of ex-pats who live here.

This city was founded in the 8th Century by a Pagan tribe who fought off and killed a fire-breathing dragon who ate sheep and young virgins in the catacombs beneath it. Either that or the poor bugger was hounded off to Wales. It is one of the best preserved cities of its kind and made UNESCO’s very first World Heritage List.

To be continued…

Covered Wagons

imageOver the holidays just passed, I caught a snippet of an old black and white cowboy movie with those covered wagon trains of settlers heading for a new life to pioneer America’s Wild West in the original western mobile homes. I didn’t watch the film but saw enough to remind me of some wise words given to me by an older sister (just) in my faith back in our University days, which have remained with me ever since.

I don’t do goodbyes well at all. Never have been able to and only marginally cope better now as years and experience have weathered my emotional skin. Back then I had newly discovered the difference between faith and religion and had the joy of experiencing that same discovery with others. LIfe was new. The life-bonds made then remain in my memory still today as very, very special.

“We are all on a journey, the same journey, to a common horizon. We are like those people in the cowboy movies who travelled out to an unseen destination first as individual family units in the wagon train, but later as a travelling community as they bonded along the way. At first while they travelled, they were close with those immediately around them. As the journey moved on, they would swap wagons for a while and travel with others away from their immediate original units for all sorts of reasons while still heading together as a community on the same course. At the end of the journey, they will all be re-United.”

I’ve paraphrased my friend’s words from memory here but that was the key thought she left with me to help me cope with parting from loved friends and embracing changes, including parting from her also. It’s OK and sometimes even necessary to swap covered wagons in life with friends whose compass is set in the same direction as yours in order to fulfil your own path in life. A common destination awaits but the journey to get there may well involve many changes of company and surrounds.

Leaf fall

imageI went for an hour’s walk in my local park this morning. It’s something I’ve been used to doing every day since July for my first waking hour. Life has changed somewhat now and I only get to have such quality times at weekends. This park is the place I got to pray and meditate and talk to the Big Guy upstairs.

How come I had space to do this every day for three months that I don’t have now? Three months ago I handed in my notice to leave a job I’ve been doing for the last twenty years with no replacement job to go to and no idea in what direction to head next or what lay ahead. I’m in my early fifties and I jacked in all I had known in the workplace over the last two decades. A brave and courageous decision to some of my friends; foolishness to others. Of course if one has made such a decision and one believes in the power of prayer, one had better jolly well get praying, yet it was prayer that caused me to make such a decision in the first place.

imageMy early morning walks around the park started in the height of Summer under clear blue skies and warm sunshine on my shoulders. My resignation “reluctantly” accepted, my former employers gave me their blessing to work my three months statutory notice at home on what is called ‘gardening leave’. They could have asked me to work those three months in the office but I asked them to give me the best fighting chance to try to find a new career in a job market that had changed beyond all recognition since the last time I peered into it and to their credit they did. So my early morning walks and talks with the Big Guy as early as six in the morning became an imperative part of my life as it soon dawned on me how quickly the three months would pass and how far I was from having any idea of what life had in store next.

I could write a book on the adventure the three months from July to September has been, filled with a mix of release, uncertainty, hope, inexplicable peace, thankfulness and times of doubt, fear and tears. My journey to the point of handing in my notice was not sudden but had started in October last year but it was not until March of this year that I my mind was made up.

imageI took myself away to Nice, France for a long weekend of soul-searching in a place I’d never been before alone and away from all familiar. There along the beach promenade I walked and talked with the Big Guy as a fresh, light north Mediterranean fine drizzle fell. As I was praying I saw in my mind’s eye and in the distance a very large image of a Roman soldier, stood to attention fully armed and poised like a Puma waiting to pounce. He was of gigantic proportions. As I write, I can still see his steely blue eyes beneath his bronze helmet. He was not looking at me but back past me as if at some Commander who had his full attention I could not see. I’m praying about my job, I thought to myself so why am I seeing Roman soldiers? Friends who know me – both who share my faith and don’t – are by now, I hope, used to me talking about my faith from time to time honestly and as it happens. I’ve shared extraordinary encounters I’ve had before too. That day in Nice was just one of those.

imageNo sooner had I pondered over the soldier while still praying when in my head I heard these words. OK I know – Ian-Luke hears voices na na nana na. Well, no not every time. Occasionally I do ‘hear’ thoughts outside of me when I pray. Only on two occasions to date have I heard an actual, audible voice but that is a whole other story. “You have not because you ask not”, the voice said. I stopped in my tracks and went very still inside and considered: all I’d ever done was whine at the Big Guy but I’d never actually asked Him for the way forward or even anything specifically about the way forward – just heaps of frustration and fear. It struck me that maybe I should put my faith on the line and ask for something specific and tangible. I turned around 180 degrees and started back along the promenade as the sun broke through the rain and Nice started to sizzle. “I want you to report in to me every morning”. Without wanting to go too ‘Field of Dreams’ that is what I heard inside again and to be honest you could have slapped me around the face with a wet Kipper and extracted the same sense of a wake up call I had then. Only then did the picture of the Roman soldier make any sense. The Big Guys was basically asking me to submit and trust. I came home from Nice and decided I would ask. I would ask and be specific, sort of. I couldn’t be specific about anything other than that I wanted and needed to be in a new place – whatever that was – “before the leaves fall” – in those specific words. That was in March. Back home the leaves were only just preparing to open. I don’t know why by I often ask God for things and use images of nature and I’ve done that ever since I was a child.

So my times in the park over the Summer and into Autumn became times of asking and specifically but also less and less about me and my job and future. The asking widened to include others: friends, neighbours, people I knew who were sick, lonely and bereaved and for so many things not connected to my life. My prayer life changed and apart from very rare occasions I kept my morning appointment of reporting in with the Big Guy in the park.

imageToday is the first day of Winter. I’ve never ‘heard‘ winter arrive so gently as I did this morning and this is what prompted me to write this post. I’ve felt and seen Winter’s arrival before with drops in temperature, hard rain on windows and howling wind but never like this. As I walked through the park today with iPad in hand, which I sometimes do, I found I couldn’t pray. The reason I can now only find such quality time to be there at weekends is because I am in that new place I couldn’t see three months ago doing a job I never imagined before but which I had been praying for on and off since last October. As I walked through the park I was of course taken by the visual beauty of this moment as Autumn passes the baton to Winter but I became transfixed by a certain sound. OK, no, not more voices but a distinct pitter-patter that sounded like it could be rain falling on leaves only it wasn’t.

There was no wind, not even the slightest of breeze on this dense foggy morning, yet all around me I kept hearing this pitter-patter coming from above. If you are thinking Squirrels make a pitter-patter sound then they don’t. Trust me – I’ve walked with them too for three months. No, the pitter-patter was the leaves themselves as all around me they just started to fall. No, of course this wasn’t the first day they started doing that just because I was there. There were leaves on the ground all around and the ”fall’ process had started weeks ago. I just never heard it before. Not just me, but as I chatted to other walkers they too commented on the sound of the leaves they also noticed all over the park as they walked their dogs.

imageMy time in the park today was taken more with watching, observing and listening than any prayer at all. I wondered why and I also felt a little sad seeing the leaves that had flown high above me during my Summer of uncertainty, hope, learning, trusting and fear now lying beneath my feet and making their voluntary and gentle departures from the branches and twigs that had held them with no wild weather forcibly ripping them away. As I headed toward the exit a thought came to mind. The falling of the leaves had played a major part in my asking of the unknown way back in March and my prayer had been answered in that time. This Summer’s leaves had been witness to my prayers and hopes and tears and the things I had prayed for under them to the Big Guy upstairs had now been accomplished. One season in my life has closed and another opened. Next Spring those same trees that were shedding their leaves today will open new ones and I know for sure that I will be talking and leaning on the Big Guy when those leaves open because my journey is not over yet.

Which news app?

If, like me, you are a news and current affairs junkie and you like to be in the know most of the time, then here’s a stroll through my favourite news apps of the moment. I’m an iPadder, so all apps reviewed are from the Apple store, though I’m sure there are Android alternatives for most of these. I’d love to hear back about any others I should try. There’s a distinct lack of major US news agencies simply because I’m trying to escape wall-to-wall coverage of their next election for as long as possible. So here in no particular order…

BBC

imageAs with all news outlets, whether or not you like or trust them depends on how you perceive their editorial bias. The Beeb, from what I observe, comes in for more than its share of stick being labelled too this or too that, too pro, too anti on almost any issue it reports on. That said, it still commands a huge amount of respect and credibility due to its sheer history, size and global network of correspondents.

Their recently relaunched app now includes a ‘My News’ section, enabling you to select your particular areas of interest and then displaying the top stories in those sections on one page after the Live Feed and Top Stories. After that you can drill down and more areas of interest, which are then added to a top menu bar for ease of access. If you allow notifications, you will get breaking news alerts but one point here is that the BBC tend not to be first with breaking news preferring to have stories verified before they issue and alert. In terms of look, I can’t help feeling that it’s too close to CNN and not in a good way but it is a must have among my staple of apps and my most often referred to.
The app is free to download and use or well I guess we pay to use it through the TV Licence Fee but at a fraction of a fraction of the cost of other apps. That said…considering all the other apps reviewed here are at absolutely zero cost that makes the BBC news app the most expensive in this array, bar the next one…
Rating: 4/5

SKY News

imageAgain, Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky might not be your thing but they are one of the speediest news agencies at releasing reliable breaking news alerts and for that reason mainly, their app is part of my collection. When massive major news stories break, Sky do tend to focus all their energies on them while other news agencies will flit around on to more stories so if you can’t get enough of a major event of concern, Sky is worth having. Visually I find it quite messy and haphazard to use and there is no facility to filter-off areas of specific personal interest. The app is free to download by everyone but only free to use if you are already a Sky TV subscriber. If you are not, then a monthly usage fee of around £5.00 applies and that’s a big negative to me.
Rating: 2/5

France 24

imageFrance 24’s English language service is growing in terms of the attention I give it. They are available in the UK now as a TV service, at least the English service is. Online, they are available in French and Arabic too. The English service is fronted by an array of presenters from the UK, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and North America and they cover global news from a French perspective. You will find more coverage of European news than we get in the UK plus an emphasis on regions of the world that were formerly French colonies, mostly Africa and the Mid East. If you allow notifications, you will get news alerts from them and in my opinion they are often the first and fastest alongside Agence France Presse (AFP) with reliable breaking news. On opening the app, you will be taken straight to the English live video feed and very minimalistic menu of content options to the right and bottom of the live feed leading you to their top stories, sport, business, a compressed news bulletin and the weather highlights from across the globe. A hidden right side menu which, will open as you touch the button to the top left of the Live Feed gives you the option to drill further into news articles and a ‘favourites’ section to select specific areas of interest to you plus you can link into their Twitter feed to see what they are talking about or who conversing with there. The app is free to download and use.
Rating: 4/5

Twitter

imageDepending how you use your Twitter account (if you have one), this can be one of the most interesting and immediate of all news apps (even though it is social media and not specifically news) but there is a deal of caution here. I don’t use my Twitter account to make friends or gather followers. I mainly use it to follow news and current affairs from as wide a perspective as possible in a language I understand and that means following news agencies on either side of political, cultural and conflict divides. So, for example I will follow Western English-language news agencies as well as Russia Today or the Chinese English service. I follow Israeli news agencies and the Iranian or Arab state broadcasters but I draw the line with ISIS scum. In doing so you can get some fascinating insights into differing geographical perspectives and emphases on news and very often hear about news stories not being covered in the UK. I also like to follow individual journalists and particular regional correspondents. While they are always careful in what they say so as not to give the impression that their views represent their employers, you can get fascinating insights into their personal perspectives and sometimes amusing banter between them. The most graphic content can be found in what they report on Twitter first hand from frontline situations, even describing violence and disaster around them with a blow-by-blow immediacy you don’t always see, hear or read when their reports are made public by their agencies. The big caution with Twitter is that it can also be the biggest rumour mill on the planet so caution is needed with breaking news unless from a reliable source. The Twitter app is free to download and use but you will need to set up a free Twitter account (and then spend a good year or so learning how to use it!).
Rating: 3/5

Reuters TV

imageThis is a new app on the market I’m still trying to get used to. Reuters claim to have created it for people who have switched out from watching live broadcast news for whatever reason. It’s a very simple app to use from one of the world’s most reliable and oldest news agencies. Essentially, you tell the app how much time you have to consume the essential news stories of the day – 5 minutes or 10, 15, 20 up to 30. The shorter time you allow and the app will deliver the top stories in video format on to your screen as a playlist of that time length. You can either just hit the play button and the app will play through all the stories in sequence of if you are more picky, you can choose from the playlist just those stories you are interested in. The longer you allow for your news the more diverse the news stories Reuters will provide. Over time based on monitoring your behaviour in the news stories you choose to view or avoid, the app will start to deliver more content it thinks you like. Noteworthy features are the ability to watch your content offline, connect to the global Reuters live feeds to consume news as it happens and upgrade to an ad-free version. The app is free to download and use, though there is a charge for the upgrade to the ad-free version. I’ve not been using this app long enough to give it anything other than a rating straight down the middle, though I suspect that might move upwards in time. Very pleasing on the eye.
Rating: 3/5

News 360

imageThis has been around a while and I’ve had it a while and can’t remember now why I took it off my iPad (probably an emergency memory storage issue). Very glad to have it back. It’s free to download and use and once you have it takes seconds to set up by offering you a very wide range of content from Top stories to lifestyle, entertainment, travel and LOADS of niche and specialist subject matter to add to your customised start screen and so the app will only ever serve up the news content you want to see. A sliding home screen will then display your news choices in a pictorial menu by subject matter and you select whatever content you want to read that moment. A really great feature with this one is the facility to link your social media accounts to the app. The app will never post to your social feeds unless you decide you want to share something. You can link with Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (if anyone still uses that) and once you give permission the app will browse through your profile page to see what subject matter you like to post on and then it will offer you content areas taken from what it sees to be your areas of interest for you to add to your News 360 Home Screen. So for me, surprise surprise for all who know me, News 360 offered me Airline news, British Airways, Christianity, gadgets and the Eurovision Song Contest to add to my content choices. Don’t worry, if you spend all your time on social media slagging off that silly cow who lives up the road you can rest assured that cows, tarts or slag heaps will not show as content options for you nor anything of that personal a nature.
Rating: 4/5

Newsflash

imageAnd finally Newsflash, though this has little to do with providing news flashes. This is another new one I’m trying and I can’t say I’m all that impressed at the moment though I need to give it a fair chance. Of all the news apps, this has the most boring look and interface though after Twitter it offers the most varied content and content providers of any apps in this review. It’s free to download and use and you can spend forever scrolling through the content options and media providers. A great feature is that you can mute some of the pre-selected news agencies (ie the Daily Mail for most of my social circuit) plus add others that are not on the pre-selected list. The thing with this app is that because the choice is so wide-ranging, when I go into it I get that same feeling as when I used to go out at lunch time where I worked to buy lunch only to come back to the office empty-handed as there was just too much to choose from and so settle for a bag of chips from Greasy Joe’s across the street instead (which I guess in media terms is the equivalent of settling for 5 minutes doing The Sun crossword instead of consuming something more wholesome).
Rating: 2/5