The Golden Plantpots 2013

Plantpots time is here again, and I have on my sparkly costume, the pockets filled with golden envelopes.  Directors shun the opinions of the Cannes judges at this time of year because they know the Plantpots will soon be revealed.  This is a fact.

With the odd mainstream cinema film inbetween, this review of the year comes from the following festivals:
Due to one thing and another, the number of films watched this year was tempered quite a bit and some of the big hitters - Gravity, for instance - managed to slip through unwatched.  I'd just like to reassure any film directors that just because you weren't mentioned doesn't mean your film was bad, so step away from that cliff edge.

So in order for the year to be rounded out properly and the assorted filmistas of the world to know what DVDs to buy, here are this years' pots.

Best Film - Little World (Spa)

There is something so positive and uplifting about the story of young Albert and his worldly travels.  At such a young age he has kept his cheeky teenage spirit and yet seen more of the world and the kindness of it's people than many of us ever will.  It's a film about love and separation, the kindness of strangers, and the positivity of what might happen if you just keep going.  I defy anyone not to be inspired by this film.

Honourable Mentions:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Ind/Pak) - A challenging and entertaining adaptation of the best-selling novel, presents a complex and clouded view of right and wrong in today's fear-fuelled society.

Nebraska (US) - An ageing Bruce Dern as Woody - stubborn, cranky and a little bit off his rocker, initiating a father-son road movie full of warmth and laughter. One of the highlights of Leeds this year.

Captain Phillips (US) - Superior to A Hijacking earlier this year (which in itself is a good film), Tom Hanks again manages to shake off his mainstream persona and give one of the best performances of his career.

The Rocket (Australia) - A slightly macabre story of a cursed child trying to win a rocket competition to get his family out of debt isn't going to win any prizes for originality (spoiler: they win) but the setting is unique, the characters lively and entertaining, and the journey is equal parts funny and tragic.

From Up on Poppy Hill (Jpn) - Though Miyazaki Jnr. still has some way to go before he can take over the reins from his recently-retired dad, (the permanence of which remains to be seen) this father-son collaborative effort is richly evocative of previous real-life Ghibli films (sometimes very much so) and shows that he has come some way since Earthsea.

The Look of Love (UK) - Although the subject matter - the life of notorious pornographer Paul Reymond - may put some people off (along with the large amount of female flesh that comes with such a study), this film makes a good job of portraying the man behind the bodies without any rose-tinting, although some of his closer acquaintances will probably complain at some of the bits they missed out.

Pearblossom Hwy (US) - The story of the unfortunate life of Cory; a young, effeminate man living uncomfortably and in secret in the deep south with a tough army guy for a brother could go many ways, some very depressing I would guess.  But this low budget offering manages to keep the situation realistically edgy while also giving hope that people can change their perceptions and not let differences come in the way of family.

Best Short Film - The Livelong Day (UK)

This affectionate look at the lives of model train enthusiasts is a perfect example of the sort of short film that works most effectively - highlighting a passion or a person that would normally stay hidden from the world.  Subtly mixing model train footage with actual engines going through the American mountains, it's just long enough to make you look with different eyes at an oft-demeaned hobby.

Honourable Mentions:

The Globe Collector (Australia) - A film in a similar vein to the winner, and there was little to choose from between them. Andrew probably drove his mother mad with his stacks and stacks of hoarded lightbulbs, but the film was filled with affection and made his passion interesting.

Jerry and Me (US) - A woman's fond memories of the films of Jerry Lewis as she grew up in an increasingly unstable Iran gave an effective, personal account of the shifting perceptions of the outside world during that era.

Rocket (UK) - The winner of the Virgin Shorts competition opened the Bradford festival this year, and charmed us with a dog who wanted to fly to the moon. Adorable.

Miniyamba (Den/Fra) - The story of an old man taking a perilous journey to Spain for a better life is beautiful and bittersweet.
Best Animation -
Patema Inverted (Jpn) 

This year's choices were a bit thin on the ground for animation and as usual, anime dominated it.  There were a few slight disappointments and even though Patema Inverted was another take on two kids from opposing sides of a war coming together, with a slightly ridiculous plot mechanic, it was still the best of the bunch, although Poppy Hill managed to be up there too.

Honourable Mentions:
From Up On Poppy Hill (Jpn) - The collaboration between Miyazaki's senior and junior had it's faults (and retreaded some pretty familiar ground) but it was leagues ahead of Earthsea and up there with the best of Ghibli's 'real life' films.

Hal (Jpn) - A short from Production IG with a sizeable story eclipsing some films twice it's length.  It's gentle and quirky, sci-fi while retaining it's down to earth humanity, and not completely predictable.

Evangelion 3.0 (Jpn) - Eva 3 has several reasons not to watch; a depressingly wrecked world, hundred mile an hour conversations and even faster action sequences and a complicated story canon behind it so if you hadn't seen the first two films recently you'd be well out of your depth.  But Anno has [re-]created a desolately, horribly beautiful film with 20-year old fully-rounded out characters.  I await next years' final conclusion.

Best Documentary -
Little World (Spa)

There were many documentaries to choose from but Little World was always going to be up there.  Albert's attitude to life and the people he meets, despite his paralysis is an inspiration.

Honourable Mentions:
 The Last Dogs of Winter (NZ) - The unlikely pairing of an ageing hippy and an ex-teenage TV celebrity working together to preserve the packs of unwanted eskimo hunting dogs gives a window into a desolate and beautiful world where passion and sense of duty create something unique.

Grasp the Nettle (UK) - The story of one of the more well-known Occupy movements and their origins in a plot of undeveloped waste ground, living outside the norm and supporting themselves. Many a cynical eye will have seen the makeshift tents and structures and sneered, but this film gives voice to the movement, and it's diverse characters.

William and the Windmill (US/Mal/SA) - A fly on the wall documentary that exposed perhaps more than enthusiastic Tom might want to have shown, as he guides the naive and agreeable William from his small African hometown, through interviews alongside gawping celebrities and book and movie deals whether he likes it or not. A multilayered film with a story behind a story behind a story, the crassness of publicity and the need to not always be so polite.

Tokyo Waka (Jpn) - A beautiful meditation on the city and it's birds and people, and how they interact.  Slow and purposeful, almost zen-like documentary.

A Lot With A Little Award - Nebraska (US)

Road movies are traditionally low budget bankers for a good laugh and a decent story, but Nebraska in particular used what seemed to be a very thin shoestring to deliver a very high-quality film, so long as you don't get hang-ups about seeing something in black and white. Grumpy Woody, his sons and family, and the people they meet are the perfect companions on a road trip across dysfunctional America.

Pearblossom Hwy (US) - The bittersweet tale of an awkward young man and his bolshy brother coming to terms with their approaches to life even borrowed the characters from another film to keep costa down.

Secret City (UK) - Though it could have done with some tidying up and a bit of fat trimming off, Secret City contained a lot within it's zero-budget runtime.

Much Ado About Nothing (US) - I hesitated in including Joss Whedon's take on the Shakespearean tale since he's not short of a bob or two, and the film is littered with celeb-types from his various other works; but if you'll believe the stories, this was all done over a weekend after they had all come over to his house for a bit of a knees-up, so technically they didn't spend a dime. Maybe.

A Night Too Young (Cze/Slo) - Set entirely inside a cramped apartment, A Night Too Young makes for an awfully uncomfortable night for two young boys stumbling on the world of the adults and realizing it's not somewhere they should be. Troubling to watch but masterfully acted.

Enjoy The Journey Award -
The ABC's of Death (US/Various)

There is little else to do with the ABC's of death other than to just sit there and watch, open mouthed, as many people meet with an inventive array of gruesome deaths.  The clever twist of getting a different director to do each of the 26 five-minute pieces makes for a refreshingly entertaining take on the horror film, if that's your thing.

Honourable Mentions:

Little World (Spa) - It can be watched in many ways; an inspiration to stop making excuses about your personal limitations and get out there, to restore faith and trust in your fellow human, or just simply to enjoy as a nonchalant trip around the earth.

Tokyo Waka (Jpn) - A gently meditative look at the existence between man and nature in the largest metropolis on earth, taking it's time and popping off on indulgent tangents as it went.

Leviathan (Fra/UK) - It's repetitive nature grated after the first twenty minutes or so, but one thing this film did do correctly was give a warts-and-all peek into the horribly fishy, stormy, undulating lives of the poor fishermen catching our food day and, more often, night.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (US) - Never going to win any intellectual prizes, the latest, and probably last, Universal Soldier film was a surprisingly good bullet-fest that kept the eyes from glazing over right up until the pitted and worn faces of Lundgren and Van Damme at the end.
After the Credits Roll - The Tax Free Tour 

Perhaps an odd choice, but the subject matter of the film  - how the corporations we know and love are screwing their host countries out of millions of pounds in tax avoidance - was a talking point between friends and family for some time afterwards.  See also Secret City.

Honourable Mentions:

Dysmorphia (UK) - A deeply disturbing film about a man whose own limbs cause him revulsion.

After Lucia (Mex/Fra) - Perhaps the most difficult film to watch this year; After Lucia is a very powerful testament to the cruelty of children in the years before a moral conscience develops.  This may be a cathartic or horrifying experience for a viewer if they were the victim of bullying during childhood, but there is no doubt it was a fantastically played film.

Captain Phillips (US) - Tom Hanks gives a particularly fragile and nuanced performance as the titular captain in this true-life story of a container ship hijacked by somali pirates.  The final scenes of the broken man as he is brought out of the danger zone stay in the mind for some time after.

Little World (Spa) - It was hard to come out of this film and not reflect on my own achievements.  Young Albert put them to shame.

 Emotional Kick - After Lucia (Mex/Fra)

Make no mistake; this is not an easy film to watch, but the emotions will run high throughout this tale of a poor girl on the receiving end of some serious bullying.  And it will stay with you.

Honourable Mentions:

My House Without Me (Pol) - The quiet life of an old Polish grandmother in a dilapidated farmhouse is momentarily returned to the most upsetting period of her life, through the memories she recounts of uprisings and seizures and losing everything as the war machine bulldozed it's way through her life sixty plus years ago.

Twist Award -
Hal (Jpn)

Hal was one of those films that didn't quite make sense until you experienced the twist near the end, and everything slipped satisfyingly into place.

Honourable Mentions:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Pak/Ind) - An array of characters with satisfyingly obscure motives meant you were constantly being shifted one way and another between whether or not to fully trust Riz Ahmeds' character.

Patema Inverted (Jpn) - Can I put this here? Twists were a bit thin on the ground this year, and there were plenty of (non-narrative) twists thanks to the gravity dynamic.

Echo (UK) - A mid-film twist turns what you saw before completely on it's head, showing a woman's city centre predicament as not all that it seems.

Cleverest Film -
Patema Inverted (Jpn)

A clever inversion of gravity concept behind the film is a little silly (since it's for some reason affecting only some people) but what it does with it feels like a refreshing breeze into the occasionally stagnant anime genre.

Honourable Mentions:-

The ABC's of Death (US/Various) - Horror may not be your thing, but the sheer inventiveness here is something to be admired.

Computer Chess (US) - Not completely honest to it's audience, it's difficult not to admire a film for it's ability to keep you guessing between documentary and parody for the first twenty minutes.

The Ballad of Maria Lassnig (Austria) - A charming little film celebrating the life of a woman and her work, in her own words, songs, and costumes.

 Biggest Laugh - Nebraska (US)  

Constantly entertaining with a wide range of foil characters for Woody to bounce off.

Honourable Mentions:

The ABC's of Death (US/Various) - Once you've seen the final letters, you'll see why this is here.  The Japanese and American directors vie it out for most over the top, ludicrous ways to die.

Beware of Mr. Baker (US) - Mister Baker wields a fist at the interviewer within the first minute.  He's a grumpy old sod with a sardonic sense of humour.

The Perfectionists (Spa) - A perfectly judged mickey take of the seriousness put into method acting, in a film just short enough not to be annoying.

Best Indie to Show Your Friends -
The ABC's of Death (US/Various)
It was difficult to choose this years' best for introducing friends, but this death-fest is the best contender based on entertainment value, variety and occasional jaw-dropping wtfunniness.

Honourable Mentions: (subtitled films have a *)

The Rocket * (Australia) - A charming tale of a young boy overcoming his 'curse' and getting his family out of debt is as entertaining as it is improbable.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Ind/Pak) - Complex and entertaining, it stays just this side of confusing not to be a barrier.

Nebraska (US) - Again gets a mention.  Consistently funny, warm and entertaining.

Little World * (Spa) - It's difficult not to recommend this even with the language barrier, which is the only reason it didn't win.

The Look of Love (UK) - A heady mixture of female flesh, seedy back rooms and Alan Partridge playing a straight part results in a nicely judged film about a man many would find deplorable.

The Manky Sankey Awards

Consequently, the lack of films overall means less to complain about as well.

Biggest Let Down -
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (US) 

With a story canon as important as a major DC comics character, and millions of fans hoping for an impressive big budget tribute to the life of the man in black, what we got was a stitching together of two direct-to-DVD films that have the budget of the average Saturday morning cartoon.  Camp without the 60's TV series charm, grumpy and violent without the finesse of the latest films or the cartoons of the 90's, it tries to straddle the markets for kids and adults and ends up suitable for neither.  And it got an indulgent documentary for some reason.

Dishonourable Mentions:

Kill Me (Ger/Fre/Swi) - My main problems with this film are the rather clumsy attempts to steer the audience to an opinion of the escaped convict and his 'hostage', and the complete lack of surprises in the story. It was by no means a bad film, but just disappointing.

The Strange Little Cat (Ger) - Though it had the potential to be a clever, thoughtful film that relied on character development to keep interest up, there just wasn't enough to the characters - even the appealingly cheeky daughter - to make it pleasurable to watch.

An Anthropological Television Myth (Ita) - What could have been an engrossing documentary about the political and cultural upheavals during the Sicilian upheavals of the 1980's was bogged down with dull footage and a lack of clear narrative.

Garden of Words (Jpn) - There was a time when Makoto Shinkai had the expectations of being the next Miyazaki, and while its certainly the case that he is a talented artist, his storytelling is constantly melodramatic and his trademark quick scene changes and birds in flight becomes tiring.  Garden of Words manages to be watchable but nowhere near the heights of storytelling that would accompany visuals of this caliber.

Leviathan (Fra/UK) - Though it managed to convey a rugged and fishy-smelling life aboard the vessels bobbing about on the seas of the world, it became too repetitive and slow-moving to become entertaining.

Cold Eyes (S Kor) - Though praised by the people at Cannes, it contained too many stock action items and became a bit too Inception-y to stand out on it's own.

Most Pretentious -
Remote... Remote... (US)

The sixpackfilm is a goldmine of pretentious idiocies of film, freshly found this year with the sixpackfilmclassics strand.  Top of this list comes Remote... Remote..., a 'classic' short film involving a woman cutting her fingernails and cuticles until they bleed while some idiot bangs a paint pot with a stick.  This is not genius.  It is rubbish.

Dishonourable Mentions:

Ballhead (Austria) - Sixpackfilm provides a woman typing with her bandaged head as she bleeds profusely.  Stupid sound effects play behind.  Awful.

Self Mutilation (Austria) - Another sixpackfilmclassics entry.  A person.  Paint, wires, dull-blade knives.  Idiocy.

Most Drawn Out Scene -
Leviathan (Fra/UK)

There wasn't many films this year with such scenes, but Leviathan had several prime examples.  Sure, these scenes were effective in showing the often disgusting slop and dangerous conditions rife in such a profession, but they went on far, far too long, and repeated themselves when the director thought we had forgotten about them.

Dishonourable Mentions:

Trees in Autumn (Austria) - Trees.  In Autumn.  With loads of knackered film footage.

Habitat (US) - A ten minute long montage made from images of buildings overlaid on each other, with the odd tree included here and there.  The usual scratchy soundtrack didn't help.

Most Annoying Film - Ballhead (Australia)
There are any number of the six pack films that would count as annoying, but Ballhead gets inclusion here.  A woman self-mutilates (a common theme in these films, it seems) and then dresses her bloodied head, and then uses it as a typewriter.  It goes beyond annoying and into meaningless wrongness.  I wish I could have shown you how wrong it was but no online footage seems to exist.

Dishonourable Mentions:

Computer Chess (US) - Though it had it's funny bits and was less annoying once you had accepted and adjusted to the parodical rather than documentary nature of the film, Computer chess still managed to annoy throughout because I was constantly thinking about what a missed opportunity this film was.  An affectionate look at early computer intelligence competitions with found footage and interviews would have made for a far more enjoyable film, but instead the director decided that sneery derision in the form of unlikable characters would be more fun.

A Polish Wedding 2, or: How to Find a Friend in the Wilderness

The next morning brought more food than I could possibly want in the form of the breakfast bar.  Filled with processed meats and cheeses, the thought of it rolling over my tastebuds and flopping down on top of last night's partially digested feast, it turned my stomach, so I went back upstairs and put on my jogging gear.  Generally, running on a full stomach is asking for trouble but I was desperate for some fresh air in my lungs.  It would also take away some of that sickly bloat that I had imposed on myself the night before.  Wanting to try something a little longer than yesterday I looked at the route on google and traced a possible alternative - heading out of the other side of town and meeting up with the road I was on yesterday to make a loop of about 10k.  The roads all looked pretty obvious, so I decided to go for it.
Heading out of town down a long, straight road, I felt much better.  The fresh morning air was filling the lungs and the quiet scenery settled the mind into the day ahead.  But soon, the rain began and quickly strengthened.  I didn't mind as the temperature was mild and a bit of rain while running keeps me cool.  I kept on the back road; the map suggested I just stick to that and I would eventually reach the road I was on yesterday.  As the miles went by I was expecting to see signs for neighboring towns, but the turnings came and went and none of them resulted in anything familiar.

An hour or so in and the rain stopped.  So did the road.  The tarmac ended abruptly and a dirt track extended into the fields beyond, obscured by an old tractor.  By this point, I had been up and down several turnings without luck and I was getting nervous.  I stopped and looked around the area - a remote rural road with a couple of houses either side.  The garden at the end was the site of a work in progress.  The shell of a house, little more than a pile of breeze blocks was guarded by a large, barking dog in a kennel.  Fortunately he was on a lead and the garden was surrounded by a high wire fence.

Then came the puppy.  We have a puppy back home who was staying with grandparents while we were away, and so my first reaction to this bounding ball of cute was along the lines of 'awwwww'.  He wobbled towards me; a black retriever of some kind who had just found a new friend.  The wire fence separating us was no match for him, as he burrowed his way underneath and came to give me a personal greeting.  This was nice, I thought.  I petted him and gave him plenty of fuss for a short while, before turning back and jogging up the road.

But the little mutt was not for losing his new best friend.  I ran and he followed.  I ran further and he sped up.  This was getting worrying.  I couldn't have him along for the ride; he'd eventually tire and then be as lost as me, and at this moment I was taking up his full attention, so he had nothing on his mind beyond seeing what new adventures I would take him to see.  As the rain started to pour again, I trotted back to the garden and lifted him over.  He burrowed under again and looked at me with his tongue and tail wagging.  I repeated, and tried to weigh the fence down with stones, then ran for it.  I got thirty yards down the road and then heard the scamper of wobbly claws on tarmac behind me.

I was getting desperate.  Wherever home was I needed to get there soon.  I went back and scanned the houses - every one seemed deserted.  After trying to fool him to get stuck behind a gate, I came across another house a few doors down with a sturdily fenced garden.  I listened for dogs and scanned for warning notices, but found none.  This was his best chance.  I picked him up, and through the grateful licking, placed him down over the fence.  He looked at me forlornly, his best friend had double-crossed him, but I had to go.

I jogged away trying not to think about the possible fate that I had given him.  The owner of the house would find him a few minutes later and give him some food before handing him back to his owner.  Yes.  I choose to believe this is what happened.

It had been a couple of hours now since leaving.  I had given up on the idea of making the circle back to the hotel and instead tried to retrace my steps, but there were so many roads I had been down unsuccessfully I was unsure at each junction.

Then a ray of hope.  In the driveway of a house was a bicycle next to an open door.  Maybe someone was there.  What was the name of the town I had come from?  Come on, brain!

Just as I was about to try the gate, a woman came outside.  Praying she understood me I waved hello in as unwierd way as I could.  Just so she was aware, I said 'English' early on so she knew I'd have no clue what she was saying.  I guess seeing an English jogger in Poland must be unusual (I didn't see any joggers anywhere my whole time in the country) but one popping up in the pouring rain must have been even stranger.  So when she spoke a little broken English back to me it was a huge relief.  It was at this point my brain kicked in and recalled the name of the town - Międzybórz! - and my pronunciation was good enough to give her an idea of my predicament.  Surprisingly there was no way through even though Google Maps lied and said there was; my only way there was to go back the way I came, which fortunately she gave me directions for.

It is down to that strangers' great generosity that I made it back about an hour after that.  She actually came to see my progress on her bike a mile or so in to make sure I was on the right track.  The first signs of the familiar town through the gloom and the rain felt like coming home and I finally made it through the door, shortly before my partner sent out the search party.

Showered and dressed, we headed out for a look around the nearby town of Sycow, a relatively bustling place a step up from our sleepy hotel haunt.  A long road split the town in half, and represented the commercial 'district'.  National supermarkets pushed their way into the spaces where corner shops once were, squeezing aside those left from an earlier time.
Beyond the curiosity of greengrocers selling unusually shaped vegetables and the weird and wonderful things lining the shelves of the supermarkets, the place had little to entertain the passing tourist, and why should it?  We sat for a short while in a pleasant little cafe and then headed back.  After all, today was round two.

The general idea is that the wedding guests are assaulted on day one of the wedding with a near infinite barrage of food.  The food not eaten, rather than being scraped indignantly away into a nearby bin, is recycled.  Sometimes over several days, depending on the amount of animals slaughtered and the number of mouths willing to have bits of them repeatedly pushed inside.

And so it was that we provided two of those mouths.  Come midday, the onslaught started again, with familiar friends around the table, and on it.  But, there was something new put in front of us.  A curious-looking soup was being passed around in a big silver bowl.  As an aperitif, it sounded like a good stomach liner, so I beckoned the ladel in my direction.

The thin stock was full of what appeared to be vegetable strands, something like the seedy central bit of a courgette left to boil for a few hours and added to give a little variety to an otherwise boring soup.  Nevertheless, it was quite nice.  It was only after I placed down my spoon that I noticed Ms. Plants and several others had passed on the idea, knowing full well that the stringy stuff was offal.

We ploughed through the reheated food given to us, as much as we could.  It was still pretty good although the once-pristine square cakes had a definite look of being handled a few times, and thus nowhere near as appetizing.

The band was back once more.  They had little sleep since the previous night but were fresh and raring to go, belting out a number of Polish and western hits, which periodically we got up and danced to.  We sat and chatted and alternated between the food and dancing as the day turned to night.

Sometime late on, our attentions turned to John.  John is a part-time helper at the local church, who was invited along to take part in the wedding ceremony.  Now firmly out of his cassocks he had been sitting quietly and it was only now that we noticed he was a bit too quiet.  Unfazed by the banter around him he sat nodding off with his eyes closed.  Initial amusement turned to concern as we clocked the beads of sweat on his head.

Ms. Plants gave an immediate diagnosis, based as much on common sense as from her nursing experience.  He was an elderly man who had lived a sheltered life.  This was his first time abroad, and his normal alcohol intake was usually a sip of sherry on an evening.  For the second day in a row, his liver was having to accommodate the large amounts of beer, wine and vodka that an unrestricted drinking environment was providing him.  He needed to lie down.

We persuaded him to leave the chair and four of us helped the semi-conscious, apologetic man to the cooler lobby where a sofa was conveniently waiting.  We opened the door and sat with him for a while and slowly he started to feel a little better.  Insisting he was fine, we were not so sure, and so with some persuading, we were able to head upstairs, supporting him under his shoulders.  Just prior to reaching his room, the inevitable happened and he puked all over the floor.

We hoofed him onto the bed and after giving him a little water and checking he was okay, left him to sleep things off.

The remainder of the night involved more games and music, and of course, eating.  The last thing I remember from that night was being whirled around in a giant circle of people, sweaty hands holding me to the left and right, getting down to a Polish rendition of 'Yes Sir, I can Boogie'.  It will not be leaving my memory any time soon.

The next day was our last wedding-related day in Poland.  The morning brought with it third-hand foodstuffs, and then in the afternoon we visited the grooms' parents again and they took us all out for a meal. Thankfully, this was at a nice restaurant in the adjascent town, so everything was fresh, and we had no social pressure to wolf it all down.  We spent the evening packing.

The beginning of the new week was also the beginning of our holiday proper.  Up until this point, we were pretty much at the mercy of the meticulous arrangement of the bride, but now we were free to do as we wished.  The bride and groom were staying on a few days;  some of our English contingent were heading home, others doing like us and visiting other parts of Poland and beyond.  We had a room booked in Krakow, but first we had to get there, and that meant a bit of travel.

Marko very generously volunteered through his hangover to get us to the centre of Wroclaw, where the bus station would give us the best way of getting to Krakow before sundown.  Suggestions that maybe we could take a train between the two cities were frowned upon by those in the know; the Polish train system, we were told, was not very useful if you wanted to travel from one place to another in comfort or timeliness, so the car it was.

The kart van was nowhere to be seen, so we squeezed ourselves and another couple going to the airport, plus all our bags, into the old estate car Marko pulled up in.  Closer to the ground felt faster still, and the fields and forests went a blur past the windows until we reached the motorways once more.

An hour or so later we reached central Wroclaw, a bustling city with echoes of it's past.  Immaculate architecture stood on one side of a road, and over the other side stooped pock-marked wrecks of buildings clearly not cleared up from the worst excesses of war.  The buildings dropped away to reveal a dreary looking bus station which looked devoid of love, a metal and corrugated eyesore that was still in use simply because it hadn't fallen apart.

Marko helped us find the ticket booths and worked out the best bus to get on.  The tickets were dirt cheap, enough to make us consider buying several and going to random destinations, but we didn't have the time to reach the far corners of the country.  We stuck to Krakow.  Marko said his farewells and we were on our own to wait for the bus.  Flocks of pigeons and sparrows fluttered about stand 8 and we took turns having a walk about while the other went to the loo, or had a bit of a walk around in the half hour before our bus came.

The bus ride was pretty nondescript, as was the scenery outside.  Poland beyond the surviving pre-war architecture is not the prettiest place to view through a bus window; we were thankful for the functional roads but were looking forward to seeing something a little nicer - our fingers were crossed for Krakow.

We reached the Krakow bus station in early evening.  Compared to Wroklaw, Krakow was altogether more beautiful, less dusty, and much more vibrant.  We gathered our bearings and headed in the direction we thought the room was in.  It was warm and sunny, and after a few heated arguments about the correct road to take we started to enjoy the scenery instead.  The Planty park gardens are a thin ring of greenery around the inner core of the city, and we were able to follow them around to get most of the way in.  The well-kept cobble roads and the almost cosmopolitan vibe was a nice alternative to the remote, featureless view of Poland we had so far; it would have been better still without lugging a load of cases over it all.

We finally made it to our stopover for the night.  We had another three days to spend in Krakow but our original choice of hotel was booked up on the first day, so we found a top floor apartment to tide us over for the first night, on the south side of the Planty, next to Wawel Royal castle.  Definitely part of the old town, it was hard to tell whether we had rung the doorbell to the hotel or somebody's house, but an enthusiastic woman buzzed us in through the huge wooden doors, revealing a dark and cavernous entrance hall.  It looked like the entrance to the sort of apartment block that a french hitman from the a sixties noir film might be running through.

Murky, smoke-coloured plaster walls and old fashioned metal-framed windows looking out onto other apartments just a few feet away, made up the scenery of the first three floors, with a reassuring sticker sign on each level telling us the guest apartments were in fact this way.  At the entrance to the upper floors, the decor changed from old-fashioned to modern; a brushed-steel doorway held open by a slim, bubbly young woman who ushered us up a final flight of smooth wooden steps and into a contrastingly modern hallway.  We waited patiently while she took a call, thumbing through the Krakow tourist brochures, and then finally got our room.  A modern, open-plan kitchen/bedroom/living room with a recessed telly, gaudily painted walls and a selection of tightly-screwed down modern art paintings dotted around.
After getting our breath back and unpacking a little, we headed back out to the centre of the city.  We didn't have much daylight left so restricted ourselves to looking around the market square in the epicentre of the old town.  A wide open space compared with the tight and narrow shop-lined streets surrounding it, the square was the place to meet up with friends it seemed.  Large gatherings of people, some just idling around; others watching some of the open-air entertainment.  Others darting through between shops and restaurants.  A handful of men here and there were trying to sell luminous rocket toys as cheap kids presents for Christmas.
In the middle of the square is the Cloth Hall - a slender covered market made up of a single corridor with little shops either side, both inside and out.   We walked amongst the crowds and eyed up the various restaurants and then went inside.
Being September, the theme was Christmas, and many of the little shops either side were buzzing with people looking for something to buy.  A lot of it was just the same as the stuff you see in the German Markets we get around this time, but there were some other more bespoke items dotted here and there, and it still had that feel of selling locally-produced merchandise, even if some of it probably wasn't.

The market was closing up and the night was drawing in, so we spent a little time skirting around the edges of the square to see what choice of food there was (answer: just about everything you'd get in your average English city).  We passed on a rather nice looking Indian, just in case and instead took the advice of a slightly biased young man drumming up business for an Italian restaurant underneath a Christmas shop.  We spent a candlelit evening chatting about what we had seen so far and where we would go tomorrow, as the shadows flickered on the nearly pointed stonework above us.

Our holiday was finally ours.

A Polish Wedding 1, or: How to Eat Your Weight in Meat

September brought with it the much anticipated browning leaves and shortening nights, and also a long-reserved but still unprepared-for trip to Poland.  This was set in motion because two of Ms. Plants Polish friends - one living in the UK, the other over in Poland - were going to get hitched.  The plan was for a flight to Wroclaw on Friday, followed by a party on Saturday and the wedding on Sunday.  On Monday, there would be another party to 'use up the remaining food', and then everyone went their separate ways.
Thinking on our feet, we decided to extend the holiday to the following weekend.  This afforded us some quality time together, and also allowed us to travel further afield to see what the rest of Poland had to offer.  In particular, I wanted to take the opportunity to see the crumbling camps at Auschwitz and the Oskar Schindler museum.

Our flight over was pretty straightforward.  Myself and Ms. Plants were joined by a some friends and relatives of the couple on the flight, and when we arrived at Wroclaw airport, we milled about quietly in the arrivals area thumbing through tourist maps and guides, and waiting for our pre-arranged transport to arrive.

Marko's english was pretty good.  A friend of the groom, he had been drafted in to ferry us to the hotel we were all staying in.  He led us to a large van, emblazoned with kart racing insignia which looked as if it was normally used to transfer racing vehicles to and from courses.  This was the first warning that scary times were ahead.  He took our cases and slung them randomly in the back to slosh around on the journey and then beckoned us to either sit with him in the front or go in the seats behind.  He slid open the side door to reveal a long leather effect seat against a hard wooden back, and through the lights of the darkened car park we could discern no seat belts anywhere.  This was our second warning. 

Starting off quickly and maintaining the pace wherever he could, Marko sped out of the airport and onto the motorway, away from Wroclaw.  What we had assumed would be a 10 minute journey was now lengthening into the distance and away from any major city.  I am still unaware whether there is a defined speed limit on Polands' high-speed roads or we just got lucky and didn't cross with the police, as I occasionally chanced myself away from the shivering huddle on the back seat and peered at the speedo, which rarely went below 120km.  It was raining and dark, and quite often Marko would overtake and switch lanes, often while chatting and texting on his mobile.

Some way past an hour later, we turned off the motorway and into the narrower, windier country roads that connected the blurry details that I assume were towns and villages of rural Poland.  Mercifully we slowed as we entered the small town of Międzybórz, now dead in silence in the middle of the night.

Fortunately the hotel was still open and the sleepy receptionist checked us in, making politely sure that we did not look through the frosted glass doors in the lobby, for that is where the wedding reception was taking place and she absolutely did not want for anyone to see it until the day.

Considering the sleepy rural nature of the town (that we saw through the midnight gloom), the hotel was pretty modern, and stuck out among the dirt roads and communist-era blocks of flats situated around.  We found this was because the old one had recently burned to the ground.   Our room was roomy, and everything seemed to work as it should, so we got a bit of late night food (a 'traditional' mix of meats and processed cheeses) and then called it a night.

Come the morning, we were glad of a late start.  The party was to begin around 2-ish, and, according to the flustered bride who came to see how we were doing, finish sometime in the morning.  No problem, I thought.  I'm no party animal but most of these things continue into the wee hours.  Just slink away when you reach the crossing between a desire to leave and having been there long enough not to be offensive by leaving.  It's a delicate balance with a band of nearly all unknown people, but it should be a cinch.

So in the morning I used my new pants to go for a jog through the next town and back onto the main road.  It was a nice, quiet circular route that could have done with being a little longer, but considering it's all unknown territory I made do.  We all met in the breakfast area and once filled we split down gender lines; the women to go get themselves glammed up, and the men milling about looking at what the town had to offer.  Międzybórz is a pleasant, quiet town but, given that we were expecting to be in the centre of Wroclaw at this point, was a bit disappointing.  A main road ran through the middle of it and a small open air market allowed me to buy some jogging pants which I had forgotten to bring with me.  This was the highlight of the tour.

By midday we were ready.  The women had been thoroughly blow dried and styled to the point of being unrecognizable, and we had blown the moths from our suits and adorned them.  It was time to go.
By Polish tradition, we began at the groom's house.  Situated over in the next town in a dilapidated area stood identical blocks of communist era-influenced flats.  The hired band were there to meet us and got ready to receive the bride and groom once we returned to the car.  We went inside down the dark passageway, the inside stairwell was barren and concrete and led up through four flights of stairs to the top apartment.  Inside was cramped but homely; a modest family space filled with parents and teens, hinting that though they may be losing a son, they are gaining a bedroom as of the big day.

Quite unsure how I had managed to get there, since I only passingly knew both bride and groom, I realized the privilege afforded to us.  With maybe a dozen people huddled into the main room, the bride and groom came together for the first time since the night before.  The grooms' mother gave a speech which, although in Polish we could see through her tears was a heartfelt and selfless giving away of her son.  Knelt silently, they accepted the blessings of the priest and stared into each others eyes as we vied with the official photographer for the best photo.  Then it was on to the church.

The wedding was at the central Catholic church in town, and after a short drive in the kart van, attempting to keep our clothes clean and uncreased, we stepped out and into the grounds.  Far older than the concrete slab buildings around it, the beautiful ancient church looked like a hark back to a Poland of many decades ago.  The outsides looked clean and solid and as we entered, the inside was a pristine and beautiful sight, a contrast to the drab and dreary buildings around them and a sure sign that the Catholic church still had plenty of income for upkeep.
We did our best to sing along to the Polish hymns (helped by a fancy readout screen above our heads), and stood and sat when we were directed to, until finally the bride and groom said their vows and exchanged rings, at which point there was much elation from the pews.  Filing out again, we posed for all manor of photos, and got in the cars, vans and whatever else the family could travel in to return to the hotel.

During the journey we were given prime viewing of another Polish wedding tradition; since the close-knit towns and villages between had all heard of a wedding happening, and we were a couple of towns away from our destination, we were ambushed several times.  The bride and grooms' shiny wedding car had to abruptly stop as into the road lurched men, women and children from the sides of the road.  It is customary that if you stop the car, the groom has to give you a present - typically vodka for the adults and armfuls of sweets for the kids - although one or two kids chanced their arm and asked for vodka anyway 'for their parents', and may have got their wish.  Occasionally, the bandits would be nice enough to come prepared with cakes to do swaps with, which nicely, we got to share in now and again as the lead car became overly weighed down with cakes and treats.

Eventually the convoy made it through the winding roads and back to the hotel, where the staff had been hard at work getting everything just right.  We took a breather in our room and then headed off downstairs to the super secret dining area, to a sight in white.  Perfectly presented tables filled the half the floorspace, with a band setting up it's instruments in the other; an intimidating dance floor situated between them and us.

We each filed in excitedly; though I was a little nervous - the hundred or so guests were largely strangers and didn't speak much English and my abilities to make smalltalk around a table to unknowns is poor at best - but I was concentrating on my rumbling stomach.  We had been promised a feast like no other, and what we were about to receive certainly was.

With the bride and groom and the close family at the head table, and the various children of the group subdued and sat quietly, the first course came around.  A chicken noodle broth.  Though tasty, it was not an indication of what was to come.  The dishes were efficiently cleared away and then the onslaught began.  Our rumbling stomachs took in the hunks of chicken and balls of pork and stuffing, and the small amounts of vegetables on the side.  As soon as one central plate of meat had been emptied, it was replaced by another one, steaming and full with new and exciting entries we had not yet tried.  Fillets of battered something, giant burger-type patties and breasts of chicken.  With the exception of some small bowls of root vegetables here and there, it was all meat.  And it kept coming.

Hunger had turned to bloating when the drinks came.  The iced water and wine available so far was joined by several large plastic bottles of carbonated juices, and an array of shot glasses were placed on the table wherever they would fit.  Fancy, ribbon-sealed bottles of vodka appeared between the meat, and the eyes of all the guests began to sparkle.

Now at this point I feel the need to point out that I don't drink alcohol.  Just never liked the stuff, it always tastes of off-vinegar to me regardless of whether it's cheap supermarket beer or expensive plonk.  So when it became obvious that I had not filled my glass, the eyes of the people around us started to glance over disapprovingly.  Then we all had to stand up.

A toast was happening.  The band moved from their song schedule to a happy birthday-style ditty, and those guests who knew the words began to shout them out, whoomphing the last word out at the end of each bar to emphasise the point of the song.  At the end, everyone took a shot of vodka from their glass.  I pretended to drink from my empty shot, but some furrowed brows were pointed my way.  I was letting the side down.

Taking the opportunity while most of the people around us got up for a dance, I filled my shot glass for the next round with water, and decided to wing it from that.  I still got some suspicious looks in the dozen or so other toasts that night, but at least the pitchforks had been put away.

And still the food came.  Eating had become something you felt obliged to do just to make room on the table.  But just as you managed to take the last bit of food from one plate, it would be replaced by another, seemingly endless slaughter of local farm animals beyond the double doors.  Every five or six servings of main course was delimited by a plate of cakes - square blocks of diabetes of all different colours and flavours awaiting your digestive system.  Sure they would have been yummy had it not been for the full-frontal assault leading up to them.  And after that - more meat yet still came and the whole cycle started again.

By midnight, the tablecloths had been lost under a pile of party hats, half-eaten cakes and huge platefuls of uneaten meat products, and the tables were largely devoid of guests.  Everyone was on the dance floor save for the elderly and the comatose, trying their best to shutter down their monster indulgences and prove to everyone else that they could mix it and get down with the kids.  First the bride and groom got up and, bulging waistlines put aside for one moment the bride hoisted up her dress to reveal a pair of sneakers to colourfully match the grooms'.  The band notched up the tempo and they wowed the audience with an energetic dance routine we later discovered they had only a couple of hours in between everything else to prepare for.   After that and a slower first dance to a Polish variant of Careless Whisper, and the majority got up and joined them.  Myself and the missus got up once or twice for a dance, but we were both feeling more than a little queasy, and the grooms' teenage friends - who had probably been up and drinking since 7am - were putting us to shame.
The wedding cake arrived an hour or so later.  The dance floor cleared and the lights dimmed, as a load of industrial strength fireworks were stuck in the top and set alight.  For a short while, it was a beautiful sight, until the downward force of one of the fireworks caused the top tier to fall off.  What was left was divvied up and eaten where possible.  I wish I had left more room, as that was the tastiest cake I have ever eaten.

As if to further test the resolve of the people who had not yet died, it was now games time.  Teams were split down the men/women divide, and sometimes England vs. Poland, since there were enough of us for a 5-a side tournament.  The games ranged from scooter-vodka-swig-fallover-tag - which the English somehow managed to win despite a lot of falling off scooters and drinking huge quantities of vodka, due to the other side cheating, and the 'guess which of these legs belongs to the bride' game, where the groom had to work out whose legs were his betrothed from several placed in front of his blindfolded face.  I confess that I chickened out of a lot of this, but Ms. Plants went for it, having a little more dutch courage on board.

By the time the games had ended and the sweaty contestants had retired back to whichever chairs were nearest, I was out of it; the food was beginning to take the expected effect and the endless energy exhibited by my Polish brethren was starting to get to me.  I made my excuses and crept quietly upstairs (as if anyone else in the hotel could sleep with the noise), with a ringing in my ears for company that would not leave me until sometime the next morning.  The lass, unimpressed with my early finish, stayed on for an hour or so and then crept into bed.  Things finally went silent around 4am.

And it was all to do again the next day.