Sunday, 19 April 2015

Lublin - Pearl of Poland's East

Poland has many fine cities worth visiting; for those not in the know, Lublin, some 100miles/165km south-east of Warsaw, is a bit off the beaten track. Tucked away in eastern Poland, along with Białystok and Rzeszów, it's less visited than Krakow, Gdańsk, Wrocław or Warsaw, yet each repeat visit continues to provide me with delight.

Yesterday I was in Lublin to address a translators' congress - very interesting (maybe a few thoughts on the subject at a later date if there's demand). As I had three hours to kill before my train back to Warsaw, there was a great opportunity to visit Lublin's Old Town.

Below: like Warsaw, Lublin has a Krakowskie Przedmieście, this street running from west to east and ending at the City Hall (right) and the gates to the Old Town (centre).

Below: at every turn, a tower. It was a cold day (+4C) with a strong wind; blue skies would alternate with dark clouds and showers. In the distance, the Trinitarian Tower.

Below: ul. Arcydiekańska, the Dom społecznej pomocy (lit. House of Social Help). On the wall, in white lettering, the Latin inscription Bene merentibus pax - 'Peace unto the well-deserving'

Below: some of the kamienice have been restored, others are still in a poor state, while renovation work continues at a leisurely pace. Sharing an idea from Warsaw's Ul. Próżna and Pl. Grzybowski, black & white photos of former residents grace the windows of buildings in the course of remont.

Below: view from Plac Po Farze* across to the Royal Castle. Note the trees in blossom and the threatening clouds, which thankfully moved north-eastward away from the city.

The Old Town has an abundance of restaurants and bars; having time, I looked around for what I fancied. U szewca ('at the cobbler's') is still the finest, but I was put off by the staid choice of beers. Indeed everywhere into which I popped my head had the same insipid line-up, with the occasional 'unpasteurised', 'unfiltered' or 'regional' beer that typically comes from one of the big industrial brewers. The craft ale renaissance is nowhere to be seen in Lublin's Old Town.

Similarly with food. I ordered a 10oz burger in a pub on the market square. A lovely place, tastefully - intriguingly even - decorated, good friendly service, busy with foreign tourists... the burger comes. High quality of meat - like you'd expect from a trendy burger place in Warsaw. And the price? About 6zł less than in the capital. But a square slice of processed cheese on top of the meat? Ketchup? Get out of town! Would it not be too much to ask for some Roquefort, a slice of fresh pear and some ruccola? And beer-wise, the most exotic departure from the ubiquitous Lech/Tyskie was a pint of Guinness. Where are the craft ales?

Here's a huge opportunity for business development. My children tell me of all the hip places going on in Łódź; now, Lublin - a city where 23% of the term-time population is students - should be at the cutting edge of hip. It isn't - it feels about six or seven years behind Warsaw when it comes to gastronomy and interesting beers. Below: the Old Town gate at the Royal Castle end.

When I first visited Lublin's Old Town in 1999 it was completely run-down and full of dilapidated alleyways (like the one below, ul. Ku Farze*) and crumbling tenements. Since then, it has slowly established its place on the must-see list of any tourist visiting Poland. Yesterday I saw scores of tourists - and indeed students - from the US, Germany, France, Spain, Russia, the Far East and the Middle East.

Below: the archway from the Old Town market square leading into ul. Rybna (lit. ' Fish Street' or 'Fishy Street'). Some more of the old charm of Lublin - catch it before it gets too Disneyfied.

Below: looking down ul. Złota ('Gold Street') towards the Dominican Basilica.

Below: the Trinitarian Tower, as seen from the Old Town market place.

Below: the Old Town Hall and Crown Tribunal building, surrounded on all sides by the cobbled market place. I don't think many of the tourists strolling around during this low-season weekend were expecting that it could be this cold in mid-April. This time last week it was 22C outside Warsaw.

In August 2013, I wrote a short story in five parts about the reported miracle that occurred in Lublin's cathedral (below). As this is my first visit to the city since writing it, I took the opportunity to see the arch-cathedral of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist (below). The Miracle of Lublin happened on 3 July 1949, while Poland was suffering the worst phase of Stalinism.

Many worshippers reported seeing tears of blood streaming down the face of the painting of the Madonna (below), a replica of the more famous one in Częstochowa. The communist authorities, wishing to stifle the crowds streaming into Lublin to see the miracle, had a provocateur throw a brick (or a plank according to some sources) from the top of the bell-tower to the left of the photo above, which killed an 18 year-old girl, and caused a stampede in the crowd queueing outside the cathedral.

Below: looking down from the square in front of the cathedral.

On my way down the hill from the Old Town towards the railway station, quite a way from the city centre. I pass the Diocesan Museum illuminated by strong late-evening sunshine.

The station is remarkable for having a vast amount of tracks. "The train for Szklarska Poręba calling at Warsaw is standing on Platform 1, Track 52. The train from Warsaw arrives at Platform 3, Track 57." Gulp! Apparently, many tracks are now defunct, ripped up or for freight only, but from the passenger's point of view, this numeration system is madness.Click on the scheme below to see just how complex Lublin station is - but surely there's a better way of numbering tracks? [click here to see the whole picture]. Plus, it's a long walk from the station to town. 

Lublin is well worth a visit. It's cheaper than Warsaw and easy to get to. Now it has its own (and remarkably busy) airport with connections to London Stansted and London Luton, and later this year to Sheffield-Doncaster and Glasgow. The rail journey to Warsaw takes a little over two hours and there's also a good service.

* Fara or Farna - archaic term for 'parish'. Kościół farny = Parish church. Ul. Ku Farze = Towards the Parish (Church) Street; Pl. Po Farze = After (or the Remains of) the Parish (Church) Square (or Place).

This time two years ago:
70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

This time three years ago:
Tarkovsky's Stalker: a zone of my own

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's big billboards

This time five years ago:
Pace of development falters

This time eight years ago:
Strange days indeed

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Blossomtime sublime

Spring bursts forth in flower as it does each year; with a crystal blue cloudless sky, enhanced by a polarising filter, the Mood Sublime is once again attained. Photos worth clicking on to enlarge, and contemplating the transient nature of blossom.

Below: blossom in Powiśle (Rozbrat)...

Below: blossom in Powiśle (ul. Kruczkowskiego)...

Below: blossom in Jeziorki (ul. Karczunkowska, by the station)...

Below: blossom in Jeziorki (ul. Achillesa)

Below: blossom in Jeziorki (ul. Nawłocka)...

Below: blossom in Jeziorki (ul. Trombity)...

Below: blossom in Jeziorki (ul. Trombity)...

This time three years ago:
Novotel Forum clad in Orange

This time four years ago:

This time five years ago:
Icelandic volcano shuts down NW Europe air traffic

This time seven years ago:
Large, charismatic fowl

This time eight years ago:
Antonov An-26 in the twilight of its career

Friday, 10 April 2015

In Memoriam

Please take the time to read the names of those who died at Smolensk; this list is primarily intended to remind  my non-Polish readers of the magnitude of the tragedy that befell Poland that dreadful day five years ago.

Joanna Agacka-Indecka, president of the Polish Bar Council

Ewa Bąkowska, representative of the Katyn Families

Lt. Gen. Andrzej Błasik, Commander of the Polish Air Force

Krystyna Bochenek, deputy speaker of the Senate

Anna Maria Borowska, representative of the Katyn Families

Bartosz Borowski, representative of the Katyn Families

Maj. Gen. Tadeusz Buk, Commander of the Polish Land Forces

Brig. Gen. Miron Chodakowski, Orthodox chaplain of the Polish Armed Forces

Lt. Col. Czesław Cywiński, president of the World Association of Home Army Soldiers

Lt. Col. Zbigniew Dębski, co-founder of the Union of Warsaw Insurgents

Leszek Deptuła,  member of the Sejm (Polish parliament)

Grzegorz Dolniak, member of the Sejm

Katarzyna Doraczyńska, press officer at the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Edward Duchnowski, secretary general of the Union of Siberian Deportees

Aleksander Fedorowicz, interpreter at the chancellery of the President of Poland

Janina Fetlińska, senator

Lt. Col. Jarosław Florczak, close protection officer

Warrant Officer Artur Francuz, close protection officer

Gen. Franciszek Gągor, chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces

Grażyna Gęsicka, member of the Sejm, former Minister of Regional Development

Brig. Gen. Kazimierz Gilarski, commander of the Warsaw Garrison

Przemysław Gosiewski, member of the Sejm, former deputy premier

Fr. Bronisław Gostomski, personal chaplain to President Kaczorowski

Maj. Robert Grzywna, co-pilot

Mariusz Handzlik, undersecretary of state at the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Fr. Roman Indrzejczyk, personal chaplain to President Kaczyński

Lt. Paweł Janeczek, close protection officer

Dariusz Jankowski, member of staff at the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Natalia Januszko, flight attendant

Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, member of the Sejm, former deputy premier

Fr. Józef Joniec, Roman Catholic priest

Ryszard Kaczorowski, former president of the Republic of Poland in Exile

Maria Kaczyńska, First Lady

Lech Kaczyński, President of Poland

Sebastian Karpiniuk, member of the Sejm

Vice-Admiral Andrzej Karweta, Commander of the Navy

Mariusz Kazana, director of diplomatic protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Janusz Kochanowski, Civil Rights Ombudsman

Brig. Gen. Stanisław Komornicki, chancellor of the Order of Virtuti Militari

Stanisław Komorowski, Deputy Minister of Defence

Warrant Officer Paweł Krajewski, close protection officer

Andrzej Kremer, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs

Fr. Zdzisław Król, member of the Council for the Protection of Martyrdom Sites

Janusz Krupski, head of the Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression

Janusz Kurtyka, President of IPN (Institute of National Remembrance)

Andrzej Kwaśnik, Roman Catholic police chaplain and chaplain to the Katyn Families

Lt. Gen. Bronisław Kwiatkowski, commander of the Polish Armed Forces' Operational Command

Col. Wojciech Lubiński, personal physician to President Kaczyński

Tadeusz Lutoborski, representative of the Katyn families association

Barbara Maciejczyk, flight attendant

Barbara Mamińska, director of the Decorations Office, Chancellery of the President of Poland

Zenona Mamontowicz-Łojek, president of the Polish Katyn Foundation

Stefan Melak, head of the Katyn Committee

Tomasz Merta, deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage

Warrant Officer Andrzej Michalak, flight engineer

Capt. Dariusz Michałowski, close protection officer

Stanisław Mikke, deputy head of the Council for the Protection of Martyrdom Sites

Justyna Moniuszko, flight attendant

Aleksandra Natalli-Świat, member of the Sejm

Janina Natusiewicz-Mirer, social activist

Second Lt. Piotr Nosek, close protection officer

Piotr Nurowski, president of the Polish Olympic Committee

Bronisława Orawiec-Löffler, representative of the Katyn Families

Lt. Col. Fr. Jan Osiński, Roman Catholic priest

Col. Adam Pilch, Lutheran military chaplain

Katarzyna Piskorska, representative of the Katyn Families

Maciej Płażyński, member of the Sejm, former Speaker of the Sejm

Maj. Gen. Tadeusz Płoski, Roman Catholic Bishop of the Polish Armed Forces

Junior Warrant Officer Agnieszka Pogródka–Węcławek, close protection officer

Maj. Gen. Włodzimierz Potasiński, commander of the Polish Special Forces

Capt. Arkadiusz Protasiuk, pilot

Andrzej Przewoźnik , secretary of the Council for the Protection of Martyrdom Sites

Krzysztof Putra, deputy speaker of the Sejm

Fr. Ryszard Rumianek, rector of the Cardinal Wyszyński University

Arkadiusz Rybicki, member of the Sejm

Andrzej Sariusz-Skąpski, president of the Federation of Katyn Families

Wojciech Seweryn, sculptor, creator of the Katyn Monument in Chicago

Sławomir Skrzypek, president of the National Bank of Poland

Leszek Solski, representative of the Katyn Families

Władysław Stasiak, head of the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Warrant Officer Jacek Surówka, close protection officer

Aleksander Szczygło, head of the National Security Bureau

Jerzy Szmajdziński, deputy speaker of the Sejm, former Defence Minister

Jolanta Szymanek-Deresz, member of the Sejm

Izabela Tomaszewska, head of protocol at the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Warrant Officer Marek Uleryk, close protection officer

Anna Walentynowicz, co-founder of the Solidarity trade union movement

Teresa Walewska-Przyjałkowska, deputy president of the Golgotha of the East Foundation

Zbigniew Wassermann, member of the Sejm

Wiesław Woda, member of the Sejm

Edward Wojtas member of the Sejm

Paweł Wypych, secretary of state at the Chancellery of the President of Poland

Stanisław Zając, senator

Janusz Zakrzeński, actor

Lt. Artur Ziętek, navigator

Gabriela Zych, representative of the Katyn Families

Cześć Ich Pamięci.

This time two years ago:
Warszawa 1935: 3D film reconstructs lost city

This time three years ago:
Cats and awareness

This time three years ago:
Why did this happen?

This time two years ago:
Britain's grey squirrels turning red

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Big bit of history repeating. Or is it?

For Vladimir Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th Century. Putin's long game is to rebuild Soviet power as Russian power, ensuring that the mistakes of the Soviet leadership are not repeated. He looks carefully at what worked and what didn't; what tools from the USSR's armoury were effective in the furtherance of Soviet power, and which of its activities turned out to be counterproductive.

Putin understands that Stalin-style mass oppression doesn't work. Why execute and incarcerate millions, if selective intimidation of a small, dissenting minority will do the trick more effectively? Why make enemies of the pliant masses when they can be held in thrall with cheap vodka and dumb-ass TV leavened with noxious propaganda and outright lies?

Putin's greatest fear is the regime-changing crowd, which he witnessed in East Germany in 1989, which he saw in Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2005. Currently, a wave of under-reported strikes are occurring across Russia, led by public-sector workers who've not been paid, and by factory workers whose factories have been shut down due to a shortage of orders. These are happening in provincial cities and do not concern Putin. These protests will never threaten his position. Massive demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of people strong, in the centre of Moscow, however, will. So Putin's focus is to ensure they will never happen. Intimidation is the principal tool to keep the dissident activists away from Moscow's streets. And by claiming that dissidents are mentally ill, the Putin regime is harking back to tried-and-tested Soviet techniques.

Above all, Putin understands that power is not to be shared or given away. This was the key mistake of the last tsar and the last secretary-general of the Communist Party of the USSR. Power must remain concentrated in one strong pair of hands.

Keeping Soviet citizens cooped up in their town of residence, and ultimately, inside the barbed-wire confines of the Bolshaya Zona, the wider USSR outside of the Gulag, was also a mistake, Putin realises. Let those who can afford foreign travel do so. If they don't like Russia, let them leave. For good. Simple. The reason that the USSR didn't allow ordinary Soviet citizens to travel abroad was a) because  it was feared that if they could, they'd all pack up and go, and b) because they'd see that the dream of the wonderful life afforded to them by the USSR was one big lie. Putin has no problem with dissidents leaving. His people know where they've migrated to, should they ever get too uppity. And in terms of b), Putin's propaganda strategy turns to old Soviet model on its head.

Rather than saying that everything in Russia's rosy (thanks to the internet, everyone can see its shortcomings), Putin is saying that the West is rotten, morally damaged and evil. He is saying that Russia is suffering because of the West's insatiable desire to conquer Russia - rather than point to its feeble, venal institutions, its monoculture economy or its underinvested infrastructure. And mixing this propaganda message about Fascists in Kiev backed by the US and EU into a blend of reality TV and raunchy entertainment shows, the bulk of the nation has evidently swallowing the lie.

Gorbachev's clamp-down on alcoholism didn't work. So let the masses drown their sorrows in subsidised vodka. OK, Russia has the lowest male life expectancy outside of sub-Saharan Africa? Better an inebriated nation than a nation of people soberly demanding their rights to a better life. In February, Putin lowered the minimum price of vodka.

Incidentally, obituaries noting the recent death of Singapore's founding statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, suggest that his achievements in propelling the city state to world-class prosperity are prompting authoritarian leaders the world over to say - 'this model works'. But for Mr Putin to make the comparison between himself and Lee Kuan Yew would be entirely fallacious. The reason that Singapore works is because it has a strong public administration (well-paid and incorruptible); because it is one of the very best places in the world to run a business (entrepreneurs know they will never be shaken down by venal bureaucrats or by the local mafia); and because it has rock-solid property rights. While Lee Kuan Yew tolerated opposition politicians about as much as Putin does, Singapore's leader understood that private-sector business must be allowed to flourish unhindered and that the public administration must be efficient and trustworthy.

In Putin's Russia, home-grown private business was never allowed to get off the ground and establish a solid bedrock for economic growth, akin to Germany's Mittelstand. And the public administration - from traffic cops to buildings inspectors, from customs officials to hospital bosses, live from the baksheesh they collect, passing on up a given percentage up the ladder, which reaches right up to the top. This system worked in Ukraine until the people there got totally sick and tired of it, and overthrew it. Putin fears the same may happen in Russia (albeit the system in Ukraine was more blatant, less sophisticated).

It is only a robust and thriving private sector, based on an unshakable faith in the Rule of Law and property rights, that will ever get Russia's economy into a healthy state. That takes, as we have seen in Poland and across the other post-2004 EU member states, a minimum of 20 years. But only if the institutions function properly and the rule of law is observed.

The Soviet Union's planned economy was a mistake that Putin wants to avoid. But his tendencies to micro-manage keep pulling him back from a liberalising direction. A centrally planned economy based on slave or semi-slave labour can just about keep its head above water in a world dominated by heavy industry. But in today's globalised, knowledge-based economy, central planning is as useful as the Holy Inquisition. The Kremlin cannot centrally decree a Russian Apple, Microsoft or Google. You can force an informatyk to write you 1,000 lines of code a day, but you can do nothing to ensure that it's good code.

Since the debacle over the Bekaa valley in 1982, the largest air battle ever fought by jet aircraft, the Israeli Air Force, with its US-built F-15s and F-16s, shot down between 82 and 86 Syrian Air Force Soviet-built MiG-21s and MiG-23s for the loss of four of Israeli jets. This was a wake-up call to the Soviet Politburo - while the Soviet fighters had faster climb rates and were more manoeuvrable, as well as being cheaper and easier to maintain in the field, their avionics, weapons guidance systems and radars - dependent on computer hardware and software - were clearly inferior.

This realisation - that future wars would be won by the country with the superior information technology - led to glasnost, perestroika and ultimately the downfall of the Soviet Union. The big question is - has Putin taken this lesson on board? As a Chekist, he understands the concept of the hybrid war and the role of maskirovka. Lie, disinform, deceive, camouflage, distort. This works well against a weak and poorly-trained army and a gullible public opinion at home and in the West. But in the event of Putin's bayonet striking steel, would he back down?

The firmer the West is with Putin, the less likely he is to keep pushing. The West won the Cold War because it was prepared to stand up to the relentless bullying of the USSR throughout the decisive decade of the 1980s.The question is - what lessons from that period has Putin learnt, and what lessons have the peoples, and the leaders of the West learnt?

This time two years ago:
Sunshine, snow, April

This time four years ago:
In vino veritas

This time five years ago:
Are we getting more intelligent?

This time six years ago:
Lenten recipe No. 6

This time seven years ago:
Coal trains, Konstancin-Jeziorna

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki from the air

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Another snowy Easter; Lent summed up

As I sit here in the kitchen writing, I can see flurries of snow outside. It is Easter Sunday. Leaden skies, westerly winds, but the snow won't settle as it's +2C. So disappointing, given that two weeks ago it was already warm enough to wander out without an overcoat.

Still, it's the end of Lent, something I celebrated at midnight with a really fine bottle of Citra IPA by Great Heck Brewery - a truly superior ale, crisp, golden, full of single-hop flavour.

Time to look at the effects of 46 days of fasting, preceded by a gentler period of reduced food and drink intake plus increased exercise.

The effects are good. Weight down from 12 stone 0lbs (168lbs/76.2kg) down to 11 stone 2lbs (156lbs/70.8kg). And thanks to the sit-ups and reduced calorific intake, it's come off the right place - the middle. My girth has been reduced from 40 inches (101.6cm) to 38 inches (96.5cm). Not bad - two whole inches - 5cm, in three months.

During the first quarter I missed by steps target (a million paces) by less than 9,000. Still, not bad - that's 793km or 489 miles walked.

Logging the personal fitness data - and this year I've added fresh fruit and veg intake to my spreadsheet - is a good motivator for me to at least keep sight of my Lenten resolutions for the rest of the year. A useful indicator - in the week around Christmas, I managed to consume 78 units of alcohol, nearly four times the recommended amount. My consumption for the whole of the first quarter of this year has been just over one-third the recommended amount.

Meat - apart from the odd craving for a decent hamburger now and then, fish and cheese pretty much fulfil my protein needs. I can see a world in which cattle are no longer farmed for meat, but only for dairy, and burgers come from old dairy cows and bulls maintained exclusively for the breeding of dairy herds. Such meat would be expensive and ropy, but the benefits to the planet of cutting down on beef farming would be great.

Ensuring that I eat my five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables daily has become another little daily ritual. Looking over my log, I can see that in the first quarter of this year, I've managed this amount, 5.2 portions indeed. [A portion is a cupful. I don't count boiled/cooked vegetables, only raw.]

On the spiritual side - what have I learned this Lent? Mainly (the incident of Eddie's Three Tickets) that one should not look for Meaning in Coincidence. This is stuff straight out of the Coen Brothers' inestimably great movie A Serious Man. For three railway trips to Łódź in a row, Eddie gets a ticket for the same seat in the same carriage. The odds ostensibly come to 337 million to one. "What can such a sign... mean?" This Lent, I concluded that the answer is - nothing. Or is it?

Over the millennia, our species has devised complex theological structures to account for the intellectually baffling puzzle of coincidence. Entirely disconnected events - connected. Seemingly random? Or bearing meaning, that we can find if only we think about the connection hard enough?

Or is it neither and both? Consider the Schrodinger's Cat paradox mentioned in A Serious Man, along with the Uncertainty Principle. Is the ultimate answer, to quote Clive's father from the film "Please, accept the mystery"?

Stuff to ponder on. A life in balance must consist of a balanced amount of pondering and action.

And a happy 92nd birthday to my father, Warsaw Uprising veteran, Bohdan Dembinski - such strength of body and will in old age is an inspiration to me!

This time last year:
Happy 91st to my father!

This time two years ago:
My father at 90

This time three years ago:
An independent Scotland - what if?

This time four years ago:
Królikarnia - Warsaw's 'rabbit house'

This time seven years ago:
My father at 85