Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Do you keep on coming back, or do you seek the new?

Some people will holiday in the same place, year in, year out. Others will seek new places to visit. Some people love watching the same films, reading the same books, over and over, gaining new insights with each subsequent communion. Others say "been there, done that." Whether you're young, old or middle-aged, one thing unites us all - our lives are getting shorter, not longer. What then, is the optimum strategy? Run around the world trying to see everything before you die - or revisit special places time and time again?

It occurred to me earlier this year that since moving to Jeziorki in 2002, I've hardly been anywhere other than Poland or the UK. Since starting this blog in 2007, I've been to Spain and Ireland, in both cases on business, in both cases for two-three days. I've travelled extensively around the UK (with the exception of the South-West of England, Northern Ireland or the Scottish Highlands). I've travelled extensively around Poland (with the exception of Szczecin, which I last visited in 1995).

Holidays? Llyn Peninsula, North Wales, 13 times since 1993. Films? The last two films I saw (Grand Hotel Budapest and two-times Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow's directoral debut, The Loveless) I've seen before. Music? The last three bits of music I listened to were albums I first got to know in the 1970s - Roxy Music by Roxy Music, The Ramones' It's Alive and a Steely Dan greatest hits LP.

Is my life dull? Stale? Don't think so. I'm happy in that with which I'm comfortable and familiar, I prefer depth to breadth in terms of personal preferences, although when it comes to general knowledge, it's the opposite - I have a great breadth in terms of scope, though only enough to last eight minutes in conversation - enough to convince my interlocutor that I'm a great all-round individual, before we both lose interest in the matter.

A life in balance then? I have no interest in visiting Africa, the Middle East or the Far East. Or Latin America (other than Chile). North America certainly (with a Cat. A. driving licence though), Scandinavia certainly. Rest of Europe, should the opportunity arise.

"Bucket lists" are a recent craze - a long list of things to do or see before one kicks the bucket. For many this is an excuse for over-indulgence at the expense of one's bank account or indeed the environment. If I had such a list, a several-year-long Backroads USA experience on a 1950 Harley Davidson HydraGilde would open and close it.

This would be a 'keep on coming back' event - seeking out places I have dreamed of or had flashbacks to in many anomalous memory incidents over the entire span life - flashbacks; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Duluth, Minnesota; Zig-Zag, Oregon. Away from big cities, highways and tourist traps, this trip would be to seek connections, explanations, maybe...

This time last year:
In praise of Retro design

This time This time two years ago:
First snowfall in Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Of cycles, economic and human

This time four years ago:
Why didn't I read this before? Grapes of Wrath

This time five years ago:
Małopolska from the train

This time six years ago:
Grading ul. Poloneza

Friday, 24 October 2014

Midsummer, midwinter - but... midautumn?

After 56 full years of rotating about the sun - it hit me. In English we have the concept of midsummer and its antonym midwinter - both of which refer not to the middle of the season in question - but (and in particular midsummer) to its astronomical beginning. We do not, however, have the concept of midspring or midautumn. As I write those words, Google's helpful spellcheck underlines both of them with a red wężyk ('little snake'), as they do not exist in unhyphenated form (below).

Today was the day that marked the division between Poland's famous 'golden autumn' with warm, sunny days, and the run-up to winter proper. This morning, the temperature in Warsaw went into negative territory, -2C, although the perceivable temperature (taking wind and humidity into account) fell to -5C. Hardly a crushing frost, but a signal that change is on its way. The Financial Times's new Warsaw correspondent, Henry Foy, even went so far as to tweet -2C as being something extraordinarily tweetable (living proof that polar bears stalk the streets here). However, typing in 'first frost' into the search box on this blog (top right) reveals earlier ones than 24 October. However, -2C is 20 degrees colder than it was on Monday afternoon - a major thermal transition.

Fellow Warsaw blogger Scatts once wrote that this city has two seasons, the green one and the grey one. I posit that Poland has six; white winter, pre-spring, proper spring, humid summer, golden autumn and chilly, dreary autumn. Whichever view you take the seasons are changing - either from green to grey, or from golden to dreary.

Out come the winter clothes - woolly hats, scarves, thick gloves, warm coat - stuff that weighs heavy on the shoulders but heavier come April when the snows subside (looking back at my blog for 2013, the last snow cleared on 7 April). That's all of November, December, January, February and March, plus the bulk of April before it gets properly warm again - and even early May can be snowy.

The clocks go backward in the wee small hours of Sunday morning, so Warsaw will be leaving work in darkness until the last weekend of March. The encroaching darkness brings about seasonal affective disorder (appropriately acronymed SAD). Today in Warsaw we had just over ten hours of daylight. In 58 days time, on Midwinter's Day, winter solstice, 22 December, we'll have a little over seven and half hours of daylight.

Today, the sun set at 17:23. By Monday, because of the change from summer daylight saving time, the sun will set at 16:17. Losing an hour and six minutes of daylight at the end of the working day is a terrible blow to one's samopoczucie (no good English translation exists for this useful Polish term).

And arriving at the station today, all the trains were massively delayed - some by up to 90 minutes, mine by a mere 45 minutes, because of an earlier broken-down train at W-wa Śródmieście. I thought this was that typical phenomenon - change of season and the entire rail network collapses - but no, this was a one off, not a 'sorry, taki mamy klimat' moment.

Still, the sun shone, it was a lovely day. Make the most of every minute of sunshine, it is a rapidly disappearing commodity. We shall cherish those fine days when spring makes its welcome return. It's a long-held dream of mine to be able to jet off to the southern hemisphere (New Zealand, Chile) and stay there until spring returns to Warsaw...

This time last year:
Symphony in Socialist-Realism

This time last year:
Glasgow snapshots

This time two years ago:
A slow farewell to our Powiśle office

This time three years ago:
A slow farewell to my Nissan Micra

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Bilingualism benefits the brain

A fascinating article on the Economist's website shows the importance of bilingualism for mental health. No only are native bilinguals better able to focus on mentally demanding tasks, but being bilingual defers the onset of dementia by an average of five years. Note: being able to remember a bit of secondary school Spanish does not count - for the bilingual effect to work, you have to be in a situation where you skip effortlessly from one language to the other on a regular basis. "The effects are weak to nonexistent for those who merely have a passable ability, infrequently used, in a second language", the article says.

Working in a totally bilingual environment, speaking English at home and Polish in the street, this is marvellous news. Good news too for my parents - still mentally as sharp as pins - who spent their working lives talking nothing but English; being immersed in English in the office and in the street while speaking Polish at home has evidently proved valuable for them both.

As I wrote the other day, Poles in general are rapidly improving their English language proficiency - and not only English - Poland has become a mecca for shared services centres for global corporates, because it's so much easier to find German, Russian, Italian or French speakers here than in, say, Bangalore. If you want to get on in life - learn another language - but if you want to live a longer, fuller, life - perfect that language and use it as often as you can. A 50/50 breakdown is ideal. I speak Polish at work (at the expense of my Polish colleagues who speak Polish at work and at home, though who are all able to speak excellent English). So hats off to my English-born colleague Paddy, who is spending all this week speaking nothing but Polish.

Much of the fun of being bilingual resides in those linguistic spaces where on language has a word for something, while the other doesn't - today I spent about ten minutes explaining the word 'fuss' to a student (if you are Polish and are unfamiliar with the word, see this post). When there's a word for which there's no direct translation, the fun starts. 'Cat' = kot, 'wallet' = portfel. But what equals 'fragile', 'reasonable', 'pattern' (as in 'I can see a pattern emerging here...'), 'imposter', 'to fail', 'to bully', 'grumpy', 'underwhelming', for example? The list is long. And were I blogging in Polish, there'd be a similarly long list of Polish words that the English language does not have a direct translation for (brakować, mieć pretensje, kombinować, załatwiać sprawę).

I've been bilingual since the age of three and half, when I started nursery school; armed with the words 'please', 'thank you' and 'toilet', I never experienced any difficulties acquiring English language skills, because my mind was young, and my facial muscles were able to adjust to the strain of extreme English vowel sounds. A huge advantage in life.

Are there any downsides to being bilingual? Until recently, researchers held that a child of above-average intelligence would benefit from being brought up bilingual, while one of below-average intelligence would be held back, confused and handicapped by bilingualism. This is now shown to be untrue - children with two or more languages have lifelong advantages bestowed upon them. Accident of birth in my case, but for my generation (especially those couples who were both British of Polish descent), those who took a conscious decision not to speak Polish to their children as they grew up are now seen as having taken away something that could have been very useful from them.

A personal story about my bilingual upbringing in 1960s West London here. And do click onto the labels 'English language' and 'Polish language' below.

This time last year:
Wine connoisseurs - or wine snobs?

This time four years ago:
Crushed velvet dusk in my City of Dreams II

This time five years ago:
Going North, the quick way

This time six years ago:
Glorious autumn dusk

This time seven years ago:
Last man voting?

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Searching for the sublime in autumnal Jeziorki

Like September, this October has proved to be delightful. Top temperature in town today according to the Institute of Physics Meteorology Lab was 18.8C. One is grateful for days like this.

As the day (now an hour and half shorter than at equinox, less than a month ago) reaches its end, time to step out with the camera to bring the soul into communion with the Eternal. Not so long ago, I was watching the sun set over the Firth of Clyde in Ayr - now at home. Watching that orb sink below the horizon makes one aware of the passage of time within the splendour of the vast universe.

From ul. Dumki, looking across the southern pond

Across the middle pond, houses on ul. Trombity

Sun sets over the northern pond

Sunset express: a Koleje Mazowiecki train heads towards town

At the pedestrian crossing, ul. Kórnicka, as the sun slips below the horizon

Ul. Nawłocka, band of cloud underlit by the sun, now set
This time last year:
Enduring Ealing - Victorian and Edwardian klimats

This time two years ago:
Krokowa, Poland's former northern borderlands

This time seven years ago:
Aerial photograph of Central London

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Brompton back in action - fully

Over a year since it had to go in for a service, my Brompton is now 100% what I wanted it to be - thanks to Brompton's superb customer care (stepping in when the local agent couldn't get the parts). I finally got the 44-tooth chainwheel needed to make the bike ride and fold properly. The 46-tooth chainwheel - fitted when the bike went for a service three years ago was a disaster - only two teeth more, and yet twice the chain tensioner snapped while the bike was being folded; and when folded, the rear wheel became immobile, preventing the correct stowage of the left pedal.

Along with the chainwheel, Brompton sent me the basic rear mudguard (the bike was originally fitted with a luggage rack, which I neither needed nor wanted, but it was there on the ex-demo factory bike I bought). This is lighter than the rack and not prone to rust. And a new-style Brompton saddle, which doubles as a carrying handle when the bike's folded.

The bike is easy to work on. To remove the luggage rack and replace it with the new mudguard, I needed to replace the rear wheel. This is slightly harder than on a bike with derailleur gears, because the shifter chain needs to be carefully replaced in the same position as before so that all the gears work. But fortunately, Brompton has a whole lot of technical videos posted on YouTube to help you out (see below).

I fixed the rear mudguard, replaced the rear wheel, pumped up both tyres and moved onto the saddle. This is a huge improvement over the original. The Allen-key bolt allows easy and precise adjustment (it is crucial you get the angle right for comfortable riding). Under the saddle's nose is a sculpted handle that just begs you to pick the folded bike up by it. The new-style Brompton saddle is probably the greatest single innovation brought to the bike since it was originally launched.

Finally onto the chainset. I removed the old, 46-tooth chainwheel using a crank extractor (a very simple procedure if you have the tool), and replaced the new, correct, factory-issue 44-tooth one. Excellent! All of a sudden, the Brompton returns to its original glory. Now it folds and unfolds easily and quickly, just like it did when it was new - I don't need to worry that the chain tensioner will snap or that the chain will come off.

So then - here it is - back to life - my Brompton. The ideal form of urban transportation, used in conjunction with a quarterly travel pass. Lively to ride, a real bike - not a toy like some folders. I've ridden this bike over 100 miles (from Ealing to Bath) and can vouch for its seriousness. Below: as nature intended - no third-party bolt-ons, all pukka factory bits once again.

Below: new Kevlar tyres, new mudguards, grips, cables, brake blocks, chain, saddle - and most importantly - crankset. Note the small wheel on the rear mudguard - this provides rolling support to the back end while the bike is being folded.

Below: the crucial still from the Brompton instructional video, explaining how to correctly adjust the gear-change chain in the three-speed Sturmey-Archer hub. My one's 24 years old and still working fine.

Below: Once folded (which is quick and easy) the Brompton takes up little space. I have no problem stowing it in my office. Here it is in the garage.

Below: the serial number stamped on the frame - one of the first 3,000 built. Since then, over 300,000 more have left the factory, so mine's an early one. I've had it since 1992. Since 1997 it's been in Warsaw - probably the very first Brompton here. Despite the problem with the wrong chainset, the frame remains in perfect working order. Now the drivetrain is fixed, I intend to keep it this way. The most important lesson - had I checked that the right-hand pedal was screwed tightly into the alloy crank-arm, it would not have stripped the thread, leading to a problem that took a long time to fix.

Below: the crucial bits - the rear-triangle fold, crankset, chain tensioner and new Brompton Kevlar tyres.

The Brompton is not a cheap bike, but it is built to last - it is an investment; buy one and it will serve you well and hold its value (like a Morgan or Harley-Davidson). In Poland, you can buy Bromptons at AirBike, just off Al. KEN in Ursynów.

Brompton's website is excellent as is communication with its technical staff, who are very keen to help the customer. Not something one would expect from cheaper Far Eastern fold-up bikes.

The Brompton's fold, invented and patented by designer Andrew Ritchie in 1979, has yet to be bettered by a more practical and robust system. Evolving all the time (minor improvements boosting ride and strength), the Brompton is without doubt the best folder in existence and well worth the investment.

This time two years ago:
Pl. Zbawiciela rainbow gets torched for the first time

This time three years ago:
Why no one is Occupying Warsaw

This time four years ago:
Of electoral sausages and town drains

This time five years ago:
In search of the Sublime Aesthetic at 36,000 ft

This time seven years ago:
London from the air