Monday, 28 May 2007

The Marian month of May

May in the Catholic calendar is the month of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the villages that lie just beyond Warsaw's borders, there are many roadside shrines to Our Lady. We have a few close to Jeziorki - in Zamienie, in Zgorzala - and this one, pictured above in Łady (pronounced 'Wuddy').

The shrines are decorated with flags and bunting (in the Marian colours of sky-blue and white), or, in this case, simply flowers. At this time of the evening, you may well see a group of (mostly) women from the local parish singing hymns to the Virgin.

Below is the Marian shrine at Zamienie, a village notable for the fact that it was home to a vaccine plant built in the early 1950s. The factory has now gone, the site is awaiting redevelopment. Many new homes will be built here.

Hissing of the summer lawns

Although there's no drought - last week brought thunderclouds and mid-afternoon downpours ever other day, the greenery is beginning to lose its mid-May hues and yellow tinges are beginning to appear. In the picture below, the yellowing edges of the lawn are evident. The answer - lawn sprinklers. Early today, our children returned hot and tired after a bike ride, and refreshed themselves by lying on the lawn under the sprinklers. In the evening the water brings relief - there was no rain today, despite the magnificent clouds brewing up to the east of us.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Late May reflections

A week on from Thomas Bewick's "most beautiful day" and the year has turned; the air is hot and sultry, the grass decidedly yellower than a week ago, swarms of insects (thankfully not biting ones) infest the air. More summer than spring now, nature is mature, fecund. Warsaw is full of seeding poplars, their white down blowning into urban corners like snow. Not much around Jeziorki, nor of poppies, much in evidence around the city's green verges. Here, cornflower in blossom is the predominant sight.
In the UK, the cornflower is endangered due to overuse of herbicides. Here, it is abundant. Above and below are two fields on ul. Sarabandy, the road running parallel to ul. Trombity.

Like ul. Trombity, ul. Sarabandy has the same mix of suburban and rural and is a charming street to walk down at dusk, the air full of the scents and sounds of summer.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Present rising, future loading

Today I had to take an early morning train to Poznan. Outside Warsaw's Central station, I snapped this pic (below) of the newly-opened Zloty Tarasy development lit by the rising sun, with a shadowy Stalinist-era Palace of Culture in the background.

Symbolic. The future, as our daughter Moni says, is loading.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

The year's most beautiful day?

18th/19th century English naturalist, Thomas Bewick, claimed after many years of observation, that May 18 was the most beautiful day of the year in England. His day may well be correct for Poland too. After the cold snap that happens around St. Sophia's Day (15 May), the weather usually improves. Yesterday was fine - today perfect. Everything is in leaf, the greenery of nature fresh, unburnt by the sun, yet it's warm enough to be T-shirt weather.

Today's walk took me to the southern fringes of Jeziorki, to Warsaw's boundaries with Mysiadlo. Below is the pond on ul. Pozytywki, where I saw a grey heron as well as the usual ducks and black-headed gulls.

Further on, across the fields south of ul. Katarynki, I could see the derelict buildings of the old state collective tomato farm in Mysiadlo (below), which will soon be developed into new homes. The size of the development (80 or so hectares, I estimate) means several hundred more cars joining the morning and evening rush-hours in and out of Warsaw.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Twilight time

Yesterday's walk, setting off half an hour before sunset, getting home half an hour after sunset, left impressions of the perfect spring evening, the air full of the scent of May flowers, cleaned by the day's earlier thunderstorms. The road reflects the light of the twilit sky, streetlights come on, the night beckons. Trombity at its very finest.

The sky, after the sun has cleared the horizon, continues to be sufficiently luminescent to make photography still possible. Trombity is at its most charming soon after sunset, from May through to early September.

(Above) Trombity's 'silver birch house'. Ground-level lighting, an immaculate lawn and an impressive stand of birches make this the street's - indeed Jeziorki's - visually most impressive and beautiful front garden.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Got to get ourselves back to the garden

Above: The view from our kitchen window, Sunday morning. There's something about being in the kitchen which triggers past life memories; America or Scandinavia, in the 1940s and 50s. I have the rare privilege in living in the exact place of my chosing; was I drawn here by a strong sense of "I've been here - this is familiar - yet I've never been here". Our kitchen - oaken cabinet units and the aroma of coffee, is the spot where more frequently than wherever else I find myself aware of having lived before and indeed of living a blessed afterlife.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Agricultural progress

Yesterday evening and this morning, the field next door was being sprayed with something. It is interesting to see just how fast the crop has come up in the six weeks since the seeds were sown.
Below: Click here to compare the same field viewed from my bedroom window on 2 April.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

The future of cities

The Economist's special report on cities gives me much to consider. One the one hand, here we are, living within the city limits of a medium-sized nation's capital. On the other, Poland is a nation of 38.2 million - yet only one in 20 of the population lives in the capital. London is home to one in eight UK citizens (one in five if you take the entire metropolitan area). Will Warsaw grow? Undoubtedly so. How quickly? In what direction? Hard to say.

Will Warsaw 'go centrifugal' (as the Economist article Et in suburbia ego suggests), sprawling out for scores of miles in all direction, while the centre whithers? I don't think so. The central social dividing line in Poland is not race or class, but urban/rural. Poles consider urban living sophisticated. The village, which in the UK is the nation's repository of tradition and values, is in Poland equated with mud and boorishness. The village is where Brits want to retire to, it's where Poles want to escape from. Modern, newly-rich Poland would rather live in newly-built swanky uptown apartment with underground parking, security and fitness centre, and not having to worry about lengthy commutes.

Where does this leave the city's periphery? Until recently, prices of apartments in central Warsaw were shooting up at unprecendented rates (100% in 18 months not uncommon), while prices of edge-of-town villas stagnated. Now, as apartment prices become increasingly unaffordable even to the newly-affluent, home-buyers are starting to look at the suburbs.

The drawbacks are the commuting (two hours a day) and lack of town drains (we spend around 40 quid a month having our septic tank emptied). The pluses of living away from the city centre are evident in the photos. But Jeziorki is not a suburb in the usual British or American sense. There's no shops, pubs or restaurants within walking distance. We have to drive a six kilometre round trip to the shop to buy fresh bread and morning papers. This makes Jeziorki more of a village than a suburb.

Below: What better place to grow up? (our son Eddie, right, with friend Wojtek)

Most Poles live in apartments in towns and cities while having their own 'dzialka' (dacha) in the country where they can relax at weekends. Some will be posh, most basic - indeed there are quite a few around Jeziorki, where city folk have their little plots, wooden shacks and grow things, grill barbeques or just chill out. My guess is that over the coming years, as land prices rise, more and more of the dzialki will be sold and turned into building plots for suburban housing.

I recently re-watched John Betjeman's Metro-Land, his televisual poem about London's extended suburbia opened up by the Metropolitan Railway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His observations about the furthest reaches of Metroland ring true with early 21st century Jeziorki: "Grass triumphs. And I must say, I'm rather glad".

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Blessed rain

Today we had rain; lots of it. At last - it hasn't rained in over two weeks. Good news for farmers, gardeners and frogs. The grey sky offered contrast from the generally cloudless blue that we enjoyed since 20 April.

Below: A dandelion clock in the street outside our house, just before the rainfall. It washed away the seeds before they could be dispersed by the winds.

[Update -12 May: The beneficial effects of the rain are clearly visible - rapid and luxuriant growth of greenery everywhere.]

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Dawn patrol

We woke at 04:30 and set off down ul. Trombity towards the marshes at the end of the road. Sunrise was at 04:57; the first pic was taken quarter of an hour earlier, homage to Ansel Adams' Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.

Wearing Wellington boots we intended to wade through the shallower marshes towards where the black-headed gulls live. Before we got to the end of the road, we watched the sun rise through the trees.

The gulls were already up and settled in their habitat (below). We could hear the distinctive call of bullfrogs - like someone blowing over the top of an empty jug. I've yet to see a bullfrog. The gulls were far noisier. They did not take kindly to having their territory invaded; they were up in the air wheeling around, squawking loudly and protesting my presence. The picture below shows how many black-headed gulls live in this area; I counted around 80 individuals in this shot (taken at the equivalent of 50mm focal length).

As the gulls wheeled around me, one particular individual seemed intent on dive-bombing me while issuing a distinctive squawk. I followed this one (to the right of the pic below) with the lens; again and again he tried spooking me into turning away. Note the white leading edges of the gulls' wings, a distinguishing feature. After I'd got my shots, I wandered back towards ul. Dumki. Three gulls followed me, as if they were escorting me off the premises. Meanwhile, a solitary bullfrog continued making his bottle-blowing noise.

Friday, 4 May 2007

This is not America. No?

With each successive year, Poland looks physically less and less like a communist backwater and more and more like the United States. I am continually drawn to the semblance. Is this Ohio? Are we in Wisconsin? No, this is ul. Karczunkowska. The continental climate, the overhead power lines and telephone cables, the roadside advertisements, the new housing, the vegetation and the landscape all make me think of America.

More of my pics showing Poland looking like a mid-western state here.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

The world's longest weekend

Well, two weekends and the intervening week, actually. Poland has two national holidays within two days of each other - 1 May, the workers' holiday, and 3 May, the commemoration of the passing of the Polish constitution. This year the former fell on a Tuesday, the latter on a Thursday. So by taking three days off work, which most of Poland decided to do, one can have nine days' holiday.

On 3 May, we crossed Warsaw to see the fort at Modlin, which had become the setting for a WW2 battle reenactment. Here, a restaging of the Battle of Berlin took place, pitching Germans against Soviets. Huge crowds turned out - so huge that I could not get a glimpse of the action. The 19th century fort is massive. Below: Red Army 'soldiers' awaiting the order to advance.

There was also a large militaria fair taking place; we bought Warsaw Pact-issue gasmasks for 10 zlotys each (around 1.60 GBP) and a genuine unissued US Army trenchcoat from 1952 complete with liner for 270 zlotys (around 45 GBP). Below is the same T-34/85 tank within the fortress compound, which had been set-dressed to look like Berlin in May 1945.

Flag day

May 3 - Poland's national holiday commemorating the signing of Poland's constitution in 1791. This was the second written constitution in the world, after that of the USA. A patriotic day bringing the nation together under one flag. Round Jeziorki, the flags were flying in abundance. On houses of the rich and the not-so-wealthy, farmers and city folk.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Into the mountains

Much as I love the endless plains of Mazovia, I jump at any chance to get some real contours around me. And so a visit to friends in Katowice extended into a short trip to the Silesian Beskid (Beskid Śląski) mountains. We chanced upon a place called Zagroda Lepiarzówka, right on the Polish-Czech border. Marvellous hotel - 12 quid a head B&B, beer 60p a pint, excellent service, wonderful wooden folk architecture. The photo below is taken from the hotel's terrace bar. Quite a different view than what you'd see in Jeziorki.

An evening's stroll offered a taste of what was in store for the morning - a long walk into the Czech Republic. On 31 December this year, Poland and its two southern neighbours will join the Schengen countries and their mutual borders will effectively disappear - it will become like crossing from England into Wales. But today, there's still the frisson of excitement - will there be armed guards lurking behind the trees, like there are on the Polish-Belarusian or Polish Ukrainian borders? Will our documents be in order?

In the photo above, the border runs along the path. To the right of that post is the Czech Republic, to the left is Poland. The mountain in the distance is Stożek Wielki, that notch carved into its peak is the border. We walked up there, and enjoyed some mulled beer with mead in the 85 year-old mountain restaurant just beyond the peak. Thus fortified, we descended into the Czech Republic. The plan was to do a brief incursion lasting two hours and re-emerge in Poland at Stozek Maly.

I'd checked the weather forecast the day before, and it showed clear skies and warm temperatures. But it was not to be. As soon as we'd crossed the (unmanned) border, the weather closed in on us (below). Soon we were enveloped in thick mist. Fortunately it was not too cold and the rain was light (I worry about my consumer electronics!)

Aesthetically, the Czech incursion was a success. Walking through giant silent forests shrouded in dense mist put me in mind of primordial scenes; hundred-foot high Permian horsetails and three-foot dragonflies. Recent history is also interesting. I recalled a British TV drama about Czechoslovakian dissidents making their way to the West German border, getting across, being greeting by US soldiers and debriefed by the CIA - only to discover that it was all a set-up entrapment plot and that in reality they had not left Czechoslovakia at all...

With such thoughts in mind, we rambled on following the tourist tracks until we came across a very CSSR-type establishment, a village shop that was virtually unchanged since communist days (apart from the modern selection of confectionary on display and the shopkeeper's friendly manner). We stocked up on chocolate and wafers and headed back up the mountainside towards Poland, climbing onward and upward until we made the border as planned at Stożek Mały.

Once again, the border crossing point (below) was unmanned. Notices stated that from between 06:00 and 22:00, there should be an official present to ensure that locals crossing the border do not exceed their quotas of alcohol, tobacco or meat products, that their motorcycle engines do not exceed 50cc, or that their agricultural produce is only for local consumption. We were relieved that the booth was empty; in eight months time it will be history.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Mazovian landmark from the air

Less than six miles/ten kilometres south-west from Jeziorki is an even higher structure than anything Warsaw can boast. Indeed, until 1962, this was the highest structure in Europe. This is the Raszyn radio transmitter, snapped through the early morning haze soon after take-off from Okecie. The radio mast is clearly visible on the flat Mazovian skyline from our neighbourhood. To the right of the picture is the main Warsaw-Krakow road that leads through Radom and Kielce. This part of it is still dual carriageway (!).