Thursday, 29 November 2007

Shepherd's warning?

Back at Oaklands Primary School, I learnt the following English folk wisdom (don't those three words look strange together!):

"Red sky at night - shepherd's delight
Red sky in the morning - shepherd's warning"

Today I woke up a long time before dawn, and could see a spectacular sunrise on the make. With my tripod on the balcony, the camera was set up for long exposures (needlessly so, as the trees on the horizon show signs of motion). Well, the sky was red in the morning, but weather-wise the rest of the day was cold but bright. Maybe this far east, English meteorological lore doesn't hold true (too far from the Atlantic and its weather systems).

Just four and half minutes after the above picture was taken, our neighbour Grazyna had also noticed the same aerial phenomenon unfolding from her window, and took the picture below:

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Lights in the night sky

Took out the tripod onto the balcony to take some night shots of aircraft inbound to land at Okęcie. The planes would emerge from the clouds, their landing lights clawing at the fog. The still image from a 20 or 30 second exposure just shows a streak with the blinking wingtip lights appearing as points on either side of the beam. Below: A Polish Air Force Yak 40 Codling inbound to land in a time lapsed multiple exposure. A very slow plane.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Late autumn drive-time

Leaving the office this evening, the car thermometer showed +1C. Wet snow tipping down - deszcz ze śniegiem - the worst weather Poland can dish out. With four weeks to go before winter solstice, four weeks of deteriorating daylight, it's gloom, gloom and more gloom. Traffic is heavy and extremely slow moving; some drivers have not yet put on winter tyres (summer tyres lose adhesion below +6C). The wet snow is unrelenting, yet does not settle. The thermometer steadfastly refuses to drop to zero. Above: Along Al. Generała Władysława Sikorskiego the traffic manages to hit double-digit speeds (that's in kilometers per hour). Just three months ago, I was cycling home this way at this time. It still was warm and bright.

Above: Waiting at the junction of ul. Puławska and Poleczki. The journey home from here can take as little as five minutes on a clear weekend evening; today a further half-hour would elapse before I'd reach home. Below: Waiting at the junction of ul. Puławska and Płaskowickiej. It's snowing ever more intensely, but it's still above freezing.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Thoughts on the True Nature of Dad Rock

This morning, while driving the children to school, we were listening to a selection of songs by Bruce Springsteen. My old university chum Nick Morris's sons dismiss Springsteen as 'Dad Rock'. Moni, Eddie and I debated what is and what isn't 'Dad Rock'.

A principle element in defining this genre is the complete and utter disdain in which Hip Young People Today hold it. So Iggy Pop, defiant at 60, is still held in regard, I Wanna be your Dog is not Dad. He's not mellow, never was. The Rolling Stones, similarly, seem to defy the stereotype of age, despite their gnarled appearance. Led Zep have pulled off the same trick.

A few weeks ago, Moni put forth the proposition that Pink Floyd is the arch-Dad Rock band. What dad doesn't enjoy listening to 'Dark Side of the Moon' or 'Wish You Were Here'? (not I for one - Pink Floyd have been going down hill since Syd Barrett left). Moni cleverly observed parallels between Waters and Gilmore and Lennon and McCartney (the pretentious hypocrite and the banal tunester). We indeed 'don't need no education'. And yes, Floyd - file under 'Dad'.

Springsteen? Yes and no. His blue-collar rockers ('Born to Run' - which David Brent bursts into after winning the pub quiz -'Sherry Darling' or 'Cadillac Ranch'), his more reflective ballads ('The River', 'Badlands', 'Independence Day') are becoming pipe-and-slippers material. But 'Nebraska', sparse, pessisimistic glimpses into the dark and lonely side of the human soul, is Bruce's Contribution to the Ages and shall never be tarnished with the stain of Daddism.

And so we turn to Dire Straits, the very quintessence of the genre. In 1986 I was stuck on a 24 hour ferry trip from Plymouth to Santander, without a cabin. Every now and then the public address system in the cafeteria (where I was trying to sleep) burst into Dire Straits' 'Walk of Life'. Dads started to strut funkily to this catchy tune; I felt depression sinking in. I nominate this particular piece as the all-time number one Dad Rock number. Phil Collins' 'Another Day in Paradise' comes close (and reeks of hypocrisy). And U2 too, adds Moni.

I count myself fortunate in having children that do not automatically dismiss everything I enjoy listening to as uncool; indeed they themselves have little regard for music that passes today for 'popular'. From Abba to the Sex Pistols, from TSOP to Kraftwerk, from Bowie to heavy rock, much of best-selling pop music of my era - centred around the 1970s - has stood the test of time, the only test that can sort out intrinsically good popular music from bad. Music which will be enjoyed and considered 'cool' by several generations. Precious little has happened in subsequent decades to match the creative outpourings of pop/rock/soul musicians in the '70s.

Currently topping my mp3 playlist: James Brown's full (14 mins 40 secs) version of 'Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing'

"Shape up your bag/Don't worry about mine
My thang's together/An' doing fine"

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Time to junk Christmas

Back from church. A week before Advent. Time to ditch the word "Christmas". It's become a mealy-mouthed euphemism. Here in Warsaw, so far, we are not yet assailed at every step by retailers trying to make fast-moving consumer goods move even faster. It will start, but in good time. (Last year, a certain Warsaw radio station played Wham!'s 'Last Christmas' 506 times. In November. No one kept count of how many times they played it in December. This year, no Polish broadcaster has repeated that mistake.)

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God, I recommend the term "Christ's Mass". A return to the religious feast's original Christian meaning. The Mass celebrating the Birth of Christ - Christ's Mass*. Pronouncing it this way distances you from the cack and dross that has come to mean the run-up to December 25th.

If you are a drone consumer bent on an orgy of spending and booze and television to relieve the Northern Hemisphere's darkest time of year, I suggest you make that preference known by referring to the season as "Xmas" (pron. Ecksmuss). Don't offend the sensibilities of those that believe in Christ-as-God by using His name as an excuse for a getting drunk.

If you are not of the opinion that the Hope and Purpose of the Universe is focused singularly upon the personage of Jesus Christ, yet you possess deeper spiritual feelings, "Yule" is as good a way as any to traditionally describe the time around the winter solstice. The sun's appearance in the sky gets shorter and shorter - and when it becomes clear that it will not continue to do so until it finally disappears - it is indeed time for rejoicing. Four days after the shortest day.

So take your pick - Christ's Mass, Xmas, Yule or just December 25th. But please, give the bland "Christmas" a break this year - and don't even think about wishing me a happy "Holiday Season"!

[*Nearest to the Polish - Święto Bożego Narodzenia - lit. the Holy Day of God's Birth - has the right degree of reverence and is in no danger of becoming devalued by komercja]

On Recycling

As the weather's rubbish there's nothing else to write about but rubbish. Of the recycleable sort. Living in London, local government taxes (rates) are crippling. My parents pay the London Borough of Ealing GBP 140 a month - they spend more on rates than on any other outgoing. Here in Jeziorki, we pay the equivalent of GBP 30 a year in local government tax. But then we get hardly any local services (no town drains etc). A private company empties our septic tank and our bins. It charges us 8 PLN (about one and half quid) to empty a 120-litre wheelie bin of household waste. When we moved into our house, we were disposing of two such wheelie bins a week. Then I bought a composter for the garden, to recycle vegetable kitchen waste. Then I started crushing and storing aluminium cans for recycling. In May this year, Moni, inspired by school ecology lessons, persuaded us to start separating glass, plastic and paper. Every fortnight or so I drive to one of the local waste recycling points to dispose of the segregated waste. These have recently sprung up all over the place. There's one in Zgorzala, another in Nowy Podolszyn - most of the nearby villages have recycling points.

The benefits are manifold. Less dumping of waste in to nearby forests for one (although this still happens, it now tends to be building waste from construction sites). For us, we've cut our monthly spend on rubbish removal from 64 PLN to 16 PLN - it now takes around two weeks to fill a single wheelie bin with stuff other than paper, glass, plastic, aluminium and vegetable waste.
But the collection of the segregated waste leaves much to be desired. Collections are less frequent than they should be, the lazy and messy just dump their rubbish on the ground by the containers if they're full, often (especially at weekends), they are. I will take the trouble to drive on to the next collection point, but many don't. This leads to complaints from local residents, who have to put up with the mess from week to week. The picture above shows the collection point by the local shop on ul. Karczunkowska on a Sunday afternoon. Last week the plastics bins were overflowing, today plastics was OK, but paper was full.

Gloom continues. We were about to go for a walk but it started to rain. Time to think about happier things; I still need cheering up.

UPDATE: June 2008 - the collection point on ul. Karczunkowska is shut down owing to local complaints at how people using it just dump unsorted rubbish all over the vicinity. A shame.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Another point of view

Our neighbour, Grazyna Wojciechowicz, sent me this sunrise photo, taken from her house earlier this autumn. The viewpoint is at right angles to that from my bedroom. The long building on the horizon is a Polish Security Printing Works factory (Polska Wytwórnia Papierów Wartościowych) on ul. Karczynkowska, which, inter alia, produces digital tachographs.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007


Rather than take a taxi from the hotel where we had our meetings, we walked back to Kraków Główny station across the Rynek. It's always a pleasure to take this particular stroll; the city has a well-deserved reputation for atmospheric beauty. Late November should be well outside the tourist season - but it's not. Sightseers and visitors are still more plentiful now than in Wroclaw in July.

Earlier in the day, after arriving in Kraków, I caught this shot of a railway worker shovelling snow off the station roof. This reminded me of the tragedy in Katowice in January 2006, when, owing to the weight of snow on top, the roof of the international exhibition hall collapsed killing 65 people inside. Since then, owners of public buildings are taking no chances.


"I was talking to a cat the other night. He said what everybody’s looking for is, what everybody’s looking for today, they’re looking for ‘escape-ism.’ " James Brown's nocturnal feline conversation hit on a Great Universal Truth. Escapism is one of mankind's defining inventions. JB is singing about drugs and alcohol, and how you need to steer clear of 'escapism' to stay real. A serious message to the brothers. Yet there's also the petty escapism. Vanilla distractions. Activities in which humans indulge to take their minds off everyday cares and woes. Watching TV, movies, shopping, music, reading fiction, surfing the web. And we do all indulge, to some degree.

Personally, my preferred form of escapism is travel. Transcendental, hypnotic views of The Road (while driving, the landscape unfolds directly in front of you), or, if on a train, the scenery viewed at a 90 degree angle.

Today's journey - a business trip to Krakow - transported me by train from dreary Warsaw to the winter wonderland of rural Malopolska, with the sun shining through the morning mists on landscape white with snow and hoar-frost (szadź)

Winter has arrived early in southern Poland in mid-November. It's been like this for over a week now. From the window, this could be Minnesota in the 1940s or '50s. The steady bu-DUM bu-DUM, bu-DUM bu-DUM of the train puts me at ease, opens my mind to alternative realities.

These photos are my first (of many this winter, I hope) shots of hoar-frost covered trees this winter. Szadź is a beautiful thing, forming when fog freezes overnight on trees.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Not In My Back Yard

Ul. Poleczki, which I consider to the northern border of my patch, offers this picture of what happens when the March of Progress ends up in one's back yard. Yesterday we learned that Pan Winkler's field behind our house has been granted planning permission for 12 detached houses. OK, it's not a telecoms centre (see above). Another such centre sprouted up behind the back garden of the house we rented on ul. Gajdy, so we've experienced having a building site in our immediate neighbourhood. Plus, the rural view from my bedroom window will disappear. "I remember when this was all fields" I will someday say to my grandchildren and they won't believe me.

Weather-wise, the last two weeks have been dull and gloomy. Temperatures between 0C and +3C, not cold enough to be crisp and frosty, but cold nonetheless. Three weeks after the clocks changed, we're back to waking up in darkness. And it gets dark around 4.00pm. The sun, when it makes a rare appearance, does so while I'm at work. This leads to what Poles label 'zle samopoczucie'. The standard remedy is to take magnez (magnesium). I need cheering up. My soul is heavy.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Airport zoning to halt development in Jeziorki?

I took a look at the City of Warsaw's website to find a street on its excellent map service (some plug-in or other may be needed to make it work on your computer). To my surprise, I found this splash of colour on the south-west corner of the city (below):

What does this mean? Like, that purple patch it... it... includes... us! The City Fathers have designs on our house! Time to zoom in... There's Okecie airport... the runways, the approaches...

Zooooom right in again... as far as it goes (the city map is based on Google Earth technology)... Those purple and red zones on the map above - do they mean us?

They do indeed! That's our house - just inside the red zone (everything on the left's in the purple zone, but I've removed the colour code for the sake of clarity). Our house - centre of pic, large triangular plot - is within the 'Zone 'M' - zone of limited residential development'. NIMBYs* of Trombity say 'hurrah!' OK, so we have to put up with planes landing overhead, but at least this zoning plan suggests that we're not going to become a built-up area! The purple zone is the 'area of limited utilisation' - lots of problems with planning permission, I suspect. This does mean that the fields behind our house are likely to remain fields. "Grass triumphs. And I must say, I'm rather glad."

(To read more about NIMBYs and NIMBYism, click here.)

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

First snow

Woke up this morning to snow in the garden. It had been snowing hard in the evening, but the temperature was +2C, so I didn't think it'd settle. It did, although not in town.

What a difference a month makes. Take a look at the same two scenes photographed on 14 October (click here and scroll down to the third and fourth photos on this entry).

First snow does not linger. I guess this winter will be little different from past Warsaw winters, but starting later, finishing sooner and less intense. I do miss those -20C mornings, blue sky, hoar-frost* in the trees, crisp snow on the ground... How many days like that will we get this winter? [Supplementary: The snow had all gone by the time I returned home this evening.]

* For my Polish readers, hoar-frost is szadź in Polish; you'd be forgiven for not knowing this word as Stanislawski, the long-standing authority in English-Polish dictionaries, gives the word, and its synonym, rime-frost, as szron. The Oxford University Press dictionary gives the better result.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

New route to the airport

Right now, to get to Okecie airport from Ursynów, one has to drive a huge loop all the way through to Ochota. The only alternative route from our Jeziorki to the airport is to bump along unmade roads and field tracks - not viable during the muddy season. A new route is being built. A viaduct over the the railway line is being built, linking ul. Poleczki and ul. Wirazowa, on the airport side. This means much more traffic for ul. Poleczki - as a result, the road is being widened all the way from ul Pulawska to the bridge. As always, roadworks mean traffic chaos, but that's just the way it is. The new route will save us over 2km, which in a morning rush-hour drive to the airport can mean an extra 15-20 minutes sitting in jams on ul Rzymowskiego and Marynarska.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Tree pruning heralds new development

On the corner of ul. Trombity and ul Dumki, the screen of trees that have grown up around the plot has been cut down. Not level with the ground, but enough to see that something new is going to rise up on land that was previously hidden to view. I may be wrong, but this looks like the typical pattern of individual development round these parts. First - buy your plot. Then, save money. When you have enough, prepare plot for construction. Get necessary permissions etc. Next step - builders come in to do the foundations. If you have enough cash to hand, and the building season is long enough (no intervening harsh winter), put up walls and roof. Then finish off (the really expensive part!) and move in. This may take five to eight years or even longer. Some never finish, but sell the shell on to someone able to finance the completion.

It's Independence Day

November 11, 1918, Poland came back to the map of Europe as a nation after 123 years. Today is a national holiday (even though it's a Sunday). An occasion - like May 3 - to hang out the flags. Here in Ursynów, on ul. Hawajska, we can see that this is a popular thing to do, with around one in five apartments showing patriotic fervour in this way.

Moni and Eddie with their respective guide and scout troups spent the cold (+2C) and gloomy day marching around Warsaw, attending Mass with the Archbishop, and taking part in fieldcraft exercises.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Autumn ploughing

The view from my bedroom window early this afternoon. Time passes, measured by the endless cycle of sowing, reaping and ploughing. Will this field be allowed to lie fallow after five seasons of oats? Whatever happens, I'm happy to see agriculture continue rather than the land sold for housing.

View the same field in late-March, mid-April, mid-April again, mid-May, early-June, and late-June.

Friday, 9 November 2007

From Lady to Falenty

Yesterday we organised an event at the conference centre in Falenty. To enjoy the cocktail reception to the full, I left my car at home and made my way back by 715 bus from Jeziorki to the nearby village of Lady (pron. 'Wuddy') and proceeded on foot to Falenty. A 35 minute walk. En route I snapped at few shots as dusk was gathering. Above: leaving Lady. The horizon here as flat as it can possibly be. Below: the sun sets behind a cloud bank.

Below: Approaching Falenty. November 8, and most of the trees are bare. It is shortly after 4pm, and now the clocks have gone forward, late afternoons are gloomy indeed. It will be five months before the clocks go back to summer time.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

My Father's House

My father spent his childhood in this apartment block on ul. Filtrowa 68. His family moved in when the building was built (late 1920s), and he lived here until the Warsaw Uprising. The building was erected for employees of PKO, my dziadek Tomasz was a bank clerk and eligible for an apartment in this presitigious development. My aunt and her family still lives in the same building, though one floor down (the top storey was destroyed by bombing during the war).

Our children have two grandparents who were born in Warsaw before the war and who took part in the Uprising. So although both children were born in London, they are 50% Varsovian by blood - and indeed 75% Mazovian, as my father-in-law comes from Kozienice, some 80km south of the capital.

Earlier this year the facade was restored to its former glory, though painted a historically-inaccurate shade of salmon pink; before the war, my father says, the apartment block was painted cafe-au-lait. Property prices in Warsaw being what they are, this centrally-located piece of real estate has become very expensive.

"My father's house shines hard and bright
It stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining 'cross this dark highway
Where our sins lie unatoned"

Bruce Springsteen, "My Father's House" (from the album Nebraska)

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Conclusion of cemetary weekend

Back to St Catherine's church in Sluzew as Eddie did another turn selling votive candles with his scout troop. Moni came along to lay candles in the cemetary. The picture above was taken at a 30 second exposure at f22 - right at the other end of the exposure spectrum to the mosquito photo in the previous post. Moni managed to stand quite still throughout. Like posing for a Daguerrotype.

(Below:) Looking down across the cemetary towards the apartment blocks of Sadyba. One of the chimneys of the Siekierki power station is visible on the horizon. There are definitely fewer candles burning today than on previous days; fewer people, lots of rain.

Lightening up somewhat, I take Eddie to McDonalds to dry off and eat something before joining Moni (she sings in the church choir) at the Dominicans' abbey for mass. While tucking in to Chicken McNuggets, Eddie quotes this hilarious dialogue from the Simpsons episode '22 Short Films About Springfield': (from - the best Simpsons resource)

Lou: You know, I went to the McDonald's in Shelbyville on Friday night --
Chief Wiggum: [interrupting] The McWhat?
Lou: Uh, the McDonald's. I, I never heard of it either, but they have over 2,000 locations in this state alone. Must've sprung up overnight.
Lou: You know, the funniest thing though; it's the little differences.
Chief Wiggum: Example.
Lou: Well, at McDonald's you can buy a Krusty Burger with cheese, right? But they don't call it a Krusty Burger with cheese.
Chief Wiggum: Get out! Well, what do they call it?
Lou: A Quarter Pounder with cheese.
Chief Wiggum: Quarter Pounder with cheese? Well, I can picture the cheese...

(Above:) "Well, I can picture the cheese... " Eddie, as Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons episode 22 Short Films about Springfield. The couple over his shoulder were evidently very much in love. God bless them.

Unseasonal warmth, unseasonal mosquitoes

A long weekend of double-digit temperatures and no frost. The mosquitoes have responded to this by thinking that spring has arrived (very) early, and have hatched out in their multitudes. Bring them on, I say! The next touch of frost and they'll all be dead, hopefully not having reproduced and laid their eggs. Mosquitoes can be nasty. Our first weeks in Poland, back in 1997, coincided with a massive plague. My bedroom was covered in hundreds of splatted midges, many containing doses of my blood. Mosquito plagues are brought on by mild winters that end early, followed by wet springs. (Link to Polish Wikipedia page about the local mosquito, Culex Pipiens.)

I've often wondered what's the point of a 1/4000th top shutter speed - see above. This photo was taken at that speed, with ISO set to 1600. And that still does not entirely freeze the beatings of those tiny wings!

Friday, 2 November 2007

All Souls' Day, Sluzew nad Dolinka

Eddie's scout troup was tasked with selling votive candles outside St Catherine's church in Sluzew. On the way, I caught this sunset (below) in the wing mirror while waiting at the lights. Over the four-day All Saints' festival period the roads are choked with cemetary visiting families.

The churchyard of St. Catherine's was used to bury Home Army soldiers murdered while in custody by the communist security apparatus between 1945 and 1956. Below: the memorial to those soldiers, ablaze with votive candles.

I came home, played Henryk Górecki's 3rd Symphony and wept.

Searching for autumnal perfection

Autumn in Jeziorki is truly hitting its aesthetic peak - the leaves are gold, but largely still on the trees. November in Polish is listopad - literally, 'leaf-fall'. By the end of this month, the trees will be bare. But while they're in leaf, and gold, and sun shines, I am driven to record autumnal perfection. Above: The far end of ul. Trombity, a WizzAir Airbus A319 inbound to land. Below: Silver birches and greenhouses, ul. Dumki.

As I stroll along ul. Dumki I contemplate upon the nature of Man's aesthetic faculty. It's better developed in some than in most. What's the evolutionary benefit? How does being able to find beauty in art, music, poetry, landscape, architecture - how does this improve your genes' chances of biological success? Surely physical attractiveness, intelligence and drive are all - or is there room in our make-up for a soul? Do people lacking aesthetic faculties lack soul? A significant question, for today is All Souls' Day, in Polish Zaduszki, a feast that has its roots in the pagan Slavonic celebration of Dziady - Forefathers.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Wszystkich Swietych - All Saints

All Saints' Day (Wszystkich Swietych) is one of the key Polish national holidays, with most Poles visiting graves of departed family members on or around this day. Cemeteries are ablaze with votive candles, bought in their tens of millions. No grave was without its bouquets or candles.

We visited the local cemetery in Pyry, a half-hour walk north from Jeziorki. Above: the military quarter with the graves of Armia Krajowa (Home Army) partisans who gave their lives fighting the Germans in the Las Kabacki forest in 1944.

A time to reflect on life, death, growing older and What It's All About. Families silently reflect upon these big questions together by visiting the cemeteries in multi-generational groups. Poland as a nation draws its strength from this.

The universe is indeed held together by a web of coincidence. Yesterday in London I fortuitously came across two pieces of music I'd been searching for since 2001. Two song cycles by Ralph Vaughan Williams - On Wenlock Edge and Songs of Travel. I'd borrowed a recording many years ago from the public library, then bought the cassette (the tape snapped). I've not found any MP3 format files since I started looking. Yet as I was transferring a PowerPoint presentation from a colleague's memory stick - what should I find on it but a single MP3 file consisting of both pieces.

The songs of On Wenlock Edge, poems from A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad set to Vaughan Williams' music, are emotionally powerful at this time of year. The lyrics of Is My Team Ploughing? are especially moving, a dead young man's dialogue with his surviving friend who's now, as we learn, living with his girl.

Songs of Travel, poems by Robert Louis Stevenson set to music, have similar bleak, contemplative air; consider the refrain from The Vagabond:

Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above,
And the road below me.

Above: On the corner (another Miles Davis title slips in!). Eddie squatting on the pavement on ul. Gajdy, in Pyry on our way home from the cemetary. This is the street where we used to rent a house before moving to our own place on ul. Trombity. The white streak across the top of the photo is an airliner inbound to land. The house behind Eddie was lived in by our friends Mark and Lesley and their boys Konrad and Adam; they moved to Shropshire (more coincidence, see above) in 2003.