Monday, 31 December 2007

Final thoughts for 2007

After a few days in the UK, I return to Jeziorki to make the following generalisations:

1) Polish women are prettier than English women
2) British drivers are more considerate than Polish drivers
3) Polish smoked meats (wędliny) are tastier than British cured hams etc.
4) English cheeses are incomparably superior than Polish cheeses, yet are unavailable in Poland
5) All Polish dogs are called either "Hodge" or "Hodge Two".

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Xmas lights, Jeziorki

Pretty much every house in Jeziorki has its display of Xmas lights outside. This is a recent social phenomenon. Once it was enough to decorate one's indoor tree; today, it's become pretty much obligatory to put on a decent light show for passers-by. And I, for one, like it. Here in the darkest time of year, the extra coloured lights lift the spirits. Plus, there's the element of competition - no one likes to be outdone by their neighbour.

This year, ul. Sarabandy definitely has the edge over the rest of Jeziorki in terms of the density of its outdoor lighting. Not a single house is devoid of external Xmas illumination. It's a shame that there's been no snow - that would really make the neighbourhood look wonderful.

As I wandered around with my tripod and camera, it occurred to me that our local power supplier, Vattenfall, is sponsoring the Xmas Lights photo competition run by Gazeta Wyborcza. Of course! The more of these lights are on outside people's houses, the greater their electricity bill!

It would, however, be hypocritical of me to criticise, as I get through as much electricity heating our sauna for an hour as the average Jeziorki householder would use illuminating his front garden for the entire night.

Driving down ul. Trombity, the density of external illuminations was slightly lower, but still over two-thirds of houses on our road had lights outside.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

So much bigger?

A few years ago, I was flying to London with the children, when we heard the following dialogue in the row behind us:
[English passenger] "... of course, Heathrow is so much bigger than Okęcie..."
[Polish passenger, incredulously] "SO much bigger?"

The phrase (pronounced in Polish 'soł macz biger?') has become a family catchphrase. With its four terminals, a fifth coming on-stream very soon, a third runway and sixth terminal planned, Heathrow is indeed massive in comparison with our local airport. Waiting for our flight back to Warsaw this afternoon, I watched plane after plane coming into land, with a 90 second interval between landings. At any one moment, I could see four planes stacked up the final approach.
Below: Heathrow - A Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340 comes in to land as a BA Boeing 757 taxis to its gate.

Right: Flying out of Okęcie before Yuletide, I snapped this forlorn view of a LOT Boeing 737 standing on the apron. The majority of planes are boarded via stairs after passengers have been bussed to the apron from the terminal. We still await the formal opening of Terminal 2 for departures. I've long forgotten when it was originally due to open or why its opening has been delayed for so long.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Extreme Drizzle in Derbyshire

Connoisseurs of Discovery Channel's Extreme Weather series probably missed the episode entitled Extreme Drizzle. Filmed entirely on location in the United Kingdom, the episode showed British people facing the onslaught of all-pervasive damp permeating every nook and cranny, soddening newspapers and socks and hankies. Today started thus. Mild for late December (+9C). We set off with Cousin Hoavis to Wirksworth, at the other end of the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway. The quarries, which were the main reason that a railway was built in this picturesque part of Derbyshire, are now the National Stone Centre, an interesting and spectacular place to visit. Wirksworth itself is a most charming village, despite the drizzle.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

What a prat.

We were heading out of London on the M1, on our way to a Yuletide feast at Cousin Hoavis's, when a police car with flashing lights and wailing sirens brought all three northbound carriageways to a stop. "Excuse me, officer, why have you stopped all the traffic?" "Well sir, this gentleman in the black Porsche 911 has inadvertently executed a 180 degree turn and slammed into the crash barrier with such force as to wrench the rear offside wheel way out of alignment." Now, as is visible from the photo above, there's a gentle curve on the road, and the 911 does have a tendency to swing tail-out during extreme cornering, in in situations like this (with a 50 mph/80kmph speed limit in force) there's no excuse whatsoever to be driving at such high speeds and executing such violent manouevres as to bring about an accident like this. The outcome I'll leave to the magistrate's court and the insurance company.

Foggy Day In London Town

While Englishmen no longer wear bowler hats and never took tea at five o'clock (Polish readers take note!), their capital is still beset by fog. And most usually, in recent years, at Yuletide. On 23 December, Londoners woke up to fog which hung over their city all day long. Travel chaos hit Heathrow Airport, with scores of cancelled flights. A day earlier, we managed to fly in, albeit with a delay if over two hours. Yesterday marked the Winter Solstice, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere. From now on, each day will get successively longer, all the way through to 22 June. Individual daily differences are most marked around equinox - four minutes or more - while around the solstice days' length varies by no more than seconds. Above: Cleveland Park in thick fog. Below: Pitshanger Park in thick fog.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Bye bye borders

Poland and the other seven central and eastern European countries which joined the EU in 2004 implemented the Schengen Agreement at midnight on 21 December.

As a result, Poland's borders with its EU neighbours (Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania) have disappeared. Cars, buses and trucks can cross into these countries without even slowing down. Theoretically, it will now be like driving from England into Wales, or from Florida into Georgia. In practice, border patrols will be able to flag down and spot-check vehicles with foreign number plates. Police will be able to continue cross-border pursuits up to 30km (20 miles) from the border.

Gone are signs like this one on the Polish-Czech border that I photographed in early May. Although it says STATE BOUNDARY CROSSING FORBIDDEN, already by spring this year there were no border guards posted at any of the checkpoints.

Above: A different picture however, on the Polish-Lithuanian border (at the end of the this road) in July this year. It was still being guarded by a patrol of well-armed Polish and Lithuanian border troops.

Old border controls still apply to airports until 29 March.

Still in place, and subject to more rigorous control, are the borders with Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast, Belarus and Ukraine. Once infamous for letting stolen cars from western Europe pass on through to markets further east, the European Commission has taken tough measures to ensure these borders are impervious to crime, smuggling and human trafficking. On three visits to the Bieszczady (south-east Poland, by Ukrainian border), I could see brand new equipment - Land Rovers, Honda scramblers, night vision kit, in use with the Polish border guard units. By the Belarusian border, the number of expensive cars on German, Belgian, Danish or Italian number plates heading east at high speeds has dwindled to a handful of genuine tourist vehicles.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Retro shop, ul. Fabryczna

Down the road from my office is this charming hardware store-cum-dry cleaners. I love the retro atmosphere, the eclectic mix of goods, the old-fashioned service (dry-cleaning takes a minimum of four days but is done by hand and ironed on the premises.) I'm never pestered for change, there's an air of genuine apology if something can't be found, rather than a curt "nie ma". The elderly lady in front of me bought a small dish on which to stand her small Christ's Mass tree; it cost 80 grosze (16p).

Another nice thing about the place is that when the dry-cleaning comes back, it's marked not with a small piece of paper stapled into your clothes, but hand-written strips of cloth tied to belt-loops (left).

The whole shop, inside and outside, could be somewhere in Scandinavia or northern USA in the mid-1950s; I'm getting those past life vibes once again!

"Let me have a Three Musketeers, ah... and a ball point pen there... a comb, a pint of Old Harper, couple of flashlight batteries and some of this beef jerky."

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Letter from Russia

Last week, an old friend of my aunt Ciocia Dziunia found this letter that my mother had sent her from exile in Russia. Dated July 1940 (below), the letter tells of daily life of a 12 year old girl on a Soviet labour camp. My mother's family was deported there as 'enemies of the People' in February 1940, along with hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens that had found themselves living under Soviet occupation after WW2 had broken out.

My mother writes that everyone over the age of 13 was working at the lumber camp chopping down trees, while she, as a junior, would rise at 5:00, join the queue for food, buy bread (brown loaf - 1 rouble 20 kopeks, white loaf - 2 roubles, 10 kopeks), and oily, watery soup with noodles (41 kopeks a bowl). At 12:00 there'd be lunch followed by another queue, then washing and mending clothes, and more yet queuing at 6:00 pm.
The camp, she writes, was surrounded by endless forest; it consisted of four barracks, mess hut, offices, bakery, baths and a de-lousing hut. There's kipyatok (hot drinking water), a place for sharpening saws and axes, a well, a summer club; a school and a nursury is being built for children from the age of three months to three years so that their mothers can go to work.
There were 400 people at the camp. My mother writes that she weighed 38 kilo, and as thin as a mosquito. She signs off apologising for her handwriting, as she's slowly forgetting to write in Polish (the schooling in the camp being in Russian).

Their labour camp, Spetspos'yolok 17, was over 20km from the nearest railway station, a place called Punduga, north of Kharovsk in the Vologda Oblast.

My aunt on my father's side survived Auschwitz; also well into her eighties, she receives a federal state pension from the German government. German Chancellors over the decades have wept openly at Warsaw's Umschlagplatz. Germany has atoned for its sins. But Russia? Not a bit of it. Kicking off WW2 in unison with Hitler, invading as many countries between September 1939 and June 1941 as Nazi Germany did, Russia still claims to be the victim. And my grandfather, a Polish citizen, is no doubt claimed as one of the "26 million Russian war dead". Alongside millions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Moldovans, Transcarpathian Ruthenians and Karelian Finns forcibly turned into Soviet citizens after the start of WW2.

A light dusting

Back in Warsaw for a week before departing Kingdom-side for the festival of Yule, where I shall be celebrating the lengthening day. Today was probably the last time this year I'll be able to take a walk around Jeziorki with my camera. Next week's long and busy, and Moni, Eddie and I fly off on Saturday for London.

The weather seems to have finally turned wintery. The frost held all day and there was a light dusting of snow - enough to make the gloomy late afternoon landscape interesting. Above: ul. Sarabandy. It's less than an hour before sunset, and we're a week before winter solstice. The sky is so overcast that aircraft on final approach to Okecie are still invisible as they roar directly overhead.
Above: At the crossroads - footpaths and drives to the right, to the left ul. Dumki makes its way (below) between a marshy pond and a small stand of birch trees before joining ul. Trombity. The smell of wood smoke is in the air.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

I no longer recognise the land where I was born*

"Gotta go, nan, I'm totally PISSED", said the girl in the photo (right) as the District Line train approached Ealing Common. When discussing how the UK's changed in the past decade, British expats living in Poland will agree that - the presence of a million Polish migrants apart - public female drunkenness is the most visible new phenomenon. (Can you imagine the following words being said on the Warsaw metro - "Muszę kończyć babciu, jestem totalnie zachlana"?)

Earlier this year, I witnessed an inebriated 30-something career woman in smart skirt and suit falling face-long onto the concourse at Charing Cross station, tripping on her heels while tottering for a train. The contents of her handbag scattering all over the floor, mobile phone parting company from its battery. She was too drunk to stand up. A very sorry sight. Or a gaggle of teenage girls swigging white wine from the bottle on a District Line train at Ealing Broadway - drunk and aggressive.

Maybe I'm being a hypocritical male - no one bats an eyelid when Pan Ziutek boards a Piaseczno-bound 709 the worse for drink - but there's something rather shocking about a nation's womanhood behaving in this way. Britain is somehow a country losing its way.

* Quote from Jonathan Wood, publisher of cult literary annual Through The Woods.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Staying underground

Yesterday it was Wembley Park to Hammersmith via Baker Street - today it was Wembley Central to Hammersmith via Piccadilly Circus. (Hello Wembley!) Another of my favourite Tube stations, Piccadilly Circus was refurbished in a reasonably sympathetic way in the 1980s. Although the original 1906 tiling was replaced, the station still has an special atmosphere, which is best experienced from the north end of the north-bound Bakerloo Line platform.

Photo taken by myself from the same spot, 25 years ago; Piccadilly Circus 1982.

"Piccadilly 1972: Taking a turn off mainstreet, away from cacaphony and real-life relics, & into the outerspaces myriad faces & sweet deafening sounds of rock'n'roll. And innerspace...the mind loses its bearings. What's the date again? (Its so dark in here) 1962? Or twenty years on?....." (From the sleeve notes to the eponymously-named first Roxy Music album*)

Although the old tiles have been replaced at the busier deep-tube line interchanges, the originals can still be found on many Bakerloo and Piccadilly Line stations. A longish wait at Regent's Park (reason: defective train at Oxford Circus) gave me the opportunity to photograph one of four station name signs. Note variations in apostrophe usage! Shame on those Edwardian tilers!

* The sleeve notes of Roxy Music, by the band's publicist Simon Puxley, struck me (and still do) as the perfect accompaniment to the songs' ambience... And in full...

piccadilly, 1972: taking a turn off main-street, away from cacophony and real-life relics, & into the outer spaces myriad faces & sweet deafening sounds of rock’n’roll. And inner space … the mind loses its bearings. what’s the date again? (it’s so dark in here) 1962? or twenty years on?
is this a recording session or a cocktail party? … on the rocks, please … where’s the icebox? … oh! now! that is … so cool … (there’d been rumours, of course, nothing certain, but the suggestion of truth). musicians lie rigid-&-fluid n a mannerist canvas of hard-edged black-leather glintings, red-satin slashes, smokey surrounding gloom … listening to the music re-sounding, cutting the air like it was glass, rock’n’roll juggernauted into demonic electronic supersonic mo-mo-momentum - by a panoplic machine-pile, hifi or scifi who can tell? Wailing old-time sax, velvet/viscous, vibrato/vicious or ensemble jamming (& more) … synthesised to whirls and whorls of hardrock sound … mixed/fixed/sifted/lifted to driving, high-flying chunks & vorticles of pure electronic wow - gyrating, parabolic, tantalising (oh notes could not spell out the score).… fantasising: phantomising: echoes of magic-golden moments become real presences … dreamworld & realworld loaded with images (of a style & time & world of - celluloid artefacts? heart-rending hardfacts?). Monaural and aureate fragments sea-changed & refined to pan, span the limits of sensation … leaves of gold, crossing thresholds & hearts. Saturday nite at the Roxy the Mecca the Ritz - your fantasies realized … & are they still? & is this the end? (or the beginning?) &, so help me, so many questions? & are the answers naked to the eye - or ear? or are they undercover?

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Going underground

My recent visits to London have coincided with beautiful weather. Today was no exception. A cloudless sky, frost, slippery pavements. Between meetings in Wembley and Bond Street, I took the Tube, changing at Baker Street. This is one of the oldest underground railway station on earth, opening 143 years ago. The Circle and Metropolitan Line platforms were refurbished in the 1980s, restoring their appearance to how they would have looked in 1863, when the first section of the Metropolitan was opened between Paddington and Farringdon. It is here, at Baker Street, that John Betjeman began his televised poetic journey, Metro-Land, one of my all-time favourites.

On my way to Wembley Park underground station, I passed a warehouse, which was once one of the palaces built for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. John Betjeman visited the site too, then used for storing theatrical props, originally used for an exhibition of church art.

Urea window

I had a disappointing flight from Zurich to London City Airport yesterday. I managed to get a window seat, at the back of the plane, an Avro RJ-100, which has shoulder-mounted wings that afford an excellent, uninterrupted view of the ground. The plane's wings were sprayed with de-icer at Zurich. On take-off, the de-icing fluid, synthetic urea, bled off the wings and along the fuselage as soon as the plane started climbing, freezing over as a thin semi-translucent film that blocked any photography. And the views would have been stunning. The approach into London City is quite spectacular. After wheeling around north Kent, the plane makes it turn into finals over the Houses of Parliament and the dives steeply into what was the quay between Royal Albert and King George V docks. And the weather - cloudless sky - and time of day - shortly before sunset - I'd have got some fabulous aerial views of the ground, had it not been for the obscured window!

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

'Zgnilizna' impressions

The weatherman on telly last night referred to the current spell of weather (which has been affecting us for pretty much all of December and two-thirds of November), as zgnilizna, which the Oxford University Press Polish dictionary defines as 'rot, putrefaction, decay'. It's now getting light at 7:35 am; the day is just over a minute longer than the shortest day (we're now just 11 days from the winter solstice). We leave home in the pre-dawn gloom, taking the back roads to avoid the stationary traffic on ul. Puławska. At this time of year, the unmade stretches of ul. Poloneza are still passable, but will give your car a total mudbath.

This is a sequence of snaps from the Nokia N95; the jolting, dirty, slow and halting nature of the morning commute come across well. I took the first two snaps, Moni the remaining one.

As is visible from the pictures, there's very little traffic coming this way. It plays hell with cars' undersides. Our brave little Nissan Micra, hand-carved from a single billet of titanium, can take it. Occasionally, the exhaust system can come adrift, or - as happened twice - the car bogs down in deep mud or snow. Otherwise, this route to school and on to work is infinitely preferable to standing in three lanes of stationary traffic on ul. Puławska.

Monday, 10 December 2007


Another early start to get Moni to Roraty, the Advent mass which starts at the Dominican abbey at Służew at 06:00. The mass is called Roraty from the first word of the first hymn sung in Latin: "Rorate caeli de super nubes pluant justum..." (O dew from heaven's clouds, fall on us...) The photo above, taken on my Nokia N95 mobile phone with the barest amount of light, is poor quality but lends something of the atmosphere. Moni sings in the choir (in the foreground, right). The abbey's acoustics are perfect for multi-part harmonies; the sound of the singing dissipates into the stillness of the massive enclosed space.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Where I'm From, and why

Between ul. Karczunkowska and Nawłocka (above) on the last leg of today's walk (6.5 miles/10.5km), I'm again suddenly caught - repeatedly during today's walk - by that familiar feeling of anomalous familiarity. I ponder on this; searching for spirit of place, is Jeziorki merely a substitute for a home from a past life?

While living in London, I'd have the rare anomalous memory (most usually while in 'vacant or in pensive mood', to quote Wordsworth), but never triggered by landscape. Here in Poland, these events occur almost daily. Why is that? Why has moving to another country suddenly caused me to have far more of these flashbacks than before?

It all seems so familiar. This is not from my childhood. Why does landscape have such an impact on me? These flat rural lands around Warsaw have this profound effect on my consciousness, whatever the season. Could it be genetic? After all, my father's family has been rooted in these parts for centuries. But it's a 1950s, not 1920s feel that I'm continually picking up.

I feel that my blogging of Jeziorki is creating a marker, setting down a beacon for the future, that I may in some incarnation to come, return, and by doing so validate the truth about man's eternal soul. Below: As I look at this photo, spirit of place comes vividly to life. This is where I've been, this is where I am.

Unseasonable warmth continues

Warsaw's average December daytime temperature is -1C. Today it was +8C. After a week's early starts, I woke up this morning at 10:30, and after breakfast treated myself to a long solitary walk (Dawidy Bankowe, Zgorzała, Zamienie, Nowa Iwiczna and home via the rampa na kruszywo). Dressed for spring or autumn, I should, however, have taken wellingtons with me, due to the 'beastly mud and oomska' (to quote Withnail's Uncle Monty).

Outside Zgorzała on (yet another) building site, I found this wonderful example of a 'barakowóz', or literally a barrack on wheels. Towed from site to site, these provide builders, who are often from far-flung parts of Poland, with living quarters while they're working. In the distance on the far, flat horizon is the radio tower at Raszyn.

Just around the corner is where Warsaw ends and Zgorzała begins. The sign on the left bids farewell to the Lesznowola municipality. The photo (below) neatly encapsulates the mixture of old and new that is Poland today. The roadside cross, the discarded cabbage leaves, the racing readymix concrete truck, the logistics centre in the background and the new - but already dented - local authority sign elegantly made but bearing the medieval crest of Lesznowola.

Back to Zamienie again

There's something about the old vaccine factory at Zamienie that draws me there again and again. Buildings with a faintly sinister air, abandoned to the elements, yet still guarded. Since my last visit, the fence around the plant has been taken down, leaving only square holes in the ground where the posts once stood. This makes getting in and out much easier! Above: The view from the fields between Zgorzała and Zamienie. Below: Zamienie up close. As I wandered around taking photos, quite unmolested, I considered the consequences of being caught here 30 years ago in possession of a camera and British passport.

The housing estate (below) being built on the western edge of the old vaccine plant is growing apace. What is still lacking is a tarmac drive to the new houses, either from Zgorzała or Nowy Podolszyn. General Mud has not yet given way to General Winter. Vehicles trying to get here are in severe danger of ending up axle-deep in mud. As I was taking this picture, I was asked by a woman who was looking around the estate with her husband and son: "Sir makes pictures for newspaper?*" Brusquely I replied "No. For self.*" I'm fed up of people in Poland assuming that because I'm touting a decent camera I must therefore be a photojournalist out to catch a juicy story, an estate agent looking for business, a tax inspector or secret service man prying on the nouveaux riches etc. - rather than the simple explanation - an artistic soul snapping spirit of place.

I would guess that within 12 to 18 months this estate will be complete, gated, connected to the main roads and populated by 120 or so people with their 180 or so cars, all adding to the morning jams on ul. Karczunkowska and Pulawska.

UPDATE late September 2008: The buildings in the top two photos have since been demolished.

* Literal translation to emphasise the question's impolite intrusion upon my privacy.

Friday, 7 December 2007

A day in Poznan

It's been a long week. The alarm clock woke me up at 5:00am on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and today. The reason - to get Moni (and today Eddie too) to Roraty, the early morning Advent mass.

Once I'd dropped the children off today, it was off to Warszawa Centralna to catch a train to Poznan to address a conference. In the train, my soul was heavy; the weather unseasonably warm and rainy - global warming has taken hold. Below: Between Kutno and Konin, the Wielkopolska landscape from the train window brings to mind winter in Kentucky. All that's missing is white fences and some horses.

A few thoughts on Polish state railways, PKP's InterCity business. Inconsistency is the all around. On a train to Kraków the other month, there was an electrical socket for laptops between every seat in the second class compartment. Two weeks ago, the first class compartment didn't offer 0ne. Today, there were no electrical sockets for laptops anywhere on the Poznan train. The table-top lamps in the restaurant carriage had funny sockets (one round pin, two semi-circular pins) to stop anyone from plugging in their laptop. The message to business travellers, therefore, is mixed. If you want to work on the train, you may be in luck, or else, you may not.

A similar picture relates to alcohol. You cannot buy beer (other than alcohol-free) on the Kraków train. You can buy beer, whisky, vodka and cognac on the Poznan train.

Mixed messages to customers are a bad signal. PKP InterCity needs to adopt one policy on these issues and stick to it.

By late afternoon in Poznan the skies cleared and the sun emerged, soon to set. Before then, two buildings caught my eye as I walked back towards the station. It pays to look up when walking through a city. (Above, left:) A fragment of the neo-gothic Church of the Holiest Saviour* (Kościół Najświętszego Zbawiciela). (Above right:) Pegasus, the winged horse, atop Poznan's Opera House (Teatr Wielki im. Stanisława Moniuszki).

My train home, the Berlin-Warsaw express, arrived on time, a few minutes after the photo above was taken. It arrived in Warsaw 65 minutes late. No real reason given other than rumour and hearsay. "A person under the locomotive at Konin." "A crash on a level crossing ahead involving a minibus - 30 casualties." "An electrical failure." Of course, the real reason was not communicated, leaving us guessing. I felt sorry for the two passengers in my compartment with connecting trains to catch in Warsaw; their anxiety was growing by the minute as the train stopped and started the remaining part of the journey.

* The English translation implies more than one Holy Saviour. Indeed more than two. If there were only two, it would be Holier Saviour.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

On the road to... Bialystok

Off to Bialystok for a business conference; early start from Warsaw (above), followed by nearly 200km of road. Bialystok, a city of 300,000 inhabitants, is the most nondescript of the three eastern Polish cities; unlike Lublin or Rzeszów, there's no charming starówka or Old Town.

The placename 'Bialystok' I always associate with Mel Brooks' comedy The Producers - the Zero Mostel character Max Bialystock - his dim Swedish secretary answering the phone with the words "Bialystock and Bloom", or Max trying to sound posher by reinventing himself as "B. Ellie Stock".

Driving back to Warsaw this morning, I was put in mind of the road to Lublin, similar in atmosphere, though with heavier international truck traffic - much of it en route from the Baltic states through Poland and off to Germany and beyond. (Below:) Now and then, the sun broke through, but generally the early December gloom prevailed.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Happy birthday, Eddie!

Our son Edmund is 12 today. Not quite a teenager, but no longer a child. He shares his birthday with famous Poles; author Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, the Secret Agent etc) and ski-jumper Adam Malysz (four times world champion).

Wikipedia's eclectic list of December 3 births makes me think that birth date as determinant of character is rather specious. Would have been a time when commonality due to birth date would be to do with a mother's nutrition during pregnancy (autumn-born children's mothers would have had access to better food than spring-born children); but not any more. "It is the stars, the stars above us, govern our conditions', said Kent in Shakespeare's King Lear. The stars? Phooey!

Birth order seems to be more deterministic. First born children are on average taller, and have higher IQs than younger siblings, while younger siblings have sharper elbows and are readier to take risks. Discussing this on Saturday at Eddie's birthday party with his friends' parents confirmed this in seven out of eight cases!

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Act 1, scene 1; a blasted heath

I set off with my camera in the optimistic hope that the sun would shine weakly and would take the gloom off early December, but no. By the time I got to the end of ul. Trombity, the sun had disappeared behind thick cloud. Much of the land between ul. Trombity, ul. Kórnicka, ul. Nawłocka and the railway line is lying fallow, scrubland overgrown with thorn bushes, mugwort, cow-parsley and wild grasses. For some reason, the landscape, atmosphere and weather put me in mind of northern Texas, hunting jackrabbit with an M1 carbine in the early 1950s, several years before my birth. Another anomalous familiarity event.

Passing Osóbki

Somewhere between W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Jeziorki, a Warsaw-bound EN-57 EMU passes one bound for Radom (right). Note the contrast between exterior cleanliness. At least neither train is disfigured by graffiti.

Polish State Railways (PKP) pays a high cost for social mistrust. Travelling by train in England with my son last year, I marvelled at the contrast between how ticket collectors work in Poland and the UK. The British guard asked politely me to show my tickets, and seeing that I had two, thanked me and moved on. He did not inspect them close-up as they do in Poland. He did not ask to see any proof of my son's educational status or age. His bosses work on the assumption that if someone's got a ticket, there's a 99% likelihood that the correct fare has been paid. Ticket inspection is about protecting revenues. The guard's after people travelling without a ticket. In Poland... Prosze o bilet! The ticket is inspected thoroughly. Any legitimacja entitling a traveller to discounted fares is checked thoroughly. When travelling with my son and I'm asked for his school legitimacja, my response is: "There is compulsory education in Poland [obowiazek szkolny]. Parents who do not send their children to school are imprisoned. The fact that I'm here and not behind bars rather suggests that my son does go to school. So why the bit of paper to prove the obvious?" The upshot of over-zealous ticket checking on PKP is that ticket inspectors do not focus on revenue protection.

Our line out of Warsaw, run by Koleje Mazowieckie, is an excellent example. At all the unmanned stations between Warszawa Zachodnia and Piaseczno, passengers are requested to board the train at the first compartment of the first carriage to buy their ticket. The guard writes tickets out manually. Our regular ticket - "One adult, two children, three bicycles, from Warszawa Jeziorki to Czachowek Poludniowy, return, coming back today". The guard needs to check the number of kilometres between the two stations (18), check my children's legitimacje, work out the tariff (family discount, excursion discount), tot it all up and write out the ticket longhand. The ticket will cost something like 13.67 PLN, and he's always short of change, so he's fumbling through his pocket for tiny coins worth a fraction of a penny. By the time he's written out the ticket, the train has passed two intermediate stations. From the back of the train (which is also packed rigid), where passengers can travel safe in the knowledge that no guard will ever have time to control, scores of people hop on and hop off, knowing there's little chance they'll ever be asked to pay.

Because revenues are not collected, management thinks no one's using the trains, services are cut back to save money, trains are cut from eight carriages to four, recently to three. And all because the most elemental thought process has not been carried out. Why are tickets checked? To ensure that passengers have paid their fares. Not to control society. It's a social mistrust thing. Over-checking costs. Management distrusts its ticket inspectors, controllers control controllers, the cost of revenue protection is out of all proportion to the revenues actually collected.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Stoi na stacji lokomotywa

December begins, gloomy. The temperature has risen to +5C; it's raining, darkness descends earlier still, winter solstice is three weeks away. Time for some introspective musing. Almost every Polish child has had contact with Julian Tuwim's poem Lokomotywa. And I, growing up in London, was no exception. Two pictures (above, below) in the 1958 edition (illustrated by Jan Lenica) remained in my memory long after the book had been given away. A copy came into my possession thanks to Marek Kościński, seeing the two pictures after 40 or so years confirmed my original childhood emotions.

The matter of why these two images were so familiar to a three year-old boy living in a West London suburb is integral to my life-long quest to find answers about what I call Anomalous Memory Events that have been regularly occurring throughout my life. Viewing these pictures as a child triggered the earliest such anomalous memories that I can remember.

What I felt at the time was a total connection with the picture; I'd been here before, I can associate totally with the atmosphere, the look-and-feel of the places, even though I know I had never been there in my lifetime. And how could I have. Continental Europe; snow, steam engines. This is not the suburban London in which I was growing up.

The picture above came to mind a few years back when we visited one of our favourite places, a village called Augustówka, ( 51°58'58.81"N, 21°31'11.96"E, low-res on Google Earth) standing at the junction of three railway lines. Walking through the forest in winter, snow on the ground, I 'saw' the above picture just as I'd seen it in the book; the effect was like looking at a viewfinder image through a viewfinder - a sudden flashback of memory to a memory of a memory from outside my current lifetime. I need to know why.

If you've just Googled this page, let me tell you that this is one of the most popular pages on my blog, visited more often than my in-depth review of the Nikon D80 digital SLR camera. So here, just for you, is my translation (with one or two suggestions from Krzysztof) of Tuwim's Lokomotywa:


The locomotive’s standing at the station,
Huge, heavy, it drips perspiration –
Oily lubrication.

It stands and wheezes, it groans and gnashes
Its boiling belly stuffed full of hot ashes:
Arrrgh, what torture!
Phew, what a scorcher!
Panting and puffing!
Hissing and huffing!
It’s barely gasping, it’s barely breathing,
And still its fireman more coal keeps on heaping.

To it were coupled wagons of iron and steel
Massive and heavy, they weighed a great deal
And crowds of people in each one of these,
And one’s full of cows, another of – horsies,
A third one with passengers, every one fat,
Sitting and eating sausagey snacks.
The fourth was packed with crates of bananas.
The fifth one contained – six large grand pianos.
In the sixth a large cannon, cor! what a whopper!
Each of its wheels chocked up right proper!
The seventh, oaken wardrobes and chairs.
The eighth an elephant, giraffe and two bears.
The ninth, fattened pigs – no spare spaces,
The tenth full of trunks, baggage and cases,
Wagons like these – another forty remain,
Not even I could tell what they contain.
But if one thousand strongmen gathered right here,
And each one would eat one thousand burgers a year,
And each one strained with all of his might,
They couldn’t shift this colossal weight.

Suddenly – WHISTLE!
Suddenly – bustle!
Steam – eruption!
Wheels – in motion!

Slowly at first, like a tortoise just waking
Strains the engine, every single joint aching.
But it jerks at the wagons and pulls with great zeal,
It turns, and it turns, wheel after wheel.
It gathers momentum and takes up the chase
As it thunders and hammers and speeds up the pace.

And where to? And where to? And where to?
Straight on!By rail, by rail, by bridge, now it’s gone –
Through mountains and tunnels, through meadows and woods
It’s rushing, it’s rushing to bring on the goods,
It’s knocking out rhythms like banging a drum

It’s gliding so smoothly – no effort at all,
No engine of steel, just a little toy ball,
No massive machine, all panting and puffing
But a plaything of tin, that weighs next to nothing.

From where does it, how does it, why does it rush?
And what is it, who is it, gives it a push?
That makes it go faster, all thrashing and hissing?
It’s steam’s scalding power that keeps moving this thing.
It’s steam piped from boiler to a piston that glides
Back and forth pushing rods that turn wheels on both sides,
They’re striving and driving, the train keeps on bumping,
‘Cause steam keeps the pistons a-pumping and pumping,
Producing a rhythm so pleasing to some:

(copyright Michael Dembinski 2008)