Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Twilight in the garden

One of life's great pleasures; returning home on a warm spring evening to take in the pleasures of the garden at twilight time. The cares and woes of the day are put to one side, moments are spent in quiet contemplation of the sun's dying rays illuminating the trees as shadows lengthen.

Voltaire said "Il faut cultiver notre jardin"; I'm entirely happy to let someone else do the cultivating for me. The results are somewhat closer to my concept of the sublime than just worrying about where to put a shrubbery.

This time last year:
Marian shrines in our neighbourhood
Garden sprinklers in the spring heat
Late May reflections

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Spring walk, twilight time

After the best part of a week of gloom, dense low cloud, on Sunday afternoon the weather brightened up. An evening walk was in order. I ponder why I'm here with my camera; to witness and to record. These fields and wetlands will within the next decade be wall-to-wall housing; before then, I want to show Jeziorki as it was back in the early 21st century. Above: wheat.

Above: Potatoes. A typically Mazovian field, narrow and long. My walk took me to the end of the road, up ul. Kórnicka to the railway line, in time to catch the 19:03 W-wa Wschodnia to Kielce (Corpus Christi holidays only) service as it trundled southwards. Below: looking down the line from the pedestrian level crossing at ul. Kórnicka towards W-wa Jeziorki.

I doubled back along ul. Kórnicka and on to ul. Dumki, to take in the wetlands that lay between this road and ul. Trombity. Here, as the shadows lengthened, I caught this bird of prey (below) swooping down over the reedbeds. (It's a long way off, but can anyone tell what it is?)

Following ul. Dumki home, I had a feeling of deja vu - childhood holidays in northern France in the late 1960s, the chemins vicinals between Stella-Plage, Trepied and Cucq. Same atmosphere in the air, same scents and sights. The bad news is the mosquitos are out in force big time, especially over the reedbeds. The good news is that the padlocked gate closing off the public footpath between ul. Dumki and ul. Sarabandy has been re-opened.

This time last year:
Darkness and light in the city's centre

Friday, 23 May 2008

Zamienie and the rising tide of Development

A walk to Zamienie yesterday revealed the pace of development on Warsaw's southern fringe. Above: One new estate arises in the distance, west of the old vaccine plant, another (Polne Maki) in the foreground, between Zamienie and Dawidy Bankowe. Whoever buys that house with the white cladding in place needs to bear in mind that within five years these fields will be solid with new development.

What of the old Zamienie? Above: Barracks built for employees of the vaccine plant have been vacated in recent months. Ul. Zakładowa will be torn down and doubtless new houses will arise here. We took the opportunity of the fact that yesterday was Corpus Christi, a public holiday, and that there would not be security guards on the site of the former vaccine works, and walked in.

Above: The old boiler house ( 52° 6'47.04"N, 20°58'22.18"E). Wonderful atmosphere.

Above: The old fire station. Securely padlocked, windows boarded over. I'd like to think that inside stands a trio of perfectly preserved STAR 25 fire engines.

Above: General view of Zamienie. What will happen here? No doubt not a trace of the vaccine plant will remain, hundreds of new houses will spring up, several hundred cars will take their owners to central Warsaw via our overcrowded roads. Until then, it behoves us to visit Zamienie and record it in every detail for posterity.

Rampa update - new road from Mysiadło?

Yesterday's visit to the former rampa na kruszywa site suggests that maybe a new road is to be built linking Mysiadło (the first suburb south of Warsaw's borders) and ul. Karczunkowska. A cutting is being excavated into the embankment leading up to the ramp. I surmise that the road will run as indicated in the picture below, allowing the thousands of new residents of Mysiadło and Nowa Iwiczna a parallel route towards Warsaw. At present they have two, both solidly-blocked, alternatives - ul. Puławska or the back road through Zgorzała, Zamienie and Dawidy Bankowe, also bunged up solid during the morning rush hour.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Mister Hare comes to call

I've never seen this in seven springs living on ul. Trombity - a hare so close to our house. I spotted him in the field behind our garden from the bathroom, fortunately, the Nikon D80 with 18-200mm lens was close at hand. (The 80-400mm would have been a better option - still no. 1 on my photo wish list!). It's wet outside, the hare looked bedraggled leaping through the long wet crops.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Also, it takes much longer to get up north, the slow way*

Zakopane to Kraków. By road or by rail? By road, traffic jams. The road between the two, the Zakopianka, where 100kms can take 10 hours on a Sunday evening, is one alternative. The other is the railway. The romantic in me quite fancies a picturesque railway journey. Surely the train must be the better bet?

As it happens - no. The train winds its way, without undue hurry, taking three hours and 45 minutes to cover 147 km. Average speed less than 25 mph. Three times along the way (at Chabówka, Sucha Beskidska and Kraków Płaszów), the engine uncouples from the front of the train, attaches to the rear of the train, and proceeds out of the station the opposite way.

The train leaves Zakopane at 12:00 and arrives, on schedule, at Kraków Główny, at 15:45. At least it was cheap - the ticket cost me 13 zlotys (three quid). Five zlotys less than the bus, which, on the way out on Friday lunchtime cost 18 zlotys (just over four quid) and took two and half hours.

State railway PKP is its own worse enemy. It does not know how to communicate with passengers and potential passengers. Everyone knows the bus is better, even though the Zakopianka is one of Poland's most notorious roads. The train was running nearly empty - I had an eight-seat carriage to myself all the way. Why isn't the service scheduled better? 10 minute wait at Chabówka to put the engine at the other end, a similar wait at Sucha Beskidska - then half an hour (!) at Kraków Płaszów to attach the train to another, coming from Przemyśl... and Kiev (!!). The journey would have been better had someone told me to jump off the train at Kraków Łagiewniki station, 10km/6miles from Kraków Główny, and taken a taxi or public transport. The last 10km took 50 minutes (!!!).

Much of PKP will disappear because of the uselessness of its management. Here's a transport problem (getting tens of thousands of people out of Zakopane, through Kraków and onto the outside world) waiting to be solved. And PKP management is asleep at the wheel.

Some bits of PKP give grounds for hope. The new train link from Kraków Balice airport (right) to the city centre was excellent - much faster than a jam-bound taxi and only six zlotys (a gated level crossing might be a good idea). The Papal Train from Kraków to Wadowice is modern and quick. So there are solutions. Why can't PKP apply some good brains to the Kraków-Zakopane question?

* The last line from Ian Dury's excellent ditty, 'Clever Trevor'

This time last year:
The year's most beautiful day

Sunday, 18 May 2008


I can’t say I’m a fan of Zakopane. It’s a classic example of a tourist destination that’s become a victim of its own success. Zakopane’s is the result of masses of Poles and foreigners alike believing that “Poland (as a holiday destination) is a country of mountains and sea”. Well, Poland has its long Baltic coast, but the sea is cold, the season short. However, Poland is not a country of mountains. It is a country with half a mountain. Most of Poland is so flat that, to borrow a phrase from Bill Bryson, "if you stand on two telephone directories, you have A View".

Towards the south of the country, the landscape acquires some gentle undulations. Then, suddenly, as you approach the Slovak border, round about Zakopane, the earth rears up to form some stunning mountains. You reach the top of the first chain of proper mountains you get to after travelling 400 miles from the Baltic – and that’s where Poland ends. The rest of the Tatras are in Slovakia. The border runs along the northernmost ridge of the mountain range.

The myth that Poland ‘has mountains’ in any meaningful quantity (as possessed by say, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland) draws over three million tourists down to Zakopane a year. The high tourist seasons (mid-June to early-September and the ferie winter breaks) draws vast crowds. And even in May they're here en masse. Vast excursions of them. Because it is the only significant town in the Polish Tatras, they all get funnelled through here.

The stunning photograph (below) was taken by my colleague Ewa in August 2007 and shows the scale of the overcrowding problem. Click to enlarge to see the full horror of the situation. Ecologists are trying to limit tourist numbers during peak times, but tramping around the Tatras, almost all footpaths show signs of erosion. People can’t bear to walk in single file, and overtake one another wherever they can, broadening the paths.

Zakopane itself is a crowded town. Even now, off-season, the hotels are full (mostly the conference trade). The town’s image is downmarket. Traders selling tourist tat (woollen pillows shaped like women’s breasts) are everywhere, as are signs of Americanisation (local mountainfolk have for over a century traditionally migrated to the USA in search of work; returning entrepreneurs have set up fast food outlets with an American flavour). Bouncy castles rub shoulders with unique wooden folk architecture.

Above: Kropówki, Zakopane's main drag, on a quiet Sunday morning. Come the summer holidays, the place will be heaving like Oxford Street two shopping days before Xmas. Beauty – both natural and architectural – takes second place to convenience, the high altar of consumption and pretend-happiness win out.

Above: Why they come. If you can get away from the crowds for long enough, the scenery really is quite inspiring. Zakopane's heyday was before WW2, when it was a haven for artists and poets, before mass tourism turned it into a parody of itself.

When it comes to the Polish mountains, I prefer the Bieszczady. They're much lower (hills, really), nestling in the extreme south-east corner of Poland. This is way off the usual tourist track, difficult to get to by road, rail or air. This is the place to get away from it all, to finally lose the madding crowd. In the Bieszczady, it’s possible to roam for hours without seeing a single trace of humanity; no discarded snack wrapping, no mountain bike tyre tread, no electricity pylons marching across the landscape, not even a wooden farm hut. It's the only place I've ever been in my life where I could imagine for a few hours what it was like in the Middle Ages.

Would I go back to Zakopane? Only if they paid me. And as this was a business trip, with a morning off to walk some mountains, I shouldn't really complain.

This time last year:

Twilight falls on Jeziorki; the sublime time of day
Got to get ourselves back to the garden
What's going on in the fields behind our house

Monday, 12 May 2008

Devoted Shriners

It's the Marian month of May, and the shrines are decorated. The ebb and flow of the seasons is mirrored in the church calendar, and the chance to pray in the sunshine is welcome. Scenes like this, in Zamienie, can be witnessed across rural Poland. Dear ladies, bastions of all that is Polish, you may not have noticed that suburbia is creeping up upon you, waves lapping around the ankles of traditional Poland. The billboard to the left advertises a new estate of 36 houses.

Below: Just two kilometers further out of town is the village of Łady (pron. "Wuddy"). Here, suburbia is still a few years away. The shrine crawl's not made it here yet, either.

The same two shrines last May.

Like a Kodachrome

This is one of those places that make me stop and wonder where I am. This is ul. Nawłocka, but it could be the USA. To the left, sharecroppers' fields. To the right, new suburbia. All that's missing is the field workers and a 1957 Chevy BelAir, Ford Sunliner and Oldmobile Rocket 88 parked outside those new homes. This is not familiarity from anything I knew in this childhood.

This time last year:

The future of cities - and indeed suburbs

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Jeziorki to Nowa Iwiczna and back

A few snapshots from my walk to Nowa Iwiczna and back. Above: Passing trains between Nowa Iwiczna and W-wa Jeziorki. To the right a rake of empty coal wagons returning to the sidings at W-wa Okęcie, hauled by diesel loco SM42 526. To the left, the Białystok to Kraków express, hauled by electric loco EU07 531. This shot shows nicely the non-electrified single track to Siekierki power station that runs parallel to the main Warsaw-Radom-Kielce-Kraków line between W-wa Okęcie and Nowa Iwiczna, where it swings off to the east.

Returning home, I took in what was left of the rampa na kruszywa. As I was ascending the incline, I spotted something in the sky. At first, I thought it was a kite, but the string was not attached to the ground. It drifted down. I came down from the ramp to see what it was. A helium balloon in the shape of a mobile phone. ROSWELL! ALIEN ARTIFACTS!

The ramp will no doubt soon be gone. All the signs seem to point to a huge housing development. As I wandered around, another photographer (below left) came up the embankment, pushing a mountain bike. His intention is to get some pics up on Google Earth - so take a peek there in six weeks time! Look for the rampa here: 52° 6'23.59"N, 20°59'48.12"E

Down from the ramp, in the fields en route to ul. Karczunkowska, I heard this skylark (below) proclaiming his fitness in the pure spring sky. This individual could sing; the entire sky (when not filled with the sound of aircraft coming in to land at Okęcie airport) resonated with his call. I only wish I had a longer lens like an 80-400mm zoom to bring him in closer.

A Celebration of The Garden

What do I love most about deep suburb, living on the city's rim? Urban Varsovians have their little balconies and their podwórka, I have this. The sublime. Man and nature in spiritual and aesthetic harmony.

This post prompts me to talk about the use of polarising filters in photography. The circular polariser allows one to get bluer skies. Is this trickery? My view is this. On sunny days, I'm wearing polarised sunglasses. They give this effect. This is how the world looks like to me. So when I photograph my world, I want a subjective record of how a given scene looked and felt to me; I want to conjure up the same atmosphere/mood/feeling I got when looking at the scene.

The same applies to tweaks in Photoshop. As well as judicious cropping and compressing, I use Photoshop to make my photos more vivid - this is usually done by increasing contrast and saturation a touch, and reducing brightness a touch. My aim in doing so is to bring the emotional impact of the photo closer to that which I felt at the time.

As you can see, the blueness of the sky varies from photo to photo. This depends on the camera angle. If you point your thumb towards the sun and form a right angle with your forefinger, it will point to the darkest, bluest part of the sky - and the polarising filter will exaggerate this effect. Of course, you need a single lens reflex (SLR) type camera to see the sky darkening and lightening in the viewfinder as you turn the filter.

How do we keep our garden looking so beautful, you are all asking yourselves. My secret - I do not do a hand's turn but leave it to the professionals who know what they're doing. Eats quite a hole into the family budget over the summer months, but hey! it's worth it.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Driving home at the end of the working day

Ul. Puławska's getting worse and worse. Once you could work on a bit, leave the office at half past six and get a reasonably clear run home. But traffic volume has been increasing rapidly. Until late last year, one could blame the roadworks. Now finished, Puławska's three lanes run all the way through to Piaseczno. And yet now traffic is worse than ever before. The photo (above) was taken yesterday at quarter to eight in the evening. The photo (below) was taken at the same time today. As you can see, Puławska is a solid traffic jam, of which my car is a contributing part. The development of more and more housing beyond Warsaw's border - Mysiadło, Nowa Iwiczna, Piaseczno, Lesznowola and beyond is bringing ever more traffic onto the main thoroughfare leading south from the city. Wouldn't rail be an answer? A tramway running down the middle of Puławska and improved rail services on the line from Piaseczno into town via W-wa Jeziorki and W-wa Dawidy could take thousands of commuters an hour to and from work.

Apart from the small European and Japanese cars that form this jam, there's something about the landscape, the architecture and the sky that's decidedly American. I wonder if any eagle-eyed local can spot the deliberate error in the top picture?

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Flying in from the Faroes

Another rare bird - an Atlantic Airways BAe 146-200 (OY-RCW) coming into land, quarter to eight in the evening. Now - Atlantic Airways is an unfamiliar operator, hailing as it does from the Faroe Islands. (Are they north of Scotland? - yes they are.) This is not a scheduled flight - I checked on the Okęcie website. Unless it's a replacement for the scheduled service from Copenhagen. EPWA spottaz - let me know what this plane was doing in Jeziorki airspace.

A low-cost scheduled service from Warsaw to the Faroes might tempt me to visit!

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Where I feel uncomfortable in Poland

After driving around with five summer tyres on the back seat of my Nissan Micra for over three weeks, I finally managed to leave work in time yesterday to get to the wulkanizator (he closes at six) and have my winter tyres changed.

I pull into the forecourt, leave the car and pop into the office - empty. Then into the workshop - empty. I'm wandering around unsure of what to do. A man I don't recognise is polishing a newish Skoda Octavia on the forecourt. He asks me: "Why doesn't Sir ask me what Sir wants?" I reply: "Now hang on a second - Sir should be asking me what I want, not the other way round. How am I to know Sir works here? For all I know, Sir may be the proud owner of this newish Skoda Octavia, and by asking Sir to change my tyres, I'd be insulting Sir!"

At this moment, I realise (once again) that I am insufficiently assertive for the rough-and-tumble of everyday life in Poland. Brought up in cheerful, polite, respectful Britain, I expect service sector employees to know their place in society. Mindful of this, by way of quid pro quo, I accord them with cheerful, polite, respectful condescension.

The above forecourt dialogue would look like this in (my idealised) Britain:
Employee: "May I help you, Sir?"
Me: "Of course you can! Could you change all my winter tyres for summer tyres while I wait?"
Employee: "Half a mo, Sir, just let me wipe the last of the wax off the Skoda an' I'll have your tyres changed in a jiffy!"

I should have handled the situation in Poland like this:
Me: "Panie - zmieni mi Pan opony na letnie - dobrze?" ("Sir will change my tyres to summer ones - good?")
Employee: (sullenly tugging forelock) "Dobrze."("Good.")

When these assertiveness situations happen to me, I immediately feel inadequate; even after ten years in Poland, I get tongue-tied, get my case-endings all wrong, hold back on demanding what I want because I still feel that politeness gets you somewhere.

Another example from yesterday. My mobile rings; its the septic tank drainage company. They were booked to empty it, but a nice young lady tells me that all the ten cubic metre trucks are busy and that they can't make it until tomorrow. I politely explain that the septic tank has been overflowing since Sunday and every time anyone flushes the toilet, more smelly excrement spills out over the drive. Plus, Pani Zosia has come in specially to let the tanker in and out. "Sorry Sir, we can't make it today - that's that." So I phone my wife (who's having a stressful day anyway) and tell her this latest bit of bad news. "Let me sort this out" she says. Five minutes later she calls back to say that a truck is on its way right now to empty our septic tank. Now why couldn't I manage that?

While I was waiting for my tyres to be changed, I went across the road to the Wild Bean Cafe at the BP petrol station for some late lunch. I ordered a beef burrito. First bite - scaldingly hot. Second bite - just right. Third bite - hmm... lukewarm. Fourth bite - decidedly cold. I stop. Should I ask the petrol station assistant to re-heat my half-eaten burrito? What should I do? I end up doing the English thing. Half my brain is telling me not to make a fuss, the other half is warning me of the dangers of eating partially cooked mincemeat. In the end, my desire to avoid a potential row wins out over considerations of hygiene. I finish the burrito. Fifth bite - glacial. Sixth bite - warmer. Final bite - OK. I wash it all down with coffee and drive home.

One hour later I'm on the bog, bitterly regretting having eaten that wretched burrito. Flush, clean bowl, flush again. It was indeed a good thing that my wife persuaded them to empty the septic tank.

At times like this I feel desperately uncomfortable in Poland. Ten years and I've not been able to acquire the brusque toughness needed to get my own way in day-to-day transactions. After all, what's so difficult in saying "To jest zimne. Pani to podgrzeje - dobrze?" ("This is cold. Madam will reheat this - good?")

This time last year:

Some welcome relief in the form of spring rain

Monday, 5 May 2008

Oceanic feel

For millennia my soul has been stirred by the sight of the setting sun. The return to forever. This view is sublimely familiar, the accompanying scents of approaching summer lift my senses. As it has done for lifetime after lifetime. And each time, my consciousness is raised, incrementally, upwards towards God.

This time last year:

This is not America. No?
The marshes at the crack of dawn

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Farewell to the Rampa line

This evening I had the greatest shock I've experienced in our six years of living in Jeziorki. Scrambling to the top of the aggregate line embankment to suddenly realise - the tracks have been ripped up. Compare with photo taken ten weeks ago. Removing the tracks seems to run counter to today's environmental trends - rail should be replacing road for the transport of bulk freight. This is a sad sight for railway enthusiasts. Once torn up, they'll never come back.

The speed and scale of the operation has amazed me; it was not long since my last walk here. The tracks have been thrown down the side of the embankment and the sidings below also ripped up. Below: Looking towards the buffers at the Nowa Iwiczna end of the line. Compare with this view taken ten weeks ago.

Looking up at the embankment gives one the impression of scorched earth - vandalism on a monumental scale.

What will happen here? Will the rails be replaced by asphalt, allowing trucks to bring aggregate to the Jeziorki depot? Will this be a new local road, enabling the residents of the new housing estates of Nowa Iwiczna and Mysiadło to by-pass the totally congested ul. Puławska?

One thing is certain - a killing will be made on the scrap rails.

Click here for photos of the rampa na kruszywa in action
Looking towards the rampa from the end buffers
On the sidings, W-wa Jeziorki, last July

I did some checking online. The site is owned by Warszawskie Zakłady Eksploatacji Kruszywa (WZEK Sp. z o.o.). Its registered commercial activity, last amended on 7 November 2005, is 'real estate' and 'trans-shipment of cargo', in that order. My brother speculates that this sizeable piece of land, right next to a suburban railway station, would be prime property for a developer.

Warsaw City Hall has given planning consent for connecting the WZEK site to the main sewers running down ul. Karczunkowska on 12 November 2007, but I can't find anything relating to ripping up rails or change of land use.

UPDATE: 11 May - most of the rails seen strewn down the embankment have been removed.

May bank holiday, Las Kabacki

Bike ride through the Las Kabacki forest in Warsaw's Ursynów, May 3rd national holiday. Above: my brother Marek and Eddie manhandling their bikes up the embankment built between the Metro depot and the forest.

Compare the photo above with this one, taken less than ten months ago in Derbyshire. Moni and cousin Hoavis, both wearing same tops, in same alignment. Different bikes, different landscape, different pair of Converse sneakers.

This time last year:

Flags are out for Poland's national day
World's longest weekend (well, last year it was)

Friday, 2 May 2008

In Warsaw's Museum Museum

With my brother Marek, Eddie and Moni and their cousin Hoavis, we set off to Warsaw's Palace of Culture to the Museum Museum. It's a museum whose one and only exhibit is a museum of science and technology, circa 1955. Pretty much unchanged since it opened, this truly fascinating place has faithfully captured the stultifying atmosphere of Stalinist-era temples of proletariat learning. Museum staff relate to visitors via a simple two word vocabulary - "Nie dotykać!" (Don't touch!)

Still focused on the advances of socialist technology, the bulk of the musuem's exhibits date back to the days when the communist world really believed it could outpace the west in terms of scientific progress. Never mind that much of that technology was licenced (Fiat 125, Fiat 126, Berliet bus) or shamelessly cribbed (Klimov RD 45 turbojet, Tupolev Tu-144 Concordski) from the capitalist world.

Below: Comrades, behold the future! By 1959, every state enterprise will be equiped with at least one AKAT-1 workstation. Capable of performing 64 operations per hour in its capacious memory banks, the AKAT-1 will revolutionise the socialist workplace, raising output and productivity to levels undreamt of in the west!

Below: The entertainment room. Here we find musical boxes, pianolas, orchestrions, stereopticons, as well as more modern devices such as gramophones. For a zloty, the custodian will wind up an orchestrion and set it off. Unfortunately, it's incapable of playing a decent tune. Unless it's attempting to play something by Karl-Heinz Stockhausen.

But enough frivolity. The race to overtake the western economies will be won in the field of iron and steel production! An entire room is given over to this subject, with beautifully crafted models of Bessemer converters, rolling mills and iron foundries placing correct socialist emphasis on this area of technology.

Between the Iron and Steel room and the rest of the exhibits lies a roped-off area; it's been roped off for at least a year, if not two. This is where the coal mining rooms are (or were). Are they being air-brushed out of history in a no-nonsense Stalinist way?

In the foreground, we have bicycles from the 18th and 19th centuries. Behind them, somehow struggling to find a common theme, a Soviet 1950s jet fighter simulator. I'm taking this picture stood in front of a cinema projection booth, demonstrating cinematic technology from the earliest days of the moving image to the 1970s. There's more order in my parents' attic. This may be to do with the fact that the current director of the museum has been in his job since 1972. Forty-six years. He's outlasted Gierek, Jaruzelski, Wałęsa and Kwaśniewski.

Having said all this, I do like this place for its steadfast refusal to move with the times. A real slice of history. Definitely recommended for anyone visiting Warsaw - if you're seeing the Palace of Culture, don't just see the 30th Floor - pop by the Museum Museum (as long as your children respond to 'nie dotykać'). Tickets 8 zlotys (just under two quid) for adults, 5 zlotys (just over a quid) for children. Well worth it.

This time last year:

On the Polish-Czech border, Beskidy mountains