Sunday, 29 June 2008

Meanwhile, in Gdynia...

While I was in Kazimierz, my wife and parents-in-law were in Gdynia to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Polish Navy. (A bit early, as the actual date was 28 November 1918; however, the year coincides with the Polish Navy's 5th World Congress). Above, right: my father-in-law, Tadeusz Lesisz, on board the ORP Blyskawica. He is the oldest surviving Polish naval officer to have served in WW2. He was Artillery Officer on this destroyer in 1942 when its fierce anti-aircraft barrage fended off a Luftwaffe raid on the docks of the Isle of Wight town of Cowes.

Below: My parents-in-law (front row, centre) during the ceremony in the Błyskawica's officers' mess; my wife sits behind them. Three seats along from my mother-in-law is President Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last Polish president-in-exile, who in 1990 handed the insignia of state of the pre-war Polish republic to the newly-elected President Lech Wałęsa, thus preserving the continuity of Polish statehood across the 45-year period of communism. [Photographs: Marynarka Wojenna]

Saturday, 28 June 2008

To Kazimierz, for a wedding

To Kazimierz Dolny for the wedding of our events manager, Tessa, to Adam (above). The ceremony took place in Lazienki Park, followed by a drive down to Poland's most pictureque (and hence most touristy) small town for the reception. The wedding was exquisitely organised (as one would expect from Tessa - the best organiser I know!), wonderful food, music, setting, happy people.

Kazimierz Dolny also happened to be playing host to an international folk music festival, so the charming town (heaving at its very seams at this time of year) was even more crowded than usual. Below: The view from the gate of the church of St John the Baptist.

Kazimierz has some unique architecture that makes it a real gem among smaller Polish towns; the tragedy is that there are not more like it. Germany, France, Italy, Spain - not to mention England - have thousands of truly beautiful villages and small towns. Can anyone helpfully point out some more in Poland worth spending some time in?

Right: Looking towards Kazimierz's main square. Behind me was the pensionat at which I stayed, Pod Wietrzną Górą, which I can recommend for excellent service, lovely rooms, good food, air conditioning and excellent shower units.

But avoid peak tourist times - just look at that traffic jam!

Friday, 27 June 2008

Rain, wind and fire

As I left the office this evening, I could see that the weather was shaping up a summer storm. The cloud was dark, the wind was picking up; heavy raindrops were beginning to fall onto the dusty earth. Soon the rain was pelting down. Driving along ul. Sikorskiego, I noticed a plume of brown smoke drifting across the six carriageways. Pulling up in front of the gas station by the Canal+ building, I leapt out of the car into the pouring rain, the wind whipping across from the west, and I ran in the direction of a fire engine's flashing lights. There was a widespread grass fire in the scrubland between the road and the allotments beyond. Firefighters were engaging the flames, though they were spreading fast through the dry vegetation by the strong wind.

It was raining; hard and this would eventually help the firemen put the fire out. Note in the photo above how the sparks spread the fire, setting off mini-fires in the foreground. Thunder and lightning accompanied the heavy downpour; it's possible that a lighting strike sparked the fire. I continued home in the hard driving rain.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Warmth of the Sun

Above: BP station, between Garwolin and Kołbiel. It's gone half past ten; sunset was over 90 minutes earlier, yet the mesospheric cloud is still illuminated by the sun. A rare meteorological phenomenon associated with this time of year at these latitudes, noctilucent clouds are not fully understood by science. The clouds - some 50 miles high - are at an altitude, which in theory is too high for water vapour to exist. I could still see these clouds at 23:15, as I neared home; nearly two and half hours after sunset!

Leaving Lublin at nine pm, the car thermometer indicated +24C. Even two hours after the sun had set, it was still +20C. The summer's here and the time is right for driving window-down while listening to the Beach Boys. Contrary to popular belief, Les Garcons de la Plage actually wrote more songs about cars (Little Deuce Coupe, Little GTO, Spirit of America, 409, etc.) than about surfing (Surfing USA, Catch a Wave, etc.) Much as I like their car songs, my fave Beach Boys numbers are their later, more reflective ones that reach a level of sublime emotion rarely encountered in pop music; Warmth of the Sun, Do it Again or Surf's Up (despite the title, not a surfing song). And I can turn up the car's stereo, harmonise with the Wilson brothers and imagine that the Yaris is a Ford three-window coupe with whitewall slicks that'll turn a quarter mile in one-oh-six. Of course, back in the mid-'60s, it was quite OK to glorify cars with seven litre engines running on leaded petrol that did 12 miles to a gallon, which cost all of 32 cents.

This time last year:
The Road beckons
Ul. Nawłocka gets a hardened surface
Pigeon tumbling in Jeziorki

Return to Lublin

In Lublin today to chair an investment seminar. Weather perfect. Arrive 90 minutes early and take in the Old Town before getting down to work. I was last in Lublin a year ago.

Make your way down Lublin's main thoroughfare, Krakowskie Przedmieście (left). We're still in university term time, though before the main holiday season. So the town's quite busy, but not overcrowed. No endless crocodiles of guided tourist parties that spoilt Prague for me when I visited it in 2005. Through the gate (below)...

And into the Old Town. Which ten years ago was empty, eerie, crumbling, yet intensely atmospheric. Today, it's been (partially) renovated, and it's thriving. The city's marketing campaign is encouraging Poles to take a look at this once-neglected tourist attraction.

A city of 355,000 people, Lublin's five universities have a total of 100,000 students - the highest student/population ratio of any Polish city. In terms of economic development it's quite some way behind Poland's more westerly cities - Wrocław, Katowice, Poznań, Kraków, Gdańsk, Łódź and Warsaw - mainly because of poor transport links (no motorway or airport connections).

The city's authorities have recognised the Old Town's tourist potential and have invested sensitively in ensuring that its charm is not lost after the restoration process has been finished. The horse and cart is the ecologically-friendly refuse removal vehicle. Note too the friezes painted onto the newly-plastered walls. Beer gardens extending onto the cobbled squares abound; there's a huge variety of bars and restaurants.

Some buildings are crumbling, while others have been restored. Aesthetically, the restoration looks good, but the Old Town is starting to lose its original character.

Left: The left-hand building is a Jewish restaurant, a reminder of Lublin's pre-Holocaust history.

Part of the Old Town's appeal is the large number of arched passageways that dive off between buildings. The cobblestones are hard work for buggies, wheelchairs and stiletto heels, but are essential for the place's character.

On my first visit, in February 1999, the town was deserted; there was melting snow on the cobbles, and one could sense the ghosts of the past everywhere. That evocative, haunting atmosphere has now gone; the town's happier, vibrant. You gain, you lose. That's progress.

The gate at the eastern end of the Old Town, that leads across to Lublin's castle. Yet again work prevented me from visiting it. I've been to Lublin ten or twelve times, always on business, and have yet to pop in.

Below: My favourite pub in Lublin's Old Town, U Szewca ("At the Cobbler's"). Here, one can actually buy draft Bishop's Finger ale from Kentish brewery Shepherd Neame. Place looks empty, but all the tables outside were occupied.

This time last year:
The perfect rainbow over Jeziorki

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Nice Nysa

Along with the FSC Żuk, Poland produced a second light commercial vehicle, the FSD Nysa. Unlike the Żuk, however, which kept the same basic shape for its 40 year, 500,000-unit production run, the Nysa was redesigned three times. This is the earliest version, from the late 1950s, an N57. Extremely rare; usually if you see one, it's rusting in a farmyard or overgrown driveway. This one looks to be still in regular use. Total production (1957-94) was 380,000, of which by far the most numerous was the Nysa 522.

This time last year:
Crops in the field next door are growing high

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Crumbling neo-classicism in Grabów

Prompted by a comment from KG to yesterday's post, I popped by via Grabów on my way home. Ul. Puławska was for some reason completely solid this evening (anyone know why?), so a detour down the back roads of Grabów made a pleasant alternative to sitting in stationary traffic.

So here we have on the corner of ul. Krasnowolska and ul. Tramblanki a 150 year old neo-classical dworek (manor house). In a right two-and-eight*, it seems to be still inhabited. We are just six miles from the very centre of Warsaw. (Google Earthers - we're looking at 52° 8'32.25"N, 20°59'58.21"E).

Who lives here and what's likely to become of this slice of local history is unknown to me; I hope it get sold to a culturally-sensitive person with the wealth and taste to return this dworek to its former glory.

This time last year:
Off into Mazowsze by bike

*Cockney rhyming slang. "Two and eight" = "state".

Monday, 23 June 2008

This, I think, is quintessential Jeziorki

That golden time of day. The flat Mazovian plain, the setting sun glinting on the tracks; the sense of the sublime I've been searching for. The mile-long walk back home to the other end of ul. Trombity just after sunset was quite magical; pockets of warm, then cool air, scents of summer. Planes flying overhead, the occasional train, a swan, wheatfields, old houses, new houses. My kind of place. It's wonderful to be so happy from living here.

This time last year:
Development starts encroaching - Mysiadło boxes (field across the track now being developed)

Communist ice cream

Plac na Rozdrożu, on Al. Ujazdowskie. State-owned ice cream stand, dating back to the 1960s or '70s, from the look of it. Note: a) the bas-relief frieze at the top; 11 happy diners leaning over their plates, hammered out of sheet aluminium (click to enlarge). The work of some state-sponsored student, no doubt. Interesting visually. But note b) how it jars with the simple word 'LODY' ('ice cream') in a stencil-like font, flanked by yellow, purple and blue circles visually representing said ice cream. Note c) the green-painted grill, to stop smash'n'grab artists from nicking the lollies.

So we're back in communist days, except for the cars in the background, a plethora of Peugeots, BMWs, Mazdas, Fords and Mitsubishis when 25 years ago, you'd have been lucky to have seen a handful of Polski Fiats parked here.

Does the State have any business selling ice cream?

UPDATE, SUMMER 2009: It's gone. Knocked down as Al. Ujazdowskie were being given a major facelift. History, man.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

New coal train en route to Okęcie

As mentioned in April, private coal train operator PCC Rail has invested in some revamped locomotives, based on the frames of the old Soviet-built M62 (nicknamed 'Gagarin' or 'Gagar' by Polish spottaz). Here's a beautiful shot of 311D-08 hauling a rake of 40 empty wagons back to the sidings at W-wa Okęcie along the single, non-electrified freight line that runs parallel to the Warsaw-Radom line between Okęcie and Nowa Iwiczna. The wagons, with six-wheel bogies, are also recent. Nice to see some new investment in rail. In the distance, you can just make out W-wa Jeziorki station.

Stratotanker's Sunday visits to Okęcie

A Sunday morning visitor to Okęcie - this Israeli Airforce Boeing 707. Usually it flies in around seven am, this morning it took off over our house mid-morning. Note no visible markings; slim turbojets rather than the more efficient, clean-burning turbofans used by most jets these days. Note also tail boom for in-flight refuelling.

Incidentally, the Boeing 707 and its military equivalent, the KC-135 is one of five aircraft to have served a full half-century in the same air force. The others are the English Electric/BAC Canberra, Boeing B-52, Tupolev Tu-20/95 'Bear' and the Lockheed C-130 Hercules.

The plane is a tanker conversion of a cargo Boeing 707 operated by the Israeli Air Force. Click here for photo. We saw it today (Sunday 13 July at 09:13) flying in from the south. Below: Flying in on Sunday 2 November at 09:41.

Noc Świętojańska - St John's Eve

Solstice was celebrated by pagans across Europe - the Christian church overlayed its feasts onto traditional rites. Today is the eve of the feast of St John; Noc Świętojańska. A new tradition is to celebrate the names-day of all those Jans (Jan is as popular a name in Poland as John is in Britain) with beer, barbecues and fireworks. Above, fireworks on ul. Dumki, photographed from my bedroom window.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

In the solstice garden

The sun is about to reach its zenith in the northern hemisphere sky. I'm waiting for the moment. It'll be about two hours yet... But soon the sky clouds over. So this is my pictorial record of the summer solstice, 2008.

The meaning of Solstice

Well, that's it for another year, it's come and gone - the high point of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, from now on until 20 December, the days will get shorter and shorter. At least they're still long - today will be 16 hours 45 minutes long, the sun will set (in Warsaw) at 21:00. But there's a sense that although the summer's only just arrived, the year is already in decline.

Note on Tim Osborn's map (above) the sinusoidal shape of daylight across the globe. North of the Arctic Circle, there's 24 hours of sunlight; the Antarctic is currently experiencing endless night, with a twilight fringe brushing the continent's northern coast. Note also the position of the sun, scooting around the Tropic of Cancer. Soon it will start dropping towards the Equator again, which it will cross during the Autumn Equinox (22 September), en route to the Tropic of Capricorn, which it will reach by the Winter Solstice (21 December).

Below: Compare the shape of daylight today with how it looked at the moment of the Spring Equinox just three months ago. They sinusoid gives way to two neat rectangles; 12 hours of day, 12 hours of night across the whole world, wherever you are; the sun over the Equator.

Just one of those many things that makes me ponder about how extremely fortunate mankind has been in finding itself on Planet Earth. It is a tilted planet, whose axis is 23 degrees off vertical in relation to our local star gives us seasons.

One final thing: School's out for summer. Ten weeks before Moni and Eddie go back to the classroom. Moni starts high school (liceum), Eddie middle school (gimnazjum).

This time last year:
The Crumfel's first gig (though Moni had not yet thought up the band's name)

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Jeziorki midsummer evening scenes

Off for an evening stroll; at this time of year, as the summer solstice nears, the day is at its longest (nearly 17 hours!), the sun sets at nine pm. At the wetlands at the end of the road, the reedbeds are drying out. The water level has fallen by some 70-80 cm. The swans are still there; the cob swimming picket duty, the hen and her brood far deeper into the reeds. Plenty of grey-white feathers and down indicate lots of cygnet action! I hope the water level doesn't fall much lower; as it is I can wade in my wellies without too much fear of wet socks. Should it dry out too much, the swans may not return next year.

On ul. Kórnicka, less than eight miles from the very centre of Warsaw, is this entirely rural scene. A shotgun shack in ol' Kentucky? Sure looks familiar to me. I'd love to buy this place, do it up a bit, but essentially preserve its country character. Why, there's even a well for drawing water. As I walked home, I ponder on this scene, and the following phrase pops unbidden into my mind: "There is a seamless continuum which our souls observe through myriad eyes". We live, we learn, we die, we are reborn; it must happen many times.

Double exposure on ul. Baletowa. "What's he taking a picture of?" That beautifully illuminated old house, with bed covers and laundry out to dry, that's what. The old architecture of Jeziorki gives the place so much atmosphere, long may it withstand the ravishes of Development.

Antonov An-12 inbound to land

We see a fair amount of interesting aircraft flying into Okęcie. From the distance, this looked like a Fat Albert (Lockheed C-130 Hercules); four turboprops on shoulder-mounted wings, raised conventional tail, main undercarriage emerging from a portly fuselage. As it approached it became obvious that this was Fat Albert's Soviet military medium-lift equivalent, the Antonov An-12. This one, Ukrainian-registered UR-CGV, belongs to Meridian Aviation and is often used for transporting racehorses.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

God Save The Queen - I mean it, Ma'am!

Six popes. Ten American presidents. Yet only one British monarch reigning in my lifetime. Yesterday, I celebrated (along some with 500 others) the Official Birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the British Ambassador's residence in Warsaw. To me, the Queen is a symbol of continuity, of the peaceful prosperous Britain in which I was born and where I grew up; free schooling, free healthcare, an inclusive, just society, a fair and courteous people.

Republics around the world have their share of frauds, drunks, liars, jades and ne'er-do-wells chosen by deluded electorates as their heads of state, but Britain continues to bask in the sublime grace of The Queen, regal and glorious. Long may She rule over her subjects. Sto Lat, Your Majesty!

Most interesting person I met at the gathering was F/Sgt Jan Janczak (rtd.). Now 93, the former Mosquito night fighter pilot with the RAF's 307 (Polish) Sqn told me his fascinating life story. A Polish Air Force pilot from 1937, he was captured by the Soviets, deported to Siberia, amnestied in 1941, made his way to the UK via the Middle East, joined 300 (Polish) Sqn flying Wellington bombers before being transferred to 307 Sqn. After the war he returned to Poland where he joined LOT Polish Airlines in 1946. Two years later, during the Stalinist period, he was arrested for spying (a fate shared by many Polish servicemen returning from the UK) and imprisoned for six years.

This time last year:
The colours of Legoland
The year approaches its zenith

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Twilight moods, Jeziorki

It's that time of year, it's that time of day, that magickal, sublime mood brought about by an encroaching dusk. A mood that engenders universal existential awareness. Below: Past, present and future thrown into one as I gaze into that sunset. Click on the image, stare deep into it and meditate.

Right: the colour of a summer sky, half an hour after sunset. The beauty and the temporary sadness. The sun's gone out, but will be back.

This time last year:
The year approaches its zenith

I no longer recognise the land where I was born

My best friend from university days, Nick Morris, came up with this counterblast to my regular "isn't Britain going down the shoot" tirades. The points are valid, comment is welcome!

"Compared to us, [our teenage children and their friends] have so much more to do and experience...

1970s cinema: Pay up, see a great movie, leave. Wait four years for it to appear on telly or to turn up at the NFT in a scratched old print, or at Uni as a mutilated 16mm print.

2000s cinema: See a great movie, make a tribute video on YouTube, discuss it on Facebook, see it again on DVD with surround sound (have your own film festival if you want), watch it on your iPod on the train.

1970s Sundays: Zilch open, nothing to do except watch the Big Match or go to the pub

2000s Sundays: Everything's open, like a bonus day to your weekend

1970s violence: Skinheads outside school, Paki-bashing, football specials, me getting beaten up at Stamford Bridge.

2000s violence: Mainly confined to gangs from estates knifing each other.

1970s music: NME on a Thursday to find out what's going on. Wait for a band you like to get signed, then wait another three months for a "single release", by which time the buzz is over.

2000s music: Pick up the buzz about a band, download the tracks from MySpace, see them play at about a gazillion festivals all over the UK or Europe, chat to them online.

1970s travel: Dream of being able to get a railcard to Europe or save up for years for an extortionate airfare.

2000s travel: Go to Norway, Amsterdam, Serbia, etc. for festivals or weekend trips for tickets that cost pennies (tax excepted).

1970s London: Drab, decaying buildings in need of modernisation. Men in suits and bowler hats having terrible food in old, old restaurants. Wimpy Bar or The Egg and I the "last word" in cafe eating

2000s London: new design and style everywhere, every kind of food available, fresh, unusual, fun, you name it.

1970s dates: You call someone up, you make a date, you get there, they don't show up, the next day they call and apologise - the bus broke down

2000s dates: You get there, you get a call on your mobile, you laugh, you make new plan.

1970s pithy comment: Fanzines once a month.

2000s pithy comment: Blogs.

...and so on. Okay, I might be exaggerating, but my memories of growing up in 1970s Surrey was that it was all so DULL most of the time, and LIMITED in what you could hope to achieve."

I must say, I have the same kind of debate with my mother-in-law, who says she prefers the 1940s to these days. What - with the war and everything? Yes, with the war and everything (bombing of civilians, Nazi occupation, arbitrary arrests and street executions, genocide on your doorstep, death penalty for harbouring Jews, Warsaw Uprising, imprisonment in concentration camp), my mother-in-law still claims that life was better then.

Are we all destined to grow older thinking that everything today is rubbish? I must say though, it's difficult to see modern Poland as worse than it was in the 1970s (unless you're a hardline communist). Am I beginning to see a trend (reading Polish blogs) that the mid-2000s were Poland's Golden Age?

All comments invited.

Friday, 13 June 2008

One night only: The Crumfel

Moni's school band played their first proper, headlining gig tonight in the school hall. The Crumfel's set consisted of ten songs, of which three were their own material.

I was down the front with the rest of the Camera Dads, all equipped with Nikon still and Sony video cameras. Behind me, the joint was indeed jumping.

One night only: Friday 13th June, 2008.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Automotive miscellany

Cars from the depths of the communist era are rarities in modern Poland. So seeing a 1960s FSO Warszawa 204 filled me with delight - and in such good condition too. Note the yellow 'zabytkowy' licence plate only issued to rare old cars that meet stringent conditions.

The Warszawa 204 was a modernised version of the original FSO Warszawa, a licence-built Soviet GAZ M-20 Pobieda (the forerunner of the M-21 Volga that I used to own in 1980s London). The main change is visible in this rear three-quarter view; the fastback styling of the original has given way to a 'notch-back' and conventional boot.

More common on Poland's roads, though disappearing rapidly, is the FSC Żuk ('beetle') pick-up truck, photographed below in Zamienie on the road between Nowy Podolszyn and Zgorzała. Very much an icon of rural Poland. More than half a million were produced between 1958 and 1998. The Żuk has a most characteristic shape not seen on the roads of western Europe. It was also assembled in Egypt as the Ramses.

And a propos of old cars, our 15 year-old Nissan Micra hit a nice round figure - one hundred and eleven thousand, one hundred and eleven point one miles (below). Average mileage isn't that high, but for the past six years its barely ever ventured outside Warsaw's city limits. Fuel consumption is still excellent (42 mpg on last tankful), given the car sits in traffic jams much of the time (when it's not bounding up and down over the unasphalted ul. Poloneza). I believe the Nissan Micra K11 will too have iconic status. I do love my one for its character, reliability and willingness.

This time last year:

The weather was stormy (contrast with this year!)
Setting suns, south of Warsaw

Monday, 9 June 2008

Bus blaze on way to town

Eddie and I left home before six this morning, he had to be at the Central Station for a school trip. As we neared Wilanowska, Eddie spotted a huge pillar of dense black smoke in the air. I handed him the camera, he captured the image below:

Approaching, we could see that it was a bus on fire. I parked up a safe distance behind it, and grabbed as many shots as I could.

The scene looked like the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack in Beirut, a communist era uprising or something from a war zone. The heat was intense - even standing at a safe distance. I could hear glass shattering. The billboard behind the bus also caught fire.

Notice the forelorn and rather useless fire extinguisher standing on the empty pavement. The first indication that the driver was OK. Interestingly, according to TVN24 reports, the PKS Piaseczno Ikarus bus was full of passengers - I could not see anyone around. I would have expected them to stand by curiously rather than to run a mile.

What happened to the bystanders? Apparently there were 30 people on the bus - not a sign of them. They must have been in an awful hurry to get to work. Or else illegal immigrants clearing off before the authorities turned up.

Firefighters arrived on the scene rapidly and the fire was out within three minutes of their arrival. Thankfully, the blaze happened when Puławska was still empty. Had the main artery into Warsaw from the south been clogged up with three lanes of stationary traffic - as would have been the case two hours later - the result could have been catastrophic. As it was, no casualties. A massive traffic jam snarled up approaches to Warsaw for several hours. Driving past the spot at 13:30, there was no sign of the conflagration - other than a melted Citylight billboard. Earlier, Moni witnessed the bus being towed away; she says she saw a driver actually at the steering wheel of the burnt-out shell! pożar autobus ul. Puławska WałbrzychskaAnother blazing bus pic on Gazeta Wyborcza's website. Below: a scan of the story, with my picture, on the front page of the Warsaw supplement to Poland's biggest-selling daily newspaper.

Rules for getting news photos into the media:
1) Ignore the 'post it for free' schemes such as Alert24. Yes, you get your photo published, but no, you don't get paid and you hand over all your rights to the image forever more.
2) Work fast. Get a sample, low-res image with an overprinted 'copyright: Your Name' watermark to the picture desks of your target media. If it's good, they'll reply swiftly.
3) If you've got a good pic, haggle. Remember, there's more than one picture editor out there.
4) ALWAYS have your camera with you!
This time last year:
Stormy evening, beautiful light
Giant dandelion clocks (not present this year!)