Sunday, 31 May 2009

Spirit of Place

"Sweet secret suburb on the City's rim"... "where city clerk can turn countryman again", "linked to the Metropolis by electric train." Yet again, Betjeman's words permeate my thoughts as I wander around Jeziorki, soaking in the the spirit of place.

What is it that bids me to seek out spirit of place (platzgeist in German, mirroring the word zeitgeist or 'spirit of time')?

[We can also use the Latin genius loci - thanks Marzena!]

And why am I so happy having found a specific spirit of place here in Jeziorki? Being in a place brings on spiritual contentment? Can one have a metaphysical attachment to place?

Pilgrimage, the journey to a place of cult or veneration, but why that particular place? What was it about the spirit of that place, its klimat, that determined that it should be a shrine, a place of pilgrimage? To what extent is the journey as important as the destination? The notion of topophilia is relevant.

There are places that have a peculiar magic about them; these can be urban, suburban or rural, mountains, coast or plains, but they differ from places that lack any atmosphere or klimat. Greenford or Hayes in Middlesex - ghastly places. Vast swathes of outer London - identical high streets, traffic, crowds, lacking in character.

But here in Jeziorki, I feel at home, I feel that this is where I am from. So close to the centre of a capital city, yet I can walk around for a hour without bumping into anyone else.

[D80 battery memory: 46 photos today, two occurrences of the battery telling me its dead.]

A long night in church

Moni had her confirmation last night at the Dominican abbey in Slużew. And quite some ceremony it was too, starting at eight in the evening and finishing well after 1 am.

She had been attending confirmation classes for the best part of two years; the lead up to the ceremony is not taken lightly (skip too many classes and you're name's off the list). Confirmation takes place on the eve of Pentecost and the sacrament is administered by a bishop.

Although the Dominican Abbey is a modern building, bereft of the built-up trappings of centuries - holy paintings, miraculous statues, etc, the Dominicans still know how to Put On A Show. To quote John Betjeman: "Church and Stage have always been closely connected". The music is staggeringly good at putting the congregation into a deeply spiritual mood (helped by first-rate accoustics), the ritual, steeped in symbolism, the incense, the vestments are traditional and As They Should Be, yet never have I heard a dodgy message from the pulpit (re: politics, the EU, Jews, masons, cyclists); sermons stick to Christ's Love. The congregation itself it is in good measure young (many students) and intellectuals. The first non-communist prime minister of modern Poland, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, worships here.

The sermon from Bishop Pikus, finished with the words "True human happiness is impossible without Belief"; words to ponder upon, an idea worth lengthy contemplation.

The picture above was taken with my Nikon D80 (the battery memory issue seems to have mysteriously cleared up!). I used my 105mm f1.8 Nikkor wide open (640 ISO at 1/40 sec). Being able to use my old Nikkor lenses is one reason why I chose to go digital with Nikon rather than Canon. Click to enlarge and see the detail.

If you are wondering why the shops are shut* today, it's because it's Pentecost and the nation is commemorating the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles (Zielone Świątki in Poland, Whitsun in England).

* Last year, a radio journalist called a prominent PiS politician and mischievously asked him whether he was going shopping that day. Hearing the answer 'yes', the journalist told the politician that he couldn't. "And why's that?" asked the politician. "Because you lot voted to close all shops today", replied the journalist. Collapse of stout party.

Friday, 29 May 2009

My First Nikon D80 Problem

Two years, three months and over 25,000 exposures after buying my Nikon D80, a fault. A small, intermittent, easy-to-work-round fault, but a fault nonetheless.

After taking a photo, sometimes, the 'battery low' icon flashes in the viewfinder, and there's a black screen on the back of the camera. The LCD readout on the top of the camera confirms a dead battery. But it's just been charged! I switch the camera off, then back on - and everything's fine, battery meter confirms a 98% charge.

This can happen after one shot, after three, or ten, or four - a seemingly random fault.

It started happenening after a series of night time bulb exposures (catching lightning strikes) last week. Never happened before, now it's occurring at least once in every shooting session.

Annoying, because there's no rule to it, not a fault bad enough to have to take it in for immediate service, but still a fault and irritating.

Has anyone else had this problem with the D80? Is there a fix? (I've not attempted to do anything to isolate the cause of the fault such as swabbing the electrodes of the battery pack etc in case it does more damage).

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Some anniversaries missed

Twenty-five years ago last week (well almost, on 19 May actually) died Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate, and my own favourite poet. His death followed on within weeks of the deaths of Ansel Adams (22 April 1984), my favourite photographer, and Count Basie (on 26 April 1984), one of my favourite musicians (to this day), and a great influence in shaping my musical preferences.

I was introduced to Betjeman's poetry at school; we covered a book called Ten Twentieth Century Poets for 'O'-Level English, back in the early 1970s. Upper Lambourne was the first poem of his I read, and it resonated immediately, as did all his works, evocations of the Edwardian England where he was born. Fragments of his television poem Metro-land has been often quoted on this blog, it inspired me to make many journeys into rural Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire as a youth. There's much spirit of place about his work, something that continues to be very important to me.

Count Basie's music I first heard at university. As Cultural Affairs Officer at Warwick I staged the university's first ever May Ball in 1980, which had a VE-Day theme. I booked the Ray Shields Orchestra, an excellent big band playing Glenn Miller dance tunes. Ray Shields also dipped into the Count Basie songbook for a number of tracks from the Atomic Mr Basie album, which I bought on music cassette and played to death over the years. It's currently Moni's Favourite Album of All Time Ever, as well serving for me as a gateway into the world of jazz.

Ansel Adams' black and white images of the American West had long had a powerful appeal on me, inspiring me to install a darkroom in my house in Perivale. My photography then was also predominantly landscape (as it is to this day); like Adams, I'm essentially seeking to capture the emotional effect a scene has upon my consciousness. My technical appreciation of photography comes from reading Adams' trilogy of technical books, The Camera, The Negative and The Print. I wonder what Adams would have made of digital photography.

This time last year:
Twilight in the garden

This time two years ago:
Marian shrines in our neighbourhood
Garden sprinklers in the spring heat
Late May reflections

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Paysages de Varsovie

Quelle jolie temps d'annee en Varsovie! Le ciel est bleu, les arbres sont verts, tout le monde est heureux. Ah! quelle joie y-a-t'il a prendre ma bicyclette de montaigne au travail ce matin! Au dessus: La Dolinette de Suouzhyevtsky. Au fond: La Rue des Princes. Attention! C'est la satire. Pas de comments avec les corrections grammatiques ou orthographiques, s'il vous plait. Aussi, je voudrais decouvrir comme travailler le Google (ce bien-connu moteur de recherche) en Francais.

Le meme temps derniere annee:
Promenade en printemps

Un vrai blog francais au sujet de Pologne - cliquez ici
Un autre blog francais au sujet de Pologne - cliquez ici

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Heron over Jeziorki

Ungainly in the air due to its habit of tucking in its long neck into an 'S' shape, the grey heron can be seen at this time of year over the wetlands at the end of ul. Trombity. I set off with the Nikkor 80-400mm to see what interesting birdlife was around; this guy flew over, circled a few times and headed back south. The back of the head is tucked into the torso in such as way as to make the gap between them invisible.

I also spotted a marsh harrier and a seagull (as opposed to the black-headed variety more common around these parts).

This time two years ago

Bearwings over Jeziorki

Low-cost carrier German Wings has painted some of its aircraft in advertising liveries. I spotted this one, Airbus A319 D-AKNO, bearing the colours of the City of Berlin, inbound to land at Okęcie. The 'Berlinbearbus', promoting the services of Brandenburg Airport, flew over this afternoon at 16:05.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Balancing on the Edge of Chaos

We live our lives precariously balanced on the Edge of Chaos. Each day that passes without a catastrophic event that can plunge any of us into turmoil should be given thanks for. Accidents - fatal or disabling - disease, premature bereavement, job loss, break-ups of relationships, crimes against one's person or property, wars and pandemics, financial or rare natural disasters (supervolcanoes, asteroid strikes that can trigger mass extinctions) - even relatively small things (losing your wallet and all those documents and cards) - such events strike out of the blue.

But unannounced? I'm ever on the look-out for coincidences. The universe is held together by a web of coincidence, patterns to look for, the meaning is there. For example, seeing one person with an eye-patch is rare. Seeing a second one in a day carries meaning. Ignore this, and while you're sitting in Accident & Emergency, waiting for a doctor to attend your eye poked with a branch while out cycling, you'll be recalling those two eye-patched people you saw the previous day. Seeing two fire engines rushing to two separate fires should cause the observer to consider the possibility of fire occurring closer to home. That, dear reader, is how coincidence works for me.

Bad things often happen because I've only half-thought about them. The schadenfreude when something bad happens to someone else, and I fail to consciously discount the possibility of it happening to me (a virus strikes a colleague’s computer – their fault for being IT illiterate, not taking precautions, etc, then blow me if a data-destroying disaster doesn’t befall my computer!)

The avoidance of disasters happening can, I believe, be achieved simply by thinking about the possibility of their occurrence. I've never wanted to say this, fearing that by doing so, the system will fail me; after many years, I feel sufficiently grateful for my life to share this.

I give thanks for my health twice a day, while brushing my teeth. A form of prayer, a communication with God, an expression of gratitude to one's maker, while praying for the health of my loved ones. The placebo effect taken to its logical conclusion; belief in the power of belief harnessed to enhance health.

Taking one's good fortune for granted is a sure way of losing it. Complacency is very dangerous in nature [curiously, there's no word in Polish for 'complacent'. Zadowolony z siebie (being self-satisfied) misses by a long shot]. Inferring that fortune will continue being to good because it has been up to now, is to have been lulled into a false sense of security; the Boethian Wheel of Fortune rotates randomly.

Being consciously aware of what one has to be thankful for gives one a better chance of keeping it. I like the rabbinical injunction to be [a]ware of days when you are happy to know that dark days will come; and in the darkest of days to know that happiness is bound to return.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Feel Like Going Home

Returning by train via W-wa Jeziorki station at this time of year gives me the chance to take an unhurried walk home at the end of the working week. It had been raining hard this evening; the rain ceased and the clouds parted as the train pulled out of W-wa Zachodnia.

Though there were still puddles on the ground, the walk along ul. Nawłocka was beautiful and the air felt clean and Jeziorki a perfectly magical place to live. Above: the setting sun through oak leaves, ul. Nawłocka. Although the walk home from the station is longer than directly down ul. Karczunkowska, it is untroubled by traffic and prettier.

Above: ul. Trombity at dusk. Reflections of the twilight sky on the wet tarmac. Summer twilight in Jeziorki is a very special time. The quality of light gives rise to a mood of tranquil contemplation of the metaphysical.

This time last year:
Mr Hare comes to call

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Coal line rail rarity

A rare sight on the Okęcie to Siekierki coal line - a drezyna reversing past W-wa Jeziorki on its way back to Okęcie. I'd hazard a guess that it's returning from weed-killing duties, the spray-arms raised and the chemical tank empty. Unless anyone else has any bright ideas?

For people interested in this kind of thing, this is WM15A 499 (WM = wózek motorowy, or motorised trolley), operated by PCC Rail Coaltran. Below: on the level crossing, ul. Karczunkowska.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Why Poland cannot afford the Grosz

One four hundredth and ninety-sixth of a pound
When in Poland, pop by your local kiosk Ruchu and buy some tissues. They should cost around 60 grosze for a packet of ten. Take out one tissue. Cut it in half; now carefully cut that half into three equal pieces. Each measures two and half inches by four inches (60mm by 100mm).

Now take out of your wallet a one grosz coin. Look at it glinting proudly in your hand; on one side the wording "RZECZPOSPOLITA POLSKA", an image of the Polish eagle, and the date. On the other side, a large numeral "1", the word "GROSZ", and an oak leaf. Behold this noble artefact, destined to last decades - and consider that it buys you but ten ephemeral square inches of tissue paper.

When someone tries to convince me that a grosz coin is worth one-hundredth of a zloty, or one four-hundredth and thirty fourth of a euro, or one four-hundredth and ninety-sixth of a pound, I say "what absolute twaddle".

Take its scrap value alone (warning: smelting the coinage of the Republic of Poland is illegal). OK, theoretically. A one grosz coin, according to the National Bank of Poland, is made of a manganese-brass alloy, MM59, weighs 1.64 grams and has a diameter of 15.5 mm. Looking at websites of UK scrap metal dealers, I can see that a tonne of scrap brass is worth £1,800. By my calculations, then, the scrap value (at today's exchange rates and scrap prices) of a grosz coin is 1.47 grosze.

OK, so you can't sell them for scrap yet. But once Poland joins the eurozone...

But smelting these elegant little coins is to deliver them unto an ignominious end they scarce deserve. They are just too lovely to be melted down. So what do Poles do? Poles hoard them.

Why not return them into circulation? Because, unlike the UK, where the banking system is equipped with the infrastructure to keep small-denomination coins circulating, the Polish banking system actually punishes people for saving coins.

In Saturday's Gazeta Wyborcza, there was a letter from a pensioner who'd saved several score zloty in assorted coinage, and then tried to change them in a bank. He was quoted 20 zł for the service. Where's the incentive for children to hoard coins in piggy-banks, thus getting into the saving habit?

When still living in London, I would turn out all the loose change from my pockets at the end of the working day and, when I had, say a few fivers in silver or a couple of pounds in copper, I’d bag them up and take them to the bank, where the coins would be weighed and the cashier would hand me over a banknote to the same value, or credit the money to my current account. A weighing machine, present at every window of every bank on every high street, could distinguish whether a bag purporting to be ‘Five Pounds Silver’ contained exactly fifty 10p or twenty-five 20p coins. Attempts at cheating the system centred around the inclusion of Irish 10ps or 20ps when the Punt was having one of its weaker spells. Cashiers were instructed to peer through the clear plastic, looking for images of harps or Éamon de Valera on otherwise identically-sized coins. Other than this, in the UK, the system worked well.

In Poland, there are no plastic bags saying ‘10 zloty in 20 grosze pieces’, no infrastructure of weighing machines. I asked at PKO BP bank about cashing in small coins and got the following answer: "Come with your coins in the early mid-morning on a Tuesday or Wednesday, though neither at the beginning nor end nor indeed the middle of the month and we’ll count them for you." [Subtext: Don’t bloody bother].

All of this means that year on year (and it's been 15 years since Poland reintroduced coins into circulation), the amount of coinage sitting around in Polish homes has been growing and growing. And since there's NO WAY that the minting of a one or two grosz coin can cost less than face value, the NBP is reluctant to mint more. The upshot is a shortage of small denomination coins.

Which we all feel when shopping. "Czy Pan nie ma drobnych?" is an all-too frequent refrain in shops and cafes. The instinctive answer of Brits - "it's the responsibility of the shopkeeper, not the shopper, to carry a cash float" - should be met with the riposte "it's the responsibility of the National Bank of Poland to assure the free circulation of small-denomination coinage throughout the economy."

There is a very simple and cheap answer; simpler and cheaper than installing scales in banks.

Scrap the one and two grosz coins altogether.

Let the smallest denomination be five grosze. At a stroke, all those long hours wasted in księgowość and in tax offices because there's a grosz or two missing in the management accounts, will become a thing of the past. Inflation will fall, because retailers will be forced to cut prices from 1zł 99. to 1zł 95. The cost of handling and accounting for these tiddly coins will fall. The smallest Polish coin will be worth around one British penny and slightly more than one eurocent. Logical eh?
[Photo taken with Nikon D80 and my old 55mm f3.5 Nikkor macro lens. Said to be one of the sharpest lenses ever made for the 35mm camera. Being able to use old Nikkors on new digital Nikons is a wonderful feature.]

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

In search of the dream klimat

What could be more boring than someone else's dreams? I shall try not to bore; in this post I intend to examine how I 'see' places in dreams.

Last night I dreamt I was in North West London, with the children (Moni is seven and Eddie is four. They are always this age in my dreams. And for years I've always been in my mid-30s. This is, in itself, interesting).

But it's the location that's significant; it's this aspect of dreams I want to explore in this post. While there were no distinctive landmarks featured in my dream, the look and feel of the environment was quite clearly North West London. Anywhere between Cricklewood and Edgware. This was neither West London, nor was it North London. London's suburbs have distinct characters. A native Londoner doesn't need to map to know which part of the capital he's in. A landscape of brick railway arches where the Underground runs above street level, rows of ethnic shops, plane trees, bus stops.

In this respect my dreams are like my flashbacks. The 'look and feel', the atmosphere, the sense of the place, the klimat, the zeitgeist and platzgeist - is all there, though the details may not match. Unlike flashbacks, which are static references to a time and place, dreams are dynamic and include narratives that will often yield curious plots or occurrences. In this one, we're in a small DIY shop. We notice some other customers talking Polish to one another. Then two people at the counter asked whether three rolls of wallpaper could be wrapped up and posted to Poland. The shop assistant answered in Polish. It then occurred to me that all eight people in this shop were in fact all from Poland. But really, this particular detail is neither here nor there, as this was but one fragment of a longer, rambling dream, all set in the same location. What matters is the spirit of place, the spirit of North West London.

Sometimes my dreams feel (while I'm dreaming them) to have an uncanny geographic precision; last week I dreamt of a newsagent's, on the Boston Road, Hanwell London W7. In my dream, it was situated on the corner, at the end of the row of shops just across the road and to the north of Boston Manor Underground station. In reality (courtesy of Google Maps Street View*) I can see that a) there's no street corner here - there's a row of flats, and b), it's not a newsagent's but a dry cleaner's. So my 'remote viewing' is close, but not accurate.

Often (and I wonder how many expats** also experience this), I have dreams set in both Poland and the UK at the same time; an anglicised Warsaw with London buses for example. The spirit of place gets fused.

My point being? My consciousness feels a strong affinity with place. Whether in such dreams, or in flashbacks to my childhood, or in those anomalous flashbacks I have described, the klimat of place is the feature that I'm most aware of. I wonder to what extent this is universal; whether others dream of places as I do - and what this signifies?

* Google's Street View is amazing. At the drop of a hat I can zoom into a place and pick up that klimat in seconds. Remote viewing made real.

** An article in this week's Economist suggests that expats are more creative than stay-at-home types.

This time last year:
Zakopane to Kraków at 25mph

This time two years ago:
"The year's most beautiful day" (Thomas Bewick)

Sunday, 17 May 2009

More 'This is not America, no?' moments

More of those moments where the deep Warsaw exurbs takes on a distictly American character. Navigating around small town USA courtesy of GoogleMaps StreetView is a fascinating experience for me, as the country is so familiar. Only large cars and roadsigns give it away. Above: Nowa Wola. Below: Lesznowola. The owner of the roadside restaurant actually owns two Jeep Wagoneers.

Below: Podolszyn, and a view that's so un-American that the House Committee would have it blacklisted from appearing in Hollywood. This picture of a scene so typical of rural Poland in the 1970s, was taken today less than 20 miles from the centre of Warsaw. The sign says "Food-Industrial Shop".

Shrine time, 2009

It's that month again, and the ladies of Zamienie are at their devotions. Two fewer in number than this time last year, reds and pale blues are the colour of the season (last year was muted browns and greys). Once again, the shriners are all female. The scene reminds me of a conversation with Ziggy in deepest rural Mamrotowo. Ziggy states that religious observance is the one and only regular communal activity in the Polish village, and is, in his words, 'a waste of time'. The hours could be better put to use gathering petitions for proper drains, amateur dramatics or communal jam-making. A Women's Institute in other words, like in rural, post-religious England.

But rural Poland is not post-religious - yet. I wonder how many ladies will still be at this Marian shrine in Zamienie in May 2019? The pace of decline in Polish Catholicism has been very noticeable to me over the past decade or so.

Listening to the ladies at their devotions, I would surmise that two or three of them probably do obtain some deep spiritual satisfaction from repeating the Hail Mary mantra-style. The rest do it, I suspect, because it's the done thing. I noted a significant omission in the Polish. "Święta Maria, Matko Boska, módl się za nami teraz i w gódzinie śmierci..." whereas in English it's "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death..." Now, I wonder what theological acrobatics were employed to leave the word 'sinners' out of their version?

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Is this what the afterlife is like?

Memory flashbacks - where unbidden, memories spring into your mind - are an interesting phenomenon that neuroscience could do well to explore.

Flashbacks from the past can suddenly take you from your day-to-day activities to a moment in childhood, so intensely and perfectly captured, the precise mood, atmosphere, favour, feeling (I will use the Polish word klimat as this means all those words rolled into one) of that moment. These flashbacks can occur several times a day, each lasting a fraction of a second.

Over many years, I’ve trained myself to identify the time and the place that the flashback is linked to. But what causes these flashbacks that tug my awareness back to recall some distant moment with such precision, creating such a sense of pleasant familiarity of Past? Was there a trigger? Smell is a most potent memory trigger, and easy to identify. The smell of summer rain on dusty ground. Taste also - a childhood ice cream (such as a Lyon's Maid Raspberry Mivvy). Other triggers are harder to pinpoint. It maybe a combination of light and colour on the retina, a particular word, spoken or read; the feeling of frost on the face as I walk out of the office on a winter's night; a splash of water on the neck – and BAM! suddenly that memory bursts into the mind, for a split second crowding out other mundane trains of thought and bringing that exact flavour of that moment in the past. The strangest are the flashbacks that are not only unbidden, but untriggered - totally spontaneous.

Like an archeologist, I find myself analysing these fragments of memory as if they were shards of ancient pottery.

The flashbacks that seem untriggered or unbidden are indeed puzzling. Do they happen for a reason? No external trigger has set it off, no attempt to seek a memory has been made. I'm driving, cooking, writing – then out of the blue comes a sudden, strong yet short memory moment. Some can be back to my early childhood (a visit to Bushey Park) or to something that happened very recently (a railway journey to Manchester).

Even more puzzling are the flashbacks, triggered or untriggered, to a time and a place of which I have no first hand knowledge, which I can't track down to my childhood, adolescence or more recent past. Though rarer than the childhood flashbacks, they feel equally and immediately familiar, they are pleasant and comforting and happen in exactly the same way. I’ve had these since childhood, and they conform with one another, they are consistent in atmosphere or klimat. The reality of this phenomenon is the nearest I personally have to intimations of my awareness spanning back before my birth.

Where are these extraneous, anomalous memory events from? America from the 1920s to the 1950s, Scandinavia in the 1950s. This is how they feel to me, this is how they have felt to me for decades, since I first started having these flashbacks as a four or five year-old. There are others, rarer; Edwardian England; the Prip'yat Marshes in the 19th century.

An interesting point about these flashbacks is that while living in London, with its specific grey climate and architecture of Empire, I’d dismiss these flashbacks as not being related to any concrete reality, time or place. While they felt vaguely 'American', they were just from a dreamworld. They were real enough for me to look for explanations - parallel universe? signals from elsewhere? But after moving to Poland in 1997 – and more specifically after moving to Jeziorki, a suburb on Warsaw’s southernmost rim – these flashbacks became more far frequent and coincided or were triggered by the landscapes around me, the flat fields of Mazowsze, punctuated by billboards, radio towers, newly-built bungalows, blue skies, proper winters, proper summers – walking around Jeziorki, I feel a similar klimat to those flashbacks so familiar to me since childhood. Indeed a return to forever.

So what's causing these flashbacks? Over the years, I have pondered numerous explanations, but one that cannot be dismissed is that these are echoes from the consciousness of a human being who had previously experienced these feelings and atmospheres.

Should I chase down these flashbacks, these anomalous memories, seeking one dead individual whose awareness impinges upon mine every now and then? Are we one? Is this a continuum of consciousness? And to refer back to that most important question from my previous post – does this suggest that my awareness shall continue beyond my current life and into a new body? Will a small child one day be perplexed by anomalous memories seeming to come from Britain in the second half of 20th century and Poland in the first half of the 21st century?

Atheists, sceptics, reductionists, followers of Dawkins, would poo-poo my experiences (or at least my interpretation of them) saying that this is woolly wishful thinking. Yet science has yet to discover the seat of consciousness, the brain itself is so complex that anomalous phenomenon such as this one splits scientists into so many camps. At the end of the day, this phenomenon is as real to me as the sensation of seeing the colour green on a wall, sniffing a tangerine, tasting coffee, stroking cat’s fur or hearing a phone ring.

Friday, 15 May 2009

On transcendence

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

(John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn, 1819).

Great art, as Roger Scruton says in his book Beauty, separates the human mind from everyday matters, putting it in touch with with the metaphysical, the eternal, the absolute. That is Keats’ truth/beauty-beauty/truth equation in practice – to be found in those moments, lost in wonder, when as a result of direct contact with Great Art, one’s consciousness is lifted to a higher plane. This gives rise to new insights; intimations of a new understanding of existence itself.

Now, is that sublime moment a touching of eternity – or nothing more than a flow of chemicals and electrical discharges through the brain? Scientists would argue that all that’s happening is that dopamine, serotonin or oxytocyn (the 'cuddle' hormone) flows have been triggered, causing a sensation of pleasure and heightened awareness. Religious people would describe such moments as divine inspiration; God in direct contact with Man.

I’d argue that it is both at the same time. I’d argue that this division, which has existed since the time of the Enlightenment, between Science and Spirituality, is a false one. Today, quantum physics and neuroscience are both nudging in the direction of supernature.

Chicken and/or egg? Neither and/or both.

Am I healthy because I’m happy? Or am I happy because I am healthy?

Let’s take the question a stage further: Is my positive approach to life a result of the fact that I’m happy and healthy – or does the fact that I’m happy and healthy stem from my positive approach to life?

Those who like to think of themselves as scientists, rationalists, reductionists, would stick to the first answer. Yet the bulk of mankind would instinctively say “well, there’s something to be said for the second”.

Indeed, but is there a deeper, scientifically determinable mechanism at work? Am I really able to think myself into a state of healthiness and happiness? Research into the placebo effect (and its evil twin, the nocebo effect) suggests that this may indeed be the case.

Again, let’s take the question a stage further. Belief in the power of belief. If you don’t believe that a positive outlook can improve your health or slow down disease – then the likelihood is it won’t. If you do believe in belief, then it will.

Moments of sublime transcendence, when the mind ceases to be bound by the constraints of body, of time or of place, intimate the possibility of that one’s awareness can exist independent of muscle, bone and brain.

Which leads me to the most important question of all regarding human consciousness: The most important question – a question so profound that people back off from dwelling on it in case they go mad – is that of the mortality of our consciousness.

Does our mind die with our body? When our heart ceases to beat and when blood ceases to oxygenate the brain – is that the end of our awareness?

The answer is thought to be binary; either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Or is could it be both yes and no? Could it be, as with Schroedinger’s Cat, that both states are true at the same time, until observed by a conscious observer? So if you believe it to be the case, your consciousness lives on, but if you are convinced that you are but brain, muscle and bone and nothing else – then that, for you, indeed is it?

This existential uncertainty has ever been the prime mover of religions. Certainty of afterlife; insurance – assurance. Be good, and when you die, your soul (whatever that is, but to me it is clearly your consciousness) lives on ‘in heaven’.

So another set of binary choices:

Your consciousness can live on after physical death.


Your consciousness expires along with your body at physical death

I shall explore this thread in following posts.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Nine faults of Warsaw cyclists

My fifth bicycle journey to work this spring. I'm observing certain commonly-made mistakes on the part of other cycle users. Compared to London, Polish cycle commuters are less likely to wear helmets and bright clothing, though there's been a noticeable increase in use of these in Warsaw over the past few years.

1. Sailing blithely across a road that cuts across a cycle path without bothering to look over the shoulder to see whether a car might be turning into that road. Safe cycling requires Total Situational Awareness. After nine years of daily cycle commuting into central London, I've developed the instinctive habit of turning my head as I approach junctions, without even thinking to do it. Yet so many cyclists ignore the possibility that a motorist behind their left shoulder is about to turn right and has not noticed their bike. Motorcyclists rightly call this look over the shoulder 'the life saver'.

2. 'Squeaky wheeling'. So many bikes I pass along my way to or from work are going "eeeq.... eeeq... eeeq...eeeq..." A waste of the cyclist's energy. Just consider how many watts of energy are expended in generating that sound. A light oiling (with WD40 or equivalent) makes all the difference, makes cycling easier. Chain, gear derailleurs and axles - should do the trick.

3. Underinflated tyres. Newish bike, tyres filled with air to a pressure of about 10 psi. Cycle owners who pump up their tyres once a season. Running flat creates lots of extra rolling resistance which requires extra energy to overcome. Pumped up to 60 psi (4 bar) for tarmac or cycle path means less effort or higher speeds.

4. Pedalling with the arch of the foot. OK, so most cyclists don't use toe-clips or cleats. They contribute greatly to efficient cycling; as one leg pushes down one one pedal, the other leg can pull up on the other. But if you haven't got toe-clips or cleats, cycling with the ball of the foot rather than the arch is far more efficient. The ankle muscles can be put to use, giving that extra push as the pedal turns.

5. Pushing rather than spinning. Pressing hard on the pedals in a high gear is bad. It's better and healthier to increase the revs and drop a few gears. A good cadence should be 80 or 90 rpm, not 40 or 50 (modern cycle computers often have a cadence function). Pedalling against the resistance of an inappropriately high gear does the knees in. Spinning fast in a lower gear gives more flexibility, is better for the heart and less stressful on the niece and uncles (knees and ankles).

6. Wrong gear, sir. Most bikes today have three chainrings at the front and anywhere between five and nine cogs on the rear axle. A fundamental error is pedalling with the chain running between the largest front chainring and the largest rear cog, or the smallest front chainring and the smallest rear cog. Both these configurations, running big-to-big or small-to-small have the chain moving at a diagonal, and will wear out chain, chainring and cog - as well as being grossly inefficient.

7. Saddle's too low, buddy. What is it with youth today wearing their shit-catcher pants and riding silly little girl's bikes, saddle lowered right into the seat post so their knees rise above the level of their forearms as they pedal? Biomechanically, the most efficient height for riding is to be sitting so that the ball of the foot touches the ground (not whole foot, not tiptoes). Too many cyclists have the saddle slightly too low. Or way too low.

8. Trouser-legs flapping into the crank. And getting dirty on the chain. Tuck those trouser bottoms into socks, or put on luminous cycle-clips - or just wear shorts. But don't let cloth get caught up between the cogs and chain.

9. Behaving aggressively towards pedestrians. There are many points along the cycle path where pedestrians will step in the way of rapidly-moving bikes. Bus stops, zebra crossings, entrance to Metro stations - pedestrians do tend to unwittingly stray into a clearly-marked (or sometimes less than clearly marked) cycle path. Rather than treat them with tolerance, all too often the cyclist will shout at or even physically nudge the offending pedestrian. This is not the way that the cycling community will win allies among pedestrians. Cyclists should always give way to the pedestrian, even when the cyclist is clearly in the right. 'Might is right' is not civilisation.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Welcome the Ice Saints

Not a lot of people in the English-speaking world know this, but across Central Europe, these are the days of the Ice Saints. From a very pleasant +23C on Saturday afternoon, the daytime high today managed to muster a mere +15C; quite a difference. Despite the sunshine, strolling outside in my shirtsleeves today, I felt distinctly chilly.

The feast days of St Pancras (after whom London's most glorious railway station is named), St Servatus (the patron saint of paper napkins) and St Boniface fall, respectively, on 12, 13 and 14 May. The days are accompanied, even with all the climate change that's going on around us, by a noticeable fall in temperature. And so, on cue, it was today.

The 'cold gardeners', as the three saints' days are called, culminate in Cold Sophie's Day (Świętej Zofii) on 15 May. Observant Poles - observant of weather patterns that is - avoid outdoor events during this week. I do recall a couple of barbeques through which I've shivvered, huddling around the charcoal, at this time of year.

And not a lot of people in the Polish-speaking world know that the German-speaking world also has its Ice Saints!

SUPPLEMENTARY (Weds 13 May) : I cycled to work for the fourth time this year, and for the first time it was too cold to remove my jacket either on the way in or riding home. Daytime high today +14C, strong sunshine, strong northerly wind.

This time last year:
Devoted shriners
Jeziorki like a 1950s USA Kodachrome
Nowa Iwiczna, Mysiadło and the Rampa
Celebrating the sublime garden in May

This time two years ago:
The Future of Warsaw's Suburbs

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Sweet summer rain, like God's own mercy

An early thunderstorm brings some blessed relief to the drought but the rain fell for only a few minutes. Right: Dark clouds to the east, the storm passes over. Houses on ul. Sarabandy lit by sunlight from the west. It has been a very dry four weeks. Farmers and economists are looking to the skies for much needed precipitation. Without it crops fail and food prices rise. Food is still a significant part of Poland's inflation basket. Deflation is hitting the UK and America, while consumer price inflation in Poland is still growing at an annualised rate of 3.9%.

With all the other woes circling the economy, a poor crop caused by drought would be particularly unwelcome.

Below: the downpour from my bedroom window, photo taken just a few minutes before the one above. We could have done with a few hours of rain.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Quiet afternoon in Jeziorki

Above: Looking across at ul. Karczunkowska from W-wa Jeziorki station. It's half past four on a sunny spring day. Jeziorki is a great place to live. May it long remain a quiet, low-density suburb.

Below: The centre of town is not too far away, but turn to look in the other direction, and the countryside beckons.

Below: Looking south. It won't be too long before this will be the route of the S7 on its way from Warsaw towards Radom, Kielce and Kraków. While it's still fields, I make the most of it.

This time last year:
Rush 'hour' gets longer and longer

Friday, 8 May 2009

In search of the Sublime Aesthetic (II)

It's rare that an image strikes me as this one did, taken last week 'on an airfield somewhere in southern England' by Nick Morris, triggering a flood of emotion. This is art, not anorak-fodder. I shall not go into what type of aircraft this is, when it was built, its registration, etc; suffice to say the image is quite spectacular and embodies my aesthetic ideals.

Looking at this picture, my soul is transported to another time, another place.

This time last year
Flight from the Faroes

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Landing over Ursynów

Most of the time, aircraft inbound to land at Okęcie use Runway 33, assuming a prevailing north-west wind. With the wind blowing from the south, they'll take off from Runway 15 (the same one, but pointing the other way). So much of the time, planes are landing or taking off over Jeziorki. Which, as I've blogged before, is cool with us. When the wind is strongly from due west, planes will land over densly populated Ursynów.

Once a year, ususally in June, Runway 15/33 is closed for repair. Planes then use the other one (11/29), landing on Runway 29. This is met with howls of protest from residents of Ursynów, while I say "hurry up and fix that runway, because I miss my planes!"

Above: A LOT Polish Airlines Boeing 767 flies over Platan Park, ul. Poloneza earlier this morning.
And the weather has changed back again; after yesterday's dark skies and rainfall, it's set fair once more.

This time last year:
On being assertive in Poland

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Making plans for Jeziorki

I'd not seen these plans before. They are here, on the Warsaw city hall website. Three new roads are planned for Jeziorki. All three are drogi zbiorcze or 'feeder roads'.

To the south, ul. Agaty will run eastwards to connect the new estates of Mysiadło to ul. Puławska - this one I knew about. To the north, ul. Sporna will be stretched westwards to meet ul. Kinetyczna across the railway tracks and across the new S2 expressway. Linking the two - oh horror (says the NIMBY* half of my brain) will be ul. Hołubcowa bis, an extention of the existing Hołubcowa running south across ul. Baletowa, parallel to the railway line, then running south-east through fields, cutting across ul. Nawłocka and ul. Karczunkowska until it runs into ul. Agaty**.

Above: Having crossed Baletowa, ul. Hołubcowa bis will run along here...

Above: ...passing through orchards and fields...

Above: ...and will then swing left to reach ul. Karczunkowska and beyond.

While this will do much to reduce jams on ul. Puławska, this road and the S2 Puławska bis on the other side of the tracks will bring to an end the rural character of the south-west Jeziorki for good. But when will all this happen?

According to the Multi-year Investment Plan of Ursynów district (here), the only planned roadworks for Jeziorki between now and 2013 is the tarmacking of ul. Poloneza (long overdue - it's now baked solid and dusty as anything) and a viaduct over the new south Warsaw bypass.

According to this study by Siskom, the three new feeder roads, the Sporna and Hołubcowa extention and ul. Agaty are due to be built between 2015 and 2020.

So plenty of time - knowing Polish construction timescales, I can add another ten years to that easy. By then, a lovely place in the country will have eased the loss of Jeziorki's semi-rural character.

* NIMBY - 'not in my back yard' - progress by all means, but not when it impinges upon my quality of life. Not a notion I share. Put up or ship out, says the rational half of my brain.

** ul. Agaty, also known as ul. Kuropatwy bis. Bird names (Kuropatwa = Grouse) should stay east of ul. Puławska where they belong. Names of semi-precious stones are a novelty around here. No - this new road should have a musical name, in keeping with the convention of street names of west Ursynów. From the Lambada to the Alpenhorn. So I propose ul. Jazzowa.

This time last year:
The Sublime Aesthetic revisited

This time two years ago:
This is not America. No?
The marshes at the crack of dawn

A change in the weather

Five days into May and there's a change in the weather; the relentless blue skies finally clouded over yesterday and, for the first time since Easter, rain at last fell on to the dry and dusty Mazovian plains. It rained overnight, it rained for much of today. It's about to rain now. Above: stormy sunset photographed from upstairs balcony. Wind caused camera shake.

Farmers and gardeners will be happy; April was just too dry for this time of year. And the nice thing about the rain is that it did not fall as a sudden, intense deluge. A few more days like this would come in handy.

I cycled to work today and got caught out by a shower on the way home; I diverted via the Metro (from Politechnika to Natolin); by the time I arrived it had stopped raining and the rest of the way was dry. I note the ban on entering the Las Kabacki forest has not yet been officially lifted, yet this evening the forest was full of cyclists, joggers and walkers.

This time two years ago:
At last - the blessed rain

(The above old post is so apposite. The first three lines for those who don't feel like clicking through: "Today we had rain; lots of it. At last - it hasn't rained in over two weeks. Good news for farmers, gardeners and frogs. The grey sky offered contrast from the generally cloudless blue that we enjoyed since 20 April.")

Sunday, 3 May 2009

To a delightful weekend in the country

Off to Podlasie for the long weekend - business and pleasure. The business - three days to get the translated proofs of The Silent Dark Ones ready for the typesetter. The pleasure - between the work, the chance to walk in the country and catch some sublime atmospheres (klimat).

My hosts, Ziggy and Zosia, have a beautiful country residence 25km north of Białystok in the village of Mamrotowo. The surrounding countryside is my idea of rural perfection. It's different here to Sweet Home Mazowsze - gentle undulations, silence, larger fields, winding byways, pine forests - real solitude; a sense of eternity untroubled by the goings-on of the outside world.

Here in Mamrotowo, bird life is abundant and interesting. Just down the road from the house is the biggest storks' nest I've seen, in effect, a two-storey construction. Zosia tells me that when the storks flew in, on 29 March (same day as our swans in Jeziorki), they set to adding an extra layer to the existing nest built on an telephone pole. This could be because the storks were worries of an extended winter, or that a different pair had settled in the nest and wanted to add their own personal touch to it. The nest is so big, the storks can hardly be seen over the top of it.

Above the fields, the storks will seek thermal currents that will enable them to soar to high altitudes. Storks can feel the thermals under their wings as humans can feel the slope of a hill under their feet.

This young stork circled ever higher until in the end he was out of sight.

Work meant that the walks were short; the best one was at sunset on Saturday. Below: I caught this wayside chapel (there's a cross or chapel every 50 metres or so around these parts) as the sun went down behind the trees.

This time last year:
Eurasian collared dove
Inside the Museum Museum
Cycles in the Las Kabacki forest
Farewell to the Rampa line
This time two years ago:
Into the mountains for May Day
Flags are out for Poland's national day
World's longest weekend (well, last year it was)