Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Top level bridge

Monday night, the ballroom in Warsaw's Radisson hotel. There's 36 bridge tables set out, four players at each; on each table 18 decks of cards, each identically shuffled and stacked in exactly the same order. Automated scoring machines link each table wirelessly to a central computer, flashing results from the top ten pairs on to two large screens on the ballroom walls.

This is the 8th RBS Coutts Friendly Bridge Tournament, a pro-am event supported by the BPCC, hence my participation. I'm playing in a pair with one of the world's best bridge players, Tom Townsend (above), a World International Master. Having played bridge since my teenage years but only as a casual player, seeing the game at such an elevated level was amazing.

It was intense to the point where I felt as nervous as though I were making a presentation of the year's financial results to the board. Tom was tolerant of my numerous slip-ups and good-natured throughout. His story was extremely interesting. He is a professional bridge player, earning his money from playing the game and writing about it. Unlike poker, there's no prize money in bridge. It is all about honour, about being the best. Tom and his regular partner are paid by extremely wealthy enthusiasts to partner them in international tournaments. Last week, for example, he was playing in the US Summer Nationals in Reno. He finds poker intrinsically boring compared to bridge, where the 52 cards that form the four hands can come in such a myriad of permutations that each one holds a quite different challenge.

What does it take to reach success at this level of bridge? Obviously getting in your 10,000 hours as early as possible. Total focus. Educational background: Cambridge. "Maths?" I asked. "Classics", replies Tom. Language is as important as maths, if not more, in bridge, he says. And, what made most people playing on Monday night different from the people we usually play bridge with socially - utter competitiveness, the will to win.

And why was Tom in Warsaw? He has a Polish girlfriend!

Poland is, according to Tom, one of the stronger bridge nations. Moni tells me that at her school many of her classmates play bridge, and take it seriously (to the detriment of their studies).

Sunday, 28 March 2010

First long bike ride of 2010

Well, as planned (see previous post). I made it. 50km (exactly) from home to Pilawa station, in one hour 53 minutes. Average speed, 26.5 km/h, 16.5 mph. Not brilliant, but OK for a first long run after the winter break.

The road from Jeziorki to Pilawa runs down ul. Puławska through Piaseczno (traffic and traffic lights), the woefully inadequate stretch of the DK 79 between Piaseczno and Góra Kalwaria (too narrow, potholed, lots of traffic), down to the Vistula bridge along the DK 50 (international heavy goods traffic), then, at last, on the other side I turn off the main roads finding a charming little road, the DW 799, that runs through Ostrówek and Kosumce. This leads to the start of the DW 805 through Warszawice, Pogorzel, Osieck, Grabianka, Jażwiny and Pilawa. The 805 (above) is an ideal cycling road; very little traffic and in relatively good condition, pot-hole wise. (Road bikes hate pot holes.) One day, I'd like to cycle the 805 all the way to Wilchta, another 17km beyond Pilawa.

I reach Pilawa station just as a Warsaw-bound train is about to depart. With my weekly season ticket valid across all of Warsaw's Zone 1, it only cost me 13.16 zł to travel from Pilawa all the way back to W-wa Zachodnia. Rather than wait three quarters of an hour for a train back to Jeziorki, I cycled home from Zachodnia - an extra 16.75 km. Total weekend riding including yesterday's shakedown - 84 km. No signs of soreness, from saddle or otherwise. There is, however, something squeaking on the bike, which is annoying - bottom bracket? head tube? pedals? I shall return it to the shop for some more lubrication.

Observations from the road: There's still a significant civilisational difference between Warsaw and the surrounding countryside. Today was Palm Sunday; the village churches were packed with worshippers turned out in their finest, holding their palemki. In Warszowice, I saw a procession led by a robed boy on a donkey, playing the part of Jesus Christ. Yet these scenes contrasted with the vacant-eyed problem drinkers, staggering about the villages in the early afternoon; they must have been drinking all night long.

UPDATE: Monday, 29 March. I'm feeling uncommonly good today. Lesson: this is the result of making a plan and achieving it.

UPDATE: Wednesday, 31 March. Whatever was squeaking, it's stopped. A liberal application of WD40 just about anywhere with bearings has sorted it out.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Bike's back in action

Behold! The bike on which I achieved my greatest feats of road cycling: two journeys of over 200km (Ealing - Bristol and Jeziorki - Belarusian border, both within a day) and covering 75km in under three hours. Of late, this bike's been standing idle in the garage, but as the cycling season gets underway, I decided to get it professionally overhauled and roadworthy. Sporting new tyres, new brake and gear cables, greased axles with new ball-bearings, my Holdsworth Triath-Elan is ready.

It is very satisfying to get a mid 1980s bike back into perfect condition; something that cost less than a fifth of buying a new road bike of similar upper-middle range specifications (frame and groupset). Well-maintained, bikes can last as long as spares are obtainable.

My shakedown ride today consisted of 17.5km (average speed 20km/h, pedestrian really), around Zgorzała, Nowa Wola, Jancewicze, Podolszyn, Nowy Podolszyn, Łady (pron. 'WUDDy'), Dawidy Bankowe and Zamienie, getting the new cables to bed in.

A ride I fancy would be Jeziorki - Góra Kalwaria - Warszowice - Osieck - Pilawa and back by train. A mere 50km, good practice for a season's cycling.

Incidentally, as I've been writing about loanwords of late, the Polish for 'bicycle' is rower (pron. ROVVerr). The word comes from... Rover, the British manufacturer which introduced the safety cycle (chain driven rear wheel, tubular metal frame, two wheels of similar size) in 1886. Anything else would have been a welocyped (velocipede).

Pre-war train times - faster than today?

This timetable (below), showing special services for Easter 1939 between Warsaw and Kraków via Radom and Kielce, is on display at the Dworce Kolejowe Galicji Wschodniej exhibition at Warsaw's railway museum. Since the line is so familiar to me, I thought it would be worth a separate post to show what's changed. Click on image to enlarge.

Most significantly, the main Warsaw to Kraków service today goes along the Centralna Magistrala Kolejowa (Central Trunk Line), from south of Grodzisk Maz. to Psary, bypassing Radom and Kielce. From Psary, the CMK continues to Katowice via Zawiercie, while another goes south-east to Kraków via Tunel. But if you did want to take a train from W-wa Zachodnia to Kraks via Radom and Kielce, the journey today would take 5h 01m, just 32 minutes less than in 1939, which of course would have been steam-hauled.

W-wa Jeziorki did not exist in those days, neither did any other station between Okęcie and Piaseczno. There were, you will notice, stations called Lotnisko and Wyczółki. My guess is that Lotnisko ('airport') is roughly where today's W-wa Żwirki i Wigury station is, though Wyczółki...

Notice too, the lack of a station at Czachówek. That station was built when the Skierniewice-Łuków line was built after the war.

W-wa Zachodnia to Radom by express train (pospieszny)used to take one hour and 29 minutes non-stop. Today's pospieszny takes anywhere between 1h 46m and 1h 55m, although it does stop at W-wa Służewiec, Piaseczno and Warka along the way.

UPDATE: A big thanks to Michał Jankowski for this link to an excellent pre-war map of Warsaw and its southern suburbs, found here, usefully overlaid with modern roads and rails here. As he points out, the tracks ran further south than they do today, which is apparent on the maps. He also says that the fastest pre-war trains between Warsaw and Radom could do the journey in 1h 14m with a stop at Warka. More than half an hour faster than today!

Railway history of former south-east Poland

To Warsaw's Railway Museum for the opening of the exhibition Dworce Kolejowe Galicji Wschodniej. (Now there's a word missing in English - wernisaż - 'private view', or 'opening of an exhibition'; OK it's a loanword from French, but still it's a Polish word that doesn't have a direct single-word equivalent in English.) The exhibition* is of photos taken by Marta Czerwieniec of stations in Western Ukraine, which were previously in Poland before WW2 and before WW1, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire**.

Above: Not just anoraks! I met a man in his early 80s (though you'd not believe it looking at him) who was staring at the photos of Sambor station. 'The last time I was here was 70 years ago - on my way to gimnazium (lower secondary school), just after the Soviets occupied us,' he told me. Galicja as a region was the southernmost part of Poland's Kresy or eastern borderlands, the rest being ruled by Russia during the Partitions. After independence, Poland gained large swathes of land from Austro-Hungary and Russia in which Poles were an ethnic minority.

My mother came from the Kresy, though further north than Galicja. And here's where she was from, on a 1939 railway map of Poland (click to enlarge). West of Sarny, there's a station called Antonówka. Just south of there, a place called Horodziec, some 70km (40 miles) from the Soviet border. When the Soviets invaded, my mother and her family were taken from Antonówka by train to Sarny, and then on to the far north of Russia, to a lumber camp.

Above: a map I've never seen before. Published in 1919/1920, before the Bolshevik invasion, it is a map of 'Polish lands' rather than of Poland. While the western borders are as they would be (give and take a few risings and plebiscites), the eastern and north-eastern borders have yet to be established by force of arms. The lady on the left was looking for where her family was from.

"Further east than on this map," she told me.

Below: The museum has some great models. All hand-made from metal, in the museum's own model-making workshop in Jelenia Góra which I visited with the children back in 2001. The museum is a subject I could go on for ages - how it's sited on prime real estate worth a fortune and the political battles to wrest control of the place, and how some priceless exhibits (unique examples of Polish rail technology from the inter-war years) are rusting away exposed to the elements, and how no one in authority seems to care. But I won't (I shall let Dyspozytor do it).

* The exhibition is open to general viewing from today. Click here for details. If this page is not about Dworce Kolejowe Galicji Wschodniej - too late, you've missed it.

** The Austrian Empire (from 1867 to 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Empire) was one of three powers that swallowed up Poland as a result of the Partitions of the late 18th Century. Unlike Russia and Prussia (Germany after 1871), Austro-Hungarian occupation of Poland was less repressive. The empire was exceeding bureaucratic and had 12 official languages.

And thanks to Tomek for getting me an invite!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

What's the Polish for "commuter"?

Now that the snow and frosts have gone, I no longer have to scurry to the warmth of W-wa Śródmieście to await my Jeziorki-bound train. Today I popped by W-wa Ochota for a change, from where I took the photo (above) looking west towards W-wa Zachodnia, which as you can see, is at the top of a rise. This slope was formed to enable the railway line to run under the very centre of Warsaw; W-wa Ochota is not in a tunnel but it is below street level. The line runs into the tunnel 400m east of the platform's end. The tunnel, just over 2km long, ends at W-wa Powiśle station, which like Ochota is exposed to the elements.

Incidentally, while looking for the gaps that exist in the linguistic space between English and Polish, I find it quite remarkable that there's no word in Polish for 'commuter'. Getionary gives osoba dojeżdzająca do pracy, and 'commuting' is dojeżdzać [z daleka] do pracy i z pracy. As a language, Polish has been adept at incorporating loanwords into the vocabulary, from dach (German for 'roof') and abażur (from the French, abât-jour, or 'lampshade') to everyday words from English such as biznes and komputer. Yet 'commuter' finds itself without a simple one-word equivalent. Osoba dojeżdzająca do pracy is not a word, but a clunky 11-syllable phrase that explains an everyday word. Could it that commuting is a relative novelty in Poland? Surely not?

Could any reader furnish a better term than osoba dojeżdzająca do pracy? Or suggest a neologism?

And as good a place as any to paste this link to an excellent and thought-provoking article on linguistics in Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Stalinist downtown, dusk

Not yet six in the evening, this, the last week before the clocks go forward. They day had been bright, top temperature +15C, spring in the air. But by the evening, dark clouds gathered. The Palace of Culture takes on an oppressive character. Newer skyscrapers to its right and neons on buildings opposite remind us who won the Cold War.

Returning geese

What a sight. Seventy geese in arrowhead formation. Grey body, black neck and head... but dark underwing. Are these Canada Geese? If so, they are quite a way east of their usual summering grounds of North West Europe. I caught this flock as it flew over Dawidy this morning.

Sunday's swan conjecture (post below) proved accurate; the children saw one of the four on the reedbeds at the end of our road this morning, standing on ice, not happy with the situation. Still, they arrived a week earlier than they did last year or the year before.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

A stirring sight

With the thermometer reading +14C as I woke up, I felt that wonderful surge of spring optimism and flung open the windows. I noticed in the distance a quartet of swans wheeling around. They are back! The sight sends shivers down my spine. A most excellent sight.

The two photos on the left show the swans flying over ul. Sarabandy, the photo on the right shows them circling the pond on ul. Pozytywki. My guess is that given the fact that the wetlands and reed beds at the end of ul. Trombity are still frozen, they are looking for alternative stretches of open water on which to land.

Four swans...? I guess that two of them are young adults, born in Jeziorki last summer or the summer before.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Summerhouses near Okęcie

Between the airport end of ul Żwirki i Wigury and ul. Wirażowa lie działki - a hard-to-translate Polish concept; something like an allotment garden with a summerhouse on it - similar to the Russian dacha. Urban Poles living in flats like to have a plot where they can put up a small house and grow fruit and vegetables. Działki vary from a wooden shack on a hundred square metres right through to veritable palaces on large, wooded plots that are hard to distinguish from normal houses.
Large or small, działki are not inhabited the year round, typically during weekends and holidays from late spring through to early autumn. The idea is to get away from the noise and fumes of the city and relax.
Now out here next to the airport, there's no getting away from from noise or fumes. Plus the rumble of the trains. And the construction of the S79, running north-south past these działki will mean additional traffic noise of traffic between the city centre and what will be the Berlin-Moscow motorway.

Before the S79's built, here are some snaps to get the atmosphere of this unique scene - where the railway link between the main line and airport, used to transport aviation fuel, cuts right through the działki. It's unusual to have a front door opening up onto railway tracks!

Turn off Żwirki i Wigury, where the railway line swings across the road, and you find yourself walking alongside the tracks, on either side of you small summer houses surrounded by small plots.

With ul. Wirażowa closed for the duration of the roadworks, the owners of these plots can only reach them this way.

These are działki at first sight seem pretty much abandoned by their owners, one would expect them to be elderly and no longer energetic enough to maintain them. And this time of year, waiting from the big spring clean up, these establishments are not looking their best.

Above: brick-built działka, looking more permanent than the rest. Evidently, the owner was better connected than the rest, for whom building materials were limited to whatever planks they could get their hands on.

A view of the line from the Wirażowa end, earlier this winter, here. Below: Taken five days later, a PKN Orlen TEM2 (153) hauls an empty rake of oil cisterns back to the main line by W-wa Okęcie station. It would be glorious to capture the same train from the footpath between the działki, as in the top photo.

Coal locos running light, W-wa Dawidy

Two heavy haulers on the W-wa Okęcie - Konstancin-Jeziorna - Siekierki coal line, running light back to Okęcie. Above and below: SM48-111 and ST44-700 passing W-wa Dawidy station. The SM48 (also seen in its Russian version, the TEM-2) is nicknamed Tamara by Polish train spotters, while the ST44 is known as Gagar (as in for Gagarin, Russia's first astronaut).

These locos' heavy axle weight meant that much of the line had to change over to concrete sleepers as the standard wooden ones (as found on the parallel electrified passenger tracks) couldn't cope.

Winter coming to an end

The thermometer outside my window this morning read +12C. As I write, it's touching +17C. On Wednesday morning it was -4C. Spring is definitely in the air; at 17:32 this evening, the sun crosses the Equator and in the Northern Hemisphere the length of day will begin to exceed the length of night. So welcome, spring.

I took a bet on the snows not returning, though in past years that I can remember in Warsaw we had snow falls at the end of March, indeed, even as late as 13 April. I took the Micra (dear little car, it will be 17 in May) for a car wash, to rid it of all the salts and rubbish on the bodywork. A change of tyres is due too, putting the summer ones on and storing the winter ones until November.

Above: A metre-and-half high heap of snow outside the BP carwash on ul. Puławska. How long will it take to melt, even at +17C? Nine cars in the queue at an average of six minutes per wash equals a long wait for drivers of dirty cars.

I swept the salt and grit that had accumulated from the snow brought into our garage by the car. There was at least a kilo of grey dirty dust. Next will be the bikes, I fancy getting my racing bike in order this year, a Holdsworth Tri-Ath Elan. New tyres are needed. My fixed wheel bike needs a new rear hub, my fold-up Brompton needs a chain-tensioner arm. Two bikes are in good working order, the excellent Cannondale Caffeine and my 531-framed commuter bike with hub brakes and gears. The call of bicycle grows louder and louder as spring approaches.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Lenten recipe no. 8

Prawns in spicy peanut and coconut sauce on toast

Ingredients (per person):

Three generous tablespoons of coconut milk (the thick creamy part, not the thin watery stuff), three generous tablespoons of peanut butter (crunchy or smooth); half a clove of garlic, one small chilli pepper, 100gm of peeled prawns; two slices of bread (wholemeal, ideally Polish chleb wiejski, thick-cut). Braised tofu or soya chunks cut into small pieces can be used in place of the prawns if you've decided to go vegan.


Dollop coconut milk and peanut butter onto frying pan and heat gently, stirring them into a homogenous paste. Crush or finely dice the garlic, cut up chilli and add to sauce. When sauce is bubbling nicely, throw in the prawns, heat for six-seven minutes. Place bread in toaster set to medium. Stir prawns into sauce, keep them moving on frying pan. When bread pops out from the toaster, put on plate, and serve the prawns in their sauce onto the toast, generously. Eat it, enjoy it. Time taken to prepare: less than 10 minutes. In other words excellent for breakfast or as an evening snack.

WARNING: Take care not to burn your palate as you bite into it. The oily sauce holds heat very effectively, so let it cool down some before eating.

Lent continues, at the end of week four (yesterday) 90 sit-ups (2 x 45) and 40 press-ups (2 x 20).

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

City centre; afternoon, dusk, night

Moving around town between meetings by bus and tram and foot. The light was, like yesterday, perfect, especially in the late afternoon, streaming in strongly from the west. Above: The Palace of Culture.

Right: Rondo ONZ 1, my favourite Warsaw tower. In contrast to this modern design, in the foreground a Konstal 13N tram (the oldest examples of which are over 50 years old).

Left: Rondo ONZ 1 photographed from the 14th floor of the Deloittes building on Al. Jana Pawła II (or Jana Pawła Marchlewskiego, as some older taxi drivers still insist on referring to it).

The Ernst & Young sign on the tower is in response to an even bigger Deloitte logo facing it. Competition eh? The photo was shot through a plate-glass window, so the sky's blotchy on the right.

Below: Stepping out into the dusk, Warsaw's Central Business District is coming alive. This part of the city is looking very modern. And less than eight miles from Jeziorki!

And just one street away, a journey back in time to the 1950s. Below: Stalinist architecture and a state-owned (!) furniture store, Stołeczne Przedsiębiorstwo Handlu Wewnętrznego 'Meble Emilia' (The Capital City Enterprise of Internal Trade Furniture Emilia) on ul. Emilii Plater. Love that logo.

Let's have a better look at it... LOVE THAT LOGO!

Monday, 15 March 2010

On a day like today

No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn*. On a day like today, granted to us as a gift to our souls by the Almighty, it behoves one to make the most of it. So I walk to Platan Park for my morning meeting, giving myself a full hour and a quarter for the five-and-half kilometre journey. Enjoy.

Above and right: No commentary needed; just stunning beauty of winter on ul. Trombity this morning. The snow on the wires against the crystal blue sky makes it for me.

Below: ul. Poloneza all the way from ul. Jeziorki to the junction of ul. Poleczki (bottom).

I must say I much prefer days like this to high summer - so much more bracing!

I apologise to no one for using a polarising filter to accentuate the contrast between snow and sky - after all, wearing polarising sunglasses, this is what the scenes looked like to me.

* Jim Morrison of The Doors, The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)

Winter's Return

What gorgeousness met my eyes as I awoke this morning! Five inches of fresh snow and a sharp frost overnight (-5.3C) and clear skies. Above: View from my bedroom window. Right: view from the kitchen. Below: The drive, before the cars came out. There was so much snow, the front gate wouldn't open and Eddie had to dig. No one was expecting that winter would return so late and in such sparkling form.

Left: Moni busying herself with the shovel. No hat, no gloves. The snow was falling heavily yesterday evening; I don't think anyone had expected so much of it. This evening, when I was shovelling our drive, I noticed that the snow was still white - none of the grey slush that falls off the bottom of cars. Could it be that the city has run out of salt?

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Nature or nurture?

I mentioned this great conundrum last August on having read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers - what's the secret of success? To what extent is it something you are born with, to what extent is it where and when you are born, how you are brought up and what breaks you get?

Evidently, its both nature and nurture, genetics and environment. Gladwell's observations from looking at the spectacularly successful (the Beatles and Bill Gates among other) suggest that it's being at the right place at the right time, and putting in 10,000 hours of hard graft into your chosen area before things start to really zoom along.

I've just finished reading Out of the Bottle, autobiography of Graham Webb, a British entrepreneur who left school at 15, battled with Spina Bifida and low self-esteem and yet went on to build a transatlantic hair care empire with salons, hairdressing academies and a line of top-end hair care products in America. I met Graham many years ago when I was editing CBI News in London. He was a charming though tenacious man (we campaigned together to get cycling to work more acceptable to employers); I was curious to see read the history of how he reached the top of his particular tree. The book, now in its fifth edition, is a study in entrepreneurship and making the most of life.

As Malcolm Gladwell observed, the story-behind-the-story is often at odds with the myth. Bill Gates might have been a university drop-out, but he was fortunate enough to have rich parents and lucky enough to go to a primary school (in the 1960s!) with access to a mainframe computer(!). He also had the drive, as a teenager, to obsessively write code, waking up in the middle of the night to spend a few hours at a mainframe programming away, getting his 10,000 hours in. On the surface, Graham Webb's progress from an incontinent council flat kid with no O-levels to millionaire hair care tycoon is remarkable. But behind the story are parents.

His mother was the driver, she was also instrumental in him getting his first break (a hairdresser's apprentice - a position he got after 62 job rejections). His mother lived to the wonderful age of 93, to see her only child and his family all achieving success. His father settled down after an early life at sea to a long career in the Civil Service and an MBE. He was not a quitter. Graham too would be honoured with an MBE, nearly 40 years later. Both parents also left school in their mid-teens without qualifications, though his mother 'had the gift of the gab', something he inherited.

'Luck', as Margaret Thatcher observed, 'is an opportunity not missed'. Out of the Bottle is also the story of a succession of chance meetings that happened to become crucial turning-points in Graham's career, whether it be a with a shampoo salesman in a Walsall hotel bar or finding himself seated next to a US senator after being bumped up to first class on a BA flight to Washington. Graham would see each such chance meeting as a coincidence that was destined to happen, and would make the most of it.

There's a wonderful lesson in here. Keep every business card, remember all those contacts, follow up, don't forget people (especially those who've been helpful to you). The book's silver bullet business-wise is about the importance of active networking. Before reaching the end, I was already looking at the way that I look after business contacts, improving the ways in which I keep in touch with them. Graham's other talent has always been active PR. Never shy in seeking self-publicity, he is critical of the Britons' reticence to blow their own trumpet.

A propos of trumpets, music is another important part of Graham Webb's life. It has been for him a door-opener, an avenue to introductions that proved important in his business and indeed family life. Graham plays the drums. As did his father (on a P&O cruise liner where he was second steward), and his mother's brother, Uncle Barney (a famous musical act at one time managed by Lew Grade). So it's no surprise that both of Graham's sons play drums, while both his daughters are also professional musicians (the Webb Sisters, in Leonard Cohen's band). Here's the 'nature' part - the genes responsible for rhythm and musical ability.

An interesting aspect of the book to me and a part of the story that was new to me, was the contrast of Graham and his American business partner. The latter comes across as brash and bullying, aggressively driven entrepreneur, the type of boss most people would want to avoid working for. The type of personality that personifies the forces that led to the current global economic crisis. This testosterone-fuelled, hire-and-fire, 'if-you-want-loyalty-buy-a-dog', alpha-male attitude might not particularly dangerous in the hair care industry; in banking it has certainly proved to be. My hope is that one lesson that business will learn from the crisis is that shareholders, boards and HR managers spot this kind of toxic person and deny them the chance to do damage to lenders, borrowers, taxpayers or staff in the grasping race for short-term profit.

Would it have helped me to have read this book had it come out, say, 20 years ago? I doubt it. I don't think I had the maturity to appreciate the innate wisdom embedded within the narrative.

Graham Webb's success is about having the drive, energy and tenacity to keep on going, 17 hours a day if needs be - but not to be a bastard while you're on your way. The ability to work hard is, I believe, nature. Being a decent person is a mixture of upbringing and genetics. There is an adage attibuted to Groucho Marx 'if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made'. What impresses me most about Graham is that unlike so many showmen - he's not a fake. "Being a decent husband and father has meant more than anything to me in this world," he writes.

Above from left: Graham Webb, myself and Graham's best friend and wife of 36 years, Mandy.

* Out of the Bottle ISBN 0-9548709-0-5, UK ₤18.99, US $29.95, Europe €25.00, Australia $42.95. Also available via www.grahamwebb.co.uk

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Winter still holds in the forest

It may surprise my readers from Warsaw that though the snow's retreated from the city's pavements leaving only piles of icy grey heaps here and there, the Las Kabacki forest is still experiencing a proper snow-covered winter. After lunch the skies cleared, so it was time to check it out.

Above: a cyclist coming the other way. As he passed, he said that the going would be tough. Indeed it was - there's only one surface I hate cycling over more than snow - soft sand. My first journey into the forest since November, the remaining snow here came as a complete surprise. I thought at least the paths would be clear - but not a bit of it.

Right: a better way of getting round the forest - cross-country skis. Although the forest was nearly empty as sunny Saturdays go, the people I did see were very active, with plenty of joggers and nordic walkers taking their exercise.

Within a week spring will have theoretically arrived, although I predict that it will be at least a fortnight before we start seeing the first real signs of nature exploding back into life. And the masses of remaining snow in the forest - when it melts, the place will be waterlogged for a long time.

So - if you're missing the snow already, you can still find lots of it in the Las Kabacki.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Commuters' staging post

Unless my Jeziorki-bound train is the first one in at W-wa Powiśle station (it rarely is), in winter I'll hop onto whatever comes first and hop off one stop further along, at W-wa Śródmieście to wait there. Compared to some of the more rubbish stations I could choose to wait at, this one is a dream. And I guess commuters heading east would also wait here rather than freeze on the open platforms of W-wa Ochota or W-wa Zachodnia (my nomination for Poland's worst railway station).

W-wa Śródmieście has four advantages for me: a) I can escape the frosty night and wait in the relative warmth warmth and shelter for my train, b) buy hot food and drink, c) buy slightly out-of-date magazines for a fraction of their cover price (last month's Practical Photography for 10 złotys, rather than 30.90 zł), and d) see actual indicator boards telling me when my train is due (and how late). W-wa Powiśle has no indicator boards.

Unlike the dreadful W-wa Zachodnia with its plethora of platforms, W-wa Śródmieście has only two, so there's no worrying about at which one of the 24 tracks my home-bound train will arrive. Crossing from platform to platform is either done via seedy underground passages or by nipping through a train and out onto the island platform, as this is a rare (only?) station where the train doors open on both sides. And of late, W-wa Śródmieście is properly cleaned and patrolled by security guards, so there's no smell of stale urine or fast food cartons littering the place.

The photo above was taken with camera resting on a bin, three-and-half second exposure at f22 for depth of field. The station looks quiet, but actually there's a crowd of people moving down the island platform, the long exposure rendering them as indistict ghosts (click on photo to enlarge).

Half way through Lent

It's gone so quick this year I'm not even counting off the weeks. As one gets older, so time passes faster. At the age of ten, a year is 10% of your life's experience. At 50, it's but 2%. Lata lecą. This is my 19th Lent in a row, and keeping to a strict regime has become an entirely natural process, second nature, an integral part of the year, one-eighth of its duration.

I'm eating lots of fresh fruit, doing sit-ups and press-ups twice daily, keeping off foods that are unhealthy - fatty, salty foods, and not touching alcohol or caffeine. I've trimmed a centimetre off my waist (98cm down from 99cm).

As Lent is going so well, passing so easily, at this stage there's the temptation to say "I'm keeping this up after Easter," in practice what happens is that the resolve peters out eventually, and I get back to an entirely unremarkable lifestyle - until next year's Lent.

For the record - 80 sit-ups today (two lots of 40) and 36 press-ups (two lots of 18).

Diet-wise, the big hits of this year's Lent are a) creamy coconut milk - served with quartered plums today, raspberries yesterday - entirely natural cream substitute, and b) toast or crispbread with peanut butter and Patak's hot chilli pickle (a great taste combination!). Brazil nuts, dates and honey for afters.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Congruent consciousness

Imagine a childhood summer's day on the beach, the sun glinting off the waves; or a walk in a pine forest with your parents, or staring at a toyshop window just before Christmas, snow falling gently on the rushing shoppers. Can you feel those memories strongly? Can you conjure up your precise awareness of that moment? Do you sometimes (or even often) get memories of your past - be they from childhood, or from last month - popping into your consciousness unbidden, *paff!* just like that - and then disappearing, leaving a vague though pleasant aftertaste in your mind?

Do you get other memories that appear in exactly the same way, feel just as familiar when they occur, yet you find yourself unable to pin them down or relate them to a past event in your life?

I've been using the term 'flashback' to refer to this phenomenon of mind, whereby a memory suddenly pops up (either unbidden, or triggered, or summoned). The most intriguing ones are the unbidden ones which I cannot place within my life's history, and yet are just as familiar as the identifiable ones. Given that I've been experiencing these anomalous memory events since childhood, and they continue with me, I feel that they deserve more study. When experiencing these anomalous memory events, I feel the same comfortable familiarity with them as when current life flashbacks occur; the mechanism by which both occur I feel is the same or similar. What it is, however, defies my understanding.

The other day while out walking, I coined the phrase 'congruent consciousness' for this phenomenon of the mind. Just as triangles of a different size sharing the same angles as each another can be defined as congruent, so these flashbacks are a identical short-lived replica of the precise experience of my consciousness at another time and place. They vary in strength (vividness) and duration, when they happen, I've taught myself to catch them and reflect upon them. Projected for an instant into my consciousness, before fizzling away, they leave a summonable aftertaste, like the memory of a vivid dream. These anomalous memory events leave me grasping for metaphors - echo is one; I am picking up an echo of consciousness, a feeling that once was, a perfect replica of a state of mind, that has returned for a brief instant from... the past? Is there such as thing as the past in the mind?

The river of consciousness (there's a neat metaphor) means that you can track back to the thoughts you've just had, but running your mind in reverse, although possible, is as difficult as swimming upstream. When your mind is freewheeling, try going back through the chain of thoughts you've just had - it's not easy! Similarly, when a *paff!* moment occurs, before the smoke's blown away, I analyse it on the spot, so as not to lose that feeling. Once gone, it's difficult to get back. How does it feel? What's it associated with? What might have triggered it?

My search for a better understanding of this phenomenon will take many years, and though I'm sure I'll get closer, I doubt if I, or indeed neuroscience, will get anywhere near it.

In the meanwhile, I've just read a book recommended by my brother Marek, Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives, by neuroscientist David Eagleman.

Above: ul. Poloneza this morning, temperature -6C. Frosty air, strong sunlight. *Paff!* There's that congruent consciousness moment. Below: Jeziorki, this evening, near the railway station. *Click!* Suddenly another time, another place. The American Midwest, 1950s with different cars and roadsigns?

Sunday, 7 March 2010

More from the frozen, flooded wetlands

Yesterday's visit to the far end of ul Trombity was brief; today, equipped with wellies, I set off from ul. Kórnicka to gauge the extent of the flooding (the Polish word podtopienie rather than the word powódź or potop which is more a mythical flood).

Above: the streak of clear water between the foreground and the trees is a drainage ditch; this carried melt water from the fields nearer the railway line. It has overflowed and the water has spilled out over the football pitch (see previous post).

Below: It looks like a photo of a frozen river taken from the bank; actually, this is ul. Dumki, now totally impassable to any kind of traffic. The ice here is too thin to walk on, the water beneath is knee-deep.

Not in nine winters living on ul. Trombity have I seen so much water on our wetlands. Right: The sun glinting off a vast expanse of snow-covered ice. The ground below is waterlogged; drainage ditches around Jeziorki channel still more meltwater from around the neighbourhood. It will take months of dry weather for water to retreat to its normal levels. In summer, water is not usually visible from this point, across the flooded ul. Dumki.

Below: Being unable to make my way further down Dumki, I try to skirt around the flooding - to no avail. The water reaches right up to a fenced-off field adjoining ul. Baletowa. I have no alternative but to cross the ice (here thick enough to support my weight; the water below is just over ankle-deep).

Below: the reedbeds. Somewhere below the ice, frogs and bullfrogs are hibernating. Within a few short weeks, nature's great miracle will kick off once again, tadpoles will spawn, the swans and black-headed gulls with return.