Friday, 31 December 2010

Classic cars, West Ealing

Some interesting vehicles caught my eye while Moni and I were out and about in West Ealing. Classic cars are more common in Britain than Poland, where the old car scene is mainly about preserving old east European and West German marques. Brits, having greater disposable incomes than Poles, will be more tempted to splash out on vintage tin.

Above: This - is an automobile. 1950 or '51 Chrysler Club Coupe, parked on Hastings Road, W13. I remember as far ago as the early 1980s, there would always be a huge 1950s American car parked here; a beautiful Cadillac or Lincoln... (wait, I'll search my archives...) Ah yes, here we are... 1983 or thereabouts. Below: 1957 Cadillac on Hastings Road.

Good to see consistency here! Over a quarter of a century of keeping these wonderful old vehicles on the road, this guy is performing a valuable service to automobile history.

Left: A 1965 VW Beetle outside Oaklands Primary School, on Oaklands Road, Hanwell W7, which I attended from 1962 to 1969. The Beetle was a rare example of a foreign-built vehicle which achieved significant sales in the UK before Britain joined the Common Market (as the EU was called in those days). French, German or Italian cars were an unusual sight on Britain's roads due to high import tariffs.

Above: Citroen 2CV, parked on The Avenue, W13. Back in 1986, when this particular example was built (judging from the number plate), I got close to buying a new one from a Citroen dealer. The car would soon be out of production, and I had a sentimental thing about the 2CV from my childhood French summer holidays. The car I test drove had six miles on the clock. As I steer her slow out of the lot for a test drive down Greenford Avenue, the indicator stalk falls off in my hand. With build quality as execrable as this, I pass on it; the first new car of my life would be a Renault 5 (hardly better in this respect!).

Beery litter louts

Before leaving London, Moni and I went for a long walk from the posh Cleveland Park area where I lived as a teenager to Hanwell where I spent my childhood. Drabness and decay; once proud Victorian and Edwardian buildings spoilt with back-lit plastic, garish paint and a here-to-day, gone-tomorrow approach to commerce quite absent from the solidity of yore.

In a word, West Ealing to me symbolises Britain's decline. Yes, you can escape - the affluent migrant-free villages the lie beyond the cities' economic catchment areas. Or emigrate. Faces on West Ealing Broadway are either coloured or Polish, or belong to the handful of indigenous Brits that didn't have the gumption to move out over the past half-century.

Yet what of the houses, of the generic terraced Victorian two-up two-downs that were once home to the traditional British working classes? Who can afford the £250,000 - £300,000 for a small, draughty, 130 year-old house in a grotty neighbourhood between the council flats and the railway line? Certainly not someone on a £13,000 service sector salary. Typically, it will be immigrant entrepreneurs and buy-to-let owners.

The well-known retail chains and posh department stores have closed down or moved on from the high street to the shopping centres like the one at Ealing Broadway a mile to the east, the shops in West Ealing cater to immigrants. As I mentioned last month, West Ealing is becoming visibly Polish.
Below: Please put your litter in a bin. The empty Polish beer container phenomenon was blogged last month by Toyah.

Left: Outside the Infants' building of my old school, Oaklands Road Primary.
The children's vegetable garden, in which I once grew salad cress, and an empty Tyskie bottle. O tempora! O mores!
Graffiti on Jacob's Ladder footbridge over the railway line, West Ealing. At least there are no foul oaths directed at Legia's management or owners or at KSP Polonia supporters.

Right: even posh Cleveland Park is not immune to signs of encroaching Polishness.
Growing up around here in the 1970s, I can say that there have always been a great many Polish families living around here, but Poles' presence has never been as physically visible in West Ealing as it is today. Different generation, different upbringing.

Monday, 27 December 2010

50% off half-price and nothing to pay to June 2016

Poland's gone back to work after Christmas, but here in the UK, there's an extra two days of public holiday (on account of the fact that Christmas Day and Boxing Day fell on a weekend). In Poland - tough. Public holidays on a weekend - the workers lose out (national accounts do better).

So how have Britons been spending the day? In a word, shopping. So Moni, Eddie, Cousin Hoavis and his mum set off with me to Derby. Westfield Centre was packed to the gunwales. Table for five at Pizza Express? That'll be a one and half hour wait. 70% advertised off in many shop windows. Last year's tat that failed to move off the shelves. Want something timeless? Classic? Normal price. Do these people milling aimlessly about know what they actually want? Or are they merely tempted by the thought of bargains?

Outside the Westfield Centre, every other shop is either boarded up or advertising a closing-down sale. The opening of Derby's new mega-mall coincided with the recession hitting these shores. Some nice (read: non-chain) shops still survive around the Quarter by the Cathedral, offering something outside of the standard. Pound World and 99p Kingdom are doing boffo business, I pop in to buy some more reading glasses.

We find a Pizza Express in the Cathedral Quarter - a table for five magically appears just for us. And our waitress was from Wroclaw.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Derbyshire, Boxing Day

We arrived at my brother's on Christmas Day in time for a massive turkey dinner followed by Christmas pud, washed down with some excellent ale (Brakspeare's Oxford Gold). I managed to catch up on sleep, with another 12-hour night. Much needed after a hectic run-up to Christmas.

Boxing Day (drugi dzien swiat). A late afternoon walk, before dinner. Time to head up into the hills overlooking Duffield and enjoy scenery that's so different to our Mazowsze.

Above: dry stone wall with stile (cf. 'turnstile' = kolowrotka) on public footpath. Very characteristic of northern England. Below: further on along the footpath. Time to turn around and head back for another huge dinner.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas Eve, England

We arrive in Manchester to find fine frosty weather, blue skies and a light dusting of snow, temperature hovering around zero.

Above and left: Bright red pillar boxes are an attractive feature of British street furniture (along with the few remaining traditional telephone kiosks and Belisha beacons). The children take the occasion to pose with two that grace the short stretch of Broadway in Cheadle.

Both pillar boxes are signed with the monograph 'GR' indicates they date back to the reign of King George VI.

Above: back from a trawl of the charity shops of Cheadle.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Yuletide break

Off to the UK with the children; taxi will be at the gate in half an hour. Taxi to Okęcie, WizzAir to Luton, thence hiring a car for onward travel to Manchester; wigilia in Manchester at my mother-in-law's; first day of Christmas . Then on to my brother's for Christmas day in Derbyshire (that nice journey over the Peaks). And ever onwards to London to visit my parents, then back to Warsaw in good time for New Year.

In the UK it will be muted consumerism. Continuity announcer: "And now on BBC One - Christmas murder. On Two, a murder double bill. Over on BBC 4 - mass murder. And starting now on BBC Murder - more murder." No thanks. Let's listen to the radio... "Just chill out, pull out that litre bottle of Waitrose vodka from your freezer, fill up a pint mug and listen to Classic FM..." Well, I think not.

A peaceful break to all my readers, hope it all goes well for you, lots of rest, time to recharge the batteries; hopefully a post here soon after Christmas Day.

UPDATE: Made it to Manchester. Got upgraded from a Ford Fiesta to a Nissan Note at Luton (no winter tyres of course, a beermat sized plastic scraper to remove ice from windows, windscreen wiper fluid frozen solid). We chose to drive over the Peaks rather than take the soul-less M6. Beautiful - snow and sunshine once more. Matlock Bath especially charming (below).

WARNING TO URSYNAUERS JOURNEYING TO OKECIE AIRPORT: Early this morning, the north-bound lane of ul. Gordona Bennetta was closed off to traffic. NO DIVERSION SIGNS. Our poor taxi-driver was blundering around helplessly looking for a way to the terminal buildings. He was about to take us all the way back via Poleczki and Pulawska to Motokow and Zwirki i Wigury (a detour of about 20 minutes and 70 zlotys), when we found that the unmarked diversion runs along the southbound lane of Gordona Bennetta. Infuriating.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Dense, wet, rush hour snow

Snow started falling in the afternoon. Instant knock-on effect on public transport - no buses for 20 minutes then three at once. Temperatures stayed below zero. The 162 was hideously packed. Leaving my office 12 minutes early, I arrive 16 minutes late at my destination, a mere seven bus stops away. Not good.

Indeed, once back in my car at Ursynów Park & Ride, I could appreciate the comfort factor of not being squeezed into an overcrowded bus. My own space, my own music, to which I can sing along to (loudly). The lure of the private car at this time of year is strong. To tempt motorists away from their cars, city authorities need to provide more buses and more bus lanes. More trams and Metro also appreciated!

Left: ul. Targowa in the heavy snow. One of many Warsaw streets named after Russian (or Soviet) generals. General Alexander I. Targov was responsible for murderous repressions following the January Rising of 1863. Other streets named after former oppressors: ul. Ogrodowa (Stalin-era Politburo member General Ogrodov) and ul. Towarowa (WWI field marshal, M.B. Tovarov). There are more.

Polish translation conundrum of the day: pretensja as in 'mieć pretensje do kogoś'. To 'bear a grudge' or to 'harbour a grievance' is, to my mind, too strong. Grudges and grievances one bears, or harbours, or even nurses (!) for years. Pretensje are usually forgotten about within days, unless the cause is endemic ('he's always late'). Pretensje can be easily laughed off, grudges can't. To have pretensions (airs and graces) is captured by the adjective pretensjonalny, which gives rise to the danger of the false friend 'to have pretensions against someone' when translating mieć pretensje do kogoś into English. Any better suggestions than those offered by Oxford/PWN and Getionary?

Monday, 20 December 2010

Kidnapped by Koleje Mazowiecki

For the first time since the introduction of the new railway timetables last Saturday week, I chanced a ride to work on Koleje Mazowieckie. Since the snows began, the performance of Poland's railways has been dire. My experiences so far this winter have been of cancellations and delays longer than the usual journey time. The introduction of the new timetable is usually entirely virtual, since trains keep running (on my line anyway) to the old timetable for weeks regardless.

And so it was this morning. The advertised 07:38 train arrived at 07:54 (i.e. as per old time table). Just a three-car set of EN-57 rolling stock (above) - totally inadequate for the jam of passengers trying to board. But by W-wa Służew I manage to get a seat.

So engrossed was I in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, that I fail to notice that the train pulled into W-wa Centralna rather than W-wa Śródmieście... The train emerged from the Tunel Średnicowy on the wrong track, passing W-wa Powiśle without stopping. Soon, I am being whisked, against my will, across the Vistula (below).

The train continues past W-wa Stadion and arrives (no doubt on time according to the old schedule) at W-wa Wschodnia, the eastern gateway station. I look round to see what's happening. I see the following sign (below) and challenge my bilingual readers to translated this a) literally and b) usefully into English.

The cause of this notice soon becomes clear; the station is undergoing a remont. I use the Polish word remont rather than 'repair', 'renovation', 'refurbishment', 'remodelling', 'restoration' (or one we saw last week in the Old Town, 'revitalization'), because it so direct and to the point. Indeed, I urge my English-speaking readers to start using this word in English - it is so useful. Which of the many different possible translations into English of remont most accurately captures the flavour of what's happening at the station right now? You'd need to be a consulting engineer to come up with the one English word that precisely defines this type of work. But remont - we all know what it means!

Above: Warszawa Wschodnia station undergoing its remont. Ticket booths are outside in the open air, most of the facilities are closed. The outside clock (click to enlarge photo) says 05:45. Trains are running late or very late. Finally I board a west-bound train and 50 minutes later I'm back at W-wa Powiśle, and late for work.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Global warming or climate change?

My wife was due to fly to England today, but all the flights to Heathrow have been cancelled due to snow on the runway. In years gone by, the main meteorological risk was fog. But this is now the third year in a row that the UK faces 'unprecedented' wintery weather at this time of year.

Back in 2008/09, when the capital experienced the heaviest snowfalls in 20 years, London's mayor Boris Johnson said that investing in snow ploughs to keep London's streets clear would be a questionable investment. He said that the £27m cost of buying adequate numbers of snow ploughs (London had only 16 of them!) would be scoffed at should there be another 20 winters during which there would be no heavy snow.

Last winter, we turned up at Luton Airport to find our hire car under eight inches (20cm) of wet and heavy snow. "Please check the car on collection to ensure that there are no scratches or other minor damage for which you will be charged on return" - a joke. I was indeed charged £35 for a scratch to the front bumper - I could not prove it was not me, as I was unable to inspect the car on collection. And of course - no winter tyres.

Not only on hire cars - winter tyres are completely unknown in Britain. The police, fire and ambulance services do not use winter tyres. Buses do not use winter tyres. Nor do emergency breakdown services. Last Christmas, the battery on my mother-in-law's car packed up. The AA came to fit a new one - and the breakdown van got stuck on a relatively gentle incline. I had to help rescue the rescue service with a shovel!

Looking at the UK press reports of snow chaos, the words 'snow ploughs' and 'grit' are all over the pages, but 'salt' or 'winter tyres' are noticable for their absence. Grit is not an answer. The kind of road salt used in Poland (calcium chloride rather than sodium chloride or table salt) when mixed in the right proportions with water will only freeze at temperatures of -20C. This type of salt is used rarely in the UK. Grit improves adhesion between tyres and road but does not lower the freezing point of water.

So three snowy winters in a row in the UK after a long run of relatively warm ones. "Global warming? What global warming?" one hears. The phrase (used in connection with the results of rises in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels caused by human activity) has been superceded in the media and government circles by the term climate change, though the terminology is synonymous. Though when local temperatures fall as a result of an overall rise in global temperatures, the voices of the doubters become louder.

As the polar icecap retreats, so icebergs drift south, pushing the Gulf Stream, which warms Britain in winter, is diverted southward. And so a warmer globe paradoxically makes the UK subject to colder winters. In theory.

In practice, looking back since I started blogging in April 2007, I can see that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent; in the case of Poland it's summer flooding rather than unusually cold winters (which until recently seemed to have been getting milder).

My take on climate change/global warming is analogous to Pascal's approach to the existence (or not) of God. If God exists, and I don't believe in Him, I'm damned. If God doesn't exist and I do believe, I've lost nothing. If God does exist and I believe, I'm saved. Similarly, if the planet's climate is not changing due to anthropogenic causes, but I'm careful with my energy use, I've lost nothing, at best I've saved money. If my actions can help slow down global warming, I'm doing something useful. So cut your carbon footprint - couldn't hurt.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Happy ever after

The Christmas edition of the Economist is always one to cherish. As well as the usual politics, business, finance, science and arts coverage, there are numerous articles of more general interest that appeal to the inquiring mind. A good read, and one that lasts for longer than just the Christmas and New Year's break.

This year's cover story is the incredibly optimistic news that as we age, we get happier. It seems, then, that the Polish saying Starość nie radość ('Old age isn't joy') is somewhat overstated.

This is not, in itself, new news. The BBC covered this in its series on happiness (The Happiness Formula) back in 2006. On the basis of data collected from around the UK, researchers showed that humans reach a low-point with regards their happiness somewhere in their mid-40s, and after that, their happiness levels start to rise.

What makes the Economist's article convincing is the global sample. It is based on research examining happiness in 72 countries around the world. Globally, it seems, the pattern is similar to that which the 2006 UK data shows. We are happy when young, then our happiness declines. The age at which it hits a low point varies from country to country, with Switzerland (35) and Ukraine (62) being the outliers. But the global average is 46; on reaching this age, life gets happier and happier. Hence the Economist's cover caption, Life begins at 46.

Old age, since the Swinging '60s and the dawn of the Permissive Society, has been seen with dread by the young and middle-aged. Now, it seems, we have far less to fear than we had imagined.

My mother (83 and in good physical and fine mental condition) often tells me that "the best is yet to come" on the basis of her own life experience. Thank you! I look forward to it - armed with statistical evidence from around the world that this indeed is the case.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Matters of Style

Writing style is so important in good communication. One associates "style" with elegant phrasing, sentence structure and the flow and rhythm of the prose - yet for writers and editors it's more basic than that. At its most elemental, style is about keeping consistency in form.

Do you write 10 000, 10,000, 10000 or 10 thousand or ten thousand? Is it Prof. Smith or Prof Smith? Do you standardize with a 'z' or standardise on an 's'? What's the rule on Usage Of Capital Letters? Did that cost you £50, 50 GBP or fifty quid? Do you italicise (or italicize) titles of books, films, plays etc. - or do you put them in inverted commas? Single or double inverted commas? Would you abbreviate addresses from Street to St. (or St), from Road to Rd. (or Rd)? Would you say "The company is working..." or "the company are working..."? When is correct to write "The team are working on..."? When would it be right to use colloquialisms?

Fortunately, over the centuries, a body of works has emerged, generally published by university presses and newspapers, setting out clear guidelines for writers submitting texts for publication.

In UK English, Oxford and Cambridge universities have long published style guides, and most newspapers have their own too. In US English, the Chicago Guide to Style and the Associated Press Style Guide are the best known.

Over the years, I've used the Economist's style guide (buying the book version back in the 1990s) and have generally abided by its rules on this blog. The Economist style guide is available online and the Johnson blog, linked from my bloglist , often expands on points from the style guide. [Is there a Polish online style guide available anywhere?]

Working for nearly all my life in the world of corporate communication, I notice how few companies have their own style guide for the written word (or even feel the need for a one). Most companies will have clear guidelines about the use of their corporate logos, typography, etc. Yet questions of writing style are often ignored, resulting in foggy communication cluttered with jargon, inconsistency and lengthy sentences.

For corporations operating on a global scale, using different languages for different markets, this problem is exacerbated. Style guides need 'localisation', so that conventions used in the original language (usually English) are neatly and consistently translated into the local language.

Looking at Polish, I can see this is a problem in both directions. Non-native translators of Polish into English will happily translate "Ponad 935 tys. pracowników..." as "Over 953 thousand employees..." rather than simply write "Over 935,000 employees". On my (tidy) desk I have English-language investment brochures published at great cost by local authorities from across Poland. Beautiful photography, graphic design, print (with spot UV varnish) - sadly let down by poor translation and by evident lack of the translators' reference to any English style guide.

From one I read: "Płock is also the seat of the oldest high school in Poland, established in 1180, known as „Małachowianka” and of the Płock Scientific Society, which collection includes valuable manuscripts..." Taxpayers' money spent on an impressive and well-printed brochure would have been far more effectively spent had a tiny fraction of the cost of this publication been spent on running the text past a native English speaker. He or she would have pointed out that in English, opening inverted commas are ranged with the top of the text and not the bottom (as in Polish) and that usage of the relative pronoun 'which' is wrong (should be 'whose'). Hyphen and dash misuse abounds and unusual words ('monodic', 'humanistic') bring the English reader up short.

Avoiding such errors is easy; native English speakers can be found in any larger Polish city, style guides are available free online. It is harder, however, translating corporate brochures into Polish. Now this requires rare skills, especially when no one has yet created an in-house style guide in Polish.

And finally, one bugbear. The word 'sustainable' has become very much in vogue in business English; 'sustainable growth' means that a business can grow long-term, taking into account its effect on society and the environment, its employees and other stakeholders. In short, a company that focuses on sustainable growth is more likely to be around in 50 years time than one focused on maximising short-term return for shareholders. The usual Polish translation for 'sustainable' is zrównoważony, which means 'balanced' rather than 'capable of lasting for a long time'. Given that 'to sustain' is podtrzymywać or utrzymywać, surely 'sustainable growth' would be more accurately translated into Polish as podtrzymywalny wzrost?

Answers please! (Plus any links to Polish style guides gratefully received.)

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Orders of magnitude

Well! Back online - what a relief. Still, it was good for the children to be without a computer for nearly five days; time spent in traditional pursuits - song, sewing, piano playing, film-making.

Back to blogging - normal service will resume shortly.

The computer's power supply unit (here Polish has a single word zasilacz; three syllables in place of six) had indeed packed up. And while getting it replaced, I ordered another hard disk drive for the computer - a splendid one terabyte of storage space. This is on top of the 300 gigabytes it already had. So now, there's 1.3TB available to store photos, films and music. I've backed up three and half years of photographs, in high-resolution, taking up just one-tenth of the capacity of the new drive - a mere (!) 100GB. The new hard drive cost 260 złotys, or £55 - which to me is mind-bogglingly cheap compared to how much storage used to cost.

Compare my past computers' hard drives:
1992 Apple PowerBook 140 laptop: 40 megabytes
1995 Apple Power Mac 5200: 2 gigabytes (2,000 megabytes)
2002 PC desktop computer: 40 gigabytes (40,000 megabytes)
2007 PC desktop computer: 300 gigabytes (300,000 megabytes)
2010 Upgrade to the above: 1.3 terabytes (1,300,000 megabytes)

That's 32,500 times more storage space for data - in Moni's lifetime (that first PowerBook was bought so I could work from home after Moni was born). Pricewise - computers cost roughly the same as they did. It's just that they do so much more, so much faster. Plus the internet.

Megabytes. Back in the '80s the word "mega" was a neologism - it meant thousands of times better, faster - mega. The world was at the start of its great* journey towards today's digital era of internet, mobile telephone and satellite broadcasting, the word "mega" signified the most up-to-date, fantastic, incredible anything.

From Urban Dictionary:
Adj. Very, really, extremely. Used for more emphasis. Something or someone is really good, amazing and/or wonderful, etc.
1. That's mega awesome, man!
2. That was just mega wrong.
3. Ah, that's mega, mate.

How archaic! A problem with neologisms - especially ones related to technology - they have a short sell-by date. How long before terabytes give way to petabytes? 3TB hard disk drives are now becoming available...

* Note the over-use of the English word 'great'. At a conference the other week, the English chairman sprinkled it liberally throughout his introduction. "If you turned off your mobiles, it would be great." "That presentation was great." "We have a great panel here today." Etc. The epithet should be used sparingly; King Arthur The Great, Great Depression, the Great War etc.

In this regard, the Polish word wielki has maintained its strength and using it trivially actually sounds comical. Król Kazimierz Wielki. Both 'great' and wielki are pretty much exact translations of the Latin 'Magnus', so rząd wielkości = 'order of magnitude', and thus we come full circle...

Monday, 13 December 2010

Life without a computer

Just a holding post from the office; on Friday night the computer's power supply unit failed (zasilacz - a neater one-word Polish term for the item). On Saturday morning I took the computer round to the shop in Ursynów to get it fixed - how quickly it will be ready depends on whether a) they can easily find a replacement for the part b) if there's not something else amiss, such as the motherboard or processor, or ventilation etc. Until the computer's back in the house - no more substantive (merytoryczny - another useful Polish term generally unavailable to the English speaking world) posting. Apologies for not replying to e-mails sent to me over the weekend.

The children took the news of a broken-down computer badly. "Without Facebook or Google, WE WILL DIE!" wailed Moni. Shades of "Dad, F-Troop's fuzzy" from A Serious Man.

TV I can well do without. But not having a computer with Internet access these days is akin to a lack of hot and cold running water.

Friday, 10 December 2010

What's the Polish for 'pattern'?

A linguistic gap that catches me out, grappling to find a good Polish word or words for one commonly used in English.

Consider the following sentence. 'The police are looking for a pattern in the criminal's behaviour'. Here the word 'pattern' means not 'repeating ornamentation' but rather 'a series of events or numbers happening in a predictable manner'. Patterns recur (powtarzają się).

'Pattern' as in 'that's a nice pattern on the wallpaper' is of course wzór. In military terminology, a 1937-pattern field cap is czapka polowa wz. 1937. Allied to this meaning are the words deseń, wykrój, szablon... but evidently none fit the sentence considered above.

In maths, the term wzorzec is close in meaning to 'pattern' as in 'mathematical model'. Całokształt is another suggestion, we're getting closer now, but still not there. Getionary offers us this example: 'Overall pattern of laws and principles' = Całokształt praw i zasad. (Now, how would you say in English całokształt pracy autora? 'The entire body/corpus of the author's works?' It's long-winded an fails to capture the sense of the Polish.)

Returning to the usage of 'pattern' that launched this question. Consider now the sentence 'Patterns of consumer spending are changing'. You'd be forced into something like typowe sposoby wydawanie pieniędzy przez konsumentów zmieniają się, rather clumsy and missing the point some.

Can anyone come up with a decent translation for the word 'pattern' that could be used in the sentences below?

  • Weather patterns in May are fairly stable.
  • There is a pattern to his lateness.
  • My sleep patterns have become somewhat disturbed.
  • Things started to fall into a regular pattern.
  • We're looking for a pattern in the sales figures.
  • A recurring pattern began to emerge.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Accident of birth

Twice a day, as I wash my teeth - I pray. First and foremost, for my health, for the health of my loved ones. It is an occasion to give thanks; for my health, for what life has given me. I have written about this before. I was lucky enough to have been born where I was born, and gifted with a good education and more lucky breaks in life than unlucky ones - and conscious of that fact - and for this I give thanks to God.

Born lucky but born human; mammalian biology that shares certain traits with more basic life forms, born with the simple goals of surviving and thriving. Born human means being born with the faculty of appreciating the higher levels of consciousness, of being able to rise above animal nature. The animal in a strange herd has its eyes wide open for potential threats, for potential mates - assessing weaknesses and strengths of other individuals in the pack. Our biology makes us born judgmental. And our baser nature appeals to this; the desire to drive expensive cars or wear flashy gold watches merely to impress one's status on the herd.

But being aware of our mammalian herd instincts does give us a tool for rising above our simple biology - consciousness.

In his book The Prophet, Lebanese mystical philosopher Khalil Gibran likened parenthood to an archer letting loose an arrow. How far - and in what direction - that arrow flies is determined by the archer's aim and his or her pull on the bowstring. But once the arrow is loosed - there is nothing more the parent can do to determine where it will land or how far it will fly. In short - upbringing is all. I always found that a useful metaphor as a parent.

But what of the child? As the arrow? Are we, our parents' children, the archers' arrows - doomed to fly along that one set trajectory determined simply by where we were pointed and how strongly our parents set us off? Isn't this too deterministic vision of human nature?

Life is a journey of continuous - continual - improvement. The Polish saying "Całe życie się człowiek uczy ale umiera głupi" ('One's learns throughout one's life but still dies stupid') is incredibly fatalistic, carrying with it the same notion as of an arrow in flight which cannot change its path. Is this so?

There are moments in life when one is brought short by the inadequacy of one's thinking or behaviour in response to difficult or new circumstances; these moments offer us the chance to reflect, to learn, to step up reach a higher meta-level, closer to Godliness, and further away from base animal nature.

Being thankful for what you've got is a first step - being able to cast aside biological judgmentalism in favour of a higher level appreciation of the potential of the human spirit that resides in us all - you, me, them - everybody.

Keeping that part of the basic animal nature under control requires will, and prayer; a kind word to the lady at the check-out, a friendly dzien dobry to the postman, a thank-you to the driver who holds the door open as you run up to his bus; a smile not a scowl at those people crowded in that late-running train. Behaviour that will result in greater social harmony.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010


Sweeping generalisations, value judgments and stereotyping are the stock-in-trade of the blogger. And exaggeration and simplification are rhetorical tools in use from before the dawn of journalism. (A sweeping generalisation in itself!)

However here, I have to force myself, with the goal of delivering meaningful insights into everyday life in Poland, to pass my observations through a filter of cultural sensitivity. Pointing a satirical finger at Polish phenomena may win a quick laugh from my British or North American readers, but these phenomena so often have at their core some painful historical truths.

Nor should I mock the English of people who've worked much harder to acquire the language skills than have than native speakers of English, who acquired their language skills effortlessly. And here I must also confess that my less-than-100%-perfect Polish was learnt with a lot less effort than that of those ex-pats with Polish wives who've strived extremely hard to acquire the local language.

It is said by English writers about Poland that Poles are notoriously prickly about criticism of their country by foreigners. The Economist's Edward Lucas (who knows Poland exceptionally well, and speaks Polish having studied in Poland) says he is regularly criticised by Poles for saying how good things are here ("you live in fancy Warsaw hotels and know nothing of the poverty and deprivation of small-town Poland") and for saying how bad things are here ("you know nothing of the tragic history we've endured"). Finding an objective balance is especially difficult to do for a foreign writer commenting on Poland.

Sometimes humour is a useful tool for highlighting salient features of Polish life - but beware - the joke may well fall flat and your reader mistaking gentle teasing for sarcasm and takes offence. Or the cultural references used are completely lost on our Polish readers ("Dad's Army? The Simpsons?") Or a word-play lost in translation. Tread carefully here!

Analysing the dangers of writing for a mixed Polish and non-Polish readership, I conclude that the roots of the problem lie in differences going back to our early years. Those who spent the formative part of their lives - and indeed for anyone between 40 and 90, the greater part of their lives - in the communist system, will see things differently to those who by accident of birth were born in the bountiful West.

Above all, communism was a system in which everyone was supposed to be equal - and to a great degree it was so. In 1989, inequality in Poland (defined as the difference in wealth between the poorest and richest quintile of society) was - officially - lower than any country on earth apart from Japan. And communism's message of material equality was bolstered by the Catholic church's strong message of spiritual equality. How different, then, to the notion of inequality as the norm imbibed in the dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost secular, capitalist world!

Worldviews acquired in childhood are hard to reconfigure. I guess that there's less of a difference between the way that today's young Poles see the world and their counterparts in the West do than between the way their parents and grandparents see it compared to how middle-aged and elderly Westerners do. In particular the desirability of social equality. But then time will blur differences between Poland and the West, time will reconcile, dialogue will heal.

Education and the social divide

Today's Gazeta Wyborcza leads with the news that Poland has done reasonably well in the latest PISA rankings of educational attainment of schoolchildren. Poland is catching up with western Europe, with strong progress in reading and natural science, yet is not so good in maths. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) looks at 14-15 years olds across all the OECD countries (and indeed the EU member states) and compares their level of educational progress. Download the full report here to see how Poland compares.

The good news is that Poland is making rapid progress; in the nine years that Poland has been covered in the PISA rankings, it has jumped from 'below OECD average' to 'above OECD average' - and is well above the UK.

I've mentioned many times before the social divide that splits Poland into poor rural and rapidly-enriching urban. The PISA summary confirms that education is the key to overcoming social and economic disadvantage. Giving talented children from impoverished rural communities the chance to attend a decent school that gives them the chance to realise their potential and to contribute fully to society.

Eddie's school has a scholarship fund aimed at such children. I am supporting this fund to help (in a tiny way) to reduce social imbalance in Poland, and I'd ask my readers at this time of year to consider also helping poorer children get a good education. So please chip in!

Nr rachunku: 87 1600 1127 0003 0122 0640 1001

My children have had a good primary and middle education - I'd like some less privileged children to have the same chance too.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

"What's the English for kombinować?"

Yesterday in the office Ewa and Mariola were reminiscing about the old communist days, when obtaining consumer goods was several orders of magnitude more difficult that in is today. Mariola was talking about getting a washing machine, and how one had to kombinować in order to get one.

Teasingly I asked "What's the English for kombinować? Quick as a flash, Ewa replied 'to combine', which left the entire office helpless with laughter for several minutes. But such is the nature of etymology, that indeed, there must be some truth in Ewa's rejoinder. Kombinowanie, the gerund from the infinitive kombinować, is about seeking combinations, putting together several elements in a none-too-straightforward puzzle.

Getionary has kombinować as 'to be involved in shady business'. Kombinowanie may well (hurrah!) have been pushed back to the fringes of acceptability in today's Poland. But back in communist times, the practice was mainstream. Kombinuj or starve.

Yes indeed. Though my English upbringing spared me the privations of communism's consumer hell, I have a vicarious cognisance of everyday life in those days. Example: my cousins in Wrocław lived in a block of flats. One day, a consignment of lawnmowers appeared in a nearby shop. Immediately, a queue formed to snap them up. Most of the people in the queue did not have a lawn. But they knew the power of physical goods in a deficient consumer market. My cousin's husband swapped his newly-acquired lawnmower for a large number of windscreen wiper blades for the ubiquitous Maluch (Fiat 126P), obtained via unofficial channels. These were readily exchangeable currency - for meat, tights, toilet paper.

A joke of the 1980s stated that the worst sentence a court could mete out to an offender was '20 years without contacts'. To survive you had to kombinować. To kombinować you needed contacts. Someone working in this factory or that warehouse, someone working on contract in Libya, someone with an uncle in Chicago. You had to know who could be trusted (for as we now know know from the IPN, many Poles were sneaking on their neighbours to the security apparatus), who you could offload the latest Mud, Smokie, Deep Purple and Abba LPs on in exchange for Levis jeans or Marks & Spencers knitwear from Bazar Rózyckiego.

A final question remains. Is kombinowanie a product of 45 years of communism - or did Poles kombinować between the wars? If they did, was kombinowanie the result of 120 years of foreign rule and oppression? Does the verb kombinować appear in Polish literature prior to the 1790s in the current context?

UPDATE: Worth dipping into Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776. For here we come face to face with 'to combine' as used in the Polish sense. In the passage below, consider the verb 'combine' as kombinować, and the noun 'combinations' as kombinowanie:
"We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform, combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate [...] Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy till the moment of execution; and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people". In contrast, when workers combine, "the masters call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen."

Sunday, 5 December 2010

It's about atmosphere, klimat

Early sunsets limit walking time. A clear blue sky means temperatures will plummet away after dark. Below: the sun is sinking fast though it's not yet three pm. Ul. Trombity.

Sunset today was at 15:25, which rather cuts back walking time on a weekend afternoon after lunch. Photo below taken ten minutes after sunset, and indeed here is the klimat, that ambient mood of stillness and cold on the face.

Below: Looking towards Zamienie. It's -8C; not too cold, though you feel it when you take your gloves off!

Time to turn back and head for home. As I return, those *PAFF* moments multiply - I've been here before, yet not in this lifetime. I try to savour them as they happen, like holding my breath, keeping that feeling like the waking aftertaste of a dream. Days like this I never experienced in childhood, and yet they feel like they were experienced in childhood - yet as an adult. These experiences are regular, commonplace and familiar - and yet entirely inexplicable. One that befell me later the same evening. Driving in the snow, traffic, cold, I look left then right before turning into a main road. *PAFF!* Now, where could I ever had such a recollection from? I can't recall ever having driven in snow in the UK, yet the memory was from more than 15-30 years ago...

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Winter wildlife, Jeziorki

The swans and storks have long since flown south for the winter. In early October I was out and about with long lens looking for wildlife; a local farmer told me that 'ptactwa już nie ma' ('the birds have all flown'). But then pheasants are perennial around here.

This chap (above) was foraging in the field next to our house; I caught him with long lens from my bedroom window this morning. A reminder to feed the birds at this time of year. Below: A flock of crows that had been hanging around the apple trees in the adjacent field take off and fly to the poplars across the road.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Today, not so good.

The 07:27 from W-wa Jeziorki into town didn't arrive. Neither did the 07:52. The 08:12 came on time, and when it did, it was carrying the equivalent of three train-loads of rush-hour commuters. Below: Passengers cluster around the level-crossing keeper's hut in the hope of learning when their train would come.

Below: Room for another 20 inside? Fortunately, passengers showed plentiful reserves of social harmony, helping one another in, and putting up stoically with the crowded conditions. I met fellow blogger and near neighbour (Student SGH of Politics, Economy, Society blog fame); at the station. we both regretted not taking Puławska into town today.

Only as the train approach W-wa Centralna did I realise the scale of the chaos on Polish railways today. There were four trains backed up from Centralna (headed by one bound for Berlin with a broken-down locomotive) going nowhere. And on arriving at W-wa Śródmieście, I boarded this train (left) to take me the one stop to W-wa Powiśle. It soon became apparent it was going nowhere, already having been standing here for 90 minutes. The indicator board said Opóżniony na czas nieograniczony (delayed for an unlimited time).

And so I walked from Śródmieście to my first meeting of the day, arriving over an hour late. My journey from home had taken two hours and ten minutes; one of the people I was meant to be seeing had a two-and-half hour journey in, including a 7km walk.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Jeziorki, dawn, winter

I wake well before dawn, do some writing and observe the cloudless night sky. I can tell that it will be a most perfect dawn. Below: view from the kitchen window into the garden.

I have to get to Platan Park for my first meeting, five and half km from home, by 8am. It's just over an hour's walk in these conditions, so I decide instead rather than walking all the way to stroll up to Puławska, take a bus towards ul. Poleczki, and then walk to my destination.

Setting off up the path that links ul Trombity to ul. Sarabandy (below) shortly before sunrise (7:21 this morning), the temperature was -15C. And *PAFF* there's that old feeling of anomalous familiarity again!

Below: Snow lying heavy on the branches suggesting stillness of the air overnight; plenty of untrodden snow on the ground. The sun is just rising over the Las Kabacki forest.

Left: ul. Sarabandy, drainage ditch to the left. During the June floods the water blocked the road. The ditch is still fuller than usual. A snowdrift has blocked access to the continuation of the footpath between Sarabandy and Klarnecistów ('Clarinettists' Street'); I have to scramble over it, up to my knees in snow. The path (below) itself is slippery, treacherous. An icy dip awaits the incautious!

Below: ul. Drumli ('Jew's Harp Street'), approaching Puławska. Southern Warsaw's infamous artery is bad this morning, as ever. The bus takes 25 minutes to get from here to ul. Poleczki, just over 4km away.

Below: From Puławska I walk across to Poloneza via ul. Wodzireja (lit. 'Dance-leader's Street'; 'Master of Ceremonies Street'). The last bit is without asphalt. Churned up totally by trucks and four-wheel drives, it would have been impassable to pedestrians had the puddles not frozen over solidly. I arrive at Platan Park one hour after leaving home. I could have walked the whole way and had a more aesthetically-pleasing experience, plus more exercise, had I eschewed Puławska and the frustratingly-slow bus ride.