Thursday, 31 March 2011

Cycling to work - the season starts

The clocks went forward on Sunday; yesterday I decided to set off for work on my bicycle. This morning too. My route takes across me ul. Puławska, which at half past seven is totally blocked and stationary, as are the roads running into it.

To escape the madness, I cut down ul. Jagielska (below), bunged up solid for as far as the eye can see and then some more. Within seconds I shall enter the Las Kabacki forest to revel in solitude, birdsong and an escape from fossil-fuel burning short-distance one-per-car commuters.

Unfortunately, what I thought would be a pleasant ride turned out to be quite the opposite. The forest is podtopiony. (English lacks this word, having only 'flooded', but 'flood' = powódź). My cycling boots are soaked through, once again I'm forced to go to work in wet socks.

But once out of the forest, it's cycle path all the way to work. The weather is still tricky. I'm wearing four layers; my upper body is too warm, my toes are frozen and my hands (in skiing gloves) are too cold. On the way home, three layers are fine, but my hands are overheating.

This is how a civilised city should commute. Proper cycle paths, signage and people using the facilities.

Below: evening commute along Al. Ujazdowskie. Note the contrast between the freedom of the cycle path and the stationary cars. More cycle paths for Warsaw! Paid for by a swingeing London-style congestion charge!

This morning I appeared in a recorded interview on Polish Radio 3 (Trójka), talking about UK-Polish trade. On the same programme with me was a financial analyst talking about the Portuguese and Greek sovereign debt crises, and a junior Pani Minister from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs talking about a new website concerning Poland's upcoming presidency of the EU Council. She was accompanied by an assistant who carried her briefcase.

After the recording, I left the studio by bicycle, the financial analyst by taxi... Pani Minister and her assistant sped away in a chauffeur-driven black Mercedes-Benz. (Three people to do a 15 minute radio programme.) And one wonders why Poland's public sector deficit is growing dangerously large... There seems a dangerous disconnect between the public administration and the real economy. Our chief executive officer has given up his car and taxis and now travels to meetings by public transport. For Martin, it's a matter of pride that he knows where the 171 bus goes and that the Metro is the fastest way from Kabaty into town.

Why do civil servants not get the belt-tightening and low-carbon transport message?

This time two years ago:

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

What happened at the Graffiti Wall

Returning home on Thursday evening, I saw the entire length of the Graffiti Wall along ul. Puławska by the Służewiec racetrack had been cordonned off with crowd control barriers. Security personnel stood at either end and along the whole kilometer length of the wall. "Funny," I thought... "I can't recall any rock act of global renown playing at Wyścigi..."

Mentioning this to Moni, who's au fait with what's occurring, I learned that sportswear firm Adidas had paid the racetrack's owner, the state totalisator, to paint over the entire wall, covering graffiti and street art alike with one huge advert.

What happened next is an case study in how to get vast amounts of bad PR - and an object lesson in how to mitigate the disasterous effects of getting it so badly wrong. As soon as word got out what Adidas was intending to do, a Facebook page was set up, on which thousands of practitioners and fans of street art mounted a massive protest. By Saturday, Adidas had thrown in the towel. The damage to the company's reputation among its target group (young, urban, trendy) had been done. About half the wall's length had been painted over in black, ready for advertising that never came. Instead came the recriminations.

Above: Could the ad agency not have predicted this reaction (replete with spelling mistake and mispunctuation)? Further on down the wall, anarchists used the event to critique capitalism. Now, even if Adidas had gone ahead with the huge ad, it would have been defaced to the point of illegibility within one night. Entirely counterproductive, a complete lack of understanding of the street art subculture.

Above: Do you remember how? I trust the previous murals had all been photographed by their creators and are in some digital archive somewhere, accessible at a mouse's click... The upside of the Adidas fiasco is that at a stroke, it created half a kilometer of fresh surface to be covered. And immediately, some striking new images arise, such as the one below.

Below: Meanwhile far away in another part of town, some football hooligans' graffiti - well, no, street art. Graffiti would be a foul oath followed by the name of some football club that it's unfashionable to follow in some small village.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:

Sunday, 27 March 2011

The iconic taste of Marmite

What to put on my toast and matzos when it's Lent and I'm off meat and dairy products? The answer is of course Marmite, something that's so quintessentially English. Unfortunately, it doesn't travel (culturally) and has failed to find mass-market demand for it here.

No longer can you find Marmite on the World Foods section in Tesco. I bought this 125g jar at Kuchnie Świata last week for a whopping 16 zlotys (£3.50); in the UK it retails for around £1.25. Kuchnie Świata is not cheap, but a mark-up of this size on this product suggests ultra-low sales in Poland. As the advert for Marmite used to go, "you either love it or you hate it". I've yet to meet a Pole who likes Marmite. And yet, as a (biological) Pole, I love Marmite. Maybe because I grew up with it, enjoying it as a child, spread on toast. Or drinking it as a hot beverage, a spoonful dissolved in boiling water. That childhood pleasure of the salty, tangy taste remains.

Interesting to read the Polish labelling for the product. Apparently, it's good with porridge!

Marmite is made from the sludge left over from brewing beer, I remember from a brewery visit to Burton-on-Trent. If you've never tried Marmite - give it a go. You'll not be indifferent to it!

This time last year:

This time two years ago:

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Winter's slight return II

The surprise hit me not when I opened my curtains this morning but rather yesterday morning when I checked the 48-hour weather forecast on (the UM model). It suggested that snow would fall overnight. Which indeed it did. Last night, when I was picking Moni up from the Metro station around 11pm, the car thermometer read +7C. Then just after midnight, in the space of just 20 minutes, the temperature plunged by four degrees. And soon after it started snowing.

So gets it right again. I can recommend this service as being very accurate, although the 84-hour COAMPS model forecast also found on is not so good.

The overnight snow is rapidly disappearing from the lawn as I write these words and I'd be reasonably sure that this is the last snow of this winter. So time to take the camera and set off for a walk around the snow-covered fields for what could be the last time for eight or nine months.

Above: the pond on the corner of ul. Katarynki and ul. Pozytywki (barrel-organ and music box streets respectively). According to Google Maps, this small piece of water is called 'Jezioro Wąsal'.

Above: snow covers mud on the fields between ul. Żmijewska and ul. Karczunkowska. No ice on the water in the drainage ditch.

Above: looking towards ul. Karczunkowska, in the distance the blue roofs of our neighbours' houses across the way on ul. Trombity.

This time two years ago:
Winter in spring: last of the snow?
This time three years ago:

Friday, 25 March 2011

Crossing another of Warsaw's bridges on foot

Warsaw currently has seven bridges spanning the Vistula, an eighth in completion and a ninth that's currently a mere project but will one day take the Berlin-Moscow highway across the river. The current seven are (from the south): Siekierkowski, Łazienkowski, Poniatowskiego, Świętokrzyski, Śląsko-Dąbrowski, Gdański and Grota-Roweckiego.

This is the Most Świętokrzyski, which replaced Most Syreny, a temporary pontoon bridge, in 2000, links Powiśle to Praga Północ. Unlike Warsaw's other bridges, it does not connect major trunk routes through the city.

The last working day before the clocks go forward, the setting sun colours the horizon beneath the clouds hanging low over the city, the Palace of Culture to the right.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Warsaw as European City of Culture 2016

Warsaw is competing for the title of European Capital of Culture 2016. What's all this about, then? Well, from the European Commission's website: "Each year, cities chosen as European Capitals of Culture – in 2011 Tallinn, and Turku – provide living proof of the richness and diversity of European cultures. Started in 1985, the initiative has become one of the most prestigious and high-profile cultural events in Europe. More than 40 cities have been designated European Capitals of Culture so far, from Stockholm to Genoa, Athens to Glasgow, and Cracow to Porto."

Well, as long as the benefits outweigh the cost to the taxpayer (which, judging by the experience of Glasgow and Liverpool they can do), I've nothing against this idea. Something that can boost Warsaw's creative industries, local pride, attachment to culture and raise our city's profile in the world (well, Europe anyway), is all to the good.

To promote itself, Warsaw launched this campaign last week, with posters have appeared on bus shelters around the capital over. A clever and appealing idea.

Similar maps show Ursynów as Italy, and Żoliborz as Spain. I must say, as a map enthusiast, the concept gets my vote.

Eleven Polish cities are competing for the title and 12 Spanish ones (a victor will be chosen from each country; there will be two European Capitals of Culture in 2016). The full list of the cities is listed here.

This time last year:
Stalinist downtown, dusk

This time two years ago:
The End of an Age of Excess

This time three years ago:
Snowy Easter in England

Monday, 21 March 2011

First day of spring

At long last spring. Not that this winter's been bad, you understand. Pierwszy dzień wiosny - dzień wagarowicza - 'the first day of spring - truant's day', traditionally with a nod and a wink to unofficially sanctioned bunking-off school, or indeed work. So no substantive blog post today, dear readers! And a linguistic point here - the difference between pozwolenie (consent) and przyzwolenie (assent). Przyzwolenie has the sense of 'turning a blind eye to something'.

Although today started sunny and cold (+0.7C at sunrise, ice on puddles), it warmed up to an acceptable (for the first day of spring) +8.1C before cooling off in the evening. And I'm waking up naturally at 5:20 am - high time for the clocks to go forward.

Now that the winter of 2010-11 is over, it's worth taking a look back over it in detail; this outstanding post by Student SGH at Politics, Economy, Society gives a day-by-day account of just how cold it was (or wasn't) and when the snows came (and melted). One for the records.

Now fingers crossed for Nature's swift return to life, with warm, dry days to lower the water table (which around Jeziorki remains dangerously high). Links to past First Days of Spring below:

This time last year:
A stirring sight

This time two years ago:
Springtime in West London

This time three years ago:
Snowstorm on the first day of spring

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Setting the sliders 8: Giving way - standing firm

This, dear readers, is where things get more complex. Finding a balance between having your own way or giving in to the wishes of others is at the very essence of being able to live in society.

As a species, we are moving (slowly) away from simple animal heirarchies of top dogs and pecking orders. Natural deference, 'knowing one's place', knowing who to doff one's cap to, has yielded to a society based on equality and entitlement. Which has its good points and bad when it comes to social trust, but in general, human beings are living freer that ever before.

So where to find the balance? Midway, or another case of neither and both (or both at the same time)?

Let's start by looking at this dichotomy on the level of the male-female relationship, which in traditional terms could be described thus: On the one hand, a woman would like her man to be strong-willed and determined. On the other, she'd like him to do her bidding. "Stanowczy, ale poszłuszny" (firm but obedient), every woman's ideal man. Determined in the face of the outside world, malleable only to her. My mother's dictum on the two most important words in a marriage, 'yes dear!', is only partially right. The three words are 'yes, my dearest.'

So here we see the need for two separate sliders; one for facing up to the world - set further over towards "standing firm", and another one with a greater bias towards "giving way".

On what basis does this slider move?

Standing firm on the basis of logic: "My proposal makes more sense than yours. I suggest we do this". "I don't care - I still want to do it my way." But what if both parties believe in the sense of their case?

Standing firm on the basis of good vs. evil: Not yielding to bloodthirsty dictators. But what if the bloodthirsty dictator considers himself to be good, and you to be evil?

Giving way on the basis of long-term vs. short term: "If I do this for you now, you will do this for me later."

Giving way on little matters in order to stand firm on the big issues. Losing the battle to win the war.

Agreeing a compromise - give and take on both sides.

Unlike some of my early postings on a life in balance, knowing when to give way or stand firm has to be done on a case-by-case basis. So we face this particular dilemma on a daily basis, at work, at home, in the street. Knowing when to give way, but being able to stand firm. Being unable to do so leads to frustration and unhappiness, so we tend to withdraw from situations where we're likely to be faced with a humiliating stand-down.

The natural 'ladder of authority', as I call it, where the biologically and socially determined pecking order comes into play, needs to be understood. Around this, understanding the games people play (dealing with a trademan, shop assistant, service provider in such a way as not to get bamboozled into giving way) is crucial. There are many people out there whose livelihoods depend on them standing firmer than you, the customer (estate agents, used car salesmen, financial advisers etc). Those who give way too much to their customer don't make enough money for their company and don't last too long.

A far more complex issue, then, when striving to keep your life in balance.

This time last year:
Summerhouses near Okęcie

This time two years ago:
A truly British icon

Saturday, 19 March 2011

A380 visits Warsaw

All right, if you live by Heathrow, the sight of an Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger jet, coming into land is hardly remarkable. But here in Warsaw - it's Big News. The forum has been buzzing for weeks. A few days ago, it was finally confirmed - a Lufthansa A380 will be flying into Warsaw on a promotional trip, before flying onto Istanbul and then Malta.

This morning I woke up in good time to check (this site gets better and better), to watch the A380's departure from Frankfurt. The weather, sadly, could hardly be worse - the cloud ceiling was so low that even looking across from my bedroom window towards the airport (a mere 3,500 metres away), I could not see any planes landing, though I could hear them in the cloud. The only option was to brave the cold (overnight snow) and mud and trudge across to Okęcie, as ul. Karnawał is closed due to the building of the Węzeł Lotnisko expressway junction. I roused Eddie, we donned our wellington boots, grabbed cameras and drove to W-wa Dawidy, where I left the car to continue on foot.

We were amazed by the crowds that had turned up. Parked up by Dawidy station were cars from Radom, Bydgoszcz, Mrągowo, Gliwice as well as from all parts of Warsaw. By the time we reached the airport, the crowd must have been over a thousand strong (all this to see a plane that visits Heathrow several times a day). Below: the mound of soil from the expressway construction; the ideal place to take pictures from.

And here it is... emerging from the low cloud so close to us that the 400mm end of my zoom was too long. Very little time to snap it before it crossed over above us. In retrospect, we should have been standing further to the left to catch the plane more from the side; it is its profile that is it's most impressive visual feature - that unique full-length double deck fuselage.

Below: Over the fence, a group of spotters standing on the roof of a radio shack at the end of the runway. (Photo by Eddie). We saw TV film crews, families with small children, women with inappropriate footwear for the deep mud; vast crowds. As the plane flew over our heads, we marvelled at just how quiet it was. The photos, sadly, do not give a good impression of just how massive this aircraft is even compared to a Boeing 747.

Eddie remarked that the whole event was like the Tour de France - hours of waiting, then it's all over in less than a minute. And once the plane had landed, the crowds went home. Below: photo taken from the level crossing at ul. Karnawał of spotters walking down the main Warsaw-Radom railway line. Just as no one took a blind bit of notice at the no entry signs surrounding the motorway construction plant, so the railway was turned briefly into a public footpath.

And so we too turned home, another great dad'n'lad outing, and back in time for breakfast. The A380 stayed on the tarmac at Okęcie for an hour and half or so before taking off for Istanbul before 10 o'clock.

This time last year:
Winter coming to an end
This time two years ago:
A thousand miles of climatic contrast

This time three years ago:
Waiting for winter to end

Friday, 18 March 2011

Visitor to Dworzec Centralny

On my way to W-wa Śródmieście from the west, I decided to pass through W-wa Centralna (Dworzec Centralny or Warsaw Central Station) to see how the refurbishment is going. The two middle platforms are now ready, half of platform 1 is still cut off and being worked on.

The refurbishment is a fairly half-hearted affair; more of a spruce-up really to remove decades of grime and stench from the place and to modestly bring it up to internationally acceptable standards (note the raised steel dots at the platform edge to warn blind people). The train indicator on platform 2 is still the old clacking one rather than an LCD screen as visible on platform 3 to the right. (At least it's there, unlike at W-wa Zachodnia which doesn't even have this 1960s technology to inform passengers as to where their train is going to.)

I was surprised to see this - a Czech Railways engine hauling the Łódź to Warsaw express. Apparently, it's been loaned to PKP (note Polish girl's name Kasia painted on the front, suggesting it's a long-term loan). Seeing Czech, Russian, Ukrainian or Belarusian carriages passing through Warsaw is common, but to see locomotives from Poland's neighbours pulling PKP trains is most unusual. Private operators (especially of freight) will more readily use foreign engines.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

A week into Lent

No problem whatsoever (apart from that goats cheese in our spinach pancakes the other day). Having started preparing for Lent in the New Year, and what with that run-up being long due to the lateness of Easter this year, I was in good form to start fasting.

I weaned myself off caffeine by switching from a monstrous blast of Lavazza Qualita d'Oro to an ever-diminishing amount of instant coffee in the morning, tapering down to almost zero. But still a very slight background headache persisted until today. So only fruit teas, mineral waters and fruit juice to drink. No alcohol - no problem.

Snacking is a bit tricky - the temptation to make an impulse purchase of confectionary or salt snacks while buying a paper is strong, but dried fruit and (unsalted) nuts are the answer here.

Having started physical exercises in the New Year, I'm doing really well compared to this stage in Lents gone by. Today I managed 30 press-ups - I think maybe a lifetime record; sit-ups I'm holding steady. The important bit is that since Lent started, I'm doing two lots, morning (5:45 am) and evening, just before going to bed.

Lenten Recipe No. 9*:
Smoked salmon, mushroom and cous-cous breakfast

Ingredients (per person): 80g smoked salmon, 200g champignon mushrooms, quarter of a cupful of cous-cous, half a chilli pepper (hot), fresh leaf corriander, ginger, sunflower oil, balsamic vinegar.

Method: Slice mushrooms, pour boiling water over cous-cous. Pour some sunflower oil onto pan and heat. When hot, place slices of salmon onto the pan, then mushroom slices. Stir in. Add two dashes of balsamic vinegar. When cous-cous has absorbed the water and is fluffy, add to the salmon and mushrooms. Cut chilli pepper into the pan, then corriander; grate some ginger. Stir for a few minutes on high heat; serve. Tasty, healthy and nutricious. Takes 8-10 minutes to prepare, ideal for breakfast.

* For previous eight Lenten recipies, follow 'Lent' label below the post or on list on right.

This time last year:
City centre; afternoon, dusk, night.

This time two years ago:
A highly untypical post!

The time three years ago:
Wetlands waiting for spring

Targowa and its atmosphere

From the first time I clapped eyes on ul. Targowa (named, as attentive readers will remember, after the Russian General Targov), I found it decidedly exotic; putting me more in mind of Buenos Aires than of left-bank Warsaw. The broad, tree-lined avenue with tramway running down the middle sports an eclectic mix of architecture, from Tsarist tenements to 1930s modernism and 1960s blocks.

Below: a second-hand jewellry store; note the neon - one of the classics of its genre (I intend to write more about Warsaw's neons in the near future).

Below: architecture reminescent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (note the riot of advertising)

Below: if you want to get your broken video recorder repaired around here - tough. Targowa's last video repairman has gone out of business.

Below: Park Skaryszewski, the link between Stara Praga to the north and sophisticated Saska (Kępa) to the south. The statue in the distance is to Soviet heros who died 'liberating' Warsaw.

No doubt more about the pearl of Warsaw's right-bank parkland anon, but compared to Park Łazienkowski, Park Skaryszewski feels more, well, democratic. It's not gated, not shut at night; there's no ban on cycling or roller-blading (indeed in winter, there's a cross-country skiing track in the snow).

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Seasons in flux

Sunday - beautiful. Monday - perfection. Now - dismality returns (+3C when at the same time yesterday evening it was +15C). To what extent are our moods - even for those of us who can claim to be emotionally stable - determined by the changing seasons? Well, I must say I had my mood gloriously lifted by the sunlight and warmth that's bringing nature back to life. Just as dwindling daylight lowers my spirits.

And so a thank-you to Ewa from Kraków (who runs Leopolis, supplier of fineft English cheeses) for sending me this link to a Guardian article about the emotional calendar. Oliver Burkeman writes about a new book on this subject by Harvard psychiatrist John Sharp. He argues that changing seasons lead to changes in one's emotional state:
These seasonal emotional shifts – the fillip from the first identifiably warm spring breeze, say, or the sinking feeling induced by shortening late-summer evenings – are such a fixture in our lives that they can become near-invisible. We're slow to attribute our feelings to them, and even psychologists haven't studied them much...
It's an idea I can instantly relate to. Despite modern life doing its best to iron out differences between midwinter and high summer, the constantly changing seasons have a profound effect on the way I feel within myself (that wonderfully useful Polish word samopoczucie) For example, trying to fast in the run-up to midwinter rather than doing in early spring would be terrifyingly difficult, especially giving up drink, a useful tonic when days are short and cold.

And as I noted last November and in January, the incidence of suicides increases when daylight is in short supply.

To cope with this effect, it's important simply to be aware of it and not to dismiss it as pseudoscientific hokum. Go with the flow, live with the seasons' ebb and flow.

This time last year:
Stunning late-winter beauty

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki Gumbo

This time three years ago:
Digging up Dawidowska

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Cycling and recycling

Time for the year's first Dad'n'Lad cycle. Not far - I'm still suffering from saddle-soreness from yesterday's short ride. This happens every winter as the rump muscles soften from disuse. A few breaking-in journeys are required to restore toughness to the saddle area.

Eddie delighted me by volunteering to go (usually he needs to be coaxed or dragged); the +16C warmth and the feeling that spring is just around the corner prompted him to ask whether he could accompany me.

We had intended to go and see how the motorway building was going on at Węzeł Lotnisko, but impassably muddy tracks and ul. Karnawał's complete closure dashed our plans. So we pressed on northwards to the DHL logistics centre on ul. Osmańska (which I'd never been to before). Seeing the size of the place and the number of trucks and trailers standing there made me realise the importance of air freight as part of the global logistics mix.

And back home for lunch, having cycled a grand total of 14km (not even as far as home to office). In two weeks time the clocks go forward and I'll get back into my (almost) daily cycling routine. I just hope for dry weather so that all the non-asphalted roads around Jeziorki, in particular ul. Poloneza and ul. Oberka, will dry out.

Mobilised by the knowledge that the recycling place in Ursynów is paying 30 grosze a kilo for old newspapers and cardboard, after lunch (cod, potatoes, asparagus, spinach, brocolli, salad, fruit salad), I started sorting the waste. More than I thought. I reckoned yesterday 10kg of old paper and cardboard - but it looks like there at least ten times that! There was 40kg of old newspapers and magazines alone, and there's another 13 bags of unsorted cardboard. Another bag of aluminium cans is also worth a fair bit. So - what a discovery! Rather than paying someone to take my rubbish away, I actually end up getting paid for it - as long as I sort it. Now, all that's needed is someone to pay for the glass and the plastic, and I'm in business!

This time last year:
Winter still holding out in the forest

This time two years ago:
Little car, huge price

This time three years ago:
Old school Łódź

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Jeziorki and neighbourhood, late winter 2011

First a reflection about recycling. I've noticed the direct link between world commodity prices and the availability of recycling facilties for household waste. Last autumn, they were disappearing. Now, they're back. And in some cases, you can get paid for your waste. Since my last trip to dispose of our household waste, much has accumulated. Today, Moni and I parted company with 382 glass bottles and jars. Ursynów's housing estates are now full of containers for plastics, paper and glass. And on ul. Cynamonowa, there's a place that pays 30 grosze per kilo of paper and board, and 3.30 zł for a kilo of aluminium cans! Next week, then, the paper and cardboard will go for sale - I guess there's at least 20kg of the stuff piled up in the garage.

After lunch - time to get the bike ready for spring. The Cannondale Caffeine F2, that is. I marvel at what fine shape it's in, not having been ridden since late October. There's still 30lbs per square inch of air in both tyres! (I must say, the best tyre/tube combination on this bike is the best I've ever had. Four seasons of hard riding, no punctures and superb air containment.) A squirt of WD-40 on the moving bits, and off I go for the shakedown cruise.

What I see riding around Jeziorki is that more flooding is just around the corner. The temperature reached +12C this afternoon, so the frozen ponds and marshes are thawing rapidly. As they do so, the local watertable will rise. Any heavy rainfall, and the inhabitants of Lower Trombitia will find their cellars and garages flooded again.

Just a few hundred metres from our house - a stockpile of sandbags. These were the defining visual of last June's floods, with rows and rows of them lining vulnerable parts of ul. Trombity and ul. Kórnicka. And now they're back. Below: Looking up ul. Dumki. The pond on the right is endangering the houses on the left. Will a sandbag barrier prove to be an adequate bulwark? Long term, proper drainage of the entire neighbourhood is needed.

Across the tracks and headed towards Zgorzała along ul. Kórnicka, as it turns into ul. Sikorki. The "road" is utterly impassable; I have to haul my bike through ankle-deep mud. These fields are far too wet for growing crops on this season, I fear.

On to asphalted roads, and through Zamienie to see what's new since last autumn. Below: The housing estate is now completed, and most of the units are now inhabited (see this post from two years ago). The road was built without any pavement, as though the planners expect everyone to drive to work from here rather than walk to the bus stop.

Streets to the east of ul. Puławska are named after birds. Streets to the west have musical names. In Zamienie, the streets of the new estate are named after... cake flavouring.

Ul. Arakowa (Arrack street) leads to Waniliowa (Vanilla street), where the above houses are. Vanilla street is very apt; these houses are the Warsaw suburbs equivalent of the character-free terraces that ring London. (Arrack, as I learned recently, is a Far Eastern alcoholic drink, which like rum, is used as a cake flavouring.)

I can't say I'd like to live on Vanilla Street. Life here has neither the urban sophistication of a city centre apartment, nor the privacy and quiet of a suburban detached house.

Cycling back to Jeziorki, I noticed I was not the only person on his bike; this chap (below) was out and about for the fun of it too, exploring the new streets of Zamienie.

Below: what's this on ul. Nawłocka? A replica of Anne Hathaway's Cottage for Jeziorki? Several houses have arisen in Jeziorki since we moved in nine years ago, but this is the first 'kanadyjczyk' or wooden-framed, Canadian-style construction.

I personally question the soundness of such a construction method. From experience, I know that the bricks-and-mortar element of a house is proportionally its cheapest part. Foundations, doors, windows, flooring, central heating, plumbing, roofing, a kitchen and bathroom - these are all expensive, and saving a bit on having chipboard cladding over timber frame is hardly noticeable in the overall scheme of things (especially if you're repaying the investment over many years). I may be mistaken, but I value the solidity of a brick-built dwelling (and I think that buyers of second-hand houses do so too).

This time two years ago:
The commuter's camera

This time three years ago:
In praise of Łódź

Friday, 11 March 2011

Setting the sliders VII: Patience and impatience

"Patience is a virtue, patience is a grace..." the old saying went. Impatience - I see it every day. The impatience of the Alpha males that drive our economies, impatient for short-term profits, willing to take risks, to shatter other people's lives, because they want to hit those goals in this quarter rather than next year. Greed and impatience go hand in glove. The impatience of drivers similarly taking risks with their own lives and those of others because they're in a hurry to get to their destination.

The impatience of the young is balance by the patience that comes with maturity, ironic that; one has more time when one has less time left. Older people can more accurately attribute the correct time horizons to things that need to be done. Younger people have a biological inability to think long-term. "We want the world and we want it... NOW!" bellowed Jim Morrison in The Doors' When The Music's Over. How right that sentiment felt when I first heard those words many decades ago. How foolish they sound now.

Yet patience can often be a mask for inaction. Procrastination. Putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. Is patience a euphemism for fatalism? "Mañana, mañana" never gets you anywhere. But is there something to be said for letting nature take its own course?

Patience - waiting for something rather than striving for immediate gratification - has its rewards when its considered; when awareness is applied to a situation, when options are thought through. Simply waiting in inactivity is not enough.

So where to put that slider - well, I for one would put it just slightly more towards 'patience' than 'impatience'; I wonder whether this is one that would be slid progressively towards the left as one gets older?

"We have all the time in the world," sang Louis Armstrong; two years later he was dead. Yet Hal David's lyrics, John Barry's music would not have sounded convincing sung by a younger vocalist.

This time last year:
Commuters' staging post

This time three years ago:
Return of the migrating geese

Old Town, another prospect

I wrote recently about the less-frequented streets and passages of Warsaw's Old Town and New Town, situated over the Vistula Escarpment. Here are some more views. Below: this is ul. Celna (literally, 'customs street'), which runs from ul. Brzozowa to the Old Town market square. Picture taken from the stone steps leading down toward the river.

Hand held at three-quarters of a second exposure (steadying my elbow on a wall), the photo shows how well Nikon's Vibration Reduction (VR) system works. Without it, the image would look unacceptably blurred.

Left: this is ul. Krzywe Koło (lit. Crooked Wheel Street)which runs off the north side of the Rynek (Old Town Market). Less of a wheel than a broken dog's leg, the atmosphere on Krzywe Koło at dusk, with no people or cars, is timeless. Where are we... 2011, 1951, 1881? Electric lighting replaced gas, but otherwise, the cobblestones, the cobbled pavements, doors, windows and walls could be from any period in the past two centuries.

Right: looking down ul. Dawna (lit. Long Time Ago Street) towards the Sanctuary of Our Lady and ul. Kanonia. This pic and the one above left were both shot without VR (18-55mm Nikkor set at 18mm) at a quarter of a second. With a steady hand, you can just about get away with it. Three quarters of a second is way too long to hold blur-free unless you have VR. The current generation of 18-55mm Nikkors have VR, optically an excellent lens, and lightweight (although it feels a bit flimsy it's actually very robust).

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Setting the sliders VI: Greed and fear

The most primitive of dichotomies, one that affects the most primitive of life forms. Curl up safe in your little hole and die of hunger. Venture forth in search of food or a mate and you expose yourself to danger. A balance must be struck between these basic instincts. Fight or flight, survive or thrive, risk-taking or risk avoidance, these are predicated by which of these two instincts dominates in your personality.

Too much risk-taking fuelled by greed is harmful not just for yourself but for society (read Student SGH's excellent polemic on the effect of greed on economic systems). The point here is that it's not so much greed (both corporate and individual) that led to the global financial crisis of 2008/09, but lack of fear. When greed is not held in check by fear, disaster looms.

But fear of failure, fear of commitment to effort, fear of trying - fear is also harmful to the individual and to society. Little gets accomplished. Paralysis by analysis holds back get-up-and-go.

In one's own personal life, the key thing is to be aware of your own motivations; are you held back by timidity to the extent that you cannot realise your potential? Or does your greed propel you in the wrong direction, distracting you from realising your potential? It is important to stand above and look at the greed-fear balance within yourself from the meta level. Understand your biology and rise above it. Be conscious of it, apply awareness in everyday situations when you are faced with a greed/fear driven predicament.

This time two years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its muddy worst

This time three years ago:
Poland's labour market woes

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Well, this is it.

Ash Wednesday. My 20th Lent in a row starts now. It's a late start this year, with Easter Sunday being almost as late as it possibly can be. As in previous years, a list of what I'm cutting out of my life for the next 46 days:
  • Caffeine (coffee and tea)
  • Alcohol
  • Meat and poultry
  • Dairy products (cheese, butter, yogurt)
  • Fast food (pizzas, French fries)
  • Salt snacks (crisps, salted peanuts etc)
  • Confectionery (chocolate, sweets)
  • Cakes, biscuits
  • Salt (no sprinkling salt on my food)
So what am I eating and drinking between now and Easter Sunday?
  • Fish
  • Fruit in abundance
  • Vegetables in abundance
  • Bread
  • Crispbread
  • Cholesterol-reducing margarine
  • Soya protein, tofu
  • Mineral water
  • Fruit juice
  • Herbal and fruit infusions
And the purpose of this self-denial?
  • To cleanse the system
  • To strengthen the will
  • To reflect on matters spiritual
For the record, this morning I weighed in at 71kg (156lb or 11st 2lbs); round the middle where I am fattest, the tape measure shows 94.5cm (37 and a quarter inches). It's here I want a reduction. I've started daily exercises in the New Year; this morning I did 85 sit-ups and 25 press-ups. From now until Easter, I'll be doing sit-ups and press-ups twice a day.

This time last year:
Half way through Lent

This time three years ago:
Spring much closer (than it is this year)

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Setting the sliders V: Niedosyt and Przesyt

Inspired by a discussion we had some weeks ago, the dichotomy between living a life balance between 'insufficiency', 'deficiency' or 'shortage' on the one hand, and 'surfeit' or 'repletion' on the other, I concluded that the Polish words niedosyt and przesyt are not readily translatable into English. (Between them, there should be the word dosyt, but there isn't. Sufficiency as wystarczalność - not the same idea.)

Is it better to have too much of a good thing? Other than health - no. Look at the declining fortunes (in relative terms) of rich countries. Young people feeling they don't need to strive too hard (see work-play balance) because the incentives to do so are no longer there. People feeling niedosyt will work harder than those wallowing in przesyt.
I'd set the well-balanced life's slider just a touch nearer the niedosyt end of the continuum. Nudge it over a bit to the right, and complacency and a sense of entitlement sets in. "This is what I always got, this is what I'll always get. So why try any harder?"

Looking at my parents' generation - the Poles who ended up in Britain after the war without money or language - and the success they achieved through hard work and sacrifice - and their grandchildren - who've had it all passed to them on a plate - it's easy to see that niedosyt is more likely to liberate the fullest potential from a person than przesyt.

But then why do billionaires push themselves so hard to earn another few million (which they're unable to spend)? This, dear reader, is another slider.

Lent starts tomorrow. Time to empty the fridge and the drinks cabinet of all that will be proscribed for the next 46 days...

This time last year:
Congruent consciousness

This time three years ago:
Warsaw Metro's link to the outside world

Antonov landing

Walking to Platan Park, I saw an increasingly rare shape in the sky - an Antonov An-12 transport plane coming into land at Okęcie. This one (RA-11363) belongs to a Russian airfreight company, Kosmos (Kocmoc in Cyrillic).

Tuesday morning was dull but the day brightened up. Above: the An-12 on final approach seen over the rooftops of houses on ul. Krasnowolska. Below: it disappears behind the trees on ul. Hołubcowa. The plane was very noisy and very smoky. Just how smoky these aircraft are, which have been flying since the late 1950s, is apparent on this photo.

Here's a photo of another An-12 coming into land at Okęcie, this time a Ukrainian one.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Silver birches and blue skies

After a rather overcast Saturday and a Sunday in which hail showers competed with sunshine, a return to blue skies. Walking to Platan Park this morning, I snapped this stand of young silver birches near the north end of ul. Poloneza.

And later, heading for W-wa Powiśle station, the leafless crowns of some mature silver birches in the Rydz-Śmigły park along ul. Kruczkowskiego. In both cases, the contrast between the whiteness of the tree trunks set against the blueness of the sky (enhanced by a polarising filter) grabs the eye.

Weather continuing to look good for tomorrow and Wednesday. I'm glad that the late winter is dry - the water table needs to get back to normal levels if we're to avoid a repeat of last spring's flooding.

This time two years ago:
Wetlands, late winter (2009)

This time three years ago:
Wetlands, late winter (2008)

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Cripple and the Storyteller - Part II

Bill sat with the sergeant in the Hand in Glove, wishing he could escape this conversation that was not doing anything to lift his spirits. Raising his head he looked across the room, where he could hear a commotion. There stood was another red-coated veteran of the wars holding forth, surrounded by a goodly crowd of listeners. The man waved his arms around in an excitable manner, clutching a cocked hat in his left hand. His voice rose and fell, and those listening to him would cheer, then gasp then noisily draw breath and cheer again. The sergeant, who had become more and more morose as the tale progressed, quietly got up and left the pub, staggering out into a whirling snowstorm. Bill sat where he was, supping what little remained of his ale.

“So there I was”, said the red-coated storyteller, “in the rearguard of the British retreat to La Corunna, with Sir John Moore, may God bless his soul; that icy winter's day we stood with our backs to the sea – in front of us forty thousand Frenchmen, chasing us across the snow-covered mountains. A fat French officer – a huge, fat, elephantine man led their pursuit. I picked up my musket which I had loaded with my last ball. He was more than a hundred yards away, approaching a pair of huge boulders which marked the summit of the Pass of San Cristobal. I had to steady myself, for the range was long. 'Sir John!' I cried. 'Hold steady Sir! Let me use your shoulder to rest my musket on!' Sir John stood firm, facing the approaching enemy. My musket steadied, I fired. The ball hit the French officer in the heart. The big man stopped in his tracks – wavered for a while – and then fell forward into the tight gap between the boulders. So fat was this enormous Frenchman that his body wedged itself solid. Try as they may, the Frenchmen following behind him could not pull his vast corpse from out of the narrow passage. 'Run, Sir John! Run boys!' I called, as the last of our gallant men and their commander made their way to the safety of the lowlands. I stayed on to laugh at Boney's men struggling to remove their fallen officer from the defile. As I waved in mocking salute at them, a French rifleman took a single shot and took off the end of my little finger – my only wound from the entire Peninsular campaign!”

As he said this, the storyteller held up his left hand, which was indeed missing the tip of said digit. Bill thought about what man was saying – it all seemed vastly improbable. His first instinct was to sneer at this boastful oaf. And some of the listeners sounded dubious as to the veracity of the man's tale. But then again... there was something compelling in his brash manner, in his comic way of telling the tale, that had captured everyone's attention. Suddenly, spontaneously, Bill stood up on one crutch and shouted “And every word is true! Bravo, Sir!” The crowd turned round to see another red-coated war hero on a wooden leg waving an empty tankard. “See! Another hero in our midst! Buy that man an ale!” roared a florid-faced man standing by the fireplace. A full tankard was soon passed to Bill, he drank with gratitude.

The story-teller passed his hat around a cheering audience; he must have collected sixpence ha'penny that evening! The storyteller approached Bill. “Soldier – let me tell you this: people will always pay to hear a good story,” he said. “I can see that you know that. Come with me down the road to the Black Lion in Cold Ash. I think you could be of assistance. You can ride my nag. There will be a large crowd there tonight. I need someone who can lend me some verisimilitude, some credence to my tales! I shall make you my comrade-in-arms, my brother hero. I'll tell you what to say and when to say it.” Bill nodded in agreement; after all, he had nothing to lose that night. “Verisimilitude” repeated the storyteller.

This time last year:
The station with no name

This time two years ago:
Lent, recession and motoring

This time three years ago:
Flowers and sunshine (already!)

The Cripple and the Storyteller - a short story

Since his right leg had been blown away at Waterloo a year and half earlier, Bill Hayward moved about on crutches. He hobbled down the muddy Berkshire track that led to Curridge. His wooden leg was hurting him; the surgeon that amputated the shattered bone beneath his knee and the carpenter that fitted him up with a peg leg had got the angles wrong; every time he put his weight down on it, wood twisted against bone. The pain, which earlier that winter's day had been just a dull ache, was getting sharper with each halting step he took. Many a mile he had already covered, and yet he had to press on. It was a cold, damp evening and getting colder; not a time to sit down and rest.

He had but three farthings in his pocket; he shivered in his dirty and torn red uniform jacket, wishing he had a topcoat. Large, wet, flakes of snow were beginning to fall, though not settle. Bill hobbled onward grimacing, through a dense forest beyond which he should find himself overlooking his destination – the small village, and in it the Hand in Glove public house; and the prospect of warmth, food and drink, and shelter for the night.

At Waterloo, Bill's regiment held firm but a cannon ball from the French had smashed his shin. He sailed home to England delirious with fever; as the ship was tossed by Channel storms he underwent his rum-soaked amputation. Bill survived and recovered, and eventually returned home to Oxfordshire on a wooden leg. His welcome was not kind; his sweetheart did not want to wed a cripple; his landlord evicted him as he could not work the fields; he had no job and no prospects; no family. He had nothing else to do but to beg for alms in the tatters of his army uniform, like so many other crippled former soldiers of the King. And so, he would hobble painfully from village to village, in search of a crust of bread, a tankard of ale and the chance of some companionship. But Bill was not one to lose hope; he was a strong man despite his small stature. He had taught himself not to think beyond the day, lest despair set in.

The snow was beginning to settle as the sun set; the night was cold; as he came out of the forest and stood overlooking a shallow valley in which nestled a small village, its lights beckoning him on. Excruciating pain accompanied every step was the wood ground the bone, but he knew he was near his mark; he could finally rest, buy some ale and bread, warm himself by the fire, maybe someone would buy him a rum; he could rest his leg, ease his pain, forget about tomorrow.

It was a Saturday evening, and as he pushed the pub door open with his shoulder, the familiar smells and sounds of the revelry instantly lifted his spirits. He found a corner table. Before he could go up to the bar, a big man in knee-breeches and a woollen grey jacket joined him; a sergeant back from France. “Sir! Did you fight alongside me at Waterloo?” “Yes Sir! with the 1st Battalion 52nd Oxfordshire Foot, Sir!” “So did I! Did you lose your leg there?” “Yes Sir – the cannonade. I didn't get to advance on the Frogs, but I held firm against their cavalry earlier in the day.” “Let me buy you an ale, soldier!” And so the two men raised their tankards.

As the ale brought back some cheer to him, Bill told his tale, of how he returned home a cripple and had lost everything, unable to make a living following the plough, no longer a man who could be viable as a provider to a wife. He spoke in a matter-of-fact way, as though these things were meant to be. The sergeant soon lost his bluster. His chin sunk into his chest as he recounted how he too had returned from France an embittered man, unable to find gainful employ outside of the army, and now it no longer needed his services, on a small army pension, he'd spend his nights drinking away his sorrows.

The sergeant talked too much, thought Bill. He despised people who felt sorry for themselves, especially when they were not missing limbs. The sergeant spoke of a wife and a son, although the more he talked and raged and sobbed, the more Bill wondered whether the man was of sound mind. Still, the sergeant was buying him another ale, so Bill continued to listen.

Part II of the Cripple and the Storyteller here.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Setting the sliders IV: Free will and Destiny

"I shape the course of events. The decisions I take determine the path that my life will follow. Belief in fate is fatalism - the ideology of losers."

"Our lives are predetermined. Everything that happens to us has been pre-ordained; there's nothing we can do to influence the final outcome."

So which statement is nearer to what you have experienced in your life? If you accept determinism, is there any point of striving for anything? If you believe in your powers to shape the way your life turns out, is there any room for the influence of random (if indeed they are random!) events?

The debate between free will and destiny has been present in mankind's discourse since the dawning of philosophy if not before. It would be worth reading both Wikipedia articles linked above as well as many of the philosophical concepts related to the two.

I've written about being at the right place at the right time. Consider the human migration in this context. People in countries suffering war, famine or poverty have to take a view - accept suffering as being as inevitable as the weather - or to do something to improve one's lot by moving to a country that offers freedom from fear and want. So you're strong willed enough to get yourself out - you hand over your lifetime's savings to some middlemen to smuggle you to the EU or the USA - and then some freak storm capsizes your dinghy as you near the promised land... were you better off staying put?

We are always teetering on the edge of chaos. Is it better to make plans in the anticipation that no unforeseen circumstance (the outbreak of war, accident or illness) will render them invalid?

And to what extent can we will ourselves good luck? To what extent are our prayers answered? How aligned are we to the forces shaping the way the Universe unfolds?

Returning to the slider model. Accepting these two contradictory world views, it seems to me that both extremes are clearly wrong - fatalism leads to inaction (to what extent is the Arab world a victim of its own inshallah* mentality?) while stubborn belief in the strength of one's will engenders arrogance that harms others.

Is the balance to be found precisely in the middle? Or should one be less accepting of destiny and despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, shouldn't we in any case strive to do what we want to do, to move forward according to our own plans?

* Inshallah - God willing, which as one wag put it, is like the Spanish word mañana though without the same pressing sense of urgency.

This time last year:
Dogs begin to bark, hounds begin to howl

This time three years ago:
A light dusting of snow

Friday, 4 March 2011

In praise of blue sky

The sky has been perfectly cloudless for the best part of three weeks now. As the sun's elevation in the late-winter heavens becomes higher, so daytime temperatures have returned above zero. And the warming effect is both melting and evaporating the snow cover - the optimum way that avoids the flooding associated with a rainy meltdown.

At night, temperatures are still fall below zero, though we're no longer getting the -18C that we experienced last week. Spring feels closer, day by day. The sky is marvellous, the sunshine so life-enhancing. Time, then, to catch some of it with a polarising filter against some white architecture.

Left: penthouse apartments on ul. Górnośląska, Solec (southern Powiśle). The look is very moderne, very '30s.

Right: Street art on the side of a brick tenement building on ul. Górnośląska, painted last year as part of Chopin's birth bicentennial.

What struck me was the shadow of the piano leg (an upended Palace of Culture); as I took the photo, the shadow appeared natural, giving the painting a strangely realistic yet unrealistic air. The city of Warsaw now seems to be celebrating the composer's 201st birthday.

Left: statue of Polish politician Wincenty Witos (of the agrarian tendency) on Plac Trzech Krzyży, outside the Sheraton Hotel. The area around the statue is a favourite haunt for Warsaw's skateboarding community, while students sit in front of the plinth to read poetry.

Long may such weather continue! Long live sunshine! Let spring blossom forth - and soon!

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:
Four weeks of fasting