Saturday, 30 April 2011


Thursday and Friday passed in a blur of frantic activity connected with two major events, a meeting with Poland's president and the Warsaw celebrations of the Royal Wedding.

Above: President Bronisław Komorowski responding to comments made by representatives of 13 foreign chambers of commerce in Poland. Speaking for the British-Polish chamber, I made three points - trade between the UK and Poland is growing wonderfully, quadrupling in value since Poland joined the EU, but that inward investment from the UK to Poland is held being back by perceived bureaucratic barriers - Poland should be an easier place to do business. And, echoing calls from several other chambers, I told the president that Poland's public procurement process should be more transparent and open.

President Komorowski said that further deregulation was necessary. Earlier this month, he'd signed a law replacing the need for a zaświadczenie with a simple oświadczenie. Confused? Until now, you needed a piece of paper from a relevant authority, stamped and signed, to prove that white is not black. Now, you can simply write your own statement to that effect. This is seen as a huge step forward in cutting unnecessary red tape. Welcome though this be, much more is still needed - something that President Komorowski said he fully accepted.

Above: on the terrace behind the Belweder palace. President Komorowski has chosen to reside here rather than in the presidential palace on Krakowskie Przedmieście, where his predecessor lived.

A good move, given the extreme emotions of the 'Defenders of the Cross' who still hang out there. To a vocal minority of Poles, President Komorowski will always be Satan incarnate, the Butcher of Smolensk, a tool of Muscovy and a servant of Israel. Such extreme views are not heaped upon the British head of state, which brings me on to Friday's big event - the celebration of the Royal Wedding at the Intercontinental Hotel, but that will be another post...

In the meanwhile, my personal reflections about the benefits of a monarch and Royal Family.

UPDATE: The Royal Wedding has come and gone; despite the greatness of the day, I cannot muster any retrospective enthusiasm to blog it.

This time two years ago:
Time to get cycling to work

This time four years ago:
Why I'm staying put in Poland

This time four years ago:

Thursday, 28 April 2011

New laptop - but which one?

My 2002 vintage laptop is on its last legs. At least twice a week it just dies on me at work and requires a 15 minute break to resuscitate. It's slow and confused. Multimedia is a challenge. A new laptop is now a top capital expenditure priority for me - the only question is - which one?

And here I turn to my dear readers for suggestions as to what's reliable, portable and multimedia friendly. As in life, a balance needs to be reached between lightness of weight and a screen that's sufficiently large to handle big photos, with good graphics processing power. Mobile blogging will be encouraged by fast built-in wi-fi internet and a long battery life.

I'm currently writing on a Dell, which has proved more reliable that I could have ever expected (I bought it second hand in late-2004 when it was already two years old), but that reliability is now failing. New Dell? Manufacturing has been contracted out to Foxconn, but then hasn't every laptop? IBM Thinkpads have become Lenovo, Moni's Toshiba has a good guarantee but she encountered problems with her screen and wi-fi within the first month of using it. Hewlett-Packard any good? Acer? Asus? Sony Vaio - people I know with them curse its very name.

I'd be grateful for any user experiences (good or otherwise) and recommendations for something light, robust and compatible (Apple?). Windows 7 - a huge advance over Windows XP? Is OpenOffice really a decent replacement for Microsoft Office (I can't stand Office 2007)?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

In praise of Warsaw's trams

The other day, Eddie spotted an article in Gazeta Stołeczna that as of the end of this month the No. 20 tram will be back running all the way to Boernerowo. Like, where's Boernerowo? I asked. Swathes of western, north western and north eastern Warsaw remain terra incognita to me; the centre of Kraków I know far better. The photo in the newspaper showed a single tramline, with passing places, running through woods on the very edge of town. Looks interesting! (I hope to report from Boernerowo soon).

Anyway; this prompted us to look at a map of Warsaw's trams (here in full). And looking at it, I fancied the following conceit - Warsaw has 22 metro lines. Compared to London's 14*. OK, not all of Warsaw's metro lines go underground (well, only one, actually). And the rest stop at traffic lights. And only have two carriage-trains. But even so, when one compares urban transport on rail in the two capitals, Warsaw's trams go a long way to bridge the gap with London.

To make my point, I've stripped down the Warsaw tram map (below) to just trams and the one metro line. No airport buses, no commuter railways, no Zone 2 (untouched by trams anyway). Click to enlarge to view full size.

Below: Tram Aesthetic I. Rondo de Gaulle'a, late summer 2009. Azure sky and fake palm lend the pic a Mediterranean air. The tram on the left is a low-floor PESA.

The other type of modern, low-floor tram to be seen in Warsaw is the Swing (below).

Below: the Swing trams are articulated, so passengers can move freely inside from the front to the back. LCD screens give real-time information as to where the tram is, and how many minutes to each subsequent stop along the line.

Much as I admire the modern tram design for its practicality and ease of access, I retain a soft spot for the early 1960s Żmija ('adder'), the Konstal 13N, which I remember were very new when I visited Warsaw as an eight-year old boy in 1966. They may not be easy to get in and out of, they may not keep you informed of your journey time, but they have klimat.

Below: unlike modern trams, the Żmija is composed of two entirely separate wagons, each with a front and a back (they can't be driven in reverse). The second of the two wagons also has a driver's cabin; in some these are left open, and when the tram is crowded you can see students perched here, often with girlfriend on lap.

Below: on my way home tonight I went via Słuzewiec - the stop at the end of the line, from which I took the train to Jeziorki. Something different - never been this way home before.

Below: Służewiec pętla (loop) - the end of the line. From here you can catch the No. 18 all the way across town to Żerań FSO, the (newly closed) car factory in north-east Warsaw.

* London's 11 Underground lines plus the Docklands Light Railway, the East London Line, the Waterloo and City Line and the Croydon Tramlink, to count like-for-like.

This time last year:
Plans for the railway line to Radom

This time two years ago:
Bicycle shakedown day

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki in bloom

Corruption: reasons to be cheerful

Last week's Economist ran a full-page story in the front of its Europe section about corruption in central and eastern Europe (From Bolshevism to backhanders). I read the story three times, the third time very carefully, to make extra sure I'd not missed anything.

Latvia: "...political attempts to nobble the [anti-corruption agency]." Czech Republic: "corruption scandal rocking the government". Bulgaria: "brazen attempt to rig a nuclear-power tender." Romania and Slovakia: "attempts to reform the judiciary have stalled". Lithuania: "scant critical scrutiny of the activities of its agriculture ministry." Russia: "companies willing to pay bribes; the curse of easy money from oil and gas." Ex-communist Europe: "[A] rising tide of sleaze."

Yet one country from the region conspicuously missing from this rather depressing article is Poland. Every year since 2005, the nadir of Polish corruption, the country has done better and better in Transparency International's global Corruption Perception Index ranking (below).

While Poland may not be as squeaky-clean as Scandinavian countries, it's moving in the right direction.

UPDATE NOVEMBER 2012: Transparency International's latest Corruption Perception Index shows the trend continuing, with Poland's score improving yet again (to 5.5).

Monday, 25 April 2011

Miracle on the Vistula

Not the martial one, but the natural one, the one that happens every year; the victory of Warmth over Cold, of Light over Dark, of Fecundity over Barrenness. Drawn once again to the banks of the Vistula at this joyous time of holiday, I can revel in how life has returned in abundance so swiftly, as it does each year at the end of a lengthy winter, something not so immediately in England. One appreciates these things only after their long absence.

Leaves on trees just seem to appear; they explode into being. One week the trees are bare, the next one can discern the buds bursting forth; and then the week after that the greenery is fully in place. A miracle indeed, and one for which we should be thankful for, each and every year.

Worth bearing in mind that the above photos were taken in Warsaw, not several kilometres downstream of the capital. This spot is in Zawady, in the district of Wilanów. Across the river on the other side, the district of Wawer.

Left: St. Anne's church in Wilanów (built in 1772); inside Mass is in full swing; outside Wilanów's cafes and restaurants are packed, crowds jostle along the pavements and cobbled street.

So many people out today, revelling in the glorious spring weather and the day off work; so many cyclists, strollers, roller-bladers, enjoying the warmth of the sun, wearing t-shirts rather than multiple layers of padded coats and woollen sweaters.

This time last year:
Collapsing old footbridge, Pyry

This time two years ago:
Four-engined aircraft at 30,000 ft

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter, Lent's end 2011

Last night Moni was singing at the Dominican Abbey for the Resurrection Mass, which started at nine o'clock and went on until the early hours. The culmination of the Triduum, three nights in church, starting on Good Thursday. Yesterday, the church was packed solid. I had to leave the car half a kilometre away, such was the traffic. I was hoping to get a photo of Moni in the choir, but I could not even get in through the doors, such was the size and density of the congregation. (Earlier photos capturing the atmosphere of worship inside the Dominican Abbey here, here and here.)

Disappointed by my inability to see Moni sing, I returned home to celebrate the end of Lent with Eddie. First thing I did at the stroke of midnight was to tuck into some Cheshire cheese (from Leopolis), then Eddie and I shared a sack of tortilla chips with hot salsa dip and a tub of Grycan lemon sorbet (Grycan undoubtedly make Poland's best ice cream).

At quarter to three I was awoken by Moni, who had left her house keys at home. Yes, the Resurrection Mass had just ended ( a five-hour marathon). And then at six am I was woken yet again by the sound of church bells and explosions; it took me a while to work out what was happening (at first I thought someone was lifting, then dropping heavy furniture downstairs). Opening both of my bedroom windows, I could hear the continuous pealing of bells from St Peter and Paul's church in Pyry, and explosions to the north and east of our house. To explain why, here's my translation of a paragraph from the Polish Wikipedia page about Polish Easter Sunday traditions: "[the Resurrection mass at daybreak is] heralded by ceremonious bell-ringing. At the same time, one can hear a cannonade from guns, petards, cannons and mortars, and this entire clamour has to wake the world to life."

And now I'm up, time for some exercises. 150 sit-ups in one go and 36 press-ups in one go. A personal best, suggesting that I've never been in such fine condition! Weight - I've shed half a kilo /one pound, but then weight loss was not my goal; more importantly I've reduced the circumference around my stomach at the fattest point from 94.5cm to 92.7cm (18mm) or 36 and half inches down from 37 and a quarter inches. Looking back to the end of Lent last year, when I reduced my waistline to 38 inches (98cm), I can see great progress, the more so when I look back further to early 2009 when my stomach measured a massive 40 and a quarter inches (102cm). Now that, reducing girth by over 10%/9cm/nearly four inches, ladies and gentlemen, is quite an achievement for a middle-aged man. I need encouragement to keep it up, as there's still some fat to turn into muscle.

After the exercises, the weighing and the measuring, time for my first real coffee in months. Not too strong, not too much (I clearly overdid it on Easter Sunday last year). Wow. Even in moderation, coffee does have quite an effect on the body. No anxiety attack this time, but a sense of things being speeded up; fingers moving swiftly over the keyboard as I write, tapping my foot in a hurried rhythm. Moderate intake of coffee has been proven to have a good effect on the brain, warding off or even reversing Alzheimer's disease (see articles here and here).

And now back to the kitchen to make myself some home-made hamburgers (prime minced beef, shallots and seasoning, served in a bun). No alcohol yet - have not felt the need. But I do know that moderate evening intake of red wine is good for the heart and for my creativity.

Wishing all my readers love, peace and happiness this Easter.

This time last year:
Eyjafjallajökull sunset

This time two years ago:
The beautiful historic town of Toruń

This time three years ago:
One swallow does not a summer make

Saturday, 23 April 2011

End of the azure week

As predicted by, the clouds gathered, filling the sky, octant by octant. The week of perfect weather has, for the time being anyway, come to an end. And so, pick of photos from that week, when the sky was perfectly azure...

Above: ul. Moczydłowska (lit. 'Bog Street'), the road leading from the Las Kabacki forest to Ursynów. On my way to work.

Above: the Kliwer (pron. 'cleaver') building in Mokotów, by Wilanowska metro station. Looking splendid in the evening light.

Above: photograph of a photographer taking a photograph in Park im. Marszałka Edwarda Śmigłego-Rydza, Solec. Taken from the saddle on the move (as was the top photo). I may not be able to send text while cycling no-handed, but well composed and sharp photos I can snap.

Below: the tramway is being refurbished along ul. Nowowiejska between Pl. Politechniki and Pl. Zbawiciela. There's much refurbishment going on ahead of next June's Euro 2012 football championships. Note the architecture; from smart Tsarist-era (left), 1960s modernism (right), both blending into Stalinist socialist realism further down the street.

Below: work continues apace on the Stadion Narodowy (national stadium). In the foreground, the main east-west railway line; the station W-wa Stadion is being rebuilt to cope with the crowds. The Euro 2012 championships finish immediately ahead of the opening of the London Olympics. Another shot taken from the saddle.

In Pole Mokotowskie park. Left: an ornamental pond which has recently been filled with water for the spring and summer period. Friday evening - just after offices close for the long Easter weekend. The park is full of people, walking, cycling, rollerblading, sunbathing. I head for the quieter parts.

Below: a lovely part of Pole Mokotowskie - an artificial hillock overlooking the park's main pond. The cobbled path lined on either side by young spruce trees.

Below: the same place, same time of day (early evening), less than one month ago. Summer is on its way real fast. Temperatures have exceeded 20C for three days in a row. Tomorrow (Easter Sunday) will be cooler, cloudier and wetter.

This time last year, two years ago, three years ago, four years ago:


It seems this is the first time I've ever posted on 23 April!

Friday, 22 April 2011

I cross two unfinished bridges

Regular readers will have read about the manifold construction projects going on in Warsaw right now. The biggest in Warsaw's Deep South is the so-called 'Elka' - the 'L' shaped expressway (S79 down from Sasanki to the S2 Berlin to Moscow route). Crossing the Elka will be two new bridges; both now span the unfinished expressway, neither are fully open.

Above: the bridge connecting ul. Cybernetyki with ul. 17 Stycznia. The westbound lane is now open to traffic; I'm crossing it eastbound on my bicycle on the closed-off hard shoulder. The bridge will be finally completed when a land dispute with the factory in the background is settled.

Above: and finally - I cross the S2 on the new viaduct carrying ul. Poloneza over it. One day soon I don't know when you can point your car down that asphalt and drive all the way to the Belarusian border non-stop along an expressway or motorway.

Above: ul. Poloneza - the ramp coming down from the bridge. It's still not complete - it needs to be raised another half a metre or so to match up to the road surface atop the bridge.

Setting the sliders 9: Improvement vs. perfection

This one's been going around my head for over a month now, ever since I caught Professor Andrzej Blikle's presentation at the BPCC/TAG British-Polish Food Forum. Professor Blikle is the fourth generation of Blikles to run the legendary chain of Warsaw patisserie-cafés - a family-owned company for 141 years, now run by his son.

Among the wisdom that the Professor imparted was the contrast between the Greco-Roman world and Confucian east Asia in terms of striving for excellence.

The Greeks, from Aristotle onwards, and then - to an even greater degree - the Romans strived for perfection of mind and body. The Olympic Games embodies this ideal. Yet perfection, while it can be striven for, is by definition, very rarely attained - if at all. And failing to do so often brings disappointment, even self-loathing.

From the Chinese and Japanese comes the notion of continual, gradual improvement - a step-by-step journey which rather than aiming for perfection merely aims to improve upon what has been.

Professor Blikle's frame of reference to his successful cake business is kaizen - continuous [bottom-up] improvement. Small changes on the production line, usually suggested by the production line workers themselves, have helped companies from Toyota to Blikle trim waste, improve productivity, cut costs, iron out defects, and ensure workers have more rewarding lives. This 'lean' approach to manufacturing works much better than the traditional top-down command-and-control method.

Similarly, in our own lives, such a philosophy is useful. Rather than setting distant goals and judging oneself against a yardstick of absolute perfection, looking for progress via small, but measurable, noticeable steps, is more effective in delivering a happy and balanced life.

This time last year:
What's the Polish for 'grumpy'?

This time two years ago:
Do not take this road!
(I wonder what it's like now...)

This time three years ago:
Peacock, Łazienki Park, spring

This time four years ago:
Spirit of place: Jeziorki or Kentucky?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

High time to leave the car at home

There's no time like now to leave the car at home and use the bicycle. If you live in distant exurbia, your dependence on the automobile leaves you vulnerable to obesity in middle age. Now's the time to leave that car and shed some fat. If you can't cycle all the way into work, cycle to the station or nearest bus loop. Buy a fold-up bike for optimised multi-mode commuting. The weather this week in Warsaw has been perfect - clear azure skies, top temperature +16C. Not so hot you need to worry about sweating.

As I reported a few weeks ago, my usual route through the Las Kabacki forest (below) is still waterlogged. I cannot remember the forest ever being so sodden at the end of winter. The water table is dangerously high, and any prolonged heavy rain this spring will bring with it severe risk of localised flooding (podtopienie).

Just look at them. Sitting one-per-car, shuffling slowly home from work in a tin box that no longer offers liberation. Even with a litre of petrol costing 5.20 zlotys and weather as glorious as this, drivers cannot bring themselves to abandon their cars.

Photographic note: Moni borrowed my Nikon D40 on which these pics were shot; I forgot to check the colour balance which she'd set for tungsten lighting. So the colour temperature on these shots was entirely weird - so I tweaked the pics for a surreal other-worldly effect. You may like them, you may not.

This time last year:
Fold-up bike optimised for multi-mode commuting

This time four years ago:
Far away across the fields

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Warsaw's big billboards

I was standing on the corner of Al. Jerozolimskie and ul. Marszałkowska, when I noticed small objects raining down on me from on high - short lengths of string, cable ties, bits of plastic. I looked up to see a crew of mountaineers (alpiniści in Polish) taking down a huge advert from the side of a ten-story building.

Although the area was not roped off to pedestrians, the work was carried out extremely quickly and efficiently. Within three or four minutes the operation was all over.

The use of residential buildings as gigantic advertising hoardings is controversial. There are two arguments against - one is aesthetic - Warsaw is becoming one vast advert; fine architecture (not in this particular case) is being hidden from view. The other argument concerns people who live behind the ads. You will see in the top photo lights pointing at the billboard to illuminate it at night. These shine directly into people's flats when they're trying to sleep. They do receive some remuneration (via their building's administrators). The ads are supposed to be translucent, but every now and then, someone living behind a billboard takes a Stanley knife to it to let in some daylight.

The practice of using buildings as giant billboards started in the late 1990s, when there was a lot of refurbishment of facades going on in central Warsaw; the scaffolding etc was covered up by huge ads which helped pay for the building work and protected it from the elements. The next step was to to use buildings not undergoing renovation (I seem to recall the Universal building on the opposite corner of this crossroads being one of the first) for billboards that could be up to 50 metres high.

Above: seconds after it's off the wall, the billboard is furled up and dragged away. It looks like the guys are taking it down to the Metro station. Now there's an improbable conceit - imagine them stuffing it into a rush-hour Metro carriage!

I have nothing against huge billboards - when they are on the side of uninhabited buildings (such as this unfinished development on the corner of Sobieskiego and Sikorskiego that I wrote about in September 2009) or when they are helping to pay for ongoing refurbishment work. Warsaw looks like the opening credits sequence of that excellent US TV show, Mad Men (Moni and I have just one more episode of the fourth series to watch then nothing until March 2012). We're going to miss it - TV drama at its very best.

But blocking people's access to sunlight, blasting their windows with lights when they're sleeping - that's not on.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Tales of the Riverbank

A first, springtime visit this year to the Vistula's banks as the river winds its way out of the city centre (to which it has its back rather rudely turned); once south of the Most Siekierkowski bridge, the top of the flood defence wall offers an interesting cycle route that runs down to Góra Kalwaria and beyond, via Konstancin's fringes.

Above: tree pruning in evidence. At the height of last year's floods, the riven had risen above the level of the land protected by the wall. Today, the river, though swift, was at a usual level. The last week has seen the Great Miracle of Spring happen - almost all trees are showing new leaf, grass has changed from greyish-brown to green. Below: results of last summer's floods are visible along the riverbank.

Take a look back to last summer to see how the river looked in full flood, and later in the summer when the water level had subsided.

Above and below: Jolly boating weather. Along with hundreds of cyclists, motorcycle scramblers and a few aviators overhead, some speedboat enthusiasts appeared to make the most of the warm (+16C) afternoon. The outboard engines were noisy, annoyingly audible long after the boat had sped off into the distance, drowning out the ambient sounds of birdsong.

This time last year:
Okęcie before the funerals

This time two years ago:
At General Bałuk's house

This time four years ago:
Apple blossom time

The Mask in the Snow - Part II

Thiess briefly came to; around him another snowstorm howled; he was lying on a sledge being pulled through the snow by two men. He guessed by their uniforms that they were Russians serving in the German army as HiWis - volunteer assistants. They spoke Russian between themselves and marched on at at solid tempo. Thiess could not feel his feet, he did not know whether they'd been amputated or were about to be amputated; he soon passed out.

He remembered those two Russians - they'd saved his life, getting him to the airfield at Zverevo. By some miracle he'd been loaded onto one of the last transport aircraft to fly wounded soldiers out of the Stalingrad encirclement. He remembered that flight too; watching another lumbering transport plane shot down by a Soviet fighter, and knowing that it would soon turn to attack his aircraft, and the relief he felt when some Messerschmitts appeared from the west to chase the Soviet marauder back towards his own lines. And he remembered waking up from the operation in a field hospital during which he'd had his gangrenous right foot amputated along with all five toes on his left foot. His first thoughts were a mixture of relief - he'd not return to the front line; his fingers were spared - and regret at knowing that one day he'd not be able to dance at his own wedding.

Yes, thought Werner Thiess, he'd been damned lucky at Stalingrad. He looked out of the first-floor window of his newly-built house in a respectable suburb of Mainz. Parked outside was his brand new Ford Taunus 17M; beige with a black roof. A two-door limousine. His wife had wanted the four-door version, so their children could easily get in and out; but he insisted on the two-door model - it looked so much sportier. It was a warm June morning, and suddenly, unbidden, Werner realised that it must be the 20th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa coming up; yes, in two days' time.

No one talked about the War. Certainly he didn't. Not to his wife, not to his little son or daughter. Nor to any of his contemporaries with whom he worked at the glassworks. There was a consensus of silence. This war did not leave warriors, brothers-in-arms, proudly swapping tales, but washed up a cowed people, beaten into guilt. The Americans' denazification had been intended to ensure that the Federal Republic was run by Germans who had hated Hitler - that but that would have left the country in the charge of a handful of timid clerics and hidden homosexuals, so many men with much more on their conscience than he were now in power, and not keen to reminisce about the old days.

When Werner wanted to be alone with his thoughts, he'd take his car and he'd drive through the re-built city centre, with its neons and half-timbered buildings. In those days, traffic flowed freely, you could smoke where you wanted and there were hardly any immigrants.

Yes, he remembered the 1960s as the golden years of his life; the children growing up, the economic miracle in full flood... but the War kept nagging him. The nurse woke him for his medicine. He was having a lucid moment; the cancer had got to his liver and he could not focus his mind for long. "Nurse... I want to hear Liebestod by Wagner, you know, from Tristan und Isolde... Mild und liese..." He started softly singing. He knew the nurse liked classical music and had a large amount on her MP3 player. "Herr Thiess", she replied kindly, "As a matter of fact, I do. Please, take your medicine, and I'll find it for you..." She flicked through the track listing and plugged in the earphones. Propping him up on his pillows, she let the music play.

A smile crossed his lips as the soprano's voice began quietly to sing the first words of the aria. He was transported back to that dugout beneath the snowy steppe and wondered... did he really see that mask, or had he invented it? These were his last thoughts before he slipped into unconsciousness, half an hour later he was pronounced dead.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Mask in the Snow - a short story

Snow swirled around; a penetrating wind howled across the steppe. His feet and fingers completely numb, Oberkanonier Werner Thiess shuffled forward through the drifting snow, rifle at the ready. He was patrolling the length of his artillery detachment's perimeter, on the look-out for individual groups of Red Army soldiers trying to penetrate the line. It was getting dark. A snow storm would be the ideal cover for such raids. Exhausted, frozen and starved, Thiess's movements were slow and painful. He longed for the end of his patrol, when he could just fall asleep for a few hours...

He had not yet abandoned hope, cut off in the Stalingrad cauldron along with the German 6th Army since November. Thiess disciplined himself not to think of his Rhineland home, of warm days, white wine and fair maidens; instead, he'd focus his mind on dreaming of small, realistic pleasures - a mess-tin full of horse-meat stew, some hot ersatz coffee, a second pair of socks, a night undisrupted by enemy shell-fire. A big man, Thiess had lost weight and musculature since the onset of winter; he felt feeble. Still he pressed on through the snow and howling wind, wiggling his toes and fingers to keep the blood circulating.

Ahead of him, amid the snow flurries, he thought he could make out the shape of a small person - maybe a child... he readied himself to shoot, but before that he fumbled with his ammunition belt to see how many clips of bullets he had left... he had none. He suddenly realised he had no more than three or four shots in his rifle, and that was it. His unit had not had new supplies delivered to it for nearly three weeks. So he paused for a moment, then very slowly moved forward, finger on the trigger. The figure didn't move. Thiess got to within a few metres, not knowing what to expect. What he saw amazed him. A theatrical mask, the mask of Tragedy, a face hideously distorted in pain and anguish; the mask was attached to an upright stick with a length of barbed wire; below the mask, powdered with loose snow, a child's brown woollen coat, with big brown buttons. The wind was making the whole ensemble shiver as though with cold.

Thiess stared at it in a state of incomprehension. What was it doing there? Who had placed it here, kilometres from the nearest settlement? Why? His eyes, no longer able to shed tears, gazed at the mask... He looked around - nothing; just the wind, and this mask, and him.

He woke up with a start. He was in his unit's dugout, huddled under his greatcoat and rags. The patrol... that... mask... had he really seen it? Had it been there? Had he been hallucinating? Outside, the temperature was -22C, though the wind made it feel far colder. Inside the dugout it was a little above freezing, the stench of filthy lice-ridden bodies permeated the dense air. Thiess flopped onto his rudimentary bunk, so exhausted that he couldn't even remember returning to the dugout. He'd been awake for the entire night before, and his mind was playing tricks with him. What had happened during the patrol? How did he get back? Did it... matter...?

Lying in the next bunk was that thin Silesian boy Stanislaus. He'd been lying there for three days, hardly moving. Thiess looked at him; his eyes were staring white in the darkness of the dugout; he was no longer shivering. In the young artilleryman's gaunt features Thiess could read an acceptance of fate, a readiness to die. He'd seen it before. Gently, Thiess reached over and removed the greatcoat that covered Stanislaus's legs and feet. The boy's eyes looked trustingly at him, somehow accepting the theft by his comrade. Thiess used the coat, with the vestiges of warmth still left in its threadbare fibres, to wrap his own legs and feet.

Across on the other side of the dugout, someone had set up a wind-up gramophone and was playing the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Thiess listened; the poignancy of that soprano's soaring voice resonating around that dugout was unbearable. He had always considered himself a strong man. Yet as the orchestra swelled and the soprano hit those high notes, the emotion aroused by the music was profound pity; pity for his dying comrades, pity at his own fate. He had witnessed such barbarous inhumanity in this war. This would strengthen his will to control his emotions, he told himself as he participated in the slaughter of civilians, but now he felt his iron soldier's will to survive slipping away... but that mask in the snow? Did he really see it? At a time like this, such a thing seemed to concern him greatly. Thiess felt himself drifting in and out of consciousness, the image of that mask taunting him.


Those of you who've seen Godfrey Reggio's influential film, Koyaaniqatsi, will doubtless remember the Prophesies movement, with the three Hopi Indian prophesies on screen.

The second prophesy came to me as I witnessed the sky above our house today:

"Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky."

A good listening to of Philip Glass's masterful soundtrack is essential.

This time last year:
Twenty years, ten months and six days

This time two years ago:
Summing up Lent 2009

This time three years ago:
Magnolia in bloom, Ealing, West London

This time four years ago:
Here hare here

Friday, 15 April 2011

Old Town, early spring

As the weather improves and hours of daylight lengthen, the Old Town beckons. Far more tourists and young people on the streets; more musicians and jugglers and the like. But for me, the allure of the Old Town (and indeed New Town) is found in those byways less travelled.

Above: Straddling the Vistula escarpment is the Dom Profesora (professors' house). The main entrance, via a bridge, is on ul. Brzozowa, while the lower floors look out over ul. Bugaj at the foot of the escarpment.

Above: the backs of houses on ul. Boleść, those balconies looking more New Orleans than Warsaw. The sun is low in the sky

In a little garden, I see what at first sight appear to be bluebells - a common sight in English woodland at this time of year, but quite unusual in Poland. So unusual that few Poles will know what 'bluebell' is in Polish. And unusual enough for me to check... (click to enlarge). I don't think these are bluebells. Anyone care to suggest what flowers these are?

Below: a socialist-realist mosaic mural on the side of a house on ul. Mostowa. Classicism meets the Working Man (and Woman) at work and at play.

Below: Looking south from the crossroads - the junction where ul. Mostowa, Stara, Boleść and Brzozowa meet. To the right, the eastern end of the Barbakan (Old Town fortified wall); the slope of the Vistula escarpment is clearly visible.

Below: Kolumna Zygmunta on the castle square, caught in the sharp light of a setting mid-April sun.

This time last year:
The atmosphere in the week after Smolensk

This time three years ago:
The accelerating pace of change

This time four years ago:
Antonov An-26 in the twilight of its career

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Reader

A man boarded the train at W-wa Centralna and travelled to W-wa Wschodnia. He was engrossed in his paperback. I thought I'd caught the title, but evidently I didn't.

Nikon D40, 18-55mm lens (no VR); hand-held at a quarter of a second wide open at f3.5, zoomed out to 18mm (equivalent to 27mm on standard 35mm camera).

This time last year:
Fertile ground for conspiracy theorists

This time two years ago:
That's what I like about the North

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Literary flavours of PRL

I'm currently reading (and greatly enjoying) Z Głowy by Janusz Głowacki, a Polish author, playwright and screenwriter; a very funny and insight-laden book. Below: a photo of Głowacki (circa 1985; Miami Vice style-white jacket with rolled-up sleeves over T-shirt), currently on display on Al. Ujazdowski, part of an exhibition of portraits of Poles who became famous in America.

I find Głowacki at his best describing the middle period the the communist years, from the mid-60s to the late 70s. As well as the acerbic observations into everyday life of that period, Głowacki's autobiography gives some poignant insights about the moral decisions made by creative people when facing the all-powerful censorship apparatus of the totalitarian state.

The Regime needed talented writers yet talented writers were well aware of the brutal absurdity of the Regime. But talented writers needed the Regime to get to reach their audience, so an uncomfortable accommodation was reached, with authors' self-censorship balancing the censor's judicious application of a blind eye. Głowacki describes many encounters with the censor (and other filters along the way - editors, publishers, directors). Criticism of the system had to be allowed - but only that criticism which the system deemed to be Constructive.
"In [communist] Polish theatre, there was never any good Comedy. Things that you were allowed to laugh at, no one found funny. Things that did make people laugh would never get past the censor. It was even worse with Tragedy."
Some writers, editors, publishers and directors were more pliant vis-a-vis the Regime; the more unruly ones were pushed to the far fringes and would often leave Poland to write abroad. Głowacki found himself in London when Martial Law befell Poland, and then moved to New York where he lived and worked until the fall of communism.

Głowacki describes the writer's block he experienced in New York City when, free of the censor, he could write anything he wanted. At first, he found he couldn't. His mind had been so conditioned to finding ways of smuggling messages around the censor. Freedom, when first sampled, was a heady wine.

His portrayal of life in New York for Polish immigrants was uncompromising. Their families back home imagined them to be living the lives of millionaires, while the reality was holding down two poorly-paid jobs and sleeping on a mattress in a tiny room in a cockroach-infested flat in a bad part of town. And yet the family in Poland would demand money; the immigrant would send it to show how successful he or she was, having made it in the American Dream. Greenpoint, the Polish district of New York is shown as a hopeless place.

The chronology of the narrative switches from 1980s USA to his childhood; as a six year-old he was caught up in the Warsaw Uprising; cutting backwards and forwards to ensure that contrasts within the rich life he led are prominently exhibited. But he is in his element among the low-life and literary elite in various Warsaw bars and restaurants; the ever-present informants, children of top politicians and semi-legal entrepreneurs, secret policemen, ladies of easy virtue and clients of the Regime. Spicy anecdote follows spicy anecdote (many of which have had the effect of making me laugh out loud on buses and trains). He portrays himself as a hard-drinking Jack-the-Lad type, equally at home with famous writers and actors as with dodgy types from Bazar Różyckiego.

Leopold Tyrmand, whose Dziennik 1954 r. (Diary for 1954) and Zły I read, also captures those same flavours of PRL-era seedy night-life centred on bars and restaurants. The drink of choice here is usually the seta (augmentative form of setka, 100g of vodka - a quadruple measure by UK pub standards). If this is not enough, there's the lorneta (lorgnette), consisting of a pair of sety, together looking like opera glasses. And for a bigger session, a połówka (half), being a half-litre bottle of vodka, typically to share with some down-on-his-luck literary type. And when Głowacki's down on his luck, an author whose star is in the ascendant will no doubt get him drunk. He describes in great details the dives and drinking-holes where the once-famous or soon-to-be-famous borrowed money off him or bought him beers.

To give you a flavour of his style, I've translated a paragraph, at random (the current position of my bookmark...)
"From my student days I'd been trying to wangle [kombinować] a way out of my parents' flat on ul. Bednarska. I wanted my own flat, but never had the money to buy one. I belonged to a housing cooperative and waited, as did everyone, for decades. I submitted numerous applications. Once, attempting to gain the sympathy of the city authorities, I wrote that I live with an alcoholic mother and a mentally-ill father. My mother was indignant, because she couldn't stand alcoholics, and ordered me to change it so that she was mentally ill, and my father the alcoholic. When a committee came round, my mother played the part well. "It's a scandal," she ranted, "that a young writer should not have a flat of his own!", so they believed that she was mad. But my father, for whom I bought a half-litre of Żytnia vodka, even drank some, but then refused to lie on the floor singing. And so the processing of my application for a flat of my own was not speeded up."
If I have one serious criticism of Głowacki's autobiography, it is that there's almost no discussion of the creative process; it's a though one night he gets very, very drunk with assorted ne'er-do-wells in a dodgy establishment on Lower East Side, then the very next morning tosses off a play that gets directed by Arthur Penn and stars Christopher Walken. But what about the endless hours of writing, re-drafting, searching for the right bon mot or delicate allusion, forceful punchline or hilarious gag? Not a bit of it. Like a grade 'A' pupil who tells his less gifted and lazier classmates that he never revises ahead of all those exams, Głowacki suggests that his path to literary success was effortless, all inspiration, no perspiration.

But then all autobiography, there's a fair element of self-mythologising here; Głowacki likes to present himself as a hard-drinking, hard-loving bon viveur and man of letters. Showing the workshop side of creativity would not sit comfortably with this image.

A priceless book for anyone who missed out on life in communist times; a translation into English would be useful - though an incredibly difficult challenge to catch the humour in the language.

This time last year:
The drug of the nation

This time two years ago:
Needs and wants

This time three years ago:
On the road from Łódź

This time four years ago:
Aerial views of the ground

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

In vino veritas?

I've been accused of not being confessional enough by blogging standards, so here goes. Regular readers might have noted something that just occurred to me today - where are the short stories on my blog? The small 'p' philosophy? Has this something to do with lack of drink? If so, is this worrying?

Well, I'm still blogging away at the usual pace, but the posts are... too... prosaic? Too heavy on the light reportage? Where's the inspiration? Has the fact that Mr Dembinski has put away the bottles for six and half weeks anything to do with a slackening of literary output? Four weeks have gone by without me touching a drop of alcohol and during that time, 26 posts but only two 'life in balance' pieces and zero short stories.

I've had one brewing inside my head for a week or so, but I can't figure out how to end the damned thing. The basic premise, the atmosphere, details, descriptions, protagonists - all are drawn out - but... what happens in the end? Half an hour in the sauna... nothing. Long walk along Jeziorki's backroads... nothing.

The creative process is certainly enhanced by a glass of two of red wine imbibed of the evening. It makes the brain work just slightly differently; enough to be able to tweak a concept sufficiently to make it stand out or tease out an ending that my stone-cold-sober mind wouldn't necessarily be able to reach by taking the pedestrian route from A to B.

Dreams are a great source of ideas, but though they give rise to improbable conceits, improbable enough to be interesting, they often lack the logic needed to ensure that craved-for ending fits together. The state of mind between wakefulness and sleep is more useful. Looking at the seven short stories I've posted this year, only one was literally dreamt up in a state of sleep. The majority of the endings would come to me while waiting to drop off, or in the sauna (where again the brain works differently due to higher blood temperature).

I shall monitor myself when normal life resumes after Easter to see to what extent the create process (in my mind at least) is lubricated by the moderate consumption of alcohol. In the meanwhile, I will continue searching for a good way to end my next short story. And hope that literary polot ('verve', 'panache') does not necessarily come out of a bottle.

This time last year:
Are we getting more intelligent?

This time two years ago:
Lenten recipe No. 6

This time three years ago:
Coal trains, Konstancin-Jeziorna

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki from the air

Under Plutz Veelsonnuh

Which is how the correct Polish pronunciation of Plac Wilsona would be transliterated into English. The commercial centre and transport hub of Żoliborz, the suburb to the north of Warsaw's city centre, is named after US President Woodrow Wilson (or indeed Veelson), who was instrumental in Poland regaining independence at the end of WWI (the penultimate of his Fourteen Points was an independent Polish state). Now, if, as a Pole, you defend the way 'Wilson' is pronounced here, please bear in mind that Australia's highest mountain is pronounced by Aussies 'Mount Koss-KEE-uss-koe', not 'Kosh-CHOO-shko'. Under the 'square' (it isn't - more a rounded oblong) is Plac Wilsona Metro station, opened in 2005, and in 2008 awarded an international prize at the Metrorail conference - the world's most beautiful metro station of recent years. I passed through on my way back to the office from a meeting in Żoliborz. The lighting in the copula above the stairs changes colour according to time of day. More pics of the northern end of the Warsaw Metro on the day of its opening here. The 'square' itself, once a thriving centre for cafes and restaurants, was until recently chiefly known for its banks. So many indeed, that a local residents' protest brewed up in 2008, fanned by Gazeta Stołeczna, against the closure of shops and cafes and their replacement by banks.

Today, a smattering of shops, perfumeries and cafes have cropped up among the many banks.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Królikarnia - from Platan Park to Powiśle

Only yesterday was I introduced to the Królikarnia ('Rabbit House'); surprising given that it's on my cycle route from Platan Park to Powiśle; I must have passed hundreds of times yet never popped in. So I came by again today on my regular way by bike from Platan Park to my office in Powiśle. Królikarnia (the building) reminds me a bit of Chiswick House, well-known to me from younger days in London. Below: the front of the building. In all honesty, I was subconsciously expecting something more akin to a rabbit hutch.
Below: the back of the building, looking out on the Vistula escarpment.
Below: the escarpment itself; part parkland, part waste-ground. Equally interesting to explore on foot and by bike. Here in Mokotów, it slopes away from ul. Puławska and the Warszawianka sports complex, down to ul. Piaseczyńska and below it the allotment gardens and their summer houses (działki).
The gardens surrounding the Królikarnia itself are dedicated to Polish sculptor Xawery Dunikowski.

his sculpture The Soul Escaping the Body (1918). There are many sculptures on display; this one probably the most striking. Królikarnia is certainly worth a visit on a warm spring day (even if it means taking time off work).
Described as the King's 'high-class brothel', the 'Rabbit Hutch' predated the bunny-girls of Hugh Hefner's Playboy Clubs by over a century and half.
This time three years ago:
Happy 85th, Dziadzio Bohdan