Monday, 30 May 2011

A new lick of paint for W-wa Powiśle

The nearest railway station to my office, W-wa Powiśle, is a pearl of post-socialist-realist socialist architecture. Very moderne, very stylish. And its one of my favourite Polish railway stations - architecturally at least (I'll pass on a complete lack of signage, timetables at the entrance on ul. Kruczkowskiego and a working clock). But its all-white plaster finish had left it painfully vulnerable to anyone with a spray can and a vandalistic streak. Today I was delighted to see a new coat of paint being applied at the Kruczkowskiego end of the station (below) - and what an interesting scheme it is too!

The new paint extends up to platform level - I hope they manage to do the sides as well. It makes such a difference, especially in the bright sunlight of late-May. (Read about W-wa Powiśle architecture in this post about Warsaw railway architecture by Owen Hatherley)

LinkSadly, the vandalistic end of graffiti world, suffering from spray-can incontinence, will no doubt waste no time in daubing their tired, boring tags on top of the bright new street art, much as they did at W-wa Żwirki i Wigury and W-wa Rakowiec after artists set about improving the stations (for some reason the flamingo and stork cartoons at W-wa Al. Jerozolimskie were left largely untouched).

This time last year:
The ingredients of success

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Now it can be told - how I almost saved Obama

About four weeks ago, a light-blue Mercedes truck with white cargo box was abandoned on the grassy stretch of ul. Kórnicka between ul. Trombity and the railway line. Since that day in late April, it stood just there. At the time I guessed it had broken down and been dumped. I'd pass it on my way to work, giving less and less thought to what it was doing or for how long it'd remain there. That is, until the day Barack Obama was due to fly into town. 

On Friday morning I drew open the curtains and saw the very same truck in the middle of the field behind our house. Overnight, someone had driven it - or towed it - 1.5 km south, snuck it between the two houses at No. 6 and No. 8, and unceremoniously left it in the field.

What ran through my mind as I looked at that truck from our balcony...? In less than ten hours' time, Barrack Obama's Air Force One will be passing overhead at a height of 300m. Left: you can see just how close the vehicle is to the flight path. A truck of this size would make a very convenient hide in which to store hand-held surface-to-air missiles, such as the Stinger, much used by the Taliban in Afghanistan against low-flying Soviet helicopters. A plot could have been hatched - days before Osama Bin Laden's demise - to bring down Air Force One as it was coming in to land at Okęcie. 

Keep the weapons in a truck abandoned on a quiet, semi-rural street near the airport, wait until the day of Obama's arrival, see which way the wind was blowing, which runway was being used... then move into place under the flight path.

Right: This is what flashed through my mind's eye on Friday morning. An arsenal of hand-held surface-to-air missiles hidden in a truck parked in the field behind our house, just waiting to be unleashed against the Leader of the Free World as he flew in to Warsaw. Better to take preventative action, or just let it be? 

My cognitive bias or Bayesian inference at work? The chances of coincidence (someone just decided to move the truck into a field under the Okęcie flight path on the very day of Obama's arrival) were probabilistically higher than the chances of a terrorist plot. Even so, aware of that, I thought it better to be safe than sorry. History what if: imagine the consequences for Poland of such an attack happening on its soil. 

The idea of Jeziorki becoming to Americans what Smolensk has become to Poles sprang to mind. Time to call the authorities. They were thankful. They checked. The van, they told me, was empty - but they kept it under surveillance anyhow.

POTUS over Jeziorki

I didn't hold out too much hope of seeing President of the United States and his retinue flying home aboard Air Force One (and/or Air Force Two) - the wind was in the west, and all air traffic inbound to land at Okęcie was coming in over our house and taking off to the north. I was alerted to the possibility that these two planes would be doing things differently by the presence of a Polish police helicopter flying low over Jeziorki. And indeed. Several minutes later, the mighty sound of four giant turbofans sucking in Jeziorki oxygen portended the appearance of Air Force One - a much-converted Boeing 747 - taking off from Runway 15. Quite something.

I grabbed these shots from my bedroom window. Sadly, the sky was heavily overcast - the sun shines from the right angle to illuminate aircraft taking off or landing this way at this time of day.

Below: Air Force Two, a converted Boeing 757. Last time I saw a US Presidential flight taking off over Jeziorki, George W. Bush and his entourage also flew in two planes, though Air Force Two back then was an elderly Boeing 707.

While I was uploading these pics, Eddie came charging in excitedly, telling me to grab my camera and come outside. It was a Lockheed C5A Galaxy - a huge transport plane that was flying in to pick up Obama's bits and pieces (the stuff that two large planes couldn't carry). I rushed out with camera - but sadly the memory card was in the computer so I missed the shot. So here's another photo of the same C5A, over the fence at Okęcie (photo from

However, as I was writing these words I heard yet another unfamiliar sound above our house - and indeed, a C-17 Globemaster III flew by. And then, just minutes later - to cap it all! (what a day for spotters!) the Polish Air Force's remaining Tu-154 followed on (below). A rare sight these days.

The action didn't stop on Saturday - on Sunday morning, shortly after 7 am, I heard yet another loud aircraft approaching - and bingo! yet another C-17 approaching (below).

Supplementary: 'Air Force One' and 'Air Force Two' are often-misused terms; officially, 'Air Force One' is the name used for the aircraft currently flying the president, and Air Force Two for the aircraft currently flying the vice-president. As Joe Biden was not in Poland, the C-32 (military VIP version of the Boeing 757) shown above was not actually call-signed Air Force Two on the day.

This time two years ago:
Some anniversaries missed

This time three years ago:
Hissing of the summer lawns

Friday, 27 May 2011

Waiting for The Man

Ironic that when the Leader of the Free World visits Warsaw, the city's inhabitants have to face more restrictions on their movement than at any time since Martial Law. For a few days before Barack Obama's visit to Poland, anyone living in Warsaw could see that heavy stuff was coming down. No-go areas springing up, stepped-up police activity, military helicopters flying around.

Above: looking up Trasa Łazienkowska towards Aleje Ujazdowskie. The road further up has been closed - and Obama's not due to land for another 50 minutes. As it happens, he arrived at Okęcie 20 minutes early, so I did not manage to see his retinue sweeping past. Several minutes after this photo was taken, a veritable tidal wave of humanity started streaming down the Vistula Escarpment headed for the bridge and Praga beyond. Later, about an hour or so, buses were finally permitted to use this piece of road.

I appreciate that barely a month has gone by since the death of Osama Bin Laden, and Al Qaeda is in revenge mode, with Poland - perhaps - seen as a a country in which a terrorist attack could be mounted against the US President - but the reaction of most Varsovians faced with mammoth inconvenience is that the security operations were grossly over the top.

This time last year:
Poet's Corner

This time three years ago:
Twilight time in the garden

This time four years ago:
Late May reflections

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Ranking a better life

For my father

It's relatively easy to measure a country's gross domestic product, inflation rate or unemployment, and plot that indicator against other countries. But other indicators are harder to measure - happiness, life satisfaction, work-life balance or community spirit.

So when I read about the OECD's Better Life Initiative and the noble idea of plotting many hard-to-pin-down indicators (along with some easier ones such as safety, education or income) into one chart, I was fascinated. In particular, I'm looking for ex post facto justification for moving from the UK to Poland.

Start by right-clicking here, opening a new window or tab. The click on the button 'Start with all topics rated equally'. Then, in the bottom left of the screen, click on 'Display countries by rank'. You should see this chart (a fully-interactive version of what you see below). And then the fun begins!

Of the 34 OECD member countries, Poland ranks 24th when all topics are considered. Only Slovenia and Czech Republic do better among post-communist countries. Poland lies just one place behind Italy, home of la dolce vita, and ahead of Greece and Portugal. Best country on earth? Canada (hello, Canada!)

You can re-order the ranking according to whatever factor you consider most important - income, housing, jobs... Hours of statistical fun, hours of debate over a beer as to where's the best place to live. And no doubt of controversy (why does Slovakia rate so much better than Poland for environment, for example).

The OECD launched this initiative two days ago. It will be interesting to track this chart year after year, to see how the relative positions of these countries change over time. I'm sure that 20 years ago, Poland would not have been just one place behind Italy, similarly, I'm sure that in 20 years time Poland will have moved up the ranking quite considerably.

So, dive in and have fun with statistics!

This time last year:
Biology and spirituality

This time two years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time three years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

A life in balance 10: Planning vs spontaneity

"Failing to plan is planning to fail" (I mentioned this before). Yet is it? Is there no place in life for spontaneity, serendipity, chance? When does setting off ahead of you, without an idea as to where you're heading, mean disaster, and when does it promise the chance of quite unexpected rewards?

Now, let me make it clear, I'm not talking about launching an invasion against an evil dictator or inviting a VIP to Warsaw without a plan. No; this is rather about those small, non-life-threatening decisions. Going for a walk? With map, stopwatch and detailed concept as what to see? If you're visiting some place new, a tourist in a city you've never stepped foot in before - then yes, a plan is vital. Knowledge of the must-sees, the recommended show-stoppers - without this, your visit is wasted. But if you're just drifting around somewhere you know (or think you know), setting off without a Plan 'A' (let alone a Plan 'B' or 'C') can be rewarding. Letting serendipity take you where it will.

There is a role for planning in life; there is also a role for spontaneity in life. Generally, planning is the better option. (See also Free Will vs. Destiny.) But knowing when to let go, when to let fate take the wheel, is part of leading a life in balance. The outcomes may be entirely variant - your route may equally take you to see unexpectedly wonderful places and vistas that you've not clapped eyes on before - or else (worst case scenario) you will stumble upon rather boring and dull sights. But then your frame of mind will dictate the outcome. So - if you want spontaneity to be rewarding - set off with optimism.

Above and below: Last week's discovery that BUW's roof gardens are freely accessible to the general public - the result of purest spontaneity. Quite a spectacle - unexpected and unbidden.

This time last year:
Our avian neighbour

This time two years ago:
Balancing on the edge of chaos

This time three years ago:
The rising tide of Development

This time four years ago:
Present rising, future loading

Sunday, 22 May 2011

"A helpful, friendly people"

On Wednesday I had to be in Łódź to speak at a conference which started with breakfast; I needed to be there for 9:00am. This meant catching a train that arrived just after eight. And unlike London to Rugby (83 miles, 48 minutes ) the 83 miles between Warsaw and Łódź takes 120 minutes. My train for Łódź would leave W-wa Centralna at six. To get to Centralna I had to catch the 04:51 service from W-wa Jeziorki.

And this is where my story begins...

The 04:51 from W-wa Jeziorki begins its journey in Radom, departing for Warsaw at 03:12 every day of the week. It stops at every small town along the way, and by the time it reaches W-wa Jeziorki, the first station within Warsaw's city limits, it is packed solid. Boarding the train, I had to stand in the corridor. The passenger compartment was full of rural-looking faces, hard-working and weather-beaten. Most are asleep, heads resting on rolled-up coats or jumpers. Many women were carrying large shopping bags full of lilies of the valley gathered in woodland somewhere between Radom and Piaseczno; they will stand at street corners selling the fresh wild flowers - a useful addition to tight budgets.

At W-wa Slużewiec, a middle-aged woman at the far end of the carriage woke up with a start, looked around and asked "Is this Żwirki i Wigury?" A chorus of fellow passengers replied, almost in unison, "Nie!" ('no'). And so the woman went back to sleep. W-wa Żwirki i Wigury was the next stop. No one volunteered that information to her, no one woke her up. Nor did they wake her up at W-wa Rakowiec, nor at W-wa Aleje Jerozolimskie. She finally woke up at Warszawa Zachodnia as the train was emptying of people. She'd missed her stop and had to wait for a south-bound train to get her back to where she had been heading. Stoically she got off the train, not a trace of animosity towards the passengers who had so singularly failed her. In other words, this is all she could have expected. Unhelpful indifference. Was she an office cleaner, starting work at 5am for eight zlotys an hour? In which case, she'd have turned up at least 30 minutes late, to face a reprimand and lost revenue.

Scenes like this show that for all of Warsaw's sophistication and rapid economic advance, there's still another Poland that's struggling to make do. And that lack of good will of her fellow-passengers; each one aware of her predicament, no one in the least bit willing to offer her assistance - either by offering more information, or by waking her up at her stop. Such pitifully low levels of social harmony, such scant regard as to the plight of a fellow hard-working human being. (In case you're asking, I was standing some five metres away; the gangway was packed with passengers.)

This time last year:
Familiar shape in the sky

This time two years ago:
Feel like going home

This time three years ago:
Mr Hare comes to call

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Stormclouds are raging all around my door

Coming back from town with Moni last night, we could see over Wiścigi what looked like a massive fireworks display; as we headed south past the racetrack, it turned out to me an electrical storm of significant magnitude sweeping westwards across the southern horizon.

Time to get camera on tripod, set shutter to 'B', aperture to f 5.6, ISO to 100, snap and wait. Wait for the Big Flash. Then release shutter, and repeat. Select best image (above) - no need for Photoshop (other than correcting verticals) and there we go.

The storm passed by without too much water on Jeziorki; I guess Góra Kalwaria and Pruszków would have got a drenching. More expected today (I hope it will not interfere with my planned bike ride).

It is unusual to experience such storms in mid-May; they are a regular occurrence in July and August. Here's one in late June 2009 and then of course there was the famous Corpus Christi storm of early June last year.

This time last year:
Floods endanger Warsaw

This time two years ago:
Why Poland cannot afford the Grosz

This time three years ago:
Slow train from Zakopane to Kraków

This time four years ago:
The year's most beautiful day?

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

At the end of the line

Three weeks ago, Eddie read an article in Gazeta Stołeczna that the No. 20 tram line to Boernerowo was being restored to use, after a three-year restoration. Time, then, to check it out. A fascinating line, mainly because it runs through such leafy suburbs. The last stops are in wooded landscape, making it unique in Warsaw.

Below: timeless Boernerowo, timber-clad houses from the 1930s, nestling among starodrzew (old woodland) - a bit like Konstancin, but still within Warsaw's boundaries.

Below: O happy outdoor life in Boernerowo! Woodland beckons the cyclist on long warm spring evenings after school or work. And all within a tram's ride of the city centre (no worries about traffic jams). Where the houses end, the forest begins. And in the forest, the runway of Warszawa Bemowo airfield, for general aviation. Picnic al fresco? Glass of Canadian Merlot, anyone?

Along the way to Boernerowo - the military technical academy (Wojskowa Akademia Techniczna, below), which today advertises a host of civilian subjects.

Definitely worth another trip out here at some time, lots of fine walking, wonderful atmosphere.

This time two years ago:
Another This Is Not America moment

This time four years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Inside Filtry

Well, it's one o'clock in the morning, and after six and half (yes!) hours of queueing, Eddie and I were finally let in through the gate and into Filtry - Warsaw's water treatment plant. A legendary place; well worth the wait to get in. Filtry. My father lived on ul. Filtrowa (lit. 'Water-filters Street') before the war; his family lives there to this day. This 30-hectare site, beautifully built and laid out, dominates the south-west fringes of central Warsaw.

The late-19th C. urban infrastructure project was initiated by Warsaw's Tsarist mayor, Socrates Starynkiewicz (a man who spoke no Polish) and carried out by an Englishman William Lindley and his son (also William Lindley). Hence Pl. Starynkiewicza and ul. Lindleya that link the waterworks to Al. Jerozolimskie.

Below and above left: interior and exterior view of the water tower and chimney in the middle of the symmetrical frontage of the waterworks, along ul. Koszykowa.

High-quality brickwork is one of the main characteristics of the waterworks. Our guide (who did an excellent job - taking groups of 40-50 people around the facility all night long) told us that Lindley was criticised at the time for choosing such expensive bricks - 125 years and two world wars later, he was proved right. Also, by spending big money on covering the filter beds with brick arches, he kept them from freezing in winter and being overrun by algae in summer. Pinching kopeks was not an option - today's public procurement managers would do well to learn from Starynkiewicz and Lindley.

Above: the shot that rewarded a six and half hour wait. Inside the slow-filtration beds. Quite something. Not normally lit, the filter beds are dark except when guided tours visit. It's worth remembering that this is a working production facility, rather than a museum; opportunities to visit are few and far between.

And on we go, to the early '30s fast-filtration building (above), the interior of which (below) looks like it could have been part of the set for the Coen Brother's Hudsucker Proxy.

If any of my Warsaw-based readers noticed a funny taste in their coffee this morning, it may have had something to do with Eddie tampering with the control panel (below).

(To put your mind at rest, this part of the filters is now only for show; a new facility was opened last year) The filters have had large amounts of money spent on renovating the historic parts - the site is applying for UNESCO World Heritage status - while at the same time the new facility below continues to do the work. The new building is architecturally consistent with the rest of the site; inside, however, it's boring though reassuringly antiseptic (below).

The tour ended at 02:15. There were still new groups entering the waterworks after us, so the guides must have had a hell of a day. There must also have been scenes of angry disappointment as the queue a hundred or so people back from us who were shut out as the filters closed were told they'd waited several hours in vain.

It is possible to visit the filters outside of Noc Muzeów; unfortunately for foreign visitors, details of how to get in are only in Polish on the Warsaw water authority's website. It is definitely worth visiting - even if it means a long wait. But better to line up a free-of-charge invite to visit the filters (every Saturday in July and August from 9:00am); smaller groups, longer tours.

For Eddie and me, Noc Muzeów ended with a night bus home; we arrived just before 4am as it was beginning to get light. Panie Hrabio! Już dnieje! As we waited for the N83 to arrive (a useful bus, linking the central station to Trombity), we gazed at the Palace of Culture (left). While Moni and her friends had managed to clock up five attractions in one night starting later and finishing earlier, we did only one - but it was worth it. For Polish readers, here's TVN Warszawa's round-up of Noc Muzeów 2011.

Noc Muzeów - Museum Night - at Filtry

After our failure to get into the Filtry (waterworks) at last year's Noc Muzeów, Eddie and I were determined to get in this time. We joined the queue to get in at half past six - 30 minutes before the guided tours began. The queue was unbelievably long; the tower in the distance is roughly where the queue ended. I counted some 800 people in front of us. After queuing for around two hours, I reckoned that we were one-two thirds of the way from the back of the queue to the front.

Queuing was made bearable by the open-house at the Polish Japanese Institute of IT across the road (clean toilets, cheap buffet, sushi, Japanese pop music), and a general good spirit among those queuing.

Around midnight (!) it was touch-and-go whether we'd get in; rumours were flying around the queue - they'd let in people until one am (the published time) - another 120 people, then 200; tempers were starting to get frayed, with people having waited over six hours (and forfeited the chance of visiting any other attractions that night). The clocked ticked towards one am; the queue moved forward at the rate of a metre every ten minutes... would we make it?

I learned a lot about the mass psychology of queuing; if you don't flake out in the first half hour, you're likely to stay through to the end. The guy in the photo (foreground, right) was getting more and more pessimistic, about humanity, Poland, the waterworks authorities; after more than six hours he bugged out, convinced we'd not be let in; 20 minutes later, he would have been proved wrong. The rest of the people queuing around us were fine. As we entered the critical last half hour, a sense of solidarity emerged - there would be no pushing in!

This time last year:
Warsaw's Museum Night 2010

This time two years ago:
On transcendence

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Bus crash on Puławska

Today's bus accident on ul. Puławska left eight people hospitalised and another 30 hurt as a southbound 739 left the road by the Wyścigi tram loop and careered down an embankment, smashing into the crash barrier on ul. Rzymowskiego that passes under Puławska. The accident happened shortly after half past two, three hours later Rzymowskiego was still closed to westbound traffic. Below: you can see the tracks left by the bus on the embankment - passengers must have been petrified as it dived down into the cutting into the path of oncoming cars.

Below: half past five looking east up Dolinka Służewiecka. Rather a lot of public service vehicles still in attendance.

Below: the bus had been hauled back to free the driver, who according to first reports had fainted at the wheel. This stretch of road has had its fair share of accidents, most notorious of which was the death of one motoring journalist and serious injury of another as the Ferrari they were driving left the road and literally flew into a pillar supporting the fly-over. The speed limit here, by the way, is 50 kmh/ 30 mph.

Another infamous series of events at this spot - a young man driving way over the limit crashed into a pillar and died. His friends held a vigil here to mark his demise, and while doing so, another driver going too fast ploughed into the group killing one mourner.

And just one bus-stop further up ul. Puławska, there was this serious bus fire three years ago.

This time last year:
The iron filings factory: an economic parable

This time two years ago:
Nine faults of Warsaw cyclists

This time four years ago:
Got to get ourselves back to the garden

Thursday, 12 May 2011

What's the Polish for 'puncture'?

My Cannondale Caffeine is four years old, and well-used; it's never had a puncture - until today, that is. And upon this particular day, it had three punctures.

puncture number one, fixed (or so it seemed). In my rucksack a spare inner tube and neat double-action pump. All done in six minutes, and I'm off on my way to a lesson at the law firm.

I cycle a hundred metres further, and the brand new inner tube punctures. I call in to say that I'll be a bit late, throw the bike on a 319 bus bunged up in barely-moving traffic and head off slowly up Puławska to Metro Ursynów.

I tie the bike up at the Park + Ride (below, ten stands for every bike) and hurry to my lesson. I arrive 18 minutes late.

The Park+Ride is equipped with bicycle repair tools. Including (so suggests the icon) a track pump with pressure gauge. The very acme of sophistication! "Has your bicycle broken down? Borrow tools, free, from a parking supervisor", says the sign, sponsored by the city transit authority and a bike shop/workshop on Saska Kępa and Solec.

After my lessons, extended by 20 minutes to make up for tardy arrival, I pop into my local bike shop on ul. Czerniakowska for a new inner tube, puncture repair kit and a repair of the rear wheel. All done, I proceed to work. And on my way home, I replace the rear wheel at Ursynów P+R, and ride off towards Jeziorki... but on ul. Poleczki a sudden massive explosion - a catastrophic failure of the new inner tube (below). I am as sick as the proverbial parrot, pile the bike onto a 306 and then a 319 and get home, eventually, crestfallen. Big time.

Three punctures in one day. Ah! What's the Polish for 'puncture', as in "I had two punctures on my way into work, and one on the way home"? Stanislawski gives 'puncture' as przebicie opony (seven syllables for two) or the more informal złapać gumę (lit. 'to catch rubber'). A flat tyre? Flak (as in 'tripe'. Without the onions.). Nothing less informal. (Płaska opona is not an option.) Getionary? Check here and here.

This time two years ago:
Welcome the Ice Saints

This time three years ago:
The devoted Shriners
Like a Kodachrome

This time four years ago:
The future of cities (and suburbs)

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Lost in the wonder of it all

The first time it struck me was as I was pushing my bike up the steep part of the Vistula escarpment above ul. Myśliwiecka. Below: Thousands upon thousands of dandelions backlit by the sinking sun. A sight that truly stirred my soul. A dozen attempts to capture the scene, delicately juggling different exposures to bring out the white seedheads while not losing the shadow details, then more work in Lightroom and Photoshop to get an approximation of what I saw and felt at the time. (Click to enlarge images.)

Below: Park Ujazdowski, above the escarpment. More of the same - dandelions in flower are everywhere (and my sympathies go out to those allergic to the pollen). The plant, however, has medicinal properties, including "assisting with urinary tract infections in women" and is said to possess "anti-inflammatory effects".

Left: even more dandelions, by the Wyścigi tram loop along ul. Puławska. The sun, that four and half billion year old thermonuclear reaction that keeps us alive, has today been warming the earth and blessing us with its rays. As I write, just before 9 pm, it's still over 22C, having hit a high of 25.3C earlier today. Hard to believe that just one week ago, Warsaw was waking up to the sight of snow on the ground.

This time last year:
Meet my five bicycles

This time three years ago:
Celebrating my garden

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Loose lips sink ships - Part II

Eileen took a lunchtime break from work and quickly walked up the cobbled streets to St Francis' Church for confession. She just had to talk to Father Boyle. Low-hanging dark grey clouds blew in across the Mersey, drizzle turned to cold, heavy rain. There was no relief from the misery.

"Bless me father, for I have sinned. It is three weeks since my last confession and here are my sins."

Once again she explained to the priest how she was sure that someone had passed on to Nazi spies details of Allied shipping movements. "Now, Father, would you have heard someone confessing to giving secrets to the Germans?" Behind the screen of the confessional Father Boyle shook his head. The poor girl was losing her mind. He had been observing the process over the months. "Not only has no one confessed to me, and I can assure you, my daughter, that I've not heard any priest even suggest that such a sin has ever been mentioned in the confessional. Mind you, I heard quite a few stories of betrayal after the Irish Civil War. Not this time. Not this war. Put it out of your head, my daughter. I want to make myself clear - you must forget about Billy. Many women have suffered loss of a loved one - a father to their children - and are somehow they are coping. We must learn to cope. Pray to Jesus to give you the strength to overcome your grief and look forward to the future..."

Spring was coming. Memories of that hellish February day when Billy's mate Danny had told her about the loss of the Newton Ash with no survivors were most unbearable when the skies were leaden. But the freshness of that April lifted her spirits. And soon the first full summer of peacetime would follow, and with it Wakes Week, when the factory would close and the annual works outing to Southport would take place.

Eileen's workmates were good. They strove to get her mind off her loss. It was now a little over three and half years ago since her boyfriend's ship was sunk! But Eileen's mind would still wander over to that fixed notion that someone's carelessness or spite had done for Billy. And all those places associated so deeply in her mind with their time together. Father Boyle told her to abandon black mourning clothes and to buy a summer dress, which she did. New songs - ones without any association to the dances that she'd been to with Billy - new songs on the wireless had the power to drag her thoughts away from tired old obsessions.

And came August; a fleet of coaches stood outside the factory to take the young men and women to Southport for a week of revelry. Crates of beer were loaded on board, there was laughter, singing. Somehow the sea, glinting to her left in the sunshine was not that merciless devouring force, but a merry adornment to a happier future. Eileen managed a smile in the bracing winds that blew down the beach.

Running along the sand with her friends, she felt better than in years; ice creams, ginger beer, giggling on the sea front - and then, behind the bandstand - stop the world - it was him.

Billy, pushing a pram, a young woman by his side. It was Billy clear as anything. From twenty paces, he looked straight at Eileen, with an expression of guilty terror, eyes wide open, mouth agape... he said a few words to the woman and then abruptly made a 90 degree turn, shoving the pram into the empty roadway and disappearing into the throng of holiday makers on the other side of the street.

Eileen described the scene to Father Boyle. Was it wrong, she asked of the priest, that she'd have preferred Billy dead?

This time last year:
Stunning infra red photos of Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
Sweet summer's rain, like God's own mercy

Monday, 9 May 2011

Loose lips sink ships - a short story

"There'd never be anyone like Billy for me, ever again." That thought ran obsessively, over and over, in Eileen's mind for the past three years, endlessly; cruelly. She kept tormenting herself at the loss of her boyfriend who went down with his ship in the North Atlantic, just as the war was starting to go Britain's way. With his shock of bright red hair and his permanent grin, a short man so full of energy and life, Billy had given her so many wonderful moments among the dance halls, tea rooms and picture houses of wartime Liverpool.
At first she denied his death. He could have been picked up by a U-boat and then kept a prisoner by the Germans. But the war ended, her hopes diminished then finally faded. She kept that photo of the two of them taken at Jerome's photo studios when he was on shore leave before Christmas 1942; a small one in her purse, a larger one in her lodgings and a similar one above her workplace at the Dunlop factory.

She'd gaze upon it so many times each day. Billy. One day, looking at the calendar, she realised he'd been gone for longer than they'd actually been going out together. And a year later, she could still not get him out of the forefront of her mind. Billy. Six months younger than her, he was. Always 'exuberant', though never crossing that border into 'wild'. Self-control, her mam called it; her mam loved him just as dearly as she did. “An actor giving it all just to his one girl,” that's how her mam described him.

In all her life, Eileen had never been as happy as during those two years and three months during which she and Billy had been together. And all those little gifts, those little luxuries he'd brought Eileen back from New York. Every trip over. Now she kept them in a little museum-shrine on her dressing table. He'd spend every minute of his shore leave with her whenever his ship docked in Liverpool. Kissing passionately under the Ovie.

“What on earth did he see in me?”, she'd ask herself while they were on the town, dancing so energetically at the Rialto or Locarno. She thought of herself as plain, even though objectively speaking she did have a good figure, a narrow waist and longish legs. Eileen was lacking in self-confidence all her life, and Billy gave it to her. And all of her girlfriends and workmates looked on at them admiringly, jealously even.

Two years and three months of bliss, followed by three years of morbid despair. Guilt at the pleasure gone; Catholic guilt. "The sin of pride", Father Boyle used to called it when she confessed to him about how pleased she was when the other girls would watch her dancing with Billy. When she shared her loss with her parish priest, the sympathy he offered was tempered by his knowledge that the dead boy was a Protestant from North Wales. But the dark church interior with its stone floor, statues, candles and smell of incense and wax offered her temporary relief from the constant association of happier places with memories of Billy, all those places where they'd stroll and chat, and spend time together.

For weeks after hearing the news that Billy's ship had gone down with all hands off Iceland, Eileen still held out hope that maybe he'd been picked up by some other vessel, but that hope took a long time to die. Had it taken Billy a long time to die? Had he drowned, trapped in a diminishing pocket of air below decks, his lungs fighting to the very last to expel sea water? Had he died of exposure in the pitiless cold of the North Atlantic in winter? Had he burned alive in a sea of flaming gasoline or been blasted to pieces as a torpedo ripped into the side of the ship? Or drifted in a lifeboat until hunger and thirst had claimed the last man on board? These thoughts dwelt in her mind; wanted but unwanted, they would pierce her consciousness day after day, at work and at rest, summer and winter; these thoughts could be brought on by the sight of the open sea from Wallasey, or of a Merchant Navy seaman on the tram or the strains of a tune they'd danced to; there was no avoiding Billy's memory.

"Loose Lips Sink Ships," the visiting American sailors would say. "Careless Talk Costs Lives" was on posters in the pubs and on the brick walls. Whose lips? Whose careless talk? Which of her workmates at the Dunlop factory, in a fit of jealousy at her happiness, had informed a Nazi agent as to when Billy's ship was setting sail? Father Boyle? Was it Irish nationalists? The longer she wallowed in the tragedy, the more convinced she was that some blabbermouth was to blame for her unending sorrow.

This time three years ago:
Driving home at the end of the working day
(Funny that; once I'd drive to work and consider it normal. Today I consider it odd and anti-social.)

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Patching up the holes

There are a few bits of our road that have become utterly despicable; pock-marked and shell-holed as though they've come under sustained bombardment from the mortar fire. Below: the lowest-lying stretch of ul. Trombity, susceptible to flooding whenever the rainfall's heavy. Then come the frosts; the ice expands in the cracks; the asphalt breaks up, holes appear and the whole thing gets worse and worse.

I was delighted to see as I returned home on Friday evening that a road repair crew was busy on ul. Trombity, patching up the worst of the winter's damage to the surface. I was even more delighted to see them still at it on Saturday (below).

Below: by Monday morning, commuters will be in for a treat! No more worries about suspension and scraped bottoms. How long will this last? Not long. The underlying problem has not been fixed - namely running surface water off the road and into the nearby pond. There is no guttering along ul. Trombity, neither are there any storm drains. So water will continue to gather here, freezing in winter, cracking the surface, creating ever-deeper pot-holes.

We have just been informed (in a long-winded and none-too-clear way) that the local property tax will go up. Good. It's laughably low (the equivalent of around £30 a year, compared with London rates of £120 a month). I'd happily pay more local tax in exchange for proper infrastructure - properly maintained asphalted roads, drains and sewerage.

This time two years ago:
In search of the Sublime Aesthetic

This time three years ago:
Flying in from the Faroes

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Double-headed rail action, Jeziorki

While out and about with camera today, I chanced upon three double-headed trains. Below: the classic Jeziorki coal train shot, a pair of TEM-2 Tamaras hauling wagons to Siekierki power station via the sidings at Konstancin-Jeziorna, as they approach W-wa Jeziorki station.

Below: I've not seen this configuration before; a Czech class 181-050 electric engine double-heading with a diesel 311-D loco, bringing laden coal wagons to the Okęcie sidings along the electrified main line from the south. The diesel engine was doing its bit too, lots of black smoke billowing forth from it.

Below: a pair of Koleje Mazowieckie class EU-07 engines running light from Warsaw towards Radom (one has obviously broken down). Note the tracks on the right that run into undergrowth; these were the tracks to the aggregate loading ramp, ripped out three years ago by developers for a housing estate that was not to be.

By 'old school' I mean pre-war

Yesterday on Marszałkowska (the stretch between Pl. Zbawiciela and Pl. Konstytucji) I chanced upon this tempting display of shoe polish tins in a display cabinet built into a gateway. Five upturned tins, a faded photo of men's shoes. (Click to enlarge)

On the other side of the entrance, a more appealing display - some decent-looking footwear, perhaps the answer to what's lacking in this department here in Warsaw (see post about my shoes). Worth paying Pan Wielądek a visit to see what he can cobble together...

Good to see craft skills hanging on in spite of price competition from the Far East. Here and there, one can still find retailing that pre-dates communist state-owned shops and today's chain stores. Two doors further up Puławska, this tempting display (below). The word dziewiarstwo (męskie and damskie) was new to me; PWN Oxford defines it as 'knitwear'. So now you know!

Seeing these unremonted façades puts me in mind of Cuba; I've got Buena Vista Social Club music going around my head as I process these photos. Unusual association for Warsaw.

This time last year:
Britain chooses a coalition government

This time two years ago:
Landing over Ursynów

This time three years ago:
On being assertive in Poland

Friday, 6 May 2011

Men at work

Men at work, on ul. Puławska, erecting scaffolding. A sight so stirring in its majesty that I jumped off the tram to get some shots. The geometric composition, the colours, the action (things were moving quickly - something you can't see on still images). But wait a minute - not a single hard hat? Instead, the ubiquitous baseball cap.

Pedestrian access has not been cordoned off (imagine that plank slipping as a person walked underneath). At least there are guard rails on the scaffolding, but generally I don't get the feeling that health and safety at work is anything as rigorous as it is in the UK. Which explains why construction industry fatalities in Poland are proportionately five times higher than in the UK.