Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Phrasal verbs: zmora, Panie

Over the past month, I've worked out* why Poles are so fond of long verbs of Latin or Greek derivation. It's not that they want to show off their learning. It's because phrasal verbs are so damned difficult.

If you're a native English speaker and not involved in language teaching, you will pause here to ask (as I did one day in my late 20s), what a phrasal verb actually is. In English, they are as natural as breathing and so are not even taught at school. But for non-native speakers they are fiendishly difficult, and if you wish to use them correctly, as native speakers do, there's no alternative but to learn them by heart.

I had my eureka moment this month, doing phrasal verb tests with some of my top students, who are generally very good at communicating in English. But in this test, they were scoring two or three out of 15.

So then.

A phrasal verb is one where a preposition or adverb (or both) added after it changes its meaning so it is no longer literal. So, for example, to run - verb. "I run to the shops" In this sentence "to run" is not a phrasal verb, because to preposition "to" that follows it doesn't change its meaning. But "to run across", ("I ran across an old friend in the street), "to run up" ("I had the tailor run up this jacket for me") or "to run up against"("I ran up against a serious problem) most certainly are. "To stick" - lepić; but "to stick out"? Wystawać, odstawać - but where's the association with lepić?

Phrasal verb roots are generally short, simple verbs that even the smallest native-speaking child will understand and use naturally; to go, to get, to take, to do, to look, to put, to bring, to give.

English being an 'onion language' of many layers (Celtic, Germanic, Latin, French, global loanwords) is a language rich in synonym, so many phrasal verbs have perfect or close-matching synonyms. These are usually Latinate in origin.

"I can't endure this any longer" - to endure = to put up with.
"This is a skill I acquired in my last job" - to acquire = to pick up.
Note in the last example the impossibility of direct translation into Polish... To jest umiejętność którą ja podniosłem w mojej ostatniej pracy - a direct and incorrect translation. Incorrect, bo nie można podnieść umiejętność, raczej ją nabyć/ zdobyć/ uzyskać. (A correct translation would be: Jest to umiejętność, którą nabyłem w mojej ostatniej pracy). And hence the difficulty for Poles.

How about some tests then?

What are the phrasal verb equivalents of the underlined words?

  1. I know him too well to be deceived (__________) by his stories.
  2. Their children were raised (__________) in the Catholic faith.
  3. Golf occupies (_______) most of his free time.
  4. The air show was cancelled (________) because of bad weather.
  5. The application was rejected (__________) because it wasn't completed (_______) properly.
  6. He raised (_______) the subject of his promotion again.

Can you offer synonyms for the following phrasal verbs?

  1. He came down with __________ malaria while working in Africa.
  2. It’s about time we threw away _________ those old brochures!
  3. I found out _________ that one of my colleagues has a criminal record.
  4. We will be shortly handing out _________ landing cards.
  5. One of our top spies had gone over _______ to the Russians.
  6. She needs to break out of __________ that boring routine!

These are no-brainers for native English speakers. For non-natives - they can be extremely hard. So I intend to concentrate on teaching phrasal verbs for the next few months. As I said, there's no alternative to just learning them all by heart - and there's thousands of them out there.

This also raises an important point in the management of multinational corporations where English is the main language; should native-speaking managers be made aware of phrasal verbs (especially ones used idiomatically) and be asked to avoid them?

Incidentally, the problem works the other way too. I still have problems in Polish with prefix + verb structures such as wnosić, wynosić, przynosić, donosić, zanosić etc, which function similarly to phrasal verbs. Indeed, this makes for a good introduction to the subject for Polish students of English.

* To work out - to reach a conclusion (dojść do wniosku); to calculate (kalkulować).

This time two years ago:
Putin writes about Molotov-Ribbentrop

This time three years ago:
Summer in the city

This time four years ago:
Last bike ride to work

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

More fun in the Anglo-Polish linguistic space

Two interesting threads came up in my English classes today. "What's the difference between 'regardless' and 'in spite of'?

Consider the following two sentences:

"I'm going to the seaside regardless of the weather"

"I'm going to the seaside in spite of the weather"

In the first sentence, I don't know what the weather will be. It might be storm force nine; it might be cloudless and still. One way or the other, I will go. I will go without regard to the weather, whatever it will be.

In the second sentence, I know for sure that the weather will be awful. And yet I will go. I will go despite the weather.

Getionary gives "regardless" as bez względu, niezależne (od czegoś). "In spite of" is given as pomimo, mimo czegoś.

Stanisławski gives "regardless" as nie zważając, nie bacząc, nie licząc się (z czymś); to pomimo as "in spite of" he adds wbrew (czemuś).

I think it's clear in both languages; no need for confusion between the two (phrasal verb alternative: no need to mix up the two).

I shall write more about phrasal verbs tomorrow, having made a massive discovery in this area of the Anglo-Polish linguistic space.

Before then - what's "to tell off" in Polish? A phrasal verb that every primary school child knows: "The teacher told me off for talking in class". Stanisławski has wyznaczyć (kogoś do zrobienia czegoś); wojsk. odkomenderować; z/besztać, z/rugać; nagadać (komuś). Getionary has kogoś zkarcić / zganić. Goodness! None of these are words I'd have associated with being told off at Polish Saturday school! Can anyone suggest good Polish translation for "to tell off"? Or do Poles not tell off their children?

It occurred to me as we were cycling along ul. Kadetów; a woman driving the other way yelled at us to use the cyclepath provided. She was right - indeed there was one. What was she doing? Not so much telling us off for riding along the roadway, more a case of, yes, zwracać uwagę. To tell off - best translation - literally - 'to turn one's attention to [something]'.

This time last year:
Summer slipping away

This time two years ago:
Late summer dad'n'lad bike ride

This time three years ago:
Tuwim's Lokomotywa in English

Monday, 29 August 2011

Bad car day

I try to use the car as rarely as possible during the working week. Bike and bus/metro/rail suffice admirably for day-to-day commuting. Today I drove to my first meeting at Platan Park and then onto the Park+Ride (P+R in Polish, not PiJ - Parkuj i jedż). En route from Platan Park to Metro Ursynów, I hit upon a monstrous traffic jam, caused not by a massive return to work, but by a four-car smash on Puławska. Horrendous wreckage; someone had changed lanes too fast without noticing a queue of stationary traffic hiding behind a slow-moving bus.

Returning for the car after work, I beheld yet another smash at Ursynów (below), another instance of travelling too fast without due care and attention. According to TVN Warszawa, the driver of this car ran a red light.

Below: Some people are proud of being piraci drogowi ('road pirates') who drive like complete fools. 99 times out of a hundred they get to their destination without a problem. Then one day they cause a fatal accident. Should people displaying such an attitude be allowed on Poland's public roads?

All around me mad drivers, bad drivers... the driver of a Volvo V60 on Piaseczno plates pulling across three lanes of traffic, into the right-hand filter lane to dodge back into the left-hand lane, just to be able to jump two cars ahead of me - while speaking into her mobile phone and steering with one hand... the driver of a Lotus Elise revving up furiously and tearing through Ursynów at an obscene speed... the driver of a Maserati Quattroporte using his laptop in slow-moving traffic on ul. Puławska...

And then, as I drove down ul. Trombity, not far from our house, I drove into an improbably deep hole in the road, full of water - result - a puncture and, for the second time on our street, a ripped front spoiler. All at less than 30 kmh.

(Incidentally, if you own a Toyota Yaris and want to know where the jack is, don't bother phoning Toyota Polska's "help"line. It's under the driver's seat (yes!). Thanks to Lacrosse's Andrew Nathan, who googled it for me while we were talking business. He didn't have to; but Toyota's useless call centre operator, who was there to help in such cases, showed zero initiative or real willingness to help.)

And all this on the day when Poland's infrastructure minister was facing his third no-confidence vote... [What's the TIME, Mr Nowak? It's TIME for you to QUIT. Just look at your watch.]

Poland should erect a momentously huge statue to all the infrastructure ministers that held office since 1989, and place it near Stryków, where the motorways run out. Cezary Grabarczyk (PO)... Jerzy Polaczek (PiS - remember him?)... Marek Pol, (Unia Pracy - thanks Sportif)... Tadeusz Syryjczyk (AWS)... A vast 50 metre high human figure representing them all; eyes scanning the horizon; rolled-up plans in hand; purposefully striding forth in Wellington boots and hard-hat...

"Look on my lack of works, ye Taxpayers, and despair..."

This time last year:
Dragonfly summer

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Same as it ever was

Ul. Nowoursynowska, a sunny Sunday afternoon in late summer. Five Dominican friars, out for a stroll in the vicinity of their Abbey. The sight of five young men in flowing white robes looks most incongruous against the background of the newly-finished thoroughfare, now widened to four lanes with cycle path, and the modern housing.

Past posts from the Abbey here, here and here.

May the monks remain here for centuries to come.

This time last year:
Late summer moods, Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
The next one hundred years

This time three years ago:
"What do we want? Early retirement!
When do we want it? NOW!"

This time four years ago:
Twilight of Warsaw's greenhouse economy

Saturday, 27 August 2011

To Hel and back in 36 hours

As a small child in Polish Saturday school in London, I'd pore over maps of Poland looking at places called Łódź and Lwów, Bydgoszcz and Białystok. Less confusingly, there was this dangly thing over Gdańsk called 'Hel'. No map of Poland is complete without this feature. What's it like?

As a young person visiting Poland with Montserrat (two coachloads of 15-20 year-old boys and girls of Polish parentage going to the fatherland for a religious pilgrimage organised by the Polish parish in Ealing) I visited Hel in 1976. Back then, the place was of strategic military significance for the Warsaw Pact. Our guide told us in no uncertain terms to keep all cameras hidden as penalties for Western spies were severe. Passports were checked; paranoia total. Our coaches made their way along a narrow spit of land, at times so narrow we could see the sea on both sides of the road.

Hel is a textbook peninsula at the end of which is an intriguing town. Hel is a place you have to visit if you are ever to have a complete mental picture of Poland and its diversity - from Zakopane to the Mazurian lakes, from the Białowieża forest to Wieliczka's salt mine and dozens of fascinating historic cities in between.

The night train tourism concept is now proven; a concentrated dose of travel experience crammed tight by doubling up on transportation and sleeping time. Board a train in Warsaw on Thursday evening, wake up on the beach Friday morning. Spend one intensive, never-to-be-forgotten, day there. Then board a train home on Friday evening and wake up in Warsaw on Saturday morning. This way, you still have the entire weekend free. The cost of the train ticket is little more than the cost of a night's stay in a hotel, with the added bonus that this particular hotel transports you 547km as you sleep.

Above: arrival at Hel of the night train from Warsaw, eleven and half hours after leaving the capital. It's just gone nine in the morning so time for a cup of coffee.

Above: one of the oldest buildings in town, dating back over 180 years; Maszoperia, once the HQ of the local fisherman's guild. Inside, it's full of nautical horse-brasses, reminding me of the Tŷ Coch in Porthdinllaen, North Wales and pubs of this nature all around Britain's shore.

Compared to my day trip to Międzyzdroje last month, this time, it was perfect beach weather; even the Baltic was warm, so at the age of 53 I took my first swim in morze nasze morze. It being the end of the season, the clothes shops were busy depleting their stock, so I bought a decent pair of swimming trunks for 19 zlotys (£3.75). I use the word 'decent' advisedly, for at their last outing a few summers back, my pair of silver-grey Speedos purchased in 1983 were deemed by my own children to be too, er, skimpy for a middle-aged guy.

Like most beaches on a hot day, it gets crowded around the entrances; but wander off down the sandy beach and the crowds soon thin out. Indeed, by late afternoon, the beach was quite empty. The clean, soft sand reminded me of Porth Oer in North Wales, a beach also known as Whispering Sands; as you walk along it, it squeaks. Above: the Baltic sea gets very deep very quickly. Notice how close to the shore the trawler is sailing. I was surprised by the lack of tidal amplitude; the low tide mark is just a few metres from the high tide mark, so unlike the British Isles, where the difference can be hundreds of metres.

On a day like yesterday, the beach at Hel is perfect; pure sand stretching for hundreds of kilometres. From here, the very tip of the peninsula, one can walk to Jurata, Jastarnia, Kużnica and Chałupy to Władysławowo on the mainland, 35km away. Past the port, then onwards, westwards, past Łeba, Ustka, Kołobrzeg, onwards past Międzyzdroje to Świnoujście and the German border. Essentially, Poland's Baltic coast is one endless sandy beach punctuated by port towns and fishing villages, and of course Gdańsk and Gdynia.

Compared to Międzyzdroje, slightly snooty with its Promenade of Stars, classy hotels and German tourists, Hel is unpretentious, middle-market, with a stronger smattering of historical authenticity.

Night train travel offers spontaneity and intensity of experience. Check the forecast. Unnecessarily, I took wet- and cold weather gear that merely served as rucksack ballast. (But can you trust the forecasts? got it right this time - pure sunshine, hot, no rain, few clouds. Yet the website forecast no rain for Warsaw for either Wednesday or Thursday - and on both days it poured in the afternoon.)

The Hel Peninsula was important militarily to pre-war Poland, guarding the approaches to the country's only Baltic port, Gdynia. As such it was turned into a fortified zone in the mid-'30s. In September 1939, soldiers and sailors defending the peninsula held out against the Nazis for a month. After that, the Germans re-fortified the area, and after the war, the Warsaw Pact strengthened it further still.

Above: Hel was ready to defend itself against a seaborne NATO invasion that never came. To this day, a vast network of bunkers, observation posts, command posts, look-out towers and communications centres is scattered along the peninsula. Most objects are now open to tourists to visit.

Above: a local trawler takes tourists for a spin around the bay. In the background, a ferry headed for Scandinavia.

When in Hel, eat locally caught sea food and sample the nautical culture. I can recommend cod in beer cake here. Sea shanties were being played at Chëcz, above (Chëcz is Kashubian for 'house'). Poland's sea shanty tradition goes back to communist days, when the authorities, wanting to give its youth something to sing other than songs coloured with religious, patriotic or martial overtones, stumbled upon English sea shanties, had them translated them into Polish, they were sung on training vessels, yachts, canoes or around camp fires. Wild Rover, The Leaving Of Liverpool or What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor in Polish? Why certainly! Ależ prosze bardzo!.

Left: the lighthouse (built by the Germans in 1942) at the very tip of the peninsula. Strolling back from the beach towards the end of a Most satisfying journey, the sandy forest that covers the area between the town of Hel and the beaches puts me in mind of childhood holidays in Stella Plage in northern France. Back in Jeziorki, I'm looking over the photos taken that day, listening to Brian Eno's On Some Faraway Beach...

Below: it's eight in the evening and time to board the night train back to Warsaw. A memorable day out; my taste of the Polish Baltic far exceeding my expectations. On returning home, Moni, who spent part of her lengthy holiday with friends on the Hel Peninsula, asked me why anyone should want to vacation anywhere else.

This time last year:
Poles, stretch your facial muscles

This time two years ago:
Honing the Art of the Written Word

This time three years ago:
Of castles, dams and brass bands

This time four years ago:
Late August cultivation

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Fresh fruit top-up - eat 'em while you can

In early June strawberries, then come the cherries in July, plums, blueberries and then raspberries; available everywhere - street corner fruit stalls, local shops, hypermarkets - and very cheap - prices as low as 6 zlotys (£1.30) a half-kilo punnet. It behoves us to eat them, indeed guzzle them in huge quantities, while they're here, to build up the immune system with natural vitamins before the onset of the darkness and the cold.

Full of Vitamin C, antioxidants and dietary fibre, raspberries are very healthy. And I am amazed to discover that Poland's the world's fourth largest producer of raspberries, just behind the USA.

Sold in deep papier-mâché punnets and with a short shelf-life, raspberries will often go mouldy from the bottom up. The consumer cannot see from the ones on the top what the bottom of the punnet looks like. I must say, that since Poland joined the EU, the quality of raspberries has improved, and the implementation of HACCP by fruit growers has meant one can fairly safely eat unwashed raspberries. If you wash them, they go off much more quickly. Other fruit I always wash - but raspberries rarely.

Above: A novelty on the market - punnets covered in cling-film. Stops customers picking at the content, but also I'd guess the greater humidity within the punnet leads to dampness and faster mould growth. I've picked out three mouldy raspberries; many more would be lurking beneath.

We're at the height of the season, but although prices will rise and there will be fewer street vendors selling them, we'll still have raspberries on sale until the first frosts of late autumn.

This time two years ago:
Molotov-Ribbentrop 70 years on

Monday, 22 August 2011

Raymond's treasure - Part Two

Raymond was about to leave the small sack with his treasures on the table, and walk out of Lord Arnaul's hall, wholly crushed, when some laughing voice behind him cried: "Give the villein a drink, in the merciful name of the Blessed Virgin Mary!" A crescendo of laughter burst forth to support that suggestion. A large goblet, brim-full of a fine Lotharingian wine, was passed to Raymond; in his nervousness he gulped it down like water. It was the first noble alcohol he'd imbibed since he broke his homeward journey from Jerusalem at Malta; his usual drink was watery ale. The wine went straight to his head.

"Tell us about Antioch, brave soldier!" someone shouted. Emboldened by the alcohol, Raymond started rambling with increasing confidence of the Crusades, of his valour, of how he had fought at the side of Tancred of Hauteville himself, Lord Arnaul's uncle. Though not an educated man, he told his story well, full of convincing sound effects of clashing steel and dying infidels.

"Valiant fellow!" called out some knight seated close to him, passing Raymond another full goblet, this time with mead. A roast leg of piglet was thrust into his free hand, a chair found for him.

Bemused by the attention, befuddled by drink, Raymond was consciously still trying to work out the chances of getting home to his wife with his treasure; the sack was lying on the table within arm's reach, between him and Lord Arnaul. He decided then he'd drink no more; the content of the next goblet passed to him he poured discreetly into his lap. He ate more fatty pork; each subsequent goblet was disposed of in the same way.

As night fell and the candles burned out, the company of knights passed out, one by one. Lord Arnaul's head was slumped on his massive forearms. Raymond's hand moved forward slowly, reaching out for the small jute sack. No one observed him as he pulled it forth, placing it within his tunic, he made his way towards the doorway of the great hall.

That night, as he returned home, he recounted what had happened to his extremely worried wife. Before they retired to bed, Raymond and Mathilde went out to their back garden, and in the dark, moonless night, they buried the sack in the cabbage patch.

Mathilde had learned her lesson. She could see that turning Saracen treasure into a currency that could be readily spent would not be easy. She imagined passing it on to her eldest son on her death-bed, only to leave him with the self same problem.

But as it happened, fate had decided to give the couple a second prize. For Lord Arnaul, waking and finding the treasure - and half his retinue - gone, was convinced that one of his knights had pinched it. He felt intense guilt - guilt at what he'd said to a man who was essentially a good and faithful villein, a man who'd fought bravely with his uncle - and at the fact that the treasure had been stolen by some Christian knight whom he'd once considered trustworthy.

So Lord Arnaul, overcoming intense personal discomfort, in the company of his white-bearded Father Confessor, made his way to Raymond's cottage. Mathilde welcomed in the Lord of the Manor while Raymond, seeing them coming, fled to another room. But soon it became clear who was the petitioner and who was being petitioned; "Raymond; I have come to apologise to thee for the behaviour of my knights; one of whom must have behaved in a most unChristian manner. As their Lord, it behoves me to compensate you for your loss. I should like you to accept an offering of ten livres for your stolen treasures..." Raymond looked at Mathilde; neither's face betrayed any emotion. Raymond gladly accepted the purse held out by Lord Arnoul; this should be the end of the matter. Though the sum was not one half of what Isaac the Jew had offered, it would keep Raymond, his wife and their three sons fed through what would be a hungry winter.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Raymond's treasure - a short story

Raymond returned home to Montreuil from the Crusades. The strong, blond-haired man had been present at the siege of Antioch and at had taken part in the capture of Jerusalem, alongside Tancred of Hauteville. There, he had witnessed such slaughter of infidels – Moslems and Jews, old people, women, children – such scenes of unbridled butchery that his nightmares would be filled with horror and remorse for the rest of his days.

But all the way home from Antioch he'd carried, in a little sack, some looted treasure that he'd chanced upon in the rooms of a rich merchant's wife – a small chalice, silver, inlaid with gold inside, and a brooch, bracelet and necklace all finely wrought in gold. Back home in Montreuil, Raymond buried the sack and its contents in a deep hole behind his cottage.

Now was the third harvest since his return, his vows to re-take the Holy Land for Jesus had been fulfilled. Yet that year, 1103, the Good Lord did not grant him nor any of his fellow returning Crusaders a munificent summer. For it rained daily throughout June and July; by early August; the fields were sodden, the wheat was black, stunted and damp. Mildew spread through the crop. The harvest would be bitter; the winter would be hungry.

Raymond's beloved wife Mathilde looked at the field but did not despair, for she knew of her husband's treasure. Ever since his return, she had been beseeching Raymond to sell it. With all that gold, she could... they could... They both dreamed. A horse; two horses, maybe; fine clothes, more land; rich food, toys for their three small sons... Often they'd lay in bed discussing what the treasure could buy them – but these were only dreams. The treasure would first have to be sold, for money...

Ever since the sacking of Antioch, five summers earlier, Raymond had not uttered a word about his treasure; not even hinted of its existence – except to his wife. Could he trust Mathilde not to tell the other women about the manor? Did she talk about it so that she could seem more important to the others?

Selling such treasures and obtaining money for them would not easy for a peasant such as Raymond, even one that had fought bravely to reconquer the Holy Land. He knew what he was facing as he dug his treasure out of the ground and he took it to a local trader, Isaac, the son of Levi. Before getting down to the business, the two men silently took time to weigh up each other's respective bargaining strengths. Yet Raymond found that he could not gaze squarely into to the eyes of the other man; before he'd even shown his pieces to the trader, he felt in a losing position. He pulled his treasure out of the sack. Isaac examined them in great detail. Finally, Isaac made Raymond an offer. Raymond was shocked by what he heard; he felt belittled; personally offended. He'd long ago made up his mind as to what all this fine gold and silver was worth; the Jew was not offering him a quarter of that price. “What would Mathilde say, if I were to return to her with this paltry sum of money?” he thought, as he gathered up his treasures, put them carefully back into his sack and rose from the table.

His return home was not a happy one. Raymond the Crusader, the warrior-provider, the protector, had become in an instant the object of derision in her eyes. A weak man. “Take it to Lord Arnoul,” chided Mathilde, her heavy mass of flaxen hair shaking in anger. Let him offer you a fair price.” Raymond was doubtful. He did not like Lord Arnoul; a vain man; tyrannical and boastful. He looked at his wife's face; of a sudden it seemed small and tight, no longer that of the sweet maiden he'd married; but a face distorted by fading dreams of sudden, easy wealth.

With a heavy heart, Raymond took the sack with him up the hill to the manor house. He told the gatekeeper what his business was, and after a short while he was beckoned to the lord's presence in the great hall. Raymond was shown in to see his lord seated at a long table, surrounded by many knights, all clearly quite drunk. At first, Arnoul, who was a nephew of Tancred, appeared pleased to meet a man who'd been on the Crusades with his uncle. When Raymond told Arnoul of his treasure, the nobleman laughed. “Money? You want your lord to give you money? I'll give you no money! Leave the sack and be off with you! Just be grateful that I've spared you your life for your impudence!” Arnoul's retinue roared with laughter, considering their lord's rejoinder a capital joke.

[Part two of Raymond's Treasure will be published on Monday night]

This time last year:
Now an urban legend: Kebab factory under W-wa Centralna

This time two years ago:
It was twenty years ago today

This time three years ago:
By bike to Czachówek again

Birthplace of Poland's aviation

Pole Mokotowskie, just south-west of the city centre; in late summer, gorgeous sunshine, Varsovians are out and about making the most of it. Midges (komary) not too worrisome this weekend. A place to hang out, sunbathe, stroll, or show off your on your rollerblades or fixed-wheel hipster bike (saw some cool ones yesterday!).

Just behind the spot from where this photo was taken stands a plaque commemorating the fact that Pole Mokotowskie were home to Warsaw's first airport, from 1910 to 1939 (more info on the Polish Wikipedia page here).

Below: spray from the battery of fountains keeps strollers cool; Warsaw's skyline rises above the park in the near distance; we are just two Metro stations away from the very centre of town. Once a regular morning walking spot for Polish reporter and writer, Ryszard Kapuściński, the park now boasts a trail in his name, bearing numerous thought-provoking epigrams of his set in concrete in metal letters.

Below: located in the park is Poland's National Library, currently home to Kino Iluzjon, where classic films are show (rarely repeated). Yesterday, for example, The Great Gatsby. In the foreground, a circle of standing stones - not here from neolithic times, but erected in 2000.

Of Warsaw's larger parks, it is less stuffy than Łazienki, more hip than Park Skaryszewski.

This time last year:
A Serious Man - interpreting uncertainty

This time two years ago:
'Funny old cars' - Poland, 1989

This time four years ago:
Another summer storm

Friday, 19 August 2011

August storm, ul. Targowa

The trams are back on ul. Targowa. (Not so clever, though, trying to get from Al. Zieleniecka to Rondo Wiatraczna - the tracks are now being dug up on this stretch of ul Grochowska.) I arrive for my Lesson amidst a right proper storm. The wind is ripping umbrellas out of people's hands, the rain is falling with such vehemence that by the time I get to where I'm going, my suit (dry-cleaned just hours earlier) is completely sodden, all the carefully ironed creases in it gone.

July and August in Poland are Storm Months. Today was typical; a clear blue sky in the morning, the clouds would build up (piętrzyć się) over the afternoon, and by the early evening the sky would be prematurely dark, the wind would howl and the heavens would open. The temperature plunged from 31C to 17C in a few minutes, and five litres of water fell on every square metre of ground in the space of an hour.

Of course, it befits a Storyteller to be caught up in the perfect storm, survive it and tell the tale (it's nice to sit back and write about the experience now, but while I was caught up in the deluge, it was downright nasty)!

This time last year:
More revelations about the underground kebab factory

This time two years ago:
Cheap holidays in other people's miseries

This time three years ago:
Steam train welcomes me to Dobra (for the very first time)

This time four years ago:
New housing, near Zgorzała

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

From the mountains to the sea

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from the mobile phone of Paul Kaye (left), a Brussels-based Brit currently cycling along the Vistula from its source in the mountains to the sea. He'd picked up on my post about the newly-opened Vistula cycle path that makes its way through Warsaw along the right bank. I replied to Paul's question that the city's flood defence wall along the left bank of the river makes for a good approach to Warsaw from Góra Kalwaria and Konstancin in the south (my blog posts here and here).

Paul has previously cycled the entire length of the Iron Curtain "from Trieste in the Adriatic to Stettin in the Baltic" and has published a book, Fragments, about that journey.

Paul's current trip will total over 1,300km, a similar distance to the one I covered 25 years ago this summer, from the top of Spain to the bottom of Portugal. Today's cycle traveller has the vast advantage of the internet and mobile telephony; to find information and get recommendations of where to stay, to contact people along the way.

Paul's next stops are Płock, Toruń and finally Gdańsk. A Vistula path should really be laid out all the way from the mountains to the sea via all points in between so that cyclists can make the journey without having to make wide detours or competing with heavy goods traffic. The cost of creating a proper Vistula cycle path would be relatively small; the benefits to Poland's tourist industry would be massive.

Monday, 15 August 2011

How old must a place be to be cherished?

Polish cities have their medieval Old Towns, Łódź has its 19th C. industrial district, with the lovingly-restored Manufaktura at its heart; numerous skansens recreate earlier times. All enjoy popularity and are protected by the konserwator zabytków ('keeper of monuments'). But one form of historical building, unique to this part of the world, which does not - as yet - enjoy the undivided support of the local population - is that which arose under communism.

As that period recedes into memory, there are still islands of it about, even in prosperous Warsaw; places that give visitors a taste of what it once must have been live to have lived in a system hallmarked by absurdity and man's inhumanity to man*.

One such place - I've mentioned it before - is Warszawa Zachodnia station - indeed both the railway station (Dworzec Zachodni) and the PKS bus terminal. If you can ignore the crowded car park full of new(ish) Audis, BMWs and Volkswagens, the modern-day dress of most people passing through and their use of mobile phones, the entire area can give you an excellent feel of the early period of transition from communism to the free market. (Indeed, the railway station offers hardly any sops to modernity.)

Join me then, for a tour of Zachodnia...

Above: at eye level - modern cars, ads featuring website addresses, contemporary fashion. But look up a bit - or down - and the scene's much as it would have been in the late1960s.

This is the 1960s office block overlooking W-wa Zachodnia PKS bus station. The aerials on the roof belong to mobile phone operators, but on top of this tower, but they could be imagined as secret spy antennae eavesdropping on citizens below.

The passage between the bus station and the railway station (above); full of klimat in its own right. I've mentioned Bar na luzie before; a not-to-be-missed drinking spot if you have a while between connections and a sense of humour and you don't mind Królewskie beer.

Above: local flavour - an old tyre, a discarded boot, empty vodka and beer bottles. Evidence of Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek at work.

Above: the railway station. A real, live, working railway museum. It gives that interactive passenger experience of what it was like to travel by train in communist days. "Bing-bong! The Koleje Mazowieckie train to Radom via Piaseczno and Warka is about to leave Track 1 on Platform 6" (waits for every passenger to make their way there). And then just as the train is pulling into the station... "Bing-bong! The Koleje Mazowieckie train to Radom via Piaseczno and Warka is about to leave Track 21 on Platform 3." Panic as everyone surges across down the stairs into the tunnel and across to Platform 3. Only the strong and the fleet of foot make it before the Radom train pulls out. Śmierc frajerom.

Around this time last year, I delved deep into the underground passages of W-wa Centralna station. Zachodnia has its dark corners, closed off from unwarranted attention by a 'Brak przejścia' sign. At least there are no kebab factories down here!

* Old joke: "The capitalist system shows man's inhumanity to man. Under communism, comrades, it's the opposite!"

This time last year:
90 years ago today - Bolsheviks stopped at the gates of Warsaw

This time two years ago:

This time four years ago:
Armed forces day parade in Warsaw

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Sublime evening in the garden

The Golden Time of Day; the magic hour draws near. I sit on a deckchair sipping a beer (Żywiec Porter, an excellent brew let down - as most Polish beers are - by being too sweet), gazing across the side garden as the sun dips below the trees. That sublime mood of well-being comes over me.

Time to immortalise the evening for the blog. I nip in for the camera, and take a few shots to share here. Below: looking south-west from the patio - the trees and bushes have matured over the nine and half years since we moved into a house that essentially had no garden, just 1,200 sq. m. of soil.

Below: view of the house from the back garden. Sky made bluer with polarising filter. Some bare patches in the soil, resulting from most recent mole invasion.

The Raging Footsoldier - part two

Godfrey sat contemplating the moon as it progressed through the heavens. He could hear a dog barking in the distance; one by one, more and more dogs began to bark; it was getting nearer to him – was someone about? Could it be a rabid dog running through the village? – that would be most dangerous for him, held fast by his ankles. He'd heard of men in stocks devoured by packs of wild dogs. A quiet panic fell upon him as he considered such a fate.

In the early hours, he thought he could imagine a figure moving between the trees across the village green. A dream? A waking vision? Mary, Mother of God? ...It was a person; indeed a woman – as she walked onto the grass, he could see it was a nun, heading towards him. The dogs were barking louder than ever; it must have been this nun that set them off.

The nun, barefooted and wimpled, as befitting a Discalced Carmelite sister, approached carrying a small wooden bucket .

“In God's Holiest Name, I come bearing succour unto the imprisoned, unto those scorned...” she whispered, and began to pray over him. With a damp rag she wiped away the excrement and filth from his face and clothing. Then, she gave him some bread to eat and let him drink his fill of water from the bucket.

“I have been punished with reason,” admitted Godfrey. “I am given to rages; I am not a good man.”

She looked upon him with pity. “You have shown contrition; pray now to the Lord to grant you forgiveness.” “I am unable to bring my hands together,” he replied. “The Lord will hear your prayer even as you are. Remember Jesus always has a place for the lost sheep, the prodigal sons, the repentant sinners.

Godfrey bowed his head and began to pray as best as he could remember, for he was not at heart a religious man.

“Are you married?” “No, good madam. I would wish my rages upon no woman. Besides, I am known about these parts as a man who cannot keep his temper – I have been in the stocks before for such sinning.”

“Have you confessed your sins?” she asked.

“The priest says I am taken over by the Devil when the rage overcomes me. Prithee, I cannot pray for forgiveness when I am not in charge of myself! Are these my sins? Why should I be held to account for what I do when the Devil takes me over?”

The nun looked at Godfrey with sadness; shaking her head, unable to reply to his questions. She gave him another long drink of water, stood up and bid him farewell. Finally, she made a sign of the Cross and blessing him, made her way back to the Abbey for morning prayers.

“Will you return to me?” he called after her with a hint of desperation in his voice. In the distance he thought he could make out her nodding, but he was unsure.

Another whole day and another night in the stocks, he thought. He'd be let out on Sunday morning, after High Mass.

On the eastern horizon, the late summer sun began to lighten the sky; cockerels heralded the approaching day. Time wore on at a tediously slow pace. The first people began to go about their daily business in the village, mostly ignoring Godfrey. He knew from experience that once they'd done most of their work, they'd pay more heed to the man in the stocks. It was not long afterwards that a rider galloped across the green towards the manor house. Soon there was much commotion around the building. Before long, a crowd of armed men had gathered before it; the squire, mounted and in full armour, rode out, with a retinue of horsemen and footsoldiers following him with banners waving high, and much shouting.

The armed procession approached the stocks. The squire, from his horse, spoke to Godfrey: “The Duke of Gloucester is moving against Warwick. We must stop him before he reaches Northampton. You served me well at Edgecote Moor. You fought like the very Devil himself. I need all the best men to fight with me. I shall release you from the stocks to fight alongside me - rage once again, Godfrey!

This time last year:
In search of happiness

This time two years ago:
Missionaries and mercenaries

This time three years ago:
Spectacular sunrise

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Raging Footsoldier - a short story

Godfrey was in the stocks again. It was past midnight but this time it was mercifully warm. Last time, in early spring, he thought he'd perish from the cold. The previous afternoon, a laughing crowd had been pelting him with dung, offal and old vegetables. A large onion, rotted quite soft, spattered across his left shoulder; its pungent, disgusting smell was inescapable. The smell of dung he could cope with. Putrid onion, soaked into the fabric of his woollen tunic – no.

Clouds scudded across an August moon. Alone on the village green, seated in extreme discomfort with his ankles held fast before him, Godfrey reflected upon his punishment. A slight and generally placid man, Godfrey was nearing his thirtieth year; in the stocks he considered the twists and turns of his life. Once again, a merry evening at the inn had turned very nasty; once again he had to face the squire, who finding him guilty of affray, punished Godfrey to three days and three nights in the stocks.

That Lammasday eve, with the first wheat harvest over, and the hard, hot, summer’s work behind them, Godfrey and his friends Myles, Lambert and Piers, had supped back many tankards of ale. All were in high spirits, when someone said something that suddenly got Godfrey fighting mad. He picked up his stool and, raging, hurled it at the man who’d uttered that ill-judged comment. It all started from that.

In the stocks, Godfrey’s mind ran back to another time he’d got fighting mad. Edgecote Moor. Three summers ago.

The two battle lines were drawn in close array; taunts began being shouted across the twenty yards of marshy ground that separated the two forces.

Was it something that someone said – or was it a loose arrow zipping past his ear – he couldn’t recall. But he remembered clearly losing control of himself and flying into a fury. Waving his poleaxe above his head, he charged the Yorkist line, oblivious of the fact that his Lancastrian comrades weren’t with him. That madness – familiar to Godfrey from his earliest childhood – had taken him over. Wide-eyed he ran, blinded by rage, cursing incoherently at his foe. He swung his pole-axe at the legs of a short, tubby soldier, who failing to parry the blow with his shield, toppled forward, his left shin shattered. Godfrey then deftly jabbed the poleaxe straight into the face of the man behind the fallen soldier. Godfrey was raging, maddened with anger, quite unstoppable.

A moment passed, then the Lancastrian line spontaneously surged forward, a ragged cheer rising from the soldiers as they followed Godfrey’s lead. The Lancastrians soon punched a sizeable hole in the Yorkist line. Godfrey, still wild with fury, speared a Yorkist pike man through the chest with such force that he could not pull his poleaxe free. With only a dagger to defend himself with, Godfrey would have been sliced in half by an enemy broadsword had a Lancastrian cavalryman not waded into the broiling mass of foot-soldiers on his huge war horse to shatter the skull of the threatening Yorkist with his mace.

At this moment, kneeling in the mud, still trying to pull his poleaxe free from the dying man’s chest, Godfrey suddenly recognised where he was and what mortal danger he was in. His weapon stuck fast, he was now forced to do something he’d not done for the previous few minutes – he had to think. About him heavy, sharpened blades were raining onto heads and bodies, there was an unbearable tumult of angry shouting, horses neighing, cries of men in agony.

Godfrey had become acutely conscious of where he was, aware of the peril about him, he had to decide – pull back or play dead or keep fighting. The first two he instinctively knew to be the most dangerous. As he stooped to pick up a fallen sword, an armoured foot of a dismounted knight pressed his hand into the mud. The sharp pain awoke Godfrey’s ire once more. As the knight moved on, Godfrey picked up the sword and yelling like a lunatic, he swung the sword upwards with a deft stroke to the back of the knight’s neck; it proved a lucky blow, for the blade slid under the nape-piece of his helmet, cutting him to the ground. As blood covered the knight’s back, a cry went out – “Richard of Pembroke is dead!” The Yorkists suddenly fell back, one of their leaders seemingly killed.

Mounted knights of the Lancastrian side surged into the crumbling Yorkist line, boosted by the Earl of Warwick’s men who had arrived in time to join the fray. The Lancastrians pushed forward their advantage on all sides, to rout the enemy who were fleeing the field.

That day on Edgecote Moor, Godfrey was the hero. He was told by one and all that he had been the bravest of the those fighting there, without equal on the field. Braver than the knights in armour on their horses, braver than the captains, lords or earls. But Godfrey knew that it was his uncontrollable fury, his old demon, which had caused him to attack the enemy line; and it was that same uncontrollable fury which had now made him the object of derision in his home village following his shameful performance in the inn. Godfrey bowed his head and prayed for Redemption. 

Friday, 12 August 2011

Fountains by the New Town

The official opening of the fountains was on the night of the most recent Warsaw Blogmeet (7 May) but heavy rain held me back from attending. On Friday nights in summer there's a son et lumiere display, but this starts at 9:30 (too late for me). With two hours to go, the sun sinking over the Vistula escarpment back-lights the main fountain.

Looking at the happy crowds enjoying a rare sunny and warm afternoon outside, I must say I think the money the City authorities spend on renovating this part of Warsaw as a fountain park was well spent. Urban folk, young and old, parents with children, teenagers and pensioners all enjoying being here, a welcome focal point for summer chilling out.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Eustonlike - Poland's fascination with the UK

A busy day; three live TV interviews, one live radio interview and one recorded TV interview - all about the English rioting. (Moni's in Ealing and reports that the Polish shop on Haven Green has had its window stoved in.) The third of my five interviews was in the Superstacja studio in Praga. On my way there, I passed the Warsaw directorate of Polish state railways PKP on ul. Targowa (below).

Why does this look historically familiar? Hints here of the famous, long-gone and lamented Euston Arch. The Warsaw building was completed nearly a century after Euston station's Doric arch, and is much smaller in scale, but even so, an interesting and imposing building. Across the road from Centrum Handlowe Warszawa Wileńska shopping mall.

With regards to the riots - while driving from studio to studio this afternoon, I'm listening to TokFM and Radio Trójka - the riots are not only headline news here in Poland, they are a major talking point. So much more coverage than the recent riots in Spain or Greece or previous disturbances in the French banlieus - indeed, and far more than the so-called Arab Spring. Britain exerts a much more important place in the Polish imagination; on par with America, Germany or Russia.

This time last year:
A place in the country

This time four years ago:
I must go down to the sea again

Monday, 8 August 2011

Once again into a linguistic gap

Today's missing word is 'impostor'. The sense in English - 'someone who attempts to deceive by using an assumed name or identity' (Wiktionary).

This has caused many intellectual contortions among my students over the past week. Stanislawski, compiler of what is regarded as one of the best English-Polish dictionaries, gives oszust, szalbierz, szarlatan. Yet these all miss the mark. Oszust is simply 'cheat'. No attempt to assume another's identity. Szalbierz -'fraudster'. Ditto. Now, szarlatan - 'charlatan' - a word of Italian origin, is nearer the mark.

Does this mean that maliciously impersonating someone else with a view to personal gain is something that does not happen in Poland? Remember the hold-ups of TIRs by gangsters posing as traffic police? Or kradzież 'na wnuczka'? [For my non-Polish readers: A guy phones up an old lady pretending to be her grandson. 'Hi, Babcia, it's your grandson. I'm right out of cash and in a tight spot. Can I come round and you'll give me some money to help me out?' Most babcie will see through this, but some dim ones will tell wnuczek what his name is "Kubusiu, dla Ciebie, oczywiście!". Then "Kubuś" calls, says he can't make it, and says he'll send a friend over for the money.

So impostors are plying their nefarious trade in Poland too.

The phenomenon whereby a word or phrase is missing its direct equivalent in the other language has long fascinated me. 'Table' = stół. But stoliczek? Simple. English lacks the function of creating diminutives (or indeed augmentatives - formy zgrubiałe). And those words where a direct match is lacking in the other language. Brak odpowiedniego słowa. Not really a problem when writing business emails, but when tacking a literary translation - especially poetry - the lack of that precise word causes difficulty. Here, experience and talent mark out the good translator from the poor one.

So when you come across a word that seems to be lacking a direct translation - don't just let it be - analyse it, research it, ponder it - and share it with others who have an interest in the Polish- English linguistic space.

This time last year:
Running with the storm

This time three years ago:
London's St Pancras station

This time four years ago:
Mountains or sea?

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Rhetorical question: Why the fuss?

I picked Moni up from W-wa Centralna this morning just before seven - she's back from the seaside on the night train. Driving home, she remarked "What are all the flags up for?" "Warsaw Uprising," I reminded her. "But that was on the first of August," she said. "Yes, but it lasted 63 days," I replied.

Later, in Park Dreszera in Mokotów, I came across this monument to the Home Army (AK) units that fought in this Warsaw district, still full of floral tributes, votive candles, flags and ribbons.

Behind us, two elderly ladies - old enough to have lived through the Uprising - were sitting on a bench facing this memorial and arguing about... Smolensk. One - dressed in black - was getting increasingly agitated. She wanted the truth. "It's a plot! A conspiracy!" The other - dressed in light blue, was smiling, shaking her head at her friend.

Najważniejsza jest prawda. Prawda zawsze zwycięża ("The truth is the most important. The truth will always triumph") said the one in black. The one in light blue said Trzeba modlić się po cichu, nie należy obnosić się ze swoją wiarą ("One should pray in silence; one oughtn't to display one's faith"), to which the woman in black said nie powinniśmy się wstydzić naszej wiary, nie powinniśmy jej ukrywać ("we shouldn't be ashamed of our faith, we shouldn't hide it"). The woman in light blue said "I can't agree with you," and pulling herself up on her crutch, got ready to hobble off.

The contrast between the two ladies put me immediately in mind of the debate going on just one post lower down on my blog. The tragedy has indeed divided the nation.

Meanwhile, the debate rages about the Uprising. There's increasing clarity emerging from the arguments for and against. In military terms, the losses suffered by both sides - considering this was a battle for a capital city that raged for over two months - were not huge in absolute terms. The civilian losses were. The German strategy of wholesale slaughter of uninvolved civilians (around 180,000, mainly in mass executions) was something the Uprising's leadership should have come to expect from a totally dehumanised foe - yet they didn't. This issue deserves greater attention from historians. Did the Government-in-Exile and the AK leadership knowingly condemn hundreds of thousands of civilians to barbarous slaughter - or did they overlook the Nazi's capacity for such utter barbarism?

Either way, the jury is still out; emotional voices can be heard extolling both points of view - a) the Uprising was inevitable - driven by furious rage at what had happened over the past five years in the Nazi-occupied capital - or b) that it was a foolish waste of life and property that could have been avoided.

Incidentally, my assertion that the Uprising - by halting Stalin's tanks on the Vistula for five months - spared much of Western Europe from 45 years of communism - is echoed in no less hallowed a title than Gnash Dziennik. Prof. Witold Kiezuń wrote there "How deep into Europe would the Red Army have penetrated, had it not been held up by the Warsaw Uprising? Poles paid an enormous price in terms of the destruction by the Germans of the Home Army in Warsaw and the centre of independent, political, patriotic action in Poland... In answer to the outbreak of the Uprising, Stalin halted the Red Army's offensive on the Vistula. The Uprising thus halted for over five months the dynamic 'thrust for Berlin'."

After 67 years, historians are still debating the sense of the Warsaw Uprising. Will the Smolensk debate still be raging in 2077? Maybe not. But in 2017, certainly.

This time last year:
The wonder of a quarterly karta miejska

This time two years ago:
Nerds - mankind's avantgarde

This time three years ago:
Into the fading light

This time four years ago:
A little bit of Poland in Wales

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Quiet afternoon in the Bazaar

Fourteen years in Warsaw and I've yet to have checked out this legendary place. Bazar Różyckiego in Praga, just off ul. Targowa (which regular readers will remember is named after the Russian General Targov). The bazaar's heyday was in communist days, when it was one of the only places in Poland where one could obtain highly sought-after items such as blue jeans, t-shirts, fashionable footwear, and other items of clothing that would distinguish Warsaw's hipper citizens (bikiniarze) from the drab proletariat. The klimaty of the place are referred to in Leopold Tyrmand's Zły, Dziennik 1954 r., and Janusz Głowacki's Z głowy.

The bazaar had a very important place in the life of the capital in communist days. Not just for consumers, starved of anything fashionable, colourful or distinguishing. But for the sellers. Many were, like my family in Warsaw, people with connections in the West. My parents would regularly send parcels to their families in Poland; parcels containing (typically) clothes from Marks & Spencer (the well regarded St Michael's brand in those days). Well do I remember driving with my parents and my brother after Polish Saturday school in Chiswick to a small shop on the Fulham Palace Road from where my parents would send knitwear wrapped in brown paper to Warsaw and to Bystrzyca Kłodzka.

Today, the bazaar's competition - regular high street stores and shopping malls like Centrum Handlowe Warszawa Wileńska - has made it a shadow of its former self (much like the dear old Giełda fotograficzna camera fair that takes place at Stodoła each Sunday)

The young men and women that were once duckin' an' divin', bobbin' an' weavin' to turn an honest zloty in Gierek's days are now in their advanced middle age, selling dresses for weddings and first holy communions; little three-piece suits for four year-old boys and footwear for the middle aged - but at least its all stuff that's not mainstream, not brand-name regular shopping mall fashion.

But does Warsaw want it? Like the camera fair, the bazaars are in decline, being killed off very slowly by the relentless march of globalised retail. Footfall here is a tiny fraction of what I witnessed just minutes later at Wileńska.

So visit it while you can, a legendary place in Warsaw's history, it's been around for 180 years; it's witnessed uprisings and invasions, it's kept Varsovians supplied with contraband goods during the hard times, it was a free market that survived the planned economy.

And linguistic conundrum of the day: If 'How dare you ...!' in English is Jak śmiesz...!, what's 'I dare you to...' in Polish?

This time last year:
Distracted by the Cross of Smolensk (warning: Smolensk-related content)

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Mini-breaks or micro-breaks?

A subject that came up in both of my lessons today: is it better to take one long vacation, or many short breaks? I think the answer is one of life stage - if you have small children, the one long vacation taken during the school holidays is usually the only option. But once they've grown up and holiday independently - then what?

Another new billboard campaign (below), paid for this time from European taxpayers' money, is encouraging Varsovians to take weekend breaks in the Mazowsze province. Yes indeed, I'm all for it. Wonderful countryside just a stone's throw (dwa kroki - lit. 'two paces') from the metropolis where we work so hard. Get the batteries recharged more often, at lower cost.

But as I pointed out yesterday, you can get out into the country with bike quickly and cheaply. While the sun shines, get out there and enjoy Mazowsze. The two-billboard version, above (there's a single board version too) extols cycling in the Puszcza Kampinoska forests - 200km of cycle paths. Having passed by there in March, it is a great place for bikes, but for one minor drawback - many of the cycle paths that run through the forests are soft sand - the worst possible surface for cycling. Still, the idea's a good one. Get on your bike and head out of town - for the weekend, or just for the summer's evening.

This time last year:
Pride and anger (warning: Smolensk-related content)

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Twilight rambler

A restless urge to travel seized me this evening; I checked the online train timetable (click here - a brilliant starting place for any adventure), saw a departure for Czachówek at 19:34, grabbed my bike and camera and raced for W-wa Jeziorki station to catch the train. The 17km journey took 21 minutes; shortly before eight I was in Czachówek, in time for Magic Hour, when the twilight creates that sublime mood. The return ticket, from Warsaw's boundary to Czachówek Górny and back again, with bike, cost a mere 13.50 zlotys, or three quid in English money.

I set off from Czachówek towards the east. Above: A shop in Czarny Las. A sign in the window says 'no to windmills'. The building itself is the definition of the Polish adjective zapyziały. Just ten miles from Warsaw's southern borders and the built landscape looks entirely different. There are more and more new detached houses appearing here and there, but this is essentially still wieś rather than exurbs.

Above: a column erected to the glory of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Czarny Las. The fields, the forests, the gardens, the dirt-track roads - all are sodden with rainwater. It's been a wet July, the water table is high, there's nowhere for the water to run off.

Above: a goods train made up of cement wagons trundles slowly eastwards through Czachówek Wschodni station (left); the sun has just set over Czarny Las.

The forest itself exudes an intense smell of mushroom and moss; the air at dawn and dusk smells quite different from how it does during the day.

That golden time of day again; my mind drifts to another time, another place, a lost world from before my birth, I feel it...

Above: waiting for the train home, Czachówek Górny station. Scheduled at 21:08, it arrives on time. During my wait (no more than a quarter of an hour) I am so assaulted by mosquitos that I'm forced to don full wet weather gear - Goretex hooded jacket and over-trousers - despite the pleasant warmth of the evening. This has been a bad year for the mozzies (culex pipiens), the worst I can remember since that awful summer of 1997. Last summer, although also wet, there was a large number of dragonflies about, that feast on mosquito larvae. Very few this year.

(It seems this is the first time I've ever posted on 2 August!)

Monday, 1 August 2011

'W'-Hour, 67 years on

For my father, Bohdan Dembiński, 88, and mother-in- law, Wanda Lesisz, 86, veterans of the Warsaw Uprising.

Since the 65th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising (post here), the commemorations have become increasingly well-participated. This year, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of flags on display - not just the official ones on public buildings, buses and trams - but on private flats, on t-shirts, and held in children's hands.

The city and its people are taking increasing pride in the Uprising. The old communist line - that it was a provocation needlessly brought about by the Polish Government in Exile in London - is not something most Varsovians would accept today.

It was the product of anger - four years of the most brutal occupation (and don't let's forget the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943) - and the result was to hold back Stalin's steamroller advance towards Western Europe by at least three months.

Ten minutes or so before the sirens sounded for 'W'-Hour, a Polish Air Force C-130E Hercules flew the length of ul. Marszałkowska dropping leaflets, urging citizens to oddaj hołd ('pay homage', 'pay tribute') to those who gave their lives fighting to free Warsaw.

Above: the side doors are opening; the first batch of leaflets are just coming out. Like the B-24 Liberator that flew supply missions over Warsaw, the C-130 Hercules has four propeller-driven engines and is US-built (its first flight was just ten years after the Uprising started!)

Below: The leaflets filled the sky directly over our heads, but sadly the westerly wind blew them away from Marszałkowska, towards the Vistula. The air drop was a tribute to the Polish, British, South African and American aircrews who gave their lives flying over the burning city dropping supplies to the Home Army insurgents.

Below: At exactly 17:00, the time the Uprising started, all the city's air raid sirens sounded. Traffic came to a halt. People stood at attention. Quite something. And the weather. This morning started wet and dull - like most of July. By the early afternoon, the clouds had parted, the sun shone in a bright blue sky.

At 17:05, seven PZL TS-11 Iskra trainers of the Polish Air Force's Biało-Czerwone Iskry aerobatic team flew overhead, trailing red and white smoke. The Iskra, a purely Polish design, first flew in 1960 and was introduced to the Polish Air Force in 1964 and is still in service today.

Below: around the city, the numerous plaques and monuments to the Uprising were decorated with flowers, garlands and votive candles. At the power station in Powiśle, a plaque explains how 107 Home Army soldiers, employees at the power station, fought a battle lasting several hours to wrest control of the building. They held on to it from 1 August until 7 September, providing electricity to the insurgent-held parts of the city. 25 of their number died in the fighting. (Polish readers can click to enlarge photo to read text of the plaque.)

Was it all worth it? Bear this in mind. In the two months between 22 June and 19 August 1944, the Soviet Army advanced more than 300 miles between Vitebsk and the Vistula, taking Minsk, Vilnius, Lviv, Grodno, Białystok, Brest, Lublin and Przemyśl from the Germans. Between 19 August 1944 and 17 January 1945, when the Red Army captured Warsaw from the Germans, Stalin's tanks hardly budged.

Stalin let Hitler sort out the belligerent Poles, but Stalin did so at the expense of his westward expansion. Maybe the good citizens of West Germany, who lived so much better than their eastern neighbours, should give thanks every year on 1 August that they did not have to suffer 45 years of communism - because of the valiant fighters of the Warsaw Uprising.

This time two years ago:
'W'-Hour - five pm