Friday, 30 September 2011

Across the alley from Jerusalem

Warsaw's main east-west thoroughfare is (or rather are, as it is a plural noun), Aleje Jerozolimskie, which runs from Pruszków (a western exurb of Warsaw) into town, passing the central station (Dworzec Centralny), the Palace of Culture and the National Museum, before seamlessly turning into Al. 3 Maja at ul. Smolna and which then becomes Most Poniatowskiego bridge. Below: tram-metro interchange at Al. Jerozolimskie by Centrum Metro station. To the left, the Universal building, an early Warsaw high-rise office development. This view is looking east, towards the Vistula.

Below: looking west towards the Marriott hotel in the distance from the junction with ul. Krucza. A splendidly sunny day to round off a warm (nay, hot!) September - an antidote to a dismally rainy July and August.

Below: approaching Rondo Dmowskiego, the central point of Warsaw, where Al. Jerozolimskie cross ul. Marszałkowska, the main north-south thoroughfare. The low early-autumn sun creates a dramatic light

Below: Most Poniatowskiego on Al. 3 Maja, near the eastern end of Al. Jerozolimskie. My favourite Warsaw bridge, architecturally speaking.

A note on Polish road-naming. Most roads or streets are simply 'ulica' (pronounced "ooLEETsuh" [with a short 'oo' as in 'look'], abbreviated to 'ul.'). The word ulica means street, although there's no need to translate it into English (any more than one needs to translate strasse from German into English or rue from French into English as 'Road').

Plac (abbreviated to Pl*.) in Polish is 'square' (as in the French place or German Platz). There's also skwer (as in the English 'square'), though these are rare in Warsaw. Roundabouts are rondo (neither skwer nor rondo are abbreviated).

So Aleje - from the French and German Allee. We have Aleje (plural) and Aleja (singular). So - Aleje Jerozolimskie, but Aleja Stanów Zjednoczonych (both are abbreviated to Al.*). Allee in English is 'avenue' - but then so is avenue. Aleje Jerozolimskie in English is exactly that. Rue St. Michel doesn't need to be translated, nor does Bahnhoffstrasse. So hey, Mr Translator, no Jerusalem Avenue, please!

My first ever blog post on 30 September.

* Although ul. is always with an lower case 'u', Al. and Pl. begin with upper case letters. Why? That's just the way it is.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

It's later than you think

The parliamentary elections are coming up in nine days time. I must confess to a gentle, creeping, withdrawal from politics; the campaign is making the front pages and the main items on the TV news - and I find myself not reading, not watching, on the basis that it's all dull and repetitive. I know what each talking head is going to say, and therefore, trying to make the best use of my time, I simply switch off. I know how I'm going to vote - and yes, I'm most certainly going to vote.

I am worried. The polls - which consistently showed PO ahead of PiS by 15 to 20 points - are now indicating a mere three points lead for PO. Why has it shrunk so, and what could this mean?

PiS has returned to its strategy from before last summer's presidential election: tone down the Mr Angry rhetoric, appear moderate in tone - and - in an absolute master stroke that political parties worldwide would do well to copy - have put up thousands of billboards showing a collection of elegant and no doubt fragrant women, smiling benignly down upon the voting public. What could be more reasonable? Not a trace of post-Smolensk ranting, not a whiff of memory of the last time PiS was in power (in a bizarre coalition with the late Andrzej Lepper's potato-throwing Samobrona and the frankly nuts LPR); the paranoia, the witch-hunts, the loss of international prestige...

I was going to put an updated version of my Just Say No To Beton Jarka logo on the blog, but PiS has propelled its public image so far away from that of a ranting awanturnik stirring enmity, distrust and paranoia, that in this election campaign it appears far-fetched.

The Polish electorate has a poor short-term memory and an equally poor grasp of economic realities. The global economy is heading for another recession. Poland will escape economic contraction in 2012 - momentum is too great to see 3.8%-4% growth turning into a contraction within five quarters - but what happens in 2013 depends to a great extent on the economic policies that are pursued by whoever is governing Poland next year.

Any populism - which at this stage of the economic cycle means failure to cut public spending rather than simply go on increasing it - will result in the things that are dragging down Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Ireland happening here. Poland is in good shape to ride out the next storm - providing it sticks to fiscal rectitude and battens down the hatches. I certainly trust Jacek Rostowski more when it comes to pointing the ship of state in the right direction than any PiS, SLD or PSL candidate for the post of finance minister.

Think long and hard about the Poland you want. We're in for troubled times. We need grown ups at the helm - foreign policy, financial and economic policy being absolutely key. This is no time to wobble, to cast your vote on a whim, for some minority issue; it's about keeping the silly-billies away from the tiller of government.

If you can vote next Sunday, don't, whatever you do, let them win. Take it damn seriously.

This time last year:
Melancholy autumn mood in Łazienki

This time three years ago:
Autumn gold, Zamienie

This time four years ago:
Flamenco Sketches - Seville

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A glorious month

Before and after sunrise - below: 6:09, twenty minutes before the sun rose above Las Kabacki forest; strands of mist rising over the fields between our house and the state security printing plant (PWPW). At 6:28, now a full 48 minutes after I wake up, the sun rises. The speed with which the day shortens is frightening - though the clement weather these last few weeks makes the encroaching darkness more palatable somehow.

Below: the same view - just zoomed out a bit and panned to the right - four minutes after sunrise. The day looks poised to be a good one - and indeed, the temperature tops 23C for the second day in a row. September has been most kind. The Las Kabacki's forest trails have dried out; the water table has lowered - but ul. Dumki is still impassable without wellies.

As I return home, I get caught in heavy rain accompanied by thunder and lightning that had been predicted for Warsaw several hours later. By the purest stroke of luck, I have an umbrella with me. The rain on the dry soil smells good - one of those wonderful smells that triggers nostalgic flashbacks. Time to be very, very thankful.

This time last year:
My grandfather

This time two years ago:
My home-made fixie bike

This time three years ago:
Well-shot pheasants

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Shopping notes

It's been a while since I wrote about something I do almost daily. This post is prompted by the appearance, for the very first time, at my local Auchan, of a New Zealand wine. Not just any wine from New Zealand, but a Sauvignon Blanc, from 2008, and at the entirely acceptable price of 26 zlotys a bottle. I acquired a liking for this wine in England some while back, thanks to my brother and sister-in-law (indeed overdoing it at the end of Lent 2010!). The region is Marlborough, the wine I took to so much ['to take to something' - phrasal verb alert] is Oyster Bay.

What's appeared in Auchan is not Oyster Bay, but Seagull Mountain. 'Podroobster', as my children are wont to say [from the Polish podróbka, a fake, a forgery, a fraud]? More like a podszycie [undersewing]... Name of nautically associated creature plus name of geographical feature. Glass of Flounder Promontory, anyone?

Anyway... well what's it like? Seagull Mountain is far, far closer in taste to Oyster Bay than to any Sauvignon Blanc - from Chile, Australia, California or France - that I've ever tasted. That blackcurrant (czarna porzeczka) note, tartness, fruitiness - all there. Just a wee bit too acidic, but for the price - five quid a bottle - this... is a wine.

Meanwhile over at Tesco, the era of the extremely good price-to-quality ratio of generic Chilean and Australian dry reds seems to be over; the 8.35 - 8.99 zlotys bottles have long disappeared; the excellent single grape varietals (Australian Cabernet Shiraz or plain Shiraz, the Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, the South African Cabernet Shiraz) at 12.99 - 13.99 zlotys a bottle are becoming increasing harder to find.

I'm becoming increasingly enamoured of the Carmenere grape (mostly Chilean of origin); the Antares Carmenere for 23.99 zlotys a bottle is consistently good, and in my opinion beats wines that sell for double the price.

Now... wondering off down the aisles with my trolley, Eddie's shopping list in hand, to the cosmetics department. He wants a bottle of Garnier Flounce re-volumizing texturizing moisture-enhancing XtremeOptionz shampoo with the matching conditioner. PAH! When I were a lad, washin' me hair with a drop o' Alberto VO5 once a week were good enough fer me!

And here I must mention the Most Effective TV Ad That Ever Worked On Me. Can't find it on YouTube, but from the early or mid '80s, it was for Head & Shoulders shampoo. A young man and woman are leaving a gym. She glances into his holdall and sees a bottle of Head & Shoulders. In broadest Cockney, she says to him: "'Ead an' Shouldahz? Ah didn know you 'ad daindruff!" To which he replies, in broadest Cockney "Ah DOAN' " The message is clear. Use it regularly, make it your shampoo of choice, and dandruff will never reappear. Well, that ad worked so well on me that for the past quarter of a century I've stuck with that one brand, thus avoiding the 'D' word. I don't have dandruff - haven't had it for over 25 years - and continue to use anti-dandruff shampoo. [Nizoral, an over-the-counter preparation for dandruff 'that you can use in combination with your favourite shampoo' is currently being advertised on Polish radio. I can't say that message works for me at all.]

A propos of British TV ads from the 1980s on YouTube - there's hundreds of them (a sample for you here). Watching them fills me with nostalgia, surprise, shock [Kellogg's Cornflakes claiming to be "as refreshing as Champagne", the mother in a Fairy Liquid ad calling her little daughter an idiot] but above all the awareness that while all this stuff was being flogged to Brits, piled high and sold cheap, in Poland, people were queuing for the most basic human requirements - bread, meat, toothpaste, toilet paper, un-branded, third-rate products in grey, or garish orange.

Eddie and I have just watched an hour of YouTube 1980s UK TV ads. Half of them are laughable - how could consumers have been that naive? So many dead brands, failed banks, superseded technologies, defrocked celebrities... How times have moved on; how much wiser we all are. "If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit join our club." "A finger of Fudge is just enough to give the kids a treat." Indeed. Yet during that hour of curiosity for Eddie, nostalgia for me, no ad proved anywhere as effective as that one for Head & Shoulders.

This time last year:
Grandson of Poles elected to lead UK's Labour Party

This time three years ago:
Give me sunshine!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Bunker on Powiśle

Just across the road from Centrum Nauki Kopernik (Copernicus Science Centre) on the corner of Wybrzeże Kościuszkowe and ul. Leszczyńska is this WWII bunker. It was built by the Germans after the Warsaw Uprising to defend the depopulated city against the Red Army, which was massing across the river. According to Wikipedia, there are some 80 German bunkers from this time still in existence in Warsaw, mostly set up to defend the railway lines crossing the city.

This bunker has been recently restored; this and other such restorations suggest that Warsaw does not want to turn its back on its painful history. Unlike France, which still has to come to terms with the Nazi occupation (read this interesting article on the BBC website about the Atlantic Wall) Warsaw's streets, which ran with blood just two generations ago, remain as a testament to what had happened here, lest it should ever be forgotten.

Sadly, a walk around the bunker revealed no historical information, no plaque bearing dates or contextual details. I hope this will be rectified...

Incidentally, the Centrum Nauki Kopernik - which I have yet to visit (I came here with Eddie on the opening weekend but the queues were literally the longest I've seen in my life) proves that Poland can build outstanding museums. And just around the corner from here is Warsaw's first Bentley dealership.

This time last year:
Sunshine brings out the best in everything

This time three years ago:
There must be a better way (3)

Friday, 23 September 2011

An Old Sailor's Tale - part two

It was after that devil Bonaparte was sent to exile that I worked out I'd been in the navy for a full 20 years, and at sea for a third of a century! For most of the time since I was born, we'd been at war with France. And now, we'd finally beaten them, thanks to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, at Waterloo – but also thanks in to our great Royal Navy, our bravery and our skill in battle, blockading their ports, keeping our trade routes open. I was proud to have been a part of that.

Now, one day, soon after the fighting was over, we were sailing a barque across the Channel full of French sailors, bound for Le Havre. Prisoners-of-war who'd been captured along with their vessels, and held on prison hulks moored off Portsmouth, seamen who'd been shut away in unspeakably horrid conditions for many years, were now finally going home. They boarded the vessel, the Ribble, in jovial mood, relieved by the prospect of freedom. It was a smooth crossing; a light nor' westerly and clear skies under a warm sun.

The Frenchies weren't a bad sort. To show there were no hard feelings, we opened a barrel of brandy and we off-duty sailors got talking with them. There was a lot of sign language and parlez-vous and lingua franca. Once the Froggies had got over reciting their old cant that all men are brothers, we got talking about childhoods spent at sea, storms experienced, shipwrecks survived, great catches, times of peril, times of joy. Calm starry nights, or urgent hours chasing the tide, stinging salt spray in the howling gale... Aye, two or three brandies and the mariners' talk of the sea – mariners who'd been away from the open seas and strong drink for several years – got more emotional.

I slowly began to realise that I had much more in common with these seamen – foreigners though they be – than I had with landlubberly Englishmen whose lives and property I'd spent all those years fighting for. Like the French sailors, I was more at home up in the rigging or hauling in the sheets than tilling the soil with a plough horse or tending a flock of sheep. We were all men of the sea – so why had we spent the last 20 years fighting one another?

Once moored in Le Havre, we let them off the ship, saying our adieus to one another. The wind picked up from the sea, the tide was against us, so us English seamen stayed overnight in Le Havre, enjoying a first taste of shore-leave in a France that had been newly returned by force of arms to its rightful ruler – King Louis. I was expecting a lot of politics, bad blood at being vanquished at Waterloo – but no; the sight of so many English sailors in Le Havre brought about curiosity rather than anger, and in the auberge where we were drinking there was a good deal of questions asked of us about the ins and outs of seamanship – of our knowledge of tides, knots, sails, winds – and the conclusion that night was that there indeed existed a brotherhood of men – men of the sea.

It was a good way to end a long war; and, thinking back, it was that day in Le Havre that prompted me to take to sailing the Mediterranean. With the war over, we discharged sailors from the Navy were begging English ship-owners to take us on - experienced men - even as able seamen - hands on board their merchant vessels; but only the well-connected few could easily find work at sea. With my back pay in my pocket, I chose to return to France; I worked my passage to Marseilles, learning some seaman's French along the way.

It was there I spent most of my working life. Happy years, all of them, so full of sunshine and wine; so many delightful ports, many good friends from all around the Mediterranean. But I as I got older, I got complacent. Careless. One rainy night in Naples, a crate full of molasses, unfortunately stowed in a sling, slipped from the ship's crane and crushed my left hand. Unable to find any work as a sailor, I made it back to Whitstable, back where my youngest half-sister – the one who never married – lives. So here I am, yearning for the open sea! 

Still, that was the past. Now, if you will, I'd like to raise a glass to the young Queen Victoria; long may she reign over us! 

This time last year: Prague-Jeziorki-Moscow 

This time two years ago: The Passing of Lt. Cmdr. Tadeusz Lesisz 

This time three years ago: Summer ends, autumn begins

Wednesday, 21 September 2011


Ząbkowska! The new, the trendy, the up-and-coming part of Praga - of Warsaw indeed. In my recent explorations of Praga, there's not been a post from here, street of a dozen hip bars, cafes and restaurants, with its cool, retro-style klimat. Below: the gates of Ząbkowska - helmeted and turreted, the building on the corner of Ząbkowska and Targowa gives a flavour of what's to come. At its feet, one of Warsaw's surviving bary mleczne - cheap food for the working proletariat.

Three cheers for Warsaw's konserwator zabytków (heritage building inspector) for insisting that Ząbkowska retains its cobbles and its tram tracks. Though trams no longer run here, the street's character is greatly enhanced by the original 19th C. street surface. Look through the arch into the podwórko (courtyard); many have small chapels, traditional local places of prayer.

Below: into a more down-at-heel podwórko for some characteristically Praga klimat.

O mother! Right: The Virgin Mary is ubiquitous in this part of Praga; statues and paintings of the Undefiled One adorn courtyards and porticos, street corners and façades.

The image is becoming used ironically; devotional paintings are appearing in hipster art shops and t-shirts, referencing and referential - not so much as images of worship, nor even with sarcastic intent - more to say "these are my authentic roots, dude, this is where I'm, like, from - my babcia heavily was into this".

Below: pre-war buildings maintaining that Praga atmosphere; this is deepest Szmulowizna, where until recently respectable Varsovians daren't linger after dark...

Below: composed into a modern block of flats, some original pre-war architecture on Ząbkowska 25-27. Architectural heritage is so important.

Below: irony, or what? Wallpaper in a courtyard - old copies of Trybuna Ludu, the communist daily newspaper (print-run 1.6 million) stuck to the wall. A real treat for Polish readers. The communists sure knew how to bore people. For such crimes (boring readers) the editors of this foetid organ should have been brought to trial. (Click to enlarge - a real hoot.)

view down Ząbkowska towards Stara Praga. All that's missing is the tram wires. And some horse-drawn drozhkys.

Below: bar culture on Ząbkowska. Probably the hippest place (though the competition is fierce): W oparach absurdu ('In the Vapours of the Absurd' - ul. Ząbkowska 6). The title is Julian Tuwim's; it was from this work that came his famous satirical quote about "Jews, Masons and Cyclists" being to blame for Poland's woes.

Below: interior of W oparach absurdu. Every other table has a Singer sewing machine on it. Takes up valuable space for your lorneta z meduzą (two 100cl shots of vodka served in a pair glasses looking like a pair of binoculars, with pig trotters in aspic, all for less than three quid), but what an atmosphere!

Slightly rougher, but still extremely old school Praga: Po drugiej stronie lustra (ul. Ząbkowska 5) Note the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the middle of the podwórko, and the fact that Ukrainian brewers (Obolon, in this case) are starting to market their beer effectively in Poland. Also worth checking out on Ząbkowska: Czarny motyl, Mucha nie siada, Łysy Pingwin - and indeed several others.

If you're planning to visit Warsaw, make time for a trip to Praga and pop by Ząbkowska. Otherwise, if you stick to Old Town/Palace of Culture/Łazienki, you'll have failed to have captured the city's true essence.

If you're looking to invest in Warsaw property, this is an up-an-coming area; a bit like Notting Hill in the early 1960s, just before London started to swing.

This time two years ago:
Catching the klimat

This time four years ago:
Road to Łuków - a road trip into the sublime

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

An Old Sailor's Tale - a short story

The story was often told in my family was that I'd been out to sea before I could walk. My mother died when I was small; my father would take me on his fishing smack from Whitstable, into the Thames Estuary. Just a tiny child was I then, but I'd sail with him out to Dogger Bank, right out into the North Sea, for there was no one to look after his son while he was at sea. We lived – my father and later my two younger sisters and step-mother – in a smoky little cottage not far from where Pearson would build his castle.

I'm told that I fell overboard three times as a small boy, though each time I was miraculously rescued. If I wasn't, I couldn't be telling you this story! Before I was a grown lad, I'd learnt the ropes; I could handle all the sails, I knew their names, and could steer a 50-foot ketch through the roughest of seas.

I was born in the year of Our Lord, 1780. Before I'd reached the age of 13, England was at war with France. After Admiral Howe's victory over the French fleet on the Glorious First of June there was so much patriotic fervour and plenty of interest in the Royal Navy. And so, one bright spring day, as a 15 year-old, with an engraving of the victorious English fleet in action in my knapsack, I left home to join up as a sailor. The navy was happy to welcome a young lad that knew his way around a boat so well. My father was sad to lose a capable hand on his fishing boat. I felt I had a greater calling.

Once on board as a volunteer, I proved my worth straight away; I was at home up in the rigging, utterly fearless when tempests tossed the ship hither and yon, and, back then, I looked forward to the chance to get at the Frenchman. Mind you, it was a hard life at sea – discipline was strict – there were two big naval mutinies at that time; conditions were never easy, mind.

The sea's not a forgiving place at the best of times; numbed hands grasping slippery wet rope in the dark night, struggling to haul sodden sheets in, the ship pitching up and down violently – but the sea becomes a far worse place when you're sharing it with a foe determined to do you in. Cannon ball, grapeshot and musket fire raking the decks, turning oak beams into showers of splinters, men torn asunder, crushed by falling masts, cries of pain – the business of war. I'd taken the King's shilling; I did what's right for my King and for England.

Back then, these were the greatest of times for England's navy; the greatest of times. I served on the Irresistible under Captain George Martin; a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, we saw action at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Another magnificent English victory; only a very few of our men were killed, the Spanish fleet was cut in two. Well do I recall how fierce was our attack, how well Captain Martin had read the wind to gain advantage. Our gunners were merciless and accurate and swift. After the battle, in which we captured three much larger vessels, Horatio Nelson himself came on board our ship, his own having suffered heavy damage.

And yes – you are all asking! I was at Trafalgar, in the very the thick of it, on board the Orion – 74 guns she had too – with Captain Codrington – aye, we captured the French ship Intrépide losing only one man dead. By Trafalgar, I'd been ten years with the navy, having seen action many times. After three years I was an able seaman; five years later I was promoted to coxswain, then, because of my childhood experience at sea, I became master's mate.

Ten more years between Trafalgar and finally seeing Boney off to St Helena. Twenty years at war – well, pretty much 20 years. Twenty years fighting the French and their allies, fighting for King and Country. After Trafalgar, there was less action. Much of that time I spent sailing in the West Indies, out of Bermuda dockyard; keeping the sea-lanes open for British commerce, hunting down French and American privateers that threatened our merchantmen. On a 12-gun sloop, Dasher, I spent three happy summers and two warm winters sailing the Caribbean, only once engaging with a French privateer. On Dasher, I also took part in the capture of Java from the Dutch in 1811.

A fine ship she was – sleek and fast, with a good crew, trustworthy and disciplined men. I was part of that navy that made the British Empire what is is today under our good queen, Victoria. And I'm proud of that. Now, let me refill my pipe, buy me another tot of rum, so we can drink to her, and then I'll tell you about what became of me when the fighting came to an end.

Part II of An Old Sailor's Tale here.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Push-Pull for Mazowsze

Modern double-decker carriages appeared on the Warsaw to Radom via Jeziorki line four years ago, yet passengers have been waiting for modern locomotives to haul them, rather the breakdown-prone ones used as a temporary measure. The new locos have the ability to push the carriages (the driver sits in the front double-decker carriage and steers the loco by remote control). This has the advantage of significant time savings at the end of the line; instead of de-coupling the loco and running it around to the other end of the train, the driver merely moves cabin, so the train that was pulled is now being pushed.

Below: Warsaw-bound limited-stop service about to pass through W-wa Dawidy station, pulled by EU47-001 'Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz'.

There are 11 of these new locomotives, each one named after a hetman (historic military leader). With 50% of the funding for the trains coming from the EU cohesion funds, passengers can see the tangible benefits of infrastructure investment - public money being put to better use than letting Greece's student population continue with their free studies until they're 28. Or allowing Greek civil servants to retire on full pension at the age of 50. Each loco bears a similar plaque to the one below. Now, while Mazowsze may be Poland's wealthiest province (by far), essentially it's Warsaw and the rest. Allowing poorer towns and districts better physical access Warsaw's market helps lessen the contrast between the Rich Mazowsze and Poor Mazowsze.

Below: my first sight of one of the new Bombardier Traxx EU-47 push-pull locos, Warsaw Central station, late last month. Funnily enough, every one I've seen, every one I've travelled on, had the engine at the front - I've yet to see one in 'push' mode (though a YouTube video shows it can be done!).

Having been on a few commuting trips (and the double-decker carriages have good facilities to take bikes on board, now that the evenings are getting dark soon), I must say that the new engines make quite a difference. They accelerate smoothly and silently. Now, will they be less prone to breakdowns than the elderly EU07 locos... the jury is still out, as there have been a series of much-publicised engine failures, currently put down to teething troubles.

The appearance of the new loco is a special dad'n'lad occasion, with a father taking his boy to W-wa Centralna to see the the engine close up. This is EU47-007, 'Hetman Krzysztof II Radziwiłł'.

Note the metal studs at the platform's edge to warn visually-impaired passengers. These are being installed on all of Warsaw's Metro stations.

Slowly - too slowly, I'm afraid, Poland's rail infrastructure is modernising, becoming more European.

[BTW: The 'EU' in the Polish loco designations has nothing to do with the European Union, and indeed the designation pre-dates even the EEC by decades. It's short for 'elektryczny uniwersalny' - 'S' is 'spalinowy' (diesel); 'P' is 'pasażerski', 'T' is 'towarowy' (freight).]

This time last year:
Okęcie's runway remont is complete

This time two years ago:
He stopped the earth and moved the sun

This time four years ago:
March of Progress

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Waiting for autumn

Just days left before the astronomical end of summer 2011, the weather has held up perfectly. Although the sky was covered by a light, milky, haze today, the temperature hit a very pleasant 24C (one layer of clothing weather). Yesterday, the sky was clearer, but it was not as warm (19C high). So - time to get out and about and catch the klimat. A brisk walk is in order.

Above: the kind of rural crossroads at which Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at midnight in exchange for the ability to play blues guitar. Out on the far horizon, the 500,000 Watt radio station where "Pappy" O'Daniel, governor, would transmit Old Timey music interspersed with political advertising.

Above: looking down the line towards Jeziorki. Koleje Mazowieckie, or the Pennsylvania Railroad?

Above: the sun sets in a sky criss-crossed by the tracks of jet airliners. Three more sunsets this summer. What will autumn bring?

This time last year:
Made in England to last

This time two years ago:
How the S2/S79 looked back then...

This time four years ago:
Endless summer, Park Łazienkowski

Saturday, 17 September 2011

At the Hipster's Ball

Moni was playing with her band on Saturday night, so I turned up with Eddie, Sabina and her cousins to watch their gig at the Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej (Musuem of Modern Art) in the old Emilia furniture store.

Line up, from the old days - Oleńka on guitar, Hubert on drums, Moni singing, and (new) on double bass, Franek. An eclectic mix of music from Tennessee Ernie Ford's Sixteen Tons to Polish hiphop (four of the band's own compositions in the six-song set). Mad Men lounge aesthetic; the black-and-white stage wear a nod to The Commitments. The audience were certainly thrilled... Not quite the game-changing excitement of the early days of punk rock in the UK 1976-77, but for dad, impressive enough to see his daughter and band, tight, together and rocking the crowd (below).

It's been over four years since Moni first played on stage; she's now an accomplished singer (regular singing lessons plus church choir at the Dominicans) and band leader. I hope that despite Moni's imminent move to Łódź Film School, she'll still be able to keep playing music.

This time last year:
Cycling through the spirit of place

This time two years ago:
Invaders or liberators?

This time three years ago:
Adlestrop, en route to Kraków

This time four years ago:
Return to Zamienie

Friday, 16 September 2011


Winding down now; the last days of summer, 2011. It'll all be over in a week's time, another summer's sun extinguished; and while we wait for a new one, through a long, dark winter, we all know that it's one less we have left to enjoy.

The Boethian Wheel turns and turns, inexorably; our fortunes rise and fall to rise again before declining. But we are Modern People; we know how to Manage. Manage pain and suffering, manage the goods times and bad. Should we attempt to make our wheels of fortune smaller? Should we try to slow them down? Or should we learn from their remorseless revolutions - each one a small lesson learnt for the next time...?

Above: just before sunrise - six minutes past six this morning, from the balcony. Next week, equinox; sunset and sunrise around quarter past six in the evening and morning respectively.

Above: fallow field, ul. Dumki. The noon-day sun catching the late-flowering weeds. Still warm enough for one layer. Soon, we'll be wrapping up warm - and staying that way until spring 2012.

Mellow tones on the działeczka, ul. Kórnicka, Jeziorki, late morning. Time to reflect, and from the gathering melancholia, draw wisdom.

This time last year:
Commuting made easy

This time two years ago:
Work starts on the Warsaw Southern Bypass

This time three years ago:
Today's smashes

This time four years ago:
Nissan meets its nemesis - ul. Poloneza

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Late summer/early autumn moods

Above: seven am, ul. Karczunkowska, Jeziorki. Looking across the fields at the edge of Warsaw; the treeline in the distance marking the city's limits. The low morning sun casts shadows over a characteristically Polish strip-field of cabbages; whether they will ever be harvested will depend on the price of the crop. All too often, if the price is low, it's not worth the farmer's effort to gather it in, and so the cabbages, carrots or onions rot in the fields, catching the frost and snow first.

Above: five pm, ul. Kępna, Stara Praga. A courtyard chapel, something characteristic of left-bank Warsaw. Well-tended, with candle-lit statue of Mary.

Moni points out that Stara Praga is a like a watered-down version of Łódź.

This time last year:
Battle of Britain 70 years on

This time two years ago:
Who are these people?

This time three years ago:
This morning's car crashes

This time four years ago:
My favourite tree

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Fixie composition in red, blue and black

This one grabbed my eye today in Powiśle; utterly old-school gas-pipe frame and seat post, sprayed sky-blue, with flip-flop fixie hub, black aero rims with black rubber that give the down-the-road impression of great big balloon tyres (but are actually skinny and fast); black crankset offset by red plackie pedals with toe-straps, red handlebar grips, red saddle and red (!) chain. Visually - very impressive. And parked up against a sky-blue street post, half a shade darker than the frame.

Ideology? Ethos? Irony? The wheels are worth a hundred times (I'm not joking) more than the junk-yard frame. Ergonomics? Performance? Just look at the rake of the front forks, the louche geometry, total lack of brakes; as home-made as this morning's breakfast... Now I'll concede that it's subtle, it's clever... But at the end of the day, is it really convincing?

Nicer to look at than to ride, I suspect...

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

This time two years ago:
A new way to work

This time three years ago:
First apple

This time four years ago:
Late summer spiders webs

Monday, 12 September 2011

New urban toponyms

Once upon a time there was a place called Okęcie. It was a village outside Warsaw. The airport appeared here in 1934. After the war, the capital expanded, and Okęcie became a district of Warsaw. And to Okęcie (the place, not the airport) a huge number of buses (124, 154, 141, 177, 317, 703, 706, 711, 715, 721, 728, 733, 807, N38, N88) arrive - plus the 9 and 35 tram.

Then, in 2001, the airport was renamed the
Frédéric Chopin Airport. Of course, Warsaw residents obstinately refuse to call the airport anything other than Okęcie.

Now, as of the middle of last month, ZTM, our urban transport authority has decided to rename Okęcie bus and tram terminal "P+R Aleja Krakowska". The 715, as it runs through Jeziorki, no longer has the word Okęcie on the front, only this weird drętwomowa P+R Al. Krakowska. Why not "P+R Okęcie"? Because people might think its at the airport. But the airport is Lotnisko Międzynarodowe im. Fryderyka Chopina, not Okęcie, you think - but no, ZTM is only confirming the obvious - Varsovians still call the airport Okęcie.

Good God Almighty. What a fuss has broken out! Commuters, residents, local politicians are all weighing in against this horror of neotoponymics. Just because ZTM has opened a brand new multi-level park and ride here, doesn't mean that centuries (well, decades) of tradition should be chucked down the toilet!

I have three issues. One is renaming local places for the sake of renaming. Whether it's Rondo Babka now being officially known as Rondo Zgrupowania Armii Krajowej Imienia Radosława (why use two syllables when 16 will do) or
insisting on Frédéric Chopin International when every Varsovian, sober or not, will refer to the airport simply as Okęcie. The mania extends to renaming the bus stop Supon (on ul. Poloneza) 'Tango', after Warsaw's shortest street, one that doesn't have a single building on it.

Issue number two is the use of "P+R" when the Polish for "Park and Ride" is Parkuj i jedż... One would therefore assume that the Polish acronym for this useful facility is 'Pij" - the Polish for the command - Drink! PiJ do dna! Drain your glass!
Issue number three is the fact that Warsaw's Park and Ride facilities are placed too close to the city. By the time one reaches P+R Al. Krakowskie, having sat through unimaginably massive traffic jams at Janki, one might as well drive on into the city centre. The same goes for P+R Stokłosy, Ursynów and Wilanowska - they are of greatest value to locals. Warsaw needs to extend its tram and Metro lines way, way deeper into the exurbs.

This time last year:
Politics - time to change gear

This time two years ago:
Preference and genetics

This time three years ago:
Kraków scenes

Sunday, 11 September 2011


And there I was on Thursday fearing that summer had come to an end... A little more faith, Mr Dembinski! Today was as forecast - quite magnificent; clear blue skies again, temperature hitting 27C. While the sun shines, it behoves us indeed to make hay. So out with the bikes, Warsaw; let's make the most of the last days of summer! Making the most? Most as in bridge? A good day to cross and re-cross several Warsaw bridges by bike. While we wait for the completion of Most Północny, the northernmost most is Grota-Roweckiego, named after the Home Army leader. The Trasa AK (Home Army route) crosses the river over this bridge. Below: a sliproad leading off Most Grota Roweckiego.

From the eastern approaches of Most Grota-Roweckiego, looking towards Żerań power station. Below: there's no proper cycle path on this bridge; you can see a dirt track to the right that makes an inconvenient way onto the bridge. Alongside the roadway there's a separate footpath that's too narrow for comfortable cycling.

Below: following on from Friday's photo from Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski, here's a view north from Grota-Roweckiego. Blowing it up massively shows that the Most Północny, under construction, is a long, long way further north.

Below: across on the Żoliborz side, under Most Grota-Roweckiego. Turn left, and along Wybrzeże Gdyńskie, heading back towards the Old Town.

Below: also on the Żoliborz side, approaching Most Gdański, a double-deck bridge, with cars and buses on the top deck, trams, bikes and pedestrians on the lower level, and a second bridge parallel to it carrying trains (nearer the camera).

Below: Wybrzeze Gdańskie, steps to the pedestrian boulevard that runs along the river. Cyclists outnumber mosquitos at this time of day.

Across the Most Gdański, back on the Praga side, running south towards Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski, is Wybrzeże Helskie, named after the Hel peninsula, funnily enough... Nip off the cycle path following Wybrzeże Helskie, and you are on the Vistula water meadows (below), often flooded, but today dry and sandy. The Old Town is across the river to the right.

Right: monument to Polish communist forces that made tragically futile attempts to come to the aid of the Warsaw Uprising. (Or not.) The soldier of the Kościusko Division is stretching his hand across the river from beside the Wybrzeże Szczecińskie. Popularly, the figure is known as 'five beers, please'.

Below: looking across the Vistula at the city centre from the cycle path near the Most Łazienkowski.

VARSOVIANS! (and tourists!)

KNOW YOUR WYBRZEŻA! (lit. coasts, embankments)

Left (west) bank of the Vistula, from north to south:

Wybrzeże Gdyńskie - 7km - from Most Północny (under construction) to Most Gdański

Wybrzeże Gdańskie - 1.5km - from Most Gdański to Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski

Wybrzeże Kościuśkowskie - 2km - from Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski to Most Poniatowskiego.

Right (east) bank of the Vistula, from north to south:

Wybrzeże Puckie - 3km - from Most Grota-Roweckiego to Most Gdański

Wybrzeże Helskie - 1.5km - from Most Gdański to Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski

Wybrzeże Szczecińskie - 2.1km - from Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski to Most Poniatowskiego.

This time last year:
To the half-closed airport

This time two years ago:
Last of the summer rides?

This time three years ago:
My own Polish Adlestrop

This time four years ago:
Here come the planes. They're American planes

Friday, 9 September 2011

From east to west and back again

The hackneyed phrase "X - a country of contrasts" or "Y - city of contrasts" forever crops up travel programmes or in travel magazines when jaded journalists fail to find a more original term. Having said that, Stara Praga, the heart of the left-bank part of Warsaw, contrasts dramatically with the capital's Old Town and modern central business district across the river.

Above: tenement on ul. Wrzesińska, as stereotypically Stara Praga as you can get. Exposed brickwork, prowizorka everywhere (a useful word!); yet only a kilometre or so away from some of Warsaw's swankiest addresses (Krakowskie Przedmieście is just across the river). So let us wander across... past Katedra Praska (Cathedral of St Florian - built 1897-1904, rebuilt 1952-1972); this view is from Sierakowskiego, across the road from the former communist internal security HQ for the Warsaw Voivodship.

And on to the river, along Al. Solidarności (which in communist days was called ul. Świerczewskiego after an unsavoury general, described 'an incompetent drunk').

Above: from the Śląsko-Dąbrowski bridge, which takes the Trasa W-Z (east-west route) from Praga across to the Old Town, you can see how untamed the Vistula is as it flows through Poland's capital. On the west side, you can see on the skyline, looking like an Easter Island statue or grain warehouse.

Above: tourist Warsaw, the Royal Castle, bathed in September evening sunlight. Tourist numbers are thinning, but a multiplicity of foreign voices is still to be heard in the castle's vicinity. Below: the new National Stadium is almost complete. Photographed from the top of the tunnel carrying Trasa W-Z down the Vistula escarpment, the Stadium is shown with the Świętokrzyski bridge in the foreground; the juxtaposition giving the the building a nautical air. The Stadium's location in Praga should do much to revitalise the run-down part of Warsaw between the river and Dw. Wschodni (the eastern railway station).

This time two years ago:
Late summer scenes, Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Commuting - there must be a better way

This time four years ago:
Roadworks and detours around Mysiadło

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Summer comes crashing down

On Monday I rode to work on my bike, leaving home at half past seven, wearing one layer. The daytime high was 27C; cycling between meetings I was sweating heavily. Today, just three days later, the temperature hit no more than 14C. In three layers I was shivering; heavy showers caught me out twice on my way home. And hunger... I'm hungry all the time - tucking into more and bigger meals and snacking in between. My body is obviously beginning to set down a store of fat for the cold months ahead.

As my fingers passed through the morning air, I found myself thinking of gloves for the first time since early May.

The end of summer? The weather forecast on TVP 1 when I got home was suggesting a return to 27C on Sunday, so no, not yet. As in the human ageing process - there are better days and worse days. Not a sudden switching off, but an inexorable though inconsistent decline into darkness, coldness and gloom. The wet has never really gone away, neither this year nor indeed last year.

Somehow that feeling that summer's over has not taken hold, the mono no aware and wabi-sabi moment has yet to occur (see this post from exactly two years ago for fuller insight into the significance of this particular time of year to me).

This time last year:
Tanks and guns and drones - Kielce arms fair

This time two years ago:
That post mentioned in the paragraph above

This time three years ago:
Recycling household waste

This time four years ago:
How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Hipper than thou?

O what post-modernist irony! Cycling around Warsaw with a swastika on your hipster fixie? Warsaw - of all cities?

Note that the swastika is not at an angle and has turned-up ends and dots between the arms; clearly, then, an Indian good-luck charm. Allow Hipster Hitler to explain...

This time last year:
Polish military helicopters on display

This time two years ago:
Rare visitor to Okęcie

This time four years ago:
Burnt by the sun

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Clinging on to summer

In most people's minds, summer ends on 1 September, when schools go back. Astronomical summer ends this year on 23 September, when the sun, having spent the bulk of its time shining over the Northern Hemisphere, retreats back across the equator. At this time of year, within a month either way of the equinox, we feel the day shortening at a noticeable pace. Every day, the sun sets two minutes earlier, and rises two minutes later; as a result the day shortens by four minutes, or around half an hour a week. Frightening.

Still, the weekend was as the meteorologists had predicted it - hot and sunny. As I write, I can feel the effects of the sun's rays on my face, having spent most of the day out and about on my bicycle.

Indeed, most of Warsaw was out and about on its bicycle. The cycle path along Przyczółkowa was like a bicycle motorway. It attracted a wide range of cyclists - from very young to very old; mountain bikers, road racers, trendies on their sit-up-and-beg amsterdamki, riders of old school Polish Jubilat or Wigry bikes, parents with their little ones in kiddie seats or trailers. In fact, the only tribe of cyclist unrepresented on the cycle path to Powsin were hipsters on fixies. This is not a place to be seen - unlike the forecourt of Złote Tarasy, where fixies are piled high, chained to the railings. (The way to mount one, by the way, is to swing your leg over the handlebar).

Above: the cycle path from Wilanów to Powsin; very busy indeed - as it should be. A cloudless day.

No rain all week, yet the water table is still high, puddles abound and with them and the heat - the midges/mosquitos (call them what they are: komarzyska - culex pipiens). In the midday sun, there are few about, but around dusk they are still a total nuisance.

While the sun shines, we have got to make hay. Within a few weeks, the weather will have changed; darkness will have replaced light as the dominant mode; summer clothes will have been put away and replaced by thick, heavy coats. Make the most of every sunny hour.

This time last year:
Compositions in yellow, blue and white

This time two years ago:
When the Z-9 used to run, temporarily, to Jeziorki