Monday, 31 January 2011

To the Catch - Part Two

Their day had gone well; by late afternoon the nets were fuller of fish than either brother could remember, and a dozen well-shot ducks lay in the bottom of the boat. With such a bountiful catch it was imperative for them to get to Pinsk's river market as soon as they could. There was still a long two day's journey ahead of them; after rowing downstream towards the Pina for a more few hours; then they'd tie up the boat just after sunset and sleep in it before setting off early the next morn.

Igor and Borislav unpacked their blankets and bedding and settled down to get as comfortable as possible; the night was mild, there were no mosquitos about as yet; they prayed to God thanking Him for his providence in the day's catch. They woke before dawn and after breaking fast on bread, cheese and milk, they loosed the boat and set off towards Pinsk. The morning passed uneventfully; they took the opportunity to shoot some more duck, one of which the roasted for lunch over an open fire.

Back in the river for an afternoon's intensive rowing, it was Borislav who heard it first - a low chugging sound from downstream; above the treeline they could make out a plume of black smoke. The river here was fairly straight but there were many submerged trees in the breadth of the floodwaters' flow; reeds impaired their view. The noise became louder. Neither Igor nor Borislav could identify it. Clanking and puffing it came into sight - pushing through the reedy waters - a vessel larger than either man had ever seen in his life. Huge it was - a hundred feet or more - dark grey, made of iron plates, broad and low it sat in the water, with a chimney belching black smoke, like from a factory, and on the foredeck a gun turret with two enormous cannon, behind it some superstructure, the bridge, masts, more guns... two paddle wheels, one on either side, churned the water propelling the behemoth towards them.

Igor motioned to Borislav to get down and to reverse their boat deeper into the rushs. Both men were clearly frightened by the strange vessel - nothing they had ever experienced had prepared them for it. They covered themselves with reed matting that they used as hunting camouflage when approaching ducks, and lay low. Though the sight was terrifying, it was fascinating. They decided to inch their boat forward to get a better look.

The vessel was moving towards them at almost the speed of a galloping horse. Sparks were flying out of the funnel amid the black smoke. The ship was not following a straight course but moving in a broad arc towards the left, one beam lower in the water than the other. As the ship passed them, within 40 or 50 feet, they could both clearly make out the forms of three men on the rear deck, motionless; one sprawled out in a chair, two lying prostrate, one clutching a bottle, glass glinting in the afternoon sun. Their elaborate uniforms suggested that all these men were officers.

"Dead drunk?" asked Borislav. "Poisoned...?" whispered Igor. "A mutiny, perhaps..." The paddle wheels churned on crazily, the wake of the heavy vessel passing struck the brothers' boat almost pitching them both overboard. As the waters calmed, they took courage and propelled their craft into mid-stream so they could watch the runaway gunboat charge on down the river. There was still no sign of life on deck. "Look, it will crash!" said Borislav. Sure enough, the mighty vessel was headed for a large stand of partially submerged silver birch trees beyond which lay dense undergrowth and dry land.

They followed the ship with their gaze, standing up to watch it as it smashed into the trees, the sound of splintering birch trunks. After several minutes silence, there was a terrific hissing sound of steam exiting the ruptured boiler. And then again, silence.

Borislav looked at his brother. "Should we go and see? Help the wounded? Or if they're all dead - there must be firearms on board, provisions, clothing, instruments, bedding, cutlery... Let's go and look..."

Igor counselled caution. "Let us go on to Pinsk. God has granted us a rich bounty. We should sell it. We'll be coming back this way, in three days time, to this catch".

This time last year:
Greed, fear and flight

This time two years ago:
Poland: is there a crisis going on?

Sunday, 30 January 2011

To the catch - a short story

Mid-April, and Easter would be soon be upon them once again; first the Catholic one, and then – unusually that year – only a week later, the Orthodox one. Both Igor and his younger brother Borislav experienced the anticipation of this period of great joy most intensely. The snows had finally retreated, melting to flood the Pripyat Marshes to their fullest extent, the sun was now shining strongly, rising earlier, setting later, that warmth and light so yearned for during the cold grey months that had just passed. The vigour of the earth flourishing around them stirred their souls, and at this time of day, just before dawn, that familiar smell of returning life filled their smiling nostrils.

They had just set off from their wooden house, situated on edge of the small settlement where they lived with their aging mother. Both men were tall though sparsely built. Each carried a shotgun, a heavy bag and a dense tangle of fishing nets. They wore leather boots, still damp and heavy from wading in the floodwaters the previous day, pulled up over rough woollen trousers, loose cotton shirts hanging down over their hips and shapeless woollen jumpers, and faded, navy-blue peaked caps pulled down over their foreheads.

Their weather-beaten faces, high cheekbones and sky-blue eyes suggested the men to be Polyeshuks – the indigenous inhabitants of Polesye, people who defined themselves as tutejsi – the people from here. Neither White Ruthenian, nor Ukrainian, nor Polish nor Russian – they were the people of the Pripyat, the vast expanse of wetland that split the trade routes crossing central and eastern Europe's borderlands. Mistrusting those neighbours who did not live in the endless cycle of freeze, thaw and flood, the Polyeshuks lived as their ancestors had, fishing and fowling in this watery landscape. Neither did these people define themselves by faith; they'd go to the Catholic church for holy days, and to the Orthodox one for its holy days, remembering how to cross themselves in each, and not to engage in theological discussions with anyone, avoiding eye contact with priests.

Igor and Borislav passed between the silent houses, along a muddy lane between unpainted wooden fences. Here and there a dog would bark, chained to a post. Frogs were croaking in the reedbeds behind the houses. At the settlement's end the path broadened, rutted with cart-tracks, studded with hoofprints, on either side silver birches in new leaf and pinetrees. A moon, almost three-quarters full, was setting as the men walked up to the edge of the swollen river, and clumped along the planks of a rickety wooden platform to which was moored their boat. A light mist hung over the water, an encouraging sign that the day should stay fair. Saying little to one another, the brothers put their equipment into their flat-bottomed, sharp-prowed vessel, untied it and cast off into the mist.

Their day would be a long one; with God's grace, their catch would be bountiful; then they would punt or paddle north east through the flooded marshlands and on, up the Pina river, towards Pinsk, another two full days ahead of them, during which they may catch more fish. On reaching Pinsk, they would steer their vessel into the crowded river market, and hopefully realise a good price for their catch. For the money, they'd buy provisions for themselves, for the house, for their mother.

This is a journey they'd done often times before; both men fondly remembered their many journeys to Pinsk with their father, who'd taught them everything they knew about catching fish, shooting waterfowl and trading in the market. He'd been dead twelve winters long now, but spirit was with them, it was in the boat he'd built, in the guns that he'd saved up to buy his sons.

A rich sunrise delighted their souls as they propelled the boat towards the best fishing grounds where perch and carp swam in abundance. And ducks – they would be keen to ambush a flock or two before the sun rose too high. Stealthy propelling their boat through the reeds, heads down low, between the partially-submerged silver birches, they knew that at this time of year, at this time of day, they could easily bag a dozen or more ducks at rest on the floodwaters. And for the money... and the fish they'd catch! Pinsk would have much to offer the brothers.

Pinsk – the biggest town they'd ever seen in their lives. So many buildings, made of brick and stone; churches, stores, wagons, bridges, factories, a railway line! So many attractions – so much to buy, to look at – and the crowds, Russians, Poles, Jews, Germans... the elegant women... both knew the success of their journey to Pinsk would be determined by the size of their catch and the money they could raise by selling it. But before they could get to enjoy the town, they would need to get there.

The concluding Part II of this short story will be posted tomorrow night...

This time last year:
Eternal Warsaw

This time three years ago:
From the family archives

Thursday, 27 January 2011

New winter wear

Impatience, male vanity - call it what you will - I felt the need for a new winter coat. While my M-65 field coat is supremely comfortable outerwear for temperatures as low as -20C, wearing it every single day from late-November to late-March gets a bit, well, monotonous.

So what do I do? - I buy an M-65 fishtail parka. Same concept - US Army garments are hard-wearing, practical, comfortable and... well, iconic. Made in the USA. The American military would never outsource its clothing supply to China.

The Parka, Extreme Cold Weather comes with Liner, Extreme Cold Weather, Parka, and optional Hood, Winter, W/Synthetic Fur Ruff. The detachable liner and hood will both fit into the M-65 field coat. The fishtail bit... the two flaps at the back of the parka enable the wearer to tie the double drawstrings about the thighs for added warmth and mobility.

The obvious advantage of the parka over the field coat is its length; I can wear the parka over a suit without having to tuck the bottom of the jacket into the coat (having suit jacket showing from beneath the hem of a coat is a grave fashion faux pas).

The US Army parka just comes in olive green, unlike the field coat, which is available in several plain colours including black, navy blue and écru, as well as in woodland and desert disruptive camouflage patterns.

Regular readers will know I have a thing about the USA in the late-40s and early-50s; this particular coat is mid-60s but somehow still feels right for me.

Mine was from the Militaria shop in the underground passage between W-wa Śródmieście and W-wa Centralna stations, 310 złotys (plus 50 złotys for the hood) around £80.

World's best male outdoor tailoring? The US Armed Forces!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

A Dream Too Far (Part II)

Joad and I drifted out of the Faber & Faber offices into Russell Square and found ourselves in another office nearby. This time modern. He was evidently confused yet fascinated with what I was showing him. A room full of wall-mounted plasma monitors, with people in casual attire gaping at them. I looked up with Joad at the nearest screen. “CNN DATELINE 24 DECEMBER 2012 – LIVE PICTURES FROM MARS PROBE”. Above this we could see against the background of reddish Martian rocks and thin sky, a robotic arm picking up what the voice-over called an ‘anomalous artefact’ – a piece of dusty latticework, like a piece of a plastic tennis racket or a snow shoe. A TV studio full of excited pundits chimed in, live; some voices were trying to explain this away – debris from an earlier mission, a strange geological feature – whilst others attempting to place a historical significance on this discovery. ‘The end of mankind’s innocence’ proclaimed a talking head, before the commercial break.

The office in which we stood erupted into heated debate. Was this real? What would this mean for us all? Soon TV was back with the Martian rover. The camera, which had been focused on the latticework artefact, panned slowly upwards from the floor of the gully on which the probe had been standing. We looked up towards the far end of the gully. There, we were – both out of our time – we thought we could see... a tubular structure crossing from one edge of the gully to the other. By now, digitally-enhanced images of the latticework object were appearing on thousands of websites, some of these being brought up onto the bank of monitors before us. The rover began to roll up the valley floor, its camera zooming in to the top end of the gully. Joad looked at me in amazement. There we were – both out of our own time – witnessing above the hubbub of this high-tech office what could be the most significant moment in the history of mankind. The TV pundits were quiet. The images were clear, they were being witnessed by hundreds of millions of viewers around the globe – a tubular bridge linking the two banks of theis Martian valley. Looking like a huge cigarette, mostly off-white in colour, yellowy-tan like a filter tip at the left-hand end, with what seemed to be windows (reminding me a bit of a pedestrian walkway spanning the motorway at a service station), this was unambiguously a structure of non-human construction.

The pundits were beside themselves. Not just an anomalous artefact. This was some 100ft long by 12ft diameter engineering project erected by some race that had got to Mars before contemporary man. All TV channels were by now showing the same image. A talking head in the BBC World studio put forward the proposition that it could have been an ancient Earth based civilization that built this bridge – Atlanteans. The studio pundits – sober scientists – were in a fluster – all of a sudden Atlantis had become just as plausible to them as aliens from other solar systems.

Joad and I left the offices. We boarded an 88 bus (I had seen a toy London bus with this number in the little shop in the caravan site in North Wales) heading down Oxford Street towards the suburbs. We sat on the top deck. All talk was of Mars. “It was not even like this the day the Great War broke out”, said Joad, somberly. He asked me how I thought this would affect the beliefs of organised religions around the world; would the discovery sharpen or dull mankind’s drive to learn and discover, were these alien bridgebuilders still alive…

I was about to reply when the dream faded, or rather mutated. Joad, the bus, London disappeared, I found myself atop Mount Olympus (no doubt a reference to Mars’ highest peak)…

I woke up sweating. My sweat has a strange smell, like liver sausage pâté on a shortbread biscuit.

Before breakfast I wrote down the key points of the above-mentioned dream, and continued to finish reading Joad’s book. A few days later I was home, holiday over. With unfettered access to the internet I carried out another search to find out more about the author of Experimenting with Time. I, entered a few key phrases into Google’s search box. There were several second-hand copies for sale listed, lots of chaff - D. W. Joads from Australia or California boasting of their sporting prowess or their real estate business – and finally – the info I was looking for –

“D.W. Joad – Aviation Pioneer and Author. Born Westbury, Wiltshire, 18 September 1874, died 30 July 1935, Southgate Asylum for the Insane”.

Monday, 24 January 2011

A Dream Too Far - a short story

As we do each year, we left London for our annual holiday in North Wales stopping off en route in the Derbyshire village of D_______, where lives my brother with his family. With the children all fast asleep upstairs, my brother, his wife and I were sitting up late drinking organic cider and home-made wine, tucking into cheese and crackers and discussing ever-more metaphysical subjects, the mysteries of the universe and such. I was telling him about my latest thinking about the human spirit and precognition, and he fetched me down an old book that he’d bought over 25 years ago while still a student living in Leamington Spa. It was entitled Experimenting with Time by D. W. Joad (3rd edition, Faber & Faber, 1934).

It was written by an early British pioneer of flight who had had many amazing dreams of precognition that came true, dreams of death, dreams of chance meetings, dreams of disasters. After many years of such dreaming such dreams, he committed them to paper along with a theory of how (in light of the latest theories of Einstein) it was possible to see into the future. The second part of the book deals with an experiment carried out by Joad in the late 1920s in which he put together a team of ‘dreamers’ and each morning systematically logged their dreams, searching their content for meaningful coincidences. His aim was to give his own experiences a quantitative, theoretical and analysis.

On holiday in North Wales, I’d spend the August drizzly days reading Joad’s book. The more I read, the more I felt that I should contact him from the here and now. By turning up as a character in one of his frequent precognitive dreams, I could offer him a briefing into how the rest of the 20th Century had unfolded. Every night, I’d drop off to sleep and attempt to dream myself back to Joad’s time, England in the mid-1930s. Yet it would not be easy; his book gave no biographical detail as to where he lived, nor had my research at the local internet café yielded me more information about his life (other than the scarce availability of Experimenting with Time and his earlier book Parallel Universes in the occasional online bookshop).

Night after night I’d drift off to sleep to dream. Once, I was in 19th century Paris (where I’d built a new but ultimately unprofitable Metro system), or in Cairo (featuring my mother blackening her face with mud, head in a shawl, while an English pie-seller and her bedraggled children begged for alms), the Humber Bridge (a typical fear-of-heights dream), Warsaw – (a tram crashing into a police van) – then, one night I’d finally got to London, but on the wrong side of the river – Sydenham, Penge… (I was exploring back alleyways looking for an empty property to squat in – to be finally chased off by a swarm of angry wasps!). Another night I found myself in West London, where a cricket pitch had bisected a number of long gardens along the back of Ealing’s Gordon Road. I’d wake each morning and make some notes. By day I’d be continuing to read this fascinating book, each evening I'd persevere in dreaming myself into Joad’s life and times.

Finally, on the last night of the holiday, I finally found myself where I wanted to be: right place, right time. I dreamt that I was standing on the parapet of the railway viaduct overlooking the Great Western Railway line at Greenford. I glanced down and saw two steam locomotives. I knew that if I were to follow that line, I’d eventually reach Paddington Station. I found myself hovering about a yard above the railway track, travelling forward, with neither engine before me nor carriages behind, at 80 miles an hour through the suburbs, through the Ealings and Actons, past the soot-blackened backs of houses overlooking the line at Westbourne Park and Royal Oak, hurtling inexorably towards the buffers at Platform 1, where I smoothly drew up to a halt. Stepping off the platform, I joined a bowler-hatted throng of City gents making their way up the cobbled ramp towards Praed Street; I continued on foot.

My destination was 24 Russell Square London, W.C.1, Faber & Faber’s offices, as mentioned on the flyleaf of the book. Soon I found myself walking down Devonshire Street. Navigating London’s imperious throroughfares, I soon made it to Russell Square. This was Christmas Eve! No doubt stirred by a memory of a Christmas lunch that I'd attended many years ago at a Russell Square hotel – but this could not be more fortuitous! For as soon as I’d located Number 24 did I realise that the publishers were seasonally entertaining their authors and editors, and immediately I found D. W. Joad. ‘Don’t go to town wearing brown’ the saying went; yet this short man with his pointed grey goatee beard, looking dapper for his years in a brown three-piece tweed suit was evidently up for the day rather than an employee of the publisher.

Mr Joad was holding forth to a small group of inquistive editors when I approached him. I immediately introduced myself as a reader of his books – from 75 years into the future. This led to a titter from his listeners, but Joad at least pretended to take me seriously. I decided not to talk about World War 2, the atomic bomb, the Communist Menace, etc – but rather about advances in science – evolutionary biology, sub-atomic physics (how Schroedinger’s cat was simultaneously both alive and dead until an observer looked). Joad was impressed. The other listeners drifited away, glasses in hand, to less intense chit-chat.

No doubt under the influence of the seasonal cheer, he had found the courage to ask me the one question I felt he’d ask. “What, Sir, do you know of the time and circumstances of my death?” I replied that I had been anticipating this question and that my internet searches (“a collection of powerful computing machines around the world, linked together by telephone lines to form a giant network, searching vast banks of electronic data”) had informed me only of his books, indeed of those bookshops dotted around the English-speaking world holding second-hand copies in stock. I told him, truthfully, that I could find no biographical notes other than a few brief mentions of his pioneering aeronautical work. He showed himself to be at once flattered and relieved.

The dream began to change...

The concluding Part II of this short story will be posted tomorrow night...

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

This time two years ago:
Dobra and The Road

This time three years ago:
Plane full of Polish VIPs crashes in forest

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Moni at 18 (and 18 months)

A Moni-centric weekend continues with the celebration today of her 18th birthday, and time for a proud father to reminisce about her earliest days. So here are a few photos of precious childhood memories of my darling daughter, who today reached her Age of Majority.

Left: Moni aged four months. Back in the early 1990s, before digital photography was invented, one had to take pictures using a camera obscura with a Daguerreotype plate, which was exposed for 20 minutes and then developed by treating the silver halides with mercury vapour. This particular photogravure took eight weeks to develop - by which time Moni was walking.

Below: Moni's eyes demonstrate awareness and intelligence aplenty. Button bright. At this age, Moni's nickname was Bóbuluń (from bób, or broad bean). As she grew up this became Bobbie, then Big Bob.

But as soon as she could speak, Moni began referring to herself (always in the third person) as 'Minka'. Polish was her first and only language until she started pre-school at the age of three and half. From Minka came another nickname, the diminutive plural, Mineczki. And of course, Madamki.

When introducing herself to non-Polish speaking children (before Moni knew any English), she would refer to herself as 'De Moneekee'.

Left: This is my favourite photo of Moni from her youngest days; May 1994; she's around 15 months old, and already displaying a vast vocabulary for her age. Dziadzio Bohdan recorded her as knowing over 300 words by the time she was 18 months old.


Above: Moni (still in nappies) seated on the bonnet of a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit (in those days, I used to test luxury cars for the business magazine I edited).

Left: Moni's second summer holiday, aged 18 months, in North Wales, where we'd go almost each year until 2007.

This time last year:
Roadworks in mid-winter

This time two years ago:
Skiing in the Beskid Wyspowy

This time three years ago:
Moni is 15

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Studniówka - hundred days before exams

Tonight is Moni's Big Night. One hundred days before the matura exams which bring school education to a close, pupils traditionally hold a big ball, to inaugurate a final period of intensive revision.

This then, is the Studniówka, a rite of passage, something all young Poles (other than that tiny minority of high school drop-outs) experience.

For girls - a chance to look glamorous. For boys, it is often the time for their first suit - for this is a formal do, which starts with a Polonaise (Polonez) dance.

The event will last until 5am, so I'm sure madamki will not be waking up too early tomorrow morning.

Why Moni's pose? Less to do with drying nail varnish, more to do with the series of photos taken on her first day of each subsequent school year. See the full sequence here - from 1997 to 2010.

This time last year:
In search of the Seat of Consciousness

This time two years ago:
The big melt: Dobra in the thaw

This time three years ago:
The year's Most Depressing Day

Friday, 21 January 2011

Another winter walk to work

I have proved that it is quicker in winter to walk the five and half km to Platan Park to work in the morning than it is to walk to the bus stop, stand in wretched traffic jams, and walk from Puławska to Platan Park. The walk is more aesthetically pleasing anyway. So off we go. Below: frozen wetlands, ul. Trombity. Silver birches blend in with the snowy landscape.

Below: frozen flooded fields and orchards, ul. Kórnicka. Temperature: just below zero.

Below: Narrowest point of ul. Poloneza; a car cannot pass a pedestrian here.

Below: out on the perimeter - taxi zone 2 starts here. Though 'going south of the river after dark' would be preferable to a London cabbie to driving down ul Poloneza.

Below: would you believe the muddy, narrow, rutted track in the two photos above gets carried over the nascent S2 South Warsaw Ring Road here. Same road. The cost of building the viaduct here is 100 times greater than asphalting the rest of this appalling thoroughfare.

Click here to see the same place on my 50th birthday. What a difference.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Winter's slight return

Eddie ran into my room last night to announce that it was snowing. Indeed - but the temperature was hovering just above zero, so whether the snow would last the night was questionable.

It did. We awoke to find that winter had returned, though tenuously. Some freezing fog and wet, clingy snow ensured that the sight that met our eyes was indeed a pleasing one. But for how long? Forecasts suggest that the temperature will fall to -5C by Saturday morning and that snow will continue to fall lightly.

One thing that's immediately noticeable when the temperature hovers around zero - the difference between city and suburb. There is a difference of up to one degree C in temperature due to the urban heat island effect, which you can see by comparing temperatures at Okęcie airport and at the Institute of Physics, Warsaw Technical University (Politechnika Warszawska). Right now, that difference is 0.9C. During the day, Warsaw city centre pavements were wet; wet slushy snow was falling off trees, but in Jeziorki, the frost held on - just.

This time last year:
Unacceptable

This time two years ago:
Pieniny in winter

This time three years ago:
Wetlands in a wet winter

From Part II

Within 20 minutes he’d reached his son’s bungalow. His daughter-in-law greeted him. Much taller than him, she bent down to kiss him on the forehead, welcomed him home and led him to his grandchildren. Outside, the ion shutters silently descended to cover the tall windows; inside heavy crushed velvet curtains swept closed. A siren sounded a brief alert to anyone still outdoors. Halbmann’s son popped in to bid goodnight to his father and children, and with his wife, they departed to the transporter lounge. They’d be back by the morning.

As usual when left alone with their grandfather, the two boys wanted to view his old things. His ‘holies of holies’, artifacts from long, long ago. He had them in a small hardwood trunk, usually kept in a locked safe in the spare room in which he slept when he stayed with them. He pulled out his trunk and opened it, reverently pulling from it various objects. That night, he wanted to show them a silver metal cigarette lighter that he'd always had. In front of the boys, he felt uncomfortable with the notion of ‘cigarette’, he didn't quite know for certain what it was, but felt vaguely that it was a bad thing and it didn’t feel right to explain this to his grandchildren, so he just called it a ‘lighter’. Halbmann didn’t want to demonstrate it that evening, but promised at that some undefined time in the future, he would indeed make a small fire come out of it.

The other artifact that fascinated the children was a 35mm camera. Also made of metal but painted black, with dials on top and a large glass lens in front, it would make a clicking sound when you pressed a button after pulling a lever across, a mirror would flip up, which you could see if you took the lens off. Halbmann wasn’t quite sure how it worked but told the boys that it was used for ‘taking pictures’ a long, long time ago. Neither could he say exactly when it was made, but indeed a long time ago, and very far away. The boys, not allowed to touch, gazed in prolonged wonder at these two metallic objects.

His lack of definite answers to the boys’ incessant and well-aimed questions made him think: “I’m just an old fraud. I’m only a mere two generations nearer than they are to where we are all ‘from’.”

‘From’. That tiny point of light briefly visible in the summer sky between sundown and sunup.

Halbmann knew he had only a few dozen years to live. Then he’d die, once again to be reborn. Halbmann’s soul felt weary.

This time last year:
A month until Lent starts

This time two years ago:
World's largest airliners over Poland

This time three years ago:
More pre-Lenten thoughts

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

From - a short story

The sky was purple-black, the bright harsh sun threw long shadows across the wide and empty thorough-way. Halbmann was walking to Carmillisenz hall, for the evening’s sound concert. He’d been looking forward to it all week. The wind whipped hard across the plain, blowing his longish grey hair back along his scalp. As he walked, leaning into the wind, he squinted down the road through a pair of large wraparound sunglasses.

Beyond the immaculate sunlit sprinklered lawns, across the irrigated fields, the large yellow and black warning flag was fluttering vigorously, visible for kilometres around. In the distance, Halbmann could see the machines obediently making their way back off the fields towards their shiny metal barns dotted along the far horizon.

There’d still be several hours before it got to be too dangerous outside, long enough to enjoy the sound concert and get to his son’s house in time for grandfatherly babysitting duties. Passing block after block of neat bungalows and perfectly manicured gardens, he reached his destination, the dome that served their small township as its main venue for sporting and cultural events.

Along with dozens of other senior citizens from the township, Halbmann turned up to enjoy a night of aural nostalgia. He walked up a few steps and entered the dome, joining the others at the central bar. He didn’t feel like talking much that evening, but felt that a glass of Universalis would enhance the evening’s experience. Familiar faces, nice new neighbors, he sat at the bar, smiled, nodded, but right now he didn’t want to talk business, answer questions or do anything but exchange simple pleasantries.

This evening, the dome at Carmillisenz hall was arranged as an amphitheatre. Large reclining black leather sofas were arranged in a semicircle around the sound system. Halbmann took his allotted place and sat down, getting himself comfortable. Backrest reclined, feet up… Soon, after the audience had all settled, the lights dimmed and the performance got under way. A few audio advertisements for local services were aired, and then the main part of the program began.

I have to explain here that the sound concert is an art form like any other, with its own conventions and codes. It aimed to convey listeners to places far away in space and time. The recordings had been made and edited with inordinate care, with the aim of being as universally significant to as many listeners as possible. Try as you might, you could not make out what language was being spoken, although you'd easily catch the gist of what people were saying. Nor could you spot any clue that could give away the specific point in history that the recording was referring to. The market for emotion nostalgia was so great that the owners of the dome would always do good business on nights when there was a sound concert for the senior citizens.

Halbmann chose not to put on the headphones. These would have given him better sound quality but would drown out all the sighs, the involuntary chokes of emotion, the sounds of fellow listeners’ responses to the sounds, their laughter and their sobs. It was this element - the audience reaction - that gave these sound concert events their poignant sense of communion with his neighbors and friends.

The first piece that evening was of someone walking across open countryside. Footsteps. A tuneless whistle, a sense of purpose. Wind in the trees. Wind gusting through the ripe late summer crops. Insects buzzing around. A couple chatting happily as they walked. Skylarks trilling, high overhead, a foot stumbling on a stone, a puddle, a laugh, a curse. Observations – pointing things out to one another. A creaky gate, dogs barking, far away. A stream gurgling under a wooden footbridge. Eyes closed, the listeners were transported to a time and a place so familiar, so wonderfully pleasant, that their faces reflected purest joy at the experience.

There was a short intermission for stretching legs and visiting the bathroom. The second piece developed into what sounded like a large family get-together. A lunch outdoors in a prosperous village. Spring. A warm, still day. Children running around. Food and drink being served. Laughter, chit-chat, expressions of surprise – more laughter. Voices of several generations. Tableware – that sound of cutlery on china, corks being popped, drinks being poured, glasses chinking. A sense of well-being and community, someone breaking into song, a mock-pompous announcement, more laughter. Halbmann listened enchanted, taken off to something that he'd often experienced indirectly – memories he’d had all his life but which he could not identify; something intimately close to him – and yet not something that had ever happened to him.

At the end of the two pieces, which lasted maybe three hours in total, Halbmann stood up, stiffly stretched, and returned to the bar for a quick Universalis before setting off to his son's house. Now he felt more chatty, a smile returned to his face. The audience were all full of emotions that they wanted to share. But everyone was also aware of the fact that it was time to go and to get home quickly. Dusk was falling. It would soon be dangerous outside. He’d missed twilight soup picnic with the family that evening.

Outside, the yellow and black flag had been replaced by a red-and-black chequered flag. Time to walk briskly. Less than an hour left.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Waiting for the Sun

A little discussion today - when will spring finally come? Winter can be beautiful if accompanied by sharp frosts, blue skies and regular sprinklings of powdered snow. But what we've had now for the past 12 days is grey skies, grey pavements, rain and drizzle, temperatures well above zero, meltwater in your shoes and localised flooding. And all this can get you down.

Last Monday was said to be 'Blue Monday', that most depressing day of the year. [In 2008 it was 21 January] This is to do with the long dark nights and the fact that spring is still such a long time away. There were three deaths under local railway trains in the space of three days last week (the first reported here).

Well, living at these latitudes gives cause for gratitude when the days become long and warm, and that first day of the year when one is thankful for a cooling breeze. The relative uniformity of day-length and temperatures associated with equatorial regions does not unleash that same unbridled joy felt in more northerly latitudes with the onset of spring.

But when will it come? In London, the sight of daffodils and crocuses on the lawn is only two-three weeks away. In Warsaw, we wait until mid-April - for that sudden explosion of verdant life; by early May the greenery is startling, the warmth and long hours of daylight as magnificent and perennial as true love itself.

So still three months to go before that wonderful time (savour it!) when the fruit trees blossom and burst into leaf and you can abandon multiple layers of outer clothing for a cotton shirt.

Any indications of spring? Well, it's light (just about) at 4pm and when the wind blows from the south, you can imagine some inkling of how it will be when winter retreats - but this is deceptive. Snow can (and no doubt will) return and fall heavily and settle for weeks before winter is finally and decidedly over. Looking back over past years, February has witnessed massively heavy deposits of snow, and even though almost all of last month's snow has melted away over the past week and half - it most probably will return and stay for weeks. Even in mid-March, winter can make its beautious presence felt. However, right now, the forecast suggests a return to around zero and wet snow for Thursday.

Buds on trees and bushes will not start to show up until early April. Migratory birds will not return until late March. And Lent this year will only start on 9 March - Easter Sunday will fall on 24 April (really late).

Keep watching the skies. Keep yearning, keep hoping. For whatever else happens, spring will return. And when it does, won't life be wonderful? (I'm starting to sound like Chance the Gardener, from Jerzy Kosiński's Being There).

This time last year:
When is an ulica not a street?

This time two years ago:
Into the trees

Monday, 17 January 2011

Jeziorki submerging

Well, as predicted over a week ago, the snows have retreated leaving vast volumes of water that Jeziorki's soil can no longer absorb. The temperature has not fallen below zero for a whole week (hitting +9C today); all but the largest and most obstinate mounds of icy snow have melted. Water flows from the higher fields to the lowest-lying points of Jeziorki, and even though today was rain-free, water levels continued to rise.

On Saturday morning at the local shop by W-wa Jeziorki station, I learnt of several houses with flooded basements and garages on ul. Kurantów and Achillesa. Pan Tomek told me that Jeziorki lies on a bed of impermiable clay just 1.5m (4ft) beneath the surface. The earth can no longer cope with any more meltwater or rain.

Driving home I saw a fire engine outside no. 24, pumping water out of basements into adjoining fields; it will only flow down again. The only solution (which I saw this evening on ul. Buszycka) is to pump the water into cistern trucks and drive the stuff away. It rained heavily on Saturday morning. By the afternoon, parts of ul. Kórnicka were under water. Below: Flooded land by W-wa Jeziorki station; the make-shift park-and-ride is under water too.

Thanks to Student SGH for tipping me off that TVN Warszawa has covered this story about flooding a few doors down from us on ul. Trombity. This is the second time that our street has hit the local media because of flooding in just six months.

Above: that potato field at the end of ul. Trombity again; it's been under water for much of last year. It won't get any drier unless a new drainage ditch is cut.
Looking back at posts from previous years, at no time in mid-January was the water level as high as this. Although the weather forecasts to the end of the week predict no return too winter and snow, it will surely come. Snow can fall (and heavily) and settle right up to the late March. Then come the spring rains. And a deluge like the one that hit Jeziorki on Corpus Christ last year will take water levels up to where they can endanger all but the highest-situated houses around here.
And people deny climate change.

This time last year:
Science in a nutshell

This time two years ago:
Flashback to communist times

This time three years ago:
Pre-dawn Ursynów

Friday, 14 January 2011

Blood on the tracks, again

A sense of déjà vu struck me on arriving at W-wa Powiśle yesterday morning. Ahead of me, I could see an ever-increasing number of people walking along the tracks from a stationary train. Then another train drew up behind the first one. More passengers spilled out across the tracks. Something serious had happened.

This also happened last January; then it was a broken-down train. This time - a person under a west-bound train at W-wa Śródmieście, just minutes earlier, as my east-bound train was passing through. The result - paralysis of all west-bound suburban services for the rest of the morning. The story is here (illustrated with one of my photos - reason why I have a camera with me at all times) and here in greater depth. TVN Warszawa is careful not to mention suicide. However, reading the comments on the page, it seems clear from eye witnesses that the man did jump; the platform was not crowded. If so, this is another case of someone who took his own life under a train; I noted one last November near W-wa Dawidy.

W-wa Śródmiescie is a depressing place. Especially when waiting for trains that are running 15, 30 or even 90 minutes late. The drabness of the architecture and lighting, the listless crowds, lack of seating and above all the smell, all conspire to deprive one of the very will to live. Yet unlike the mainline stations, Śródmiescie is not earmarked for a pre-Euro2012 facelift.

Looking at the photo above, bear in mind that just behind me was an east-bound train ready to depart from W-wa Wschodnia; it could not move because of all the people on the track. They should have got off on the other side, where rail traffic was stationary. One woman was almost crushed against the platform as she decided at the last moment to dart in front of the moving train.

This time last year:
Views from footbridges

This time two years ago:
Most Poniatowskiego in black and white

This time three years ago:
Frosty morn in Jeziorki

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The day I found a million zlotys

This post is for all UK expats who've been living in Poland for some years and who've paid into a British occupational pension fund. This... is good news. Today I picked up from the post office the Certificate of my new personal pension plan.

I left England for Poland in 1997 having worked for one employer for 16 years. Over that time, I'd been paying into the employee pension scheme, my contributions being topped up by my employer. Since 1997, the UK economy has hit two recessions, so I thought that my pension fund was worth not a whole lot. The way my former colleagues put it - they'd have to work to 85 to get anything meaningful out of their pension fund.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered* it was worth much, much more (like ten times more than I thought) - and that I could take it out of the UK - and that I wouldn't be taxed on it - and the annuity wouldn't disappear after my death!

The trick, O fellow expats, is a thing called QROPS, which allows you to move offshore what money or monies you have locked into pension funds back in the UK. The funds will then be administered on your behalf so they can grow and grow - and when you retire (not in the UK - that's the point of QROPS) you can do with the pot of money as you please.

Another meaningful piece of advice to expats from the UK is not to let your National Insurance Contributions lapse. You can skip up to seven years' worth of NICs, and providing you make up the shortfall, you'll still have the right to a full basic state pension (currently worth around 2,000 zloties a month when spent in Poland). Well, I'm paid up - full stamp - so no worries here.

So I am delighted to learn that my old age is financially secure (assuming of course that I stay in Poland, and that no unknown unknowns pop up along the way).

* Thanks to a certain financial adviser who I can put you in touch with if you are in the same boat as me, ie a UK expat with pension funds left in the UK, who's got no intention of retiring there.

This time last year:
Making the most of winter

This time two years ago:
Progress on ul. Baletowa

This time three years ago:
Shortest, mildest winter?

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Depopulating Polish cities?

An interesting link from Tutkaj News last Friday to a story in Rzeczpospolita suggesting that for the past decade a mass migration had been taking place out of Poland's largest cities. The numbers - based on official statistics of residency registers (the meldunek) - show that with the exception of Warsaw, Kraków and Gdańsk, Poland's remaining cities have seen a steady but consistent fall in population since 2000. Click on chart (below - which I've anglicised) for full details.

Rzeczpospolita

There are many factors which make this story more complex than the headlines suggest. Notice the difference in the trend before and after EU Accession in 2004. You'd think that the falling trend lines (in red, above) between 2005 and 2010 would be steeper than the 2000-2005 ones. And yet this is not the case. Between 2005 and 2010 Poland's population shrank (officially, I stress) by 100,000. The migration effect is evidently not taken into consideration; around 600,000 Poles have taken up near-permanent residence in the UK since it opened its labour market to them in May 2004.

Then there's the meldunek story. Since the end of communism, Poles (especially young ones) have not taken the mandatory residence registration seriously. Many young people living and working in the big cities - or indeed abroad - are still registered at their parents' address in rural or small town Poland. And then cities are growing outward; GUS still counts people registered within the cities' limits whereas a more realistic measure would be metropolises or agglomerations which are huge travel-to-work areas.

But above all, even on the raw GUS data, the figures tell another story. The population losses of Łódź, Katowice, Poznań, Bydgoszcz, Szczecin, Lublin and Wrocław total just under 150,000, while the gains of Warsaw and Kraków total just over 120,000. So it looks like two cities are drawing away the populations of seven others.

My view is that migration - both internal and abroad - acts a safety valve for Poland, with people more mobile than ever before, ready to move to follow the jobs. Crime rates have dropped noticeably since Poland joined the EU (indeed crime has fallen faster in Poland than in any other EU country in the post-accession period).

At the same time, despite a noticeable 'uptick' in births (due to the largest Polish generation born around 1980 now at prime child-bearing age), Poland is suffering a serious demographic decline. This factor, taken together with emigration, and the graphs above actually look quite positive.

Poles are moving as never before - from country to town, from town to city, and abroad. What we've yet to see is wealthy retired Poles moving back into the countryside from the cities, searching for rural tranquility - as in Britain. It will take generations yet before this pattern emerges in Poland.

This time last year:
Powiśle of a winter's morning

This time two years ago:
Sunny, snowy Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
Eddie's giant soap bubble

Monday, 10 January 2011

Some thoughts upon the Nature of Warfare

Today's Gazeta Wyborcza ran an intriguing story about a phenomenon which has been developing over the years - the set-up pitched battle between several hundred fans of rival football clubs. In Polish, an ustawka. This one - which occurred outside Poddębice, some 25 miles (40km) to the west of Łódź, was said by police to have involved around 300 hooligans and left one 24 year-old man dead.

This is what happens when war gets marginalised. Today's warfare is moving away from the mechanized, industrialised battles of WW2; no longer do tanks and air superiority fighters dominate the battlefields, but guerrillas, terrorists, suicide bombers, cyberwarfare geeks - war has become asymmetrical. When a $1.5m armoured personnel carrier can be destroyed with $30-worth of cunningly-hidden explosive, it makes you wonder why any nation would still want to build $1.5m armoured personnel carriers. This is a reaction to total war - in its 20th century iteration - combined battle forces, nerve gas, carpet bombing, concentration camps, nuclear weapons, civilian megadeaths. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction has ensured that in the past 65 years, no major power has gone to war agains any other one.

And yet... and yet. Male mammals still have that urge to fight one another. And humans are still beings built on top of a standard mammalian chassis. Too much of the male hormone coursing through the system leads to risk-taking and aggression, and en masse, it will lead to conflict. Walk around a city centre after a football match, and the air reeks of the stuff. Brains switched off, the hooligans strut around together, baying for the blood of rival fans, pumping the air with their fists, tunelessly singing songs full of the foulest oaths.

Since man could first fashion a flint into a weapon of war, testosterone has been the driving force of conquest and brutality.

What should those at the top of Society's pyramid do? Make the most of it. Harness that surplus testosterone and make it work for you. The Lord of the Manor will get his villeins and serfs to bare arms in his name, to fight against the Duke-next-Door. Then, add some extra spice - religion, nationhood, race, class or some other ideology - and you can really tweak it for what it's worth. And then - introduce industry and technology. From 18th C. muzzle-loaded muskets that could fire one round every 20 seconds in the hands of a well-drilled musketeer to the 20th C. heavy machine gun that can spew out 1,200 bullets a minute. Flamethrowers and napalm, main battle tanks and tactical nuclear weapons. Wars have become logarithmically more deadly with passing centuries, civilians becoming the dominant victims.

Campaign for Real War

An ustawka is pure, testosterone-driven male aggression for all its worth, without the downside of mothers having to get their children to safety, historic city centres getting trashed, millions of unwilling conscripts mown down by bullets and shells. Purely voluntary, agreed by both parties. The ustawka has a great future as a social safety valve. No longer do we have (as our European forebears did) a major or minor war once a generation. Yet young men still pine for action. Football hooliganism is an answer. And in the big scheme of things, a low-cost answer for society.
Perhaps our legislators should just let them be. One proviso - that the costs of any deaths or injuries incurred in voluntary fight action should not be lumbered on the taxpayer. Let all football hooligans sign forms waiving their rights to publicly-funded health care - the football club should have a fund for treating its soldiers who are harmed in action.

Men will always have the urge to fight one another. Some will be intelligent enough to understand that it's utterly futile. But for the many - the chance to take part in an ustawka, to prove one's valour in hand-to-hand combat, to fight in a band of brothers, to sing songs with one's comrades about glorious routs of the cowardly enemy - will have an attraction that's hard to resist. Get it out of the system.

This time last year:
Call out the snowploughs

This time two years ago:
Fieldfare in midwinter

This time three years ago:
Kraków beckons

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Wetlands midwinter meltdown

For the second day in row now, Warsaw has basked in temperatures of up to +6C. This means a major thaw, the snow that's been covering the ground (with a partial thaw over Christmas) since late-November is in full retreat. Round Jeziorki way, this means flooding will be inevitable. After last winter's heavy snowfalls, a wet spring and June's deluge, the ground is still waterlogged and the meltwater has nowhere to go but towards the wetlands between the end of ul. Trombity and ul. Dumki.

Above: looking towards the railway line from ul. Kórnicka. An empty coal train makes its way past thawing fields from Siekierki power station to Okęcie sidings. When all the snow in the foreground melts, ul. Kórnicka will again be under water.

Above: Looking along ul. Dumki - yes, this is a Warsaw street, well within the city limits and clearly marked on maps of the capital. Below: A screenshot of Google Maps, the area in the photo above circled in red. Click on the map for detail - you'll see Dumki shown as a road equal in stature to the asphalted ul. Trombity.

While the ice on the broader expanses of water had frozen sufficiently solid to bear my weight, further along ul. Dumki, where ice covered the rutted surface of the muddy track - I found myself above my ankles in icy mud. Good wellies and long, thick socks kept my feet dry and warm.

Below: looking from ul. Dumki towards the houses on ul. Trombity. Late afternoon sun breaking through the heavy cloud cover. Today is nearly 20 minutes longer than the shortest day, with sunset now being 17 minutes later than it was on 22 December. I can't yet say it's noticeable.

Left: the drainage ditch that crosses under ul. Dumki. There is so much more snow and ice left to melt around here (as I write I can hear the drip-drip-drip of snow off the roof) that when it does, water levels locally will rise above where they were last spring. More flooding is inevitable for houses and fields in lower-lying parts of Jeziorki.
Below: the path linking ul. Dumki with ul. Trombity.


This time last year:
Winter's walk to work

This time two years ago:
Winter drivetime, Jeziorki North

Friday, 7 January 2011

Szklanka

Eddie left home this morning at ten to seven to catch his bus to school. Three minutes later he phoned home to warn us all that the road outside the house was so slippery that he'd fallen over - painfully. The thaw was on its way. By this morning, the temperature was above zero, and the rain had been falling all night long. But the ground was still frozen after a week where temperatures averaged -3C. The result - one huge skating rink. The car radio warned repeadedly of szklanka (literally, 'a glass'); gołoledź (black ice). Today it was bad - very, very bad.

Left: ul. Górnosląska, half past eight. The pavement and the roadway were utterly treacherous. The only way down this road (a steep slope down the Vistula escarpment) was to slide one foot in front of the other, then gingerly to bring the other foot forward, as though one were on 30cm long skis. This method is illustrated by the man in the photo. I followed his example to descend Górnosląska, thus avoiding a painful tumble.

Below: Lunchtime - the temperature had soared to +6C (!). The meltdown was happening on a rapid scale. The szklanka had mostly melted (though by no means everywhere!). Pavements were drying out; here we see ice and meltwater between Górnośląska and Koźmińska. By evening it was still slippery enough to require great care on the pavements.


Right: the huge snow piles between the car parking bays and the pavement are melting. From out of the snow emerge broken bits of plastic spoiler, attached to the underside of cars' front bumpers. Our Yaris's spoiler became detached a few weeks ago as I drove over an icy mound in the middle of ul Trombity. I could neither re-attach it nor remove it; Toyota charged 120 złotys for fixing it. On Poland's roads, cars need higher ground clearance and tacky plastic bolt-ons like front spoilers are quite unnecessary.

This time last year:
Most Poniatowski in winter

This time three years ago:
Warsaw well prepared for snow

Long Train Running

Day off yesterday. Epiphany - Three Kings. A chance to go for a walk around Jeziorki with the camera. I come across a slow-moving southbound freight train - empty coal wagons heading for a Silesian refill. It stops at red lights at W-wa Jeziorki, rolls back down hill a fair way before getting a green signal and setting off.
Down around the corner, half a mile from here
See them long trains run, and you watch them disappear...
This time last year:
A Consolation to my British Readers

This time two years ago:
Winter in its finery

This time three years ago:
Keeping the trains running

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Ice in the Vistula

To Wybrzeże Kościuskowskie, for a morning meeting. By the Most Świętokrzyski bridge, I alight from the 162 at the bus stop by Pomnik Syreny, the statue of the mermaid that is Warsaw's symbol. The river is flowing rapidly, with ice floes scudding past. Icy accretions on the far side are building up. And note the lack of any buildings on the other shore.

Many years ago I read that it takes nine days where temperatures do not exceed -9C for the Vistula in Warsaw to freeze up entirely. Over the past week, the temperature has stayed resolutely above that level; a thaw is due on Friday.

Left: This is one of three Syrenki that grace the capital; there's a statue in the middle of the Old Town square and another on the bridge across the spiral roadway on ul. Karowa. All are portrayed as women with a fish's tail. Yet it is this one that most closely resembles the city's coat of arms.

By coincidence, on the day I write about Warsaw's mermaid logo, another mermaid logo hits the headlines. Starbucks Coffee, with its twin-tailed mermaid is going green and dropping the 'Coffee'.

The day started bright, but by the afternoon, gloom descended.

This time last year:
Upon my way to work and home

This time two years ago:
Zamienie in winter

This time three years ago:
Five Departures from Warsaw Okęcie

Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year stocktaking

For my parents' Christmas present, I made them a compilation of the songs I remember them singing around the house when I was a small boy. This took several months of delving into the furthest recesses of my memory, plenty of research, then downloading the digital song files and conversion to .wav format and finally burning onto CD.

Among the songs my mother would sing me was I Got The Sun In The Morning And The Moon At Night from the Broadway musical, Annie Get Your Gun.
Taking stock of what I have and what I haven't/What do I find?
The things I've got will keep me satisfied
Checking up on what I have and what I haven't/What do I find?
A healthy balance on the credit side.

New Year is a good time to express my thanks for my lot in life, for health, for happiness, family, friends, interesting work - and being in the right place at the right time.

Easter will be late this year - not until 24 April (the latest it can be is 25 April). Which means Lent starts late too (9 March). At this time of year, I start slowly adjusting to the coming time of fast. This year will be my 20th Lenten fast in a row. The hardest thing for me to give up is caffeine; once my current stock of Lavazza is used up, I will swap it as my breakfast beverage for instant coffee which will get progressively weaker until it goes altogether. Giving up caffeine suddenly leads to massive headaches.

This morning I weighed in at 71.5 kg (11 st 3lbs), and girth around the fattest part of my tum measured 97.5cm (38.4 inches). [Over 102cm /40 inches increases danger of heart disease.] My Body Mass Index* is currently 22.6, near the middle of the 'normal' range. A return to sit-ups (20 a day) and press-ups (ten a day) has begun with the New Year and will increase regularly, to be continued through to the end of Lent.

Looking back just two years, I see that I have slimmed down by 2.5cm (just under an inch) around the middle and I'm 3.5 kg (8 lb) lighter today than I was then, BMI is lower by a healthy 1.1. also in post-Christmas, pre-Lent condition. Regular cycling is certainly one contributing factor; I'm also sure that annual fasting for 46 days couldn't hurt.

[* To work out BMI, you need to know that I'm 5ft 10ins, or 1.78m tall.]

This time last year:
A walk in the wild winter woods

This time two years ago:
Now that's what I call winter vol. 12

This time three years ago:
When the day starts getting longer