Monday, 27 February 2012

Strong late-winter sunshine

A big thanks to regular commentator Andrzej K. for tipping me off about this one - I grabbed the camera and rushed off around the corner to Al. Jerozolimskie to nab this shot (below) of the strong sunlight streaming in along Warsaw's main east-west thoroughfare. Note the cloudline along the horizon - almost perfectly straight.

Below: returning to my office on ul. Nowogrodzka, which runs parallel to Al. Jerozolimskie, with the sun low in the sky and blasting down the road.

It may be zero degrees, but spring in coming. It will be several weeks yet, but the longer period of evening daylight is most certainly welcome, as is the sunshine.

City-centre living, Warsaw-style

If proximity to the capital's very epicentre is anything to go by, these flats are located in Warsaw's Mayfair. Below: block of flats on ul. Marszałkowska, less than one tram-stop from Centrum.

Below: in a similar architectural vein - block of flats on ul. Krucza, one tram-stop from Centrum.

Right now, you can find a 40-50 square metre flat here for around £100,000 (500,000 zlotys). Or one-third of the price of a grotty terraced house in Greenford, Middlesex, 12 miles (20km) from the centre of London.

Hardcore fixies, Warsaw

Well look at this one, chained to railings near Pl. Zbawiciela. No brakes, no mudguards, no front fork rake. The front wheel (trendily mis-matching the rear) has but 20 spokes, crossing over each other but once (rather than three times, as in standard tangentially-spoked wheels). This is going to be an unforgiving ride.

But look at how short the wheelbase is; the seatpost is bent to allow the rear wheel to be positioned further forward. Like in a cycle polo mount. The rear-facing rear dropouts suggest a frame built for fixed drive. These bikes are getting more and more extreme; this is the most extreme I've seen in Warsaw to date! And the snow has only just receded! I've been told by reader Chris that this is a Polish designed-and-built bike, the Torro, for track and traffic. See the website of TenFour bikes here.

Another Torro frame can be seen on the third bike down (the white one) in this set of fixie photos from last summer. Compare its geometry with the more conventional bike below...

Above: almost out of the box - a 2008 Kross Unforgiven Limited Edition parked outside my office. This bike came out of the factory as a fixie. Another Polish designed-and-built bike (the Kross bicycle company is a great success story).

Right: I say 'almost out of the box' because of its non-standard stubby bars. Narrow bars make for nippier handling through traffic, but there comes a point (when they are narrower than the rider's shoulders) when they become ludicrous. Why not dispense with bars altogether and merely stick your thumbs into the hole in the stem?

This time last year:
Oldschool Włochy

This time three years ago:
Lent and recession

This time four years ago:
Three weeks into Lent

Saturday, 25 February 2012

My Nikon D80 five years on

Well, here's a piece of consumer electronics that's passed every test. My Nikon D80 is five today, and although it's a bit frayed at the edges (shutter sounds a bit tired), it's still working fine (as my photos of the Palace of Culture) will attest. While the D80's older and lighter brother, the D40 has become my camera of choice for carrying around on an everyday basis. However, the D80 works with my long 80-400mm zoom; the D40 won't autofocus this monster glass, and the D80 has a grid in the viewfinder than allows you to square up the verticals when composing a shot.

Most important to me is the way the cameras are perceived by passers-by. I do a lot of street photography; the camera's around my neck in crowds. The D80 with 18-200mm attracts attention; it looks like the equipment of a media professional. The D40 with 18-55mm doesn't. With the former I'm taken for a professional photographer, with the latter, for a tourist. Obviously, the latter makes it easier to move about a crowd snapping. Having said that, the 18-200mm is better for landscapes and architecture, the 80-400mm for aviation and wildlife (though I have issues with the slowness of its autofocus).

If there's one huge advance in photography over the past decade or so, it's Vibration Reduction ('VR' as Nikon calls it) or Image Stabilisation ('IS' as Canon calls it). VR allows you to take a sharp photograph with a shutter speed up to four stops slower than usual. The general rule (for 35mm or full-size sensors) is that the longest shutter speed at which you can take a sharp photo is a reciprocal of the lens's focal length. So for a 50mm lens, 1/50th sec will give you a sharp photo, a longer exposure (1/25th sec, for example) will result in overall blur caused by camera shake. Four stops means that you can hand-hold at 1/6th sec. With a 28mm lens, you can get away with 1/3rd sec. And zoomed in to 200mm, an amazing 1/25th sec. is still good. Now, for DX sensors, where the effective focal length increases 1.5 times, it means that you need to multiply the above times by 1.5, so for 200mm it will be 1/38th sec, for 18mm it will be half a second. Still very impressive. For night-time street photography without a tripod - that makes a huge difference to image quality.

Above: photo taken at 1/5th sec, f3.5, 320 ISO, Nikon D80 with 18-200mm VR lens zoomed out to 18mm. Below: a crop on the detail, more than five times magnification. Neither photo tweaked in Photoshop or Lightroom. Click to enlarge and look at the crispness of the word odjazdy ('departures'). Incidentally, from the departures board below you can see that the photo above was taken during the height of the evening rush hour.

Unfortunately, the 18-55mm kit zoom that came with my D40 does not have VR. I am toying with the idea of buying a 16-85mm VR zoom to go with both Nikons; this will offer the much-needed VR for night photography, plus it gives a wider angle (equivalent to 24mm on a standard 35mm film camera). This lens should do for me; the D80 should do me for many years as a body for use with the longer lenses. As for the D40... there are rumours that the D40 current replacement, the D3100, is due itself to be replaced by the D3200, with 24 megapixel sensor.

I had been contemplating Fuji's raved-about Finepix X100. Being a rangefinder enthusiast (a Leica M owner since 1981), I love the inconspicuous retro appearance (it looks like some old FED or Zorki to the average passer-by) and ease of use. However, it feels flimsy compared to a Leica M, a lens filter is an expensive and non-standard add-on, its battery is poor compared to those found in Nikon DSLRs and the software is non-intuitive. I've taken several shots with the X100 and I'm not immediately impressed. Maybe a longer test is in order; right now I feel that sticking with a light-weight Nikon DSLR with a VR lens as standard is the way forward.

In the meanwhile, if you are thinking about buying a second-hand D80 (or indeed its successor, the D90) - if you can get one for a good price (ie half the price of a new D90, for example), it's a reliable and thoroughly decent digital camera, if a bit heavy for carrying around your neck all day long. The batteries are long-lasting (on a scale of 0-4, where 0 = factory fresh and 4 = spent, after five years, mine is 1). My main gripe about the 18-200mm lens - that when carrying vertically, the lens zooms out to the longest focal length - has been addressed by the newer 18-200mm VRII lens, which can lock into the 18mm position.

This time last year:
My Nikon D80 four years on

This time three years ago:
My Nikon D80 two years on

This time four year ago:
My Nikon D80 one year on

Friday, 24 February 2012

Three days into Lent

I launched into Lent on Ash Wednesday by getting back to exercise. Starting off with 25 sit-ups and 18 press-ups on Wednesday morning and evening, repeated on Thursday morning and evening - big mistake. On Friday I could not do a single press-up or sit-up; my pectoral and stomach muscles ached. Coughing was painful as was raising myself from bed!

Having carried on last year from the end of Lent until well into the autumn (by which time I could do over 50 press-ups in one go) I thought 20 would be a doddle. It was not; the message here is that giving up exercise (even if only over an extended Christmas/New Year period) is bad. Exercise is something one has to stick to rigorously and consistently.

Better to do less of them but daily than to reach a high level and then stop for a few months. Though should I fail to adhere to this precept, I must remember for next Lent to start with no more than 10 press-ups and 15 sit-ups and gently work upwards from that.

The start-point is way off from last year's; my circumference is 39 and half inches (100.5cm). This is awful. A whole three inches (7.5 cm) more than at the end of last Lent, two and a quarter more than at the start of last Lent. And a whole stone (7kg) heavier than at the end of last Lent.

Trzeba się za siebie wziąć.

Better news on the dieting front; the caffeine-withdrawal headaches have ceased after two and half days; I'm eating tons of fruit, no meat, no salt (I put away the salt-cellar months ago), no salt snacks (ditto), and surprisingly, I'm not missing alcohol at all. My kebabs have been replaced by falafel - I can recommend the Sahara on ul. Krucza - three falafel, houmus , pitta bread and salad for 13 złotys (less than three quid), and fish has replaced beef in my pho soup from the Bar Saigon on ul. Bracka. Seedless grapes have come into season just as citrus fruit is getting dry and tough, apples are still plentiful and the banana is a nutritious staple. Nescore chicory coffee gives some of that coffee taste without any caffeine and Poland is a leader in the production of fruit and herbal teas.

Spiritually, I must meditate more upon the Eternal, on the profound mysteries of existence and do so within the day-to-day framework of rising, going to work and earning money, essential activity though activity that needs to be placed within a greater context - an individual consciousness that has evolved to feel its way around a planet in the solar system within a galaxy at least 200 billion stars, one of 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

This time two years ago:
Two weeks into Lent

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Central Warsaw, evening rush hour

Half past five, I've just left the office en route for W-wa Śródmieście station and a train to Jeziorki. Below: ul. Nowogrodzka, looking towards Marszałkowska.

Below: as I approach the station, looming out of the evening mist, the Palace of Culture.

Left: any decent horror film from Rosemary's Baby to The Shining must have its spine-tingling setting - The Dakota building or the Timberline Lodge, and with its current trendy lavender colour scheme, the Palace of Culture looks Gothically grim on a misty night, rimmed by the skeletal fingers of leafless trees.

The horrors of Stalinism return to haunt Warsaw. But few commuters seem to notice, everyone's in a rush to get home.

Right: view of the Palace from the south, approaching W-wa Śródmieście station. The contrasting sodium lighting of the colonnades makes them look like the gaping, salivating maw of a gigantic, ravenous creature, snapping at the passers-by.

On a clear day, the Palace looks less foreboding as it is ringing by an increasing number of skyscrapers. But tonight they are lost in the mist, and once more, as in the mid-1950s, the Palace is the only high-rise building visible in Central Warsaw.

Below: down the steps from the piazza at the south side of the Palace, to W-wa Śródmieście station. It looks nearly empty from this angle, but then few passengers enter the station from here. The platforms, in contrast, are packed with office workers waiting for their trains home.

This time last year:
Cold and getting colder

This time three years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time four years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Lent starts, again

Well, here it is again. Another Lent, another chance to deny, purify and strengthen and through that connect with the Eternal. But in the meantime, Ostatki - 'the Lasts' - the last of the alcohol (empty the drinks cabinet), of meat, of fine cheeses (the Montgomery's cheddar went yesterday), and a last curry.

What more will I add to my catalogue of denial? This year - white bread (I love fresh baguettes on weekend mornings) and chilli and spicy sauces. And more exercises - the traditional press-ups and sit-ups. I'm 5kg/11lbs heavier than I was before last year's Lent.

And the aim? Biologically, to cleanse the body of toxins. To strengthen the will - the will to do as well as the will not to do. And to contemplate life, death and the universe - the expanding universe - and what the fleeting presence of our consciousness upon the face of this small planet means in the bigger scheme of things.

Do we really have free wills? The remains of our lives are getting ever shorter and yet there's just so many more things to think about and to consider in depth. As I get older, that life's worth of thinking leads to more and more profound reflections; indeed, I'd not trade it for being younger and stupider.

And so. In the morning, I shall wake up to eschew meat, dairy products, alcohol, caffeine, salt snacks, fast food, white bread and hot spices - and I'll stick with it until Easter Sunday, 8th April. And hopefully gain from the experience physically, mentally and spiritually.

This time last year:
Art Quiz

This time two years ago:
A month before Spring Equinox

This time three years ago:
The beauty of winter
[some of my finest winter photos]

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Metro terminus, Kabaty

A neat symmetry; while passing through Kabaty Metro station (en route to the bankomat), I chanced upon two identical Russian-stock trains. The one on the left is waiting to depart, the one on the right as just pulled in to the last station. There's about a minute when both are standing here together. Just enough time to line up a shot on my Nokia 6700 Classic (5 megapixel camera).

Meanwhile, outside, the weather is ghastly. It's raining, it's +2C, the snow's melting; foul, foul weather.

This time last year:
To the Devil with it all - a short story

This time two years ago:
Waiting for the meltdown

This time three years ago:
Good roads and rich countries

This time four years ago:
Flat tyre

Friday, 17 February 2012

Fixies in the snow

"Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." *

The fixie-mounted cycle messengers get through despite the heavy snowfalls of the past two days. This one (below) parked outside our offices on ul. Nowogrodzka. Form follows function; mechanical and ideological purity. Only two compromises - a bell (with a sticker 'I ♥ my bike') and a rear mudguard. Note unraked front forks - every jolt in the road travels through the frame up the arms into the rider's body. Not for wimps.

The photo below appeared on this blog in December 2009, before the fixie became the Warsaw hipster's mode of transport of choice.

Brakes evidently more of a hindrance than help when thick snow covers urban roads. It seems (for I've not tried riding in snow on my fixie) that direct control of the driving wheel via the pedals works better than brakes, and that skinny tyres adhere better to slippery surfaces than do fat ones with gnarly tread.

* Can anyone identify which chart-topping 1981 song these lines from?

Fresh powder on Warsaw's parks

It snowed and it snowed, cloaking Warsaw's parks in a magickal atmosphere. Worth taking 20 minutes time off between meetings to soak it in.

Below: Park Ujazdowski, an avenue of trees running parallel to Al. Ujazdowskie. Fresh powder about 4 inches (10cm) deep upon all surfaces. Little wind, so no drifting.

Left: As though wearing a baggy white mohair sweater, Poland's piano-playing elder statesman toughs out the cold. The statue faces the building that housed the British Embassy on the corner of Al. Ujazdowskie and Al. Róż. The lawn behind the statue is lined with roses in the summer.

The snow continued falling all day and into the early evening, by then, however, the temperature rose above zero for the first time for three weeks. The roads and pavements would fill with unpleasant slush, but for now, time to revel in the freshness of the snow-blanket.

Right: the pond at the southern end of Park Ujazdowski, frozen solid, offers children returning from school a ready-made skating rink. No danger of anyone falling in after such a prolonged period of heavy frost. The ducks that usually reside here cluster near the park's southern-most exit, hoping to cadge bread from passers-by.

Below: a woman comes to Park Łazienkowski just across Trasa Łazienkowska from Park Ujazdowski armed with bird-food and a camera. Her attempted to lure blue tits and blackbirds to her feed-box were largely unsuccessful; in the end she scattered the food on the path - this attracted quite a flock.

This time three years ago:
In praise of the 20-minute bus/tram/Metro ticket
[it was just 2zł or 35p back then; today 2.60zł or 50p.]

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

First heavy snow of the winter

It's been a long time coming. Proper, heavy snow, the kind that paralyses cities. Below: ul. Trombity at ten to seven this morning, the snow still mercifully light. We saw far more people on foot today; not good driving conditions (as colleagues and clients would testify throughout the day). By the peak of the morning rush hour, the snow was falling intensively.

Approaching midday, right in the heart of the city - Centrum, Rondo Dmowskiego. A cycle courier (on a fixie, what else?) is dicing with a Gocław-bound 507 bus. Despite the steady snowfall, it's actually the warmest it's been for weeks, with temperatures nudging zero at lunchtime.

Below: Ogród Saski, and the ducks are out in force on the corner of ul. Marszałkowska and Królewska, their traditional winter hang-out.

Below: outside the Palace of Culture, an impoverished intellectual (a social class lacking in Britain) is calling it a day; his selection of well-thumbed paperbacks up for sale is covered in snow and thus business is not brisk.

Left: The Marriott hotel rises above snow-covered spruces across from the Palace of Culture.

This snowfall had been forecast accurately a few days ago, and yet it caught out motorists on the hop. Few snowploughs were to be seen in the morning rush hour; by the evening, everything was back to normal, Warsaw was coping. Tonight the temperature will fall again to a double-digits below zero, with more snow falling until the early hours.

This time last year:
God's Dwelling Place - a short story

This time two years ago:
Beat this for a snowy winter!

This time three years ago:
Poland's most popular outergarments

This time four years ago:
The Frost Gods return

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Waiting for the change to come

So here I am, neither on one pavement nor the other, waiting for the lights to change, waiting for the green, waiting to make a move; watching and waiting, watching for signs. Everyone's waiting, no one's wanting to talk, busy - busy waiting...

Hoża tram stop on ul. Marszałkowska, lunchtime, slight snow, light frost. Winter will be over in six weeks. I'm waiting for those first signs that life's miracle will unfold once more.

This time last year:
A wetter Poland?

This time three years ago:
Heavy overnight snow

This time four years ago:
Changing Jeziorki skyline

Monday, 13 February 2012

Who are the thickies of Europe?

A big thanks to Tutkaj News for flagging up this story last week. (For those who don't know it, Andrzej's site is the best compendium of links to English-language stories about Poland and Poles in the UK on the web.)

The story, in Britain's socially- and economically left-leaning Guardian, points out that poor Poland produces more students at A-level (matura) than does the UK. The article is condescending in tone, its analysis superficial and ideologically-motivated.

Read this passage.
The UK has a smaller proportion of adults with A-levels or their equivalent than Poland or Bulgaria, an analysis by the European Union's official statistics agency shows.
Several former eastern bloc countries now have adult populations that are more highly educated than the UK's, the Eurostat data reveals. They include Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Bulgaria.
Oh golly-gosh. Those funny people with those funny unpronounceable names are actually cleverer than us? "And why is that?" ask the well-meaning Guardian readers. It is, so the newspaper asserts, "due to the rising cost of learning".
Hang on a second! Rising cost of learning? Then cut the cost! Pay teachers less! Don't invest in schools! Do something! Patently a heap of illogical drivel.
Look at the sixth word of the second quoted paragraph, 'now'. And then take a look at the very statistics linked to the article. They stretch back to 1999, and then the gulf between the UK and Poland was actually bigger than it is today. So this is not about now; it's a systemic problem that was actually worse under Tony Blair.
A quick canter over those stats for those who can't be bothered to do so themselves.
Total population (aged 25-64) having completed at least upper-secondary education. In 2010, this was 88.7% of Poles, and 76.1% of Brits. Europe's brain-boxes are the post-communist countries. Lithuania (92%), Czech Republic (91.9%), Slovakia (91%) and Estonia (89.2%) beat Poland. Generally, Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has the highest proportion of young people in Europe leaving school at what in the UK is sixth-form level.

So who are Europe's thickies? In ascending order: Malta (29%), Portugal (31.9%), Spain (52.6%), Italy (55.2%) and Greece (62%) (Making any connections?)

Is the root cause of poor educational outcomes a lack of funding? No. At heart, I think it is that CEE societies place a far greater store on educating children than do either western Europeans or Mediterranean types. When I was a teenager, almost all my UK-born Polish peers went on from school into higher education, when that figure for the UK population as a whole was just 8%.

Our parents pressured us to do well at school in England just as Polish parents pressure their children to do well at school in Poland today.

But before Poland and the other CEE countries think about relaxing, remember than 100% of South Korean parents want their children to go to university...

Words which I remember my mother quoting to me as a child:

Chcesz być czymś w życiu, to się ucz
Abyś nie zginął w tłumie,
Nauka to potęgi klucz
W tym moc, co więcej umie.
Ignacy Baliński (1862 - 1951)
('If you want to be someone in life, then study
To avoid dying among the masses,
Education is power's key
In him the power, who knows more.')
This time last year:
Oldschool Photochallenge: Response No. 2

This time two years ago:
Oligocene water from Jeziorki

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Feeling at home on the ice

After yesterday's visual exploration of the frozen Vistula today I decided to step out bravely on some ice closer to home - the wetlands at the end of ul. Trombity. The gorgeousness of the day demanded that I should take polarising filter and make the most of it. A bit warmer, almost reaching a daytime high of -5C; only one pair of gloves needed today. So then, dear reader, let me take you on a tour of Jeziorki's wetlands, between ul. Trombity, ul. Dumki and ul. Kórnicka.

Above: The pond on ul. Trombity. If there's on thing to give you confidence when stepping out onto ice, it's tyre tracks. If a quad can drive on this stuff, there's nothing to worry out.

Above: following the quad's tracks forming a corridor through the reed-beds I enter a world normally closed off to human eyes, taking in vistas that for much of the year the human eye cannot witness.

Above: the effects of the floods of 2010 are still visible. This stand of trees is still under water.

Left: an Alitalia Airbus A319 on final approach to Warsaw Okęcie airport. If any Italians are gazing out of the plane at this moment, they will probably not be too surprised, as it's frosty in Rome too, with bright blue skies.

Look at these pictures closely - no distant roofs, pylons or spires. After the thaw, humans will not be here again until the wetlands freeze over again.

Compositions in white, blue and gold hit the spot when it comes to the sublime aesthetic; that moment when the human consciousness is transported to another place and time, familiar, and yet not of this life.

Right: a tree with its bark stripped - I guess by a woodpecker. Plenty of bark on the ice below, another tree a few metres away has been similarly attacked. Closer inspection of the tree shows that there are plenty of holes where beetles have bored into the trunk. A sign that despite the big freeze, life goes on, the struggle to survive.

Although a bit later in February, I made a similar expedition to the frozen wetlands last year (the relevant post is here). It seems that we had a week with temperatures averaging-9C back then.

This time three years ago:
Wetlands in (a milder) winter

This time four years ago:
Railway miscellany

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Vistula freezes further downstream

Would the Vistula be frozen solid downstream of Siekierki power station? I went to find out, driving to Obórki, 15 km south of Most Poniatowskiego.

Above: looking upstream, less than ten miles south of the centre of Warsaw, and not a sign of the city. Has the river frozen solid?

Above: people venturing out onto the ice. They are doing so responsibly. The man is armed with, sorry - carrying - a stick, testing the ice before moving forward, gingerly. And there must be a second person at hand. They did not not go far before turning back to safety.

Above: the Jeziorka river at its confluence with the Vistula. I must say, I was not brave enough to test the ice in person... better safe than sorry. Another week at -10C, and maybe...

This time last year:
Twilight of the Ikars

This time two year ago:
Polish TV adverts for parapharmaceuticals

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki wetlands in winter
[light snowfall, temperature above zero]

This time four years ago:
A week into Lent
[what, already?]

Friday, 10 February 2012

From the open door

The double-decker trains have all but disappeared from the Koleje Mazowieckie services to town. All the trains I take to work and back are the old EN57 stock, the oldest examples of which will be celebrating their 50th birthday this year. Some have been modernised and have push-button door opening. The older ones' doors are opened along the entire train by the guard, whether someone's using them or not. This is uncomfortable at -15C, especially seeing as many of the internal sliding doors are broken and stuck in the open position. At every station, a blast of cold air enters the compartment.

Above: W-wa Jeziorki station and its demolished shelter. A frosty morn; note absence of cars parked up along ul. Gogolińska. Either the cars wouldn't start, or their drivers preferred to face the jams in the warmth of their vehicles rather than brave the cold trains.

Above: W-wa Okęcie station, and behind it the long-to-be unfinished S79 at the junction for the airport. People who alight here tend to work at the airport rather than passengers, for despite the name, this station's one and half kilometres from the international terminal. The new station serving the airport will be ready... May? December? Who knows.

Left: W-wa Zachodnia station. A sky of girders and pylons, a God-awful place lacking signage, proper information or decent amenities. A great place however for newcomers to Poland to get the feel of post-communism; how that system wrecked any sense of pride in public service.

Still, on the credit side, Koleje Mazowieckie have been running very well this winter (so far) given the intensity of the frosts. With the exception of one journey home that took double the usual 50 minutes, trains have been running with only the slightest delays, although over-crowding is still a problem during the morning peak.

Until the Vistula freezes over

I wrote several days ago about the prospect of the Vistula freezing over, saying that I'd read somewhere that it would take nine days at minus nine and below for this to happen. Although we had a week of -15C to -20C, more recently daytime highs hit -5C on Wednesday, -7C on Tuesday and yesterday, so that condition has not been met. However but I guess that even it it were -20C for a fortnight, it would still be impossible to walk across the Vistula.

Above: looking south from Most Poniatowskiego (most = bridge). Note the ice-free west bank. The water here has not frozen because of water from sewer outfalls and from hot water emerging from the Siekierki power station downstream.

Left: Let's zoom in on the chimneys of Siekierki - the power station is working flat out to provide the fair city light. If you click on the picture to enlarge, you will see little white dots in front of the Most Łazienkowski. These are gulls.

Has the Vistula has frozen solid across its entire breadth downstream of Siekierki - out by Kępy Zawadowskie? I feel an expedition coming on...

Looking north from the bridge towards the Most Średnicowy (temporarily named the Coca-Cola-Carlsberg bridge in advance of the football championships), the expanse of clear water dominates the width of the Vistula, largely as a result of a sewer outfall. Although at lunchtime today it was -9C, the waste water (treated, it must be said) was steaming into the river and flocks of gulls and ducks were enjoying the warmth.

Above: the National Stadium, resplendent in strong winter sunlight. The Vistula has not frozen over by the east bank either, but the ice is closer to the shore.

The next three days are poised to remain icy, with daytime highs of -9C expected.

Meanwhile, the koksowniki (braziers) have been removed from central points by the city authorities. A shame, they were a notable feature of the current cold spell, and cost peanuts to run.

This time last year:
Of sunshine, birdsong and wet socks

This time four years ago:
Dziadzio Tadeusz at 90

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The sad end of Andrzej J.

For five years, the City of Warsaw has had a tenant in one of its flats, not paying any rent, not responding to any letters, not opening the door to anyone. And finally, the authorities decided to pay him a visit - bust into his lonely nest off ul. Okopowa, and found... a skeleton. He'd been dead since 2007.

The story's here in the Warsaw edition of Gazeta Wyborcza. It's a harrowing tale which suggests that the city authorities have only just begun to take the issue of rent arrears seriously. Could something like this happen in the UK?

The last time the world had had any contact with Andrzej J (born 1926) was in September 2007, that was when his neighbours had last seen him, that was the date of his last rent payment.

It was only when Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz (second term in office) decided to get the ZGN (the city's property administration authority) to engage more directly with its tenants did they discover this situation.

Apart from the human tragedy of a man without family or friends who died and was missed by no one (did the neighbours not notice or even care?), there's the issue of how the local authorities could be so remiss as to allow this situation to continue for five years, despite letters to the courts, eviction notices, futile visits from bailiffs etc. How many other surprises could turn up in flats owned and managed by the city authorities?

This time last year:
Drifting home

This time two years ago:
Today's dose of wintery gorgeousness

This time three years ago:
First intimations of spring

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Irresistible force meets immovable object

A Babcia climbs out of Metro Centrum, with crutch and shopping bag, hauling herself up on the handrail as she proceeds.

Her path is being blocked by a member of the Roma community seeking alms from passers-by. What will Babcia do?

Below: Resolutely Babcia continues her climb. She's seen off Hitler and Stalin and will not allow an able-bodied 30-something obstruct her. Whoomph! In goes the knee, Whack! And the shopping bag.

Below: Down comes the weight of a full bag of shopping once again, full of angular cat-food tins and heavy vinegar bottles, this time onto the back of the obstructive beggar.

"Ow, my back!" Left: Babcia squeezes through to claim a moral victory.

Will the city authorities take action before Euro 2012 against the the enterprising Roma folk who send out their nearest and dearest into the freezing cold to panhandle Warsaw's busiest thoroughfares? Or should the EU's most picked-on minority be allowed to continue its traditional business when the fans come to town, thus showcasing Warsaw's tolerance and diversity?

I shall let you, dear reader, be the judge.

This time last year:
Reasons to be cheerful

This time two years ago:
Skiing in the Beskid Wyspowy

This time three years ago:
What's to be done about Warsaw's unmade roads?
[answer after three years: 'apparently nothing, nothing apparently']

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki in the fog
[some lovely photos]

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Wrocław: an early morning puzzle

Wrocław, 06:18; exactly eight hours after leaving W-wa Wschodnia on the night train, I emerge onto a cold, dark platform. My journey had been comfortable, the train punctual, and in one ticket I had transport and accommodation – a far more time- and cost-effective way of getting to a long-distance destination than travelling the day before and staying overnight in a hotel. The sleeping carriage was warm has toast (coal-fired heating!) but the water in the wash-basin taps had frozen solid so I was unable to wash in the morning.

And a travel tip for night-train travellers: when boarding the sleeper carriage, discretely ask the conductor whether or not there's a Poseł (parliamentary deputy, or MP) travelling that night. The sleeper carriages should keep a przedział poselski free, in case some Important Person needs to travel down to his or her constituency overnight. As it happened, there wasn't one booked to travel on this particular train, so for a small supplementary consideration, I was shown to compartment, which I had to myself.

So – Wrocław 06:18. It's -14C, dark, and busy. The station is being redeveloped (about which more later), so the usual entrance onto Al. Piłsudskiego has been closed off. The back way out leads me to an unfamiliar part of town. There's a row of taxis standing in the darkness. Unlike Warsaw, where each taxi has displayed in the passenger near-side window the price per kilometre, in Wrocław there's no visible clue as to how much the ride will cost when getting into the taxi. It's not far to my destination, so I walk instead.

Usual problem – lack of signage; there's one unlit street map across the road from the station. So I buy a plan of Wrocław from the Ruch kiosk, orientate myself and find my way.

I'm not a total stranger to Wrocław; and I speak and read Polish. Yet in the shoes of a foreigner, arriving at Wrocław station must be extremely daunting. How can one tell in advance, online, in English or German, for example, that the main railway station's main entrance is currently closed? Or know which taxi company you can trust to not to overcharge you? Or find your way to a given street in the situation that this or that thoroughfare has been closed for refurbishment? You can only do a limited amount of research online (Google Maps, for example), but there's no guarantee that the information you find will be up-to-date or accurate.

Many foreigners will be visiting Wrocław, Warsaw, Gdańsk and Kraków for the football in June, and I fear that a significant proportion of them will find themselves frustrated and unable to get to where they are heading without running into situations that can cause distress. Especially when, as will no doubt be the case, the transport infrastructure won't be ready in time. Imagine the tension, when, ticket in hand and seemingly with time to spare, a football fan discovers that there's no train to town from the airport, only an overcrowded bus standing in an immobile jam. Or working out where to buy a ticket at Wrocław Główny station should the refurbishment of the main hall not be ready in 121 days' time.

Above: Platform 1, where my afternoon train is waiting to take me back to Warsaw. Platforms 2 and 3 are still a mess. But despite the cold, work is under way. Much of the old Art Nouveau has disappeared from the platforms.

In case you want to know, it's round the back and about 100m away from the platform entrance. There are no signs saying 'Tickets' or even Bilety – only the Polish Dworzec tymczasowy ('temporary station/terminus'). From this respect, Warsaw – or even Kraków – is far advanced compared to Wrocław when it comes to preparedness of its main station.

The infrastructure chickens are slowly coming home to roost.

This time last year:
Life and Death in the Shadow of the El - A short story, part I

This time two years ago:
Transwersalka in midwinter

This time three years ago:
Work starts on the S79/S2 (still nowhere near ready!)

This time four years ago:
Crazy customised Skoda

Monday, 6 February 2012

Life at twenty below zero

When winters come down hard on Europe, I'm minded of the old Richard Pryor Snake gag, about the white man and black man in the jungle. The white man proceeds cautiously through the bush, then sees a snake, and gets comically hysterical, hollering 'SNAKE! SNAKE!' at the top of his lungs. The black man walking through the jungle with a hip stride, sees a snake, matter-of-factly saying 'snake' as he steps over it.

It's much the same when Britain gets an attack of the minus-twos. The BBC shows stationary cars, their driven wheels spinning furiously, people without hats or gloves trying to push the car free of the inch-high snowdrift, while the Daily Mail wails that the Met Office has issued a Level Three Alert (temperatures are expected to plunge to -2C tomorrow night) and that snowploughs are out in force across the country. Amid the regular stories of teenage stabbings, we read of passengers stranded at airports, drivers trapped for hours on the M40, service on large parts of the London Underground suspended etc.

Here - life goes on pretty much as normal. Many older cars with iffy batteries (especially those parked outside overnight) or those with diesel engines that have not tanked up with the special winter fuel that doesn't turn waxy when it's under -20C, won't start, so there's a noticeably fewer cars in the lava-flow traffic that's ul. Puławska at rush hour*. Some buses won't start, or else their doors jam, but generally public transport has been running well.

Above: from the website of the meteorological station at the physics faculty, Warsaw University of Technology (click to enlarge). As you can see, the temperature has not risen above -7C all week, and has not risen above -12C since last Wednesday. And bear in mind that this weather station in located in downtown Warsaw, where the urban heat island effect increase the temperatures by a degree or two compared to the surrounding areas. And look at that wind chill (perceivable temperature). Which takes the current perceivable temperature outside my window as I write down to -26C.

I recall that in January 2006, I was driving to a conference in Sandomierz; the car thermometer gave the outside temperature as -26C at midday. Outside some small Mazovian village, I saw an old woman bringing home firewood from the forest and I thought to myself "When it's -26C there's no such word as manaña!"

Being able to survive in the cold means proper clothes and proper food. I'm eating like a horse right now. Fried breakfasts of pierogi, or (like today) bubble and squeak. Three hot meals a day. And clothing - two pairs of gloves, the outer pair, mittens from Canada (thank you cousin Teresa!) On my feet stout boots with lambskin lining that can (just about) pass muster with an office suit. A furry lumberjack hat, a US Army M65 parka with huge furry hood - and when I'm due to be outside for any length of time, long-johns with wind-stopping patches on the knees. The house is well-insulated with six inches of expanded polystyrene stuck to the air-brick shell, and triple-glazed windows.

All that and winter tyres too.

* At the proto-Park+Ride at W-wa Jeziorki station (which readers will recall is a muddy verge by the side of ul. Gogolińska) the number of parked cars today was a quarter down on usual.

And there we have it. My się zimy nie boimy! ('We're not scared of winter!').

This time last year:
First intimations of spring

This time two years ago:
From Warsaw to beautiful Dobra

This time four years ago:
Unremitting February gloom

Saturday, 4 February 2012

More than just an Iluzjon

The Polish National Film Archive runs a very decent cinema, Iluzjon, which is currently being renovated. During this process, Iluzjon shows its very decent repertoire of movies at the National Library, on Al. Niepodległości. I must say, I like its temporary home; not only does the architecture of the place appeal to me, and its setting - on Pole Mokotowskie - but also the venue itself.

Above: the main entrance to the National Library, separated from Al. Niepodległości by neatly illuminated grounds. Below: looking like a Soviet nuclear physics institute north of the Arctic Circle, the entrance to Iluzjon/Filmoteka Narodowa.

A large lecture room, it reminds me of Warwick University' L3 lecture room, where the university's Film Society projected movies. Currently on - a short triptych of Coen Brothers' films - A Serious Man, The Man Who Wasn't There and Burn After Reading. It's one thing watching a film on DVD, quite another to see it as it should be viewed - on a large silver screen. Prices are cheap (11 złotys weekends, 13 złotys during the week - less than three quid) and a well-selected repertoire of classic films old and new. Highly recommended.

[Postscript: Sadly the Last Picture Show at the Iluzjon/National Library was in June 2012; Iluzjon was meant to open after the summer holidays. Well here we are - 2 November 2012, the National Library's no longer host to the cinema, and Iluzjon's not re-opened yet. Next week, we're told but this has been the story since last autumn.]

This time last year:
Oldschool photochallenge

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's wonderful nooks and crannies

This time four years ago:
Viaduct to the airport at ul. Poleczki almost ready