Thursday, 31 May 2012

Świdnica - one of Poland's unknown pearls

I've just returned from Świdnica, south-west Poland, going there and back by night train - an institution that's a very effective combination of transport and nocleg (a useful two-syllable word in Polish that needs several English words to convey - 'accommodation for the night'). A one-way journey costs 145 zlótys (about £25), leaving W-wa Wschodnia at 22:18; I wake up in Wrocław eight hours later. The same train carries me on to Jaworzyna Śląska, and on from there to Świdnica, for the Kongres Regionów. This is a major annual local government get-together at which I'll be talking about the UK experience in public-private partnerships. I return the same evening, and arrive in Warsaw's W-wa Wschodnia at seven this morning. In the meantime, W-wa Wschodnia has been reopened (more on that anon).

Travelling around Poland is becoming easier and cheaper. The appearance of a new airline, OLT Express, has forced state carrier LOT to slash its prices on internal routes. The new motorway between Warsaw and Łódź will been deemed 'passable' by the Polish government in time for the football (though the S2 southern Warsaw bypass will not be ready). However, the night train, where available, is for me the ideal way of covering longer journeys across Poland.

Now, Poland is full of noteworthy or even stunning gems, hidden away, unknown to most Poles. I had no idea, for instance, that Świdnica is home to the world's largest wooden church of UNESCO heritage status. It is quite breathtaking.

I suspect that one of the reasons it is not promoted more widely within Poland is because it is so clearly German. From the outside, it looks un-Polish – indeed, from certain angles it would not be out of place in Warwickshire or Kent. The black-and-white timber-framed church sits among greenery at its greenest now, late May. But a quick look at the tombstones – they are all in German. A few names hint at Polish roots, germanised.

Inside, a party of Germans in their early 60s is being conducted around the church, with a German-speaking guide. As I leave, soon after they do, another group enters the church – German teenagers on a school visit.

I am minded of my visit to Lwów/Lviv – seven years ago. There's a constant nagging worry at the back of the mind – Lwów/Lviv was so clearly a Polish city – the pavements, the walls, the squares, the churches – are testament to that. So if it was Polish – shouldn't it be Polish now? And Schwiednitz, in alte Niederschliesen... it was German – shouldn't it be so now? There are the obvious ins-and-out of 20th century history, but in places like this, the dissonance is evident.

The church itself is a clear case. It was – and remains – a Protestant, Lutheran church, in a Catholic country. What amazed me, however, was its interior – it drips with Baroque, in its mitteleuropaische version. I expected dourness and austerity – yet the Baroque is so over-the-top as to feel at home in any counter-reformation Roman Catholic cathedral. And the smell... that unique smell of a centuries-old wooden church.

Wrocław, which I feel I know fairly well, has had is more Germanic edges filed down, softened, over the decades, while Świdnica – not so cosmopolitan, not so knowing, has been left looking as it did in 1939, with the bomb damage filled in, 1960s style.

This time last year:
New lick of paint for W-wa Powiśle station

This time two years ago:
The Ingredients of Success

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki's Spirit of Place

Monday, 28 May 2012

A telling Metro vignette

A scene on the Metro from Politechnika to Wilanowska this evening. It's rush hour, the carriage is packed. Sitting on the seat nearest the door is babcia, in her early 70s. And sitting on her lap is her wnuczek, aged around 11. There's clearly six decades between the two, and yet the strapping grandson and his diminutive grandmother both see it right and fitting that he sits on her lap rather than a) stand, or b) that she sits on his lap (they seemed of equal size and weight).

What happened at the next station - Pole Mokotowskie - was even more remarkable. Many people got off the train - students on their way to an evening lecture at SGH I guess - and the seat next to babcia was vacated. Somehow no one was in a rush to take it. Half way to Racławicka station the seat was still vacant. And yet wnuczek did not get off his grandmother's knees to occupy the seat himself. Somehow, it was more natural for the boy to remain seated on Babcia's lap; he felt more comfortable sitting on her than beside her.

I have seen this scene many a time - on trams and on buses. Always boys, never girls - the oldest (on a number 24 tram on Al. Jerozolimskie) must have been at least 16. It tells me much about the way that Polish grandmothers - a powerful institution, a fundamental wellspring of power in the Polish state - treat their male heirs.

In many of these cases I have observed, I guess that the two live in the same apartment along with the boy's mother and father, who work long hours. The boy has developed a strong bond with his grandmother who still takes him to podstawówka and back. And even when wnuczek moves on to gimnazjum, that bond remains a time-honoured habit.

Grandparents are an essential source of wisdom for children wherever they are growing up; parents shout at their children; grandparents rarely do. Grandparents are less stressed by the exigencies of the workplace and have the benefit of an extra few decades' experience to pass on to their vnooks. But then grandparents also have a tendency to spoil their male grandchildren, as the scene I witnessed today seems to show.

I get off the Metro at Wilanowska and make my way to the bus stop. I see babcia and wnuczek behind me. They are both running and laughing. I can see that the relationship between the old lady and her grandson keeps her fit and happy.

This time last year:
How I almost saved the life of Barack Obama

This time three years ago:
Ansel Adams, Count Basie, Sir John Betjeman

This time five years ago:
The hissing of the summer lawns

Sunday, 27 May 2012

A walk down Gogolińska

Inspired by the previous post, I set off for a walk along ul. Gogolińska, a Warsaw street with purely rural charm. Once past W-wa Jeziorki station, this thoroughfare takes you to somewhere with a quiet enchantment, a spirit of place, that's quite specific.

So then - here they are - this afternoon's haul of rus in suburbe.

Below: just south of the platform's end. A southbound train is departing for Piaseczno, Czachówek and Góra Kalwaria. The colours of Koleje Mazowieckie's livery are ideally matched to late May in our beloved province.

The area between Gogolińska and the village of Zgorzała beyond has an air of abandonment; large tracts of land that seem to belong to no one and yet evidently do, neglected, uncared for - and here, Zone-like, is the charm. Below: who built these gates? Are they no longer needed to keep the intruder out? Whatever lies beyond, impenetrable nature now guards the way.

Below: I can't tell if this was a junction box for electricity or telephone; it's been ransacked for its cables; the flora is swallowing it up. Infrastructure from the Zone.

According to the map, ul. Kurantów is an 'L' shaped road that runs parallel to Gogolińska from Karczunkowska before swinging sharp left to join Gogolińska. But there are no road signs to that effect. Below: ul. Kurantów, looking towards Gogolińska and the railway line beyond. Cobblestones peer out through the dirt track.

Below: Are we in KwaZulu? Is this Natal? No - this is still Jeziorki. Just before asphalt runs out on ul. Gogolińska, signalling the south-westerly border of Poland's capital, we come across an abandoned building by the railway line.

Below: A quarter of a kilometre further south of the road that the maps claim is ul. Kurantów, there is another road leading off Gogolińska, which proclaims itself with a sign to be the street in question. At the end of this thoroughfare is a patisserie, Olsza - address, ul. Kurantów 1. It seems that Warsaw's comprehensive street-naming system, MSI, does not extend to these far-flung outposts. Two parallel streets, 250m apart, both claiming the same name.

Left: the sign says "MUD 300m -> Tractor 50 złotys - no VAT". We are now outside Warsaw, in Gmina Lesznowola. The dirt track becomes treacherous in autumn and spring, and the temptation for residents of the new housing estate (below) to use this track as a short-cut - saving 3km of bunged-up roads through Nowa Wola, Zgorzała and Dawidy Bankowe - must be irresistible. The field between Gogolińska and the new estate is still being farmed. How long before it too fills up with houses?

Below: the tree stumps mark the unofficial level crossing between Zgorzała and Mysiadło; a Koleje Mazowieckie train rumbles south towards Radom. Gogolińska zig-zags on southwards to Nowa Iwiczna; I head east across the tracks and then back to Jeziorki.

A worthy Sunday afternoon walk. I feel Kurantów beckoning for some further exploration.

Work starts on Gogolińska

Thanks to 'a Neighbour' (as opposed to 'Neighbour') for the tip-off about construction work that's getting going on ul. Gogolińska, and for pics. This is a little-known part of Jeziorki, tucked into the extreme south-west corner of Ursynów and indeed Warsaw, across the railway tracks from the station. Gogolińska runs down towards Nowa Iwiczna; as it reaches Warsaw's border, the asphalt stops and a dirt track carries on southwards.

Below: from the junction with ul. Karczunkowska, the proto-Park+Ride by W-wa Jeziorki station (now used by about 50 cars a day, parking along ul Gogolińska). In the distance, a digger.

Below: a dumper truck delivers soil to the site, which has suffered from flooding the past. The plot has been advertised as being up for sale, with planning permission.

A few days later, while waiting for a train to town, I snapped the pic below showing the whole site from the platform. Ah! the wonders of a lens that zooms out to 10mm (15mm full-frame equivalent) and a polarising filter! Soon, this field will start to fill up with brickwork; I guess there will be people living here within 24 months.

And I also noticed some more construction work under way along ul. Karczunkowska, closer to home. The sign says this will be a single-family house (budynek mieszkalny jednorodzinny).

Let's hope the city authorities connect this house to the station and to Puławska by pavement!

More from Gogolińska very soon.

This time last year:
Waiting for The Man

This time two years ago:
The Flavour of Parallel reviewed

This time four years ago:
Twilight in the garden

This time five years ago:
Late May reflections

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Late evening, Śródmieście

After a night on the town, beer and curry with fellow Polish scouts from 3. Drużyna Harcerska, West London's Błękitna Trójka*, time to get the 22:17 from W-wa Śródmieście back home to Jeziorki.

Before descending into the underground station, I notice the poster welcoming football fans for the Euro 2012 championships which start in two weeks' time. The wording in English is controversial; "Feel like at home". Now, some voices are saying it should be simply "Feel at home". The "like" is superfluous. I must say it's not the most glaring of errors, as the word 'like' is inserted in, like, every other sentence by today's teenagers, like. Although it doesn't sound 100% right, it sounds, er, like an attempt to coin a marketing slogan like (no avoiding the word!) McDonald's "I'm lovin' it" or KFC's "So Good". At least there's no article, definite or indefinite, squeezed in there - "Feel like at the home" would suggest Czuj się jak w domu wariatów.

Actually, I think the slogan should have been given to a Polish law firm, government ministry or urząd to translate into English. This would have resulted in "Experience the sensation of the verisimilitude of residence within your own place of abode"**.

With the evening's rush over, time to see about those leaky ceilings. Both Śródmieście and Centralna (as I pointed out last week) have pools of water on the platform floors, even when it's not raining upstairs. Above: some strong-smelling chemicals were being applied to the ceiling on Platform 1 by workmen dressed in sinister NBC suits. Picture slightly blurred (1/10th sec, which shows the need for vibration reduction even in an ultrawide lens).

W-wa Śródmieście, which will soon be welcoming thousands of visitors, has not had any pre-Euro 2012 remont work done to it, unlike all the other Warsaw stations from W-wa Wschodnia to Zachodnia except W-wa Ochota.

I'm delighted to see a vast amount of work (at long last!) at W-wa Zachodnia, primarily focused on the provision of proper information and signage. Whether the work will be ready in two weeks' time remains to be seen.

Representatives of Warsaw's youth today; the cultured, sophisticated end of the spectrum (above) and a young representative of the city's somnolent community (below) .

What kind of impression will Warsaw make on the largest influx of foreign visitors ever to descend upon the city since 1939?

* Along with other expats, last night's gathering brought together four of us old harcerze from Błekitna Trójka. I reckon there's around ten of us who were in this West London Polish scout troop in the 1970s living and working in Poland, plus more from Czarna Dwójka from Ealing.

** A little family favourite here... "Circumnavigate repeatedly the cultivated enclosure/in the manner of a diminutive ursine" = "Round and round the garden/like a teddy bear"

Friday, 25 May 2012

Wide angle at Pl. Wilsona

Award-winning* Pl. Wilsona Metro station has been illustrated here before, and again here, but an ultra-wide lens is needed to really do justice to its splendid interiors.

Above: entry from the concourse, on level -1. The dominating feature is this iridescent oval, lit to shimmer like mother-of-pearl, which hangs over the barriers and stairway.

Above: looking up from platform level. One appreciates just how important lighting is to the aesthetics and to the functioning of public transport.

Left: Just one escalator, going up, a broad staircase for passengers descending to platform level. And - as at every station on Warsaw's Metro system, lifts for wheelchairs and prams.

Below: the station is more conventional in appearance at the other end of the platform, but notice the wavy roof-line, distorting the reflections from the neon strip light along the platform's edge.

Below: a group of nuns about to board a southbound train. The wavy roof-line is shown to good effect.

Below: Escalators to street level, emerging onto the ul. Krasińskiego side of Pl. Wilsona. The functionalist monitoring point looks like a WWII bunker

*Winner of the award for Best Station at the 2008 MetroRail convention in Copenhagen.

This time last year:
Ranking a better life

This time two years ago:
Questions about our biology and spirituality

This time three years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time four years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Warsaw: spruced up and looking in its prime

The football starts in just over two weeks. Seven kilometres of motorway have been opened this morning, linking the S8 which skirts round Warsaw's north-east flank to Pruszków, still over 100km from Stryków where the motorway from Berlin currently ends. Meanwhile, the city authorities are doing their best to make Warsaw look clean, modern and welcoming.

Graffiti has been removed from my favourite bridge, Most Poniatowskiego. Left: steps leading up to Al. Jerozolimskie from the passage to W-wa Powiśle station. The écru-coloured walls are a magnet for the vandals; within minutes of the painters restoring this structure to pristine condition, Warsaw's public monument-defacer community has been out and about uglifying this beautiful structure, and others, such as Arseniusz Romanowicz's W-wa Powiśle station.

Birching is too good for them. Bring back the stocks, public flogging etc. In the meanwhile, before too many visual equivalents of doggy-do return to despoil the walls of the bridge, it is a rare chance to photograph it looking like it should.

Right: steps leading down to Śmigły-Rydz park in Powiśle. The neo-gothic vaulting reminds me of the Chapterhouse Steps at Wells Cathedral.

Once at street level, turn left for the Polish Army Museum (Muzeum Wojska Polskiego). Entrance to the park, filled with an eclectic mix of Soviet and Western militaria, is free of charge.

Below: a Cold War-era MiG 21 fighter gleams bright in the morning sun.

Below: a Sherman tank and 25-pounder field gun, both as used by Polish soldiers fighting alongside the British in Italy and the Normandy campaign. Worth remembering that Poland provided the fourth-most numerous army to fight the Germans (after the USSR, USA and UK). Hanging on the railings of the museum, a series of illustrated historical posters leaving our footballing visitors from the East in no doubt as to who won the Cold War.

Our city is truly at its best right now; spruced up for the visiting football fans, and enjoying some wonderful spring weather. A north-easterly wind cooled the air to a pleasant 21C today; walking around Warsaw a real joy.

This time three years ago:
Heron over Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Present rising, future loading

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

A post about a book about a film about a journey to a room

My brother, who saw Tarkovsky's Stalker when it first came out back in the 1980s, recommended that after I watched the film myself (finally!) I should read Geoff Dyer's book about the film, Zona. So when in London last month, I bought the book, and read it - twice.

If a book grabs me particularly, if it be so replete with insight and memorable quotes, I'll read it a second time as soon as I finished it, pencil in hand. The last time I re-read a book this way was Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

The trouble with reading Zona like this was that my pencil finds itself underlining about half of the text.

Some of my copious underlinings are there because Geoff Dyer's observations about the film are so dazzlingly perceptive, some because his world view (born like me in late 1950s England, bright boy, liberal arts education) squares with mine, and some because his appreciation of film and literature rings so true that I find myself learning some essential truths about cinema and art itself.

The book is a scene-by-scene dissection of the film, interspersed by a continual flow of witty asides, personal memories, details of the film's troubled production and historical digressions. The informal, chatty format draws you in. Were there more books in this style about the films I love!

Dyer is well-versed and has done his homework; he understands the Soviet Union that spawned Tarkovsky and Stalker, he understands the Gulag and the Bolshaya Zona outside it.

Essentially, Dyer is interested in why the film resonates with him the way it does. What is the Room? Is it Cinema itself? Does it even exist? What are our most innermost wishes, that the Room may - or may not - fulfil? We run into philosophy and ontology - Dyer is convinced that through Stalker,  Tarkovsky poses mankind's most eternal questions.

Ars longa, vita brevis est. There are so many great books, great films, great works of art - and only so much time in which we have to appreciate them. Should we try to cover as much ground as we can, in the time we have left, or should we concentrate, as Geoff Dyer has, on watching and re-watching (or reading and re-reading) that which we hold to be the very best?

Stalker deals with a powerful meme or trope - the zone - a forbidden area, abandoned post-industrial space left to nature, within which the human spirit finds something - freedom, expression, detail, aesthetic wonder. It is a meme that clearly resonates with me; it is a reason why I find so much delight living in Jeziorki, in Warsaw, in post-communist Poland.

Dyer makes one glaring mistake - he calls the Coen Brothers 'witless' - suggesting that he's only seen Raising Arizona or Ladykillers and both with a bad hangover and overfull bladder. A couple of viewings of The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou or A Serious Man should convince him otherwise.

If you are a regular visitor to this blog, I would heartily recommend watching Tarkovsky's Stalker; if it holds your soul, if you can relate to it - watch it again - and then read Geoff Dyer's book. You shall join the Enlightened.

This time last two years ago:
Mr Pheasant trumpets his presence

This time three years ago:
Balancing on the Edge of Chaos

This time four years ago:
Zamienie and the encroaching tide of Development

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Devil is Doubt - Part II

We exchanged initial pleasantries; Mrs. Frobisher, having heard that I'd served in the Boer War, was keen to talk about her husband, a captain with the Warwickshire Yeomanry. He died of dysentery fever in Cape Town; he hadn't fired a shot in anger. His contingent of replacement soldiers arrived from Britain just as the war was coming to an end. The Yeomanry stayed on for over a year to police the country; he died while awaiting transport home. And yes, their daughter Louise, papa's favourite, could not bear his loss. That was now over six years ago but she has yet to regain her full powers of speech, and her hair keeps falling out. “We have been to see a specialist in London, but to no avail,” said Mrs. Frobisher.

I was truly saddened and had no ready words to cheer the poor widow, although I was most impressed by her fortitude, strength of character and her striking features; she was a fine-looking woman indeed. There was little sense, I thought, of telling her of my own wartime experiences in South Africa, these were matters far too unpleasant to speak of under such circumstances.

As we spoke, a pair of dragonflies, larger than any I'd ever seen around these parts, their iridescence made all the more splendid by the setting sun, flitted above the reeds and the rushes, where the paved garden path gave way to a narrow muddy trail leading down to the river bank. By now the water surface glowed gold, a moor hen with its chicks making their way downstream.

"Look," I said, pointing to the sight. I could see that she too was under the spell of the evening's charm. We stood in silence for a while; I sensed a smile lighten across her face, a smile of such enchanted innocence that suddenly turned her face into the most beautiful one that I had ever gazed upon. On an instinct I reached out to grasp her hand. She let me hold it; and so we stood for an intense moment of the most sublime magic, a moment at which I'd want for nothing more. Then –

“Tell me – quickly – what are you thinking?” she asked, registering a sudden trace of sadness fleeting across my face.

At a instant of such sublime beauty, the briefest, most transcendent moment of happiness in my life, my mind had slipped away, slipped from this moment of perfection and strayed towards what had been preying on my mind ever since I left the Raj; a conviction that once again war was imminent; that Man was innately unable to cease from conflict. Beauty, love indeed, could exist here on earth, signs of God's presence among us – yet what of that dreadful instinct within us to fight; for King and Country, for Britain's dominion over other peoples? That doubt was there, once more. But it was not a doubt for me to share. Not now, not here.

I told Mrs. Frobisher of my return home to England that previous autumn. I had travelled overland from India, via Persia and across the plains of Ottoman Anatolia, through an empire clearly in the throes of decay, unstable and therefore dangerous. Then onwards, through Austro-Hungary I travelled, and then into Germany; rival empires – all rivals to our own empire. “I talked to many people along the way, educated men, and I could sense it all the while. It would not be long,” I told her. "A year, maybe three or four, and we'd be at war again, this time in Europe."

“And to finally answer your question; do you know what was going through my mind the moment you asked that question? Primarily, that I would not like to see you widowed again...”

This short story is an extended version of a dream I had on the morning of Friday 2 March this year.

This time last year:
"A helpful, friendly people"

This time two years ago:
A familiar shape in the skies

This time three years ago:
Feel like going home

This time four years ago:
Mr Hare comes to call

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Devil is Doubt - a short story - Part I

I stood on the vicarage lawn, holding a glass of white wine and marvelling at the day. The late-May sun was strong and low, illuminating the house, the garden-party guests, and behind the vicarage, banks of dark clouds brooding in the eastern sky. I believed I could discern the merest trace of a rainbow. Somewhere over distant Northamptonshire, a cloudburst; but here in my native corner of rural Warwickshire, it was a blissful sunny and warm evening. What a watercolour someone could paint of such a scene! Alas, not me. Alone at the edge of the garden, I was enraptured by the sight. It took me back to my last days in India not so long ago; suddenly an evening just like this one came forcefully to mind – low sun to the west and high, dark storm clouds retreating eastwards. Bombay, the Esplanade Park by Victoria Terminus. It was early in the monsoon season; mid-June 1909. I'd soon be heading back to England, my duties in India complete.

Some children were playing on the vicarage lawn. I noticed a girl running with a hoop, following the neat lines made by the roller on the wet grass. She was 11 years old or so, wearing a gold silk turban; yes, I'd heard about her. Her hair had started falling out as a small child; a reaction, I was told, to news of her father's death in the Second Boer War. It had started growing back recently, but in unsightly clumps. Yes, I had served in South Africa too. A dreadful war that shook my belief in God and Empire – for whose God were we fighting? Protestants both, Boer and Britisher. So much cruelty and so many deaths. My wine glass empty, I surveyed the scene with a sense of contemplation, not unduly wishing to talk to people, not just yet, anyway.

And now, the vicar comes towards me, he's smiling, holding out a half-empty wine bottle in my direction; I force a smile in return. “What a splendid vicarage!” I observe. Indeed, how beautifully located it was, with such a delightful and well-maintained garden sloping down to the riverbank. “And what an exquisite wine!” “Yes, it's French, actually.” I let the vicar pour me another glass.

As he does so, I'm minded of the sadhus, the Hindu holy-men of India, who bestow blessings upon the faithful in absolute poverty, having renounced all worldly goods. Here, back home, the Church of England, the Established Church, could afford to keep its ministers in comfort, an agreeable vicarage, wife, children, servants, horse and carriage... The vicar and I exchanged pleasantries. It struck me there and then as the effects of that glass of wine coursed through my bloodstream, that the Indian holy-men were poor because they believed in the wrong God; our vicar here believed in the One God, the one who was supervising the manifest destiny of the British Empire, under our King and Emperor, Edward VII. There can be no doubt here. And yet there was; there was very real doubt, but it was not a doubt that I'd dare enunciate to anyone.

“Our duty – Oh yes, I've served my King and Country – South Africa,” I told the vicar.

I had returned from Bombay in the autumn; my father had secured me a job in the Colonial Office, though this would not commence until September. So I had a few months of comfortable ease on the family estate before setting off to London.

My sister-in-law, a good friend of the Reverend Whyteside’s wife, had engineered to have me invited to a garden party at the vicarage at Priors Marston, eight miles distant. Together with my brother, we took the dog-cart, and together we trotted over past Fenny Compton, talking all the way about improvements to the drainage in the lower fields and the new pig house that would help him double pork production. I was more interested in just gazing at the landscape of my childhood, the gently undulating hills, the railway line, the canal, Wormleighton, just as I remembered it; it was so good to be home after more than a decade in Africa and India.

“Let me introduce you to Mrs. Frobisher,” said the the vicar. “Her husband died for his country in South Africa, you know...” He was referring to the mother of the girl in the gold turban. We walked up to a woman in her mid-30s, illuminated by the sun, wearing a long white dress, quite lovely yet sombre, not long out of mourning. Having introduced us to one another, the vicar moved on.

Part Two here.

This time last year:
Stormclouds are raging all around my door

This time two years ago:
Floods endanger Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Coal line rarity

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Noc Muzeów: night of pride of being Polish

Noc Muzeów rolls around once more, a wonderful institution. The trick is to see those places you normally can't, rather than save a few zlotys and waste a few hours to queue for those places you can easily pop into during the year. Eddie's choice this year was the Presidential Palace on Krakowskie Przedmieście.

Above: we join the queue at half past six, half an hour before the palace opens its doors to visitors. Eddie looks on as behind us, the queue rapidly gains length.

compared to last year's rather dull six-hour queue to get into Warsaw's Filtry, standing on Krakowskie Przedmieście was far more enjoyable. An endless throng of people of all ages, many foreigners too, heading up the thoroughfare, there's much to look at, like a Spanish paseo. The queue's good-natured; no political comments, a general sense of contentment in the warm evening air. A cavalcade of veteran cyclists passes, in 19th Century dress; every few minutes something of interest happens.

at nine o'clock, we're almost there; 20 minutes later, we're through the metal detectors and in the palace.

Below: the Round Table, at which in April 1989, Poland's communist rulers accepted the framework for handing over power to a democratically elected government. The papers with black diagonal stripes indicate those participants of the round table talks who are no longer alive.

Right: Eddie in the ante-chamber before the hall of columns, in which the main presidential receptions are held. The ultrawide lens has been corrected for parallels, but in doing so, the sofa on which Eddie is sitting appears massively stretched! The lens has proved very useful in capturing the interiors of the palace.

the tour continues into a vaulted room that looks like it should be underground, but is actually on the first floor. In it are replicas of flags and standards representing key moments in Poland's history.

Below: three of the flags. From the left - King Jan III Sobieski's standard at the Battle of Vienna (1683). The eagle looks like a hatchling! Middle - Insurgents' flag, Battle of Olszynka Grochowska, 1831 November Uprising; motto: In God's name For Our Freedom and Yours. Right - standard of Józef Piłsudski's 1st Brigade, Płock, 16 August 1915; motto: A Free Person in a Free Poland.

Below: we leave the palace from the front entrance. It is beautifully illuminated; for me this has been a night of pride of being Polish.

This time three years ago:
Why Poland can no longer afford to keep the grosz

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Jeziorki at its most beautiful

With the Ice Saints gone, the second half of May tends to be the most beautiful time of year in Poland. The greenery is at its greenest, the air is neither too humid nor too hot. So - a long walk in Jeziorki fields is in order.

Above and below: a change of lenses. From the same vantage point. Above - the 10-24mm lens at its widest, polarising filter swung round to wrest the deepest indigo from heaven's zenith. Below: the 80-400mm lens at its longest. In the middle distance, ul. Baletowa links Ursynów to Raszyn (where angels fear to tread); beyond Warsaw's skyline - and the presence of Zlota 44 contributing significantly to it. I wonder how it will look once Twarda 2/4, the Cosmopolitan building, tops out. A slight shimmering heat haze takes some of the detail out of the photo.

a train of empty coal wagons from Siekierki heading back to Okęcie sidings passes the milepost at 2.2km, at the pedestrian crossing on ul. Kórnicka. At this time of year, the coal trains are becoming less frequent and no longer require three locomotives to haul them full.

Once the train has passed, the only sound is that of the wind in the trees and skylarks high above.

across the track and into the wet fields between Jeziorki and Dawidy Bankowe. Agriculture has not fully recovered here since 2010 and its snowy winter and June floods. The fields are not properly drained and immense standing puddles to the west of the railway line impede progress. I'm wearing wellies! I observe some lapwings and a stork as I make my way towards Dawidy Bankowe.

a photo from Thursday evening; I get off the train a stop early at W-wa Dawidy and walk home. The railway line stretches down towards W-wa Jeziorki, picture taken by the crossing on ul. Kórnicka.

The next few days seem set fair, with temperatures in their high 20Cs. Days to be savoured.

This time two years ago:
Useful and useless in my wallet

This time three years ago:
In search of the dream klimat - remote viewing made real

This time four years ago:
Zakopane to Kraków in 3hrs 45min

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

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Good Topiarist

My train from Wrocław to Warsaw was a typical Polish train journey. To travel between these two cities, one either has to go via Poznań, taking one west of Wrocław and north or Warsaw, or via Częstochowa, which is further south than Wrocław. Or even - as in the case of my journey home this week - via Katowice, which is even further south than Częstochowa (see map at the bottom of the post). Whichever route the train takes, it's bound to take at least six hours.

The train itself left on time, and being InterCity, was composed of new carriages; six seats to the second-class compartment, each with its own power plug. In the dining car, I would later enjoy schabowy (fried pork) with potatoes and surówka (side-salad of cabbage, carrot, onion) washed down with a bottle of Konstancin Brewery's excellent Dawne unpasteurised pale ale.

But for the moment, as the train slowly through Wrocław's outer suburbs, past Oława, then Brzeg, I relaxed, watching the działki (summer-house plots) passing by. And then suddenly - I saw to the left of the train, a most wonderful hedge - or series of hedges, cut with geometric precision, putting me immediately in mind of the gardens of England's stately homes. Thanks to my note-taking, I found it on Google Earth - ( 50°50'33.43"N, 17°29'16.21"E).

How lovely they looked, these hedges, how beautifully maintained, cut square at the top. Yet I'm sure that the owner, who has spent a vast amount of time on keeping them trim, sees them regularly, from close-up - small gaps here and there, yellowing leaves elsewhere - and yet he perseveres. Year after year, watching it grow, years of pride, years of disappointment, of worry - about frosts, about floods - and yet and yet.

I'd like to think the owner of these hedges tends them to delight the more observant souls who pass by on the train to Upper Silesia - how wonderfully selfless. Poland's aesthetic appearance would be immeasurably improved by hundreds of thousands of hedges - żywopłoty (literally 'living fences' - as well tended as these.

A propos of hedges and topiaries, while reading up about this subject, I came across a most interesting and largely unknown fact. In the 19th Century, the British Empire in India maintained what was the world's longest live hedge, some 800 miles long, between 8ft and 12ft high and 4ft to 14ft thick, thoroughly impenetrable, with openings every four miles, to stop salt smuggling from province to province. Part of the 2,500 mile-long Inland Customs Line, the Great Hedge of India was abandoned in 1879.

Above: Wrocław has been an integral part of modern Poland for 67 years, and yet over that time no government has seen it as a priority to give the city a direct rail link to the capital. Incidentally, I can't work out why Grodno has been named Kastrycniski on this map...

This time two years ago:
Wettest. May. Ever.

This time four years ago:

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Wrocław station will not be ready

It's been three months since my last trip down to Wrocław. What struck me then - and is even more evident now - is that the construction work on the Wrocław Główny station remont will not be ready by 8 June, when the Czech Republic plays Russia - the first match of the Euro 2012 championship to be played in this city. In fact I'd go further, and say that the station will not even be ready for the last match - Czech Republic vs. Poland, on 16 June.

Below: view of platform 6, the night train from Warsaw has just pulled in. Several tracks are still completely works-in-progress.

Just as was the case three months ago, there's no access to the front of the station; the ticket facility is some 200m up the road round the back of the station, and half of the platforms are still not usable. Behind The Water Tower documents the woeful state of the station less than a month before the football kicks off, and a week later my visit confirms that little is currently happening.

The view from the west end of the platforms. The original water cranes have been preserved, testament to the days of steam... I recall taking a train from here, leaving around 4:00 am, steam hauled by a Kriegslok, all the way down to Kłodzko Miasto, one summer's day in 1976. At four in the morning, the platform at Wrocław Główny was full of soldiers, nuns, old folk, school children, the smell of coal burning... unforgettable atmosphere, the station shabby yet formerly grand.

A more recent memory of Wrocław Główny. 2001, and I'm in Wrocław on business with three colleagues. How do we get to where we're going? "Piotr, have a look at the city map over there, in the corner of the booking hall." He goes over to look, he's very nearly sick from the stench of urine and vomit from the local homeless community. Now at last, the station is being restored to its former glory - but far too slowly.

"Take it easy, guys! No rush..." Round the front of the station, there seems very little evidence that anyone's remotely interested in finishing the job on time. Builders just standing around.

About the remont itself - much of the Secesja (Art Nouveau) style wrought ironwork has been removed and replaced with something that resembles it in a naive and faux manner. A feeble attempt.

We Varsovians might complain that our Central Station still smells and that water drips down onto the underground platforms (below) - but at least our station is ready. W-wa Stadion station opened on Saturday, though I can't see Wschodnia and Zachodnia stations being completed on time.

This time last year:
By tram to Boernerowo

This time three years ago:
Food-Industrial Shop, rural USA or Poland

This time five years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Photography: the Law of Diminishing Returns disappears up its own fundament

At first, many assumed it was an early April Fool's joke. Leica - that most iconic brand name in photography - is bringing out a digital camera that only takes black-and-white photographs. The Leica M Monochrom, announced last week, is the latest in a long series of rangefinder cameras, starting with the M3, which appeared nearly six decades ago. The M8 was the first of the series to go digital (it was not a success); it was replaced by the M9, which, with its full-size sensor was more warmly received. And now, before the M10 hits the streets sometime later this year, the M Monochrom (18 megapixel sensor) has come out, probably the ultimate in photographic poseurdom.

The idea of paying $8,000 for a camera body that can only take b&w images is frankly absurd. To actually get some photos, you also need a lens. And Leica has launched a new one, the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f2 ASPH., for a mere $7,195. So then. A camera that takes b&w pictures with a lens that's neither autofocus nor has image stabilisation (or vibration reduction) and offering sensitivity no better than 320 ISO (!) and costing over fifteen thousand bucks. That's €12,000 or £9,500 or 52,000 zlotys (at the current absurd exchange rate - £1=5.53PLN - buy zlotys and make a fortune as it bounces strongly back*).

So - for more than the price of a small family car, a ridiculous camera.

Ridiculous? Are the images 21 times better than those created with a $700 Nikon D3200 with a 24 megapixel sensor and 18-55mm f3.5 autofocus zoom lens with vibration reduction? One thing's certain - it's far easier to take a technically good photo with the cheapest Nikon DSLR than with the Leica.

Ridiculous? Leica cameras are worn to show off to those - and only those - who know. Those who don't have no idea. Before going digital, I'd use my Leica M6, and before it, my M2 or M3 for street photography. People would go up to me saying things like "I used to have a Zorki (or FED or Kiev or some other old Soviet camera) just like that". Occasionally, a knowledgeable person would notice and say 'Ah! a Leica M6! Excellent camera!'.

However, if you are spotted with an M-Monochrom around your neck, the few people who are in the know will rightly mock you as a gullible poseur, the photographic equivalent of the hi-fi buff who spends $50 on a single cable-tie or $1,500 on one vacuum amplifier valve. "But you can see the difference!" the owner of the M-Monochrom will wail, just as the audiophile will claim to hear the difference between sound signals sent via a $7,500 cable and those sent via a $5 cable.

This is the law of diminishing return. Like for like, the images from an M-Monochrom may objectively be a wee bit better. Lens resolution, lack of aberrations, finer nuances in tonal gradation you can measure. Subjectively, the Leica's images may display some qualities that aesthetically can be considered more appealing by some. Yet - these differences are measured in fractions of a percent compared to the best professional cameras by Nikon or Canon that cost less than half the Leica's price.

If you are going to take Ansel Adams-type shots of Yosemite National Park and then blow them up to 3m by 2m, then maybe. Although an Ansel Adams-style 5"x4" view camera with traditional fine-grain film would give even greater tonal separation and edge detail. If you want to 'live the legend', buy a second hand Leica M3 with Summicron 50mm f2 (old-style) and some b&w film. You should be able to buy body and lens on eBay for less than $1,500 for a good example. Below: my own Leica M3, a classic camera if ever there was one.

Or if you want a high-quality digital camera and shoot b&w, either buy any high-quality digital camera and set the camera settings to b&w, or via Photoshop desaturate the resulting pics to obtain b&w. And DxO Film Pack digitally simulates the appearance of 13 different b&w films in the basic version, and another 13 films (including b&w infra-red) in the expert version.

Leica is losing its way, with the M-Monochrom or the limited-edition M9-P Edition Hermès camera for fifty thousand bucks. What it should do is to build and market a digital back that fits onto any M-series film camera. Replace the back wall with a full-size sensor, so the million or so M-series users around the world can choose whether to use their M1s, M2s, M3s, M4s, M6s or M7s with film or a digital cameras.

Leica is one of the world's most legendary brands. Many of the greatest images of the last century were taken on Leica cameras; war photography, street photography, fashion, news - the Leica recorded what was happening. As the century wore on, the 35mm single-lens reflex camera came to dominate in news photography, in particularly Nikon, and more recently, Canon. Leica has lost its way, it has painted itself into a nichy corner; its users are rich amateurs rather than professionals demanding the very best tools available on the market.

I have used Leicas for over a quarter of a century until the digital revolution made the old technology obsolescent for me. For me, for my style of photography, for what I use a camera, I shall stick to Nikon DSLRs; a new D3200 (24 megapixels) is on my 'to buy' list to take over from my D40 (6 megapixels) as my 'carry-at-all-times' camera. In the meanwhile, Leica is either selling badge-engineered Panasonic Lumixes (at a 40% price premium), or high-end stuff that's drifting off into the absurd. The legend is losing its lustre.

* My instinct was right; three hours after writing these words, the pound has scrubbed off eight grosze against the zloty.

This time last year:
A night at the Filters (Museum Night 2011)

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's Museum Night

This time three years ago:
Exploring my anomalous memory events