Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Auspicious? Or not? Or irrelevant?

As I write, I am in Poznań's Hotel Rzymski. On my way to my room from the restaurant, I catch sight of Venus and Jupiter, very close together in the western sky. From my bedroom window, looking east, I see a (nearly) full moon. Do these heavenly portents mean something - or not? Probably the latter. Time to kick out the jams on these old superstitions; instead let these phenomena trigger deeper reflections about purpose and fulfilling one's potential - and being grateful for all that we should be grateful for.

The first half of the year is over, and I can tot up my life-log. More walking than this time last year (average number of paces each day: 10,855 this year, 10,473 a day in 2014). Lower alcohol consumption in first half of this year than during the same period last year (weekly average 21.5 units per week this year, 24.2 units last year - NHS recommended limit for men: 21 units per week). Fewer sit-ups a day that last year (82 a day, compared to 130 a day last year). And new this year - I've started logging intake of fresh fruit and veg - it's 4.6 portions a day every day since 1 Jan. The target is five, hell - seven, nine, ten even.

Like my father, I like to put things down in spreadsheets, then I can analyse and see trends, take corrective action. I've been doing this daily for 18 months now. The aim of all this is long-term health and activity into old age (and my nonagenarian father is a great example for me to follow).

Determination is so important.

Well, that's it - the end of the first half of 2015 will be over in 90 minutes and one leap second; and so many unresolved issues around the world - Russia in Ukraine, ISIS at large, the Greeks with one foot in and one foot out of the eurozone, the UK's EU membership still in the balance. And probably the least of all these worries, Poland about to ditch PO (Civic Platform) in the autumn elections. What next? We live in uncertain times, but then mankind always has. May things not get any worse...

It's been a long day. I woke at 03:50, left home at 05:00, caught the Pendolino to Wrocław at 06:05, took part in a half-day training seminar for Polish exporters, visited a Polish factory in Dzierzoniów, returned to Wrocław in time to catch the 17:43 train to Poznań, arrived at my hotel at 20:45 - and had a splendid dinner (sorrel soup with poached - not boiled - eggs, and duck pierogi with chanterelle mushrooms) at the hotel restaurant.

Below: The Electrification of the Villages. Somewhere between Wrocław and Poznań.

This time last year:
Down the line from York

This time two years ago:
Cider - at last available in Poland

This time three years ago:
Despondency on Puławska
[A year later, still no S2 Southern Bypass]

This time four years ago:
Stalking the stork

This time six years ago:
Late June lightning

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Still flying after all these years

Living on the approach path to Okęcie airport, my senses are finely attuned to air traffic that's out of the ordinary. Sounds that make me grab my camera and dash to a window. Most of what flies in and out of Okęcie is twin-jet airliners, mainly Airbus A320s, Boeing 737s and Embraer ERJ175s and 195s. Some twin turboprops, like the Bombardier Q400s and ATR 42s and 72s. And these five types sum up around 95% of the planes flying over Jeziorki. The Queen of the Skies around here is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, operated by LOT. Ah - and Emirates' Airbus 330.

Military stuff is interesting, as are planes built a long long time ago. So when this morning I heard the distant roar of four turbojets in the distance, I knew something interesting was on its way. Indeed - the Israeli Air Force's increasingly infrequent flights of a Boeing 707 to Warsaw.

So I grabbed my camera - and snapped as it passed. Wonderful sight. Like a steam train or classic car. Well maintained and still flying after all these years (this particular example was built in 1974, spent time in China before being bought and refurbished by the Israeli Air Force in 1998 and fitted out for air-to-air refueling - note boom under rear fuselage).

Below: Israeli Air Force Boeing 707, serial no. 264. approaching Warsaw Okęcie. Overhead, an Aeroflot Airbus A330 leaves a pair of contrails as it passes over Warsaw at 33,000ft.

Below: leaving a cloud of soot worthy of a steam locomotive, the 707 makes its final approach. Built in 1973, this plane was used by communist China from 1973 to 1993, when it was bought and refurbished by the Israeli Air Force. So this particular aircraft has been flying for 42 years.

The last time I snapped an Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 (indeed any 707) was four years ago in late June 2011. Good to see these aircraft still in service. They remind me of my childhood, not far from London's Heathrow Airport, when the Boeing 707 was an everyday sight.

Another Israeli transport Boeing snapped this month was this El Al 747-400 freighter (4X-ELF) that visited on Sunday 4 June. Its presence at Okęcie drew a large crowd of spotters. The blueness of the sky, the glistening whiteness of its fuselage against a dark green forest and the airport infrastructure including razor wire fence creates a Sublime Aesthetic feel.

This particular aircraft is far younger than the 707 - built in 1994; no veteran but still a plane with 21 years of service behind it. How long will the Dreamliners that LOT has bought keep flying?

This time last year:
Yorkshire's smallest city

This time two years ago:
Cramp in the night

This time three years ago:
Football goes home

This time four years ago:
Birds of Omen

This time five years ago:
Yes, it does matter who you vote for

This time six years ago:
Poland could do with some more mountains

This time seven years ago:
Warmth of the Sun
- the Beach Boys and Noctilucence

This time eight years ago:
Polish roads that look like America

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Ballad of Heniek and Ziutek

These guys are a) the backbone of Poland, b) Poland's biggest problem. Pan Heniek (below, left) and Pan Ziutek (below, right) - or indeed the other way round. The background has been heavily pixelated a) to hide the Polish village in which this was taken and b) to give the impression of level of inebriation that our protagonists are experiencing...

Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek can be found in any Polish village (their presence in Polish cities is thankfully on the wane). Decent, ordinary, straightforward guys with one problem - alcohol.

This pair staggered into the sklep spożywczy ahead of me and went straight to the alcohol counter. They pooled their resources - eight or nine zlotys - and converted it into małpki - 100ml or 200ml bottles of vodka. But not just any małpki - these guys wanted their małpki chilled. From the chiller. It's hot outside.

Poland's spirits manufacturers have a lot on their conscience. In particular the chiller cabinet of małpki. These bottles were never intended for domestic consumption, Lord no. This is feldalkohol, something to be bought and swigged back in the fields. Strong alcohol to be drunk in the open air.

Pani ekspedientka asks her customers what they'd like. They name their preferred brands and engage in easy-going banter with the shop assistant, who's in her early 20s and probably finishing her Master's degree in philosophy. They manage to string entire sentences together without the use of a single expletive. She tells them, politely, that their order is not going to be good for their health. They laugh. It is evident from their gait (above) that these bottles are not their first of the day. They merrily shrug off this well-meant advice, count their grosze and arrive at the right amount of loose change to pay for the małpki. The transaction is complete. And off they go, the two sages of the willow grove.

But for their comedic value, Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek's alcohol problem leaves human tragedy in its wake - mothers, wives, children. Employers, social security, the health service.

The answer is clearly genetic; some of us can handle alcohol and some can't. A variant of one gene means that we are either prone to addiction to C2H5OH or not. In time, genetic testing will be able to identify those with the wrong variant - and innovative medicines will fix it. But in the meanwhile, we shall have to endure the sight - and the costs (social and economic) of Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek's unending quest for booze.

This time last year:
Yorkshire's yellow bicycles

This time six years ago:
Horse-drawn in the Tatras

This time seven years ago:
Rain, wind and fire

This time eight years ago:
The Road beckons

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Warsaw's Citizens' Budget - vote NOW! (closes midnight Friday)

Voting in this year's Budżet Partycypacyjny ends tomorrow. This year, Warsaw's democratically chosen budget project is far better organised than last year. The main improvement for us living in Jeziorki has been the splitting of Ursynów into three separate regions - Upper Ursynów North, Upper Ursynów South and Green Ursynów. Zielony (Green) Ursynów consists of Jeziorki to the south and Grabów to the north. The pool of money set aside for Green Ursynów was 1,464,000 złotys, and citizens have the chance to choose which of 13 projects they want to see realised - up to the total sum of the allocated pool.

Of the 13 projects, all are entirely laudable and being able to select several was a huge improvement over last year. Here in Jeziorki, most of the money allocated to my vote went to traffic and public transport improvements (pavement for the short stretch of Karczunkowska between ul. Puławska and ul. Sarabandy, traffic calming for all residential streets) but the bulk of my spend I allocated to our lakes between Trombity and Dumki - a proper footpath, above all and bins for the ponds at Wąsal and Pozytywki.

Having selected my choice of projects for Green Ursynów, I was about to post them, when I was reminded that I can also vote for another 1,200,000 złotys-worth of projects for Ursynow-wide projects. Here, I voted mainly for road safety, ecology and IT projects.

This is all so much better than last year, when all Ursynów was treated as one area, and you could only vote for one project; the winning project was a centre for disabled people. This time, there's no one great big-budget project that stands out above all others like last year; there's a greater choice and a greater feeling that the local authorities are listening to the citizens. The structure of the IT solution is (largely) intuitive, allowing voters to see how much of the budget they've 'spent' and how much they have left. My only minor gripes are the ReCaptcha-type image of letters you have to type in - does it or not include spaces? ('no' is the answer) and the journey could be better signposted. Ah... you need to register/log in online. I thought I did this last year, apparently not - register again (you'll need your PESEL number).

So then - if you live in Jeziorki - or in Ursynów - or in any of Warsaw's districts, voting ends tomorrow (Friday 26 June) at midnight. So VOTE! (Click here to start process). Then click on the big red 'GŁOSUJ' banner, register/log in, then chose your district, and begin selecting the projects you want to see realised in your neighbourhood.

Follow-up, Friday 26 June, morning. I get an automated e-mail from City Hall, thanking me for voting, reminding me what I voted for, and saying that the results will be published on Friday 10 July, and the projects completed by the end of 2016. Good stuff!

This time last year:
Beginning of the end of PO [Civic Platform]

This time last year:
Where's the beef? Fillet steak in Warsaw

This time two years ago:
W-wa Zachodnia spruced up for the football, W-wa Stadion reopened

This time three years ago:
Literature and biology

This time six years ago:
Old Nysa van spotted in Grabów

This time seven years ago:
The oats in the neighbouring field rise high

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Face to face with Mr Hare

It was a lovely morning, I had time in hand so I decided to walk to W-wa Dawidy station (a half-hour journey rather than the 15 minutes to W-wa Jeziorki). My route takes me to the end of ul. Trombity, then along ul. Kórnicka, across the railway tracks and then parallel to them all the way to ul. Baletowa and the station. And while on the track that runs alongside the tracks, I espied this character bounding up towards me. Unusual behaviour for a hare. Note the gait; quite unlike that of a rabbit - all four legs off the ground. Much larger, too. The size of of a large terrier.

Suddenly, the hare pauses, looks at me. I'm still, fixing him with my 300mm lens. Note his eyes. Unlike the irises of cats or goats - round, like those of humans. He stands there for a while...

...then decides to bravely run away through the cabbage patch. Why is it, I thought, that humans domesticated cats, dogs - rabbits even - but not hares? These guys would make interesting pets...

If Jeziorki's four-legged mammalian wildlife is represented by the hare, in Ealing it is the fox. The fox is now a very common sight in West London, rummaging in dustbins, quite unfazed by human presence. Here's one I saw earlier this month on Haven Green by Ealing Broadway, late in the evening, surrounded by humans waiting for buses home.

This time two years ago:
Central Warsaw vistas

This time three years ago:
Future of urban motoring?

This time six years ago:
On foot to Limanowa

This time seven years ago:
Crumbling neo-classicism in Grabów

This time eight years ago:
Bike ride into deepest Mazovia

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Civilisation and barbarism

It's been a long time coming, but here it is, a post that starts with a banality and ends with a big question mark.

An important purpose to human life is continual improvement, striving to apply ever-greater standards of civilisation, moving away from barbarism. Sometimes the momentum towards civilisation is faster, sometimes slower, sometimes it goes into reverse (Today's Middle East in particular).

European civilisation briefly slipped back into the darkness of barbarism under Nazi occupation, but since then progress has been visible across the project known as the European Union, the western and central parts of his continent have enjoyed progress towards the light.

Civilised behaviour is evident, barbarism in its extreme form (murder on religious grounds, invasion for the sake of territorial gain). But it's the petty barbarism too. Egregious driving, dumping rubbish, mindless graffiti tagging...

What is the civilised response? Yes of course there are laws, by-laws, international tribunals, the mechanisms of imposing civilisation on those who prefer to behave barbarically. But does this work? To what degree? When I see scenes like these (ul. Sporna, Jeziorki), my gut instinct is to respond to barbarism like-for-like. Catch someone doing this - flog them. Publicly. Put them in stocks and have a supply of rotten eggs and tomatoes at the ready to have them pelted mercilessly by a jeering crowd.

But fighting barbarism with barbarism would only serve to lower levels of civilisation across society. Much as I would like to force whoever dumped this rubbish below to eat it - on prime-time television while a studio audience roars with laughter.

How does one deal with barbarism? The algorithm of the Prisoner's Dilemma (which I mention here in the context of Putin's Russia) offers a tried-and-tested answer: get on with people who get on with you. But should they step out of line, punish them - swiftly and hard - and continue doing so until they repent. Then instantly get back to getting on with them. There is no better way of getting a long-term win-win result than that. Proven by computers playing out the scenario millions of times. The only problem is with defining the terms "step out of line" and "punish".

Armed forces are the embodiment of institutional barbarism, ready to defend the state using barbaric means (putting enemies to death with bullet, shrapnel or high explosive). A civilised world would have no need of military force. Yet the planet that our consciousnesses occupy is not civilised in an equal manner. Barbarism, brutality, the notion that might-is-right, prevails in many corners of our globe and cannot be expected to contain itself.

Civilised societies need to be ready to impose barbaric solutions - such as putting fist-sized holes through the bodies of invading soldiers, or incinerating invading tank crews alive in their vehicles - so as to protect the civilisation that have been have built (or rebuilt) over the decades. Unless civilised societies can demonstrate a credible response against barbarism, they will be overrun, and civilisation will crumble, evil will take hold.

But what solutions should be used for those who perpetrate those little barbarisms - those who dump household waste on public land or in forests, those who insist on driving under the influence of alcohol, or those tagging graffiti on public or private property?

I'm convinced that a little bit of corporal (as opposed to capital!) punishment would be useful. Public mockery of those convicted under due process of law, via the social media, I'm sure would work.

Getting the balance right is crucial. A civilised person should not stoop to the level of the barbarian to defeat him (and it is usually a 'him'). But the barbarism of Imperial Japan had to be defeated by the incineration of hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children, the barbarism of Nazi Germany by the firebombing of civilians and a merciless war on all fronts.

The outcome of any conflict is determined by will. The side with the stronger will to win prevails. Civilised society should never lose the determination to defeat barbarism, whether it be the threat of barbarism on the international stage, or the 'small barbarisms' that we encounter in everyday life.

The Rule of Law is a great weapon in the hands of civilised society, along with transparency and trust. The Rule of Law depends upon enforcement and the wise interpretation of the law's regulations. And this requires vigilance of civilised people, who should identify themselves as such and be prepared to defend civilised values.

Finally, the question mark. We can see symptoms of barbarism large and small all around us. What can we as individuals do to ensure the continued progress of civilisation?

This time last year:
Ahead of the opening of Jeziorki's Biedronka

This time two years ago:
New views of Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
Motorway finally links (the outskirts of) Łódź and (the outskirts of) Warsaw

This time six years ago:
Kraków Air Museum

This time seven years ago:
Quintessential Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Little boxes, Mysiadło

Monday, 22 June 2015

Dissected dream raises questions about nature of consciousness

Yesterday morning I had a remarkable dream, remarkable in the way the subconscious brain can create a hidden fact to be, unravelled in the future... The dream was so remarkable, so vivid, so memorable that as soon as I woke up from it, the first thing I did was to write it down, as accurately and in as much detail as possible, and e-mailed it to my brother Marek and daughter Moni.

We spend so much of our lives dreaming, and yet the study of dreams is a marginal pursuit. Maybe because other people's dreams are boring to us... so bear with me then!

I dreamt I was unloading some wooden crates of strawberries from a lorry on Ealing Common that had come from Poland as part of a campaign about recycling packaging materials, organised by PwC.

Suddenly, I'm in America, in a grand auditorium. There's a wide sweeping staircase, cream-coloured, with chrome handrail, curving clockwise; it's in a 1950s building. Crowds of well-dressed people walking up the stairs. I'm walking up with Tony, a mobster. My voice is doing a voice-over. It's saying "Tony could pull strings, but there were things about him I didn't like. I didn't like it when he bought us some beers, to show off. 'This is the most expensive beer in the world', he said. Nine hundred bucks a bottle, he exclaimed, loudly, so everyone at the bar could hear he'd just bought these bottles of beer for nine hundred bucks a bottle. I thanked him, tasted it - it tasted no different to a beer that costs a buck sixty-five.' Anyway, we're walking up the stairs to the auditorium. He slaps me on the back and tells me that I have the second-best singing voice in the world.

We get to our seats. They're about four or five rows from the front, on the left, next to the aisle. I feel uneasy, and I'm kinda looking for a way out. I tell Tony that I've got to go backstage and give a final lesson to the show's star, whose voice coach I am. He looks disappointed, irritated. I get up to go through a pair of swing doors into the backstage area, but just then for some reason I stop to look back at him, through a round window with chrome surround, I see him sitting there alone. I feel bad about the brusqueness of the way I just left. I have a few minutes in hand so I figure I'll just go back sit with him a while before I really do have to leave. 

So I go back, take the seat nearest the aisle. He asks to swap seats with me so that he's sitting nearest the aisle, and he gets talking. I feel uncomfortable about this. He's got this favour he wants to ask me. His younger sister's ready to go to the music academy this fall, he says. Tony wants me to ensure her a place there, using my connections. 'She's got the best singing voice in the world,' he tells me...

BANG! I wake up, in a state of amazement, the dream still totally fresh in my consciousness.

Now, when Tony said that my character had 'the second-best singing voice in the world', the dream was still unfolding. The previous dream narrative, into which this one seamlessly merged, about the strawberry crates on Ealing Common was a typical, regular type of dream I have; all the elements I'd been thinking about in preceding days. The strawberry season is on us; the garage is full of wooden crates and straw punnets, we do a lot of stuff with PwC on best practice. PAFF! Suddenly I'm elsewhere, a different character - an Italian-American singer/singing teacher in an American concert hall. I WAS the character, I was not, say, a writer, writing this down, nor a detached observer floating overhead.

So I could have had no a priori knowledge about the punchline - that mobster Tony had a sister who he reckoned had the world's best singing voice, and that he was trying to get me to ensure her a place at the music academy with which I was connected.

What was going on in my brain as the story was developing? How could I have known about the sister at the moment that Tony slapped my character on the shoulder to tell him he had the world's second-best singing voice? The punchline came as a complete surprise to me as I dreamt it. So much so, that the shock of it woke me up. I had no foreknowledge of it. Or was I replaying a train of thought that had already played out in someone else's brain? "Is Hashem telling me that Sy Ableman is me, or we are all one or something?"

Here we go into the quantum physics of what's going on within my consciousness. "You have the world's second-best singing voice," Tony tells me. After he said that, 1) we entered the auditorium; 2) we found our seats; 3) I felt I needed to get away from Tony and made my excuse; 4) I got to the door to the backstage area; 5) I look back at Tony and feel drawn to return; 6) Tony says he wants to sit nearer the aisle, we exchange seats; 7) AND THEN Tony tells me who he thinks has the world's best singing voice - his sister. This is incredible. I just didn't see it coming. The narrative was just so surprising, so anomalous, that it has made me question the way the sleeping mind works.

The detail, the un-me-ness of the dream's protagonist was strange in itself. I was someone other than me - me and my familiar baggage of complexes that I drag through the dream world. Someone reacting differently to how I would.

Now I'm not an avid watcher of mafia movies - I have seen the Godfather movies twice (back in the '70s and again six or seven years ago); I watched Goodfellas around the same time, the once; I've not seen Scarface or any of the Sopranos episodes, nor have I read any mafia novels, nor is Italian-American society something spend my time thinking about. My usual, day-to-day dreams include any amount of details I can attribute to undigested thoughts, unconsummated memories, from my waking life - but this - totally different.

And then there's the issue of the $900 bottles of beer. Well, that's contemporary. Out of interest I googled the world's most expensive beers and found (in 2013) bottles for $750 (Caulier Vielle Bon Secours) or $765 (Brew Dog's End of History). Neither, however, could possibly be mistaken for a beer costing a mere $1.65  a bottle (that price is right for imported beers in the US today, Amstel, Heineken, for instance, or a US-brewed craft beer). It occurred to me later that loud-mouth Tony might have just been showing off.

Could it possibly be that I picked up thoughts from another human being? Weird.

I'd be very interested in a more rational explanation!

This time two years ago:
Baszta - local legend round these parts

This time four years ago:
Downhill all the way to December

This time five years ago:
What do I want for Poland

This time six years ago:
Summer holiday starts drizzly

This time seven years ago:
Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 visits Okęcie

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Midsummer Day, Jeziorki

Why is the first day of astronomical summer suddenly 'midsummer'? Anyway, for the record, today the sun rose over Jeziorki at 04:14 and set at 21:01, giving 16 hours and 47 minutes of daylight. From here, it's downhill all the way to the Winter Solstice on 22 December, although the lengthening night only becomes noticeable towards the end of July.

Meteo.pl's apocalyptic predictions of a deluge that's off the scale (i.e more than 30 litres of rain falling per square metre per hour) have come to nought for the second day in a row. It put me off a longer expedition, instead I did two circuits of my local patch. So here then, the splendour of midsummer's day in Jeziorki. God's Own Suburb.

Below: between the railway line and ul. Trombity. Silver birches, fields of green, tracks reveal sandy soil beneath.

Below: the sun casts its sparkle on the surface of the ponds between ul. Trombity and ul. Dumki.

Below: the resident swans are doing well, with a clutch of six growing cygnets.

Below: ul. Dumki, beyond the asphalt, the rutted path now dry and baked hard; it's muddy and almost impassable to those in well-shod feet in the winter and early spring.

Below: glorious wheatfields, between Jeziorki and Dawidy Bankowe. Click to listen to this on YouTube, move slider to 4:13, then click to enlarge the photo. Enrapture yourself for two minutes and 14 seconds, meditating on this image.

The threatened storms did not materialise over Jeziorki. They may have affected neighbouring parts of Mazovia. Below: a rather spectacular cloud formation snapped from the balcony.

Time for another walk. Below: the way from ul. Trombity to a house on Dumki. The setting sun sheds beautiful light on the landscape.

Below: ul. Kórnicka, a puddle on the roadway suggests that here, just a mile up the road, there was rain today, while at the other end of ul. Trombity, it remained dry.

Below: the pedestrian railway crossing at the west end of ul. Kórnicka. The asphalt doesn't go this far. The sun is setting NNW, 312 degrees, the furthest north it will reach.

A beautiful day, the meteorological uncertainty adding some spice. Over two walks I clocked up over 18,000 paces (14.5km)!

This time two years ago:
Kittens at six weeks

This time four years ago:
And the Lord spake unto the tribe of Hipsters

This time five years ago:
Exit polls can get it wrong

This time six years ago:
In search of good Polish beer
[Situation's much improved, I'm delighted to say!]

This time seven years ago:
In the Solstice garden

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Ahead of the storm

Meteo.pl had forecast a day of intense downpours, with rainfall off the scale (which goes up to 30 litres of rain per square metre per hour). The deluge was meant to hit Warsaw around 14:30 this afternoon. This morning I drove the children to Łódź; returning towards Warsaw, near the airport, I thought to myself - this is it...

It wasn't. Had lunch, looked at the forecast again - yes, plenty of rain still expected. A bit later. I thought I'd chance to take a walk beforehand. Not too far - the heavens may open. I walked to Dawidy Bankowe via Zamienie, then took the path back across the fields towards Jeziorki. Looking back, below, I could hear rumbles of thunder. The sky was looking ominous. Yet the wind was from the north-west; the storm could by-pass me yet.

Below: ripening wheat waiting for rainfall. This is Warsaw, within the city's boundary, yet the scenery is agricultural.The S79 may come through these fields one day, connecting the S2 and the airport with the S7 somewhere south of Janki. Maybe. Convenience vs. rural peace.

Below: across the tracks, back in Jeziorki, at the western end of ul. Kórnicka. A brooding landscape under dark, roiling clouds.

Below: by the tracks  a giant dandelion grows. Nature is at its most bountiful at this time of year.

Below: Jeziorki, across the pond from ul. Dumki. It must be raining heavily in Janki; here, it's bone dry. Note the algae in bloom on the water. Vast clouds of small, non-biting flies are swarming. No dragonflies to be seen, sadly.

There is rain, but not in Jeziorki. I get home, entirely dry. An hour later it starts to rain. Not too heavily. I check meteo.pl. The 30l/m2/h rain that was forecast for today is now forecast for tomorrow. At 14:30. Click to enlarge photos. (It's worth it!)

This time two years ago:
Fashionable bicycles for Warsaw's hipsters

This time three years ago:
On Jarosław Gowin and leadership in Polish politics
[This man could have been Poland's premier today. And a good one, too. But no. He just had to go off on one on his own.]

This time four years ago:
Death of a Polish pilot

This time five years ago:
Doesn't anyone want to recycle my rubbish?

This time six years ago:
End of the school year

This time seven years ago:
Midsummer scenes, Jeziorki

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Łódź - City of Tenements

Łódź is where my children study. It is unusual among Poland's larger cities - like Białystok (my least-favourite), Łódź is a 19th Century creation, and thus lacks a mediaeval core. But it was built by the industrialists whose factories, palaces and workers' dwellings dominate the centre on a far grander scale. The city became known as Poland's Manchester, but the textile industry collapsed after the end of communism.

Many of the factories and tenements went to rack and ruin. Suffering from massive unemployment in the 1990s, many people couldn't afford to pay the city rent for their flats, which consequently were not maintained. With the city owed hundreds of millions of zlotys in back rent, the authorities came up with a solution - to offer the non-payers alternative accommodation at the very edge of town that (just) fulfilled civilised norms; magically, the back rent started pouring in.

And there's investment - first, manufacturing - firms like Siemens-Bosch, Indesit, ABB, Dell Computers. Next, the business process outsourcing centres (India's Infosys, for example, employs 1,100 people doing business back-office activities for companies like Philips and Akzo-Nobel).

Łódź is a city of students. The city fathers understand the need to keep them from leaving the city on graduation, and have come up with some incentives. Among them is the Miasto Kamienic ('City of Tenements') programme. Wholesale renovation of the old buildings has been taking place for some while (progress is visible by looking at my posts from Łódź from March of this year, from 2012, 20112009 and 2008.) By the way, do click on those posts to see pics of several remarkable refurbishment projects.

Even so, there's a vast amount still to do. Below: on ul. Jaracza. Note the green rabbit (made of moss), one of several moss artworks growing on the side of Łódź tenements.

This tenement (below) reminds me of the cover of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti album. The nets are presumably to protect passers-by from falling stucco or masonry.

Below: closer up look at the texture of Łódź reality. This is a city that unlike Warsaw, Gdańsk, Poznań or Wrocław, was spared much bombardment and street-fighting. The crumbling buildings are not pock-marked by bullets or shrapnel.

Below: emerging from under layers of flaking paintwork, a pre-war shop sign. This one is by what was a Colonial Products shop. The concept of 'Sklep Kolonijni' came from Germany (kolonialwarenladen), which did have overseas colonies in Africa. Colonial shops sold tea, coffee, rice and other exotic groceries from distant parts. Communist Poland did not approve of colonialism. Takie kolonie, takie sklepy, said Poles of the newly-emptied shops.

Below: Łódź is a city of street art. Across ul. Sienkiewicza from the PRL-era ad for Pewex ('the State Internal Export Enterprise') is a 2014 work by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra, a homage to local boy Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest classical pianists of the 20th Century.

Behold, how Łódź can look once the buildings have been refurbished (below). The role of the city authority's heritage building conservator is crucial; windows must be wooden, fittings in keeping with the period, paintwork as far as possible matching the original.

Private and public funds are coming together to lift Łódź out of the mire; if it all comes right, this could be a magnificent, creative city. Below: a podwórko (courtyard) being brought back to life.

Below: a quality restoration job. One day, this will be Łódź's Knightsbridge, full of mansions.

There's a positive vibe about Łódź that's getting stronger all the time. The old Franz Ramisch factory on ul. Piotrkowska has been turned into a mass of restaurants, art galleries, shops and working spaces. I was here for breakfast with Moni; the eggs benedict I had at Drukarnia Skład Wina i Chleba were far superior to the best ones I'd eaten in Warsaw (at the Hotel Bristol). As the morning wore on, the place began to fill up. The creative ethos of the hipster generation is reflected in the new businesses that are opening up in places such as this - providing work and reasons for graduates to stay here.

Below: a hole in the ground, so deep and sort of round it was... From the top of the Textilimpex building (entrance free) you can see the work going on around the major redevelopment of Łódź Fabryczna station, which closed to trains in October 2011. As usual, work is massively delayed (I can't see the new deadline of this September being met). The concept was to knock down the old station and rip up the tracks leading into to the centre of Łódz, and build a tunnel under the town linking this line with the line running along the city's western edge (where Łódź Kaliska station runs).

Work to turn Łódź into a modern city on the base of an old industrial one, ending decades of decline into shabbiness, continues. It's more than about the money - it's about people's faith that the place is moving on the right trajectory. Coming here over the years since the late 1990s, I'm convinced that Łódź has reached a critical point in its development, and that things will start improving at a faster rate. The completion of the station and the surrounding EC1 project (that's EC as in elektrociepłownia or 'combined heat and power plant' rather that East Central, though the areas is east-central) will be crucial.

Given that flats are less than half-price compared to Warsaw, and that unemployment is now half of what it was in the bad old days (though still double Warsaw's), my bet is on prime Łódź real estate as something to buy and hold.

This time last year:
Liverpool reborn

This time This time last year:
What goes round comes around: retro is cool - again.

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's southern bypass by this time next year?
[No, it was September 2013]

This time four years ago:
Stand Easy! - a short story

This time seven years ago:
God Save The Queen - I mean it, Ma'am

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Central Warsaw railway update

It's been 170 years since the railway first came to Warsaw... On 14 June 1845, the first passenger train left Warsaw, bound for Grodzisk Mazowiecki. This was less than 15 years after the world's first passenger service - the Liverpool and Manchester Railway - opened. It took three years for the Warsaw-Vienna Railway to reach the border with the Austrian Empire; from 1848 rail travel between the two Central European cities became possible. The opening of the first stretch of the Warsaw-Vienna Railway is commemorated in a piece of officially sanctioned street art (below) on a retaining wall at W-wa Ochota station, and it puts Polish rail travel into a historical perspective.

Today I retraced my steps of a journey I did last year (then to avoid a deluge, today to check what's new at Centralna).

So then. Meanwhile, back at W-wa Centralna, the westernmost underground passage - the only one to have escaped a refit prior to the Euro 2012 football championship - is now being rendered fit for the 21st Century. Gone are the stragany selling burnt casein sandwiches and pączki, flick-knives, paperbacks and second-hand mobiles. I guess once this passage is ready, its new retail residents will be Relay, Victoria's Secret and Starbucks and other global brands, rather than Heniex and Ziutex. Still, it will lift the rather downbeat and oppressive tone that lingered on down here.

Below: The Narrow Way. The builders are in. Not a place to be when dozens of passengers are simultaneously rushing for their trains hither and thither with suitcases, unsure of where they're going.

Below: The place is changing beyond recognition; where are the old stalls, the old booths? The wheelchair ramp makes access easier at this, the northern end at least.

Typical. As ever, whenever Polish railway termini* are being refitted, there's a dearth of passenger information. These two are lost (below); there's no signage telling them which platform they are at, nor which train will be leaving from here. Just acres of plasterboard (gips-karton) and posters. "We're doing a remont. Let's take down the platform number signs from the ceiling six months before we get round to actually doing the ceiling."

Below: how it looked back in March 2012. The rest of W-wa Centralna had by then been refurbished, but the western passage was overlooked in the process. Note the Peron 4 sign.

Below: Ah! My favourite shot. Shoving the camera's snout through a narrow gap in a hoarding to catch a glimpse of what lies behind. Secret passageways, masses of work before this lot's ready!

Below: looking northward along the western passage. The slogan (right) reads: Zmieniamy dworzec dla Ciebie - 'We're changing the terminus* for you. The works will have been completed by the end of this year'. No doubt there'll still be many months before the completed retail units have been leased out to commercial tenants.

And on, out of Dworzec Centralny, and down the ramp to the WKD terminus (below). Warszawska Kolej Dojazdowa - a light railway line linking Grodzisk Mazowiecki and Milanówek, Warsaw's south-western exurbs with the city centre. Using a mixture of modern (hidden in the background, right) and early-1970s rolling stock, the WKD is a cross between a tramway and a proper railway.

Warszawa Śródmieście WKD is a strange station; the single platform is long, passengers disembark at the western end of the platform (below), the train then crosses the track, shunts backwards then forwards to the eastern end of the platform where passengers embark to head off towards Grodzisk.

I exit the WKD station and westward proceed along Al. Jerozolimskie until I reach W-wa Ochota station (below). Now I'm on the main suburban platform; across the track is the W-wa Ochota WKD platform. The main suburban lines and the WKD run parallel until W-wa Zachodnia, and beyond there, they all go their own separate ways.

Warsaw's commuter railways - WKD, Koleje Mazowieckie and Szybkie Koleje Miejskie (SKM), are all experiencing increasing - indeed record - numbers of passengers. It is good to see investment and growth, fewer breakdowns, ever-improving punctuality and reliability. In a civilised world, rail - after nearly 200 years - remains the optimal way of moving people into city centres.

* Dworzec and terminus seem to mean the same and yet don't - the word 'terminus' suggests a termination; in England, the home of railways, the line running into London didn't cross the city - they terminated at a dead end - Paddington, Marylebone, Euston, King's Cross, Liverpool Street etc. In Warsaw, the main railway line crosses through the city centre and does not terminate, but emerges out at the other side. Dworzec means 'courtyard' - different etymology altogether.

This time three years ago:
Poland's night train network

This time four years ago:
On a musical note

This time five years ago:
Standing stones

This time eight years ago:
The year nears its zenith

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Another long walk to Czachówek

Not a 03:50 start; this time I left home at 14:00, bound for Czachówek, on foot, a different, more direct way. It's hot and sunny, over 30C in the afternoon, and the stormclouds had yet to start building ahead of the heavy downpour that would hit Jeziorki 12 hours later.

But first, a word of warning. This is the prime season for ticks, and they are out in force this year. Ticks are nasty, evil little beings. They have adapted to drop from foliage onto passing mammals, and then suck their blood. And often as not, the ticks carry parasitic or bacterial diseases that all too easily enter the human bloodstream.

2015 is a boom year for ticks. Everyone says so. Pan Wiesław and his wife and dog went into the forest and came out to count 20 ticks upon themselves. Our cat Czester has brought back several this season, all dead thanks to his anti-tick collar.

So it's long sleeves, long trousers, long socks, stout shoes and a bush hat for me whenever I'm out and about in the countryside at this time of year, despite the heat. Below: here's a tick I found on my white shirtsleeve, between the elbow and the wrist (click to expand photo). It had not yet managed to make its way to my armpit (a favourite place for ticks to screw their snouts into human skin) or gorge itself on my blood. Light-coloured clothing makes it easier to find them when you emerge from the woods. Niepozorny, isn't it?

It's not just ticks you need to worry about in rural Mazovia at this time of year: adders are around too. You'll need to recognise the difference between an adder (poisonous) and a grass snake (non-poisonous). I came across three snakes on my walk, all were grass snakes. Two were road-kill, the third (below) looks like it had shed its skin on a railway sleeper.

Anyway, on to the walk. My route this week took me more directly south, following as close as I could to the Warsaw to Radom railway line. Jeziorki - Mysiadło - Nowa Iwiczna - Piaseczno, then on down to Zalesie Górne, Ustanówek and my destination. Below: the line crosses two rivers between Warsaw and Czachówek; the Jeziorka and the Zielona; this is the Jeziorka. It's 15:58. As I cross, I come across a group of students (at least 12 of them in six canoes) paddling eastwards towards the Vistula.

Onwards, south toward the sun. South of the Jeziorka, south of the level crossing at Żabieniec, a cobbled road leads to Zalesie Górne. Below: many cyclists are out and about; cycling on cobblestones not easy unless your bike has fat tyres and suspension. It's 16:21.

Just before Zalesie, at 16:31, I come across this courtyard containing two classic Polish-designed Żuk delivery vehicles (samochody dostawcze). In the background, smoke emerges from a chimney. Wędzarnia? 

At Zalesie Górne, I stop for a large lamb kebab na ostro w cienkim cieście. I've been walking for over two and half hours. At five pm, I get going again. I pass through Zalesie Górne, an exurb of działki and dworki many of which are getting a bit shabby; the owners seem to put a bigger store on owning a big new SUV than keeping their houses looking impressive. People who commute here to town by car each day must experience frustration and a sense of a life wasted (25km to Centrum via Piaseczno or 32km via Konstancin). Below: a life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex stands guardian to a house in Zalesie Górne. It's 17:37.

Onwards to my favourite bits. Having passed beyond Exurbia, Mazowsze shades into its rural self. Here I am, approaching Ustanówek. This stretch of road gives me those strong 1950s USA vibes. Below: it's 18:06 and a Radom-bound train heads south.

Further on down the road, across the level crossing and heading out of Ustanówek, towards my destination. It is 18:27, my train home's due in less than an hour (the one scheduled after this one, below).

Below: I enter the forest, which is criss-crossed with railway lines. To get to Czachówek Górny station I need to cross the north-to-east spur. This line is in the throes of maintenance; old rails badly hammered by heavy goods wagons are being replaced by new rails (lying between the tracks waiting to be installed). It is 18:57.

Into the trees. I scramble down the embankment and come across a boar's head, below. Not a Shakespearean tavern but the real thing; the cycle of life, death and decay. It is exactly 19:00.

I've made it in good time to Czachówek Górny station. Surrounded by forests and train tracks, a place of interest. Between the main line and the west-to-south spur is a garden with columns and horses. In the background, a railway signal. From time to time an occasional oil train rumbles through. A place, I think, O. Winston Link would have liked to have photographed.

I'm on the platform at Czachówek Górny. I can hear in the forest a train to the east of me. It it westbound? Northbound? Or southbound? I cannot immediately tell, not being able to see it. The low rumble through the trees is getting louder... where will it emerge? Below: it's a Koleje Mazowieckie passenger train from Góra Kalwaria to Warsaw. According to the timetable, it's running half an hour late. As a result, my train back to Jeziorki is delayed by a few minutes.

Below: my journey; just over 20km in five hours' walking with a half-hour stop for supper en route. Nearly 30,000 paces in total. Click to enlarge.

June is Mazowsze's finest month in terms of weather; one should make the most of every sunny day!

This time last year:
Half a mile under central Warsaw, on foot

This time two years ago:
Dzienniki Kołymskie reviewed

This time three years ago
Russia-Poland in Warsaw: the worst day of Euro 2012

This time five years ago:
Thirty-one and sixty-three - a short story

This time six years ago:
Warsaw rail circumnavigation

This time seven years ago:
Classic Polish vehicles

This time eight years ago:
South Warsaw sunsets