Saturday, 30 April 2016

Semi-automatic (short story)

The desert wind fluttered his jacket, flapping the collars against his face. The sound of cloth flapping - jacket, trousers; he smiled; this was pleasurable. His hands were deep in his trouser pockets, he faced the bright sun wearing sunglasses. He could feel the wind tugging at the roots of his hair, blown straight back. The desert was welcoming him. "If it were not for the wind, it would be unbearably hot. If it were not for the sun, it would be unbearably cold", he thought, knowing the desert well in both states. His hat was safely stowed, he'd catch much sun today on his freckled skin.

He took a few steps forward, kicking at the light-green glassy fragments on the ground before him with the toes of his suede desert boots. In the distance, the mountain range spread out across the horizon, a day-and-half's walk away. Those peaks looked so close. It was still morning, the Piper that was to fly in and to pick him up with all his equipment was not due till one-thirty. What's to do? The experiment's all done, everything's packed... nothing to do but wait. Certainly not enough time to walk all the way into town and get back at the appointed hour for the rendezvous with the plane. But there was too much time for him to just waste time.

Jim looked at his watch. Damn. Two hours, fifty-five minutes. Time to just stand around, and contemplate. He'd spent the morning finishing his report and carefully stowing the geiger counter and the other kit back into the wooden crates - no, he had no duties that he could busy himself with. And he'd neglected to take a book with him; he'd read this week's Life magazine from cover to cover twice over. The last call over the radio, half an hour earlier, confirmed that his plane was on schedule, and there was nothing he needed to worry about.

Two hours and fifty-five minutes. Jim had slept well that night, he was rested and did not need a nap. There'd be plenty to keep busy with once he'd get back to base, but there was not a thing he could do now. The wind picked up, moving small pebbles and whipping the sand around his ankles. Best not sit down. Radioactivity. The boxes were secure; no danger to them. Jim had taken a semi-automatic carbine in case any mountain lions or coyotes came too close; he'd seen or heard none. His gun lay on one of the crates, wrapped in oilcloth to protect it from sand.

The sun was getting ever higher in the April sky; perfectly azure with a few wisps of white cirrus off to the west. This was among the most beautiful expressions of nature he'd ever experienced, rivalling Alaskan auroras, or crisp winter mornings of his Minnesota home, or the blindingly bright sea-sparkle of the Atlantic ocean, when holidaying in North Carolina as a child.

He pulled out his notebook, preparing to jot down his thoughts - how he felt at that moment. No cares, just the sense of wonderment at being a living, conscious, part of Eternity. He half-closed his eyes and tilted his head up at the sun - he could feel the wind tugging on his sunglasses - and a powerful feeling of being alive surged through him. Alive and at one with it all. Forgetting that sense of Jim the five-foot-five wise guy, he became just an observing consciousness a part of the desert, bereft of personality, breathing the wind, sensing the sun in the crystalline sky. He held his eyes open, unblinking for a minute or two. The mountains seemed to draw closer, sliding towards him as if on a myriad parallel railroad tracks, as the sky shrank and expanded at the same time.

Jim struggled to write his thoughts as they passed - swiftly, not caring about neatness, just making sure he was getting it all down. He'd not done this before, but the idea made sense. On impulse he looked down. His boots blended with the desert floor; stamp! a small cloud of dust rose up. He noted an ant scurrying for cover. Was that ant thinking anything? Or just reacting to the sudden disruption? Did it feel fear, as he once did when, as a child, he'd strayed into the neighbor's corn and the farmer fired his rifle from afar into the crop? Should he shout 'Don't shoot!' or stay silent? The ant couldn't make that decision... and yet that plea from bygone days resonated with him as though the ant were calling to him in his childhood voice. He scribbled that thought down as well.

Jim tried to put aside all thought of his situation. The plane would come. There's nothing in his power to hasten or delay that. It would touch down on the airstrip behind him, the pilot would help him load the gear, they'd get in and fly back to Tonopah. He'll have a shower, eat a steak, drink a cold beer - watch some TV in his motel room - nice, but trite. Jot that thought down? No. No future pleasures, no present worries - THIS is living, he told himself, THIS moment. The HERE and the NOW.

Something made him put away the notebook into his jacket pocket. Having done so, in a deliberate movement, he stretched out his arms to their fullest extent and tilted his palms to face the sun, framed in the gold rims of his glasses. The wind swept across the desert beating his face, and his arms; again he was aware of the flapping of cloth, of a sensation akin to riding a motorcycle, the sun and the wind together, the wind blowing that mountain range closer and closer - if he stood there for a million years, would the mountains have reached him by then? Jim concentrated on standing as still as he possibly could, intent on imaging what a geological age felt like. How did it feel to be a mountain? What does a day, a season, a year, feel like to a mountain?

All of a sudden he beamed in satisfaction at the thought that he'd not even stopped to check his watch. He was clueless as to how much time had passed. Blissful abandon had overtaken him; he felt tears welling up in his eyes and a feeling like being hugged from within. He responded with deep gratitude; to Creation, to the entire Universe.

He knew not how long he'd stood there in that state; the drone of an aircraft engine from the east returned him to the mundane.

Jim died of cancer in 1958, well short of his 40th birthday.

Before he died, he had time to assess those most meaningful moments in his unfulfilled life. It had been a beautiful life, though not long enough. He had much to be grateful for; he longed for more, for greater understanding; understanding through moments of unity with the Eternal.

"Gimme another shot, God!"

This time three years ago:
Jarosław Gowin quits as justice minister

This time four years ago:
So good to be back in Warsaw

This time five years ago:
At the President's

This time seven years ago:
Summer's here, and the time is right...

This time nine years ago:
Why I'm staying in Warsaw

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Cleveland Park; twilight moods

A northerly wind blew all day yesterday, making it easy to judge the weather. As the clouds raced by in the icy wind (there was snow on the ground on Scottish and Northern English hills), clear sky emerged and the setting sun slanted low and strong across Cleveland Park. The sun set, the twilight held; magic hour. To the south east, storm clouds emptied their bellies on Tulse Hill, Sydenham, Penge and Crystal Palace. But Ealing stayed dry.

Below: Scotch Common, the road dividing Pitshanger Park to the north from Cleveland Park to the south. Cleveland Park a grassy rectangle is on a hill, rising from 26m above sea level to 42m above sea level at its southern end, on Cleveland Road.

Below: looking south-east at the distant deluge. Just after I'd snapped this pic, a lightning flash lit up the sky; I could discern a tiny explosion half-way down the lightning's zigzag path. The lightning disappeared, but for a fraction of a second there was a small fire in the sky that fizzled out, as though the lightning had fried a bird in flight.

Below: looking north towards Cleveland Road, the trees on the park's eastern edge in blossom.

Below: mock-Tudor houses look out across the park. The views from the top floor windows must be outstanding - Horsenden Hill and Harrow beyond.

Below: quintessential Ealing - decent homes for London's commuters.

These moods will stay with me - qualia of consciousness - memories, ready to be taken onwards on the infinite journey from Zero to One.

UPDATE 26-28 April 2017

A year on, the same springtime klimat is present. Below: the lower end of Castlebar Road

Below: a raincloud passes low over Cleveland Park, revealing strong light from a setting sun.

All is well.

This time three years ago:
Spring flooding in Jeziorki
[Interesting to compare last photo here with third photo in post above]

This time five years ago:
I need a new laptop. But which one?

This time seven years ago:
In search of the sublime aesthetic

This time eight year ago:
Ducks in Ogród Saski

This time nine years ago:
Should I stay or should I go?

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Brexit: heart v. head, migration v. economy

Economic growth in the UK slowed in the first quarter of this year - up 0.4% quarter-on-quarter, compared to 0.6% in the fourth quarter of last year. This slow-down in the growth of business activity was to be predicted. In the run-up to the referendum on continued EU membership, many investment decisions are on hold as businesses take a wait-and-see approach.

Apart from a handful of mavericks, hardly any economists or business organisations support Brexit. Most of the economic and financial calculations concerning the effects of Brexit point to a negative outcome. In particular, the debate about trade should be particularly convincing; outside the EU, the UK would have to renegotiate its trade agreements around the world. Countries - including Commonwealth members - will not be looking kindly at the prospect of having to sit round the negotiating table with Britain and haggle about issues that have already been settled (in trade agreements reached with the entire EU).

The question of whether a post-Brexit UK would be first or last in the queue to negotiate any future trade agreements seems spurious - when you're inside the shop, why rush to leave it so you can negotiate your way back in from the outside?

Trade means jobs, jobs are livelihoods for families. Trade also means investment. Many global corporations have invested in building factories in the UK to have a manufacturing base within the EU, with the benefits of a good business environment. Employers can see that. Economists can see that. It makes eminent economic sense for the UK to remain part of the world's richest trading bloc.

Norway and Switzerland have access to the EU single market, but without any say in determining the regulations that govern that market. The UK - a strong exporter of services - wants to complete (finally) the single European market in services. It is far less likely to do so outside the EU than within it.

Looking at the plethora of economic arguments around trade, investment, jobs and the economy, the Remain camp's warnings of the negative consequences of Brexit ring true.

Those in favour of Brexit are either comfortably well off - or indeed very wealthy. The mouthpieces for Brexit, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Times and the Sun are owned by people who are not domiciled in the UK for tax reasons. These high net-worth individuals are insulated by any negative economic aftershocks of Brexit. "The economy is only growing by half a percent? Investors are pulling out and businesses are shedding labour? Welcome the bracing global economy!" I feel a visceral dislike for those who blithely promote Brexit knowing full well they will not be touched by its economic consequences.

But maybe it's not just about the economy? Sovereignty, taking back control of our borders, migration, I no longer recognise the land where I was born... 

Emotions. Feelings.

But back to the economy. Survey after survey has shown that the economic impact of EU migration to the UK is beneficial. EU migrants - and Poles are a significant part of that - generally come to the UK to work and pay taxes. [Once they find work here, they soon discover that generous tax-breaks - in-work benefits - mean they take home more than they expected, but that's another story.]

Non-EU migrants are more likely to be jobless, less likely to integrate with society at large. Non-EU migrants are not subject to EU rules, so if the UK wanted to 'take back control of its borders' - what's stopping it? Brexit will not make any difference.

Because EU migrants are a net contributor to the UK economy, any attempt to deny them access to the UK labour market will lead to a slow down in economic growth. The economy is not a zero-sum game; one job created here can create further, new, jobs elsewhere. Value added by a newcomer spreads around the economy.

Without access to a well-motivated and hard-working addition to the UK labour force, the economy will run out of steam. GDP growth will falter, and the UK will be increasingly hard-stretched to pay for its healthcare, social services, education and security.

The Brexiters are willing to accept that. For them, leaving the EU is the chance to embark on a Quixotic journey to seek the Lost Eldorado of a Golden Age, an age of politeness and deference, fair play and fair hair, a land where Everybody Knew Their Place. The Brexit campaign is led by the rich and privileged who would like to turn the UK into an offshore tax haven.

Scotland will no doubt secede from a post-Brexit United Kingdom, leaving a fragmented state drifting, friendless.

You cannot turn the clock back. The EU has proved amazingly successful at preventing war between its members. On the long march from barbarism to civilisation, the EU, an ongoing work in progress, has proved to be a step in the right direction. Stronger Together, Better In.

Finally, anyone comparing the EU to the USSR knows not what Katyń or Hlodomor or the Gulag mean.

This time last year:
Golf course update

This time three years ago:
Review of Krzysztof Osiejuk's latest book

This time four years ago:
The Shard changes London's skyline

This time five years ago:
In praise of Warsaw's trams

This time six years ago:
Plans for the railway line to Radom
[five and half years it took to go from plans to realisation]

Monday, 25 April 2016

Update on Radom Line works - and golf course

Since late last summer, modernisation work has been going on apace on the Warsaw-Radom railway line, which is having a major impact on how Jeziorki and its neighbourhood looks. I've posted about the wholesale cutting down of trackside trees; slowly the works are beginning to take shape.

Below: one day I'll be standing on this platform, waiting for a southbound train. This is the 'down' platform, built entirely from new, to the south of ul. Karczunkowska. The platform edge is in place, the paving will follow soon. Lamp posts are also in place. The new track will be laid to the left of the new platform, straight as a poker all the way from W-wa Okęcie to Nowa Iwiczna. Because the line won't have to swing around an island platform, trains will be able to travel much faster, cutting journey times.

Left: behind the new platform, an access road to the back of the houses fronting onto ul. Karczunkowska. Will this road be asphalted? Will there be a station car park here? Or will it be fenced off from the platform, denying residents access? (A case of tak źle, tak nie dobrze.) Or just pedestrian access for the locals?

Below: photo taken on ul. Gogolińska. No sign of work today, Sunday. Yesterday, there were men working here. To the right, the old island platform, which will disappear once the new 'down' line (and platform) are ready. Then single line working will switch from the 'up' line to the 'down' line, and the new 'up' platform will be built, parallel to the old island platform, between the new 'up' line and the coal-train line.

While the works are under way, and I suspect this will go on until well into next year, passengers are subject to random inconvenience. Usually during the evening rush hour. To ease the discomfort, Koleje Mazowieckie are taking unusual steps. One is to run longer trains, nine-car sets, which I've never seen before on the Radom line. Below: a Radom-bound all-stations service departs W-wa Jeziorki.

And the pospieszny (semi-fast) Radom train stops at intermediate stations between W-wa Służewiec and Nowa Iwiczna, although on Friday when I got this train home, it didn't stop at W-wa Okęcie. Below: unusual to have a double-decked calling at W-wa Dawidy. You can see work going on to the right where the new 'down' line is being built.

It's been exactly one year since I first mentioned the golf course project at Jeziorki, but it looks like something's stirring. A significant area of land between Mysiadło and the scrapyard by Biedronka has been fenced off. In the far distance, that corrugated-iron shed - will it serve as the clubhouse?

Follow that row of fence posts above right to the very end, and you'll get to the tracks. You can see how close the golfers will be to the trains. Below: a Newag-refurbished ST48 hauls a coal train from Okęcie sidings to Konstancin-Jeziorna sidings, en route for Siekierki power station. The coal comes from Bogdanka colliery in Lubelskie. Interestingly (or not) the refurbed ST48s can pull a full 40-wagon train unaided, while the original engines needed to be doubled up, sometimes even assisted by a third engine, to haul the same load.

Two screenshots from Google Earth, one from 2002 (below left) and one from 2014 (below right). The first shows the old rampa na kruszywa, demolished in 2008 to make way for housing. The area shaded green shows the approximate boundaries of the golf course. Much smaller than I'd originally envisaged, probably just enough area for a driving range and a pitch-and-putt.

Now it's fenced off, my unfettered rambling over these post-industrial hectares are over; detours will be needed for walks in the direction of Nowa Iwiczna.

This time last year:
The Nearness of Golf to Warsaw

[See Part Two here]

This time three years ago:
The selective economic memory of Prezes Kaczyński

This time four years ago:
The British electrical plug and socket reigns supreme

This time five years ago: This time last year:
Easter, and the end of Lent

This time six years ago:
That Icelandic volcano (anyone remember what it was called?)

This time seven years ago:
Views of Historic Toruń

This time eight years ago:
One swallow does not a summer make

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Tracks to Tarczyn

A narrow-gauge railway line used to run from Piaseczno down through Tarczyn and Grójec to Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą, a distance of over 72km. Today, the line has been cut short near Tarczyn, there's a mere 15km of track. On Sundays from March to October, tourist specials run between Piaseczno and Tarczyn. I went on one of these many years ago with Eddie when he was small, it was then - as it is today - diesel hauled. Then, the tourist line would run just short of Grójec.

During the Cold War, cisterns of aviation fuel were taken to the airbase at Nowe Miasto. There used to be a trans-shipment terminal at Piaseczno where a spur ran north off the narrow-gauge line parallel to the main Warsaw-Radom line. Standard-gauge cistern trucks were loaded onto special narrow-gauge flat-bed wagons adapted for this purpose. I managed to photograph these back in the late-1990s.

Today I ventured to the end of the line at Tarczyn by motorbike - it would be marvellous to extend it all the way, but I fear there's not the enthusiasm to do it (money's there - this is the kind of project the EU loves... tourism plus railways - ticks the boxes!).

The line heads south-west out of Piaseczno, through Gołków, Głosków and Złotokłos before terminating at a station called 'Tarczyn' but actually it's more than two and half kilometres away from the town of Tarczyn.

Below: much of the line looks like this - running through woodland with a path to one side. Somewhere between Złotokłos and Tarczyn. Every now and then, there's a culvert under the track. A plank across them allows cyclists (and light scramblers) to cross.

Below: Tarczyn narrow-gauge station. Tarczyn also has a standard-gauge railway station, a kilometre and half south of the town; like this one, it also no longer sees scheduled passenger trains calling there.

Below: bridge over which the Łuków-Skierniewice railway line crosses the narrow-gauge track. This shot is looking west in the direction of Tarczyn, through which the freight-only line passes on its way to the junction town of Skierniewice via Mszczonów.

Below: looking up at the Łuków-Skierniewice line as a train of oil cisterns heads west. I'm looking north along the narrow-gauge line. Just behind me, the narrow-gauge tracks come to an end. They've been lifted - probably by thieves after the scrap metal, as further up the rails are still there - albeit with trees growing between them.

If you are interested in having a go on the narrow-gauge train from Piaseczno to Tarczyn, check Kolejka Piaseczyńska's website. It's minimally laid out with little information, but you get the message - trains leave Piaseczno Wąskotorowa station (ul. Wojska Polskiego) at 11:00 on Sundays all spring and summer long.

Below: photo taken three years ago; Zalesie Dolne narrow-gauge station, a little over a kilometre away from the Piaseczno terminus. And in between, there's a station called Piaseczno Wiadukt, which is the interchange between the narrow-gauge line and the standard gauge station on the Warsaw to Radom line.

Interestingly, Google Earth still shows (nearly) all of the Piaseczno-Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą railway line, and with Panoramio switched on, you can see photos from 1980 as well as more current ones.

I hope the line resurrects, not just for tourism, but for commuters and freight use. Many disused railway lines in the UK are making a comeback...

This is a fascinating part of Mazowsze, full of little surprises here and there. Good Lord! A Model A Ford! This vehicle (a five-window coupe with an after-market pick-up back replacing the trunk) must have left the production line 85 years ago or so... You'll find it in the village of Łóś (pron. 'Wash'). Łoś, by the way, means, Elk. The shop is called Pod Łosiem - under the Elk.


I came back to the track on a Sunday, to catch the weekly excursion running down the line. Quarter past eleven, and here it comes! This is Gołków, west of Piaseczno. To the left runs ul. Generała Józefa Zajączka, to the right, ul. Kordiana. The track runs between the two streets.

Looking the other way, the track curves slightly south, then heads straight as a poker for 11km. In other words, for 11 out of 15 kilometres between Piaseczno and Tarczyn, there are no bends or curves.

Below: the train passes; it consists of loco, two passenger carriages and a brake van.

Below: I venture as far south as the Łuków-Skierniewice line, where I catch this 3E/1 loco (modernised ET21, itself a polonised version of the Soviet VL22 engine. In DB livery, it is hauling containers eastwards towards Góra Kalwaria.

This time last year:
Translation and cultural differences

This time three years ago:
The demand for Park + Ride keeps growing

This time four years ago:
Cycle-friendly London

This time five years ago:
The end of the Azure Week

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Wi-fi internet works on Polish train shock

I just got to do this - for the novelty! I've blogged from a bus in the UK, I've blogged from a bus in Poland, I've blogged from a train in the UK - but - for the first time ever - I'm blogging from a moving train in Poland!

PKP Intercity announced a while ago that it is introducing free wi-fi on its services. Train window would be made opaque so that carriage-length advertising could boast of this innovation. Unfortunately, neither my laptop nor my smartphone could connect to the wi-fi - both would be rejected with a message saying the signal's too weak or there are too many other users connected to the network.

The launch of the Pendolino service was a disappointment for those who consider free wi-fi to be their birthright - the public procurement process took so long that when the original tech specs (SIWZ in Polish) were published, wireless internet connection was science fiction. So the gleaming space-age high-speed trains appeared on Polish tracks without wi-fi - any attempt to drill holes in the new rolling stock would of course invalidate the maker's warranty.

But today, travelling from Warsaw to Opole and back I managed to log on. Not the most user-friendly of systems (you log on, give your mobile phone number, operator T-Mobile sends you an SMS with a four-digit password, and entering this, you're connected). A bit like the old system at Okęcie Airport before the recent remont.

Today's train to Opole and back was not the Pendolino, but an engine-hauled service called Viadrina, with a mixture of open carriages and traditional compartments. The young train staff were unfailingly polite and well-trained, the Wars buffet car which I visited on the way home had smoked salmon salad and a choice of three Żywiec beers (I had the Piwo Białe weissbier) plus a 'regional' beer which turned out to be Amber (not one I'd wish to try). Could try a bit harder in the beer department but otherwise no complaints.

For some reason this service does not go down the CMK fast trunk line from Warsaw towards Katowice, then swinging west towards Częstochowa as the Warsaw-Opole-Wrocław Pendolino service does - it takes the slower route through Skierniewice stopping at Częstochowa Główna rather than Częstochowa Stradom as the Pendolino does. As a result the journey time is nine minutes longer (going out) and 18 minutes longer (on the return leg). Which is not bad (also bearing in mind that this service stops at Lubliniec - my candidate for 'the largest Polish town you've never heard of', while the Pendolino just sails on through).

All in all, three hours and nine minutes there, three hours and 18 minutes back is not bad compared to the old times, which were around four and half hours.

Below: this TKt48 0-8-0 tank engine stands outside Opole station, rusting away under the heavens. Built 60 years ago, this class of engine (nearly 300 in total) was a Polish design and served to haul commuter services and lighter freight trains. Although 35 have been preserved, most are in lamentable condition.

This time last year:
My dream camera, just around the corner
[It's still just a pipe-dream!]

This time two year ago:
Longer, lighter lens

This time four years ago:
New engine on the coal train

This time five years ago
High time to leave the car at home

This time six years ago:
The answer to urban commuting

This time nine years ago:
Far away across the fields

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Polish India Pale Ales - the taste of now

Back in 2009, I bemoaned the state of brewing in Poland. Totally dominated by the Big Three brewers (SAB Miller, Carlsberg and Heineken), Polish breweries produced samey products aimed at a focus-group defined market of young drinkers considered to like their beer sweet, strong and cheap. There was hardly anything else around. So I did not drink Polish beer.

But then, sometime around 2012, the Craft Brewing revolution began to take root in Poland. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a new breed of brewer emerged offering uncompromising products, not brewed down to a price, nor designed to appeal to everyone and no one. I remember my first glass of Polish craft ale - King of Hop by Ale Browar. And my second - Atak Chmielu by Pinta. Tastes that haunted me overnight and left me waking up the next morning wanting more of that taste.

By last year, Warsaw was full of excellent craft-beer bars.

The craft brewers are successfully going mainstream, making the leap from small hipster bars to the hypermarkets. At first it was regional brewers whose products were starting to appear on the big retailers' shelves. Novelty terms like 'unpasteurised', 'cold-filtered' or 'regional'  began to make their way onto beer bottle labels. Wheat beers, March beers, porters - and above all India Pale Ales (IPAs). Suddenly the days when 'choice' meant Żywiec, Okocim, Lech or Tyskie were mercifully over.

With Lent out of the way for another year, and warmer days ahead, it's beer time. I visited Auchan at the weekend, just after its internal reorganisation, to find the beer shelves extended yet again, and the 'premium domestic' section bigger than ever before. And here, the choice of India Pale Ales has grown yet again.

First there was Browar Witnica's IPA. Then came Kormoran's American IPA (not shown). Now, I find a further three, from Ale Browar, Perun and Browar Konstancin. These beers retail for between 6 and 8 złotys, so similar prices to the UK for a half-litre presentation. But more than double the price of regular beers.

"Honestly, I've only had a few ales..."
My favourite of these is Rowing Jack from Ale Browar; 6.0% ABV and 70 IBU (International Bitterness Units, the measure of that hoppiness that gives IPAs that satisfying flavour). The label is up-to-the-minute (compare how dated the Konstancin IPA label on the right looks), the taste existentially satisfying. Actually all four (and indeed the Kormoran ale) do it for me. These are all excellent beers, brewed in Poland, beers that can give the best of British craft brewing a run for its money.

A big thumbs-down, however, to Lidl - it's 'surprise and delight' strategy is just not working when it comes to beers. In the  UK, Hatherwood's Green Gecko No. 2 IPA (contract-brewed by Marston's) is generally available in Lidl stores. Here in Poland, Lidl's beer section is woeful - more like a museum of Polish beer-retailing from circa 2007. Left behind. Lidl's Argus own-brand beers in Poland come from south of the border the Czech Republic, though I suspect Poles are drinking what Lidl believes they like, namely the sweet, strong, cheap brews that the Big Three make here. I recently bought an Argus Porter (8% ABV); it was so sickly-sweet that only my penny-pinching miserliness prevented me from tipping the contents down the sink. Imagine a super-strong version of Mackeson's Milk Stout... Lidl might do well at selling reasonable red wines at an amazingly low price (I commend its South African Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon for example), but the beer selection is dire.

If you want choice in beer, Auchan's the supermarket to visit. If you want an even greater choice in beer, there are more and more specialist beer (and cider) shops opening up across Warsaw, including two on Ursynów's Al. KEN.

This time last year:
Lublin - pearl of Poland's East

This time three years ago:
70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

This time four years ago:
Tarkovsky's Stalker: a zone of my own

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's big billboards

This time seven years ago:
Pace of development falters

This time nine years ago:
Unusual formation of mammatus clouds over Jeziorki

Saturday, 16 April 2016

How To Spend It - or not.

On my return home from London on Thursday, I found in my mailbox a magazine sent to me by the publishers of The Economist. Called 1843 and subtitled The Economist Unwinds, it is a (dread word) lifestyle magazine. Named after the year The Economist was first published, the new title is a re-branding of Intelligent Life, which I'd pick up from time to time. Not enough compelling material to make it something I'd regularly buy.

Like the legendary monthly supplement to the Financial Times, honestly-titled How To Spend It, the Economist Group's new title is chock-full of adverts for Swiss watches that cost more than cars and private banking services offered by offshore banks. How To Spend It often becomes a parody of itself, whilst 1843 is not (for me anyway) as good a title as Intelligent Life. Perhaps that title put off the vacuous rich.

For the record, if you work in the marketing departments of Patek Phillipe, Ulysse Nardin, Vacheron Constantin, Pictet Private Banking or UBS - I am not in the least bit interested in your products or services. Not now, not ever. Thumbing through this magazine, I realise that as a person, I am borderline-ascetic. The trappings of wealth give me no pleasure in themselves. A comfortable, spacious house on the semi-rural fringes of a European capital city meets all my worldly needs.

Cars? No thanks. Two wheels good, four wheels bad. Watches? I have one, it tells the time, I like its neat 1960s Danish design - no need for anything else. Clothes? A lot of what I wear comes from the charity shops of Pitshanger Lane. Nice stuff, top brands - a tenth of retail price and the money goes to do good. Bottles of wine that normally cost $1,000 bought for a mere $500? Lidl's Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon for 14zł is fine, thanks. Marks and Sparks for shirts and undies, Vistula suits, Loakes shoes, Levis jeans and outerwear by the finest men's outdoor tailors in the world - the US Army.

So - to answer a question posed by an article in the current issue of 1843 - why do I work? I am no longer motivated by material need. I go to work every weekday (and often take work home at the weekend) because I like my work, I like the people I work with, and believe strongly that it helps. The money's a nice reward, but not the prime motivator that it once was.

What else would I buy if I could? A plot of land further along down ul. Trombity, ideally backing on the lake. And there I'd build a neo-modern dream home - a contemporary take on mid-century modern American or Scandinavian designs - window from floor to ceiling, flat roof (local planners permitting) and a huge garden going down to the water's edge. That's about it.

Travel? Before I set off for anywhere else in the world, I've got to get to know Poland inside out and back to front. Back-roads, rural Poland. The excellent website lists 15 (well 16 actually) of Poland's Most Beautiful Churches. I've seen just five of them - and - to my surprise - NINE of them I'd never even heard of before! [How have you scored on the Polish churches?]

Poland is so stuffed with pearls of natural and man-made beauty that I feel I must see more of the country before travelling further afield. And on the other hand, Britain (which I know much better) also has treasures that I must visit. Depth not breadth!

And no need to show off. The notion of doing a job I don't like to buy things I don't need to impress people I can't stand is anathema to me.

This time last year:
Blossomtime sublime

This time four years ago:
Novotel Forum clad in Orange

This time five years ago:

This time six years ago:
Icelandic volcano shuts down NW Europe air traffic

This time eight years ago:
Large, charismatic fowl

This time nine years ago:
Antonov An-26 in the twilight of its career

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Cultural differences UK-Poland: Power distance

Whenever you sit down to do a serious analysis of cultural differences between two countries, you invariably come across the postać* of Geert Hofstede, anthropologist. His Cultural Dimensions Theory may be almost half a century old, but it's still the best set of tools to measure those "have you noticed that Poles tend to _____, while Brits are more likely to _____?" differences empirically.

If, dear reader, his name's new to you, and you have an interest in the cultural differences between the UK and Poland (or any other pair of nations), have a read about him and his works, do.

Essentially, Prof Hofstede defines six axes along which these differences can be plotted:
  • individualism-collectivism
  • uncertainty avoidance
  • power distance (strength of social hierarchy) 
  • masculinity-femininity (task orientation versus person-orientation)
  • long-term vs short-term orientation
  • self-indulgence vs self-restraint
I'd like to focus on power distance, which can be boiled down to the steepness of the hierarchical pyramid. A short power-distance culture is one in which the boss is democratic, has an open office door (or even works in the same open-space as everyone else), and takes decisions based on consensus. A long power-distance culture is one in which the boss is autocratic, remote, the trappings of power are made obvious, and the boss's decisions are not up for discussion.

Reading the above paragraph, you can immediately tell that the UK has a shorter power-distance than Poland - and Prof Hofstede's Power Distance Index shows this to be the case. On a scale of 1-120, where 1 = totally democratic and 120 = totally autocratic, the UK scores 35, Poland 68. Bear in mind that the research was carried out decades ago. My guess is that both countries have moved in the direction of a shorter power distance, with Poland maybe moving faster than the UK, but the UK still having a significantly shorter power distance than Poland.

Differences in power distance between the UK and Poland (and within Poland) can be seen by the use of the form 'Pan/Pani' to address one's boss. In the UK, it's first-name terms from the outset, and so it has been, generally, since the 1970s. Finding a Polish-owned company (even in the UK) in which an employee can address their boss in first-name terms, is rare.

The notion of an autocratic, paternalistic boss or ruler, accepted by those of lower status, is in Western European terms, rather pre-Enlightenment. The French Revolution and the American War of Independence, were about saying 'no' to an autocrat's divine right to rule.

In the context of the rise of civilisation, the emotionally-intelligent, aware leader is conscious of the sources of their leadership attributes (innate intelligence, good education, determination, physical mien) and does not feel a need to lord it over their subjects or employees. In return, the subjects or employees feel they can participate in decision-making, and have a greater sense of ownership and engagement in their society or company.

High power distance, therefore, is less civilised than low power distance. We humans, like all animals, naturally seek a place in a hierarchy. The higher the better. The notion that 'I'm it, you're shit' is something that civilisation has sought to temper. Through good manners, politeness, respect for others regardless of their natural place in the hierarchy. And yes, political correctness. Democratic societies tend to laugh at pompous buffoons. The success of Britain's best TV comedy shows - from Dads Army to The Office - is based on this.

The shorter the power distance, the more it behoves those in power to be understood by those over whom them have authority. A high power-distance leader can waffle on in a boring drone, his subjects noting his every word (and making the effort to understand what is being told to them). A low-power distance leader works on that speech to make sure that everyone gets the message, couched in plain, clear language. Tax offices too - compare the UK's tax return form with the Polish one. The former - a model of clarity (with a Diamond Mark from the Plain English Campaign). The Polish one - well, you need to hire an advisor to tell you what the tax office requires of you.

But what can we see today? People are confused, anxious, lost. Globalisation has created winners and losers. Consensus and democracy has failed the Western world. Elites are plotting to keep the little man in his place. And so the little man seeks someone strong, someone who can take the tough decisions to make the world a less uncertain place. Someone like Trump or Putin.

The less plugged in to the complex operations of government and business people are, the less they know about what is actually going on, the more likely they are to believe conspiracy theories and seek a strong 'cut through the bullshit' person who will make their world clearer.

It is a fallacy. It was proved a fallacy in the rubble of German cities in 1945.

Voting for an autocrat is a dangerous short-term fix.

* Postać. Figure? Character? Personage? Naah! Postać in this context is a word missing from English. I suggest it becomes a loan-word. Pronounce it POST-atch. With a short 'o' like in 'box'.

This time two years ago:
Wes Anderson's Grand Hotel Budapest

This time four years ago:
Painting the Forum Orange

This time seven years ago:
That's what I like about the North

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Speeches for Leaders by Charles Crawford

After Thursday's seminar, the book. Speeches for Leaders - Leave Audiences Wanting More, by Charles Crawford. A book of brilliant clarity, which draws you in and leaves you more able and more skilled when you finish it. (Of course, it helps to have had the seminar first!)

On the face of it, this is yet another 'how-to' guide. How to do public speaking better. We live, we learn, we improve.

Yet it's is far more than that.

Written by a former diplomat with the hands-on experience of being at the high table as the Big Speeches were being prepared and delivered, it's also an insider's view of how leaders project power, soft power and real power. Or - if they get it wrong - their weakness.

Ultimately, this is a book about how we humans, in our biologically-ordained hierarchical structures, have evolved to use persuasion to gain power; the subtle persuasion of words, tone, mood, stories - to get others to do what we want them to do.

It's a book that portrays story-telling as the greatest art form; it's this art that's used by our leaders to shape the destiny of human affairs.

The practical nuts-and-bolts stuff is crucial, and each point is illustrated by examples from recent history of leaders doing it right (Obama - "Yes we can") and doing it wrong (Obama on the reset with Russia or David Milliband on British-Polish historical links.)

The do-nots: Don't use words like 'must' and 'need' and 'should' ("The world must take action to end..." "Europe needs to promote... "We should all..." especially if you yourself are not able to make that happen. It makes you look weak. Former Labour leader Ed Milliband did this on Twitter in the run-up to last May's General Election. Helped lose it for him. Don't whinge. It makes you look like a loser. And don't mix metaphors. "... the EU... a powerful conglomerate of various vectors and ambitions framed around a lowest common denominator, grand enough to allow it to write scenarios for others worldwide."

Vladimir Putin's technique is scrutinised and not found wanting. Using a mix of shockingly brutal language, conciliatory noises aimed at the West and coded warnings to his neighbours, Putin is an expert at sending different messages to different audiences at the same time. His speeches project strength and threat - but the latter only to those who are aware.

Speeches for Leaders is up-to-the minute. Public speaking today, to a roomful of people each with a video cameras in their phone, all Tweeting away, becomes all the more risky should things go wrong - yet all the more powerful should you succeed. More practical tips: don't forget to strip out the Properties of an MS Word document before sending it to the media, or journalists will figure out who wrote the first draft and, from Track Changes, which bits of the speech were dropped. And why. The book also explains how to use PowerPoint effectively. Use only a handful of words on a slide. Don't use bullet points or fancy effects. Use punchy photos - without words - across the entire slide. PowerPoint should be an aid to your speech, not an all-encompassing document - or worse - a crutch.

Here's the book's unique selling point. On the one hand, you are learning a craft - something that will help you in your professional (and indeed personal) life. On the other, you are taken soaring into the world of international diplomacy, high politics that have life-changing consequences for citizens globally.

Speeches for Leaders has the makings of a best-seller. If it goes into a second edition - a tip from me (and others who bought the book on Thursday): Change the typeface!

If you regularly find yourself speaking to groups of people - BUY. THIS. BOOK.

This time last year:
In Memoriam

This time three years ago:
Warszawa 1935: 3D film reconstructs lost city

This time four years ago:
Cats and awareness

This time six years ago:
Why did this happen?

This time seven years ago:
Britain's grey squirrels turning red

Thursday, 7 April 2016

In which I learn to speak

I've always fancied myself to be a good public speaker. As someone who regularly addresses audiences I'm not fazed by the thought of speaking to a few score people (or more if on radio or TV). But there's always room for improvement!

The opportunity came today when Charles Crawford, Her Majesty's Ambassador to Poland from 2003-07 and communication and public speaking expert, led a training seminar in Warsaw. As part of the preparation for the event, I was asked to prepare a 550-word, five-minute speech, which would serve as a case study for analysis.

So last night - and this morning - I sat down for a total of four hours to prepare and polish a speech about a subject close to my heart. The way Poland's poor university education is holding back the economy by stifling innovation. Having delivered two short speeches on this subject last year (to Polish entrepreneurs in London and to fellow Warwick University alumni in Warsaw), and blogged about it here, I'd rehearsed the argument well, and knew what I wanted to say.

Too well. I put down my thoughts into a Word document... and found it came to well over 1,000 words. Twice as long as it should be. Cut the jokes, cut anything slightly off-topic. Cut, cut, cut and cut again. Read aloud. Trim. Does that sound natural? Edit. Trim again. Finally, I got it down to 583 words. Not another word could I chop. It read well - as an article.

Charles took a look at my wypociny. "Too long. Trim it right back to the main points, just enough to help you remember the thread of the argument." This I did. But having done so, I no longer had three pages of flowing prose double-spaced in 15pt Times New Roman - I had nothing but a disjointed collection of nouns and figures. The stuff connecting them I had to make up on the hoof.

Delivering the speech, I did not feel comfortable. I was neither reading verbatim from a prepared text, nor was I extemporising around a set of hastily scribbled notes (as is my usual habit). I was also conscious of the race against time. Because I was filling in around the main points, the output was a hybrid of the structured and unstructured; key facts and figures surrounded by a stream-of-consciousness conversational style.

It went well enough, but by no means was it outstanding. If you think you're good, you're comparing yourself with the wrong people. Too often I hear "Panie Michale, pana była najlepsze prezentacja" simply because the others were soporific - lawyers reading dense slabs of text from a PowerPoint slide, or else people with an all-too-visible dread of public speaking. "How good do you want to get?" asked Charles of today's trainees. "Good enough for Davos?"

What's the secret? To convey wisdom, not facts. People want insight, not statistics. I could have started more strongly - either with a memorable anecdote, or a startling comparison. I could have ended with a searching question. More pauses were needed - my fellow trainees said they had difficulty in digesting what I'd said, because I was in a hurry to beat the five-minute deadline.

Charles' main message - It's not about what you say, it's about what they want to hear. It's about the core message - stripped down to the most essential - plus Structure, Signposts and Stories.

Is there anything in your speech that the audience will remember in five years' time? "Reorder your material for punch, to bring it to life. It must be strong and bright and create the right mood." You can structure the speech in different ways - by time, by questions, by contrasts, by key words, he said.

Signposting the speech is important too. Signal the turning points, the critical moments. Stress words like 'but', 'however' - and don't be afraid of silence. Silence is powerful. It allows your message to sink in, while you have time to frame your next sentence.

Stories are great ingredients for speeches. You know them, your audience doesn't, which gives you the opportunity to deliver them spontaneously, note-free.

Charles also declared war on waffle, on unintelligible words, on jargon. ('Pursuant' is one I particularly dislike.) "Use words that you use in natural speech, as though you were speaking to your aunt." He also suggested - and what an excellent idea - to dictate your speech into a smartphone with speech recognition software rather than typing it. That way, your speech sounds like a speech - and not like an article or position paper.

The three hour-long seminar was peppered with many insider stories from the world of diplomacy, lots of video clips of disasters and triumphs, and invaluable case studies of what to do - and what to avoid. Practical tips aplenty. Know in advance where you'll be speaking, what the podium is like, try out the sound system and IT beforehand to check it all works as it should - and above all, who your audience is, and what it expects. This is far more than common sense - this is experience from the very highest level, and it went down well with the trainees.

Charles' book, Speeches for Leaders - Leave Audiences Wanting More, sold out this afternoon, but can be ordered online [link is near top of the page]. Strongly recommended - will be posting review of the book here before too long.

On Saturday, I will be in Lublin, once again addressing the congress of Polish translators, so no doubt much of what I've learned today will come in valuable - skills to be passed on.

This time three years ago:
Sunshine and snow, Łazienki Park

This time four years ago:
Shopping habits in the wake of Lidl's opening

This time five years ago:
In vino veritas

This time six years ago:
Are we getting more intelligent?

This time seven years ago:
Lenten recipe No. 6

This time eight years ago:
Coal trains, Konstancin-Jeziorna

This time nine years ago:
Jeziorki from the air

Tuesday, 5 April 2016


Here we are, early April - and lookie here, it's 24C this afternoon in Warsaw! Magnificent! By the time I'd walked the 2,000 paces or so to the office from a press conference on ul. Miodowa, my back was wet from sweat under my rucksack - and I'm wearing a shirt and lightweight suit - certainly no coat. But I could see who left home early this morning (not me!) - by the evening rush hour, many Varsovians could be seen clutching coats and jackets under their arms. Mid-twenties way too hot for coats. Amazing to thing that this time last year (see link) it was actually snowing!

Below: chart from the Physics Institute at the Warsaw Technical University for the past week. Not how on Saturday morning (02/04), the temperature just before dawn was 2C, with a 'feel-like' (odczuwalna - the light-blue line) of near-zero. This morning it was 10C at dawn.

And the clocks going forward give that yearned for extra hour of daylight in the evenings. At long last, spring has burst forth. Warmth and light. An entire city rejoices.

But traditions die hard - back in Jeziorki, I witnessed two grandparents with their five year-old charge wearing a knitted woollen hat. "Wracaj, bo ci komary pogryzą!" There must have been a handful of insects in the air, certainly not the biting type - culex pipiens. Let's hope it will not a summer for them, may the dragonflies reappear in profusion and eat the little devils.

It's now approaching 11pm, and according to the Institute, it's currently 17.8C outside. Balmy!

And a Very Happy 93rd Birthday to my father, in excellent form - walking 5,000 paces from home to Greenford. Sto lat! A sunny day in London too - but a mere 14C!

This time last year:
Snowy Easter Sunday

This time two years ago:
Happy 91st to my father!

This time three years ago:
My father at 90

This time six years ago:
An independent Scotland - what if?

This time five years ago:
Królikarnia - Warsaw's 'rabbit house'

This time eight years ago:
My father at 85

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Qualia - the consciousness of experience

Give an everyday phenomenon a posh name and a bit of scientific explanation, and it takes on a new intellectual respectability. Philosophers and cognitive scientists have devised the notion of qualia to describe the feelings and sensations that we experience. The Wikipedia essay linked above makes a good starting point from which to embark on an exploration of the way science defines the way our conscious selves experience feelings.

Now - from the theoretical to the reality. Today was a beautiful blue-sky day, the temperature reaching 17C in the afternoon. Out walking around the manor, the feeling of the south wind on my face, warmed by the sun, brought about a Most agreeable sense of well-being, augmented by bird-song. I knew that the birds were enjoying the sunshine as much as me.

Our senses pick up heat, light, smells, sounds, tastes - but what are the emotions that synthesise in our consciousness as we do so? Are they unique to us as individuals? Do we sense things differently - differently from other people - more acutely, because we are able to describe the experience better? Or do we all experience them in a similar way? People who are better able to describe what it is that ails them to their doctor tend to get better medical attention. Yet this could be down to the fact that they are more intelligent, have a larger vocabulary, and hence can communicate better what they feel - rather than actually feeling it any more intensely than others.

Imagination is another factor. During my Lenten abstinence from alcohol, I was able to imagine, with ease, the sensation of sipping an Islay single-malt whisky. The characteristic, peaty aroma, the taste of the fiery spirit on the lips, tongue and palate; the feeling of swallowing it, its effect when reaching the bloodstream, the first experience of mild intoxication.

Do we experience the same thing the same way? All else being equal - emotional states, health, comfort - would several people watching the sun set over the the Gulf of Mexico from the beach at Key Largo, Florida, be aware of the same feelings?

We may not be conscious of it, but many of us go on holiday in search of qualia. Be it a luxury cruise in the Caribbean, the thrill of downhill skiing in the Swiss Alps, visiting the Sistine Chapel, holidaymakers are searching for a specific experience - even if it's only flopping out on a beach towel on an all-inclusive holiday in the sun.

And when the holiday is over - what's left are memories. How deep those memories are encoded in our individual consciousnesses? Don't know - difficult to judge one person's experience against another. Here, I allow the train of thought to conjure up holidays - azure skies over the Algarve, the sound of a distant moped at dawn in rural France, pine-scented paths in the Polish mountains, the damp of a misty morning on the Lleyn peninsula...

And then those unbidden flashbacks. Qualia from the past recreated perfectly for a split second to pass away leaving an agreeable aftertaste in the consciousness. They happen often throughout my day. I ponder upon them. These are the truest indicators of what it is like to be me, unique, personal, moments imbued with a sense of total me-ness.

I initially started blogging (nine years ago now!) with the intent of setting down markers in the online world to which I can return, to savour atmospheres of times past. And this I shall continue to do, with the intent of trying to get a better understanding of what it is to live, and to experience life.

This time last year:
Analysing the success of Lidl

This time two years ago:
Should schools be teaching language - or Languages?

This time three years ago:
More moaning about Karczunkowska's pavement deficit

This time four years ago:
Architectural detail from Edinburgh

This time five years ago:
Spring explodes in Jeziorki
(+18C! Today it's around zero and snowing!)

This time six years ago:
Along the way for Warsaw's southern bypass

This time seven years ago:
Quintessential Warsaw vista

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki on Google Earth

This time nine years ago:
Okęcie airport, our near neighbour

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Goats and hares, Jeziorki

An unusual sight befell me on ul. Kórnicka today - a pair of goats, grazing free! Below: a female goat looks up at me from across the road. Looks a bit like a horned giant sloth trapped in a Pleistocene tar pit.

Below: a second female goat, nibbling on the grass of the old football pitch. It would be nice to think that locally-produced mature goat's-milk cheese would available around these parts in a year's time.

Strange-looking beast, the goat. Those rectangular pupils - I can't make out what it's thinking.

Below: Jeziorki, as contemplated by a goat. Feline - cat. Canine - dog. Equine - horse. Bovine - cow. But goat? Caprine or hircine.

Below: between ul. Baletowa and Kórnicka, a pair of hares square off. On the left, an older male, sure of himself; to the right a younger male, holding his ground but ready to flee. The face-off continued for a couple of minutes until I took a step towards them. Each turned 180 degrees and fled in the opposite direction.

Hares are most noticeable at this time of year. They are timid creatures and keep at a distance from humans. Ah - and the adjective? Leporine. Which Google unhelpfully underlines with a red squiggle.

This time last year:
On Gratitude, and loving life

This time four years ago:
Edinburgh views

This time five years ago:
Halfway through Lent

This time seven years ago:
Swans on ul. Trombity

This time eight years ago:
Papal anniversary, Warsaw

This time nine years ago:
Sowing oats, Jeziorki

Friday, 1 April 2016

Białystok - quicker to get to, still dull

Białystok railway station, October 2008, below.

Early February 2015, below.

And here we are again, below, today... note new train standing at platform 3, a PESA Dart.

Here's the Dart in close-up... Bydgoszcz-built, lovely design, very comfortable. With the railway line reopened after extensive, EU-financed modernisation work, journey times from Warsaw are now shorter (2hrs 23mins, down from 2hrs 46 mins).

But Białystok still offends the eye. Too little beauty, too much ugliness - the all-pervasive advertising is particularly annoying, plastered on every facade. And too much 1990s architecture. Shabby.

My least-favourite Polish city, below Radom even. But then I do tend to visit during the dull times of year. It could do with better town planning and architectural supervision.

Full posts from Dullsville, 2015 here, and 2008 here.

This time three years ago:
UK's first town where Poles are a majority

This time four years ago:
Lost legend of rock'n'roll: Johnny Kołyma

This time five years ago:
Stalin's plans to escalate nuclear Armageddon

This time six years ago:
Warsaw's favourite weekend destination

This time seven years ago:
We are two

This time eight years ago:
Crushed velvet dusk in my City of Dreams

This time nine years ago:
My very first Jeziorki blog post