Saturday, 30 July 2016

My father's return to Warsaw after 40 years

Among Europe's capitals, few have seen such dramatic change as Warsaw over the past few decades. My father - who was born and raised in Warsaw and fought in the Uprising - has not been back since the Gierek era.  This morning, at 1am [LOT flight from Heathrow delayed four hours] he arrived back in Warsaw for a week's visit, coinciding with the 72nd anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.

Ten hours later, we're at Park Wolności by the Warsaw Uprising Museum to attend the first of several state occasions commemorating the anniversary. Below: with my father is Kazimierz Możdzonek (left), who fought in the same AK (Home Army) unit - II Batalion Szturmowy Odwet.

President Andrzej Duda (below, centre) greeted the insurgents and made an impassioned speech, stressing the fact that Poland's independence and place on the map of Europe has been gained by Poles willing to fight foreign oppressors over the centuries. Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who's office organised the event, pointed out that had it not been for the Uprising, Poland would have ended up in 1945 as the 17th republic of the USSR.

Below: after the ceremony and lunch, courtesy of the city of Warsaw, Mr Możdzonek took my father for a guided tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The two veterans were feted by visitors - from around the world - wanting to shake their hands and take photos with them. They are indeed living history. A lady from Japan, a gentleman from India, students from America, families from Poland. [Incidentally, if you've not been, go - it's a world-class museum. Must see.]

Next up was a return to my father's Ochota - Filtry - ul. Filtrowa - the place where he grew up. Below: on ul. Wawelska, we visited a monument to commemorate Batalion Odwet (pron. ODvet = 'revenge'). It was around here that at 17:00 - 'W'-Hour - that units of the battalion gathered to start the uprising, which as speakers earlier today had said, was an act of stored-up vengeance against the murderous oppression the Nazis had visited upon Warsaw in five years of occupation.

We moved on to Plac Narutowicza, next to the house in which my father grew up. Vintage trams are running to the tram loop for the Uprising weekend (below). We also visited the neo-Romanesque church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Kościół Niepokalanego Poczęcia Najświętszej Maryi Panny) where  my father and his family would worship before the war. The stained glass windows on the northern side of the church tell the story of the Polish exile via France, the USSR and Britain during WW2; battle honours from the Battle of Britain to Monte Cassino and the Atlantic Convoys being listed.

We visited my cousin, who lives in the same block of flats as my father did before the war on Ul. Filtrowa 68. This is the same building from which General Antoni Chruściel 'Monter' issued the order to begin the Warsaw Uprising on 1 August 1944.

Below: my father demonstrates how as a boy he'd slide down the bannisters of this very staircase.

Below: three brothers - my father (left, born 1923); his younger brother Jożek (born 1925, who died in the Uprising, fighting with Batalion Miotła), and their elder brother Zdzich (born 1921, who died in 1973).

More coverage from my father's historic visit to Warsaw over the next week.

This time last year:
What's worse - unemployment, or a badly-paid job?

This time two years ago:
A return to Liverpool

This time four years ago:
Too good to last (anyone remember OLT Express airline?)

This time five years ago:
Poland's Baltic coast as a holiday destination

This time seven years ago:
The Warsaw they fought and died for?

This time nine years ago:
Floods, rainbows and hope

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Theresa May flies into Warsaw

While David Cameron flew into Warsaw during the last week of his premiership in a large Airbus A330 Voyager, new British prime minister Theresa May visited Bratislava and then Warsaw in a more modest aircraft, the BAe 146-100 CC.2 Statesman, operated by No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron RAF. I watched in fly in from our garden.

In an era of increasingly homogenised aircraft (two engines, one under each low-mounted wing and a conventional tail), the sight of a plane with shoulder-mounted wings with two engines under each, and a T-tail is rare. A configuration which the modest BAe 146 shares with the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and the Boeing C-17 Globemaster as well as the Ilyushin Il-76 'Candid'.

These planes in military guise have been fitted with anti-missile protection equipment, for use in Afghanistan, although the livery reflects that of a civilian airliner. The logo on the tail had me puzzled - shamrock? 100th anniversary of the Easter Uprising in Ireland, the post-horn reflecting somehow the strategic importance of Dublin's general post office in the fighting? But no - this January marked the 100th anniversary of the formation of No. 32 Squadron, as was then, the Royal Flying Corps. The shamrock-and-horn device is the squadron's logo.

Welcome to Warsaw, Mrs May - I hope talks with the Polish premier go well and both parties can claim success. Difficult topics, relating to trade and free movement. But with good will on both sides, I trust common sense will prevail.

[One year on - things look bleaker. On both sides.]

This time last year:
Announcing the start of the Radom railway line modernisation (not even half completed today!)

This three years ago:
In praise of the (Polish-built) Fiat 500 

This time four years ago:
Llanbedrog Beach and a farewell to North Wales

This time five years ago:
To the Polish seaside, by night train

This time six years ago:
Accounting for the past - 20 years on from PRL's fall

This time seven years ago:
An introduction to fine British cheefef

This time nine years ago:
Over the Peaks by bus

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

"Others" vs "Our others"

Two littles scenes from today... I'm passing a small Vietnamese clothing store in a Warsaw underground passage. It's a hot day, and sitting on a stool outside is a man, looking slightly older than myself, with two grandchildren of around three-four years of age clambering all over him. He is laughing and speaking to them in Vietnamese. A touching sight, nothing unusual to me, brought up in London, a melting pot of cultures and nationalities.

And ever was it thus. As I mentioned before, one third of my primary school class in the mid-1960s West London were migrants or children of migrants. There was never any issue made of this - that's just the way it was. Children from the Caribbean, from India, via East Africa, from Pakistan; there were children whose parents like mine had come originally from the wrong side of what was then the Iron Curtain. And all got on fine, with a school assembly every day singing Christian hymns and praying to a Christian God under a portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Once a year there was something called Commonwealth Day - formerly Empire Day - when children would march around the playground with flags of different royal dominions. I carried the Canadian flag, as I have an aunt in Canada. One year it was red with a Union Jack in the corner, the next it was red-white-red with a red maple leaf in the middle.

I consider this to be important. With many migrants coming to Britain, all were accepted - but there was one overarching culture that all implicitly belonged to.

This came to me yesterday when I read (online) a fascinating PhD thesis The Making of Polish London through Everyday Life, 1956-1976, by Paweł Chojnacki (University College London, 2005). Extremely well researched from primary sources and interviews with many of the key personalities who helped shape the Polish communities across London, most of whom are now sadly dead, this is a must-read if you're interested in the subject. I found myself having to read it all in one go, I knew so many of the people mentioned - either in person, or their children - my generation.

The Making of Polish London stresses a point made in B.E. Andre's excellent novel With Blood and Scars - that during the week we were British, but at the weekend, we became Poles again. Dr Chojnacki mentions the 'holy trinity' of the Polish upbringing in postwar Britain - Polish Saturday school, Polish scouts/guides/cubs, and the Polish church. He writes about how during the week, my parents' generation got on with their careers, worked hard, saved, bought houses, cars and TVs - but come the weekend, they'd be ferrying their children to Saturday school, scouts and of course Mass. And they'd revert to calling each other by their pre-war titles or their military ranks, and talk about the old country.

My brother and I would talk to one another in English (once he'd started going to primary school), much like the Vietnamese children across the way talk in Polish to one another. This should be the normal in any migrants' adaptation to a new country. Easy assimilation, neither going to the extreme of abandoning one's roots, nor living in a closed-off ghetto, is the answer - a balance, a middle way.

I loved that LBC phone-in last week when a caller got the better of Nigel Farage, first getting him onside about how uncomfortable it is being in a railway compartment in your own country surrounded by foreigners who only talk foreign. “I don’t see how you can integrate if you don’t speak the language of the country,” said the caller, to which Mr Farage responded: “I couldn’t agree with you more … I think the language is absolutely fundamental.” And then the caller walloped him. "So how come, after 20 years of living in Belgium, France and Germany, you can't speak French or Flemish or German?"

I divide Brits who live and work in Poland into those who've made efforts to learn Polish and those that haven't. Two years ago, I was at the 20th anniversary celebrations of a large UK business. The first speaker was the original CEO, who's lived in Warsaw since the early 1990s. He started off by saying "Dobry wieczór. And that's all the Polish I've learned in 20 years here." I could hear a distinct low booing from the otherwise well-natured crowd. I could not imagine a Pole, who'd settled in the UK after the war and reaching a similar social position in the mid-1960s, admitting that he knew no English.

But then there's nationality, culture and race. If you're not talking, the Pole in the street will not pick you out as a Brit, an American, a Ukrainian or a Belarusian. Different if you're an Arab, a Turk, Indian or African.

Earlier today, I popped into Biedronka (anchovy fillets 3.99 złotys for 50g tin, and a stunning Primitivo wine for 14.99 złotys). As I waited at the check-out, I was aware of a group of swarthy, dark-skinned men approaching from behind. I turned - indeed - it was Pan Heniek, Pan Ziutek and young Sebek - having finished working on the railway line and the viaduct that will go over it, they were shopping for their (liquid) supper. So suntanned they were that at first I subconsciously took them for Arabs or Turks.

Cities - in particular capital cities and larger metropolitan centres - tend to attract migrants much faster than small towns. A coloured face does not raise as much curiosity - or indeed animosity - on the streets of Warsaw as it would on the streets of Warka. The less used you are to the phenomenon of migration, the more scared you are of it. As last week's Economist pointed out, the parts of England that voted most heavily for Brexit were not those areas with the highest numbers of migrants (such as London or Leicester) but those areas with the highest rate of influx. A change over 12 years from 0% migrants in your town to 5% is more shocking than a change from 35% to 40%.

Change and fear of the unknown brings about fearful, aggressive and irrational behaviour among voters. Today's obscene murder of a priest in France brings the number of people killed by Islamic terrorists over the past 12 months in that country to 234, in two major and three smaller attacks.

Compare that figure to the 3,268 people that over the course of 2015 were killed on French roads. That's fourteen times more. Yet road safety is not a political issue. Numbers of fatalities have been falling since 2005 (5,318), while numbers of people killed in Islamic terrorist attacks have been rising.

The murderers have been alienated young men with mental problems indoctrinated by extremists, fueled by hatred. To know that in France, home to more than 6 million Muslims, a terrorist attack could happen tomorrow or the day after, creates an atmosphere of fear.

Yet in Poland, where the number of Muslims is not the 10% of the population that it is in France, but less than 0.01%. Around 32,000 in total. Of whom a significant number are Tatars, who have been thoroughly integrated into Polish society since the 14th Century and live in north-east Poland.

Coming back to the Vietnamese family I saw today, I get the impression that in they have become an accepted part of the fabric of Warsaw society, just as the Syrians who run kebab or falafel bars are becoming, Islamophobia notwithstanding. In the city, casual racism is increasingly frowned on. "Oni są inni, ale są nasi inni." Capital city effect. London has a Muslim mayor; not an issue any longer.

This time last year:
Reducing inequality in Polish society

This time three years ago:
Llanbedrog beach

This time five years ago:
The Accursed Soldiers - a short story

This time six ago:
Driving impressions of the Toyota Yaris
[The car continues to be totally, 100% faultless six years on.]

This time eight years ago:
Poland's dry summer

This time nine years ago:
The UK's wettest summer ever

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Along the airport's eastern and southern perimeters

I set off from W-wa Okęcie station, where the footbridge has been finally been opened all the way. At last it allows pedestrian access from the platform to ul. Narkiewicza, crossing the tracks, crossing six lanes of the S79 and five lanes of ul. Wirażowa. The footbridge is over a quarter of a kilometre long. It has four wheelchair lifts, of which one (along with a set of stairs) serves a bus stop that has never been opened on Wirażowa. Anyway, at last this footbridge stretching all the way, getting to the station with dry feet from the bus the stop in a civilised way is now possible (remember this? Same place, March 2012. Polska w ruinie, panie!)

One of the collateral pieces of infrastructure built alongside the S79 expressway was the new, re-aligned ul. Wirażowa, wider and straighter. Below: the old Wirażowa still remains as an unconnected stump, used by plane spotters to park close to the end of Runway 15. Hard to imagine that just a few years ago this narrow asphalt strip let trucks and buses reach the busy Cargo Terminal.

In between the old ul. Wirażowa and the perimeter fence is an abandoned part of the airport; it's not sealed off, you can stroll right in and look round. Below: one of the old buildings. They are locked and inaccessible.

I proceed further south along ul. Wirażowa, passing a stand usually used by cargo planes. I was last here in early winter; these new viewing ports (below) had not yet been installed. They are great! Just the right size and height - and there's a rubber rest inside to lay your long lenses on. A boon to spotters, it would be good to see more along the perimeter fence.

Interestingly, when the NATO leaders were in town, the viewing ports were closed for the duration. In any case, people were not allowed nearer than five metres from the fence.Below: a shot taken through the port, an ATR 42 belonging to Czech airline CSA.

The policy of being helpful to plane spotters - of whom there are more and more - is beneficial to security, because genuine spotters will be aware of suspicious goings-on around the perimeter, and are likely to alert the authorities.

Below: I spotted this falcon perched on a lighting rig by the cargo stand. The falcons are trained to attack birds that fly across the airport, thereby constituting a bird-strike hazard. There used to be a loudspeaker at the lower end of the airport emitting distress calls of birds, but it seems no longer to be in use.

Further south along the perimeter, there are no more viewing ports. I took the photo below standing on several concrete slabs that someone had placed here for a better view - more are needed to see over the barbed wire! Just to the right of the shot (if you click to enlarge), you can see the bridge taking ul. Złote Łany over the S2.

Between the airport's southern perimeter and the S2 is a four metre-high wall serving as an sound barrier. The purpose of this is entirely questionable - is it to keep the expressway noise from the airport, or airport noise from the expressway? The wall is built of concrete rings, filled with earth that have over the few years sprouted plentiful greenery - much easier on the eye than those acoustic screens that are the norm for the rest of the S2.

Below: photo taken from Dawidy looking across towards the airport, with a LOT Embraer ERJ-170 and the bridge on ul. Złote Łany ('Golden Wheatfields Street').

This time last year:
Polska w ruinie
[starting off at the same places as this post!]

This time three years ago:
Penrhos - a bit of North Wales that's forever Poland

This time four years ago:
On motivation - and being motivated

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Thoughts - trains set in motion

An interesting examination in how trains of thought develop and unfold within the conscious mind; take one thought, let it lead to another, and another, and see what develops, taking notes all the while...

I'm having lunch in a field near Łady (pron. 'Wuddy'), looking across at the church there. I watch the planes landing behind it, and snapping the snap below, the lyrics of the Clash song, Rock the Casbah, come to my mind. 'Drop the bombs between the minarets'... Two minarets, two towers... The song's chorus - 'Shareef don't like it/Rockin' the casbah, rock the casbah'.

Shareef/sharif... It occurred to me that about an hour earlier I'd watched an Emirates plane landing at Okęcie and thought how many names for rulers there are in the Islamic world that have entered everyday usage in English - Emir, caliph, sultan, shah, sharif...

Sharif - sheriff. Is there an etymological link between the two? No. I'd checked this one before; the English word 'sheriff' comes from the contraction of 'shire reeve' - the reeve of the shire. The reeve... wasn't there one in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales?

Yes. I'd encountered Chaucer's Canterbury Tales 40 years ago, in my final year at school for English A-level (matura equivalent). It is a great work of literary, social and historical significance.

And the train of thought carries on. The reeve? the feudal lord's accountant? He was one of that host of characters who were on the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket. On the journey, they kept each other amused by telling stories.

First, in the prologue, Chaucer introduces us to the group. Fully one-third fulfilled some function or other in the Church. These included the Pardoner and the Summoner, who fulfilled functions to do with the ecclesiastical courts (the courts of the Christian Church - for this was before the Reformation). The pardoner sold pardons, the summoner summoned those who breached the law of the Church (judged in ecclesiastical courts as opposed to the law of the land).

Today ecclesiastical courts have little power other than to judge disputes within the church, but in Chaucer's Middle Ages, they were as powerful as the lay courts, and affected ordinary people in their everyday life.

[Like sharia in Islam... and then we're back with sharif. Again, no connection, for 'sharif' means 'noble', while 'sharia' has its etymology in the word for 'way' or 'path'.]

But back to my train of thought, sitting in the field, overlooking Łady.

The pre-Reformation Church was the world's first multinational service-sector business. It's product - a rather intangible one - the salvation of the eternal soul. Indulgences, penances, pardons, bought and sold. Chaucer took many swipes at the corrupt practices rampant in the Church at the time, based on the idea that one could purchase absolution from God's punishment by paying the right price to the right person. Incidentally, an 'indulgence' is odpust, a word now more associated with metallic helium balloons, cheap toys and obwarzanki sold outside churches on specific feast-days in the Church calendar.

But back in Chaucer's days, price lists showing how many years you could knock off your stay in Purgatory for a given sin were standard. You'd pay the pardoner (quaestor in Latin - from which the word in Polish for a university treasurer - kwestor) a given sum, and your sins would be forgiven.

A great business idea - it paid for the Crusades - but one which did not stand the scrutiny of Martin Luther and Protestant theology, and later the Catholic Church's Council of Trent.

Right! lunchtime over, time to get up and walk back to Jeziorki.

Glorious high summer, Jeziorki

Time to celebrate high summer in this most magical part of Warsaw, the perfect rus in urbe, just 40 minutes by public transport from the centre of the most dynamic city of Central and Eastern Europe. To get this level of rurality, you'd need to travel on beyond Nowa Iwiczna, beyond Piaseczno and Zalesie Górne - it's only around Ustanówek that you reach countryside as rural as this. And yet, here I am, within the city limits of my beloved Warsaw.

Below: six of the seven swans eggs that hatched have survived to grow into cygnets, swimming in line astern. Their mother was watching from a little way off, happy to observe them growing in self-confidence.

Below: grey heron, sitting on one of the gabions surrounding the water retention ponds at the northern end of the wetlands by ul. Kórnicka.

This will be another bumper year for fruit crops. It's already been an excellent season for cherries (both wiśnie and czereśnie - the former being the sour variety), and now the apple trees are heaving with young fruit that in three months time will be large, ripe and tasty. And remember - a week's sunshine in October has the same effect as a month of summer sun. This is a wild tree standing by the side of ul. Dumki, fruit to pick aplenty this autumn!

This time two years ago:
Rondo ONZ One at twilight - the City Sublime

This time three years ago:
Up that old, familiar mountain

This time four years ago
More from Penrhos

Friday, 22 July 2016

PiS, Brexit, Trump and cognitive bias

I have written about cognitive bias in one of my Lenten posts in relation to the search for God. Cognitive bias being the innate tendency of us humans to distort reality to fit our own personal world views.

Today I want to write about cognitive bias in politics and in respect of the outcomes of elections.

It's evident from my blog that I am a not a fan of PiS, nor am I in favour of Brexit, and I consider the possibility of Donald Trump being elected President of the United States of America as a potential disaster.

After 26 years in which the trajectory of world affairs has been heading in generally the right direction (the Middle East excluded), things have turned sour - from my perspective. Time, then, to reassess the cognitive biases that weigh down upon our judgment. My judgment - your judgment - their judgment - every voter's judgment across the democratic world.

One of the main cognitive biases is hindsight bias - 'I knew it all along.' If voters vote for this, then the outcome will be negative - so after the vote, which didn't go according to my wishes, I'm hoping things will go wrong - even to the detriment of my own wellbeing - so that I can be proved right, having invested so much emotional energy into supporting what turned out to be the losing proposition.

Do I want the British economy to fail because I said it would, if voters went against my judgment? Do I want bad things - harmful to myself and millions of others - to happen just to prove that I was right all along? The bit of me that yearns for this to happen is the nasty side of me, the reptile brain, the immature and spiteful me, the bad loser.

It is more civilised, more angelic, to accept the outcome, move on, and work hard to keep the British and the Polish economies ticking along, rather than to revel in the schadenfreude when the pound or złoty has another bad day on the currency markets or when the sovereign debt gets another downgrade.

Better it is to see such cognitive bias for what it is - a deviation from rational judgment caused by sour grapes. And to do everything to avoid one's own prophesies of doom from fulfilling themselves. Don't cry over spilt milk - get over it, get on with it.

Then there's another cognitive bias that is opposite of the above. People who voted for Brexit will tend to say - "things are getting better, just as we said they would". They will trumpet ever perceived change for the better as their personal victory, often when the change is illusory or in fact negative. This is optimism bias, or wishful thinking.

A further cognitive bias to be aware of is illusory correlation, misplaced inference: "it rained yesterday, it will rain again today." Or - more sophisticated - "after a similar spell of hot weather last year, we had storms. So we'll have them again." This can be applied to political outcomes to; comparing, for example, what happens when Theresa May settles into her job as prime minister with what happened when Margaret Thatcher took office.

Brexiteers will hold up any good economic news as proof that they were right, while Remainers will hold up any bad economic news as proof that they were right.

Where does the truth lie? Truth, that will be judged by history, decades into the future? Will Brexit ultimately be judged a triumph, another turning-point in British history, the equivalent of Margaret Thatcher facing down the trade unions and stemming Britain's decline? Or will it be seen by the end of this century as a Canute-like reflex to hold back the inexorable progress of globalisation that caused far more harm than good?

And will PiS's electoral victory last year be seen as the Polish nation turning its back on social and economic liberalism, choosing instead a robust, patriotic, traditionalist model that ultimately proved to be a geopolitical success? Or will it be seen as a one-man power-grab, the result of shrewd power-politics and effective populist rhetoric that harmed the prospects for the country's progress?

Elections and referendums - the latter in particular - are those historic moments that bring about change in direction of travel. Some are more important than others.

When looking at a country - any country - the key question is 'is it idiot-proof'. Warren Buffett once said "I buy stock in businesses that an idiot can run. Because sooner or later, one will." The same goes for countries. Some states are so fragile that the election of a dreadful populist can wreck them. Poland survived the PiS/ Samoobrona/ LPR government of 2005-07 without any major side effect (other than some residual paralysis in public procurement). America will survive Trump. But the damage caused by Brexit will be felt for decades - even though it probably won't be as severe as many have predicted.

Now that I feel like I'm sliding into wishful thinking - it's time to invoke Godwin's Law - the longer a thread (or in this case) post gets, the greater the chance of Hitler making an appearance. So. After the Nazis gained power in Germany in 1933, who would have predicted a second world war and the Holocaust would happen within a few years? What were the flaws in the arguments offered by the optimists? What were the event horizons, beyond which there was no turning back? What should we learn?

In the end, it is down to judgment. The more fine-tuned, the more subtly nuanced it is - and yet expressed in terms everyone can understand - the more capable the brain that issues it.

Incidentally, what is the Polish for' judgment'? Stanisławski give rozsądek, but that's not quite right - 'he has good/poor judgment' - on ma dobry/słaby rozsądek - doesn't quite fit. PWN-Oxford gives rozsądek as 'reason', 'sense', so on ma dobry/słaby rozsądek - would be 'he is reasonable/sensible' or 'unreasonable'. Given the importance of judgment in one's life - in particular in one's working life, in annual performance reviews etc, I'm surprised that modern corporate Polish has not taken on board a loan word, such as on ma dobry/słaby dżadżment.

This time three years ago:
Portmeirion, revisited, again

This time four years ago:
Beach day, Llyn Peninsula

This time five years ago:
Down with cars in city centres!

This time six years ago:
8am and 26C already

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

40 years ago, I set off on a holiday that would shape my life

On the morning of Wednesday 21 July, along with 89 other young people of Polish origin, I set off from London's Victoria Station bound for Poland. It was a holiday that was to shape my destiny and the course of my life.

Since the early 1970s, the Polish parish in Ealing, where I lived, organised summer holidays for its youth, at first setting off in coaches for places of pilgrimage in France, Spain and Morocco, such as Loretto and Montserrat.

But in 1975, a controversial decision was taken to make Poland the destination of these visits. The controversy within the Polish emigre community was whether it was right to travel to the People's Republic of Poland, dominated by the Soviet Union, and to accept the numerous compromises this would entail.

Some emigré elders - army veterans, and the scouting leaders in particular - were against. Less doctrinaire voices thought it would be good for the generation of young Poles born in Britain to see their fatherland, under the watchful eye of the parish clergy.

The coincidences needed for this to happen were impressive. Ksiądz Okoński, the priest tasked with looking after the spiritual well-being of the parish's younger souls, happened to be the brother of the personal assistant to Cardinal Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland. And Ksiądz Honkisz, the parish priest, happened to have been in the same Home Army unit during the Warsaw Uprising as Kazimierz Kąkol, at the time the Minister of Religious Affairs.

Strings were pulled and the show got off the ground. Ninety young people from the capitalist West would spend five weeks in summer being driven in two coaches all over Poland, staying mainly in seminaries, and getting to know their ojczyzna. The holidays were called Montserrat, after the Spanish monastery that the Ealing parish's youth had visited in earlier years.

There had to be a quid pro quo. Along with the visits to Gothic cathedrals, places of pilgrimage, seminaries and monasteries, there were visits to factories, there were film shows - and it was clear that the coach drivers that drove us around communist Poland worked for someone other than PKS. This was the era of propaganda sukcesu, as First Secretary Edward Gierek spent money borrowed from the West on infrastructure, industry and consumer goods. Economically, it was a flash in the pan.

But for us, blissfully unaware of the geopolitical realities of the time, it was huge fun. Yes, there was Mass every day, and the Rosary would be recited in the coaches from destination to destination, but with 45 girls and 45 boys aged between 15 and 20, and with 200 zlotys to the pound on the black market, the attractions were clear.

Below: a typical day; about one-third of the group are visible in this photograph, taken by Andrzej Poloczek. Who I strongly suspect was standing on a bench to get this shot.

We saw a vast amount of Poland over those five weeks. The trip was hugely educational. And for me, this was the first of three such trips. I returned with the group in 1977 and 1979, building up a far broader picture of Poland than many people of my parent's generation ever had.

The train from Victoria took us to Dover; we boarded a ferry that would take us to Oostende. Two Polish coaches met us there, to take us to Poland, calling at Bruges, Brussels and Cologne en route.

Looking at the itinerary for the 1976 visit - Szlakiem Wisły, it was called, we visited Gdańsk, Toruń, Płock, Warsaw, Lublin, Sandomierz, Kraków, Żywiec and Poznań and many points in between.

Crossing the Polish border from East Germany - a country with a specific atmosphere of its own - was a memorable experience for me; my first contact with Poland in ten years. I was moved by the landscape, the quiet, traffic-free rural roads, the road-signs, village names, in Polish - an emotional feeling that my English friends back home in London could not share.

First stop was Paradyż, a seminary school. We spent five nights here; for many of us this was the first taste of Poland. For me - I'd last been in Poland when I was eight. Here's a photograph from that summer 40 years ago, taken by Andrzej Poloczek, below.

Below: the road between Jordanowo and Gościkowo [2014 imagery courtesy of Google Maps], with the Paradyż seminary to the left. The trees have grown tall, obscuring the church towers, the seminary has been renovated with dormer windows in the roof, which itself has been re-tiled.

The next port of call was Gdańsk - Oliwa to be precise. I returned here in 2012 for the wedding of Rysiek and Blanka Szydło. Again, we stayed here for five nights, using the Gdańsk seminary as a base, visiting the sights of Gdańsk and the surrounding region, including the Lenin Shipyard, Malbork and Hel.

In the 19 years I've lived in Poland, I have revisited many of the places that we called in at on those summer holidays in the 1970s. There are a few that I haven't; one being Pelplin. But Malbork, Toruń, Płock that we visited on our way from Gdańsk to Warsaw I have seen. And many more, as you'll read below...

In Warsaw, we had the rare honour to visit Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński in the Primate's Palace in Warsaw, below. A figure of huge historical and religious significance in post-war Poland - we teenagers were unable to grasp the enormity, the importance of the man we met that day. Photo by Andrzej Poloczek.

While in Warsaw, we were given three days to visit family across Poland. For me, this was the first opportunity to fly. I bought a return ticket for an internal LOT flight from Warsaw to Wrocław (in an Antonov An-24), from where I took a steam train (departure about 4am, I recall) to Kłodzko, from there to Lądek Zdrój to meet Ciocia Dziunia and her family. I returned to Warsaw the next day, and feasted at the Forum Hotel (today the Novotel Centrum), outside of which I changed a one-pound note with a black-market cinkciarz and received 200 złotys for it. I proceeded to spend this on roast pheasant, armagnac sorbet, brandy and a large cigar in the Forum. Afterwards, finding I still had time and money on my hand, I changed another one-pound note, went back into the hotel restaurant and ordered the same again. Cheap holidays in other people's misery.

From Warsaw we travelled on to Lublin, calling at Kazimierz Dolny on the way. Photo below by Andrzej Poloczek from 1976. Most of the people you can see wandering around are from our group. And this is the height of the summer holidays, 10 August 1976.

Below: contemporary Kazimierz, photo taken by me over eight years ago, on the occasion of Tessa and Adam's wedding. Tłumy, panie!

We also took in Sandomierz (I'll be back again there next month), Kraków, Nowa Huta and Wieliczka, took a boat trip down the Dunajec river and made it into the mountains - Żywiec and Wisła. Visiting Auschwitz and before that Majdanek made a profound impression on me; the unbearable inhumanity of mass extermination of human beings as an industrial activity. I was physically sick.

Heading back, we visited the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa, holiest of Polish shrines. The return journey was via Piotrków Trybunalski (which I visited earlier this summer), Łódź, Łęczyca (which I passed through twice last August) and Poznań, where we spent our last night in Poland before boarding the international coaches that would take us back to Oostende and Dover.

The holiday had a profound and lasting effect on me. It shaped my love of Poland; despite the attractions of university which I was to discover weeks after my return from this holiday, I wanted to return for another such holiday, which I did, twice. Three such holidays, each one around five weeks long, each one visiting many different towns and cities and other significant places across Poland. They gave me an excellent taste of what Poland actually was - the politics notwithstanding.

The legacy of those kilometres in the coach, when we weren't reciting the Rosary, we'd be listening to music. Four LPs were played over and over on the coaches' tape decks - Desire, by Bob Dylan, including the songs Hurricane and Mozambique, Eric Clapton's 461 Ocean Boulevard, from which the song Let it Grow was the most salient number, and two albums that have truly stood the test of time - David Bowie's Station to Station and Trick of the Tail by Genesis. While the former I associate mainly with my trip to Wrocław, the latter - in particular the track Entangled - will forever be the soundtrack of that holiday. I wrote the other day about memory and qualia and how our personalities are shaped by those memories that return, triggered or unbidden. That particular summer holiday, 40 years ago, was instrumental in creating in me the desire to spend my summers in the vast, eternal, sunlit Poland, either revisiting places I'd visited on those holidays, or just discovering new ones.

Below: me, then. Not a single molecule, not a single atom, that was part of me then, is part of me now. They have all changed, four times, since 1976. But those strong memories linger, waiting to be triggered. Photo by Andrzej Poloczek.

If you took part in one of the Montserrat holidays to Poland in the 1970s, there is a series of DVDs based on the home movies shot by Ks. Okoński and others, put together by Marcin Hauke in Ealing back in 2009. Worth getting hold of. Drop me an email and I'll put you in touch.

Researching this piece online, I came across this doctoral thesis about the history of the Polish parish in Ealing, 1950-2000, written by Katarzyna Fuksa. It appears in different guises online, so google her name and 'parafia NMP Ealing'. Download the .pdf file then Ctrl+F and type in 'Montserrat'.

Thanks to Andrzej Poloczek, thanks to Rysiek Szydło for curating the photos on his website.

This time last year:
Last night's storm

This time two years ago:
Drifting south with the sun: bicycle hobo

This time four years ago:
Royal Parks in the rain

This time five years ago:
Storm clouds over Warsaw, Dolinka under water

This time six years ago:
Round-up of pics from Dobra

This time seven years ago:
Conservatism - UK or Polish style?

This time eight years ago:
Wheat and development

This time nine years ago:
A previous visit to London

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Memory, place, experience

I want to revisit a few concepts I've written about before. Namely the spirit of place, and how it affects the consciousness, and the idea of qualia - a philosophical/scientific way to describe the everyday experience of sensations that we feel.

Heading home yesterday, I walked through the Rydz-Śmigły park heading for W-wa Powiśle station. The afternoon was warm but overcast, the threat of rain in the air. As I approached the Poniatowski bridge, I had one of those intense *paff!* moments, when, in my consciousness, a quale (singular) coincided with perfect congruence... and I was able to place it immediately.

It was from exactly half a century ago; the summer of 1966, Poland - Polanica Zdrój, visiting with my family from Bystrzyca Kłodzka. Together, we visited the nearby spa town, walking along the tree-lined avenues. The same weather, the same feeling of being among the trees and seeing a grand building through them... and then a memory. I had bought for me there a cloth badge, the town's coat of arms, which prominently featured a red heart, appliqué on felt, which on return to London, my mother sewed onto my duffel bag (dark green and navy blue tartan), along with embroidered badges from German towns (I remember Cologne, with some gold in the design).

The wonder of the internet means I can immediately verify the memories. Google Maps Street View allows me to wander through Polanica Zdrój. Wikipedia shows me the Polanica Zdrój coat of arms, a heart in the bottom-right quadrant, and then I google 'Cologne sew-on patch' (indeed a shield on a red background with the word 'Köln' on a gold bar above a picture of the cathedral). Good to know the memories were accurate.

Feelings (sea wind on the face), smells - everything from manure to perfume - tastes, sounds (music in particular for me) and sights - the abstract things like straight roads through flat fields on a cloudless day that can bring back precise memories of qualia past. [Ha! I write 'precise memories', and Google helpfully underlines the word 'precise' with a green wężyk, suggesting 'precious memories'.]

Just for a moment I hold the memory and it is exactly like being there again - and then the memories evaporate. But they were real, fragile.

We remember some things and not others; people, places, fragments of conversations, sights, smells, sounds, tastes and sensations - but not all. Our memories would physically be unable to store every single memory that has accumulated since infancy. So what factors determine which qualia are stored - or is it that they all they all stored, just awaiting the trigger to release them? I would not have recalled the Cologne badge had I not recalled the Polanica Zdrój badge, a memory triggered by seeing a palace in the park, a sight I'd seen many times before - but not on a day with the right weather conditions to trigger that particular memory.

Then there are the unbidden, untriggered memory flashbacks. Memory hiccups. These are even harder to explain. Especially when qualitatively they are like ones from my life, yet evidently not from it. I've written about this phenomenon before, and it's one I'd like to learn more about, indeed, it is becoming a lifelong quest. Something that affected me as a child and as an adolescent.

Science has yet to get a full understanding of how memory works in conjunction with consciousness; there's that memory into which we reach to recall what eight times seven is or who the minister of the environment in the last government was. Memory of facts is at the core of what our brain is known to do, but perceptual memory is elusive.

What makes it all the more interesting is that over the course of nine years, we shed every single molecule in our bodies, from inside cells, from inside bones, organs - they are replaced by new ones, even as we age - and yet memory abides. The structures responsible for memory are constantly changing, shedding, replenishing - but the core of memory which makes me me and you you is retained. Those clear memories from 50 years ago survived more than five complete changes of molecules in my brain.

This time last year:
UK Number One in world Soft Power rankings
[One year on: UK slips a place, Poland up one to 23rd.]

This time four years ago:
First flight from Modlin

This time seven years ago:
Another cycle route to work

This time eight years ago:
PZL M-28 and Piaggio Avanti - Okęcie regulars

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Four stations between Jeziorki and Czachówek

Last week I visited Czachówek to see how work is progressing along the Warsaw-Radom railway line. Today and Friday I filled the gaps, to bring news from the four stations between Jeziorki and Czachówek, namely (from north to south) Nowa Iwiczna, Piaseczno, Zalesie Górne and Ustanówek.

Let's start with an update from W-wa Jeziorki, today, Sunday. A day of rest, but all along the line deadlines are chasing, and work is proceeding at full gallop. Below: I've seen this piece of kit at rest but here it is in action - the device for laying long lengths of rail onto the trackbed. Good to see full safety kit including hardhats and hi-vi vests being universally deployed.

Below: looking north towards town, the foreshortening effect of the 300mm lens makes the rails look like lengths of al dente spaghetti. Before long, the new line will be joined up all the way from beyond W-wa Dawidy to here.

On to Nowa Iwiczna. Interesting things have happened here. Before the Radom line tracks are relaid, the non-electrified coal train line to Siekierki had to be realigned to allow the Radom line to pass without having to swing around an island platform. The engineering problem was the radius of the curve on which Nowa Iwiczna station currently sits. For ten days last month, no trains carried coal to Siekierki power station as the track was lifted and relaid a few metres east of the old alignment. Below: looking south from the level crossing on ul. Krasickiego. The coal line's on the left. It used to pass down the middle of the frame, where the new 'up' platform will go.

An interesting thing about Nowa Iwiczna station now is that it is the only station between W-wa Okęcie and Czachówek Południowy (inclusive) where the old platform has survived intact. The rest have been demolished or half-demolished. Below: probably the last photo I'll take of Nowa Iwiczna station's island platform in its original state. Note that both sets of tracks and overhead power lines are still in place. Your last days to photograph it as it was.

Looking south from the platform's end towards Piaseczno, I can see more work progressing. Between Nowa Iwiczna and ul. Słoneczna, the trackbed is being prepared for the new rails (below). This stretch is several months behind the progress achieved elsewhere on the W-wa Okęcie - Czachówek section of the Warsaw-Radom line.

I walk down ul. Krótka to get to Słoneczna and then to carry on south to 'Setchno. From the level crossing, turning back to look north, I can see the new trackbed being laid  (below).

Southwards, on to Piaseczno station, passing the points where the two tracks become four. The 'down' line is being replaced all the way from W-wa Okęcie to here; from beyond here on the 'down' line remains intact while the 'up' line is being replaced. The new trackbed here is in good shape, it's been tamped down flat for some of the way. In the far distance, the new footbridge for Piaseczno station.

A few words about PKP Piaseczno, an important and busy commuter station. Piaseczno is the first major town south of Warsaw, a town of 43,000 people (of comparable size and position to Croydon). The main reason my bus journey to work takes longer than it should is because so many people from Piaseczno drive into Warsaw along ul. Puławska, eschewing public transport alternatives. The train should be the best way in from Piaseczno, but with two an hour during peak times, the Koleje Mazowieckie service is woefully inadequate. Once the Warsaw-Radom line has been modernised, with sidings for reversing trains at Piaseczno, there will be capacity to run the SKM trains (operated by Warsaw's public transport authority, ZTM). This will mean Piaseczno should be served by four trains an hour to town at peak times. BUT (and it's a big one) - merely having the rails in place does not guarantee rolling stock. SKM's bosses say there will be no new trains to Piaseczno until they get the money for new trains. Because otherwise, they'll have to divert them from elsewhere. Logical.

But for the time being? Shambles, panie. Services are scarcer - and more prone to delays - than usual. And the main entrance to the station, where the 709 bus terminates - is closed (below). Passengers are being asked to walk a detour that's well over half a kilometre (540m), accessing the platform via ul. Sienkiewicza. This is frankly insulting. Even on a Sunday, between trains, I could see several people coming down this way. It's not been sealed off - there are merely signs. Typical. They know passengers will not comply - but rather than provide convenient and safe access while work continues, they merely ban the use of this entrance. Meanwhile, at W-wa Okęcie, the footbridge awaits opening, while passengers are being asked to cross the tracks.

Below: looking south with the recently refurbished station building to the left (a fine piece of 1930s modernism) and the demolished half of the platform overlooking the naked trackbed that awaits new subgrade, ballast and rails.

Below: looking north, perhaps what will be my final glimpse of the old shelter, similar to the ones at more important stations on this line. To the right the old track, overgrown with weeds, rotting wooden sleepers.

Below: Piaseczno station from ul. Sienkiewicza, looking north-east. In the far distance, the station building. You are meant to traipse all this way to get from the far end of the platform, up ul. Dworkowa and round to the station forecourt where your bus is waiting.

Onwards, south to Zalesie Górne. Below: looking down from the viaduct that carries ul. Sienkiewicza over the line, the line curves to the right as it passes Żabieniec.

That's my Sunday ramblings over - I walked round to the front of the station to catch a 709 bus back to Jeziorki. However, on Friday I covered the next two stations en route to Czachówek on my motorbike. Around the corner from the photo above lie the old fish ponds, then there's Żabieniec, where the train doesn't stop. Below: photo taken from the level crossing at Żabieniece, looking south towards Zalesie Górne. The 'up' line has been ripped up and awaits a new trackbed.

Further south, to Zalesie Górne, the last dormitory station on the line. Many houses among the trees, large, shabby, no doubt many still belong to the old elite from the communist days and their families, when this was a posh place to live. Today, it's an awful hack to get into town from here, either by train or by car. Once the track works are completed, things will improve, but the SKM services will only go as far as Piaseczno... unless some bright spark has them extended to Czachówek.

Below: the station at Zalesie Górne has the same style shelter as at Piaseczno, like the old one at W-wa Okęcie demolished late last summer. A new platform is emerging to the left of the photo.

Below: looking north from Zalesie Górne towards Żabieniec and Piaseczno beyond. Work going on preparing the 'up' line for a new trackbed. Months behind Jeziorki, which was at this stage in January.

And onward once more, down to Ustanówek (below), the first real 'country' station on this line. Wioska. In summer months, people take the train down to their działki to repose among the trees and meadows, returning to their city flats by train with baskets full of home-grown produce. Idyllic... once the railway line is working properly.

Below: looking north, a new 'up' platform is being built. The old overhead powerline is still in place.

Below: last shot. Looking south towards Czachówek, down the hill. This is the reverse shot of the one I uploaded in my post from Czachówek last weekend.

All in all, a lot of work just to complete one line (the 'down' line from W-wa Okęcie to Piaseczno,and the whole of the 'up' line from Piaseczno to Czachówek) still to go.

Bonus photo (below): I was lucky enough to catch this coal train as it rounded the bend coming off the main line at Nowa Iwiczna. Newag-refurbished ST48-013, a single loco,, hauls what it used to take two old ST48 Tamaras to do.

This time two years ago:
A tragedy foretold