Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Adventures of a Young Pole in Exile - book review

Every now and then a book comes along which resonates with my family experience. The last such book was B.E. Andre's With Blood and Scars, about Poles living in 1960s Manchester. Now, a new book has appeared that tells in great detail the story of how Poles living in the Kresy borderlands before the war ended up in post-war Britain. Large chunks of this book are my mother's story.

Adventures of a Young Pole in Exile - Deportation, Exodus and a New Life, by Ryszard Staniaszek has much commonality with the story of many Poles washed up in the UK by the tide of war. Born the son of an osadnik - a soldier of Piłsudski's army, victorious in the 1920 war against the Bolsheviks, granted settlement land in eastern Poland, Mr Staniaszek describes in great detail how the osada (never a wieś - village) functioned. The osadnicy were given land - the Staniaszek family received 40 hectares (just under 100 acres) - but were left to fend for themselves. It was a hard life for the eight Staniaszek children, who had to walk 7km to the local secondary school.

The book contains a mass of detail of interest to historians and social scientists - first-hand memories to which the author has added a series of illustrations, drawn on an early computer graphics program. A wealth of family photos from a large family (all but one of the siblings survived the war - five are still alive today!) enrich the book and make it such a fascinating document.

The onset of WW2, the coming of the Red Army, the incorporation of north-east Poland into the Byelorussian SSR and finally the family's deportation on 10 February, 1940 (the same day as my mother's family was deported) marks the beginning of the first part of the book.

Deported to the north of Russia, the Staniaszek family's fate was similar to that of my mothers'. They were resettled to a lumber camp - lesopunkt - barracks, endless forests, long winters, bitter cold. Mr Staniaszek remembers many details, far more than my mother ever cared to discuss - the other Polish families there, the way work was organised, camp life, rations, bartering goods with locals.

This stage in the family's life came to an end with the 'amnesty' of August 1941, the result of the deal made between the Polish government-in-exile in London and Stalin, to release the hundreds of thousands of Poles taken forcibly into the Russian heartlands, and allow them to form a Polish army to fight Hitler. The author, then a teenager, made it out of the USSR with the Polish Army, and, like my mother, joined the cadet units for the older children in Palestine. The younger children, mothers and older men, were hosted in camps in Africa or India.

From Palestine to Egypt, and then - after the war had ended - to England. Here a succession of resettlement camps for Poles, followed by a succession of menial jobs, before becoming a carpenter and then builder's foreman, finally settling in Bristol and marrying.

The extended family trees at the end of the book show how the Staniaszek family prospered in post-war Britain, their numerous UK-born children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - all with that shared past in the Kresy - eastern Poland before 1939.

As a family history, the book is extremely detailed, based on notes and sketches that the young author kept; it is amazing how many family documents and photos survived the epic journey from Chylin in what was then Poland to Bristol via Kotlas, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk, Tashkent, Samarkand, Krasnovodsk, Tehran, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Beirut and Cairo.

The book was also the fortuitous result of the author having an experienced historian and author as his nephew - Richard 'Ziggy' Brzeziński (who co-translated the English-language translation of Gen. Stefan Bałuk's Byłem Cichociemnym/Silent and Unseen with me in 2009). Ziggy and his uncle spent many years working on this splendid volume. The result is something rare in Polish historiography - a first-hand account that's perfectly written in English, full of detail and documentation and insight.

For me, the description of Polish exiles' life in post-war England was fascinating. Again, much squares with my parents' own experience. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of family holidays by car to Poland during the communist days - the contrast between the lifestyle of even modestly well-off people in the West and the drab reality of life in the Polish People's Republic.

For anyone who, like myself, was born of Polish parents in the UK, this book is an absolute must-read, something to go alongside With Blood and Scars on the bookshelf as a testament of what our parents (and indeed grandparents and great-grandparents) endured before they settled in Britain.

Adventures of a Young Pole in Exile, by Ryszard Staniaszek, is published by Askon, price 130 zł.

This time last year:
Ealing in bloom

This time two years ago:
Keeping warm in January

This time three years ago:
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it (health, that is)

This time four year:
Sten guns in Knightsbridge (well, Śródmieście Południowe, actually)

This time six years ago:
To The Catch - a short story (Part II)

This time seven years ago:
Greed, fear, fight and flight - and the economy

This time eight years ago:
Is there an economic crisis going on in Poland?

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Nikon CoolPix P900 Superzoom put to the test

For aviation photography, I'm being won over by the Nikon CoolPix P900, despite its small sensor size (a mere 6.2 x 4.6 mm compared to the 24x16mm on my Nikon D3300). It can turn out spectacular images, but its real strengths are to be seen at the long end of its lens' zooming range - and on a clear day.

Below: a LOT Polish Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner climbs away from Warsaw's Okęcie airport.

The CoolPix P900's sensor is tiny (see comparison below), yet bear in mind that while the FX-format Nikon D810 gets 36 million pixels into the full-frame sensor, and the DX-format Nikon D3300 gets 24 million pixels into its APS-C sensor, the CoolPix P900 manages to pack an amazing 16 million pixels onto its miniature sensor (a format called 1/2.3).

So - test time. The view from my balcony of the printing works on ul. Karczunkowska, taken on the CoolPix P900, zoomed out to the equivalent of 260mm on a full-frame lens. Which is greater than a typical telephoto zoom that reaches 200mm. Now, look at the red area in the image below.

Below: this is that area, the fullest extent of the P900's zoom (the equivalent of 2000mm on a full-frame lens). The full image size of this file is 4608 x 3456 pixels.

Below: the same area, shot on the D3300 with 55-300mm zoom fully extended (to the equivalent of 450mm on a full-frame lens). The image is cropped to the same area as the photo above. Now instead of  4608 x 3456 pixels, the image is a mere 1320 x 986 pixels. The degradation in image quality is evident, all the more so if you click to expand.

How do the two compare in real life situations? Below: A Turkish Airlines Boeing 777 over Jeziorki, at cruising altitude, taken with the D3300 with lens at 300mm, image then cropped. You can see chromatic aberration in the form of a red fringe by the image highlights - along the fuselage and engines.

Below: the same flight, same time, same place, 24 hours later, taken with the CoolPix P900, lens zoomed out all the way. Image cropped to show plane in similar size to that in above image.

Again, the CoolPix P900 wins hands down. Both photos very lightly Photoshopped - cropped, then auto tone - nothing more.

The onward march of miniaturisation of cameras means ever-better images become within reach of the average snapper's budget - and the weight of the lens is low enough for it to be worn with camera around the neck for hours on end.

Why are professionals still sticking to FX format? The bigger the sensor, the bigger the pixels, the better the light-gathering quality of the camera. My DX-format cameras - the D3300 and CoolPix A - will both beat the CoolPix P900 in low-light situations, and in taking wide-angle rather than telephoto pictures. I must say, I would like an FX-format camera for those special occasions... The Nikon D810 will soon be superseded by a newer model, and retail prices are falling... We shall see.

In the meanwhile, I'm happy with the P900. It could do with being faster in operation and more robust in build, as well as ergonomically improved (that on/off button!), but for amazing telephoto shots - it's great value.

This time last year:
A modest proposal regarding the zloty

This time two years ago:
Warsaw Spire getting higher and higher

This time three years ago:
Plac Zbawiciela, lunchtime, winter

This time four years ago:
Is this winter's end?

This time five years ago:
The other Jeziorki station

This time seven years ago:
Launching the General's book

This time eight years ago:
A pavement for ul. Karczunkowska?
This time nine years ago:
Taking off over Okęcie

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Getting my act together. Or not.

Two years ago, around this time, I wrote a post saying how bereft of ideas I was for writing. Two years on, I feel there's plenty to write about - not least the dire geopolitical drift of our time - but I just can't get round to it; it's a time (mis)management thing.

Among my New Year's resolutions was one to increase my productivity; I've signed up with ToDoist, and find that a useful tool for writing down my 'to-do' list and striking off the things I've done and adding what needs to be done, and getting an email alert each morning, reviewing the list, adding new tasks, striking off what's been completed.

Also for the New Year, I've upped my exercising (another big thank you to my on-line fitness guru from Australia, Michał Borzyskowski). Having now logged my daily health and fitness goals for what is now the fourth year in a row, my simple goal is to beat the targets set last year, in 2015 and 2014.

I've returned from five days in London, where distances between meetings slow down productivity; it's impossible to get more than three meetings into a working day when they're scattered all over this massive metropolis from Ealing to Stepney Green, from Marylebone to the Old Street roundabout and points in between. Plus the follow-up e-mails.

I'm not a lazy person, but I'm not a fast person either. Things take time. And what worries me is that they're taking longer than they used to...

Take yesterday for example

I'd set myself a target to leave home at 9am. Not an ambitious target, given that half of Poland is already at work at 8am. I find myself waking naturally just after 8am. It's a dark time of the year, and I'm catching up after a late arrival into Warsaw on Wednesday, and our Burns Night supper on Thursday. Can I get ready in 60 minutes?


Getting ready involves the following: exercising, coffee, showering/beard trim, getting dressed, breakfast, getting packed, putting on outdoor clothing and leaving home. Should not take long - and yet doing all this took me a full two hours yesterday.

Exercises: 90 sit-ups, 20 press-ups, six chin-ups on the bar; three sets of weights exercises (15 x lateral raises with 2kg weights, 15 x arm rotations clockwise/15 x anticlockwise with 1kg weights, 15 internal rotations). This takes time, especially the recovery between each set of weights. Around 20 minutes.

Coffee is a ritual in its own right; switch on the coffee machine, let it warm up; boil some water in kettle and warm coffee cup. Pile three teaspoons of ground coffee into machine, press it down and begin, watching the hot black liquid emerging into the cup (lots of noise as steam is forced through the grounds). Drinking the coffee is not something to be hurried. So I read The Economist, which spends all week in the kitchen, getting read from cover to cover. And with the coffee, an apple juice, pressed, not-from-concentrate stuff, mixed 50/50 with mineral water. So 15 minutes, easily.

Then into the bathroom, shower, get dressed... A further 20 minutes.

Breakfast: a large bowl of porridge. Recipe: one cup of oats (organic); two cups of water. Drop of olive oil in pan, pinch of salt, bring to boil, simmer for eight minutes, stirring. When nearly ready, add a splash of soya milk and stir in two heaped tablespoonfuls of ground walnuts. Serve with fresh fruit. Preparation and eating time: 25 minutes.

Getting all my stuff ready for the day in rucksack, devices, cables, food, clean shoes, getting dressed for the winter outdoors: 10 minutes.

Tot that up, an hour and half. So why did it take me a full two hours to get ready and leave the house? General bumbling around from one activity to the next. Not rushing, taking it easy. Rush is bad. Things get overlooked, blood pressure and heart rate rise. Take it easy. Do it slowly, but do it.

One thing - do not waste time on the smartphone or laptop before leaving home. It's a real time killer. There are just four things to check: calendar - to what meetings are arranged, ToDoist, to see what tasks need to be done today (Eisenhower Matrix - focus on the Important and the Urgent), check the weather to see how to dress for outdoors, and check bus/train times for delays etc. Unless I'm planning to work from home, I wait until I'm in the bus before opening my overnight emails or checking the news on Twitter. Seamless mobile internet means public transport is the better option for productivity than the car or bicycle.

Wake up earlier? At this time of year - difficult. I'm a firm believer in sleeping naturally, untroubled by the alarm clock. Yes, there are days when you have to make an early start - a 03:45 alarm to leave home for a six am flight or train, or when that 9am office meeting just cannot be avoided. In summer, I sleep less, waking up with the day. In winter, those early starts are, I think, unnatural and unhealthy. Go to sleep earlier? But then that would cut out creative time in the evening.

A worry. Am I simply getting slower as I get older? I must say, I do feel a vague, nagging dissatisfaction with my ability to get things done effectively. Should I worry? Feel guilty?

There are many things to juggle. Health is the priority, then comes creativity. But what's the point of a long, healthy life if I'm not creating, doing, working?

Time to get moving on.

This time last year:
The Polish Individualist

This time three years ago:
The Holocaust and the banality of evil

This time four years ago:
Snow scene into the sun

This time five years ago:
More winter gorgeousness

This time six years ago:
New winter wear - my M65 Parka

This time seven years ago:
Winter and broken-down trains

This time eight years ago:
General Mud claims ul. Poloneza

This time nine years ago:
Just when I thought winter was over...

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The magic of a dawn flight

A strange flight this morning, racing the sun from Warsaw to London. I took the 6am WizzAir to Luton, which parted company with the runway at 06:11 in darkness. After an hour-long doze I woke to see a slither or orange on an otherwise dark horizon when looking as far back behind the plane as I could. By the time the plane landed at 07:19, the bright orange slither had grown, but there was still no sun to be seen in the sky. The dawn had been approaching, but at a far slower pace than what an observer on the ground would perceive.

My plane took off 1hr 21 mins before the sun rose over Warsaw, and landed 37 mins before the sun rose over Luton - despite being airborne for 2hrs 8mins. The earth spins at 360 degrees every 24 hours, or 15 degrees per hour. Warsaw to London Luton is around 20 degrees, which my plane covered in a little over two hours, or about 10 degrees per hour.

Flying west slows down the rising and setting of the sun; flying east accelerates it. In midwinter, the early-afternoon flight from Luton to Warsaw takes off in broad daylight, dusk falls quickly, and by the time the plane lands, it's been dark in Warsaw for over two hours.

Disembarking from the plane this morning at Luton, I crossed the tarmac to reach the Arrivals terminal, and found lots of passengers turned around, looking at the sky and photographing it with their phones. Why? This...

On the morning after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the USA, what can such a sign... mean? Compass and set-square... a Masonic plot... Helping others? Couldn't hurt.

A beautiful day in London; clear sky from dawn to dusk, for the third day in a row, and with more to come. Good thing that I came with my Nikon CoolPix P900 - it's definitely a clear-weather camera; when the sky's clear it is at its best. So - some aviation shots, capturing the sublime aesthetic of travelling in the stratosphere.

Below: a Canadian Boeing 787 Dreamliner flies over Pitshanger Park, Ealing, minutes after taking off to the east from Heathrow Airport.

Eight miles high - at cruising altitude, on its way to North America from continental Europe. Below: a Lufthansa Airbus A380

Below: heading east - a Cargolux Boeing 747-400ERF overflies North London

Below: An Airbus A340 in Star Alliance livery heads west.

Below: A KLM Boeing 777 in Sky Team colours over North London.

Below: different camera/lens, different spot: Turkish Airline's Boeing 777 over Jeziorki (Nikon D3300 with 55-300mm lens zoomed out (450mm equivalent).

Musical bonus: Eight Miles High, by the Byrds, recorded 51 years ago (alluding to yesterday's post). Click and enjoy.

Below: bonus photo - also taken with the P900 with lens zoomed out - portrait of a young female pheasant in my garden, this Thursday morning.

This time last year:
Warsaw as a voivodship (a good idea PiS has forgotten about)

This time four years ago:
Around town in the snow

This time five years ago:
Reference books are dead

This time six years ago:
A winter walk to work, and wet socks

Friday, 20 January 2017

1967 - the year the world started turning from black & white to colour

In the office the younger staff were ribbing Russell and me about our age - they think that as youths, we were into Glenn Miller and the Stranglers. Pause for reflection, in this the fiftieth anniversary of 1967, a year where everything changed, the harbinger of those changes - popular music.

Now, the time that had elapsed between Glenn Miller disappearing into the English Channel and the Stranglers forming was a mere 30 years; over that time popular music had witnessed the demise of big band, the birth of rock'n'roll, the Beatles, psychedelia, funk, heavy metal, disco and punk. In the 40 years since punk rock exploded on the scene, other than the emergence of hip-hop towards the end of the 1970s - nothing new really happened. Popular music today sounds derivative, stale.

Fifty years ago, Jimi Hendrix's Hey Joe was in the UK Charts, bringing in a totally new sound; a revolution rather than an evolution. Yes, rock'n'roll had happened a decade earlier, the Beatles had taken America by storm in 1964 - but here was something fresh, a sound that would usher in profound social change.

The charts were changing, fifty years ago. Acts like Val Doonican, Jim Reeves or Frank Ifield were still crooning away, but the sound of electrically amplified guitars to the fore, cranked up and distorted was starting to dominate record sales. Fifty years ago today, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Cream, the Troggs, the Kinks were all in the Top Twenty.

[Incidentally, the story of 1967 in music is nicely legendised in Richard Curtis's film, The Boat That Rocked, reviewed here.]

Changes that society is still coming to terms with today, were happening.

London was beginning to swing; the so-called 'Swinging Sixties' began in 1966 as the Mod movement morphed into something more sophisticated; a more flamboyant look, longer hair for young men, psychedelia and a Cause - the peace movement protesting against America's escalation of the Vietnam War.

I was nine, ten at the time, these events were happening on the periphery of my awareness, delivered nightly on black and white TV, 405 lines flickering; it was on the radio that the revolution would make itself noticed in suburban Hanwell. For 1967 was the year that the BBC Light Programme became BBC Radio 1, playing pop and rock, and BBC Radio 2, playing more sedate forms of popular music.

Carnaby Street fashions took a few years to reach London's outer fringes; colour television and colour photography were technological novelties for the very rich, but they now they began to feel within reach.

New opportunities were opening up, having emerged from post-war austerity, the media was brighter, with colour supplements in the Sunday papers. And cars were available in ever more garish colours, though bright orange would have to wait until the 1970s.

And London itself was looking less drab. Ten years on the from Clean Air Act, the soot and grime was being sand-blasted off the facades of buildings, revealing a younger, fresher capital beneath.

It was a year, when, as a small child, I could clearly feel that my world - as opposed to the drama seen on TV news - was improving rapidly.

The modern era was fast approaching.

Watching a TV documentary about the 1970s with Moni in England over Christmas, she remarked that the 1970s looked quite modern but with retro cars; clothes worn by young people then would not look out of place today, in the way that 1950s clothes would.

That tipping point occurred in 1967.

Watching today's grim spectacle of Trump becoming enthroned as the world's [second] most powerful man makes me realise that the Ascent of Man has been marked, and will continue to be marked, by downward slopes, regressions towards ages when baser instincts triumphed.

This time three years ago:
Rain on a freezing day (-7C)

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

This time five years ago:
Winter's slight return

This time six years ago:

This time seven years ago:
Pieniny in winter

This time eight years ago:
Wetlands in a wet winter

Monday, 16 January 2017

Wildlife newcomer to Jeziorki

Another evening in which I make the most of the frozen ponds so that I can walk home across it from W-wa Dawidy station. A splendid walk; the new snowfall, temperature around zero, no one around, the ice rock solid. I cross from the retention ponds at the north end towards the wilderness section where the reedbeds were unreclaimed to allow the wildlife to live there undisturbed.

Right in the deepest part, where no human foot ever ventures when the ponds are not solidly iced over, I hear a sound, like a large animal among the rushes. Like a swan, beating its wings vigorously - except the swans have long gone. Maybe a dog... - Too big for a dog - then suddenly it emerges from the reedbeds - a wild boar! It may be seven, maybe eight metres away, hurtling across my path into denser vegetation between the pond and ul. Trombity.

Had it rushed at me, it would have been scary, but I could see it was charging at 90 degrees to my direction of travel, so I was not afraid, more fascinated.

I stood there for a second struck by a sense of awe. Wow! Its shape... like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil, its front end big and blunt, tapering to a disproportionately small rear.

Yes, I'd heard tell... A few months ago, returning home late from a TV studio, my taxi driver told me as we approached ul. Karczunkowska that the other night, around 2am, he'd just dropped off a passenger on ul. Sarabandy, and was continuing along that street towards ul. Karczunkowska, when in the glare of his headlights he saw an entire wild boar family - a sow and several young following her - cross the street.

I told the taxi driver that this was the first time I'd heard of a local sighting of wild boar in Jeziorki, that none of my neighbours had seen them - but I believed him, the details were right, and why should he tell porky pies?

Here in Jeziorki, I've seen foxes, hares and hedgehogs - no deer, though last Saturday week I saw three crossing the tracks ahead of me in Czachówek (the north-to-east spur).

Then, like today, I was armed with a Nikon Coolpix; both the Coolpix A and the Coolpix P900 need to be switched on and they both take a while to focus (the P900 also needs to be zoomed out electronically... s-l-o-w-l-y). In both cases, the three deer and the wild boar eluded my lenses. With a digital single lens reflex camera, like my Nikon D3300, I'd just bring the camera up to my eye, direct it at the beast(s), zoom a bit and snap. Much faster response time, which makes all the difference in capturing wildlife.

I looked at the tracks on the fresh snow. Trotters. I then scouted about, Tonto-like, for more boar prints. Quite different from the tracks of hares or foxes; cloven-hooved beasts. I could see only single sets of prints - a solitary individual, probably young. Maybe one of that litter that the taxi driver had seen crossing ul. Sarabandy that spring night, but several months older.

The boar's prints ran this way and that across the ice, into the undergrowth and back out again. I could see the pads of foxes' prints and the closely-spaced paws of hares that had bounded through the snow - nothing unusual, they'd been visible in the snow for over a week - and the jackdaws and crows - the backward-pointing arrows making a wavy trail. But the boar was new. Very interesting. Must watch out for it - armed with a faster camera! Will the boar disappear after the thaw, crossing the track to roam a larger area between Jeziorki and Dawidy Bankowe? Or is this a new addition to our local fauna?

Climate change or happenstance? (przypadek - any better word here?) It's certainly a snowier winter than the past two, but nothing out of the ordinary. Wild boar are proliferating in Poland's suburbs; out of Puszcza Kampinoska, pushing around the outskirts of Warsaw, advancing on Gdynia and Poznań... As long as they are not a threat to humans (they can get aggressive when protecting their young), live and let live, I say.

This time last year:
Communicating the government's case in English

This time three years ago:
Thinking big, American style. Can Poles do it?

This time four years ago:
Inequality in an age of economic slowdown

This time five years ago:
The Palace of Culture: Tear it down?

This time seven years ago:
Conquering Warsaw's highest snow mounds

This time eight years ago:
Flashback on way to Zielona Góra

This time nine years ago:
Ursynów, winter, before sunrise

Friday, 13 January 2017

On ice

The solidly frozen pond between ul. Dumki, Trombity and Kórnicka makes for a good walk home; getting ofp the train at W-wa Dawidy, it's a pleasure to walk across the ice; it affords good and unusual views of my familiar locality.

Below: houses along ul. Dumki as seen from the pond. There was a light snowfall today, covering much of the pond, leaving patches of bare ice. Although the temperature in town was +2C, in Jeziorki it was just slightly above zero.

Below: flashback to my Wednesday evening walk across the snow, with a waxing moon shining in a cloudless sky. Picture taken my my Nikon Coolpix P900, which is much clumsier in these conditions than my standard Nikon D3300. Battery drains faster, and the autofocus is hit-or-miss in the dark.

Below: photo from yesterday evening, taken on the D3300. With ISO set at 12,800, the dark night becomes as light as day.

Below: bright lights across the pond, the backs of houses along ul. Trombity, photo taken today.

But is it safe, you are asking? Totally. Even after two days of above-zero temperatures, the ice is totally and utterly solid. Below: fresh car tyre tracks on the ice, ul. Kórnicka in the distance.

Below: off the pond on back on the asphalt of ul. Dumki, making my way homeward.

Any season of the year, Jeziorki is a splendid place to live. Ever-improving public transport links put the city centre within easy reach of this semi-rural elysium. No car required.

This time last year:
Tweeting and blogging

This time three years ago:
The sad truth about the pavement for Karczunkowska
[Since then two stretches have been paved. Rest is mud.]

This time seven years ago:
A haul of wintery wonderfulness

This time eight years ago:
Optimal way to work?

This time nine years ago:
Highest point in Jeziorki 
(photos of the Rampa before demolition)

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Skarżysko-Kamienna and Starachowice

To Starachowice to address a group of local business owners from the Special Economic Zone interested in exporting to or investing in the UK. To get there I had to wake up at 03:25, leave home at 04:07, catch a southbound Koleje Mazowieckie train to Piaseczno at 04:22. Here I waited over half an hour for the slightly late night train from Kołobrzeg to Kraków, which conveniently calls at Piaseczno and Skarżysko-Kamienna (07:34). From here I travelled onward to my destination, Starachowice, catching the 08:11 service there.

This train arrived punctually at Starachowice, where I had a second breakfast at the Bar Miś near the station (scrambled eggs and ham, small salad, brown bread, and ground coffee, all for 8zł - £1.57). A walk to the Zone, I met up with colleagues from our Kraków office for another coffee and carrot juice before the meeting.

Below: Skarżysko-Kamienna railway station. An interesting junction town with a history of manufacturing. Just before daybreak. Time for a walk around.

Below: this magnificent beast is a Pt47, a Polish-designed and -built fast passenger locomotive. This example has been preserved, and this location shows it off nicely. Note the water pipe to the left.

Below: front view of the engine, which was in mainline service into the 1980s. The semaphore looks particularly effective, and helps evoke an era in Polish railway history.

Below: rear three-quarter view showing the original tender; these were mostly replaced in the 1970s

Change of era on the rails - I board the 08:11 service to Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski, calling at Starachowice. This is a Polish-designed and -built Newag Impuls, newly in service with Przewozy Regionalne. Below: the train's seating is like that of a passenger jet. This is the age of the train.

Below: I arrive at Starachowice. I am minutes away from breakfast and a strong, black coffee.

Below: on the way back, I walk into Skarżysko-Kamienna from the hotel in which we had lunch. I'm passed by a somewhat older Przewozy Regionalne train, heading for Kiece. In the distance, a girder bridge spanning the Kamienna river.

Below: sunset at Skarżysko-Kamienna, looking over the tracks from the footbridge. Soon, I'll board a northbound train for Radom, changing there for a slow local train back to Warsaw via W-wa Jeziorki.

A long day, but a rewarding one. I just love the rhythm of the clickety-clack.

This time last year:
The world mourns the loss of David Bowie

This time three years ago:
Where's the snow?

This time five years off:
Two drink-free days a week, British MPs urge

This time six years ago:
Depopulating Polish cities?

This time seven years ago:
Powiśle on a winter's morning

This time eight years ago:
Sunny, snowy Jeziorki

This time nine years ago:
Eddie's giant soap bubble

Monday, 9 January 2017

Uneasy sunny day: Smog returns with a vengeance

View from my office on 14 November. Note the 300m-high chimney of the Kawęczyn heat plant, just over nine kilometres from my office between the twin spires of the Holy Cross church.

View on 16 December, during Warsaw's first major smog alert, when air quality was so bad the authorities offered free public transport to encourage SDOPCCs* to leave cars at home.

View today. No clouds. The chimney stack has vanished in the haze of PM10 particles, generated by the burning of household waste and poor quality coal to heat homes during the freeze.

UPDATE: WEDNESDAY 11 JANUARY 2017 - worse than 16 December but better than Monday. Kawęczyn chimney visible - just.

For the first time in Warsaw, I'm seeing people (other than cyclists mixing it with diesel-powered traffic) wearing masks. Below: Metro Wilanowska.

The same mix of factors as last month: high air pressure (1010 hPa), still air (wind speed less than 3 km/h) and cold (temperatures averaging -8C for the past five days).

It's bad - you can smell it in the air, you can smell it in your clothes when you get home. Yesterday, a charity marathon in Kielce to raise money for a sick child was cancelled because it was considered too risky to let runners exert themselves physically in such polluted conditions.

Solutions? Warsaw's 'nudge' approach to getting people out of their cars is not working. ul. Puławska was as congested today as it ever is. Time to bring in the odd/even number plate system in, as in Paris, sending out more patrols to catch householders burning crap rather than high-grade coal. And move away from coal power - whatever the miners may threaten.

The PiS government remains silent on the matter.

Below: bonus picture - ready-salted bus. The driver of this 209 has made it easier for passengers to find the door-opening buttons and enhanced 'Spot-Your-Bus-Stop' visibility. This is what Warsaw's highly salted roads do to vehicles that use them at this time of year.

*Short Distance One-Per-Car Commuters

This time last year:
Public media? State media? Party media?
[another year of not watching a single second of TVP1]

This time last year:
Beer, consumer choice and the Meaning of Life

This time three years ago:
What's Cameron got against us Poles?

The time five years ago:
Anyone still remember the Przybyl case?

This time six years ago:
Wetlands midwinter meltdown

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki rail scenes, winter

This time eight years ago:
Winter drivetime, Jeziorki

This time nine years ago:
Kraków, a bit of winter sunshine

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The winter sublime

This is the zenith of cold; my ideal Polish winter - a sharp frost (down to -17C overnight), crisp, crunchy snow underfoot and a clear blue sky.

Yesterday I too a train out to Czachówek, and walked in a wide arc from Czachówek Południowy to Ustanówek, from where I took a train back to W-wa Dawidy for a walk back home across the frozen ponds. Today I focused entirely on the ponds. And I have some great photos!

Below: setting ofp from Czachówek Południowy, following the south-to-east spur in the direction of Czachówek Wschodni station. Work on the modernisation of the Warsaw-Radom railway line is not as advanced as it is in Jeziorki; a long way to go here before 'up' and 'down' tracks are both operational.

Below: a wayside shrine on the road out of Czachówek, low sun streaming through the trees. It's late morning.

Below: the road between Bronisławów and Czarny Las, where an unofficial pedestrian path leads up the embankment and over all four railway tracks.

Below: looking south from the east-to-north spur. Sadly, no freight trains running.

Back to W-wa Dawidy, then homewards along ul. Dumki. The ice was already thick enough to walk on. A half-moon was already rising, and I caught this LOT Polish Airlines Bombardier Dash-8 coming into land against it. I have waited years for this shot.

I said the ponds had iced over, but on Friday (a public holiday in Poland) there was still a small patch of water, below. I stayed a sensible distance from the edge...

Today, after overnight temperatures that had tumbled from a mere -9C to -17C, the last bit of open water had turned to solid ice. I was wearing a pair of slip-on rubber soles with steel spikes on them, strapped onto my winter walking boots. Total non-slip confidence (I picked them up at Lidl at the end of last winter for a mere 13zł - less than three quid.)

The icy conditions meant I could conduct my annual exploration of the deepest recesses of the wetlands, where humans don't step foot. The water beneath may not be deep, but the bottom of the pond is very muddy.

A marvellous sunny afternoon. I was looking for the swans' nest, but could not find it. Round here somewhere.

Below: ul. Kórnicka, the far end, leading up to the railway tracks. The rays of the setting sun catch the tracks of hares.

The sun set today 19 minutes later than at its earliest in mid-December; the day is noticeably longer. Two contrails are visible in the dusk sky. I trace the larger (four-engined) one as it crosses Jeziorki at 11,000 metres.

With that half-moon rising, the plane passes close... before it had travelled too far, the moon had risen above the contrail and was above it before the vapour had condensed.

Bonus photo below: a pair of male pheasants compete for territory. Photo taken from my bedroom window. The one on the right, the incumbent, saw off the challenger.

This time six years ago:
Long train running

This time seven years ago:
Most Poniatowskiego

This time nine years ago:
Warsaw well prepare for winter

Friday, 6 January 2017

Seeking an aesthetic in the Grim

Some days fill one's heart with rapture; others can get you down. The built environment that surrounds us also has a major influence on how we feel. Beautiful surroundings designed by high-minded architects and urban planners, not pinching pennies but aiming to create spaces that lift the spirit. But can we enjoy the grim? Depends on the atmosphere (klimat) created...

It's a bit like major and minor keys in music - we all now that minor corresponds with 'sad' while major corresponds with 'happy' - yet we haven't got a clue why that is.

Below: Wrocław, corner of ul. Dubois and Pomorska.

Below: Warsaw, the footpath linking ul. Foksal and ul. Smolna

Below: daybreak at Jaworzyna Śląska station, after the departure of the train to Szklarska Poręba.

Below: New Year's Day, Mysiadło, just across the fields from Jeziorki.

But the sun is shining, it's time to get out and catch the Sublime Aesthetic!

This time two years ago:
UK overtakes France as the World's Fifth Biggest Economy

This time six years ago:
Ice in the Vistula

This time seven years ago:
A consolation to my British readers

This time eight years ago:
Winter in its finery

The time nine years ago:
Snow fences keep the trains running