Saturday, 28 February 2009

The Economist falls into its own trap

I'm a card-carrying Economist reader, man and boy, been reading it each week for quarter of a century now. It's generally difficult to slip a tram ticket between its views and my own opinions. One's choice of media reinforces one's political and economic outlook, which in turn reinforces one's choice of media.

Yet this week's issue has me monstrously aggrieved. The lumping together of the entire post- Soviet bloc world into one economic catastrophe likely "to break up Europe" has enormous repercussions for Poland's economy. The fundamentals here are sound, yet we are being tarred by our proximity to economies like Latvia's, Hungary's or Ukraine's.

The current issue carries a three-page article and scaremongering leader looking at what the magazine calls the 'ex-communist economies'.

The Economist ends up doing exactly what it warns against: "the lazy but easy lumping of nearly three dozen countries together," which "creates the biggest danger: contagion". In fairness it does try to spotlight the contrasts between the lame and the strong, but the balance is skewed (and that tendentious cartoon on the cover!) I wonder how many forex dealers will bother reading all five pages this weekend before going back to the dealing rooms on Monday to sell sell sell those Polish zlotys and Czech korunas along with Hungarian forints, Latvian lats and Ukrainian hryvnas.

The analysis kicks off with five paragraphs about Latvia (main locally owned bank gone bust, IMF bailout, big cuts in social spending, riots in the streets). Five paragraphs about Latvia, which the magazine admits is "an economic pipsqueak". Then a single paragraph that mentions Latvia together with Hungary (largest debt-to-GDP ratio in the region, economy set to contract by 6%) and Ukraine (chaotically run, corrupt, economy set to contract by 10%).

So six paragraphs into the story and things indeed look bad (how many forex dealers have an attention span this long?) Then a ray of optimism: "Most other countries in the region are faring much better though. Poland - by far the largest economy of the new EU members - is nowhere near collapse... big enough not depend chiefly on exports to the rest of the EU... public finances in fairly good shape... growth will be negligible, or slightly negative, but nobody is forecasting a big decline." [NBP's latest forecast is growth of 0.4% to 1.7%]

Poland, then, seems OK. Czech Republic? "...in good shape too... solid banking system... low debt." Slovakia? "in better shape still". Slovenia "rich and still growing". But this good news comes packaged in just two paragraphs (and in an upbeat piece about Estonia a page later).

The article then dedicates one single paragraph to economies further east like Moldova or Tajikistan, too poor to be affected by financial meltdown because there's precious little to melt down. As long as the horse can pull the cabbage cart to market, the economy will tick over.

So after this far-ranging over view (five paragraphs on the woes of Latvia, one on Latvia, Hungary and Ukraine, two on the stronger economies of Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and one on all points east), we get to the nub of the article. "Outsiders tend to lump the ex-communist world or eastern Europe together as though a shared history of totalitarian captivity was the main determinant of economic fortune, two decades after the evil empire collapsed... the differences between the ex-communist countries are often greater than those that distinguish them from the countries of 'old Europe'. They range from distant, dirt-poor despotic places to countries in the EU that are not just richer than some of the old ones, but have better credit ratings, sounder public finances and stronger public institutions." An essential point, but buried.

The article also mentions the foreign currency mortgage loans that look dodgy given the zloty's recent slide. Let me put this into perspective. Around 800,000 people have one (and Poland's population is 38m). I'm one of the 800,000. My mortgage is denominated in euro. OK, so the zloty's currently 4.65 to the euro. But then it's been 4.85 back in February 2004, so I'm not freaked out. Things have been worse. Besides, banks in Poland have been cautious with their lending. My mortgage payment last summer accounted for less than 6% of our monthly household income. They've risen, but are still in single figures.

Things have been worse

More worrying is this week's economics focus article Domino Theory, looking at emerging market contagion. The shrill voices of the ratings agencies (they who classed sub-prime securitised investment vehicles as AAA+) and the banks' analysts (they who provided their bosses with data that drove the banking sector over the cliff) should listened to with more than a hint of scepticism. The best way of gauging an economy's strength or weakness is to talk to scores of business people on a regular basis (as I do) and hear from them about the state of trade. Things are indeed tough, and are going to get tougher, but no one - no one - is talking about 'collapse' or 'default' or 'depression' or any of these bad, bad things that are being talked about in the context of this part of the world in London or New York.

Related post: The BBC up to exactly the same thing

This time last year:
The end of the line - coal train destination
Off my patch - a walk through Sadyba

Friday, 27 February 2009

Lenten recipe 2

Hot and spicy lentil Lenten stew

Ingredients:

Two handfuls of green lentils, two handfuls of red lentils, a clove of garlic, a smallish onion, button mushrooms, quartered artichoke hearts, one long, red chilli pepper, half a jar of anchovies (optional for those not going vegan). Pepper to taste.

Method:

Boil water in kettle, throw lentils into medium-sized pan, pour in boiled water to cover lentils, then add some more. The lentils soak up lots of water, more gets evaporated. The lentils will take 30-35 mins. In the meantime, finely chop garlic, onion and chilli pepper; add to simmering lentils.

Then add mushrooms, artichokes to add texture and taste. The anchovies are to add protein and act as a substitute for the hydrolised vegetable protein, monosodium glutamate and salt that form that devil's handiwork, the stock cube.

The above quantities are sufficient for two portions.

And in answer to a question that Googled its way to this blog, chewing gum is OK in Lent (as far as I'm concerned). The sugar free variety, in any case - good for dental hygiene.

Lenten recipe 1

Office lunch, Lent style already

Ingredients:

Three potato pancakes (placki ziemniaczane). Available at the Mini Europa round the corner from the office. Price 1.78 złotys for a tray of three.

100g jar of lumpfish caviar. Bathroom tile grout quality, the cheapest they do. Mini Europa, 14 złotys something for the jar (8 something at Auchan!)

Method:

Remove pancakes from tray, place on plate and microwave for two minutes. By now, they're piping hot. Smear lumpfish caviar thickly on each one, consume while hot. Delicious. Wash down with unpasteurised pressed apple juice. Dessert: One kiwi fruit. To be eaten at desk.

Wait a second - isn't Lent supposed to be about self-denial and ascetism? Well, it's only lumpfish caviar - not really caviar, not even cod roe. A propos of which... why is cod roe unavailable in Poland?

This time last year:
Nearly half way through Lent (!)

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Lent and recession

It's that time of year again. I've been off coffee for a couple of weeks now, but the rest I ditch for 46 days - not until Sunday, April 11th will I return to my usual diet. This year, I'm not giving up fish, as the Omega 3 oils are good for the brain. I will, however, be giving up:

Caffeine - alcohol - meat - dairy products - salt snacks - salt - chips - fast food - fizzy drinks -confectionary and cake (the last two are easy as I rarely indulge).

I shall also return to physical exercise - sits ups and press ups. I did 30 of the former (two lots of 15) and 10 of the latter (two lots of five). I'll be building up progressively over Lent.

Today at our conference in Kraków, the chief executive of Małopolska province, Marek Sowa, mentioned that today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, and that here we are in a global economic recession. It may be worth pondering on the parallels.

We're in the state we're in because of greed. As my sister-in-law says, the UK's cumulative trade deficit with China lies buried in the landfills of Britain, each one brim-full of broken plastic toys and consumer goods that people didn't really need nor were never made happy by.

Lent is a good time to reflect on our consumer attitudes, spend less, save more, think about others and our environment. And also reflect about the spritual nature of our lives.

This time last year:
Intimations of spring
Over the fence at Okęcie airport
Przednówek - a long wait for spring

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

My Nikon D80 two years on

The camera continues to behave impeccably, not a missed beat in nearly 24,000 frames (still shooting at 1,000 frames a month). The battery indicator still reads '0' (on scale 0 to 4, where 0 is factory fresh and 4 is 'replace now'). I've lost the viewfinder eyepiece, which fell off when I was cycling with the camera around my neck.

I'm still learning to use features after two years! The camera is so packed with advanced technology that the user's manual still needs to accompany me wherever I go. Every now and then I stumble upon some more useful features which I then add to my technical repertoire.

The 18-200mm lens - two issues, one fixed. I noticed a growing unwillingness of the lens to autofocus to infinity at longer focal lengths. Googling this, I found a chap on a forum who'd identified the solution. Screw the inner ring around the face of the lens back in - it has worked itself loose (there are two notches in the ring that help you do this). The second issue is the rubber grip on the zoom barrel. This had started to part company with the lens. The rubber had stretched, and was too slack to glue back in position. The only solution was to remove it altogether and replace with Royal Mail issue red elastic bands with which the streets of West London are paved. The red rubber look makes the lens look like one of Canon's deluxe lenses.

This past year I've acquired an SB600 speedlight flashgun. Looking at all the pics I've taken with it, I see one common factor - they've all been taken for work. Used together with the Nikkor 80-400mm lens, I'd say it's too weak to light distant talking heads (what I use the flash for mostly - conference shots). I should have gone for the more powerful SB800, but when I bought it I didn't yet have access to the 80-400mm lens. The SB600 is a versatile and intelligent piece of kit.

And on to the much-written about (on this blog) 80-400mm lens. It's big and magnificent and is excellent for wildlife, aviation and conference photos. Drawbacks are but three. Its autofocus is slow. I missed a shot of a hare in full pelt as it couldn't latch onto the subject fast enough. The autofocus is noisy (wzzzzZZZZZ) and it consumes much more battery power than the lighter 18-200mm zoom. Otherwise, I'd say its optics are better than the 18-200mm, less vignetting, no pincushion or barrel distortion. The lens has vibration reduction, which is absolutely necessary given its long focal length (equivalent to 600mm on a 35mm film camera).

Changing lenses is a chore when in the field (especially in sub-zero temperatures with gloved hands), and when the lens is off, dust and moisture can get onto the sensor, leaving visible marks on the photograph. A second body would be a good idea...

Since last year, Nikon has released the D90, with a 3" screen, 12.2 megapixel sensor, the ability to shoot high definition video, a device that shakes particles off the sensor, and a preview feature ('Live View') that allows you to see the image on the screen before you release the shutter, like on point-and-shoot digital compacts. Until recently, it was actually cheaper in the UK than the price I paid for the D80 (in kit with 18-135mm lens). The D90 comes in a kit with 18-105mm VR lens, less focal range, but with vibration reduction. With a weaker pound, the price has gone up, and you'll no longer be able to buy for just £620.

This time last year:
My Nikon D80 one year on

A forest


Driving down to Kraków on Tuesday morning, I stopped by a lay-by in a forest some 55km north of my destination. I was lured into the forest by the desire to capture the dream-like winter atmosphere of the scene. All was quiet and still; a few snowflakes fluttered down.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

UWAGA SOPLE!

Watch out for icicles! At this time of year, many buildings start growing icy stalactites from their gutters, which can be dangerous - in Warsaw there are several cases a year of death or serious injury when a large icicle falls on someone's head from a great height. Landlords have a duty to clear them or to rope off pavements beneath them.

The ones (above right) outside Eddie's bedroom window are not dangerous, as they'd plunge into soft snow on the garage roof .

In our family, icicles are called 'hitchoops'. When Moni was small, she was a great Thomas the Tank Engine fan. There's an episode when narrow-gauge engine Peter Sam has his funnel knocked off by a giant icicle hanging from a tunnel entrance. After the accident, the guard is holding the icicle, saying: "Here's what hit you, Peter Sam," which Moni misheard as "Here's your hitchoop, Peter Sam". For some while she thought that this is what icicles are indeed called. Below: an array of hitchoops growing from the roof of a house on Trombity with an unfinished upper floor. Once the guttering is done, such scenes will disappear.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The beauty of winter

One prays for days like this, and they happen. Clear skies, deep snow, sharp frost, sunshine. I walked from Jeziorki to Zamienie, across Dawidy Bankowe towards Łady (pron. 'Wuddy') before turning back to return a different way. Above: looking towards Dawidy Bankowe.

Above: A field of unharvested cabbage, Zamienie. The awesome flatness of Mazowsze is evident in this photo. Note too, the animal tracks in the snow (bottom left). There's plenty of frozen cabbage for the hares to nibble on. Snow cover reveals the extent of wildlife in these parts; plenty of hares and foxes (or feral dogs).

Above: Snow, grass peeping through. Tracks of fox or feral dog (unaccompanied by human footprints). This photo is worth clicking on to enlarge, then gazing deeply into the texture of the snow and meditating on it a while.

Today is photographically perfect, the polarising filter is in use to bring out the snow/sky contrast. Sadly, no frost or snow on the trees (which makes scenes like these even more achingly beautiful). A winter like this I could live with for even six months of the year; it's the grey, damp days I can't abide.

It was -8C at daybreak and still -4C when I left home, warming up to a comfortable -2C. My M-65 field jacket was ideal in such weather; keeping me warm without overheating. Above left: Beyond the trees lies Dawidy Bankowe and ul. Jana Miklaszewskiego, with its row of new houses.

Above: The return journey took me across ul. Stefana Starzyńskiego (note the fondness for people's names in Dawidy Bankowe's streets), and onto the footpath to the railway line. I'm the first human to have walked along here since the last snowfall, but there are animal tracks aplenty. The texture of snow on the ploughed earth caught my eye, the strong light allowed me to shut down the aperture for maximum depth of field. Another one to click on and contemplate.

Right: Looking back towards Dawidy Bankowe and the trail of my footprints. In a few years time, this very point will be in the middle of the S7 Warsaw- Kraków- Budapest expressway. Today, this field offers me solitude; standing here I could not see a living soul anywhere around me, only the odd car driving along ul. Baletowa in the distance. I consider the attractions of living in this part of Warsaw's outer suburbs and compare them to living a similar distance from the centre of London, and decide that this is why I'd never think about returning the UK. Weather is another factor!

Above: Back across the railway tracks, heading home. I'm in no hurry for this snow to melt, nor for warmer, wetter weather to draw in from the west. The days are getting longer (over ten and a quarter hours of daylight now), and we're a month away from equinox. Despite the gas bills, I could do with a few more weeks like this - then a sudden snap into a gloriously sunny spring.

Home again in Jeziorki. Above: the field adjacent to ul. Nawłocka.

This time last year:
Two weeks into Lent (Gosh it's not even started yet!)
Flat tyre (touch wood - none so far this year)

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

It's not rich countries that build good roads...

... It's good roads that build rich countries. JFK's adage is as true today as it's ever been. Warsaw to Bydgoszcz is the same distance as London to Manchester, a journey I'd often do in under three hours. But Warsaw-Bydgoszcz took me five hours. Average speed: 38 mph. Why so slow? Well, the first bit, from Warsaw to Płońsk, is fine. Dual carriageway. The last bit (Toruń to Bydgoszcz) is reasonable. It's the bit in the middle that's awful. This is Krajowa Dziesiątka (DK10), which was being dug up four years ago and is still being dug up. It's not as if nothing's happening - even on a snowy day like today, the gangs were out, widening, profiling, building bridges (in the UK, Health & Safety would have everyone off site in case someone slipped on a bit of ice). It's the pace of the work. It's dreadfully slow.

The worst bit is between Sierpc (unemployment: 16.5%) and Lipno (21.6%). Bad roads = bad local economies. This 36km stretch took over an hour. Main reason: contraflows. "When red light shows wait here", as the sign reads in the UK. Except here, when it turns to green, you can't go, because there's still a stream of traffic coming the other way that has blatantly ignored its light turning red and keeps going on the basis that 'what are you going to do about it".

Above: crawling along at 41 kmh (26 mph). Speed limits of 40 kmh were much in evidence on the entire stretch. Below: Yet another "when red light shows, wait here" moment approaches. (Note the misletoe on tree on the left.)

Below: One beneficiary of Poland's infrastructure works is JC Bamford, British manufacturer of construction equipment (world's no.3 in fact). Last year's sales of JCB excavators to Poland totalled over 80 million quid. Rocester's finest at work in Lipno.

My tip for anyone driving to Bydgoszcz from Warsaw: Go via Płock and Włocławek. They're not national roads, and in theory slower, but there's none of the endless roadworks. Or take the train: 3hrs 43mins (from Warszawa Centralna).

This time last year:
Snow that was doomed to melt

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Just the ticket

When Warsaw's urban transport authority raised its fares last autumn (adult single from 2.40 zlotys to 2.80), it also introduced a new 20 minute ticket. I must say, this is an excellent institution; I stock up with bundles of these for short urban hops.

The 20 minute ticket has two advantages over the standard single; the first is that you can use it for a full 20 minutes of multi-mode transport. Today, returning from a meeting, I missed the 171 which goes directly to my office, so I caught a 125 then changed to catch a 162, jumping off at the stop by my office with five minutes left on the ticket (the clock starts counting down once you've validated it on the bus). The second advantage is that I can use the ticket for short multi-zone journeys. We live two stops from the edge of the central zone, to travel into Strefa (zone) 2, a separate and expensive ticket used to be required.

May I recommend all car-bound types to buy a pocketful of these tickets (around 35p each!) and use them instead of their car for short journeys across town.

Rush hour snowstorm

It started snowing heavily in Jeziorki just as the rush hour traffic was hitting its peak. Leaving home for Platan Park this morning, I cleared the windscreen of snow, then did one side, the back, and the other side. By the time I was round the front again, the windscreen needed another clean (right).

Still, the brave Nissan Micra started without any trouble and we headed down ul. Trombity, which was completely covered in thick snow - rendering the speed bumps invisible, painful even at 20mph /30kmh.

Traffic was less dense than usual, the photo below showing not a car in sight. I guess that the far end of ul. Nawłocka must have put off a fair few drivers - it's still untarmacked.

But a little further on, I saw this amazing sight (below). Amazing, because a mere 45 minutes or so after the snow started to come down heavily, the city's snowploughs had managed to make their way to such far flung and obscure parts as ul. Trombity!

Right: Accidents will happen - don't know how, but the unfortunate driver seems to have parted company with the road along ul. Kórnicka. A few people will be very late for work.

My journey to Platan Park continues along ul. Jeziorki, which was fine, though full of slow moving traffic. Then I branched off onto the notorious ul. Poloneza. The first section, from ul. Jeziorki to ul. Ludwinowska, was reasonable, despite a few big black puddles of dense mud. But the next section...

A tale of three drivers. The Foolish driver (red car, centre), bogged down in the very centre of Poloneza (see also this post and indeed this post), has abandoned his vehicle. The Prudent driver (silver Kangoo) drove up to the edge of the bog and turned back to seek more a less viscous route to work. The Well-Prepared driver in the black 4WD (left, with snorkel exhaust), had the tyres and the traction to get through the very worst than Poloneza could offer. I took the easy double zig-zag route (Ludwinowska->Sztajerka->Hołubcowa->Krasnowolska->Taneczna->Poleczki). I faced a long traffic jam on Taneczna, but I arrived at Platan Park a mere 20 minutes late.

Just before turning into ul. Poloneza, I saw another snowplough in action. Warsaw is well able to mobilise itself against snow, unlike some other capital cities I could mention! Today's weather scarcely made the news.

I parked outside Platan Park and stepped out onto what I though was fresh powdered snow. My feet went straight through a layer of thin ice and into a deep puddle of mud, filling both shoes with icy black water.

This time last year:
The Frost Gods return
Okęcie at dusk

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Poland's most popular outergarments

A recent addition to my wardrobe, the iconic M-65 field jacket. Tracing its origins back to the the US Army's WW2 M-43 field jacket, though with velcro collar tabs and cuffs, the M-65 is, I would say, the single most worn outergarment in Poland. I counted three in the supermarket yesterday, four on trip to town last week. Plus dozens of lookalike jackets inspired by the M-65 (also with four cargo pockets, drawstring waist and hem, and epaulette straps). The M-65 is usually in olive drab, and also in a variety of camouflage patterns, black, navy or white. I've had a white one for over 20 years, though without the liner.

It's the removable quilted liner that makes this jacket ideal for the Polish winter. In the few months I've had it, I've been for many long walks in sub-zero temperatures and not felt cold, nor overheated. Widely available from army surplus shops, Domy Harcerza or Militaria.pl. I paid 169 zł for mine last October (around 40 quid).

Another US military outergarment that's less often seen in its original, but widely imitated and very popular, is the 'Jacket, Flying Man's Heavy Attached Hood N-2B'. This bomber jacket has a high waist, large 'snorkel' hood which can zip right up and keep the head snug (though lateral visibility is limited). In Poland, imitation N-2Bs tend to be worn by women, although these are smaller than the real thing (which is quite heavy).

I bought my one in December 1980, while still a student - costing the princely sum of a hundred quid. It has served me well, especially after moving to Poland, where it's ideal for driving cold cars first thing in the morning.

The N-3B parka is the coat-length version of the N-2B. Again, replicas and imitations abound; few originals to be seen (unlike the ubiquitous M-65). I guess Poland's not quite cold enough for real arctic weather gear.

UPDATE: to prove my point. I went for a late lunch at the Vietnamese place round the corner from our office. I was the only person eating, when a big guy in his mid fifties walked in... also wearing an M-65 field jacket.

New suburbs of Nowa Iwiczna

I strolled south today, to see how Nowa Iwiczna's new developments are coming on. Where once were gaps and shortcuts between houses, now the interstices have filled in. My walk home was frustrated by getting to the end of several cul de sacs that once had informal footpaths at the end of them; I had to turn around and backtrack, not something I enjoy doing. In other words, housing density is high, and there's plenty of development still taking place despite the economic slowdown. Below: How muddy would you like your street? This is the western end of ul. Przebiśniegów ('Snowdrop Street'). A quick look on Google Earth shows nothing here, yet currently there's new construction aplenty, and the trucks that will turn unasphalted roads to quagmire.

Nowa Iwiczna's southern border is demarcated by the railway line running to Siekierki power station (across the tracks is Stara Iwiczna). This unelectrified line is freight-only, which swings left away from the main Warsaw-Radom railway just beyond Nowa Iwiczna station. Below: the rear of an empty coal train running back to the sidings at Okęcie. To the right, an orchard.

Ducks in winter

I strolled down to the pond on ul. Pozytywki, which I noticed was frozen over. The 80-400mm Nikkor was with me so I could take a pop at any wildlife passing by. I was lucky to see a group of ducks circling around then landing on the pond. I also saw a hare, though it was too quick, the autofocus on the lens (sadly) too slow.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Heavy overnight snow

It started snowing in the afternoon and snowed all evening and all night. The garden looked quite magical from my bedroom, so I set up the tripod and took this long exposure shot (9 secs, above). Warsaw's light pollution is evident this far out of town.

I woke up this morning and with the camera in the same position took the same scene. It had been snowing hard all night, although the temperature was hovering around zero.

The resulting snow cover was wet and heavy. The snow had drifted down to our end of the drive and was knee-deep by the fence. Together with two of our neighbours we had the entire drive free of snow by 10 am.

This time last year:
Changing skyline, new view from my room

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Wetlands in winter

Light snowfall overnight, temperature stayed above zero. Driving to work, I stopped by the marshes at the end of our road to record the scene. Above is a panorama stitched together from two photos. Click for big picture, scroll across (can you see the join?).

In six weeks' time standing in this spot, one's ears will be assailed by the sounds of frogs and gulls, and - if one's lucky, there's a chance of spotting some hares. But now, things are quiet.

Apologies to my squeamish readers for the photo (right), but I feel I need to show nature as it is, a cycle of birth, life and death. This is, I think, the carcass of a heron, dug up by foxes from wherever it was lying and decomposing and dragged to within a few yards of the road. This must have happened a little before dawn, as there's no snow on it. If you're not squeamish - go on! Click to enlarge...

Compare to last winter in the Jeziorki wetlands.

This time last year:
A week into Lent

Double deckers getting longer

When PKP's regional arm, Koleje Mazowieckie (KM) started running the new double deckers from Radom into Warsaw (stopping at all stations) last summer, the trains had but three carriages. Now they have five. Sure sign that these new trains are popular. Whenever I've taken one into town during rush hour, it's been packed. An additional two carriages will be most welcome. Above: The 9:37 from W-wa Jeziorki into town, approaching W-wa Dawidy.

When they arrived on the scene, there was much media consternation with the fact that the new double deckers were too high to fit the local train tunnel running through the middle of Warsaw. So they could only run through the mainline tunnel that runs alongside the local one. Now, the mainline tunnel does not pass the suburban station, W-wa Śródmieście, but runs through the central station, W-wa Centralna. Nor does it stop at W-wa Ochota or W-wa Powiśle (nearest station to my office).

These trains were meant to operate as push-pull sets. When going one way, the driver's in the loco. When going the other way, the loco's in the back pushing, the driver's in the cab at the other end, operating the loco by remote control (like they do in Germany). This does not yet seem to be happening; the loco's always in front.

This time last year:
Railway miscellany

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Road to Kraków

video

To Krakow, by car, on business. Three recent return trips south along the S7 (E77) - Warsaw-Radom-Kielce-Kraków have proved to me this road's superiority to the Gierkówka (the dual carriageway built by communist leader Edward Gierek linking Warsaw to Katowice) and then the A4 motorway east to Kraków. Entering Kraks at rush hour, the jams to the centre are much shorter than those encountered coming off the A4 at Balice. And no motorway tolls.

I left home at five am, by 6:25, I'd just passed Radom, a full moon in the west, the sky just beginning to lighten, I felt that intense klimat that just had to be recorded (above).

Right: Shortly after sunrise.

I turn off the main road to get this shot.

Early morning mists were rising from the meadows, there was frost on the grass and on the trees.

Below: A little later on, the Polish road in all its winter glory.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Warsaw's unmade roads: what's to be done?

There must be hundreds of kilometres of unmade roads within Warsaw's city limits. At this time of year, they tend to become impassable as the melting snows and rainfall can turn them into quagmires, as also happens in late autumn. I'm not an advocate of asphalting them all over, the semi-rural charm disappears, apartment developers soon turn up and at rush hours the roads become rat-runs. But (here on ul. Dumki, above) this is a solution I favour. Locals dump their building rubble, broken house bricks, floor tiles, roof tiles, wall tiles, and spread them across the muddy track. Cars will break the rubble down further, the mud will ooze through, and somehow, the road becomes passable again.

This is a rare example of independent civic-minded initiative that solves two problems at once - what to do with building rubble and how to make our back roads passable. Below: How bad it can get: the infamous ul. Poloneza. I'm not even going to attempt this tomorrow morning - I shall have to make a detour down the choked up rock-solid ul. Puławska.


Right: ul. Hołubcowa, which leads from Baletowa towards Poleczki. This section, by PKP Dawidy station, runs parallel to the tracks and like much of this road, is dirt track. That's not snow you can see on the road but reflections of the blue sky in the edge-to-edge puddles that make Hołubcowa impassable to all but the hardiest off-road vehicle.

Below: Monday 7 February. Today's victim of ul. Poloneza. Just out of shot, the driver (from Kielce, by the plates) has left his vehicle in the middle of the road and is walking for assistance. Fuzzy pic taken through window; I made the journey 'feet dry' along Ludwinowska->Sztajerka->Hołubcowa (the asphalted central section)->Krasnowolska->Taneczna->Poleczki->Poloneza (Platan Park). A detour of of over 4.5km, taking an extra 10 mins. But still better than sitting on Puławska.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Work on motorway junction continues apace

Oh what a beautiful morning! After the snows of the last weeks, the first warm day of the year; by lunchtime it was +12C, hottest it's been all year. Eddie and I went for a walk towards Okęcie to see what progress had been made on the motorway junction since last week. Loads is the answer. Work was in full swing today, with diggers, tractors and dump trucks all active. Below: the company doing the clearance work is Kruszer, its yellow vehicles are all over the place. Here's an ex-Polish Army Star 66 mobile workshop, now serving as a site office.

Much of the undergrowth, shrubs, bushes and trees has been cleared along where the north-south S7 emerge from Warsaw to meet with the east-west S2 . Below: Driving from Budapest into Warsaw, you will be passing this landscape. Railway and ul. Wirażowa to your right, airport to your left.

Below: Having just left Warsaw en route to Kraków or Budapest, you will be driving through this landscape. Rails to your left. I was right last week - that particular set of views, that atmosphere, has gone for ever. The pace of change is accelerating.

But where will this road lead to? I can see this bit (the S79), being the extention of ul. Wirażowa from the airport, running under the Poleczki viaduct and on to ul. Sasanki, ready in 12 months or so. But so what - the east-west S2 motorway is running years behind. And the S7 running south from this junction and onto Lesznowola is also not likely to happen for several years yet.

The reason I foresee for delays for building the S2 and the S7 is the large number of houses and plots in the way. Some, like the one above, on ul. Poloneza, have already been abandoned. But I'm sure there will be other owners who will obstinately fight the development.

FOLLOW UP: By 14 March, the summerhouse above has gone, levelled with the ground. Not a trace to show that it once stood here.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Limbering up for Lent, again

It's that time of year again; I start thinking about what to renounce and what to start doing. The annual testing of the will. For the 18th year in a row.

On Saturday, I drank my last cup of coffee to replace it with strong black tea, which will be getting weaker as Lent approaches (Ash Wednesday, 25 February). A sudden ditching of caffeine has, in past Lents, led to some of the worst headaches I've ever experienced, so one needs to come off the stuff gradually. Kicking alcohol is easy - I just stop and that's it. Towards the end of Lent I'm looking down my nose at people who feel a need to drink; but then the health benefits of moderate intakes of red wine outweigh such self-righteousness over the scale of the whole year.

What else to give up? Stuff I like (salt, salt snacks, cheese, fried meat products, fast foods of all descriptions, jazz), stuff I could take or leave (cakes, chocolate, confectionery, biscuits, TV)... All shall be set aside for 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Hang on. 46 not 40? I don't quit Sundays. Last year I gave up fish, this year I won't. Reason: Omega 3 oils are good for the brain.

But what's the philosophy behind this annual giving stuff up? Lent, after all, lasts fully one-eighth of the year. Partly exercise of the will, partly a health kick, and partly spiritual; asceticism does bring one nearer to thoughts of what life and the universe are all about.

Giving things up, I find, is a lot easier than doing things. Daily disciplines of mind, body and spirit. The will to something must be exercised as well. More to follow on this one. Click on the 'Lent' label to see last year's effort.

This time last year:
Lent kicks off early!
New viaduct from Ursynów to the airport

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Poloneza drivetime, winter

video

A short fragment of my usual drive to work; along ul. Poloneza between ul. Jeziorki and the Metro rail spur. This short film ends where the new S2 Berlin-Moscow motorway/southern Warsaw ringroad will be built, parallel to the railway (see post below).

As you can see, road conditions are atrocious. It starts kind of OK, passing ul. Ludwinowska (where the second zone of Warsaw's taxis ends and the first begins). Then things get bad. This is where cars got bogged down in thick mud last week. Around the 1min 25 mark, it's so bad that traffic is forced to drive into the neighbouring field to get around the morass that spans the road.
Today, after overnight frosts of -4C, the mud solidified, leaving ridges and ruts. Keep your wheels on the ridges and you're OK.
UPDATE: The district of Ursynów has announced that ul. Poloneza will be modernised by... 2013. It will cost 18 million zlotys (if that sounds a lot for 2.8km, bear in mind that most of that will be spent on a viaduct over the new Warsaw Southern Bypass, the S2).
This time last year:
Aerial juxtapositions
London icon
Moans about Okęcie airport*
* Before the opening of Terminal 2, the viaduct to Ursynów and the demise of CentralWings

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Where the new motorways will meet

Fleeting glimpses, new atmospheres. New views will appear and then disappear. Here, just south of Okęcie airport, next to the Warsaw-Radom railway line, is where the S2 expressway (linking the Berlin-Warsaw stretch of the A2 with an eventual Warsaw-Moscow bit) will meet the S7 expressway (Gdańsk-Warsaw-Kraków-Budapest). Work has just got under way. Above: Looking south towards ul. Karnawał. Take a good look. You shall never see this scene again (in snow, after tree clearance, before road building).

More than 3,400 trees will have to be cut down before the nesting season starts, says Gazeta Wyborcza. As a result the landscape is changing. Along the southern stretches of ul. Wirażowa, the summerhouses, greenhouses and outhouses of the działki (garden plots) are being pulled down to make way for asphalt. Much has been abandoned long ago, but all will go, and soon as contractors assault the last vestiges of semi-rustic charm in this little corner of suburban Warsaw.

The condemned buildings face their last winter; there's a never-to-be-repeated klimat here. Below: The snow will melt, the orchards and summerhouse will go; the last game of chess has long been played out. In the distance the railway sidings at Okęcie, to the left is Runway 15/33. It never was quiet here, especially when the planes are taking off to the south. But it was green.

Below: on the corner of ul. Karnawał and ul. Złoty Róg. The trees around here have all gone, changing the look and feel of this area (52° 8'18.70"N, 20°59'20.44"E). I wonder how long before this is all asphalt and exhaust fumes. Click here for more info plus maps.


This time last year:
Intimations of spring - in London