Saturday, 27 February 2010

Kensington

London is often regarded as 'a city of many villages'; one of these is Kensington, to where our London office has recently moved. Above: click to enlarge the photo; just look at the colourful flowers in bloom outside the Churchill Arms. A sight unimaginable in wintery Warsaw!

London's real character is to be found away from the main streets with their fast food outlets and franchises that could be just anywhere in the UK. Take a turn into any side street and the urban pace of life slows down somewhat. Those double yellow lines spoil the visual ambience somewhat.

Left: High Street Kensington, lovely mid-19th C. architecture.

Below: evening, Kensington Church Street; almost every shop along this street, from Notting Hill Gate to the north to High Street Kensington to the south sells antiques or fine art.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A week into Lent

Holding up well. Caffeine withdrawal headaches very low-level this year; a few weeks back I exchanged a huge dose of caffeine administered via two heaped scoops of Lavazza Qualita Oro in a cafetiere for ever-smaller doses of instant coffee until just before Lent I was drinking essentially hot water with a light brown colour. No meat, no alcohol (the easy bits); cheese (especially Montgomery's Cheddar bought mail-order from Leopolis) I miss immensely. Plenty of fresh fruit, tomato juice (and Fortuna's excellent WW+ vegetable juices with chilli or ginseng).

Exercise - sit-ups I over did on Day One, charging into 30 in my first session, thinking it was easy, then repeating this number in the evening and the next day - disaster! My stomach muscles have only now recovered from the onslaught. I begin again tomorrow - more gently. Press-ups are better. Day One I felt my upper torso weighing down against puny biceps; I just about managed ten, this morning I did 12 no sweat.

I've been going to bed earlier too. Lots of new thoughts going through my mind, which I shall expound upon presently - consciousness and flashbacks, memory and observation - and more lucid, vivid dreams.

My first Lenten recipe: King prawns in coconut cream with rice and spinach. Method: Heat some olive oil, fry up sliced hot chilli peppers and garlic, through in shelled prawns (15-20 per portion). Add 150g coconut milk, stir thoroughly. Throw in some pre-boiled Basmati rice (Tilda the best brand), and some leaf spinach that's already been stewed for a while. Cook for 8-9 mins. Garnish with fresh corriander. Et voila!

Top: Misty winter's morning, waiting for the snow to clear the fields. The structure under the middle tree is an outdoor privy put up for the builders of the house to the right. These wooden outhouses are called 'Sławojki' in Poland, named after the pre-war prime minister who ordained that these be built in rural parts for the good of the nation's hygiene.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

A month before spring equinox - let's move the clocks forward now!

Today we enjoyed ten hours and 17 minutes of daylight. The sun rose at 20 to seven and set a minute before five. The day, two months after winter solstice, is two hours and 43 minutes longer than the shortest day. Comparable to late October, two months before winter solstice, when the clocks go back for winter.

Why not put the clocks forward next weekend (the last one of February), rather than wait until the end of March? We'd be getting an extra hour of daylight in the evening, making us all feel that spring is just around the corner. Apart from the psychological benefit, it would also save money and reduce carbon dioxide emissions as we'd be switching the lights on an hour later.

What about the mornings? Well, the sun would rise at 07:40 rather than at 06:40, which is the case in late October just before the clocks go back. Not a problem. More on the subject of energy-saving time here.

My own body clock is adjusting to the changing length of day; I'm waking up earlier and going to sleep earlier.

The above pictures were taken in our garden after a day of sunshine, a night of frost and a preceding night of rain. The snows are slowly melting, but there's a brittle crust of ice, almost thick enough to stand on, on top of the snow cover. It's still deep enough to go over the top of my snow boots. In the drifts, the snow is almost knee-deep.

The waste piles up

Because of the heavy snows, it's been over two months since my last trip to the recycling point*.

And the waste has piled up. Segregated plastics, glass (clear and coloured) and paper/cardboard. Today was a lovely blue-sky day, entirely unpredicted by the weather forecasters, so a good opportunity to load up and head off to the tip (below).

And what a mess met our eyes. The recycling point, operated by Remondis, is in Nowy Podolszyn, at the bus loop. Snow and ice have been moved aside so that the buses could get round, but it was all piled up where the recycling containers sit. So they were just placed on top of heaps consisting of icy grit (or gritty ice). The locals who'd taken the trouble to bring their litter here rather than just dump it in the forest had a hard time to get to the containers. Result - vast amounts of rubbish just left willy-nilly on the ground.

* For the record: we disposed of 252 glass bottles and jars. Nine weeks' worth!

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Progress along S2

The Big Melt started last night; it rained and it rained. Time to see what progress has been made on the stretch of the S2 Warsaw southern bypass (Południowa Obwodnica Warszawy) over the past few weeks.

Above: The last house left standing will soon be demolished. Google Earth imagery (dated July 2009) still shows some 20 houses along the stretch of the S2 between ul. Hołubcowa and Puławska. This one, just to the west of Puławska, is still inhabited. No work observable around here today, nor indeed on the eastern side of Puławska, where the used car dealership is long gone.

The only piece of plant working on the stretch between Puławska and Hołubcowa; a digger excavating foundations of the viaduct taking ul. Poloneza over the railway line leading to the Warsaw Metro and the S2 running parallel to it.

Nothing happening between Poloneza and Hołubcowa. Above: ul. Kądziołeczki as it cuts across the future path of the S2. The real action begins west of Hołubcowa (below). From the road, between the railway lines and ul. Karnawał, work is progressing in earnest. Dump trucks and cement trucks are coming and going,

The site is properly fenced off, like it would be in the UK. A health and safety culture is evident here, with notices to don safety helmets and welding goggles.

Above: piling underway south of ul. Karnawał. There will be a viaduct here taking the S2 over the Warsaw to Radom railway line, just out of shot to the right of this picture. Below: Work underway on the patch between the railway mainline (behind me) and the Metro access line (in front). The S2 will be elevated here.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Waiting for the meltdown

According to the weather forecasters, we're in for several hours of heavy rain from tomorrow night into Saturday, coupled with temperatures as high as +3C. Disaster looms! Above: Just look at all the heaps of snow in front of W-wa Powiśle station. Where will it all go?

Above: This is what was happening today; no rain, warm sun, just above zero. A foretaste of what's to come; when the metre-and-half heaps of icy snow on the side of the roads start to get washed down by the rain. Below: A storm drain in Łazienki park, about to be overwhelmed.

Below: the last sight of fresh, crisp, white snow under a blue sky this winter?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Another Lent begins

"Hey, Mr. Bartender, don't you be so slow.
I've got time for just one more round, and a six-pack to go,
Tomorrow's Ash Wednesday, I ain't gonna worry no,
So please Mr. Bartender, one six pack to go."*


Once more, I've quit alcohol, caffeine, meat, dairy products, salt, salt snacks, fast food, confectionary, chocolate and cake for 46 days and shall rejoin humanity on Easter Sunday. Time for exercising the Will, focusing on Things Spiritual, ridding my body of toxins, and forcing myself to be more creative. I start Lent with 39 inches (99cm) round my waist and an aim to cut that by two inches (5cm). The good thing is that a year ago, before Lent, I was 40.5 inches in girth, so progress is clearly there. Follow me on my journey.

*Acknowledgements to Hank Thompson

That will have been the winter that was

Above: Scene at W-wa Zachodnia ("The Clapham Junction of the East") this morning.

Above: Scene on top of the school across the road from my office today. Snow on top of roofs can be deadly.

The forecast for the end of the week is temperatures hovering around zero; the thaw is on its way. With a bit of luck, it will start in earnest the moment I'm on that London flight next Wednesday morning, and the process will have finished once I'm back in Warsaw late on Tuesday 2nd March. I shall come home to daffodils, returning migratory birds, sunshine and spring.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Beat this for a snowy winter!

A challenge for my readers: 1) Post me links to photos of winters in Warsaw between 1997/98 and today that feature more snow than in these pics, and 2) see if you can identify the cars covered by snow...

Above: Outside my office on ul. Fabryczna. Any more snow and these vehicles will disappear into the snowdrift.

Above: ul. Koźmińska. Clue for car spotters - it's an American station wagon in the foreground. Below: ul. Przemysłowa: a phalanx of cars slowly turning into a part of the urban landscape.

Warsaw's getting tired of the snow - not me! I dig the aesthetics of this wintery phenomenon. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! (despite my train home taking 1 hour and 45 minutes, a remarkable feat for a 33-minute journey).

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Snowdrift fences doing nothing

Every year with the onset of winter, the people from PKP put out the snowdrift fences along the line, to ensure that snow is not blown across the track, thus hampering rail operations. This year, for some reason, when the winter has been the harshest and longest since we arrived here, the fences sit stacked idly by the trackside.

Look closely at the photo above, and you will just be able to make out in the foreground the rails of the unelectrified coal line from Okęcie to Siekierki power station. It had been snowing all day; by the time I arrived, the snow between the tracks and the fields was knee deep.

Above: This is how it should look: picture taken two years ago - 12 February 2008, same stretch of track (same two trees on the left). Not a snowflake in sight, but the track, where it's vulnerable to drifting, has been protected by the fence, which has been properly set up.

Above: A Radom-bound Koleje Mazowieckie train heads south. The coal train track to the right is invisible - this is where the snow has drifted across the tracks.

Above: Further down, nearer W-wa Jeziorki station, and the tracks are visible, now to the right of the photo. This section of track is not so prone to snow drifting across it. Below: The TLK 11:27 Kraków Płaszów to Białystok service passes W-wa Jeziorki station; five hours after setting off, it's running bang on time. The total journey time is ten hours. Just three carriages. But that's another story...

Below: How it should look. Snowdrift fences in place alongside the track by W-wa Dawidy station. The fences are also protecting ul. Hołubcowa (the tyre tracks, centre) from snow, though they failed to keep the road passable to all but the sturdiest four-wheel drives.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Oligocene water, Jeziorki

I'm surprised that I've not written about this before. Warsaw sits on top of reserves of water trapped 200m below the ground in rocks laid down in the Oligocene period. The city has 107 of these artesian wells (click for full list of addresses and opening times). Above: here is our local one on ul. Buszycka, close to W-wa Jeziorki station.

Drawing spring water from here is free (as opposed to the shop-bought stuff that typically costs around 1 zł 50 for a litre and half bottle). You can often see people dragging large cannisters to them for a free fill-up with drinkable water.

The woda oligoceńska comes out of taps at a fierce pressure, enough to fill a five-litre container (right) in a few seconds.

Access to free spring water is a wonderful institution; while our tapwater is chlorinated and of dubious potability, the water filtered through rocks from the Oligocene 25 million years old, is made out of 13.7 billion year-old hydrogen atoms and slightly younger oxygen atoms, mixed to a precise ratio of two to one, pure and eminently drinkable.

A propos of water, an interesting article from this week's New Scientist. Why does water freeze from the top down when every other liquid freezes from the bottom up?

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Polish TV and pharmaceutical advertising

Back in Dobra, Eddie and I would do something we never do at home - watch television. In our room there was a small set that we'd switch on to catch the local news and Małopolska weather forecasts on TVP Info. While waiting for these, we'd be subjected to an hour of commercials (on the state broadcaster that also lives off licence fees). Over half the ads aired were for 'leki' clearly aimed at the Polish hypochondriac- over-the-counter (OTC) remedies that claimed to cure a wide range of ailments from mucholiopsypsypoza* to chesty coughs.

Eddie and I were in stitches at the banal, calculated, unsophisticated way the ads were made. "Serduszko puka/w rytmie cza-cza" was our favourite; a middle-aged man hears a series of knocks on the door somberly announcing various cardiologic conditions, then a smiling middle-aged woman comes dancing into his flat with a bottle of something that's meant to restore his dodgy ticker to perfect functioning without having to submit to open heart surgery.

Or the ad for Amol - a firemans' brass band na wsi; the rehersal's not going well. A woman enters the room. The mustachioed, helmeted conductor complains to her that he can't conduct properly because of the numerous illnesses plaguing individual members of the band. Each and every one of the musicians' maladies can, of course, be cured by Amol, which the lady conveniently carries in her basket. Cut to band marching along in spritely fashion to De Souza's Liberty Bell (the Monty Python theme). Apt, because the ad is an absurd comedy.

Other ads would show middle-aged women sitting around eating tons of cake and then complaining about the build-up of gas pressure within their intestines. Cut to picture of an inflated balloon, bearing with it the implication that if they let out some of this gas, their figures would shrink from Size 18 to Size 10 within seconds. This could happen if they were to take this pill or drink that syrop.

And we learnt by heart the text that the regulator insists is to be rattled off at high speed during every TV ad for an OTC remedy: Przed spożyciem zapoznaj się z treścią ulotki dołączonej do opakowania bądż skonsultuj się z lekarzem lub farmaceutą, bo każdy lek nie właściwie stosowany może zagrażać twojemu życiu lub zdrowiu (Before consumption, acquaint yourself with the contents of the leaflet appended to the packaging or consult a doctor or pharmacist, because every medicine inappropriately applied may threaten your life or health). We would hear this text recited as fast as is humanly possible** by Mr Voice-over Man at least four times in every commercial break.

I remember when the warning at the end of ads for OTC medicines was simply Przed użciem przeczytaj ulotkę (Read leaflet before taking). What was wrong with that? The regulator, in his eagerness to regulate, will take things to the level of the absurd.

* "Over three-quarters of women over 45 are unaware of the risks of mucholiopsypsypoza!"
** My thanks to Piotrek for sending me this link to a Romanian OTC ad; it appears it can be done even faster!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Confusion on the rails

Once it was all so easy. To get from anywhere to anywhere by rail in Poland, there was but one carrier - PKP. Polskie Koleje Państwowe (nicknamed Płać Konduktorowi Połowę ("Pay the Conductor Half" in the old system). Incidentally, the logic back then was as follows: It was your duty as a patriotic Pole to do your damnedest to bankrupt that communist system imposed on Poland by the Red Army. The win-win-win scenario was not to buy a ticket, but instead to offer the conductor half of the money you would have paid. This way, the state is one railfare closer to bankruptcy, the conductor (earning $20 a month) would be grateful, and you'd save money. In those days, when every second railway worker in Europe was employed on Poland's railways, PKP was a state-within-a-state, with its own police force, hospitals, holiday resorts etc. At the height of the Cold War, it was a ministry, taking orders from Moscow, its role subordinated to the exigencies of the Kremlin. (Read about the building of the Łuków to Skierniewice line - strategically vital to getting Soviet forces to the front line should the Cold War have ever turned hot.) But I digress...

These days, PKP has been dragged screaming and kicking into line with European norms, a monolith dismantled into various operating companies, awaiting privatisation. Local trains around Warsaw are now Koleje Mazowieckie, regional services are operated by local authorities, and new brand names (InterRegio, Tanie Linie Kolejowe) have appeared, offering "competition" to existing brands like InterCity. Except your average travelling public is not, as yet, quite au fait with who does what, from where to where, and for how much.

Late last year, I had a guest speaker turning up two hours late at a conference because he boarded an InterRegio train to Warsaw from Kraków rather than an InterCity one. And yesterday, in Kraków, Eddie and I made that swift and easy connection from the bus station to the railway station to discover... that the ticket office at the end of the connecting subway only sold tickets (and gave information) about InterRegio trains. So we had to march 400 metres with luggage to the main station building (now a long way from where the platforms are) to buy Intercity tickets. And march 400 metres back to Platform 5 for the Warsaw-bound train.

And InterCity... a total lottery when it comes to service. I've pointed out in past posts that power points for laptops are either available by every single second-class seat - or not at all (not even in first); or that you can get proper old-school compartments or bus-style seating in open carriages. Eddie points out that in some carriages you get a green button to press to effortlessly slide the door open; on others you have to wrestle with latches, and use vast amounts of force to get the wretched thing to let you off the train. And Wars, InterCity's crowning glory - in some trains (like our one to Kraków), elegant tables, with lamps; ceramic plates and metal cutlery; on others, paper plates, plastic cutlery (same prices!) and all the ambience of a fast food outlet in Skarżysko Kamienna (the one by the station advertising 'Hod Dogs'). Put it another way - our journey to Kraków by PKP Intercity was excellent (albeit without laptop power points in first); the journey back was by contrast disappointing. Both, however, were on time, and to the minute. Which makes a change. Indeed.

When will Poland be able to boast as many railway operators as 1940s America?
“I know you heard of the Chatanooga choo-choo,
The Rock Island, the New York Central,
The New Haven and Hartford, the Pennsylvania,
The Missouri Pacific, the Southern Pacific,
The Northern Pacific is terrific, ah, but Jack,
You’ve heard of the IC and the Santa Fe,
But you got to take a ride on the TP

(Intro to Louis Jordan's Texas and Pacific)

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Today's dose of wintery gorgeousness

Today Eddie and I made our way to the ski slope from Gruszowiec, retracing our steps from yesterday. The hoar-frost made the forest on the south of Śnieżnica astoundingly beautiful. Above: our way up in the morning, below, our way back down in the afternoon. Again, skiing meant that the pocketable Nokia N95 was the day's camera of choice. It's now two years and four months old, and still performing perfectly. Not many mobile phones even today have a 5MP camera with Carl Zeiss lens.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Skiing in the Beskid Wyspowy

Yesterday, the piste at Kasina Wielka, on the north-west slopes of Śnieżnica, was packed with skiers from Kraków. Early this afternoon, it was quite empty. As I wrote last year, this piste is ideal for children and less-experienced skiers. Below: view from the four-seat chair lift. No queues whatsoever!


The Polish school holidays have been cleverly staggered so that the ski slopes aren't all overcrowded in a two-week burst. The sixteen Polish voivodships (provinces) have different breaks between 18 Jan and 28 Feb. Polish schools have two semesters (rather than three trimesters as in the UK). There are short breaks for Christmas and Easter, but the main holiday of the school year is in midwinter - so that winter sports can be enjoyed. This week, neither Małopolska or any of its neighbouring provinces are on holiday - an ideal time for winter holiday makers from Warsaw. Eddie is very happy with the conditions today, although it was cold (-8C) enough to numb my heavily-gloved fingers as we ascended on the chairlift.

After we'd finished our skiing, we descend on foot from the summit towards Gruszowiec.The forest on the south side of Śnieżnica is beautiful; the trees covered in szadź - the rime-frost brought about by the mountain-top fog freezing onto every needle of every coniferous tree. It's a comfortable half-hour walk from the summit to the main road.

To get to the bus stop, we had to choose between a long detour by road, or a short cut through a snowy field. The snow is knee-deep; the effort required to make it across this field turned out far greater than the long way round would have been - but as the bus arrived at the bus stop two minutes after us, this way worked best. All today's pics taken on my Nokia N95, I didn't fancy taking the Nikon D80 skiing with me.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Along the Transwersalna again - in winter

A favourite walk of ours, along the disused tracks of what once was the Galician Transversal Railway, built by the Austro-Hungarians in the mid-1880s. Sadly, trains have stopped running here last year; PKP Line 104 between Chabówka and Nowy Sącz is now defunct. The views, the atmosphere, the klimat is quite wonderful. It would be quite tragic to lose this line, but given the understandable situation of PKP finances, a cycle track would be a reasonable alternative to ensure that tourists can continue to enjoy the scenery.

Up from Dobra winds the line, climbing westwards towards Skrzydlna, the highest point on Polish railway. The snow has totally covered the track, making it much harder to walk.

Above: The streams that criss-cross under the line are all hidden under deep drifts. Here, higher up, the trees are covered in szadź, the hoar-frost or rime brought about by freezing fog. Numerous tracks of wild animals can be seen among the trees, mainly hare.

Above: What's round the corner? Beyond Szkrzydlna, the track dips down towards Kasina Wielka. Below: The approaches to Kasina Wielka station, abandoned signal box in the distance. At the station is the ski-slope, which today was packed solid with skiers from Kraków, Wieliczka and Wadowice. We wait with our skiing until tomorrow.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

From a beautiful Warsaw to a beautiful Dobra

Eddie and I travelled to Dobra quickly, and in style. We left home at six, walked to Jeziorki station, took a (punctual) Koleje Mazowieckie train to town, bought tickets for the InterCity service to Kraków, which arrived punctually; the interchange to the regional bus station (RDA) could not have been better, we got to Dobra on time. Five hours and 50 minutes door to door.

If only all journeys could be so civilised! Below: We return to Dobra (my fifth time, Eddie's fourth). Good to be back - we love this place! It's somewhere that people return time and time again; most of the guests have been here many more times than us - a family staying here this week has been coming to Dobra for 13 years.

Straight after a hearty lunch, we set off to Jurków. Below: Łopień's forested slopes on the horizon. Snow here in the lower altitudes of the Beskid Wyspowy is not as deep as it is in Warsaw - a very unusual state of affairs!


Right: Chapel on the way to Jurków. The white outline to the left side of the chapel roof is caused by the sun glinting off the newly-restored lead roof. The skies are expected to cloud over tomorrow, so we made the most of the sunshine today. It was quite wonderful clambering over the wintery fields, brilliantly white snow under an azure sky.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Jeziorki, on a bright winter's morn

On a day as beautiful as today, it makes sense to leave home a few minutes earlier than usual and walk the longer, prettier way to the station. Above: Across the road from our house. Views that spark atavistic resurgence, a return to the once-was which my consciousness merges with my own memory as part of my sense of self. Looking at both the left part, with the telegraph poles rising a slight, snowy slope, and the right part, the trees, beneath them snow-covered roofs, trigger that old feeling of anomalous familiarity. This is not Hanwell, London W7, yet I feel this scene is familiar as my own childhood.

Above: The field next door to our house. Animal tracks (probably cat) leading to an abandoned barn. In early August, this field will sport a waist-high crop of oats.

Two views down ul. Nawłocka - above: from ul. Trombity, under the snows, a field usually used for growing potatoes. Let's hope this year's harvest is better than last year's. Below: nearer ul. Achillesa. The track through the snow is too narrow for a car to pass a pedestrian.

Below: On the platform, W-wa Jeziorki station. Note the snow on the centre of the platform neither cleared nor trampled, nor drifted by the wind; it is over a foot (30cm) deep. Now imagine that over the entire city - and then imagine what would happen if that were all to melt during the course of a few warm and rainy days.