Monday, 28 February 2011

Pick of pics that passed Feb's posts

The end of the month and a selection of pics that I think are too good to leave unpublished, but somehow didn't make it into a blogpost.

Above: Krakowskie Przedmieście

Above: church at Szkrzydlna, near Dobra

Above: the road back from Dobra

Above: Palace on the Water, Łazienki Park

Above: Dom SARP on Foksal, headquarters of the Polish architects' society.

This time two years ago:
The Economist was wrong about Poland

This time three years ago:
End of the line

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Jeziorki's wetlands freeze over

The frosty, sunny spell continues to hold good. This afternoon was not as cold as past days (a mere -2C when I strolled out); the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sty. I decided to check the wetlands between ul. Trombity and ul. Dumki, so I put on thick socks and wellingtons. I needn't have had - the ice was so thick you could ride a motorcycle over it - and indeed someone had.

Above: frozen pond towards the southern end of ul. Trombity. A guy was out ice-skating here. Plenty of tracks of wildlife - hares and foxes. Below: the larger lake at the other end of our road - also frozen solid, with a light covering of powdery snow. The average temperature for this week was a chilly -9C (I tremble at the thought of my next gas bill!)

Below: this is the first time I can cross the reedbeds on foot from west to east since the summer of 2008, when the water-level was low enough to wade through. Now, it's much higher, but the ice is good and thick right across the entire wetlands.

Below: The sun set today a few minutes after five pm, an hour and three-quarters later than on the shortest day. But there's still no sign of spring on the way - nature seems to be in a permanent deep freeze. Three more weeks of winter still await.

This time last year:
Kensington, a London village

This time two years ago:
Lenten reciples

This time three years ago:
A walk through Sadyba

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Communist plaques

Today's Gazeta Wyborcza mentions this story about a commemorative plaque from the inter-war period being tampered with by the communist authorities. Coincidentally, yesterday I photographed this plaque (below) on top of Kolumna Zygmunta, which somehow seems not to be mentioned in any online references to the monument.

The statue of King Sigismund III stands on a pedestal atop a 8.5m-high marble column. Below it is a larger lower pedestal around which are four bronze plaques in Latin with dedications to the King (including one mentioning that he 'recaptured Smolensk'). Above the plaque on the western face is a smaller one, pictured above. The text is faithfully translated below to show the distorted nature of communist Newspeak.

COLUMN OF SIGISMUND III
BARBAROUSLY DESTROYED
BY THE HITLERITES IN 1944
REBUILT IN THE CAPITAL
OF PEOPLE'S POLAND ON THE FIFTH ANNIVERSARY
OF THE HOLIDAY OF LIBERATION ON 22 JULY 1949
WHEN THE PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC WAS
BOLESŁAW BIERUT
FROM VOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTIONS FROM WORKERS IN THE INDUSTRY: MINERAL MEMBERS OF THE TRADE UNIONS OF
CONSTRUCTION, CERAMICS AND RELATED
TRADES AND THE CHEMICAL INDUSTRY

Question now is - leave this for posterity - or remove it? What should be done about traces of Poland's communist past? I've photographed PRL-era plaques on the Most Łazienkowski bridge and by the escalators by Trasa W-Z. There are more around Plac Konstytucji and the Palace of Culture.

But given the iconic nature of the Kolumna Zygmunta to the Polish people and history (after all, it is not a PRL relict but part of the capital's cityscape for over three and half centuries, the fact that this Stalinist-era plaque has survived even the late Lech Kaczyński's term as mayor of Warsaw is surprising. Maybe the fact that it was cast in the same style as the original 17th C. plaques beneath it means that it has escaped the notice of the keepers of national purity.

* Święto = feast-day, holiday (as in holy day), festival. From święty, holy, saint. The word - with its religious connotations, has been put to use to describe 22 July 1944; not actually the day that Poland was 'liberated' from the Nazis (the Warsaw Uprising would not start for another week yet) but the date that the manifesto for the Soviet-backed communist puppet government was announced. Voluntary contributions? No reason to doubt that people genuinely wished to see the column re-erected in the Plac Zamkowy - but why only trade unionists and industrial workers?

Oldschool Włochy

There are parts of Warsaw that I really don't know - because I have no occasion to go there. Yesterday morning, I had a business meeting in Włochy. Incidentally, Włochy in Polish also means Italy, although the two proper nouns decline differently . 'I'm going to Italy' - jadę do Włoch; 'I'm going to Włochy' - jadę do Włochów; 'I live in Italy' - mieszkam we Włoszech; "I live in Włochy' - mieszkam we Włochach*. It's confusing I know.

Getting to Włochy was easier than I thought. Koleje Mazowieckie train from W-wa Jeziorki to W-wa Zachodnia, platform change and a westbound SKM train (above) one to W-wa Włochy. Zachodnia is as bad as it ever was. Half the passengers on Platform 3 were asking the other half if this was the right platform for wherever they were going - zero signage, zero passenger information other than a crackly megaphone system.

Below: I arrive at Włochy station, built in the 1930s; here I come upon this lovely original signage with characteristic pre-war Polish typeface (note how the letter 'O' is wider than a 'W').
Unfortunately, there are no signs as to where the bus stops to different destinations are to be found.

Włochy is as much a part of Warsaw as Ursynów, Żoliborz or Wilanów, and yet parts of it possess a very provincial atmosphere. Below: a two-story tenement, partially occupied by a police station. I learn a new Polish word: rewir (click on the pic below and zoom in on the red plaque). A rewir is a local beat, as in police. This police station would not look out of place in Kozienice.


Picking up on Paddy Ney's perennial subject of the Polish Babcia, here's a fine portait of fortitude and sub-zero stoicism walking past a bus stop in Włochy. The things she must have seen; the times she's lived through. Yet in her demeanour an indefatigable spirit - Hitler and Stalin had not cowed her, and neither will old age nor a -18C morn.

*This is like Praga, Polish for the Czech capital, and Praga, Warsaw's right-bank district. 'I'm going to Prague' - jadę do Pragi and 'I'm going to Praga' - jadę na Pragę. 'I live in Prague' is mieszkam w Pradze; 'I live in Praga' is mieszkam na Pradze.

This time three years ago:
Intimations of spring

Friday, 25 February 2011

Old Town, New Town - the way less travelled

Warsaw's Old Town always draws crowds of tourists. They tend to wander down from Plac Zamkowy starting from Kolumna Zygmunta, drifting down ul. Piwna or Świętojańska to the Old Town market square. The more adventurous will go further to the Barbakan, and then usually retrace their steps, ticking off Warsaw as done. Earlier this month, I took some pictures on ul. Kanonia and ul. Jezuicka in the Old Town. These two streets are less used by tourists but still have the same charm (if not more - there are fewer souvenir stores) and they open up the way to interesting vistas off the beaten track.

Now to explore a bit further. Dropping down a steep flight of steps that's ul. Dawna, we find ourselves on ul. Brzozowa. This street opens out on a semi-circular platform overlooking the Vistula escarpment and Praga beyond the river dominated by the twin spires of the Katedra Praska. At dusk, there's a sense of peace and security; the tragic history of our beloved Warsaw is firmly in the past.

Below: Walking along ul. Brzozowa towards the end affords a different view of Stara Prochownia (the old gunpowder storehouse) to the one you'd get from descending ul. Mostowa. The building is now a theatre (Stara Prochoffnia - that's "off" as in "off Broadway").

And finally, we go down ul. Stara (below) as it opens out onto the square of the New Town market. Winter dusk, a frosty cloudless evening creates a perfect mood.

This time last year:
Lent and recession

This time three years ago:
Przednówek - Poland's post-winter, pre-spring season

Thursday, 24 February 2011

My Nikon D80 four years on

It's four years to the day that I bought my first proper DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera. It's been one of the best purchases I've ever made. Four years on, the camera's getting a bit tired (the shutter sounds a bit wheezy, the rubber grip's long come off the lens*), but essentially my Nikon D80 (below) is still rugged and reliable. The battery is as good as new. I'm so satisfied with it that I'm not hunting around for a replacement.


The camera is used heavily. Maybe not as intensively as before I bought a used D40 as a lighter back-up, but nonetheless I reckon I've taken over 35,000 photographs with the D80. I have a camera with me at all times.

The world of serious photography is divided into two camps: Nikon and Canon. Never 'twain shall meet. We sneer at one another, looking with pity at that camera around one another's neck. (There are some odd people who for some reason use a Sony, but then they don't work for global news-gathering agencies. Buy what the pros use.)

Since the D80 came out, it's been replaced by the D90, still on sale, though now quite antiquated. I'm not tempted - it's not that great leap forward.

My second DSLR, a Nikon D40, is lighter and more portable, to be worn around the neck for bike rides. Handy and fun, it's has about two-thirds of the functionality of the D80. Now, the D40's current replacement as Nikon's entry-level DSLR, the D3100, is phenomenal. 14 million pixels, high-definition video shooting facility and a host of other improvements make me wonder about getting one... but then my D40 is still absolutely fine, working reliably (even though it only boasts 6 million pixels). Still, for these cameras' principal purpose - taking photos for this blog - neither will be replaced until they finally give up the ghost.

Essential accessories for the D80 and indeed for any DSLR camera: A second battery (I bought mine second hand at Warsaw's Stodoła camera fair), a polarising filter (for when it's sunny), a UV filter (for when it's dull), a portable memory card reader.

If you're in the market for a DSLR, my recommendation would be to buy a Nikon D3100 and upgrade the 18-55mm kit lens (quite decent, actually) for a 16-105mm or an 18-200mm zoom.

Above: Comparison of the D80 (left - with 18-200mm lens) and D40 (right - with 18-55mm lens). Both lenses set to widest (18mm setting), and a 10x blow-up from the centre of each frame. Both have UV filters on. Note difference in colour temperature (crisper, bluer light with the D40). Click to enlarge to see how 10.2 million pixels on the D80 compares to 6.1 million pixels on the D40.

* The lens grip has been replaced by six Royal Mail-issue rubber bands. As any Londoner knows, the streets of the capital are not paved with gold but with rubber bands dropped by postmen. They can come in very handy.

This time two years ago:
Nikon D80 two years on

This time three years ago:
Nikon D80 one year on

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

On The Road to Węgrów

It's been a while since I answered the Call of The Road. Today, I presented at a conference organised by Mazowsze province's regional development agency in Węgrów, some 90km due east of Warsaw. As no train goes anywhere near Węgrów, it had to be a car journey.

The weather could not have been more perfect for driving. Minus 15C when I left home, clear skies. Once I was past Stanisławów, there was hardly any traffic - nothing ahead of me, nothing in the rear view mirror. This is Droga Wojewódzka nr. 637*, which runs from Warsaw to Węgrów via Rembertów, Sulejówek, Stanisławów and Liw.

Above: between Stanisławów and Liw. Purest Mazowsze. Flat, flat, flat. Tree-lined road. Below: wooden houses in Liw. Much as they'd have looked in Tsarist times.

On the way back from the conference (which ended at around 4pm) there was still daylight; I drove home towards a setting sun. Below: I pulled over to the side of the highway to photograph the river Liwiec as it passed through Liw. It was a fair walk from the lay-by to the bridge; the snow piled up by the side of the road was deep, I was wearing polite office shoes rather than rugged outdoor boots, and so, once again this winter, I ended up with wet socks.

Below: and onwards towards our beloved Warsaw. As on the way out, there was hardly any traffic. Węgrów is not on the beaten track, this route is good for cycling (I've done Warsaw-Węgrów-Sokołów Podlaski-Siemiatycze four times by bike). Low population density east of the Vistula makes this an attractive part of Poland for me.

Soundtrack today - Count Basie and his Orchestra, from the album The Atomic Mr Basie, in particular the tracks Whirlybirds, Flight of the Foo Birds, and of course, Kid from Red Bank. Big Band at its finest (and recorded just two weeks after I was born).

* The 637 passes the large military zone that stretches from Rembertów on Warsaw's eastern fringes all the way to Pustelnik (25km!). Here in days gone by, the Tsarist army and later the Red Army could park itself in case of potential unrest. The 637 is the old Trakt Liwski, built by the Tsar, upgraded by the Soviets after 1945, allowing for the rapid deployment of Russian forces from the border into Warsaw. In the late '90s when I first cycled this route, the road surface was still in relatively good condition; today, it's deteriorated. The sparse traffic along the road, passing through towns like Węgrów no longer warrants the big zloties needed to keep it maintained to armoured fighting vehicle standard.

This time two years ago:
In the stillness of a winter forest

This time three years ago:
Over the fence

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Cold and getting colder

The thermometer at nearby Okęcie airport is currently reading -17C, the temperatura odczuwalna is -22C. Now here's a useful concept missing in English* ('wind chill' only explains part of the reason why it can feel colder than what the thermometer indicates). Wind chill suggests that moving air is the culprit. But humidity is also an important factor. Standing on the balcony after a sauna, dressed in towel and sheepskin slippers, I find it more comfortable on a night when it's -15C outside, still air, cloudless sky and low humidity than when it's +3C, damp and windy.

So - how should one translate temperatura odczuwalna properly into English? Literally, it's 'perceptible temperature' - the temperature as perceived by the human body. Any improvements on that, linguists?

Anyway, here we are in late February, a month before equinox, and we're experiencing the coldest cold that we've had all winter. The last few days have been cloudless and sunny, with the barometer staying over 1000 hPa since last Friday. The 84-hour COAMPS forecast at new.meteo.pl suggests that the daytime high will reach a balmy -6C by Thursday afternoon before plunging to -16C in the small hours of Friday. And March will be just four days away...

Meanwhile, in London it's +6C and rainy. I know where I'd rather be! Clear blue skies, and never mind the cold! (Having said that, some really warm gloves would come in hand).

*Another one is the word polot, which PWN Oxford gives as 'inventiveness' or 'panache'. The right idea cloud, along there with 'verve', but not quite there. Characteristics of polot - a mix of imagination, creativity, drive and flair. There's no single word in English of Celtic or Anglo-Saxon derivation that captures the idea - merely loan words.

This time two years ago:
UWAGA SOPLE!

This time three years ago:
Ul. Poloneza in the mud

Monday, 21 February 2011

Art quiz

With Eddie yesterday to Muzeum Narodowe, Poland's national art gallery, ostensibly to see We Want To Be Modern (Chcemy być nowocześni), the exhibition about Polish avant-garde design from 1955 to 1968. It was really thin - one room with ceramics and textiles with Picasso-inspired stuff, some posters showing architecture and industrial design, a few more bits and pieces outside and exit through the giftshop.

The point of the exhibition was to show how modern and groovy things could have been in Poland had it not been for the dull conformity and economic constraints of communism, but given my recollection from childhood of similar design style in post-Festival of Britain England, sadly the show failed to inspire me with the uniqueness of anything on show. And admission was pricy for what was on display.

Still, Eddie and I were not daunted, and as I'd not visited the MuzNar for several years, it behoved us to take a good look around the permanent exhibits. One painting (below, in the highest resolution available online) grabbed my attention.

I'm not going to give any details about this painting other than to ask you, dear reader, to guess when it was painted. More information, full details, to follow...

This time last year:
A month before spring equinox

This time two years ago:
The beauty of winter

Sunday, 20 February 2011

To the Devil with it all - Part II

Jacques had abandoned his rifle, helmet and greatcoat in the bunker; now he had to get across France all the way home to the small town of Sainte-Foy-la-Grande on the banks of the Dordogne. His plan to was to cycle by night and sleep by day in fields and barns.

In his map case stuffed full of now-useless local large-scale sheets, Jacques had an old Michelin road map. Scattering the local sheets by the roadside, he spread out the big road map of France on the ground and plotted his course by-passing any larger towns. He reckoned the journey home from Vitry would be at least 750km; covering 75km a night with some reserves for ill-fortune, navigational errors, avoiding enemy patrols etc – he guessed it would take some two to three weeks, given that he would be now moving behind a continually advancing enemy front.

He took great care to avoid the main roads and populated areas. Navigation was the biggest challenge; the chemins vicinaux he chose were not marked on the map. South-easterly was his course; he would use his army-issue marching compass to keep himself heading that way. Rivers, he figured, would be his only obstacle; the Seine and Loire at the very least.

Nights were good for cycling. The air was warm, the weather fair. Riding through sleeping villages with only the barking of dogs to signal his passing, Jacques made steady, satisfactory progress. As daylight approached, he'd find somewhere to hide, usually woodland, leave his things and then find some boulangerie to buy fresh baguette and other necessary victuals. Somehow his route managed to sidestep the front line. There were no great columns of refugees headed south travelling his way, although from time to time during daylight hours he could hear German dive-bombers pounding distant targets. As night fell, he'd set off again, pulling his bicycle off the road and ducking in ditches or behind hedges whenever he heard any motor-vehicle approaching.

Jacques contemplated the progress of the war, comparing it to the last one. This, he thought, was more civilised. Let the Germans through. They'd race on through the country, the French government would capitulate, the Germans would enforce then an armistice on their terms – and that would be that; a few years of hardship – at least that monstrous slaughter of the nation's manhood had been averted. The peace of his nocturnal cycling was at odds with his memories of Verdun, the endless shelling, the poison gas, the sobbing of men left to die on the barbed wire entanglements. This time it would be easier.

The nights passed, Jacques made solid progress through a moonlit rural France. After a while, he started enjoying the ride, being at one with himself amid the dreamlike landscape, so profoundly unchanging over time; farmyards and fields, byways, orchards and streams... Along the way he heard tell of France's capitulation, of the creation of Vichy France and an occupied zone – in which it turned out his family was living.

Jacques was getting ever closer to home. At last, he crossed the Dordogne by a small bridge, a little north of his home town. Finally, at half past four, just as it was getting light, he cycled into Sainte-Foy-La-Grande. He had to pass the town square; there was no one about. A Nazi flag flew from the roof of the mairie alongside the French Tricouleur. By the church, there were some printed announcements with German eagles on them. He rode up to take a look. One of them was a list of six young men that had been executed by firing squad for resisting the takeover of the local administration by the Germans. He felt faint as he read their names. He knew four of the boys. Two of them – brothers – were the sons of an old school friend of his.

He got back on his bicycle and carried on through the small town and up to his house. To his horror, he could see a German staff car parked directly outside. There were lights on in the front room. In haste he tried to make up his mind as to what he should do, where he should go – when the front door opened. Two German officers emerged, like an exaggerated Laurel and Hardy – one middle-aged, short and fat, the other younger, thin, but hobbling, walking with the aid of a stick. Both men were in high spirits. As they walked towards their car, Paul could see his wife and daughter at the door waving goodbye and smiling at them.

Jacques felt sickness and shame in equal measure. He waited until the Germans had disappeared; he remounted his bicycle and headed – who knows where he was headed.

This time last year:
Building the bypass as the snows melt

The time three years ago:
Two weeks into Lent

Saturday, 19 February 2011

To the Devil with it all - a short story

Corporal Jacques Maillot sat in a small bunker overlooking a distant crossroads beneath the hill. The outpost was part of a long chain of fortifications behind the Maginot Line, built to provide defence in depth should the Germans break through.

He had no stomach for a fight. A 45 year-old veteran of Verdun, he’d had enough of the mud and the slaughter. He survived that horror with no more than a few light shrapnel wounds; but so many fine comrades of his perished in the mud. And for what, he asked. Patrie? Gloire? Honneur? He'd often ask himself what it had all been for. He knew his history; in 1812, in 1870, the Prussians had come; they'd stayed a while, they exacted their spoils of victory; then they went home and everything went back to normal. But in 1914, France and its ally England had tried to stop the Germans and for four bloody years both sides battered each other to a pulp.

And what had come of it all? Nothing. Twenty years of nightmares; nights stained with the vision of mud churned with shattered human bone and entrails, reddened with blood, picked out with scraps of uniform and broken equipment. And over those 20 years, the foe had grown bolder and uglier; now three weeks earlier the Germans had simply gone round France's impregnable Maginot Line. The Germans had cut off the British at Dunkirk and were now swinging round and heading his way, heading for Paris and the interior of France.

The Blitzkrieg caught the French commanders unprepared. Men like Jacques, second-line men, rapidly mobilised once it was clear that Germany would attack, had no interest in this business. He and two privates – also middle-aged veterans of the Great War – had been assigned to man this hillside observation post. Equipped with a light machine gun and field telephone, their job was to hold up any German troops advancing along the two parallel chemins vicinaux that bifurcated southward from the crossroads, passing on either side of their hill. Supporting them to their right was another bunker, housing an antiquated howitzer also trained on the crossroads.

But today, Jacques sat there alone. His two comrades had both left the other day; one had simply gone home to his family in Picardie, the other had a girlfriend in the nearby village; he’d gone with her to see a film on Friday night in Vitry and never returned. He stared at the calendar on the wall; an attractive girl advertising cognac, and thought of home in the Dordogne valley; his wife and his daughter. Jacques poured himself a glass of red table wine, cut himself a few slices of saucisson sec, placed them into a baguette and sat down to have an early lunch. The Germans would be coming soon.

He'd been expecting an attack to be preceded by the thunder of approaching artillery and columns of black smoke rising up from the landscape. He remembered impending German advances from the Great War. But other than a few aircraft of unknown provenance circling high above between the wispy clouds, he had no inkling that the enemy was near. But he thought that he could make just out the faint roar of engines in the distance. He toyed with the idea of picking up the telephone and calling battalion HQ, and loading the machine gun, but decided against it. He looked across at the artillery post 50 metres away across the hillside; there was no sign of life there. He strolled over – no one there. The whole gun crew had just gone; probably that night. So he walked back, chewing a stalk of grass.

The sound of engines grew more distinct, he could now make out a cloud of dust behind the treeline on the horizon. He picked up his binoculars and focused on the crossroads. At last he could see them; headed by motorcycle combinations, followed by light armoured cars and trucks full of infantry, the cavalcade reached the crossroads. There, the German column split in two, tearing along unimpeded at full speed down both roads on either side of the hill.

Had Jacques and his comrades put down some fire on the crossroads, they could have halted the German advance for a hour or so; the enemy would have had to stop, take up defensive positions and return fire. And he could have picked up the telephone, then battalion HQ might have mobilised some defences between here and Vitry – but what was the point? None. To the devil with it all.

Well, thought Jacques, there was nothing more to do here. He stepped out of the bunker, walked to the top of the hill and looked at the horizon to the south. No columns of black smoke rising up. No dive bombers. The Germans must have gone straight through. He pulled a bicycle from out of the storeroom at the back of the bunker. It was grey and heavy, with white balloon tyres, full mudguards, an enclosed chain; he had quite a struggle to pull it free from all the junk, clanking through coils of barbed wire, boxes of ammunition, ladders and entrenching tools. Finally, he'd got it out into the open. Filling his knapsack with all the provisions left in the bunker, tins of paté, biscuits, apples, he took his bedroll and personal effects and pushed the bicycle over the bumpy track down towards the road. He was going home.

Part II tomorrow.

This time last year:
Waiting for the meltdown

This time two years ago:
On the (bad) road to Toruń

This time three years ago:
Flat tyre

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

On losing my phone

So there I was skiing down Śnieżnica - first morning, I'm doing well, confidently descending at a goodly rate, when suddenly I'm hit from behind by a youth who's lost control of his skis. I tumble over in the snow several times; fortunately I'm not hurt, the fall being cushioned by the artificial snow machine blowing fresh powder over the slope. I get up, check I'm OK, and ski down for another run. At the top of the chair lift I realise - I've lost my mobile phone.

It was - as ever - inside my shirt breast pocket, under a woolly jumper, under my M-65 field jacket (if it's good enough for NATO, it'll do for me). My reading glasses survived, but the phone slipped out. I skied down to where the tumble happened. The snow cannon has produced more powder, so even after two attempts at finding it, I know the search is futile.

Talking to a local ski instructor, I learn that this often happens. When the snows finally recede, locals will go out hunting for things that have fallen out of skiers' pockets - wallets, purses, mobiles etc.

I drove back to Dobra to the most excellent guesthouse, Wolna Chata Agroturystyka Zofia Nowak (tel: +48 18 333 0117) to block the number. My mobile operator Era informs me that no one has used the phone since I lost it. Even when found and the battery charged (assuming that the Ratraks have not crushed it), without a PIN it cannot be activated.

This is the first time I've ever lost a mobile phone. I've had this SIM card and number for 11 years. All my personal and business contacts have it (it's an easy number to remember). And of course I have all my contact numbers in it. As well as photographs (the Noka N82 has a great 5MP camera), music and SMSs.

I feel lost without the phone in my breast pocket. It will take some time queuing in an Era showroom to sort out a duplicate SIM card, buy a new phone, rebuild my contact book... I feel very sad at the loss. In the meantime, if you want to reach me (or are wondering why I'm not phoning or SMSing you), there's always the internet (michaeldembinski@gmail.com).

When mobile phones first appeared, I wondered what all the fuss was about and considered one unnecessary. Being without one for over a day now, I realise I cannot function without my mobile!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

God's dwelling place - Part II

“I must believe. I have a generous monthly stipend – and accommodation in the vicarage! A flock to attend to! Were I not to believe in Jesus, we'd be homeless, I'd be without employ! And my flock - so many bereaved parents - 20 other boys from this parish as well as Matthew and Timmy did not return home alive from war. I can't let my parishioners down,” said Reverend Whyteside.

His daughter replied glumly: “I don't believe in Jesus. I still believe in God, though - don't know whether He's all good and omipotent... " She looked anxiously at her father to see what effect her blasphemous words had had on the Vicar of Priors Marston. In the moonlight, she could discern a resigned expression on his face. He seemed indifferent to what she'd said.

"Let's be angels, Papa – let's not be us any more – let's leave this place and fly away and come into people's lives and bring them cheer - help them forget their sorrows...”

“What in heavens possessed you to say such a thing, girl? I help in practical ways; as a vicar, I am Jesus's intermediary here.”

“Well, neither you nor Jesus could save Matthew or Timmy or Mama...”

Reverend Whyteside looked grim. He knew Constance was absolutely right. He'd gone over this night after night after night. And that sermon - he'd surely earned God's wrath - assuming God was indeed a loving God. And if He was not a loving God - should he be serving Him?

They crossed a stile into a field full of sleeping sheep, the lambs close to the mothers. Another stile, and the path took them through an orchard in bloom.

The spring night was full of the most delicious perfume of nature in its fullest force. They walked on along a succession of footpaths in silent contemplation. Tentatively, the vicar reached out for his daughter's hand; he held it tight, this brought back some of the feelings of fondness he had for her as a child. But the thoughts were mixed; he could not think back to Constance as a five year-old without thinking of Matthew as a seven year-old and little Timmy, three. That happy nursery; such bliss. Gone for good. He'd never be a grandfather. Tears began to well up in his eyes.

At half past four, the eastern sky was decidedly brighter; quarter of an hour later a magnificent strip of orange-red expanded before them along the horizon. They stood still and watched. Birdsong accompanied this marvel, and their ancestors, born of the same Warwickshire earth and returned to it century after century would also have felt the unison.

The sun rose gloriously over the hill above Staverton. It touched more and more of the small clouds that had spread in from the west with pink pastel hues before flooding the sky with brightness and warmth, enhanced by the smell of the fecund soil under their feet. The both felt overwhelmed by a sense of total elation of the senses; this is what it was to be alive!

“When our plans and are hopes are shattered, we shouldn't dwell on them; we should not dwell on our loss, we should just live for moments of beauty such as these, moments that allow our spirit to overcome the sadness,” said Constance suddenly, with a look of wild abandon.

The vicar pondered his daughter's words, and gestured to her that she should continue to develop her thoughts.

"These moments transcend the grief, the everyday pain of what often seems like a futile existence. If you can't make plans any more, then let us make the most of our time living for moments of joy, such as this one, Papa," said Constance, hugging him around the shoulder.

“I shall have to alter Sunday's sermon accordingly!” replied the Reverend Whyteside, allowing a trace of a smile to cross his lips.

“What did Jesus have to say about this?” she asked.

“I can't say that I know,” he answered.

This time last year:
Beat this for a snowy winter!

This time two years ago:
Poland's most popular outergarments

This time three years ago:
The Frost Gods return

Monday, 14 February 2011

A wetter Poland?

Driving down to Dobra today, Eddie and I were struck by the flooding and the large amounts of water standing in fields along our way south. The Pilica, the Radomka, indeed all the rivers between Warsaw and the Świętokrzyskie hills had spilled over, flooding adjacent meadows and woods. Even on higher ground, the water table was exceedingly high; we saw many extensive puddles and flooded fields. I am concerned that climate change is beginning to make itself felt in central Poland in the form of raised ground water levels, localised flooding and associated crop failure.

Over the weekend, there was a fascinating series of events at the Dom Spotkań z Historią centred around the launch of a new book about Poland's eastern pre-war borderlands - the Kresy. I have a long fascination with Polesie - that vast expanse of wetlands that was a notable feature of the central Kresy (today the borderlands between Belarus and Ukraine). Among the films shown during the weekend was one showing the poverty of peasants living in the Polesie wetlands in the photography of Józef Szymańczyk.

Though the scale of the flooding is nowhere near the scale of the Polesie wetlands, looking at the drowned fields made me think that a few decades of snowy winters, wet springs and summers could turn Poland's central plains into a Polesie-like swamp, disastrous for agriculture.

Let's hope for a drier spring and summer than the one we had last year.

God's dwelling place - a short story - Part I

The night calm was pierced by the distant shrieking whistle of the night mail as it thundered over the Staverton viaduct shortly before plunging into the Catesby tunnel. The Reverend Herbert Whyteside lay in bed, awake; he'd been awake for a long time. Downstairs in the study the clock chimed; it was quarter past two; the train was on time. It was another night when sleep would not come to him.

May 1921. Earlier that year, his older son Matthew had passed away at the nursing home. The boy had been confined there after a shell explosion left him crippled, just weeks before the end of the Great War. The Reverend Whyteside's younger son Timothy was killed during the Battle of Arras a year and half earlier. After the death of Matthew, the Reverend Whyteside’s wife tried to commit suicide. She ended up causing permanent brain damage brought on by oxygen starvation, and was committed to Rugby Asylum.

So the Reverend Whyteside was left alone in the vicarage with his daughter Constance, an ungainly girl prone to sadness knowing that fate would be unlikely to ever provide her with a husband, especially with so many young men having lost their lives in the War.

That May night, Herbert was as usual dwelling on the loss of both of his sons and the insanity of his wife. These thoughts would not leave him. Tonight something new was troubling him, some memory he thought he'd successfully pushed from his mind. He got out of bed and went downstairs to his study. Through the window he could see a full moon outside and a cloudless sky. Reverend Whyteside lit the gas lights and approached the bookcase, looking for a box of old sermons. Each Sunday after service, he'd file away his hand-written notes, a habit he'd maintained since moving in as the vicar of Priors Marston nearly 30 years ago.

He searched through the well-organised box files and found the year – 1914, the month – August... and... Sunday 8th August. The first Sunday after the declaration of War. He pulled it out a foolscap sheet of paper and started reading. He could not believe how readily he'd swallowed the lies, the banality of what he'd written. "Over by Christmas, our lads victorious, give the Hun a bloody nose, good cheer, chance to play up and play the game, (he remembered titters from the congregation) "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (those who knew their Latin were more serious now). He looked at his words and remembered the spirit in which they were said. Thinking back to that mellow August morn, when God was in His Heaven, God – an Englishman, how could that God have allowed the Empire to lose so many men, how could that God have allowed him to lose both his sons. He could see them now; sitting before him in church with their sister and mother; Timothy, still at Rugby School then, and Matthew, home from Cambridge where he was reading Divinity. Boys, just boys; now under the earth. And for what purpose?

Herbert took off his reading glasses and sat back, paper in hand. He poured himself a Scotch, which eased the grief just a little. He could hear footsteps on the stairs. Constance popped her head around the door. “Can't sleep, Papa?” “No, I can't,” he replied irritably.

Hiding the sermon under other papers in shame lest she should see it, he groped around for something to say. His daughter, half a head taller than he, heavy-boned and plain-featured, was not an easy person for him to get along with. While he had loved her dearly as a child, as she grew older, he found it increasingly hard to communicate with her. It was only when, in the solitude of the church, he playing hymns on the organ with his daughter accompanying him on the flute, did they feel truly comfortable in one another's presence.

Constance stood in the doorway. “Papa – do you remember, when Matthew and Timmy and I, when we were small, one night – I think it was Easter Sunday – you woke us up and we all went for a walk with you and Mama and the dogs – down to the river... it was a night like this; a full moon, no clouds – Papa, let's go for a walk together...?”

Why not, he thought; maybe the walk would stop his mind from dwelling on their loss. He nodded assent, put away his old sermon, filed the box where it had come from, and said, “Let's get dressed and go. I'll take old Folly from the kennel; let's aim to set off in before the clock strikes three."

The Reverend Whyteside, dressed in tweed trousers and thornproof jacket, stout walking shoes and dog collar – without which he never left the house – waited by the large kitchen table for his daughter to join him. Constance came down in her mother's black coat and an incongruous white cloche hat. Slipping into a pair of wellington boots, she opened the back door to the courtyard followed by her father.

With their black Labrador Folly on a leash, they set off along Vicarage Lane towards Priors Hill. The night was beautiful, the moon casting strong shadows of trees and buildings and hedgerows, so many stars so clear against the blackness. Constance took her short, stout father by the arm. They walked in silence. Suddenly she asked: “Papa – do you still believe in Jesus?”

Part II here.

This time last year:
Oligocene water from Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
Heavy overnight snow

This time three years ago:
New house building underway

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Oldschool photochallenge: Response No. 2

Thanks to Paddy at Pozdrowienia z Ursynowa for this 1970s/80s style image for the Oldschool photochallenge. The idea is to capture today images that would not look out of place in the communist era.

I love this photo, taken in Warsaw last Tuesday. Click to enlarge. The resoluteness in the face of the woman contrasting with the resignedness in the face of the man; the composition - the gap between them; the bloki in the background; the feeling that the viewer is clearly separated from the two people by a sheet of glass - alienation in proximity. A stroke of luck, captured.

The key to great street photography is to take 100 images a day and whittle down the best two or three - and keep doing this for years. Here, Paddy has managed to snap one image in which so much is said about Poland and mankind. The middle ground between New York's glamorous rich and starving Sudan.

No penalties for photoshopping the pic to B&W. Stand back! Now it belongs to the ages.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Twilight of the Ikar

Above: This is an Ikarus (nicknamed 'Ikar' by Warsaw's bus spotters and users). Look carefully at this picture, dear reader, for this sight will soon become history. There are fewer and fewer Ikaruses in Warsaw's bus fleet, and they will all disappear by next summer, so as not to cause the city embarrassment when it hosts the Euro 2012 football championships. Ikaruses have already disappeared off the roster for weekend duties, and the 162* - a bus line I know well and use frequently - only uses Ikars during the rush hours. Otherwise, it's the more modern Solaris and MANs that ply the route, and far more comfortable they are too.

Above: An Ikar arrives at my bus stop. It is absolutely, solidly, rigidly jam-packed. At this stop, Śniegockiej, few passengers alight but many struggle to get on. Poles don't queue (unlike Brits); an unseemly scrum ensues to board this bus, won by those with the sharpest elbows and the most urgent journeys.

Above: Phew! I manage to get on, and two stops down the route the crowd thins out at PKP Powiśle. The Ikar rattles and shakes and its worn-out suspension; cold air and filthy exhaust fumes swirl inside through large gaps between the doors and windows. Hold on tight and hold your breath.

I have mixed feelings about the impending demise of the Ikar, a bus that dates back to the mid '70s, even though Warsaw's ones are mainly from the '90s. On the one hand, the modern buses are just so much more comfortable to ride in - even when packed with rush-hour passengers. On that same hand, to board an Ikar you have to take three steep steps (the floor is along the line between the red and yellow on the pic above). This makes it difficult for the disabled, the elderly and mums with prams to get on or off. On the other hand - the Ikar is iconic in an old-school Warsaw sort of way (incidentally, the above picture qualifies for the old school photo challenge).

Available in two flavours, the Ikarus 280 (bendy bus) and 260 (standard). According to Wikipedia, ZTM, Warsaw's bus operator has 209 of the bendy ones and 66 of the short ones out of a total of 1,403 buses. When we moved to Warsaw, anything other than an Ikarus was rather rare. While they are still around, we should snap them for posterity; they'll soon be gone.

*The 162, by the way, goes from Elektrociepłownia Siekierki to Targówek via deepest Praga. Smażymy wątróbki?

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands in winter

This time three years ago:
A week into Lent

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Of sunshine, birdsong and wet socks

A gorgeous morning today - what a pity the weather didn't hold. I walk to my first meeting of the day at Platan Park. The overnight temperature fell below zero, floodwaters have frozen,
and for the first time in weeks - there's a clear blue sky over Warsaw. Over Jeziorki I see a marsh harrier (błotniak stawowy) and several pheasants fly across my path.

On way walk to work (nearly 6km) I traverse the entire length of ul. Poloneza (below). The road is so bad there's zero traffic, so birdsong is very noticeable. The birds are getting ready for spring, there's a wonderful feeling of hope and renewal in the air. Unfortunately, so engrossed am I in all this (and the occasional SMS) that twice I step onto a patch of thin ice and go ankle deep into freezing mud. I arrive at my meeting with wet socks - a small price to pay for communing with nature's beauty rather than sitting frustrated in a traffic jam.

Below: Just as the architect had envisaged it - for the record, the newly-opened Juventus call centre on Poloneza 91, down the road a bit from Platan Park. The building looks perfect in the strong morning sunlight (and no polarising filter on this pic!)

The day was quite beautiful, until the afternoon, anyhow, cloud came in and gloom returned.

Note use of the word 'quite' in this context. Całkiem or całkowicie?

This time last year:
Polish TV pharmaceutical advertising

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Drifting home

I'd just left my office when I realised I'd left my notebook on my desk. The maroon one with the elastic band round it attached to my black ball point pen with 'Mazowsze' logo on it (letter 'M' shaped like a heart). Returning for it, I realised I'd miss the 162 bus to W-wa Powiśle station, thereby missing my train to Jeziorki. Indeed this is just what happened.

OK then, let's be spontaneous. I'll let the wind carry my home; no plan - just drift. And so I walked up ul. Górnośląska, up ul. Profesorska, along Trasa Łazienkowska, over Plac na Rozdrożu, past Plac Zabawiciela, and then on to ul. Marszałkowska where I boarded a number 4 tram that took me to ul. Wałbrzyska, from where I could eventually catch an 809 bus all the way to Trombity. But before I boarded the tram - some snaps.

Above: corner of ul. Hoene-Wrońskiego and Górnośląska. Clear sky, quarter of an hour after sunset. Below: ul. Profesorska, a short but amazing street (looks even better here).

Below: ul. Myśliwiecka as it snakes down the Vistula escarpment. The building in the middle is the Tunisian embassy. Note radio mast on roof.

Below: Looking along Trasa Łazienkowska towards Plac na Rozdrożu, where Al. Ujazdowskie cross over. Crushed velvet dusk in my city of dreams.


Left: Church of the Holiest Saviour on Plac Zbawiciela, architecturally one of my favourite Warsaw churches. This church which reeks of 17th C. baroque is actually the same age as my mother; it was completed in 1927. Another photo of the church included in this post, from last August.

Below: ul. Marszałkowska, Warsaw's main north-south thoroughfare. This part belongs to the socialist-realist MDM housing district, which has its heart in the Plac Konstytucji.

In the six years I've been working on ul. Fabryczna, I've never taken this route home. This way - though longer than Metro or Koleje Mazowieckie - was somehow more relaxed, less crowded, so I could sit and read all the way. (Still reading Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita - in Polish - I'm a slow reader and there's vocabulary that I need help with.) There's something to be said for trying something different for a change.

This time last year:
Winter gorgeousness

This time three years ago:
Intimations of Spring, 2008

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

It's still a dark and gloomy time of year. Yet there are flashes of optimism here and there, those early, early intimations of spring that bring hope that our spot here on the northern hemisphere. It will be getting brighter and warmer soon. The morning saw some sunshine, birdsong could be heard, the temperature hit +8C.

And the day is getting decidedly, noticeably longer. Each day is more than three and half minutes longer than the one before. This will accelerate towards Equinox, which falls this year on 20 March. Around the spring equinox, day length increases by over four minutes a day.

Above: W-wa Powiśle station, just after 5pm. Still traces of light in a late-dusk sky. Although we've only gained 40 minutes of daylight in the morning (sunrise now is just after 7am), there's an extra hour and ten minutes of daylight in the evening. In two weeks time it will still be broad daylight at 5pm.

But before spring finally explodes into life, there will be more snow, sleet, frost, day after day of endless dark cloud, and we'll still be waking up to darkness. Let us be of good cheer.

And some more good news today: Warsaw enjoyed 2,200 hours of sunlight in 2010, I read in Gazeta Wyborcza's local section Gazeta Stołeczna.

Life and Death in the Shadow of the El - Part II

The pigeon struggled for a bit, then settled down. The three laughing girls approached. He must have been a sight, swaying slightly on his heels, black overcoat unbuttoned over a tux, bow-tie undone around his neck, white scarf hanging down, grey fedora pushed up high, shock of light-brown hair tumbling over his forehead, a face damp with sweat and rain; in his hands a pigeon that he was stroking gently. The girls paid him momentary attention. "Hello bird boy!" Laughter. He was thinking hard of something witty to say but he was distracted by the sound of an automobile splashing its way through some deep puddles up behind. It was a taxi. The girls flagged down the yellow cab which pulled up by the side of the road; they ran across to pile in. As the taxi pulled away, James was left alone.

A wave of nausea hit him, which he struggled to keep down. He closed his eyes momentarily and felt the world reeling, so he opened them again and concentrated on staying upright. He counted slowly to ten; the nausea passed.

He gave some more thought as to what he should do with the pigeon. Leave it on the sidewalk and the alley cats will get to it; they'll play with it for a while before despatching it with a bite to the neck. A distressing way for the poor bird to die, conscious of what was happening to it right up to the end, unable to escape its fate.

There was only one solution. Only one. He placed the bird back on the sidewalk. It was still fluttering as he laid it down, making another futile attempt to get away from him. He pulled a paper serviette from out of his coat pocket and laid it over the pigeon. In a while, the bird became less agitated, just lying there under the napkin.

Then in one swift decisive move, he brought his heel down of his right shoe sharply on the bird's head. Without enmity. It was over in less than a tenth of a second. The life snuffed out, though with the minimum of pain and distress. Ideal way to go; like the guys at Tarawa who caught a bullet in the head - clean, over before you knew it. Not the lingering, agonizing end of a massive stomach wound or losing a limb or something. The pigeon's soul was free, he thought, free to be whatever it had wanted to be. James resolved to be a better man. He shouted out his resolution unto the empty street. "I - WILL - BE - A - BETTER - MAN!" The el had long stopped running, he'd have to walk the nine blocks home.

As he did, he thought about Tarawa. He'd felt guilt about mentioning it. He landed there long after the fighting was over, but did not hesitate to drop that name in bars. James got back to his tenement on E.157th St, made it up to the fourth floor, along the corridor, fumbled to get the key in the lock, he'd sobered up a lot, but is head still wasn't great. As he pushed open the door to his room, he saw a small envelope on the floor. It was a hand-written note from Evelyn. "Sorry James", it said, "I had to work late at the office, my boss made me get some urgent papers typed up. Let's meet tomorrow night - Brophie's at eight."

This time last year:
Skiing in the Beskid Wyspowy

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's unmade roads: what's to be done?

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki in the fog

Monday, 7 February 2011

Life and Death in the Shadow of the El - a short story - Part I

James Martin stared down at the ground and looked at his lacquered black patent leather shoes; a flash of white sock and his black tuxedo pants. He was standing in a puddle reflecting neon lights from the bars and shops across the road; above him New York's elevated railway. It was a wet and cold Friday night, February 1947; rain and sleet were falling on the few people still hurrying home as the city's bars, restaurants and theaters approached closing time.

James, 27 years old, still unable to find his feet after being demobilized at the end of the Pacific War, was feeling sorry for himself. He'd meant to have been seeing Evelyn that night, but she'd stood him up. Eight o'clock at Brophie's on 166th Street - they'd agreed it. He remembered her smile as she waved goodbye to him last night - yup, they'd agreed it; Brophie's at eight.

At half past eight there was still no sign of her, so he called Evelyn from a phone booth outside, but she was not in, nor was her flatmate Jenny. So instead of going out on the town with Evelyn, taking in a show, having a big fine meal, he just sat there alone at the bar, all dressed up, tux, black tie, until he met this girl. They were getting on fine at first - real fine - but then he must have said the wrong thing, or a few wrong things, or given a wrong impression or something; but whatever, she made her excuses and left, so he carried on drinking, feeling ever more sorry for himself as the night wore on - until he felt it was time to get on back to his dingy rented room on E. 157th St.

Woozily he made his way to the door; as he stepped out onto the sidewalk the cold damp air hit his face. He walked unsteadily, betraying signs of overindulgence in whiskey and beer. He crossed the road and found himself standing in that puddle right under the 3rd Street El.

And then, as he stood there in the cold wet night, wallowing in self-pity that came dangerously close to self-loathing, a bird fluttered down from the ironwork above and landed awkwardly in the puddle close to his feet. The bird was just a pigeon, gray, ordinary-looking, but clearly quite unwell. Its irregular twitching movements suggested to James that it was not long for this world. It swivelled its head round towards James and fixed him a stare with one beady eye, a stare that caught his attention. Suddenly he focused on the bird; he could sympathize with its plight, he felt sorry for it as it lay there on one side; its left wing attempting to push itself clear of the human being standing so near.

In his tipsy state, James somehow felt overcome by compassion. He should do something to help this poor creature. Pick it up; tuck it into the inside pocket of his big black woolen overcoat, warm it up; maybe take it to a vet's... there's one a just few blocks away, he remembered... "Dumb idea - there's no vet open at this time of night, besides, even if there was, what would the vet say to some blotto guy in a tux holding a dying pigeon? And what's the point of spending good money on fixing a bird that's little more than a flying pest," he thought.

The pigeon was showing less and less sign of life, it was still staring up at him, the left wing was still moving; James imagined it was begging him for help, for mercy. He swayed as his last bourbon and beer chaser hit his head; he took a deep breath and looked up at the iron superstructure supporting the overhead railway; he tried to get his eyes to focus on the massive steel girders as they crossed high above him. He looked down again; the pigeon was still there.

Up ahead of him, crossing over from the other side of the road, came three office girls, arm-in-arm and obviously in high spirits. They were laughing and breaking into song - "I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night" - and heading his way. It occured to him in his inebriated state that the pigeon could be a conversation opener, the sort of thing to show that he was a caring kinda guy, and heck, there were three of them...

James picked up the pigeon and held it in his hand.

Part Two tomorrow.

This time last year:
The Transwersalna in winter

This time two years ago:
Work underway on Węzeł Lotnisko

This time three years ago:
Crazy customised Skoda

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Oldschool photochallenge: Response No. 1

First response to the Oldschool photo challenge comes from Student SGH.

Caption? "Zakłady Lniarskie Orzeł in Mysłakowice, powiat jeleniogórski. The linen plant, set up around 1839 by Germans, was still operational then, it was declared bankrupt on 16 July 2010, its shares were listed on Warsaw Stock Exchange until 14 January 2011."

Excellent! This could be 1965, or 1957 even... Indeed, if it wasn't for the mountain in the background, I'd swear this was the legendary iron filings factory.

First intimations of spring, 2011

Walking around Jeziorki today - signs that gladden the heart - signs that finally winter is beginning to release its grip, signs that nature is beginning to stir.


Left: hazel catkins make an appearance.

It will still be a long time before spring suddenly bursts forth in all its glory, and we can at last consign our heavy coats, winter hats and thick gloves to the wardrobe for the summer. Seven weeks until the clocks go forward, 10-11 weeks until those first days warm enough to venture outside in a t-shirt. The time will fly by; I am so looking forward to the returning sun.

The past three weeks have been permanently dull, whether the temperature has been below zero, or as now, there's been a thaw.

This time last year:
Beautiful Warsaw, beautiful Dobra

This time three years ago:
Unremitting February gloom

Saturday, 5 February 2011

You moles had better learn not to do this

It rained all night and all day. The temperature rocketed up to +9C. The snows receded. And what should emerge from under the snow... mole hills. Thousands of 'em.

I have been prepared for this eventuality. Eddie and I removed the spoil from the lawn (120 litres of it!) and then we set to work. A certain fluid, known to discourage the moles, was carefully poured down each and every hole. And each hole has been capped with a glass jar screwed deep into the soil so that its bottom is flush with the lawn. And we shall continue doing so until the moles select somewhere else for their antisocial activities.

This time last year:
Beautiful winter in Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
Getting ready for Lent

This time three years ago:
Lent begins at midnight

Friday, 4 February 2011

Oldschool photochallenge

Left: A Trabant on ul. Fabryczna yesterday; note white-on-black numberplates and the Niewiadów N250 trailer behind the car.

What struck me about this view is the total absense of any element in the picture that could place it any time later than 1991 (when Trabant production came to an end).

Time, I think, to fish out more photos, where car and background hark back to another age. Worldwide, the Trabant is probably the most iconic vehicle of the communist era, even though in Poland it was relatively rare compared to the Fiat 126P Maluch. Yet the Fiat 126's more modern design, and the fact that it was a familiar shape in western Europe, deprives it of icon status outside of Poland.

Right: another Trabant in Warsaw (photo from February 2008). This is ul. Rzymowskiego in lower Mokotów, not too far from Galeria Mokotów. Everything is right in this picture, down to the fetching shade of orange for the waste bin and the pre-MSI signage on the entrance to the flats, built of course using wielka płyta (pre-fabricated units).

Left: FSM Syrena 105 in Saska Kępa. The Syrena, an indigenous Polish design (both body and engine) was built in smaller numbers than the Trabant (half a million vs. three million) and was built mainly for the domestic market, so its communist cult car status is reserved for Poland; sadly the Syrena is not widely known abroad.

The 105, unlike its predecessors, had front-hinged doors. Nicknamed skarpeta ('sock') because, well, it looked like one. Or indeed, as some wags put it - because it smelled like one.

Above: Zielona Góra, January 2009. Another photo where nothing gives away modernity; this could be 1991 or even 1981. The Trabant is a late-model 1.1 Universal, or estate car (kombi). Like the Trabants above the 1.1 was powered by a VW Polo engine rather than the original wheezy and polluting two-stroke unit originally fitted to the Trabant 601 from 1963 to 1990.

Above: W-wa Zachodnia, 2009. Or 1989? Can you see any signs of modernity in this, Warsaw's (if not Poland's) worst railway station?

And so: a challenge to my fellow bloggers: Can you post a photo from present-day Poland that still reeks of the atmosphere of the communist era? Extra points if you can do so in Warsaw, rather than some miasto powiatowe in the middle of nowhere. Photos will be rigorously scrutinised for signs of modern advertising, signage, decoration, fashions, mobile telephony etc.

Original posts are here (Mokotów), here (Saska Kępa) and here (Zielona Góra).

This time last year:
Warsaw's wonderful nooks and crannies

This time three years ago:
Viaduct to the airport

Thursday, 3 February 2011

My favourite bridge, from topside

I've written about the Most Poniatowskiego before (notably here); unquestionably my favourite bridge in Warsaw. A damp winter's afternoon, wet snow, just around sunset - a good time to catch some atmosphere on the deck of the bridge before continuing by tram to get to Moni's school meeting.

Below: looking across from Most Poniatowskiego to the railway bridge over the Vistula that runs almost parallel. Four railway tracks are carried across the river, taking trains out of the Tunel Średnicowy and over to Praga and the east.

Below: last tram stop on the west side of the Vistula. Looking towards Praga on the right bank; the lights of the Stadion Narodowy (national stadium) to the left of the picture; construction is moving ahead in good time to be ready for next year's football championships.

Most Poniatowskiego connects two roundabouts named after statesmen: Rondo De Gaulle'a on the left bank and Rondo Waszyngtona on the right bank. Alight at Rondo Wosh (where the row of lights converge) for Sophisticated Saska and Park Skaryszewski.

This time last year:
Illuminating snow from beneath

This time two years ago:
Poloneza drivetime, winter

This time three years ago:
Looking up over Jeziorki