Sunday, 20 August 2017

365 days since the closure of the level crossing...

Time to issue a commemorative stamp; it is exactly one year since the level crossing on ul. Karczunkowska was closed.

In its place would be a viaduct carrying traffic over the railway line by W-wa Jeziorki station. There's been some grzebbing in the overhead power supply and in the water and sewerage, the asphalt's been ripped up, but just as a year ago there was no sign of a viaduct, there is no sign of one today.

As of 9 April this year, an alternative crossing was opened linking ul. Gogolińska across the track to the Biedronka access road. This is meant to be a temporary solution while the viaduct gets built; the very fact that there's now an alternative means that there's no real rush the viaduct.

Below: looking west along Karczunkowska, as closed as closed as it could possibly be. Fences on both sides of the track. Pedestrians and cyclists can cross, but motorised traffic has to do a 750m detour via Goglińska.

Below: a frustrated scribble on the sign board announcing last year's closure of the road (bottom right, click to enlarge).

Below: looking east with the tracks in the foreground.

Apparently, the reason the viaduct is not being built is to do with the papers not being in order. Below: I climbed up onto a heap of earth on the western side of the tracks to get this snap. So much time, so little progress.

Once again I wonder out loud whether the viaduct will be finished before the S7 joins Węzeł  Lotnisko and Grójec; as of now, the tender bid appeals are being considered, but work on the S7 is expected to begin in March 2019 and completed in March 2022. As readers of this blog will know, such expectations are rarely met.

This time last year:
That's it! the level crossing's closed.

This time two years ago:
What happened to Poland's Amish?

This time three years ago:
PKP publishes plans for upgrade of Warsaw-Radom line

This time four years ago:
World's largest ship calls in at Gdańsk

This time six years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

This time seven years ago: 
Now an urban legend: Kebab factory under W-wa Centralna 

This time eight years ago: 
It was twenty years ago today 

This time ten years ago: 
By bike to Czachówek again

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Summer's wasting away...

Moving into the latter part of August and I've accomplished little since my return from London last week. A few days in the office, one blog post, no trips other than the one to Stromiec, see previous piece.

Over the years, I've noticed that I've become rather weather-dependent. For me, nothing compares to the existentialist joy of a blue sky on a hot summer's day. And as such a day passes into night, the iridescent horizon's glow. The sensual smell of the night air as the vegetation in full leaf exhales. These experiences connect me with the Eternal and Infinite. Grey skies and rain don't.

So then. Blue sky.

Should I rest or should I venture forth?

Depends how long the weather will remain fine for. Two years ago, my long trip across Poland to buy some fine Polish wine was predicated by an unbroken spell of hot weather that assured four rain-free days. This summer, such long fine spells have been few (there was one during the week I was in London).

Rest and write, take photos, walk a lot, take it easy. This is what the summer's for.

But to rest, to relax, to take it easy properly, (rather than aimlessly lounging about) requires planning. There's stuff that doesn't rest, that still needs doing. A przegląd techniczny here, a car alarm to fix there, rubbish to take out - when's the glass collected? And what's the date for the dry recycled bags? Bills to pay, groceries to buy - and in the background, a dearth of inspiration.

Since May I'd been planning a return trip down Wałbrzych way to seek out the Gold Train - I still have a theory about it's possible whereabouts that needs to be either proved or disproved. I need four clear days to do this - no point of doing this adventure in the pouring rain. But it's raining now, it'll rain tomorrow, and on Monday and on Tuesday.

Planning is difficult if you need a good weather window to coincide with work and other commitments; there's 11 days of August left, when to fit in that trip?

Summer's slipping away. Those glorious sunsets around nine pm are but a memory; today the sun will set at ten to eight; an hour and ten minutes less daylight in the evening. But it's still warm. The freedom to walk around in a shirt, rather than shirt + jumper + jacket, is so precious given how the rest of the year looks.

Summer is so wonderful compared to those dreary short dark cold days, I want to make the very most of it. And there is only a finite number of summers ahead. They are precious and should not be wasted. I still hope that one day I'll be able to spend some Southern Hemisphere summers when winter draws in upon Poland.

Mindful of the fact that that the rain will come today, I went for my walk this morning (a mere 6,000 paces), but a trip to town with Eddie for a curry pushed up the total. [NOTE: The Ganesh on the corner of Herbsta and KEN in Ursrynów is closed - not something we could learn from the internet. So we took the Metro to Politechnika and dined at the Tandoor Palace.]

And this week I've had conjunctivitis in my right eye - it's not the bacterial sort (no cross-infection or pus) so either viral or allergic (the latter is possible as I've just sneezed again). No big deal, except my right (good) eye hurts when I look towards a bright sky, and when the wind blows at it. No treatment - it should be back to normal in a few days.

But I should be doing more. More writing, more travelling, more thinking, more discussing more photography. I feel guilty for not being more active.

It's raining again.

This time last year:
Warsaw remembers the PASTa building capture

This time two years ago:
Drought. It was a dry summer.

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's ski slope at Szczęśliwice

This time five year:
On the road from Dobra, again

This time six years ago:
August storm, ul. Targowa

This time seven years ago:
Warsaw Central's secret underground kebab factory

This time eight years ago:
Cheap holidays in other people's misery

This time nine years ago:
Steam welcomes us to Dobra

This time ten years ago:
New houses appear in the fields by Zgorzała

Monday, 14 August 2017

In search of more Mazovian roots

After our successful visit to Mogielnica to seek out my father's ancestors, I received three comments from readers with more clues as to the were to seek family history. I was led to my father's maternal grandparents' wedding deeds by Janusz. This document mentioned that Teodora Sepczyńska's mother (so my father's great-grandmother) was born Franciszka Świderska, and her parents were Andrzej Świderski and Franciszka Sawicka (not Dawicka as I'd incorrectly made out from the handwritten script). The document refers to the Świderscy as coming from Budy Biernickie, which looks odd. According to the extremely useful Urzędowy Wykaz Nazw Miejscowości Polskich, there's a Budy Biejkowskie (part of the village of Budy Brankowskie), by the Pilica river, in the parish of Stromiec.

A nice ride on a beautiful day, so off I go. Below: the neo-Gothic church of St John the Baptist in Stromiec, built in 1905.

In the nearby cemetery, in search of Sawicki graves. I found none; however, there were six Witkowski family graves (my father's mother's maiden name). It was really interesting looking at the graves in this small town. So many infants, dead before their second birthday. Really noticeable. "Żyć dłużej chciałem/Bozia mi nie pozwoliła/Umrzec musiałem", it says on the grave of Rysio, aged six months. So many dead teenagers, young people in their 20s and 30s, who would probably had survived had they had the medical attention that their peers would have had in a larger town or city.

Looking carefully at the graves, I noticed many unusual surnames that kept on appearing frequently in this cemetery. Duranc, Moskwa and Kornet, to name three. Of the more usual Polish surnames, the most often encountered were Matysiak. Every cemetery has a great many stories to tell.

Below: the village of Stromiecka Wola, on a day like today, a beauteous sight, the quintessence of rural Mazovia.

There's a village called Biernik in the Puszcza Mariańska, near Żyrardów, also in Mazowieckie province, which is where 'Budy Biernickie' should have been adjacent to. Puszcza Mariańska is just a bit further from Mogielnica (the other way) than is Stromiec.

Fascinating stuff - more to look into!

This time last year:
Popping out for a drink

This time seven years ago:
In search of happiness

This time eight years ago:
Mercenaries and missionaries

This time nine years ago:
Spectacular sunrise, Jeziorki

Friday, 11 August 2017

Dziadzio's penknife - airport security here and there

When my father landed in Warsaw with Moni, she told me about that moment at security at Heathrow when they discovered his penknife among his carry-on luggage. They let him on the plane, reasoning, as Moni said afterwards, that the blade (two and a quarter inches long) was too short to penetrate the human chest as far as the heart. Another, unsaid, reason was probably that nonagenarians are the least likely demographic group to want to hijack a plane.

The incident was forgotten about until the return journey, with me accompanying my father on the Warsaw-Heathrow flight. At Okęcie, security also picked up the penknife, but were adamant that they'd not be letting it on the plane. My father protested that, while of little value in its own right, it was a precious possession of his of great sentimental value, something he'd had for many decades. But the security guys would not let Dziadzio on the plane with the knife, saying that should he produce it during the flight, someone might have a panic attack, and they would be blamed, not the passenger. The security guards said they'd let me take the penknife back out of the security area and make my own arrangements for its safe keeping.

This I did, but not having with me my wallet, I had no means of sending the penknife on to London from the post office on the first floor of the terminal. So I struck on brilliant idea of hiding it in a Cold War spy-style drop point from which I could retrieve it on my return.

Walking out of Departures I noticed the sliding doors are mounted in aluminium frames, with a hollow rear profile. Ideal! I could see the CCTV camera (top right in picture below), so it could see me. I knelt down next to the door-frame pretending to tie my shoe lace, then using my hand to push myself upright; as I did so, I slipped the knife round the side of the frame, out of sight.

And a week later, returning there yesterday evening, I made my way upstairs from Arrivals to Departures, turned left out the same door, stooped to "tie up my shoelace", put my hand behind the door frame... Bingo! There it was, just as I'd left it. It gave me great satisfaction to report to my father that his little penknife was safe in my hands.

Given that I nearly always travel light without any hold baggage, it will be sent back to London by post to avoid any such problems in the future. Indeed, the penknife, manufactured by Richards of Sheffield, England, is of little intrinsic value (ones identical to this, with picture of hippo, marked 'Africa', are available on Ebay for around $20). But it felt so good to have retrieved it.

Sixteen years after 9/11, we have become inured to airport security and grudgingly accept it as the price we pay for safe flight. But the incident of Dziadzio's penknife - consciously allowed onto a flight at one airport but refused by another - makes me realise that much of airport security is indeed theatre.

I am a frequent flyer, boarding a flight around 20 times a year. Going through security is something one does, it's not pleasant, but put away your ego to ensure a smooth passage through the terminal from street to plane. Every now and then I walk through the x-ray gate and the beeper goes off. I've stripped every smallest bit of metal off of myself, so I know it can only be one thing - the Random Passenger Beep. This is to reinforce the impression to other passengers that even should every single passenger conform totally to the demands of security - belts, watches, jewellery, glasses, footwear over ankle-high, nothing in any pocket - someone every now and then must make the thing go Beep. So it's preset to a random number. You're the 17th (or whatever) passenger going through - and Beep. Even though you are as clean as a (plastic) whistle.

At Luton you get shepherded into a full-body scanner. You are then patted down. The people doing this know full well there's nothing the matter with you, but they have to be seen to be doing this. Theatre. It is of course, highly humiliating to be treated as a potential terrorist threat.

At Okęcie, they can see that a middle-aged European guy does not fit the profile. But still the beeper went off, and the red light flashed. But instead of wasting time and resources on a thorough check of someone who's not in the least bit likely to try it on, they merely ask me to hold out my hands and pass a swab on a stick over my palms. "You may go." Great! Theatre achieved, passenger only minimally put out.

However, there are different differences. At Okęcie, your laptop must be taken out of its case, which cannot be put either under or on top of said laptop. Ideally, the case should go through the scanner in a separate tray. At Luton and Heathrow - not a problem, sir. The laptop can stay in its case or bag. Better scanners, I guess. One funny situation at Okęcie. I was flying with two camera lenses in my rucksack. I was told off for not taking all the electronic equipment out for the scan. I protested that a lens contains zero electronics, being merely glass, metal and plastic. The electronics are in the camera, which was indeed scanned separately. The security guys ummed and ahhed and finally said - triumphantly "but it is PART of electronic equipment". No point of arguing the toss. Just smile, say yes and go through. (At Luton I'd had no problem with lenses in rucksack).

So it's one rule here, one rule there. In the meanwhile, let us give conscious thanks that the security measures in place at our airports are preventing any further terrorist outrages in the air.

The picture of the tape measure and blade puts me in mind of the great, curiously haunting Jim Ford song Thirty Six Inches High, performed definitively by Nick Lowe, on his Jesus of Cool album.

This time three years ago:
Post-holiday detox diet starts today

This time four years ago:
Cycle ride up and down the S2 and S79 before they open

This time five years ago:
Kraks and back in a day by train 

This time six years ago:
Fountains by the New Town

This time seven years ago:
Old-School Saska Kępa

This time eight years ago:
The land, the light

This time nine years ago:
Rainbow over Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
Previously in Portmeirion

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

"Learn from your mystics is my only advice"

My brother's imagined lyrics from Roxy Music's Editions of You (from the band's second album For Your Pleasure) set us both thinking. The line of course is 'learn from your mistakes', but Bryan Ferry's lyrics were not particularly clear when listened to on a C90 cassette bootlegged from vinyl and played on a mono tape player.

The imagined line makes for an excellent starting point for a short post about how we seek out the sense and meaning of life.

Which mystic? Let me start with one mentioned to me recently by my brother - G.I. Gurdjieff. Many years ago, at least half a lifetime ago, I read his Meetings with Remarkable Men, intrigued by that heady late-19th/early-20th century mysticism which blended European, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern metaphysical influences. Learn from your mystics, but don't follow them. Take on their insights, mull them over, work through them. "The soul is the totality of moments of self-awareness." Well, that's one way of seeing it - but not the only one. Today, our mystics see a rich spectrum of possibilities rather than One Way; David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives gives 40.

As we grow older, our consciously observed experiences act as a scalpel that whittle down the inchoate confusion that surrounds us, that so overwhelmed us as children, into ever-sharper definition. The ways of nature and humans become less mysterious as we subject them to decades of conscious observation. But still we are far from total awareness. Still we seek answers and solutions. For instance, how can the good person overcome the evil person without resorting to evil?

The answer is out there for us all to seek. We will not have it delivered for us on a plate. Nuggets are to be found in the great religious works - but only nuggets, for us to smelt into a material from which parts for a working prototype can be made. How we choose to build it is up to us; but it will not have been handed down through the ages. Nor will it have been hidden in esoteric or hermetic writings of mystic philosophers. They will have seen a glint, a sparkle, yet the entirety lies above and beyond us all in the here-and-now. We can but evolve spiritually towards it, one life at a time.

We observe. Some of us see greater detail than others. We are curious. Some of us go to greater lengths to get answers than others. We judge - then we re-evaluate those judgments in the light of new insights and experiences. Some of us are continual learners; some of us don't bother. Others like to hold on to what they learnt as children and question it never. Is it laziness? Lower levels of consciousness? Regardless of your education or even your innate intelligence, if you are curious and questioning, if you observe consciously, your spirit will grow.

We live upon an unfolding continuum; we were, we are, we will be.

We will be intrinsically, spiritually better, but only as the result of learning, experiencing and putting the insights gained into practice; improving our behaviour continually. We should not strive for perfection but instead for continual improvement, slow, steady, incremental.

We die. We return to forever, to the infinite and eternal. "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back." Musicians - some musicians - the conscious, observant, curious musicians - are mystics. I'll leave it there with a line from Atlantic City by Bruce Springsteen from his album, Nebraska, that belongs to the ages.

This time last year:
Out where the pines grow wild and tall

This time four years ago:
Behold and See [Short story, Part IV]

This time five years ago:
A new-found fascination for Mars

This time six years ago:
Rhetorical question: why the fuss?

This time seven years ago:
Varsovians! Ditch the car - buy a quarterly karta miejska

This time eight years ago:
The limited interests of mankind's geniuses

This time nine years ago:
Into the fading light

This time ten years ago:
Ar y Ffordd i Pwyl Rhydd

I have written today; put down my thoughts; looking at Google Analytics I can see that by this time next year, this post should have been read by between four hundred and six hundred people, which fills me with satisfaction; I can go to sleep to rest easily, the day has been fulfilled.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Hammersmith, on the Thames

One of my favourite haunts in West London is the stretch of the Thames between Hammersmith and Chiswick. I'd spend many a summer evening here in the pubs and on the riverside paths and lawns; pleasure cruisers would make their way up and down stream, disco music blaring - The Hustle by Van McCoy from 1975 there in my memory. Pints of ale at the Blue Anchor, the Rutland, the Dove, the Old Ship and the Black Lion. And plenty of Brictorian architecture along the way.

From the roofs of these desirable riverfront properties, the views of the Thames - in both directions - must be truly uplifting. Note the raised step and solid wooden gate - a sign that flooding is a risk that householders have to live with.

Below: the view westwards towards Chiswick, visible on the bend of the river. Close to this viewpoint is the house, now occupied by the William Morris Society, from which in 1820 Sir Francis Ronalds sent the first electrical telegraph a distance of signal eight miles.

Below: the view eastwards towards Hammersmith Bridge. Note the sprawl of houseboats at anchor on the northern bank of the river.

Below: a floating residence upon the Thames has long been popular alternative to ultra-expensive bricks and mortar. The solid Victorian embankment stands over the river at low tide, exposing its muddy bottom.

Below: quintessentially English view; Georgian architecture, an MG Midget sports car parked outside. The high wall to the left backs onto the river. Down the passage to the left is the Dove, a charming and historic pub, in which it is said the poet James Thomson wrote the words of Rule Britannia!. At the far end of the passage is Furnivall Gardens, a popular park wedged between the roaring traffic of the Great West Road and the placid waters of the Thames.

Looking west down the passage with the Dove to the left. Many's the time I made my way here, the half-way point of the five-pub riverside stroll that starts at Hammersmith Bridge and ends at the Black Lion.

This is London at its best, day or night, summer or winter, if you're in town for several days, this walk is certainly worth it, especially if you call in at the pubs along the way for refreshment.

Below: bonus shot - a Rolls-Royce 25-30 HP Touring Limousine with bodywork by Park Ward, near Scotch Common, Ealing.

This time three years ago:
In search of quintessential English countryside

This time four years ago:
Behold and See - short story, Pt III

This time seven years ago:
Another return to Penrhos

Friday, 4 August 2017


A huge, huge thanks to Janusz for taking the trouble to find out more about my family, from the side of my father's mother, Stefania Dembińska, nee Witkowska. As I wrote, she originally hailed from Mogielnica; he mother's name was Teodora; and my father recalls meeting her cousin before the war, whose surname was Sepczyński. From these three pieces of information, Janusz has been able to track down my father's family back a further two generations.

Below: grave of my father's mother and grandmother, both buried in Bródno cemetery, Warsaw. Until now, my father had very few clues as to what came before.

Teodora Sepczyńska was born in 1865, the daughter of Piotr Dominik Sepczyński, aged 35, an illiterate cobbler of Mogielnica, and Franciszka, nee Świderska, aged 31. [Moni noticed a fair number of graves bearing the name Świderski in Mogielnica, so they are related to us as well!] Piotr and Franciszka had eight children, Teodora was the fifth.

Piotr and Franciszka were wed in Mogielnica in February 1852, when Piotr was 21 and Franciszka was 18. Piotr's parents, Michał and Rozalia, were by dead by the time he married. Franciszka's father, Andrzej Świderski, was unable to make the wedding for the same reason. Franciszka's mother, also Franciszka, nee Dawicka, was from Budy Biejkowskie, a village on the banks of the Pilica (which I visited, not knowing about a family connection, in May 2015)

My grandmother's birth certificate was in Russian; smotret w knigu widiet figu, so I can't tell you what was going on there. The Russian Empire had not forced itself upon the records of its Polish subjects in 1865 or 1852, but by the time my grandmother was born, Russian had become the official language for birth records.

Janusz also provided me with a link to my paternal grandparents' wedding certificate from 1920. An interesting detail emerges; my grandfather's address is given as ul. Łucka one thousand one hundred and fifty five - an impossibility, given that Łucka then and now only has buildings numbered from one to thirty-something. Curiously, this same address (ul. Łucka 1155) also features on the notarised copy of my father's birth certificate issued after the war. Initially, I assumed this was a mistake made by a sloppy communist-era clerk, but it now seems that the mistake had been made back in 1920.

This is all fascinating stuff, and thanks to the tools that Janusz has used, I will be able to do more genealogical digging. The fact that these records of our ancestors are available, scanned and digitised and available online, is a huge testament to the organisation powers and effort of the Catholic Church, the Polish state and an army of enthusiasts. Without our history, we are no one.

This time last year:
My father revisits his battleground

This time three years ago:
Over the hill at Harrow

This time four years ago:
Behold and See - the Miracle of Lublin - Pt 1.

This time six years ago:
Quiet afternoon in the bazaar

This time seven years ago:
The politics of the symbol

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Going back to the roots - journey to Mogielnica

My father's mother, Stefania Dembińska nee Witkowska, came from Mogielnica, a small town 70km south-west from Warsaw. She met my grandfather Tomasz Dembiński after the First World War. My father has never been to Mogielnica, so I thought it would be a good idea to take him there, along with Moni, to trace our family's rural roots. Below: the neo-Gothic church of St. Florian.

Mogielnica I've visited a few times, a small country town of 2,500 inhabitants. My father's mother, Stefania (1893-1975) came from around here, but he has few details. He said they had a farm which they had to sell at a low price because of the economy. We come to the cemetery to look for traces of family history.

We find three graves bearing the surname 'Witkowski'. My father recollects having family across the river in Warsaw, visiting them in Grochów. Although his mother was an only child, she had cousins, also originally from Mogielnica, with the surname Sepczyński. It is probable that Stefania Witkowska's mother Teodora, who died in 1943 and is buried along with Stefania in Warsaw's Bródno cemetery, was from the Sepczyński family. Moni scouts on ahead and finds a grave of the Sepczyński family, below.

Below: we find a few more graves of the Witkowski and Sepczyński families. The oldest contains the body of Ignacy Sepczyński, born 1805, died 1885. His wife Florentyna, 22 years his junior, died in 1917. Both reached the age of 80.

If these are indeed my father's grandmother's grandparents, it would mean that I can trace my roots back to 1805. Some genealogical digging is required!

The trip answered another question for my father. After his father's death in 1941, his mother would make trips back to Mogielnica to buy food, which she'd smuggle back into occupied Warsaw. Some she'd sell on, the rest would feed the family. How did she manage to do that, wondered my father, given the distance between Warsaw and Mogielnica? A horse-drawn wagon would take forever...

The answer was - narrow-gauge railway. Moni found the station that served Mogielnica, to the north of the town, from 1917 to 1988. The line, which ran through Grójec and Tarczyn, terminated at what is now Metro Wilanowska bus terminal, then Dworzec Południowy.

After our visit to the cemetery, we had lunch at Mogielanka, the town's only restaurant, where I paid 52 złotys (£11.17) for: cold beer, half-litre, two sparkling mineral waters, two soups and three massive main courses. My father's portion was so large, half of it served as his supper back home!

This time last year:
My father's walk around Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
What's the Polish for 'sustainability'?

This time five years ago:
Last chance to see Amber Gold's billboards in Warsaw

This time six years ago:
The Twilight Rambler

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

73rd anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising with my father

Back again, back to the building in which lived my father before the war and during the occupation. And the building in which General Chruściel "Monter" gave the order to launch the Warsaw Uprising. Of course my father didn't know this, but suspects that "Monter's" HQ might have been the flat in which a scout leader named Kamiński lived. Outside the building, ul. Filtrowa 68, in which my cousin's family has lived from the end of the war to this day, a wreath-laying ceremony is about to begin. The guards of honour await. The street is just how I imagined Warsaw prior to the uprising as a boy; wide, tree-lined streets, sun-dappled, with fine architecture on either side.

After the ceremony, my father becomes the focus of interest; he is unique in being a participant of the Uprising who lived in this very building, from 1926 until the morning of 1 August 1944.

Time for a family reunion; my father meets his two cousins Ala (left) and Hanna (right). Their three fathers were brothers. And see that photo on the wall? That's of my father, centre, with his brothers Jozef (left) and Zdzich (right)

Left: at Plac Narutowicza, my father is about to board the vintage tram heading up ul. Towarowa in the direction of Powązki cemetery. Two special heritage tramlines are operating on the day, T and W. Beautifully restored, they give an authentic taste of prewar public transport in the Polish capital. Respect to the guys who keep these trams going in concours condition.

Below: we reach Powązki military cemetery, where the main commemoration of 'W' Hour is to take place. A group of reenactors, wearing captured German camouflage smocks and whatever else they had to hand, are marching in step towards their assigned position.

It was a sweltering hot day, with temperatures in Warsaw exceeding 35C. Below: my father was treated as a star! Two girls stopped him to hear his story - and to get his autograph on an Uprising armband.

Below: my father met his colleagues from Batalion Odwet, by the unit's memorial. He reflects upon those who fell during the Uprising.

Below: on to the memorial of Batalion Golski, the unit with which my father fought for most of the Uprising. After the failed attempt to seize the SS barracks in Kolonia Staszica, soldiers from Batalion Odwet made their way across Pole Mokotowskie to join Batalion Golski, with whom they fought right through to the end. They were fighting in the area around the Politechnika. This is why students and graduates of that institution from the Korporacja or student fraternity (which has roots going back to 1908) tend the Golski memorial.

Below: my father gives an interview to Paddy Ney, and immediately, a small crowd on people gather to hear his testimony. The full interview can be watched online here.

The next stop was to pay respects at the grave of my father's younger brother, Jozef, who died aged 18, fighting with Batalion Miotła in Czerniaków. This time last year, Moni found the grave. Thanks to Peter Chudy for a photo that includes me in it!

On to the central Gloria Victis (glory to the vanquished) memorial in the centre of Powązki military cemetery. A great many people milling around, visiting the graves of family members who fell in the Warsaw Uprising. On the Metro heading back to Ursynów, people would shake my father's hand and thank him for their freedom - extremely touching gestures.

This time last year:
Godzina W remembered - a day of emotions

This time four years ago:
Godzina W commemorated in a more civilised way

Godzina W five years ago (2012)

Godzina W six years ago (2011)

Godzina W eight years ago (2009)

Monday, 31 July 2017

Ahead of the Big Day

Monday 31 July, the day before the big commemoration, and there's much to do. After a 6am wake-up call, my father and I travel by Metro to town to meet his old AK comrade from Batalion Odwet, Kazimierz Możdzonek. We are accompanied to the Warsaw Uprising Museum by three reenactors who have driven over all the way from Berlin overnight to be here for the commemorations.

Outside the museum there are speeches from Poland's president, Andrzej Duda and Warsaw's mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. But the one that really gripped the nation was by 100 year-old General Zbigniew Ścibor-Rylski, the last surviving leader of the Uprising, whose speech was particularly moving. "Poles must have respect to everyone, regardless what their point of view, their nationality or their faith".

Below: after the speeches and the awarding of medals, it's time for food. The food is good, and free, laid on by the City of Warsaw. So there's a scrum. And veterans of the Rising, whose day this is, did not have an easy time getting to the front of the queue for barszcz, pierogi, kaszanka and krokiety. Fortunately, there were many young volunteers on hand to help; a girl guide managed to get hold of a bowl of barszcz for my father.

After the event, crowds of people poured out of the museum; we headed to the bus stop to catch a bus towards ul. Królewska. Lots of people, all chatting and swapping stories.

Below: corner of ul. Świętokrzyska and Jasna. This is the main post office, and it was here that my father's father, Tomasz Dembiński, worked before the war, in PKO (then Pocztowa Kasa Oszczędnościowa - the post office savings bank). My father went to school in the building on the opposite side of ul. Jasna, on the site now occupied by new offices. Funnily enough, I also worked for a while on ul. Jasna, up by Pl. Dąbrowskiego.

Below: back in Jeziorki for a walk, at the northern pond, with Moni, who took these two photographs. Beautiful hot weather, cloudless sky, in time for sunset.

My father is enchanted by Jeziorki, and how beautifully the wetlands have been turned into a park that brings people closer to nature.

This time two years ago:
Once in a blue moon

This time three years ago:
A return to Snowdon - Wales' highest peak

This time five years ago:
On the eve of Warsaw's Veturillo revolution

This time six years ago:
Getting ready for the 'W'-hour flypast

This time seven years ago:
A century of Polish scouting

Sunday, 30 July 2017

My father's return to Warsaw, 2017

My father flew into Warsaw on Thursday night, ahead of him a week spent commemorating the Warsaw Uprising and seeing a bit of Poland. After a day's rest, the first call on Saturday morning was to the Polish army museum, to see the exhibition about the Szkoła Młodszych Ochotniczek (SMO), the school which my mother attended during the war.

Below: my father is greeted by the daughter of the first commandant of the SMO, Ala Szkuta, who was instrumental in organising the exhibition at the museum.

Below: we were lucky enough to have a guided tour of the exhibition by the two women who put it all together; Julia Pronobis, on the part of the museum, and Ala Szkuta representing the association of former pupils and their families and friends. My mother was for many years a member of the association, as were most of her friends from wartime years,

Next visit was to the house on ul. Filtrowa 68 where my father lived before the war and during the occupation. His niece Marynka still lives there, she invited us over for lunch. Below: my father, his niece and grand-nieces, Magda and Dorota.

Below: back in Jeziorki, where my father has a chance to see our new park complete with footpaths, benches, picnic areas, beach and piers.

This morning we set off to Pl. Starynkiewicza/ul. Lindleya for a special mass for the soldiers of my father's Home Army unit - II Batalion Szturmowy Odwet. We arrived early, so a walk around the vicinity was in order. Below: outside Dzieciątko Jezus (Infant Jesus) hospital, where my father was born back in 1923.

Below: inside the church of the Infant Jesus on ul. Lindleya. There's a plaque commemorating my father's unit. It was here that the mass was held.

Below: Band of Brothers and Sisters - six of the seven soldiers and nurses from Odwet who came for the commemoration, first at the church, then by the monument to the unit on ul. Wawelska. My father met most of them at last year's events.

Below: my father particularly wanted to revisit the place where he escaped death on 7 August 1944. He survived this massacre, on the corner of Wawelska and Al. Niepodległości.

This time last year:
My father's first visit to Warsaw in 40 years

This time two years ago:
What's worse - unemployment, or a badly-paid job?

This time three years ago:
A return to Liverpool

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

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

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

This time ten years ago:
Floods, rainbows and hope

Friday, 28 July 2017

What makes scenery scenic?

A thought-provoking article in last week's Economist has stayed with me these past few days - I keep thinking about it and feel I should take up the theme in a blog post.

What makes a scene, a landscape, a view, a vista appealing to the human eye? What makes it 'picturesque'? We have our individual preferences, but in general, a wooded hillside with a church steeple or castle turret will be seen by most people as more appealing than an industrial estate of grey oblong buildings and wall-to-wall asphalt. The former is where people would like to visit on holiday or retire to, the latter where many of us have to work.

Driving the hire car from Heathrow to Ealing, I passed through Hayes, part of the London Borough of Hillingdon, Gold Medal Winner of the Britain in Bloom final, 2015.

Sorry, but Hayes is a dump. Victorian industry - canal, railway, overlaid with 1930s industry and 1950s industry and modern day logistics, Hayes might have the odd bit of Bricktoriana here and there, but the general view as one drives northwards along the A312, the view is of large corrugated sheds on either side of a dual carriageway, electricity pylons marching alongside. Turn off the main road and endless rows of 1930s terraced housing stretch away eastwards towards Yiewsley, northwards towards Northolt and westwards towards Southall, then onward towards Greenford. Ugliness, ugliness and more ugliness.

As London's suburbs sprawled out west in the 1930s, there was no thought to how the human beings that were meant to live and work there would respond to their surroundings. No doubt better, it was thought at the time, than the cramped Victorian terraces from which they aspired to move.

This 80 square-mile slab of sprawl (bounded to the south by the Chertsey Road/M3, to the west by the Thames/Colne Valley /Ruislip Woods, to the east by Ealing and Isleworth and to the north by the Harrow Road/A404) has very little to commend it if you're seeking spirit-lifting scenery. Yes, there's Osterley Park and Horsenden Hill. But Alperton, Ickenham, Yeading, Harlington, Hounslow, Feltham will ultimately depress.

One bright spot is the Great West Road's Golden Mile, still full of wonderful Art Deco architecture, from the end of an era when factory owners cared more about how their industrial premises looked than how much they cost. I've written before about how Spirit of Place affects my mood. Perhaps there are people whose emotional state is entirely unmoved by whether they are surrounded by fine architecture or dismal sheds thrown up for the lowest price, but for me, I will seek out the scenic and choose to live and work in an aesthetically pleasing environment.

The Victorians might have thrown up plenty of jerry-built two-up two-downs, but the reason these were torn down in the second half of the 20th century was more to do with sanitation and damp than actual ugliness. Had those old houses been built to modern standards, but still looking the same, their charm would outgun a modern house of the same size.

After three days in the UK, I'm back in Poland, and I must say that South Warsaw is just so much better than West London from the point of view of the scenery and how it makes me feel.

Happier here.

This time last year:
Theresa May flies into Warsaw

This two years ago:
Announcing the start of the Radom railway line modernisation (not even half completed today!)

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

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

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

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

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

This time ten years ago:
Over the Peaks by bus

Saturday, 22 July 2017

My 20 years in Poland

It was on this day, 22 July, in the year 1997, that I did arrive in Poland for good. I had left Britain, my young family was to follow on a month later. A momentous day in my life. And so today marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of my life in Poland; just over one-third of my life has been spent here. And over one-sixth of my life has been covered by this blog.

Before the end of communism, I had only visited Poland five times - twice as a child (aged three and eight), and three times on the Polish parish youth group holiday Montserrat (see here).

But once the political and economic transformation got under way in Poland I began visiting more and more regularly - visiting family and friends, fact-finding, taking part in conferences, on business. I came as an election observer on behalf of the Polish Government in Exile, to witness the first free presidential elections across southwest Poland.

Coming over with increasing frequency, I found it annoying to have to buy a visa each time; because the UK still required visas from Poles, Poland reciprocated. And so I joined the campaign organised by the Federation of Poles in Great Britain for visa-free travel between the two countries. I wrote a number of letters to the media and to MPs. I pointed out, among other facts, that Russians living in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who'd been part of the apparatus of repression in those countries could travel freely to the UK, while Poles who'd bravely struggled to bring down communism had to queue - and pay for - visas. The campaign was short but intense; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gave in to pressure from the politicians. Prime minister John Major announced visa-free entry to the UK for Polish citizens in 1992. The following year, the Polish ambassador to the UK awarded me with a silver Order Zasługi from President Lech Wałęsa for my part in the visa campaign.

Now that travel to Poland became cheaper, I'd fly over more often. In early 1995, I was offered the chance for some communications consultancy work for Centertel, Poland's first, and at the time only, mobile telephone network. After four week-long assignments in 1995 and 1996, I was offered a full-time job in Warsaw as communications director for Poland's largest cable TV network, PTK (now a part of UPC). I jumped at the chance; at the end of June 1997 I left the Confederation of British Industry. After nearly 16 years there, nine of which I was managing editor of CBI News, it was time to move on.

Destiny was calling. All those Saturday mornings spent at Polish school, right through to A-level; Polish cubs and scouts, Polish youth clubs, all that Polishness would come into good use, along with my work experience in a top business organisation. Today I call it 'nation building' - helping to turn Poland into a normal, Western, European nation, ridding it of its old complexes and bad habits.

We moved to a house just across the way from Jeziorki, in nearby Pyry, renting for four and half years until our own house was ready for us to move in to, in February 2002. For the first month I slept on a mattress in a completely unfurnished empty house, waiting for our belongings to turn up with the family. I say 'completely empty', but this was the summer of floods; terrific rainfall and mosquitoes everywhere. Biting me. I'd splat them with whatever came to hand, and soon there were literally hundreds of splashes of my blood  decorating the newly painted white walls and ceiling of my empty room.

I'd cycle to work each day that first month - to an office on Konstruktorska. It was a moist, humid late-July and early-August; the smell of ripening fruit - wild mirabelle plums in the air. And there was much rain. Many of the roads around here were not asphalted back then; when it rained heavily, much of ul. Baletowa was under water between Farbiarska and Sarabandy.

For my first weekend in Poland I decided to get out of Warsaw by train and explore. On my fold-up Brompton bike I cycled to Warszawa Centralna, took a look at a large railway map of Poland, and decided to take a train to Nałęczów, on the line to Lublin, for no other reason than the fact that there was a narrow-gauge train from there to Opole Lubelskie - an interesting thing to see.

By 1997, Warsaw was starting to look modern. There were foreign banks, cash machines, supermarkets (Rema 1000, Billa, Géant - remember them?), mobile phones that no longer required a briefcase-sized battery; but there were still many hangovers from the old days, not least in people's thinking.

The human development I've witnessed in 20 years in Poland has been akin to what happened in the UK over a far longer period. Poland has really done well, all things considered. No country's perfect; most countries have better and worse patches in their history. But strong countries are those that can weather those tricky times and emerge the stronger for them.

After 20 years, I've no regrets about having moved from the UK to Poland. None. Zero.

This time last year:
PiS, Brexit, Trump and cognitive bias

This time four years ago:
Portmeirion, revisited, again

This time five years ago:
Beach day, Llyn Peninsula

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

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

Friday, 21 July 2017

Local democracy, winners and losers

After winning bigly in the 2015 participatory budget (budżet partycypacyjny), the finished results of which are our splendid park, this year saw Jeziorki missing out. The results were announced a week ago. The top three projects voted for by residents of Zielony Ursynów (green Ursynów - the part of the district west of ul. Puławska) were all to the extreme north - on ul. Kłobucka. The projects garnered between 700 and 900 votes; the project everyone in Jeziorki was rooting for - comprehensive traffic calming measures - got just 420 votes.

In previous years, 400 votes was enough for one of our local projects to get through. Since then, the urbanisation of Kłobucka - a formerly run-down industrial part of Ursynów - has moved on apace. Google Maps satellite view shows the area as a massive building site. But now the work's completed, people have moved in, and they're voting for pavements and parking bays. And winning. Next year, more people will have moved in, and no doubt because of the housing density (flats rather than houses set in large gardens), they will continue to win projects for themselves. In a few years' time, the notion of Kłobucka being a part of Zielony Ursynów will become patently untrue. It would be fairer to apportion a part of the overall Ursynów budget for the new blocks to the north of ul. Poleczki. Different specifics, different needs.

Still, their need for pavements are greater than ours down here in Jeziorki Południowe. Full list of projects, the winners and the losers, here.

Our greatest need is traffic calming measures. Far too many drivers use the local roads as rat-runs to avoid the notorious Puławska traffic jams. And far too many of those drivers drive too fast. In an area where pavements are few, they have little idea of how stressful it is to walk as a vulnerable pedestrian faced with cars zooming past, not separated from you by a kerb. Sitting protected by a ton or more of metal, it is easy to ignore the fragile human beings walking, or pushing prams, or cycling. And far too many drivers are using their phones while at the wheel.

The answer is more signs limiting speeds to 30km/h, and more speed bumps. Don't like it? Use Puławska. Keeping speed down to 30km/h, massively reduces the chances of injury should a pedestrian get hit.

In the meanwhile, I am deeply thankful for our lakeside park. It is beautiful, it's wonderful for walks, for birdwatching, for exercising, for relaxing. Below: bench and bin, marked with the cogwheel-and-circle logo of Warsaw's Budżet Particypacyjny.

Next year, I'll make a greater effort to mobilise neighbours to suggest and vote for projects. It's worth doing. Just look at that lovely lake...

Below: bonus shot - new industrial premises on ul. Baletowa. Nice neo-moderne architecture.

Finally - a pleasant surprise this evening soon after taking the above shot. I turned into ul. Sarabandy and was warmly greeted by a young man and his mother who are regular readers of this blog. They said how funny it is that the only regular source of local news about Jeziorki happens to be in English!

This time three years ago:
The Second Summer of Cider

This time four years ago:
North Wales in the sun

This time five years ago:
Back at Penrhos

This time seven years ago:
A farewell to Dobra