Thursday, 22 December 2011

Christmas Lights and Presents

Someone said to me yesterday that they thought that the Christmas tree was the most important part of the holiday. Whilst I suspect that that was just an emotion generated by the tree buying and decorating occasion, lights are special. These are the ones spread over a willow and rose bush, with last night's frost on the branches making an extra show.

One of the traditional tasks when putting out the Christmas lights is to sort out which bulbs are not working and replace them. Whilst I hope the new type of lights will last much longer and not need replacing, I still have enough of the old ones to make this necessary. I did manage to get most of the strands on the willow working, but some replacement bulbs would just add a couple more. There followed a search around every potential shop in Janki, but, as I had expected, there weren't any of the type I needed.

However, I did come across a shop called Jula, which was compensation of a sort. This is in the worst part of Janki from my point of view, being completely invisible behind the bit behind the hated IKEA. Fortunately, it had posters showing the way and, although it didn't have the light bulbs I wanted, it had various other things of interest.

My old Hama quick battery charger was low cost and has lasted me for years, but now has problems with AAA batteries. Jula had a low cost ordinary charger, a reasonable cost fast charger and this high cost very fast charger (100zl). It's more than I would normally think of paying, but it is a dream charger. In addition to high speed charging it has an in-car attachment, which I was thinking of buying anyway, and the ability to charge an odd number batteries. The latter now gives the amazing ability to see if one of a pair of batteries has failed and needs to be thrown away.

Jula is a Swedish company, previously selling also in Norway, but now with two shops in Poland (both Warsaw). It is a sort of DIY type supermarket, but with other odd bits and pieces thrown in. See the website (not in English) for more information. It even had a good stock of wild bird food, well outclassing Lidl's short availability. Mixed seeds were just 5zl a kilo, whilst peanuts (not on the website though) were slightly cheaper. Whilst I had stocked up when I was in Berlin, this provided a timely addition that I hope will see me through the winter. I had just bought a birdtable with stand for 60zl from a small roadside cabin near Piaseczno, which now stands right outside the kitchen window.

This attracted not only the normal birds, but gave me my best pictures yet of the (I think) sparrowhawk (krogulec).

Maybe I will get a good picture someday: I keep trying.

Anyway, having got the bird food in a foreign shop, I thought I would try the pet supermarket in Janki to see if they now have any. At last, they have some, at 20zl a kilo. For the cost of two of those - a week or so's supply, I could buy a bird feeder and four kilos of wild bird food in Jula. What do they think I am? Nuts?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Beautiful Books for Christmas

Christmas is coming and the list of people you want to buy gifts for is looking fat, whilst the wallet of ideas feels pretty small. There are many beautiful photographic books about Poland that might be appropriate for someone. Browsing through my bookcase I came across this example.

An alternative book title might be 'Architecture of the River Nida Valley'. It's by a local father and son team.

It wasn't actually a Christmas present, but comes from the time when I was working in the Holy Cross Region (Świętokrzyskie). Giving books of the local area was - and may still be - a standard way of regional and local authorities thanking guests for work in the region. This one being a much appreciated and unexpected gift from Kazimierza Poviat: I was working at regional level rather than with them directly.

The book sadly seems to be long out of print. Most of the photographs are of outstanding quality. However, Andrzej and Krzysztof published another book, Landscape of Ponidzia in 2004, which might still be available. I think the picture below is a view over the fields of Młodzawy Duże.

The example photographs are pretty much randomly chosen when flicking back and forward through the book. There are English language titles for the pictures, as well as an introduction to the area. As it says, this is the castle in Książ Wielki.

This sort of book would be an excellent starting point for someone wanting to take a country break. I remember walking holidays with great fondness from my school days and am particularly reminded by the pictures of walking in the Wye valley, not that the Wye Valley had anything to compete with the Ponidzia. This is a wooden church from 1527 in Chotelek Zielony, just Chotelek since 2006. What chance would a casual visitor have of a perfect day for a photograph like this? The church would be hidden by leaves in summer. (I'm adding links to English Wikipedia, but Polish readers should check the Polish original: it usually contains much more information.)

Every time I look at the book, I want to go back. I was so close, but I missed so much. I must have visited or just been through many of these places, but work pretty much enveloped my attention. These are the ruins of an 1853 late-classical synagogue in Działoszyce, once a 90% Jewish town.

There are so many beautiful places and pictures: over 170 pages. This is a street in Pinczów. Its quite ordinary in many ways, but even this is made to look interesting. (As you might tell, my pictures here are just with the book placed on the table top: flash assisted snaps. The original quality is much better.)

The human history of the area dates way back. One of the source rivers of the Nida flows from the Holy Cross Mountains to the north, with it's vast stone-age flint mines, mass production iron smelting and working centre for the free tribes fighting the Romans, and a large range of metal working sites from the area's period of industrial dominance in the water-power era. Back in Ponidzia, however, this is an 8th century hill fort in Stradów.

Still on any journey, even imaginary, there is a time to return home. As a farewell to the Architecture of Ponidzia, a picture of the 1802 Palace in the 1,000 year old village of Bejsce, which was designed by Jakub Kubicki who is credited with the palace here in Młochów.

I hope that the copyright owners will accept my reproduction as an acceptable tribute to their work. The book credits are:

Click here for a number of pictures of Jakub Kubicki's work.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Vigilante Killing

The quick shower of snow prevented me from doing what I had planned,

From 2011 12

So I thought I would look again at a film that I would call something like 'Vigilante Killing' as the Polish title 'Lincz' (pronounced lynch) isn't about a lynching as I understand that in English.

The film is basically about how law, on the one side, and justice, on the other, should treat a gang of local villagers who beat to death a violent hoodlum who was terrorising their womenfolk: a recent real life story. The police lacked the resources to give them immediate help.

The hoodlum is brilliantly played by Wiesław Komasa: the best presentation of a villainous character that I can think of in any Polish film. I couldn't find a worthwhile clip of his role that I could embed, but there is a short one at, which gives a general idea. Although he comes across well in the clip, the whole performance in the film is much better, with the camera getting capturing his moods and personality. The following clip has him talking about the film in Polish, much of which is on the DVD "making of...", which has English subtitles.

It was only on seeing the "Making of..." today that I realised what the ultimate failure of the film was (for me) in dealing with the issue of law and justice. The gang catch and beat up the villain as no-one else (ie the Police) could do anything. That's fine. The fact that they beat him so severely that he dies is something I could understand emotionally, especially as no one could prove that they intended to kill him, but, ultimately, I would agree that the law should be there to prevent this level of unnecessary violence: a manslaughter/second degree murder conviction and punishment would be understandable. However, that the gang just left him there to die without calling an ambulance or even just calling the police to say that they had got the man and where to find him, pushes the action into the boundary between plain murder and manslaughter. Despite my normal prejudice that Polish prosecutors are out to cynically get the best result for themselves, I found myself fully in sympathy with the prosecutor. To find at the very end that there was such strong public sympathy for the killers that they were given a presidential pardon was quite shocking.

However, the film pretty much just left it hanging there and I couldn't tell what the film was trying to say. The "Making of ..." explained it all. The director thought everyone would know from the real life story that the killers were innocent and shouldn't have been convicted. He didn't therefore feel any need to make any case for it in the film. It was all about the harshness and unfairness of the law and the cynical nature of the prosecutor, which instead of being obvious to me, suggested that he was probably right. (Nicely and sympathetically acted by Krzysztof Franieczek, although it was just a standard handsome prosecutor role. Interestingly from the commentary, he was trying to be harsh and cynical, but I thought he portrayed an independent and objective law official.)

I must also mention Tamara Arciuch who, I think unintentionally, looked extremely evil as the defence attorney, but her lines were 100% TV cop show stereotype.

Anyway, what the film brought home to me is the value that a jury has in arbitrating between law and justice. Poland doesn't have a jury system and, as I think the film intended to portray (but failed), there can be harsh justice when all that is taken into account is the letter of the law. This can never be written in a way that could cover all eventualities requiring human sympathy. The film seems to think prosecutors should do this, but should they be concerned about enforcing the law rather than making personal judgements? I don't want to claim the jury system is better - I have no idea and no view, so I can see what the issue is, but I do not see any solution and the film doesn't help me in anyway in considering what the solution might be.

The "Making of ..." has the Director explaining that one of the features of the case is the difference between the cities ans the rural areas. However, his portrayal of the killers and their families as poor uneducated hicks in a lawless wild west seems in itself to be the standard view of city sophisticates. He does not come across as fair to them, but completely patronising. Is unnecessarily beating someone to death really something one should accept in rural areas, but not in cities?

I do take away the reinforced message that the value I put on human life is higher than that of many Polish people, although I find it interesting from the film that the law and it's officials seem to agree with me. Maybe, however, I'm just a sensitive city guy? Well, I also take away the idea that I am more violent. When I watched the the clip in the film itself, my immediate thought was "why did the guy with the shovel use the flat part to hit the villain. I would have used the cutting edge and really have done some damage". (I also thought the director had made a complete mess of the timing between the knife coming down and the shovel being used: the man being attacked on the ground would already have been dead.) That would have been an obvious and justifiable way of settling the whole thing.

Once (long before the film) when I was swinging my axe when cutting wood for the fire, I wondered what would happen if an intruder (eg burglar) came along and I killed him: the middle sized axe would be a more practical choice as the large axe would be less manoeuvrable, if more immediately lethal. The British answer to this is that 'reasonable' or 'appropriate' force should only be used, which may be difficult to judge, but at least I have some sort of guideline. (I would have called the police immediately, of course.) Although the film doesn't really help with the legal consequences, I could at least hope to get away with murder and be pretty certain of becoming a media hero.

Still, taste in films is very different for different people. The adverts for the film call it the most moving Polish films for ages. Personally, I wonder whether a director with more talent could take the raw footage and make something better: re-editing; sharpening of the pictures to make it appear more real and less ethereal (eliminating all the digital colouring, one of the curses of unskilled modern movie making) and changing the music. The film could be a completely different and challenging work. Mind you, the standard, unemotional (urban?) Polish acting style makes everything seem underplayed, so it might still fail. There's a scene where an old women in the film could have been given that incredible high pitched screeching pleading sound: it would have been a perfect dramatic moment. One sees/hears the sound so much on TV news, etc, but it seems taboo for films. There is an actor - the one on the ground in the clip - that I would have said was totally miscast, being fat and soft looking - very urban affluent, whilst playing a poor, rural outdoor worker. However, he won a best newcomer award, so what do I know?

As a final comment on the film, another compliment of sorts: the film makes good use of 5.1 surround sound, which is unusual enough for Polish films that a person watching with me commented on the high sound quality.

On another film, whatever happened to the "Battle of Warsaw"? It sounded pretty dire, but it had a quick round of opening advertising publicity and then seemed to disappear into the ether: I didn't hear anyone talking about it to recommend it or otherwise. A Chicago Polish film prize for innovation: it was in 3D, fine but what about the quality of the film? Is it so bad that, like Katyn, it will quickly appear as a cheap magazine film: 9.99 or 12.99 zloties and then soon after as an 8zl ex-magazine film?

Monday, 5 December 2011


There's a special reason to visit Berlin at the moment: a museum exhibition called "Side by Side. Poland – Germany. A 1000 Years of Art and History at the Martin Gropius Bau. It ends on 9 January, so you'll have to hurry.

From 2011 12

It's the best single collection of artefacts and pictures from Poland that I have seen, probably because it contains specially selected items from a range of museums in Poland plus some German items. Entry costs 12 euros, which I reckon is worth it if you have the money, although we did have complimentary tickets.

The museum building is on the southern side of a remaining section of the Berlin Wall.

Now that the western section of the Polish motorway from Poznan to the German border has been opened, the journey by car between Warsaw and Berlin only takes six to seven hours and it is incredibly simple once you get on the motorway: keep going west until you get to the Berlin Centre road (the 113), carry on until you get to Templehof, where you turn right and drive straight into the centre. We stopped for a quick comfort break on Wilhelmstrasse just beside the Berlin wall section at the Martin Gropius Bau, though we didn't know it at the time: the white building on the right hand side below. The covered area is an exhibition of the remains of SS buildings from the war.

I must admit that I spent the whole of the first evening trying to figure out if we were in old West or East Berlin. I knew from the map that we were west of Checkpoint Charlie (by a couple of hundred metres), but the buildings looked communist style. It was only the next day that I found that the movement between East and West Berlin was from north to south.

McDonald's is just on the American side of the border, seen here from the Wall location to the north, marked on the ground.

A three day visit, including travelling, is really too short at the moment, given the short days and the potential, as we had, for wet and cold (but not freezing) weather. The light was pretty much gone by 5 o'clock.

However, we were happy walking a couple of kilometres in the dark, which took us to the eastern sights.

Such as the Berlin Wheel

A short detour by the river, as the first bridge was closed.

Our vantage point from the rooms we rented has us overlooking what appears to be some surviving buildings from the pre-war period: this being the soviet sector, north of the wall.

There was time to see some of the standard sights such as the Reichstag, which has special historic importance for Poland.

It is here that the Soviet and Polish flags hung together in the liberation of Berlin at the end of the Second World War ... maybe.

I don't know whether it was trick of the light, but my general impression of the colour of Berlin was creamy brown rather than the dull grey I would have expected in dark rainy weather. The leaves on the ground in the Tiergarten being a spectacular orangey brown.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Is Italian Coffee Best?

I got to like an Espresso - a very small, strong black coffee, when I was working in Romania. It always seemed to have a good flavour: a feature I didn't find in Italy. Even an Italian professor who was working with me grudgingly accepted it was good and, usually, hot.

Although the name remains confusing, a Polish Espresso with milk - a standard coffee from the espresso machine, as served in many restaurants and cafes, can match (and often beat) an equivalent coffee from anywhere.

Although I appreciate that few Italians would approve, I do think that the coffee from Trattoria Pepe Verde beats everything.

From 2011 10

It is Grannel coffee, which I have never heard of before.

As I am sure you can guess, it is in Poland at ul Lączności 1B in Łazy (pron. Wazy), on the border with and Magdalenka. Łazy lies on the Krakow/Warsaw road, some way before Janki and well after Grójec when coming into Warsaw.

It is a comfortable, attractive restaurant and the service by very friendly, helpful waitresses is astounding, at least for my cups of coffee.

I used to sit outside when the weather was suitable for tables on the terrace, but now stand Italian cafe style, at least as my Italian colleague used to describe it. The girls used to bring me a chair, but I actually prefer to stand and look around.

It is very convenient for me as Misia's school is just round the corner. I can just go out a bit early and have a relaxing refreshment break. On both this next and the last picture, Misia's class were cleaning up the graves of Polish resistance fighters and others executed by Germans in the forest nearby: it was just before All Saints' Day. Misia has a green jacket and a Union Jack hat.

Despite being a regular visitor I haven't yet eaten there, which will be reserved for an occasion for all the family or when no one else is at or due home, so Misia and I can eat together. However, from a quick look at the menu and a more detailed study of the board outside, it's the place to go for people who think that pizza is an overly complicated form of cheese on toast and that pasta is the Italian equivalent of potatoes.

The daily specials start on Monday with cream sauce, asparagus, cocktail tomatoes and parma ham; Tuesday has pork cutlet with mozzarella and tomato; and so on. They do have pizza, of course, as it wouldn't be an Italian restaurant without one ... unless it was in Italy. Misia likes pizza, so last time we were in Italy we left one restaurant that didn't serve it. The next had different entrances and different menus to separate the part that served pizza and the main restaurant, although the dining area was completely open.

I also remember being invited to a 'real' Italian restaurant near Victoria station in London. They also didn't serve pizza, but beef was instead heavy on the agenda. Would you expect that from an Italian restaurant? Well, there was an item on Polish teletext not long ago saying that Italians eat too much red meat. Not that I would expect such an emphasis from a Polish Italian restaurant.

On the other hand, I also used to know a restaurant in Camden run by an Italian called Luciano, who employed many Polish waitresses. The food was little more than English roadside cafe fare, but with prices to suit rock stars: Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin members, etc. It was also the type of place where complaining about the food could successfully get it replaced with something freshly cooked, together with a secretly added salival bonus from an ill-tempered Italian cook. Still, that's someone else's story.

I think everyone in Trattoria Pepe Verde is Polish. They do seem to care.

It means 'green pepper', as in salt and pepper, if you weren't sure. "Dried green peppercorns are treated in a way that retains the green colour, such as treatment with sulphur dioxide, canning or freeze-drying." They are otherwise the same as black pepper. I just thought I'd check.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The First Hard Frost

Today was the first hard frost, sugar-coating the land.

From 2011 11

It wasn't that much colder than recent frosts, but the dip of around two degrees to -4C made a spectacular difference.

Still, it was cold enough not to want to delay my delivery home of Babcia's bread rolls, even though there was a particularly spectacular view of the trees along the road in Walendów. They were snowy white, quite unlike the autumn colours of a couple of weeks ago.

Although it's glory rapidly faded, the frost in places lasted through the morning. The birds in the garden seemed undismayed, feeding as usual.

A couple of weeks ago, Lidl had a garden bird selection of products, including the first ever in Poland, that I have seen, wild bird food. The peanut holder came from there a couple of years ago. This time I picked up a gravity feeder, which has also proved popular. I put it in a more open (and less easily photographed) area of the garden to see if it would attract different birds. Nothing new so far, although the greenfinches like it more than the birdtable and they don't use the peanut feeder at all.

The gravity feeder primarily had unshelled sunflower seeds, which I have used to refill it, but combining it with shelled sunflower seeds. These are respectively 8zl and 7zl a kilo loose from Tesco. (Having shelled seeds cheaper than unshelled seems particularly weird.) They get through a kilo in a few days, however. The best I can do for peanuts is the unsalted human variety. They get through the 450 gram packet in a few days at the moment, mainly because of the flocking sparrows, but everyone just loves watching them. (Stopping and starting in the film can be eliminated, or at least reduced, by pausing the film and letting it load before playing.)

The music is Psalm, recorded live in Vienna by a group of three Polish accordionists called Motion Trio. I downloaded a number of tracks from, but they seem to have been deleted.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Warsaw by Night, OK?

Having written the last post, I was quickly reminded that some people prefer living in the city, at least some of the time. Sure: no problem. My preference to live outside partly reflects the fact that I no longer have to commute in every day, combined with the London feeling that much of the greater city's urban area is so grotty that would be better to travel further distances from more pleasant housing areas, if only one could afford it. This is standard commuter stuff in London, which applies far to less to the more pleasant conditions in Warsaw.

From 2011 10

Even living on the edge of Warsaw in Jelonki, I was only some 6km from the centre with the efficient tram service making the journey to work an easy task. Driving in outside the rush hour was very easy, whilst the rush hour just required a little patience. Parking can take a bit of time driving around at peak periods, but it is always possible. Living well within the urban London area, I was still some 11 km from work. Commuting train and bus services were appalling and leisure travel to the centre rarely even considered. Friends who came from outside did have problems with trains, but this was occasional rather than routine: falling asleep on the train and passing the stop on the way home was as much of a worry.

What I probably miss most about wandering around Warsaw centre is seeing and being enticed by new restaurants. It is now only some half an hour's drive into the centre in the evening and the effort isn't much greater than it was from Jelonki, but just not regulalry being there means that we don't know about and try different places. Although this is called the Brazil Brewery, it seemed to be a combined restaurant and bar: it looked great and the music was good. I was killing time on my own before going to the theatre when I saw it, so didn't try it. As it would need joint approval before we went there, the lack of ability to do this may mean I never go.

I'm greatly disappointed by Polish theatre, but am always interested to go: I never went in London so I can't compare it. I very occasionally attend opera, although again purely out of interest: it's not my kind of thing. Arranging these and attending is no harder from where we live than it would be in Warsaw and I do feel that "it's a long journey back so we haven't got time to go to a restaurant" is really just an excuse for getting home quickly: we have time if we want.

I do like the sights of the city, but that is made even more enjoyable be not being there continuously or, when I first went to Warsaw, by being in a different place. After 55 years living amongst brick, concrete and tarmac, a couple of years in semi-urban countryside hasn't diminished my sense of wonder in something new.

Whilst wandering around, I do like to find somewhere to get a cup of coffee. I'd stopped at a coffee shop when I arrived - the coffee and service neither being up too much, but I had time to wander further, with the pictures here resulting. I came across one of the new Ruch kiosks, which I have joked about in a previous post.

This actually has a coffee machine, which I had to try. The man was very friendly and came out to help me. Actually, it was just a matter of putting the cup in the holder and pressing the button, but I guess some people have problems. Chatting to him, he told me that these kiosks are being put all along Marshal's Road (Marszałkowska). They are light, open and friendly looking places and much more attractive than the old ones.

This picture isn't his kiosk, as there wasn't a good place to rest the camera to get even this fuzzy picture. The large glass front, allowing one to see both the person in the shop and the things they have to sell, looks much better than the old style letterbox access point. I wondered whether the heating had been improved, but even though the frosts had not then set in, he was already cold. It is probably not a good place to sit when the real winter comes in. On the other hand, the coffee was hot, which gave it a major advantage over the coffee shop I had visited earlier, no matter the quality of the coffee. I wondered whether they have a toilet, but didn't ask.

Whilst speaking of coffee and toilets, I was intrigued to find that a McDonald's coffee shop had been opened at Maximus near us. I do not like their food and their machine coffee isn't brilliant, so I was looking forward to being able to get a decent cup of coffee whilst everyone else was eating.

I ordered a large coffee with milk. The man serving took some time and effort in producing a very large cup of coffee, which in size and looks appeared to be halfway between a normal coffee with milk and a French style cafe-au-lait: a large bowl of coffee tasting milk. The result turned out to be cold and tasteless. Having drunk about two thirds, I decided to compare it with the machine coffee from behind the main food counter. This was hot and stronger and the coffee itself seemed to taste much the same. I didn't even bother with the coffee counter the next time.

It's a nice looking place, though.