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.