Friday, December 13, 2013

I Saw Warsaw

A few days ago, I embarked upon a new adventure: SFO > IAD > BRU > WAW.

I was surprised to awaken about fifteen minutes before landing in Brussels. I must have gotten a decent amount of sleep.

Perhaps I have United to thank for that. It would seem that they did a not so subtle editing job on World War Z.

One moment - SPOILER ALERT - zombies are voraciously working their way from the back of the jet to the front... Clearly this is a situation that can't end well. The situation is getting out of control. The pilots are donning their oxygen masks. The camera switches back to Brad Pitt... Then the screen fades to black.

"Huh?" I wondered aloud. "That's weird." For a few moments I couldn't figure out the reason for the fade out. Next thing I know Brad and Segen regain consciousness in a field in Cardiff, Wales.

"Oh, I get it," I exclaimed. United edited out the plane crash. How very considerate of them. Remind me not to bother watching Flight aboard a United flight.

Hmmmm... I seem to recall that I sat down to write about Warsaw. Let me get back on track.

So I wake up in Brussels, crash in the club during my layover, then hop my final leg to WAW.

I landed there sometime afternoon. BTW... If I don't seem terribly clear on the exact chronology of my itinerary, that's intentional. One of my strategies for overseas travel is to fight jetlag through pure ignorance. I keep track of when I need to board each flight, and when I'm about to land I note what time my next departure is, but once I've landed in a destination, I try to purge any recollection of what the exact timing was. If I don't know the exact timing, I won't know whether or not to be tired. And if I can remain oblivious to the time back home, then I guess there's no good reason to be tired.

This trip came about fairly quickly because I have fallen short of 100,000 miles this year, and I needed to make a miles run. What little time that I had before departing for this trip was a hectic, frenzied mess, so I didn't have much time to prepare - let alone learn to speak Polish.

Imagine if you will, flying thousands away from home into a far flung city whose inhabitants speak a language you don't understand. Sounds like a stupid thing to subject oneself to, right?

Actually one of the reasons that I love to travel is that it immerses me into a situation I'm not familiar with. The language is different, the food is different, the music is different, the public transit is different. Landing in a city like Warsaw is like a challenging game for me. I've got to either figure things out on my own or - Egads! - seek help from others.

I have no experience with any language even close to Polish, so I knew that the language barrier was going to make things tough. This time, however, I had a big advantage that I didn't have twenty years ago when I started this crazy life of travelling. I leveraged resources on the Internet. I used Google Maps to survey the city layout. I used YouTube to find videos about what's what in Warsaw.

One video was particularly useful. The guy narrating the video explained and showed how to get the train to Warsaw Centrum.

I finally got around to watching that video about an hour before I landed in Warsaw. The key thing I learned is the word for train: pociąg.

I bought my ticket and found my way to the train station.

The train was modern, fast, convenience, and insanely cheap. The twenty minute ride was a  whopping 4,40 zł (approx. $1.50). I was anticipating ten times that much... easily.

One of the things that I enjoy about riding on trains is the colorful graffiti that train routes inevitably attract.  

One of my on-going photography projects involves graffiti and street art from all over the world.

Trains are a great place to see extensive amounts of graffiti, but trains tend to be a terrible platform from which to photograph it.

Take this bench for example. When trying to take photos from a train, I don't have the luxury of contemplating whether a particular item is worth photographing. I just have to shoot and find out later whether any of the photos are worthwhile. Ignoring the subject matter of this bench artwork, notice that the photo is messed up by the reflection in the window.

If I had my 30D, I could pop my polarizing lens on and get rid of that reflection. But I left the 30D home. I'm travelling very light this trip, so my only camera is my iPhone.

Tangent (as if all this graffiti discussion isn't a tangent already)... One of the things I'm pleased about this trip is that I've left all my luggage behind. While I ordinarily only bring carry on and my computer backpack, this trip I only have the latter. I'm travelling internationally with a single backpack - a very small one at that.

Travelling with so little reminds me of travelling around the world with just a backpack. One of the things I experienced travelling around the world with just a backpack is the freedom of having all of one's belongings in a single bag on one's back.

Okay, back to photographing from trains... 

Another challenge with photographing from a train is that unless your camera supports a high shutter speed - the iPhone does not - you know that you're going to get blurred photos. No surprise, I got blurred photos. But I like the following one:

More times than not, if I take a blurry photo, the photo is ruined. But this one works (for me any way).

A short twenty minutes after leaving the airport, I arrived at Warszawa Centralna. From there I made my way to my hotel, got checked in, relaxed for a short while, and then plunged out into the city. I only have two days (pretty luxurious compared to the miles runs other folks make), so I don't have a lot of time to sit around relaxing.

I headed east on Aleje Jerozolimskie towards Nowy Świat. Along the way, I noticed a mosaic on a building.

Maybe it's all those years reading left to right, but the first thing that I noticed was the grenade. Clearly the artist has a point of view to express.

I have no one to ask, so I just have to make crude guesses what the intent is behind much of the things - not just art - that I encounter. I don't know the story behind this particular mosaic, but it seems pretty clear to me that it's about armed struggle.

I think that the mosaic, got me into the right frame of mind to begin to understand Warsaw. It's easy enough to plop myself into a city and just do the touristy stuff. I confess that my destination on this particular walk was the old town. I knew that it was going to be touristy.

This mosaic reminded me to look beyond the fluffy touristy stuff. So I started thinking about the little I know about Poland and Warsaw in particular.

Much of what I learned in history is history in my mind. I don't mean that in a good way. I remember general impressions about different periods of time, but if you were to quiz me on dates or dig into any details about the portions of history that I learned long, long ago... I wouldn't come up completely blank, but I don't think I'd be impressing anyone.

As I'm walking along, I'm dredging through my brain for what I learned about Warsaw. The main historical event that jumped out at me was the invasion of Poland by Germany in World War II.

I turned north onto Nowy Świat. As I walked towards the old town, I could see that the street was decorated for Christmas. It was still light out - though that wouldn't last long - so the Christmas lights weren't lit yet. But the street was nicely decked out for the holiday.

My walk took me past Kościół Św.Krzyża (
Church of the Holy Cross), Tyszkiewicz Palace, and a bunch of other beautiful buildings that I knew nothing about and didn't have the time or language skills to figure out. But by employing modern technology after the fact, I've figured out what these places are.

Churches tend to be easier places to figure out. Once you figure out certain key words like "Kościól", you can piece the rest together. Take Kościól pw. Opieki św Józefa Oblubieńca (Church of St. Joseph) for example.

It is clearly a church. So you go look for a sign that says
"Kościól blah blah blah". Find the "blah blah blah" part and you've got it.

Brief photography tangent... Compare my photo above to the photo on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia photo is shot under better lighting conditions. It's got a bit of that golden light thing going on. It's got shadows which gives it depth. It's got an interesting sky in the background. But the composition is unimaginative. One of the things I enjoy about photography is composition. I'm no expert, but I enjoy trying. I find it a fun challenge to take a mediocre camera, under less-than-ideal lighting conditions, with visually distracting items in the scene (you can't see what's behind the statue, can you?), and to use composition to make a good picture out of a bad situation.

I continued northward on Nowy Świat which turned into Krakowskie Przedmieście. At the end of Krakowskie Przedmieście I walked into Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square).

The Square gets its name from the Royal Castle, the largest building in the square. You can see one of its five wings in this photograph.

Another thing you'll notice in the photo is the presence of a very tall, elaborately decorated Christmas tree. One thing that can be frustrating at times about still photography is that you're only capturing a very brief moment in time. For instance, this photo is unable to convey the simple fact that the lights on the tree are blinking. The tree is pretty enough in this photo, but the photo fails to convey the scene in its entirety.


I could have switched the iPhone into video mode (I did so late on in the evening), but video takes up more space, it slows down my editing phase, blah blah blah.

I wanted to do the tree justice, so I zoomed in to better capture its details.
Pairing the tree with the castle in the background made for a more interesting photo.
The photo still didn't capture the pretty blinking lights, but at least in this photo you can make out the details such as the candies, and lollypops, and candy canes, plus the intricately criss-crossed lattice work of lights.

Those of you who know me know that I travel a lot. And you know that I take a lot of photos.

While I would take photos just for my own enjoyment, I do enjoy sharing them with others.

What I don't enjoy is the time that it takes to pull the photos together for public consumption. The process of selecting, editing, and otherwise prepping the photos is enjoyable, but I so often lack the time to do so.

One of the annoyances that I encounter when it comes to readying my photos is the inherent annoyances in Google has a knack for doing amazing things, but rarely is one of those things good user interface design. I fight to do some of the simplest things.

And Google doesn't know when to leave well enough alone. When I finally figured out how to work around all of Picasa's quirks, they messed with it to integrate it with Google+.

I'm not a fan of Google's user interface designs for the most part. But I'll give them their due when they manage to surprise me. Tonight was one of those nights.

As I was slowly working my way through the photos tonight, I put in several hours of editing, another hour to upload and caption the photos in Picasa, and a good deal of frustration. Once I had the photos all done, I decided to sit back and watch a slideshow of the photos.

But of course, it couldn't be that simple. The stupid slideshow feature wasn't working. It showed the first photo just fine, but after fifteen or so minutes waiting for the next photo, it was clear that something wasn't working.

"Come on, Google," I whinged. "It's just a slideshow. I'm not asking you to put a man on the moon."

I started arrowing my way through the slideshow. As I did so, I got to the preceding photo. I looked at the photo and I was satisfied with it.

Then something magical happened. I arrowed to the next photo and this is what I saw.

Blinking lights!

I was genuinely perplexed. Somehow someone else's photo got mixed into my photos.

I simultaneously silently applauded the mystery someone and grumbled that Google has clearly fubar'ed things and mixed someone else's photo into my album. Idiots.

I continued gazing at the blinking lights, smiling inwardly if not outwardly.

"Hey wait a second," I thought. How is it possible that someone else happened to compose their photo exactly like mine.

I arrowed back and forth between my photo and the blinking photo.

The compositions weren't just similar, they were identical. But his (hers?) photo had blinking lights.

"What's going on here?" I wondered.

To make a long story short, turns out Google introduced a feature called Auto-Awesome earlier this year.

I have to say that I'm genuinely awed - both from an aesthetic perspective and from a technical perspective. Please allow me to offer a hearty "congratulations", Google. I'm impressed.

Perhaps auto-awesome will get old and tiresome some day, maybe I'll think it is too gimmicky, but for right now, staring at the blinking Christmas tree above is giving me flashbacks to staring in awe at a decorated Christmas tree like I'm only five or six years old.

Well done, Google.

Back to Warsaw.

I'm torn between the two following photos.

Both are of an alley that leads to the Jesuit Church.

In this first photo, I like that the stairs lead you into the photo. I like the interesting mix of colors. I like the lamps. I like a lot of things about this photo.

I also like this second photo.

It's the same alley, I'm just further into the alley.

I'm not thrilled about the spray-painted "hostel" sign.

No big deal. I can Photoshop that out.

And I don't like the cartoon head scribbled onto the archway.

But again, no big deal. I can fix those things right up.

But even if I do so, the alley scene looks kind of flat. Not sure what I can do about that.

But even with the thinks that I don't like about the second photo, there is something that I love. The church tower. I love how it's positioned. And I love its colors in this photo.

Maybe I'll take some time on the plane right home tomorrow and "cheat". Errrrr I mean "composite". I'd love to stitch these two photos together.

But not tonight. I've got a blog entry to write.

I wandered through the Old Town Market Place (a photo of that is coming up) to the Barbican. It was built circa 1540.

It wasn't until I walked through its gate that it dawned on me that the old town was a walled city.

Armed with that new-found knowledge, I began to explore the remains of the wall.

The light was starting to fade. It has been getting dark - and I mean dark - around 4:00 p.m. I know that it's right around the winter solstice, and I know that Warsaw is at a higher latitude than back home, but dang it gets dark early here.

I'm looking forward to flying above the clouds that have been hiding the sun the whole time I've been here!

Hmmmmm... I just looked at the clock. It's 4:00 a.m. I knew that I was working for a long time on this, but yikes! I've got to get some sleep so that I can catch my flight tomorrow.

At least staying up this late will help me to get back onto California time.

I have more photos, but you'll have till the next blog entry.

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