Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Melancholy autumn mood, Łazienki

Must have been the wettest September since moving to Poland. Cool damp weather pervades. This morning, the second in a row, my day starts at Łazienki Park with a business breakfast at the Belvedere restaurant. This gives me the chance to stroll through my favourite Warsaw park, though the mood is most melancholy.

Summer has ended. Best submit to the melancholia, wallow in it for a while - for it will pass. Spring will return, one's mood will lift. Before then of course, there will be joyous days of autumnal and winter sunshine. Poles tend to suffer more than Brits from changes in meteorological conditions, as I've mentioned before. At first after moving to Poland, I found it hard to believe that the radio and TV weather forecasters talking about niekorzystne warunki biometeorologiczne was anything other than quasi-scientific mumbo jumbo. After all, if in Britain (or Ireland!) the weathermen keeps on saying that heavily overcast skies and low atmospheric pressure mean you'd be feeling low, a state of profound torpor would soon set in. Apathetic lethargy, sluggishness and langour. Yet despite its climate, Britain managed (for a time) to have the world's largest empire.

Have the inhabitants of the British Isles become acclimatised to prevailing dullness and damp? The longer I'm here in Poland, the more I'm beginning to think there's something in it.

Weather patterns here are more stable than on the western fringes of our continent. So when bad weather sets in, it hangs around for a week or more. It's unusual to have four days of glorious sunshine interrupted by a day of rain. I'm still intrigued as to whether the melancholia set off by bad weather is due to a) lack of sunlight on the brain = fewer endorphins being produced, or b) low atmospheric pressure acting upon our circulation. Or both a) and b).

Above: 'Caesar adsum iam forte, Pompei adsum tu'. Anyone else remember that? Below: portrait of a peahen and her offspring, bedraggled in the rain.

The park is still beautiful when cloaked in low cloud and drizzle; my mood will lift with the coming of sunshine.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

My grandfather

I was delighted this morning to find that my cousin Teresa from London (Ontario) had sent me three digitised photographs of our grandfather Piotr Bortnik. He was a forestry manager, having studied at the agricultural academy in Dublany, then spending his professional career looking after the forest estates of Kamil de Pourbaix in Horodziec.

Above: A splendidly evocative photograph, laden with nostalgia and historical symbolism - woven into the nation-myth. The river - somewhere in Wołyń on the eastern borders of pre-war Poland. Beyond - the endless steppes of Russia. These are the Kresy. 'O rycerstwie z nadkresowych stanic', we'd sing around the campfire in Polish scouts; the lost lands of Poland's eastern Marches.

Left: The best portrait of my grandfather as a young man. He is in the uniform of a leśniczy (forester); maybe a graduation photo after completing his studies at Dublany. Working for a private forestry owner rather than the state, he'd not have worn such a uniform while at Horodziec.

This pic is a scan of a printed photograph that would have appeared in a publication, such as a yearbook from the agricultural academy.

Right: This is the best-known photograph of my grandfather, taken in Horodziec before the outbreak of WWII (winter of 1938-39?). He is with his dog As ('Ace'), a pointer (German shorthaired pointer?). I remember this photo from childhood, my main reaction to it being surprise at the winter setting, snow being such a rarity in London.

Piotr Bortnik died in Kazakhstan in 1943 of typhoid fever. He is buried there. A plaque commemorating him is on my grandmother's grave in Bystrzyca Kłodzka, south-west Poland.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Labour's new leader: Tories no doubt relieved

Labour's election of the more left-wing of the two Miliband brothers, Ed, as leader means that the Conservatives do not need to worry too much about Labour winning the next elections. Internal dissent within the coalition with the LibDems will remain the greater issue.

Ed Miliband looks likely to pull Labour away from its Blairite centrist position which was sufficiently attractive to win the party three consecutive election victories. By retrenching in traditional left-wing strongholds, the danger for Labour is that it will alienate the middle-income floating voter. Who knows - maybe in five years time the threat to the Tories will come from somewhere other than from Labour.

Just as Margaret Thatcher removed hundreds of thousands of traditional Labour supporters from that party by giving them the right to buy council houses, so David Cameron's realignment of public spending will result in fewer clients of the state with a vested interest in voting Labour. Assuming a stable coalition, Labour could be kept out of power for another 18 years as they were between 1979 and 1997.

The British public is braced for deep cuts planned to restore the budget deficit to just over 1% of GDP by 2016. With ministries preparing cuts of up to 40%, public sector jobs will be lost in vast numbers. The resulting resentment may give a short-term boost to a more left-leaning Labour party. However, by the time of the next general election (assuming of course the coalition can stay together), much of the pain should have eased. This is predicated on the private sector being able to mop up the blood.

George Osborne's budget had given plenty of incentives for Britain's small businesses to flourish. This is where real new employment will come from - and judicious tinkering with benefits at tax rates for the low-paid should ease millions off long-term dependence on the state.

It is illuminating to browse this list of reactions on the BBC website to Ed Miliband's win. Note in particular, Tory chairman, Baroness Warsi: "[he] wasn't the choice of his MPs, wasn't the choice of Labour Party members but was put in to power by union votes. I'm afraid this looks like a great leap backwards for the Labour Party. And of deputy LibDem leader, Simon Hughes: "it will be vital that he wakes up to the challenge that Britain faces. As leader he must recognise that his party can no longer remain head-in-the-sand deficit-deniers."

And that particular tune will be played loudly by the unions with populist appeals not to 'assassinate public services'. [Full list of quotes here.]

Coming back to the victorious Ed Miliband, Polish readers should note that he had a full set of Polish-born Jewish grandparents. The paternal grandfather, Samuel Miliband, fought on the Bolshevik side in the 1920 war with Poland, fleeing to Belgium after the defeat of the Red Army. There his son Adolphe Miliband was born, who changed his name to Ralph after fleeing to Britain after the Nazis invaded Belgium. Ralph went on to be a roaring leftie, a Marxist well beyond the pale of the Labour party. Ed Miliband's mother, Marion Kozak, was born in Częstochowa, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur Dawid Kozak, who owned a steel factory in the town.

Marion's escape from the Holocaust is covered in this article from the Daily Telegraph.

Moles make an unwelcome return

It's a new kind of war; up comes one hill, it is dealt with in a way that my regular readers will know. The hill is levelled with the lawn, spoil used to patch up old holes. Using my fingers, I open up the mole-runs leading in and out of the hill. And then, on the premise that moles, like dogs, are mammals, I let them have a good long sniff of the top mammal round these parts, namely me. By directing a stream of fresh, warm pee into their tunnels, the moles think better of making further excursions into our lawn. The holes are flagged with metal marker poles topped off with empty glass bottles.

The current war looks like it'll be a long one. While one network is rendered inoperative, a new hill pops out further down along the herbaceous border. Vigillance is required, grubby fingers and litres of mineral water with diuretic properties. Since last month, there have been three small-scale incursions under our lawn, each one rebuffed in the manner indicated above.

UPDATE - Sunday morning: This is evidently a hardier company* of moles than the quitters I've dealt with thus far. This bunch is not just going clear off just because a human has been micturating into their tunnels. Overnight, they have patched up and sealed off the above hole with a couple of kilos of soil (left). And created a new molehill 12 metres to the west, in lawn hitherto untroubled by talpine* activity.

The war goes on. I shall have to double and redouble my coffee and mineral water intake. If I do not, the results could be as bad as the attack we had in the summer of 2008 (which looked like this (below):

Those solar-powered beepers proved as useless as all other remedies. Believe me, the best mole-deterrent that I've come across is undiluted human urine, served warm directly into their tunnels.

UPDATE: The answer is to store urine in bulk, rather than doing it piecemeal. In my garage, I have a stash of five-litre bottles formerly used for demineralised water for the iron, now brim-full of my urine. As soon as the first mole hill appears, I let them have it - five, eight, ten bottles, up to 50 litres, over ten gallons - drowning those that fail to escape. This 'pisspocalypse' does the trick. One such deluge, and they're off the lawn for years.

* See entry under 'mole' here. Collective noun: a movement, a labour, a company of moles.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Sunshine brings out the best in everything

Since sliding gently from summer into autumn on Wednesday, the weather has been perfect. Today, the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky with the temperature reaching an extremely pleasant +22C. Just before leaving home this morning, I espied the neighbour across the road exercising his flock of pigeons.

Round and round they flew, and as their wings caught the direct blast of the sun's rays, there was a sudden flash of purest white that a moment later disappeared as the birds darted up at a different angle. A most beautiful sight at any time of the year, but one predicated by the brilliance of a blue sky as background and a lack of clouds occluding the sun.

Do the birds feel the same joy as we humans do in the presence of the sun? Is it sunlight or high air pressure accompanying cloudless skies that raises our spirits? I would posit that all surface-dwelling creatures within our universe feel elation in the vigorous presence of their local star's benign rays. Not burning at this time of year, but warming and life-enhancing. Look at the spiders in their webs (nowhere nearly as big this year as they were last year), ants and beetles. All seem to express greater joy and vibrance in their movements when the sun shines on their backs.

Incidentally, the pictures above are 'as was' without any tweaking whatsoever in Photoshop - and no polarising filter. The sky was indeed this blue. Nikkor 80-400mm at 400mm.

Prague - Jeziorki - Moscow

When the railway timetables were amended on 1 September, there was an alteration to a train I've written about in the past - the Vltava, which runs from Prague to Moscow via the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Until 1 September, this splendid service, one of the Great Train Journeys of Central and Eastern Europe, bypassed Warsaw altogether - probably a Cold War throwback when Warsaw was considered by the USSR and the CSSR as a hotbed of dangerous radicalism.

Now, the Vltava stops in Warsaw in both directions. But what happens next is curious. Running west, it leaves Warsaw and heads down the (relatively by Polish standards) fast line directly to Katowice. But coming back from Prague, it turns off this line at Mszczonów and makes a curious and slow diversion along the Skierniewice to Łuków line (full details also to be found in the above link). The upshot is that Katowice to Warsaw is covered in over five and half hours rather than the usual two and half. Why? To give passengers on the night train longer to sleep?

Before the timetable change, this exotic train had one extra carriage, belonging to PKP, so that domestic passengers could use it between Katowice and Terespol, on the Belarusian border. That's now gone, so Poles can no longer use this train within Poland. The carriages now are just Russian, Czech and Belarusian - still exotic enough.

And it runs through Jeziorki. Every morning, at 09:23. Today, I caught the train for the first time at the level crossing on ul. Baletowa by W-wa Dawidy station (above). It was running two or three minutes ahead of schedule. The blue-and-grey carriages are Czech, red-and-blue ones Russian and the single all-blue one at the rear was Belarusian.

Note: ul. Baletowa is a busy road. The Warsaw-Radom railway line crossing it is also busy. Yet there are neither barriers nor even lights here. Incredibly dangerous! Unthinkable in the UK. A road bridge is planned for this crossing as part of the modernisation of the Warsaw-Radom line. By, er, 2015. Officially.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Last bike ride to work this summer

But the bike will not remain garaged. Tomorrow, shortly before midnight, it will be the autumnal equinox and once again the balance between light and dark northern hemisphere will once more shift towards the dark side, with more nighttime than day. In three months time, we'll be down to just over seven and half hours of daylight a day in Warsaw.

So when the sun shines, it behoves us to make the most of it, gather in those mood-lifting rays and enjoy the warmth. Today, I tried a new way into town by bike. From the race course at Służewiec, rather than use the bicycle path along Dolina Służewiecka, I follow the route of the canal. The track runs through some muddy puddles but is basically fine, and a pleasant alternative to riding alongside the busy road.

Above: blocks of flats to the left, a crane on the horizon suggests that more blocks will shortly appear. The canal here is actually a drainage ditch for the airport, channelling rainwater from the flat plains of Okęcie towards the Vistula.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Okęcie runway repairs complete

It's all done. Okęcie's three-weekend runway remont (isn't that a useful word - it should make its way into English). But yesterday over Jeziorki the skies were quiet and whatever flew overhead was interesting. Regular stuff were the short take-off and landing ATRs and Avro RJs, but bizjets and general aviation got a good look in too.

Airliners - from Switzerland - Darwin is a regional airline from the south of the country. No regular flights to Poland - Swiss airlines swapped their usual Fokker 100s for this SAAB 2000 (HB-IZG) from Darwin, which could land on the truncated runway.

Below: a real rarity! Aero Ae270 Ibis inbound to land. At first I thought this was a Pilatus PC12, but for the low-mounted tailplane. The registration of this aircraft, OK-ALE, briefly raised hopes that this Czech-built plane would drop bottles of Pilsner Urquell on little parachutes onto my garden. Sadly not - this plane is not owned by the brewery (that indeed brews an OK ale) but by aircraft manufacturer Aero Vodochody.

As well as the above-mentioned visitors yesterday, there was also a number of light aircraft making the most of the quiet skies over Okęcie to do some sightseeing or some practice approaches. Below: Cessna 172S Skyhawk, SP-COM. The 172 is the most widely manufactured aircraft of all time; over 43,000 have been built since 1956, and this 54 year-old airframe is still in production!

Below: Cessna 152, SP-KSY. This one must have flown over our house ten times or more as it circled the airport.

Below: Another Cessna 152, SP-KOD. The 152 is a smaller version of the 172, though no longer in production.

Below: Cirrus SR22 - best know for having a parachute that should bring the entire aircraft down safely in case of emergency. This one, SP-KLS, also spent a long time in the air circling Okęcie.

Today, things at the airport were back to normal, so the usual stream of Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s were the staple fare once again. I must say, I enjoyed the three weekends of runway closure yielding some interesting stuff in the skies above us.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Made in England to last

A chance this morning to clean shoes. Shoes get bad treatment round here, what with no pavements in Jeziorki, cracked and uneven pavements in town, snow for two months of the year, salt, grit not to mention frequent dunkings in puddles.

All my formal shoes have one thing in common; they are all made by the Loake Brothers of Northamptonshire, England. Three different styles, two colours. Plains (with Dainite sole), Chelsea boots (beloved of Mods and cavalry officers about town) and American brogues (where the broguing line does not dip into the instep as with English brogues).

This type of footwear is ideal for Warsaw, if a) worn in rotation and b) repaired when necessary.

Yet you cannot buy such stout and fashionproof formal footwear in Warsaw. Here, you are forced to choose between cheap shoes from China that last a season, and expensive shoes from Italy that last a season. The latter because they are made from Venezuelan albino bat-wing leather and have little silver clasps and silk tassles and fashion dictates that they become laughably anachronistic within a few months. The former cost 40zł a pair, the latter 2,850zł a pair. What Poland's male footware market has is a 'missing middle'. (You can see it in so many other market sectors as well.)

Loakes are well made, traditionally-styled (these shoes do not feature in end-of-season sales) and are unavailable in Polish shops (though I can see that both new and used they have been turning up on Allegro). They cost around £120 - £150 in the shops in London, and while not built to last for ever, will give you decades of use if looked after. The brown pair in the middle was bought by me in April 1980 - my very first pair of Loakes, and while no longer fit for wearing to town, are still worn around the garden.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Cycling through the spirit of place

A bright morning, heavy showers in the afternoon, a bright evening. A day ideally suited for a return trip to the office by bike.

There are places along my regular route to work that spark that involuntary moment of anomalous familiarity, when I catch myself in another memory, triggered by the urban landscape I ride through. Left: the stretch of ul. Puławska between Idzikowskiego and the Królikarnia. Those blocks of flats, separated from the road by greenery. Not their architecture in itself, more the alignment.

Incidentally, the 1.8km of cycle path along Puławska between Domaniewska and Dolna is ideal. A shame it's so short.

Above: ul. Belwederska, opposite the Russian Embassy looking down ul. Lądowa. Another beautiful stretch of cycle path - this one much longer (Pl. Trzech Krzyży all the way out to Powsin). But bombing along this particular part of it - down the skarpa is made more satisfying by the configuration of road, trees and buildings.

Further out of the city centre, turn off ul. Sobieskiego and head west towards Ursynów along the Dolina Służewska. The silver birches lining the road and the road itself have triggered that strange yet entirely familiar feeling of 'I've been here before and yet I haven't' for as long I've lived in Warsaw.

Above: Looking north-westward towards a setting sun shining through the trees. Below:turn back towards Ursynów. Rush hour traffic still looking heavy. Cycling along safe cycle paths is the way to go. On a day like today, even after cycling all the way in to the office and a long working day, I still elect to cycle all the way back home. Well, it makes eminent sense...

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Commuting made easy

My ideal employer would have an office at the bottom end of Ursynów's ul. KEN which I could get to after a pleasing 20 minute bicycle ride from home across the Las Kabacki forest. But we don't live in a perfect world, and after emerging from the forest I need to pedal for a further 25 minutes to get to Powiśle. Still, cycling to work is a whole lot better than driving.

This morning I left home at 7:25 and arrived for my first meeting on al. Ujazdowskie at 8:10, cycling there directly. On my way home, I cycled from my office on ul. Fabryczna to W-wa Powiśle station and took a Radom-bound train which deposited me at W-wa Dawidy. Bike-train-bike, the journey home also took 45 minutes. This represents a 40 to 50 minute time saving over the car-metro-bus, bus-metro-car round trip. The saved time can be spent working or indeed writing this post.

The car's in the drive, not taking up roadspace or burning expensive fossil fuel. I'm getting valuable exercise, keeping fit.

Puławska is bad but it's going to get much worse. Above: New temporary traffic lights have been installed between ul. Dzierzby and Kormoranów. They're not yet operational, just flashing amber right now. This signals the impending start of some serious roadworks that will see the S2 flyover crossing over the top of Puławska. When it happens - any day now - Puławska will be choked down from three lanes in each direction to two. And that will have catastrophic effects for motorised commuters coming up Puławska from Piaseczno and all points south of Warsaw.

To appreciate just how bad, compare it to yesterday's jams on ul. Modlińska, the main artery running north-east out of Warsaw. Just before the morning rush-hour, one town-bound lane (of three) suddenly sprang a hole 15 metres long by two metres wide. Sławka, our admin head, came into work at 11:30, two and half hours late. Traffic was totally paralysed; buses were stationary, passengers started walking towards the city centre. It will not be this bad on Puławska because commuters will be readied for the choke-down, but expect monstrous korki.

Meanwhile, regional train operator Koleje Mazowieckie (KM) can't run more trains into town from Piaseczno because of the ongoing work at W-wa Okęcie to connect the main line to the airport. As an interesting aside: I found an old railway timetable book from 2000 the other day, back then, there were just four trains into town from Jeziorki between 6am and 9am, compared to seven trains today. Once Okęcie has been sorted out, KM could run one train every 15 minutes into town and they'd still be full.

According to Życie Warszawy/Rzeczpospolita's Warsaw section, the Mazowsze local authorities today tested a railbus connection (presumably) running along the coal train route to Konstancin. If that happens - wonderful - but cynics dismiss this as a pre-local election stunt.

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the start of roadworks to join the S79 to the S2 Southern Warsaw Bypass - the construction of Węzeł Lotnisko and Węzeł Puławska. Much has been achieved in 12 months of snow, rain, mud and standing water, but so much more needs to be done. Euro2012 kicks off in 631 days time. By then, southern Warsaw's commuting nightmares... will be over?

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Battle of Britain, 70 years on

Like the Battle of Warsaw in August 1920, the Battle of Britain is remembered as a turning point in history where the forces of evil were turned back. Today marks the 70th anniversary of the battle's deciding day, and of course the Polish contribution to this great victory needs to be marked. It is not just the legendary 303 Sqn, symbolic of Polish pilots' prowess in air-to-air combat; 302 Sqn also took an active part (downing 20 Nazi aircraft), while 307 Sqn flying Defiant night-fighters in Lincolnshire, was not yet operational. Some 70 Polish pilots also fought in 24 non-Polish RAF squadrons, and were credited with an additional 80 kills.

A Spitfire LF Mk XVIE TB995, ZF-O, from 308 (Polish) Sqn, from Kraków Air Museum. The squadron became operational only after the Battle of Britain, the aircraft itself a late-mark Spitfire from 1945. It's a shame that there isn't a Hurricane in any Polish air museum; it was flying these planes that the great majority of Polish pilots' aerial victories were scored during the Battle of Britain.

Below: in Battle of Britain colours, a Hurricane I (foreground) and Spitfire I on display in London's Science Musuem - a favourite childhood destination for me.

I remember the pilots - of all Allied nationalities - and give them thanks for their endeavours and sacrifice in keeping Britain free 70 years ago. Especially those crippled or burned and disfigured in the dogfights over Southern England that summer who endured decades of indignity as the price for our freedom.


Tuesday, 14 September 2010

What's the Polish for 'guidelines'?

That's 'guidelines' (as in 'general guidelines for dealing with difficult cases').

What's the Polish for 'reasonable' (as in 'reasonable wear and tear')?

What's the Polish for 'discretion' (as in 'parcels may be carried at the conductor's discretion')?

My theory is that gaps between languages where a word cannot be directly translated highlight the significant differences between the cultures - and the root of those cultural differences could be genetic as well as historic.

Righto, let's get stuck in.

Guidelines: Getionary offers us

  • Wytyczne
  • Wskazówki
  • Zasady
  • Zalecenia
Now, to me, none fit the bill. Wytyczne = directions, instructions, directives. Wskazówki = indications, pointers, the hands on a watch. Zasady = principles. Zalecenia = recommendations.

Wytyczne seems to be closest (indeed Getionary champions this one). But it does not give that same sense of liberty to work within a certain set of outer limits that the word 'guidelines' carries. Wytyczne is more what I'm told to do rather than being allowed me to use my own initiative, working around the guidelines.

Reasonable. A favourite of mine. A lawyer once told me "Never include the English word 'reasonable' in a contract that's to be translated into Polish". Let's see what Getionary offers:

  • Rozsądny
  • Należyty
  • Uzasadniony
  • Zasadny
Rozsądny wear and tear? No. Missed by a mile. Należyty wear and tear? 'Due' wear and tear? Nonsense. Uzasadniony wear and tear? 'Justified' wear and tear? By whom? Zasadny wear and tear - principled? Not a bit of it. Why no Polish word for reasonable?

To avoid grey areas. The language of law and regulation has to be black and white. Because if you give an inch, they'll take a mile. Unless it's nailed down, it will be abused. [Nailing it down - it's so important.] We are, of course, talking about social trust. That wonderful word 'reasonable' assumes a society of reasonable citizens, dealing reasonably with one another.

The British system traditionally has worked with the opposite, bottom-up, premise. That common sense, give-and-take on both sides will prevail. No top-down control-freakery: this is the letter of the law and that's it.

Stupid, arbitrary decisions erode respect for the state and its institutions.

It all makes me wonder whether the nature of a country's legal system is a competitiveness issue. The law of the land is couched in the language of the land. If that language does not convey trust, how can the law?

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Politics - time to change gear

Since Platforma Obywatelska (PO - Civic Platform) was formed in 2001, I have voted for the party at elections local, parliamentary and presidential. Its blend of moderate economic liberalism and moderate social conservatism squares pretty much with my own views brought over with me from the UK. I remember when PO's leader Donald Tusk made his maiden speech as prime minister to the Polish parliament. I was sitting in a traffic jam, radio turned up; I found myself involuntarily applauding every other sentence. A speech in which the importance of re-building trust in Polish society was the key theme.

Yet today three years on, with PO in such a strong position in Polish politics, I am thoroughly disillusioned with it and yet there is no alternative to it. None.

And when a political party gains such control it can use it for good, or ill. But in the case of PO, it's not using it at all. The party is showing that its natural instincts are to do nothing. Hope something will come along.

Why am I writing this today? Firstly, a personal epiphany last week. I am unlikely to vote for Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, the PO mayor of Warsaw in this autumn's local government elections. She has done too little for the residents of Jeziorki. Some sewers are being built, but at a snail's pace. There is still no pavement along ul. Karczunkowska, no road crossing by the bus stop, water standing on fields drowning crops (where are the drainage ditches?), far too many unasphalted roads, no macro-scale planning solutions to suburban and exurban sprawl and how the owners of the tens of thousands of new homes recently built around the city's rim are to get into town. And still no drains for ul. Trombity. We have spent nearly 15,000 zlotys (£3,000) on having our septic tank emptied since the last local government elections. Enough already!

Secondly, the realisation that Donald Tusk's government has not got down to any serious reforms of the Polish state. When I read Scatt's blog post today about his attempts to extend his meldunek and resident's permit, my blood boiled. That such brutally unhelpful, pig-ignorant people should still be allowed to interface with the public, 20 years after then end of communism, just beggars belief. The woman in question should be thrown out of work. Poland can't afford better medical treatment for its chronically ill citizens and yet can afford to pay a salary to this useless woman (and many, many more like her).

Reform is not just about making the Polish state more citizen-friendly. It is about making those tough choices that need to be made to get Poland's budget deficit and public debt under control. And what are we seeing? One percentage point increase on VAT and talk about a tax on banks (which will in any case be passed straight on to their customers). Where are the cuts?

Hats off to George Osborne (who's gone up in my estimation immeasurably since becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer). This is what needs to be done - set a target (get the deficit down to around 1% by 2016) and define the way to get there. The gap will be closed by a mix of measures that is 23% tax increases, 77% spending cuts.

Yet there is no appetite in Tusk's government - even with a PO president - to contemplate the minutest cut in spending. All the talk is of price rises of government services - vehicle technical inspections (the Polish MoT), vehicle registration plates... But what about slimming down and streamlining onerous procedures? When it comes to setting up in business as a sole trader - jednoosobowa działalność gospodarcza - paying taxes, buying real estate, going to court - in these areas Poland competes with some of the world's most inept states, say the World Bank and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The English-language corner of the Polish blogosphere is currently replete with stern mutterings that the political and economic situation is no good and that Something Must Be Done. Polish M'Knob is worried that the Poland's current economic dash is unsustainable in the medium term. Student SGH at Politics, Economy and Society is worried that Jarosław Kaczyński is going nuts and radicalising the National Catholic element in a most unhealthy and undemocratic way, while his Prawo i Sprawidliwość (PiS - Law and Justice) party implodes. Raf Uzar is saying pretty much the same thing. Pan Steeva in Młochów compares, on the basis of latest World Economic Forum findings, how much ground Poland still have to make up on the US and UK in terms of innovation, labour market efficiency, macro-economic business environment and of course infrastructure.

Public spending cuts have to be made, but they have to be made where they have the least negative impact on the economy. Compared to the UK, Poland has the relative comfort of lower deficit (6.9% of GDP last year as opposed to the UK's 11.2%) and lower debt (roughly 54% of GDP vs. the UK's 70%). This means that Poland does not need to cut to the bone. Infrastructure spending must increase - and don't forget our railways. Innovation is needed and a reformed higher education system that turns out graduates with skills that employers will need a few years down the line.

Savings can be made almost anywhere. There are way too many bureaucrats adding nothing to the economy. In the UK, Companies House (where all limited liability companies are registered), employs 1,064 people to look after the entire country. In Poland, companies are registered in a court. A judge decides. Why? Who's the other party in the case? In Warsaw alone, the Ministry of Justice (again - why!) is believed to employ 1,200 people in the KRS to administer this procedure. 'Believed' - unlike the transparent UK government, where this information is available on line - in Poland there is no such information publicly available. The estimate comes from a Warsaw lawyer that regularly has dealings with the KRS.

In Ireland, it costs €0.009 (nine-tenths of a eurocent) to raise one euro of tax. In Poland, it costs 2.3 grosze to raise one zloty of tax. The Polish tax system is two and half times less efficient than the Irish system. Why is Poland's VAT threshold so low? It costs more to administer the VAT input and output of low-turnover micro-businesses than the revenue it brings into the treasury. It is to create work for armies of clerks. The savings made here should be redistributed into spending on education, healthcare and infrastructure.

Last year, Deloitte published a report saying that Poland could save 15 billion zlotys (that is three times more than the VAT rise from 22% to 23% is expected to bring in) by creating a shared services centre for government so that payroll, HR and other back-office functions for all the ministries and government agencies can be handled from one place rather than from 45 separate departments as at present. This is the kind of radical thinking that's needed right now.

But we won't see it from Tusk and Komorowski. They are far too busy worrying about next autumn's parliamentary elections. Who are they worrying about? PiS will have imploded by then, fracturing into at least two smaller parties, the Jarosław hardcore and a more moderate socially-conservative but economically statist party. SLD will gather support, especially from the young who don't remember the indignities of living under communism. (They should remember the impudent corruption of the Miller government 2001-2004). Socially-liberal and redistributionist, SLD will support the miners and other powerful bastions of worker privilege living off the taxes of others. SLD will not reform the state, just fill its top positions with its own cronies.

A new party is needed, not necessarily more liberal than PO on economic issues - but prepared to do it, not just talk the talk. Politicians - other than Jarosław Kaczyński - are not showing any conviction. PO is satisfied with just hanging on in power. But guys - what about the history books? Do you want to be remembered as the government that could have done something but didn't?

The Polish media need to engage with their readership. Where should the cuts come? How can Poland balance its budget? Would you rather let large swathes of public sector employees retire early on your money - or spend it on new roads? Would you rather increase VAT or personal income tax?

See how the BBC is doing this here. Look at the clarity of the language. And this - what would you do?

Saturday, 11 September 2010

At the half-closed airport

Eddie and I walked down to Okęcie to see the works which have partially closed the airport for this, the second of three successive weekends. Wearing wellingtons - still necessary as this part of Warsaw is a sea of mud - we made it to the hill at the end of Runway 15/33. From up here we have a good overview. Below: Lufthansa Regional RJ85 D-AVRQ is taking off en route to Munich using less than half the length of RWY15. In the background, you can just about make out construction equipment in use at the junction of Okęcie's two runways: 15/33 and 11/29. (Click on photo to enlarge.) It is the intersection of these two runways that is being renovated.

Below: a convoy of trucks dashes across the airport inner perimeter road to collect more rubble. Time is tight; the airport is scheduled to be reopened tomorrow morning and the job fully completed by the following Sunday.

The only passenger planes landing and taking off this weekend are BAe 146s/Avro RJs operated by Lufthansa, Swiss and Brussels Airlines, and ATR 42s and 72s operated by EuroLot and Czech Airlines (below). Other flights have been diverted to other airports, mainly Łódź.

The unusually quiet airport (a mere 37 scheduled passenger flights in and out today) means that with uncluttered airspace, general aviation gets a look in. These two planes were flying around as Eddie and I approached the airport.

Above: Cessna 172 Skyhawk SP-RAP made a couple of touch-and-gos before flying off. And recording the works at the airport, one of Poland's most famous helicopters - Robinson R44 SP-TVN (below), used by TV stations TVN and TVN24 for aerial newsgathering. (TVN has two R44s; the other is registered SP-SKY). Note camera turret in the nose.

TVN24 footage from last week's runway closure here (no commentary) - it gives a good idea as to the scope of the work and the speed with which it's being carried out. We stroll across to the cargo terminal. Several aircraft are staying over at Okęcie until the runways are cleared for use. Below: A Ukrainian registered Antonov An-26, a regular visitor, seen in this post of a midsummer's evening coming in to land over our house.

Eddie and I continue our walk up to PKP W-wa Okęcie station, and catch a perfectly timed train back to Jeziorki, and walk home from there the back way across the fields. 10km covered on foot today.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Mud and rain and local elections

Early start today - eight o'clock meeting at Platan Park on the top end of ul. Poloneza. To get there, equipment such as that offered at this week's Kielce arms show would be useful... four-wheel drive, underwater breathing equipment, deep fording capability - ul. Poloneza is as atrocious as it ever has been. With the middle bit still cut off because of the bridge building that's going on, a diversion down the equally untarmacked, cratered and waterlogged ul. Oberka is required. And it's been raining for much of the night.

So I get into my dear old Nissan Micra at half past seven - put key into ignition - nothing. The battery's dead. The electrics don't like the wet, and round here you can't get far without getting the undersides of your car soaked in giant, road-wide puddles whenever it rains.

Plan B! Back into the house, into 'waterproof' clothing, and wheel out the bike. I arrive at Platan Park just four minutes late for my meeting, though entirely spattered with mud.

Above: the water-table is just inches from the surface. Looking towards ul. Poloneza from ul. Ludwinowska. Right in the distance - the new bridge being built over the new Warsaw Southern Bypass, the S2. Cycling from Platan Park to Powiśle and home today I cover 33.2km (20.6 miles).

Ul. Poloneza is a scandal. Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz will have to go as Warsaw's mayor later this autumn. She has FAILED to provide the residents of Jeziorki with a) asphalted roads, b) pavements upon which we can reach bus stop or railway station with dry and unmuddied feet and c) town drains, forcing us to pay 220 złotys (44 quid or €55) every two weeks to have our plop-plops, wee-wee and bath, shower and washing-up water syphoned up by a great big tanker lorry and removed.

I voted for her last time, but she has FAILED me. I shall not be voting for her nor for any head-banger from PiS, nor for any old-time communist from SLD. If a local non-party affiliated person stands for mayor on a platform of building roads, pavements and town drains for the suburbs, he or she has my vote.

Look at it! This from March last year. Or this - January last year. Or this - February 2008. The scandal of Warsaw's unmade roads is not just ul. Poloneza - ul. Hołubcowa (below), Zatorze (which must the the most impassable road in any OECD capital), Oberki and of course Dumki. Roads as crap as this take their toll on cars - see what happened to my Nissan three years ago on ul. Poloneza.

Mayors have a short time to prove themselves good housekeepers (dobry gospodarz). Neighbouring districts outside of Warsaw's city limits (Nowa Iwiczna, Lesznowola) have asphalt, pavements and drains - so why can't we - in the capital of the EU's sixth-largest member state?

All of this is linked to the building of the S2 Warsaw Southern Bypass. Ul. Puławska is soon to be choked down to two lanes in each directions where the two roads will cross. When that happens, true commuting hell will result.

UPDATE: 14 September - a big thanks to reader Gaweł for this link to a report in TVN Warszawa from 18 months (!) ago highlighting the problem of the lack of pavements and crossings on ul. Karczunkowska. We hear the head of Ursynów's infrastructure department, Leszek Ciurzyński, saying that the most optimistic scenario is that we'll have the pavement 'in the second half of 2010'. Well here we are and we're still waiting.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Tanks and guns and... drones

The star of this year's Kielce MSPO arms fair was the Polish-designed and built Anders light tank (below), which was unveiled on the opening day.

Below: familiar from Polish newsreels, the Rosomak armoured personnel carrier. This is the standard version, Finnish design, licence-built in Poland. The ones used in Afghanistan have thicker armour and cannot float.

Below: The casualty evacuation version, the Rosomak WEM in Afghanistan colours. Meshing on the side is a WWII improvisation to protect against 'sticky' mines or magnetic charges.

The most visible feature of the arms shows to me was the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles); there seemed to be vast numbers of exhibitors demonstrating them. This one (left) hovered overhead while President Komorowski was making the opening speech. At a stand inside there was an even smaller one costing a mere $120,000 that relays images back to what looks like an armoured iPad; the whole thing with a battery pack can be lugged around in a rucksack. Pop these things up in the air to see what the foe (or soccer hooligans) are up to. Apparently the next generation of UAVs will be insect-sized and will be able to fly into Taliban caves to bring live footage from within. (One exhibitor was talking about a working prototype weighing no more than a single sheet of A4 paper.)

Monday, 6 September 2010

Defence show helicopters in action

To Kielce for the international defence industry show. After the opening by President Bronisław Komorowski, defence minister Bogdan Klich and Britain's international security minister Gerald Howarth, its time for the military display.

On the ground, Rosomak armoured personnel carriers and infantry. In the air, a pair of Mil Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters provide covering fire for a Mil Mi-17 Hip medical evacuation helicopter. From a distance the Hinds (left) aggressive like giant prehistoric dragonflies. When hovering overhead (below), a large and formidable beast.

Below: here it comes - the Hip flies in to evacuated wounded soldiers, without landing. The Hinds fly around, providing suppressing fire.

Front door open, the Hip's winchman lowers the cable to the troops on the ground. The 'wounded' soldier has been prepared for evacuation by his comrades.

Right: the evacuation is completed, the wounded soldiers winched off to field hospital. Still riding shotgun in the sky, a Hind prepares to fly escort.

I wrote some while back about how an increasing number of aircraft in our skies are reaching middle age. We're less than a year away from the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the Mil Mi-8, of which the Mi-17 is a updated design, as is indeed the Mi-24 (which itself is over 40 years old).

Military aircraft today are being designed for such lifespans. The Boeing B-52 is likely to stay on in active service to 2040, by which time it will be nearly 90!

More on the MSPO defence show on Wednesday (I'm going back for the second day tomorrow).