Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Krakowskie Przedmieście in the snow

My business day ended as it began, at the Hotel Bristol (below) on Krakowskie Przedmieście. This time for what was first of many pre-Christmas drinks receptions.

The Bristol looks quite splendid lit up at night amid all the snow, as indeed does the entrance to the University of Warsaw (below).

The Smolensk cross, that had been such a socially divisive issue for 154 days this year, has gone. Not a sign of it remains. There are no elderly protesters outside the presidential palace next door to the Bristol, handing out leaflets written in deranged tones about conspiracy and murder and Jews. A place once full of anger and discord is now at peace, blanketed by snow and illuminated by Christmas lights.

Old Town in first snow

On my way to a breakfast meeting at the Hotel Bristol this morning I made an early start so that I could pass snap some snaps of the Old Town in a mantle of first snow.

Above: ul. Freta, connecting the Old Town with the New Town. It's 8am and the place is nearly empty. Below: ul. Mostowa leading down to ul. Boleść and the Stara Prochownia (Old Gunpowder Store, now a theatre). Not a street for racing down!


Left: the steps leading down to the Trasa W-Z (the East-West Road that leads from the Trasa Armii Krajowej all the way to the Trasa Zmieniona).

Below: Through the Barbakan gates and into the Old Town proper. In the Market Place a big effort is going on to clear the footpaths so that tourists can get around.

I'm wearing my M-65 field jacket for the second day. By late-March I will be heartily sick of wearing it day in, day out, but it is supremely practical and comfortable with its quilted lining; tried and tested in the most adverse of winter weather conditions.

Below: I reach my destination with 20 minutes to spare. This photo of snow piled up outside the Hotel Bristol (right) gives you some idea of how heavy was yesterday's snowfall. To get such massive heaps of snow last winter, we had to wait until February.

Below: Back to Powiśle and our office. A little game for my readers, the first of this winter - 'Guess the Car'. What's the make of the vehicle shrouded by a heavy blanket of snow? (Answers in late-March 2011.)

Monday, 29 November 2010

I'm so glad I'm living in Warsaw

Yes, it's that time of year again. I missed First Snow Winter 2010/11, returning to a lightly dusted Warsaw, but within hours of waking up, the snow kept on coming and coming on good.

That most glorious wintery feeling, the onset of dusk matched with falling snow, lights on in the distance, warmth of the room within, came on in the afternoon observed from my office.

E-mails from the UK indicated that wintry chaos had overcome large swathes of the nation, unused to heavy snowfalls ("and in November too!").

So what would it be like out on the streets of Warsaw tonight? Would Poland once again prove that several inches of snow is a mere trifle?

I left the office before six pm, not knowing whether to expect a) traffic paralysis or b) efficient snow management. Below: I step outside to be greeted by a proper wintery scene.

The wind's blowing the snow in my face, such a pleasant sensation coming out of the warm office. I'm getting those old familiar flashbacks to somewhere other than my childhood, Minnesota in the 1950s? Scandinavia in the 1950s? A phenomenon worthy of investigation. (The feeling passes once I'm up on the main road.)

Right: Along ul. Koźmińska, passing the AIG building on my way to the bus stop on Trasa Łazienkowska, snow swirling round.

At last! I've been waiting since March for some decent snow! Looking at my blog posts labels, I see that 'Winter' (95 posts) comes top, followed by 'Autumn' (53), 'Spring' (45) and 'Summer' (43). 'Snow' alone gets as many posts as 'Summer'.

On Trasa Łazienkowska - chaos (above). A crowd at the bus stop, traffic stationary. I decide straight away to walk the three bus stops to the Metro. Passing subsequent bus stops I can see that this is the right thing to do. Below: Plac na Rozdrożu (lit. 'Bifurcation of Ways Place').

Below: Trasa Łazienkowska as it cuts under ul. Marszałkowska. It seems that Praga-bound commuters were having a much worse time of it. Westbound, many people were inclined like me to walk it to the main north-south arteries, which seemed remarkably clear. Traffic along Al. Ujazdowskie and Marszałkowska was flowing more freely than usual.

And so to the Metro, the jewel in Warsaw's public transport system. Only the severest flooding ever manages to affect the service, which was running like clockwork this evening.

Out at Ursynów, into the Park+Ride for the car, only to find there's hardly any traffic at all along Al. KEN or ul Roentgena, Płaskowieckiej is no worse than usual (below), and ul. Puławska is exceptionally smooth for half past six (three lanes heading south at a steady 30 kmh, no mad driving or jams). Pop into the post office to pick up some mail - no queue whatsoever.

It's good to be back in Warsaw in time for winter!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

How much education does society need?

The big story in the UK at the tail-end of last week was the students' protests against the government's plans to increase tuition fees from £3,290 to up to £9,000 a year. Will these protests be a vanguard of popular discontent at Cameron's cuts?

Currently, the average British student leaves university with £24,000 of debt - student loans that need to be repaid. If you were hard-working and dilligent enough to complete a degree in law, medicine, engineering or accountancy and finance - the chances are it will not take you too long to pay that debt off once you've settled into a career where annual salaries can quickly leap from £25,000 - £50,000 - £100,000 a year. But if you went to a second-rate university to do media studies, your prospects are landing a high-paying job (indeed nowadays, any job) are rather bleak. And that average student debt is likely to rise to £32,000+ once the new tuition fees come into force.

I can appreciate the concerns of both students and their parents. But as with healthcare, the real issue with tertiary education is not really about costs but about rationing demand. Back in the late 1970s when I was a student, only 8% of young Brits went on to university or polytechnic. Today, the figure approaches 50%. The question is - are 50% of the jobs in the UK economy at graduate level? It's a similar question in Poland, indeed more so, as Poland's educational system produces holders of masters' rather than batchelors' degrees. Do our economies really need so many graduates?

As tuition fees rise, the question young people and their parents must ask is - what is the economic value of a university degree? The economy is crying out for engineers and scientists, yet few pupils today are prepared to work hard in subjects such as maths and physics in order to get onto courses that would guarantee them a well-paid career.

And so in the UK and in Poland, all too many young people go into university to fill the gap between school and work, between being a child and being an adult; to learn something that's not necessarily practical, but teaches you how to think. And while you are propping up the student bar, you can try to figure out what to do to earn a crust. The world is a tough place to get by in without education, but with more and more people competing in the labour force with a decent degree, is the economy ready to accept so many graduates?

In the UK, employers are increasing looking for bright school leavers who understand this dilemma and are willing to sign on with a large employer (Marks and Spencers, PWC or National Rail, for example) as management trainees, on a salary, getting experience and training. Three years later, these young people will be without debt, a few rungs higher up the management ladder and possibly even some savings to recompense them for not going to university. Will we see this trend spreading to Poland?

To make matters more complicated, while English, Welsh and Northern Irish universities charges tuition fees, Scottish universities do not. The Scottish Assembly in its wisdom voted to cover tuition fees from taxes. Only students from the rest of the UK have to pay tuition fees. Students from the rest of the EU do not. On the one hand, this policy is helping to attract the brightest and best students from across the EU. On the other, it's not helping to attract and retain the best teaching staff, especially once England's higher tuition fees kick in.

So then - questions for policy makers. What percentage of school leavers in any country should go on to university? What incentives should there be (other than the market) for students to study 'harder' subjects that employers need? Should tuition fees be higher for say, mediaeval Japanese poetry studies than for mechanical engineering or medicine? Or the other way around? Should tuition fees reflect society's need for a given skill - or the supply of lecturers in that subject? With two children at pre-university age, these are crucial questions for me!

Useful info from the BBC about this subject here.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Drab, sad West Ealing

London, I think, suffers from its very size. It is just the centre of London, from Kensington in the west right across to the City in the east, that foreigners think of as 'London'. Kensington, Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Marylebone, Belgravia, Westminster, Soho, Covent Garden, Bloomsbury, Holborn and the City of London - each with its own separate character. This is London proper, districts known by tourists and well-informed people around the world who might not have visited it, but are familiar with the above names from newspapers, books or films.

But the rest of Greater London? Acton, Forest Gate, Greenford, Kenton, Hornsey, Yeading, Isleworth? How many foreigners who've never visited London are even aware of these places? Peckham, Perivale, Catford or Whitton? Do these places resonate with atmosphere, with spirit of place? I rather think not.

Spirit of place in an urban setting comes from historic buildings, interesting architecture, geographic location - hills, rivers - West Ealing has none of these.

Beyond Kensington to the west, London continues to sprawl out with housing only giving way to fields once you get beyond Hillingdon, 15 km to the west. Half way between London proper and the countryside, surrounded by all sides by dense, forgettable suburbia, is West Ealing. Generic terraced housing. This is where I grew up. And while the top end of West Ealing, where my parents live, by Cleveland Park, is pleasant enough, the bottom end, along the Uxbridge Road, is drab and depressing.

Noble old buildings from Edwardian times are being demolished to make room for flats; more and more people (and their cars) are moving into the area. Large houses that were once home to a single prosperous Edwardian family and its servants have been sub-divided into four or five flats. Back gardens are being sold off as building plots for yet more flats.

Most white faces you pass will be talking Polish. There are five Polish shops between Ealing Broadway and West Ealing, a Polish hairdresser, restaurants and even a furniture shop (Polskie Meble!).

But the rest of the shopping is dire. The profusion of pound-shops (everything for one pound) is no more; all those Pound Kingdoms, Pound Lands and Pound Duchies have gone, boarded up, unable to face the competitive pressure from the almighty Pound World, which resides where Woolworths once was, and where everything from gas turbines to hovercraft to streetlamps can be purchased for a pound. People shuffle around in a daze, gormlessly drifting from store to store. Walking around West Ealing today, I had the distinct impression of a country without direction or purpose.

Central London has immense character, but it is ringed by dull, drab and essentially similar suburbs that the well-to-do flee from, either for the extremely expensive sophistication of the centre or for beautiful villages in the English countryside, far away from the ghastliness of the suburbs.

The choice between rural Buckinghamshire and Knightsbridge is one that today can be made only by millionaires. The rest is England's squeezed middle.

And so I prefer living in Warsaw, thank you!

Friday, 26 November 2010

Seasonal splendour in Edinburgh

As I wrote from Edinburgh last year, Scotland's capital boasts over 4,500 listed buildings. Few are more sumptuous than The Dome, the former head office of the Commercial Bank of Scotland, and now a splendid restaurant.

Above: the gallery on the first floor overlooking the lobby. The building, with its neo-classical portico fronting on George St, dates back to 1844. "The figures on the portico represent Caledonia, flanked by Prudence, Agriculture, Commerce, Enterprise, Mechanical Science and Learning", it says on a handy sheet about the Dome's history.

A big thank-you to Peter and Krystyna for inviting me to lunch at the Dome, where we spoke enthusiastically about Poland's economic prospects for the coming 30 years - a period in which Peter, a financier, expects the country to catch up and indeed overtake western European economies. As I was in Scotland, I lunched on haggis, that 'wee, sleek, cowering, timorous beastie', shot earlier that week on a haggis hunt in the McSporran mountains.

Left: Christmas tree in the restaurant slowly changes colour. The Dome decked out in its Yuletide finery is a treat to the eye, very tastefully done. Of the three waiters serving us at our table, three were from Poland. Every table was occupied, the place bursting at the seams. Certainly this part of Edinburgh, the recession's well and truly over!

Edinburgh portraits

Good to be back in Edinburgh - shame it's only for less than 24 hours. Early flight in from London on Thursday, even earlier flight back on Friday, a business lunch and evening seminar in between, so precious little time for seeing the sights. And weather gorgeous - much sunshine.

Above: view from above Waverley station. Edinburgh's hilly location and grandiose architecture lend it an imposing, enchanted air. Turreted Victorian stone and winding cobbled streets, buildings of commerce and finance, hotels and guesthouses; The Mound and North Bank Place.

Left: battlements and turrets - the Balmoral Hotel, overlooking Waverley Station, and the North Bridge spanning the railway line. The five-star Balmoral fronts onto Princes St, Edinburgh's main shopping thoroughfare (and the northern end of the A1 road that runs to London). It's a favourite among wealthy Japanese tourists. Taxis dropping off passengers outside the Balmoral are greeted by Scotsmen in kilts and full Scottish regalia. To the left of the shot, the Nelson monument, at the foot of which, the Pivo Café.

Above: Scotland's capital is not far from the sea. The Firth of Forth, being the estuary of the River Forth, which flows eastwards into the North Sea. To the south of the city, there are the Pentland Hills. The atmosphere and location make Edinburgh number one choice for where Brits would most like to live and work.

Above: Edinburgh by night - looking down Thistle St. A magickal klimat, what the city's good at doing.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

London notes

London never fails to make an impression, especially after a lengthy absence. I've not been over since April, mainly because of reasons to do with the economy - fewer companies willing to sponsor Poland-related business events in the UK.

Arriving early at Luton, I just make the bus from the airport to Luton Parkway station. I hand over 50p of the £1.50 bus fare and I'm scrabbling around in my wallet among the one, two and five zloty coins for a one-pound coin, which in the dim light I can't seem to find. The driver gives me the ticket and waves me into the bus anyway. It's more important that he gets the bus boarded than hold everyone up for a mere pound. How practical! I repay the social trust accorded to me by handing over that coin later once I'd found it.

Elsewhere, I see more examples of social trust and social harmony in action. At St Pancras station, a man in a wheelchair is asked by a member of staff (in obligatory high-visibility vest) "Can Oi 'elp yaouw, Sir?" I can't imagine surly PKP staff at Warszawa Centralna volunteering to help in such a kindly way.

The train to St Pancras is three and half minutes late. Over the station loudspeakers at Luton Parkway we hear abject, grovelling apologies for any inconvenience the delay might have caused. (Not a bit - I've have missed the train had it been on time!)

On the train, I'm sitting near four students discussing between themselves their accents ("My parents say I'm well-spoken," says one, who sounded upper lower-middle class to me. "Ah've got Black Coontreh vowels," says another). Accent is so important to Brits. With 80% of the indigenous population falling into the general category of 'middle class', it's crucial to distinguish between the wafer-thin sub-stratas therein. Quoting Carol Midgely from today's Times, 'Britain is socially immobile because its obsessed with class. It's not where you're going by where you are from." Not a problem that Poland has. As I wrote here, in Poland, accent is pretty much homogenous. It is a Pole's vocabulary that reveals much about his or her schooling, rather than it being accent that betrays the speaker's social and regional provenance.

St Pancras is as beautiful as ever, the East Midlands high-speed train that gets there non-stop in just under half and hour deposits me on the main concourse rather than in the underground Thameslink platform. Passing the glittering shops lining the lower concourse, I see something you just don't see in Poland - rich old people.



Sir John at St Pancras: my favourite poet

Entering the Underground, I see all the Tube lines are running a good service. And then a loudspeaker announcement. No service on the northern end of the Victoria Line - person under a train. And a minute later - no service on the northern end of the Bakerloo Line - another person under a train. A spate of Wednesday evening suicides is holding up North Londoners returning home tonight.

But the Piccadilly Line's still good. A westbound train is standing waiting for me, ready to whisk me on towards Ealing. Central London is still quite posh, as you can hear by the upper-middle clahss aircsents between South Ken and Baron's Court (though you'd not guess by looking at the speakers' egalitarian clothing). It's worth watching the first two scenes from the musical My Fair Lady to see that in this department, little has changed since the days of George Bernard Shaw - "An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him/The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him."
But by the time my train reaches Acton, I notice that I'm in the one-third minority of passengers in my carriage who are white (and I'd guess half of those are Polish). London's diversity makes the native English a minority in the land of their forefathers.

There's a ticket inspection between Acton Town and Ealing Common. The ticket inspector is backed up by a uniformed police officer (a volunteer Special Constable); this type of revenue protection measure would be unthinkable in Poland - what happened to the social trust and harmony I'd witnessed earlier? Indeed, I no longer recognise the land where I was born.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Warsaw - childhood memories

Prompted by two visits to the Old Town and New Town on two successive days, I have found two photos from my father's B&W negative archive of this part of Warsaw from the mid-1960s. I was in two minds whether to post this on my Grey Jumper'd Childhood blog or here, but given that site traffic on W-wa Jeziorki is 20 times higher, I decided to give this post a wider readership on account of its Warsaw subject matter.

My first visit to Warsaw was in the summer of 1961 - I was three and remember only the image of a live carp swimming in an enamel bowl before being killed and cooked. My subsequent visit, in August 1966, was far more memorable. First of all, our family in Warsaw lived in Ochota (as they still do today, same building in which my father lived before the war). Ul. Filtrowa, being four tram stops from the very centre of town was a spectacular contrast of urban sophistication compared to suburban Hanwell and West Ealing.

Instead of sprawling grey suburbs stretching out from the rarely-visited centre of London, this was City Life. Here were trams, neon lights, shops, historical buildings, museums and galleries, military bands parading, royal parkland - things that one had to travel a long way into the British capital to see - and here it was all on the doorstop.

Left: The entrance to the Old Town market place, corner of ul. Świętojańska and Zapiecek. I'm in the small group of people on the pavement to the left, aged eight, along with my late uncle Zdzich and his daughters Marynka and Jola. The cars are FSO Warszawa M-20s, locally-produced versions of the Soviet GAZ M-20 Pobieda. Traffic was so scarce then that there was no need to ban cars from driving around the Old Town.

Below: View of the New Town and Old Town rising from the Vistula banks, taken from the Most Gdański bridge. The Wisło-strada - today three lanes in both directions (and jammed up totally during rush hours) - in those days was very quiet!

Before coming to Warsaw, I'd already been steeped in Varsoviana as a child; I was continually fascinated by two large photo albums that my father had; one of Warsaw before, during and after the war, the other of the Warsaw Uprising. This imprinted in my mind images of certain Warsaw landmarks - the pre-war Prudential building (now the Hotel Warszawa), the headquarters of the Polish Academy of Science (PAN), the Zachęta art gallery, the Old Town and its churches. Our family in Warsaw would send us bundles of magazines including Stolica, which would portray the capital city as modern, exciting, bustling - and this is how I found Warsaw when I came to see for myself (although the reproduction of colour photographs was poor compared to British magazines of the era).

A particular memory was driving into Warsaw from the west at dusk, the broad and largely empty roads, the skyline (then totally dominated by the Palace of Culture), the bright lights, tram lines on the edge of town, and very quickly we were right in the centre with its neons and department stores. Of these, the one most strongly etched in my memory was the Centralna Składnica Harcerska (Central Scouting Repository) which was the place to buy Polish scout- and cub uniforms, but more importantly the shop was full of East German model trains and plastic kits, die-cast model cars and other goodies that West Ealing's department stores failed to offer.

Such childhood memories - along with subsequent visits in the late-1970s, have cemented a powerful emotional bond in my mind with Warsaw's spirit of place.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Poland's English-language blogging community get-together

To Warsaw for the half-yearly blogmeet. The last one was in Kraków in May, now Warsaw plays host. Venue is Legends Bar, ul. Emilii Plater 25, a British eaterie with goodies such as All-Day Full English Breakfast (below, 30 złotys) bangers-and-mash and chicken and leek pies on the menu.

The entire Polandian team, 60% of which is Kraks-based. Island1 and Scatts (from the UK) who got the blog up and running, plus Decoy (from Ireland), Brad (from Oregon, USA). As well as contributing to Polandian, Scatts also runs 20 east, while Student SGH does his Politics, Economy, Society blog.

A big welcome to two new Warsaw bloggers, Kolin (Borsuk na Pradze, who hails from Canada)and Paddy (Pozdrowienia z Ursynowa), as well as Pan Steeva of the re-activated Młochów (Mwo-hoov) blog (two more Brits). And me and my two blogs, this one and Grey Jumper'd Childhood. Plus our regular blog readers and commentators Adthelad (a UK-born Pole like me) and Bob from Colorado (US) to whom thanks for the brilliant suggestion of venue.

And the Muses (below from l to r: Mrs Decoy, Mrs Island1 and Mrs Scatts with daughter Zosia).

So in total there were 15 of us, nine regular bloggers representing seven English-language blogs about living in Poland.

After enjoying Legends for several hours, we moved to Scatts Mansions for more ale and wine and cultured debate (anyone know why we don't eat turkeys' eggs, for instance? Or whether a carp could beat a turkey in a pre-Xmas fight?)

Friday, 19 November 2010

Fish and chips in Warsaw

It is now held as conventional wisdom that Britain's national dish is chicken tikka masala. Whatever happened to fish and chips? A seafaring nation (once) surrounded by nutritious cod, and land admirably suited to the growing of potatoes... Decent fish and chips are becoming ever harder to come by in England (though there still are some excellent places around). But in Warsaw? Late last year, a traditional British fish & chip shop opened on ul. Koszykowa 30 (just off Pl. Konstytucji), but it was only today that Martin Oxley and I gave the place a first visit.

WOW! Unbelievable. The atmosphere is so authentic, you'd think you'd just been teleported a thousand miles to the west!

Above: waiting for cod and chips with mushy peas twice with salt and lots of vinegar. For anyone homesick for Glasgow, deep-fried Mars bars are also on the menu. Sausage and chips also available. And vast amounts of British brands, comfort food largely unavailable anywhere else in Poland (Kuchnie Świata in Złote Tarasy does HP Sauce, Worcester Sauce and Branston Pickle, Fentiman's soft drinks and a few others, but this selection is amazingly wide).

Look at this parade of iconic British brands! Yorkie bars! Marmite! Twiglets! Cadbury's Dairy Milk! Fuller's London Pride! HP Sauce! Branston Pickle! Kettle Chips! Jammy Dodgers! Ribena! Fray Bentos Pies! Jacobs Cream Crackers! PG Tips! Tiptree marmalade! Rowntree Fruit Pastilles! I have NEVER, EVER, in my ENTIRE LIFE, seen such a magnificent line-up of British comestibles in one place, outside of the UK. Brilliant.

This place being a takeaway, we rushed back to Martin's car and devoured the fish & chips in the office. Nathan, another Brit from the next-door office came to join us and attest to the food's total authenticity. Looking at the huge variety of comfort food brands on offer, he observed that much of the above is a contributing factor to the visible weight difference between Brits and Poles.

Still, for the occasional treat (and what a treat!), Fish & Chips on Koszykowa is a superb place for those hankering for an authentic taste of Britain.

Fish & Chips, ul. Koszykowa 30, telephone orders +48 692 240 804; email: info@fishandchips.pl; website www.fishandchips.pl

Polandian's beaten me here by four months - link to Scatts's review here.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Into Poland's former heart of darkness

A meeting this morning in a most remarkable place; this is the Centrum Bankowo-Finansowe 'Nowy Świat' (Banking and Finance Centre); until 1989 this was the headquarters of the Polish communist party, the PZPR. The meeting was not just in the building, but along the very corridor where the Central Committee would hold its deliberations - and indeed in the very room from which the First Secretary of the Party made plans for the nation.

A joke I remember from the early 1970s, when Edward Gierek had just taken over the job of Poland's top communist: "Gierek drives the world's largest car. The driving seat is in Warsaw, the engine in Katowice (i.e. his coal mining power-base), and the steering wheel in Moscow".

Above: I was disappointed by the lack of five-pointed stars, hammers and sickles in the decorative motifs on the floor. But then even the Palace of Culture lacks them.

Left: from this balcony, First Secretaries of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) - Bierut, Gomułka, Gierek, would address Party workers. The Dom Partii, as it was originally, was built in 1948-1951, designed by Kłyszewski, Mokrzyński and Wierzbicki. Opened four years before the Palace of Culture, it still looks remarkably modern and does not at all reek of Socialist Realism.

Above: the reverse-angle shot. After 1990, the newly-created Warsaw Stock Exchange moved in after the PZPR fell apart. It's now in a purpose-built building on ul. Książęca across the way. This symbolic ousting of communism's central planning by the visible manifestation of the invisible hand of the market is made more poignant by the fact that Poland's first Ferrari showroom is now in this complex (indeed, you can see a white Ferrari in the top picture, just left of centre).

If you are visiting this place around lunchtime, it's worth popping into the stołowka (buffet restaurant, above) on the ground floor (entrance A). Called Komitet ('Committee') it's suitably decked out in old-school communist finery, the menu is delightfully old-school too (schabowy, kluski śląskie, buraczki smażone, sos grzybowy) at attractive prices (12-16 złotys for a main course, 3-4 złotys for a soup).

Ah, and a propos of food and drink: Poland's English-writing blogging community will be knocking back a few beers at Legends Bar, ul. Emilii Plater on Saturday from 2pm.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The local elections: what they mean

On Sunday I shall be going to the ballot box to cast my vote in the local elections. Voting for Poland's president, one is voting for how our country will be perceived abroad. It also gives you the chance to determine whether the ruling parliamentary majority needs a veto-wielding counterbalance. Parliamentary elections are more important. Poles may moan about our current 'do little' government, but just think of the alternatives from not that long ago - a coalition that included LPR and Samoobrona, or a post-communist government rotten to its very core.

But local authority elections in Poland, though not accorded the same degree of media coverage as the presidential and parliamentary ones are also important, and, I think, not clearly understood. I've spoken to many Poles about the mechanism of Sunday's elections, but no one has been able to tell me precisely what local government positions we will be voting for.

The Polish National Electoral Committee (PKW) has an excellent website with pages in English too, setting out the facts and figures behind Sunday's local government (or as they have it here, 'self-government') elections. Mazowieckie province, which includes Warsaw, is home to over five million Poles, of whom over four million are eligible to vote. Mazowieckie is one of 16 Polish voivodships (provinces). Each one is run by a voivode (wojewoda or governor) appointed by the Prime Minister, and a chief executive (marszałek or marshal) elected by members of the provincial parliament (sejmik) who themselves will be directly elected by popular vote this Sunday.

Here in Jeziorki, we will be voting for the mayor of Warsaw (prezydent miasta) and for councillors (radni) for Ursynów district (dzielnica - one of 18 that make up the capital). And for the provincial self-government (sejmik) of Mazowieckie. The provincial 'little parliament' is elected by inhabitants of Mazowsze's 37 powiats.

So who will I be voting for on Sunday? Well, I had my rant a few weeks ago about the lack of pavements and drains in Jeziorki. Since then, we've been informed that the drains are on the way (maybe in two years time, says one neighbour). Another neighbour tells me that people living on ul. Karczunkowska have been informed that a pavement is due, and that plots running up to the asphalt will have a strip of land compulsorily purchased so that paving slabs can at last be laid. Eventually. So then - the Warsaw mayoral race is between Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz (Civic Platform), Ciesław Bielecki (Law and Justice) and Wojciech Olejniczak (Democratic Left Alliance). The latest polls (published on Monday) put Gronkiewicz-Waltz on 50%, Bielecki on 20% and Olejniczak on 13%. Three other candidates including my protest-vote pick, Katarzyna Munio, are on 1%.

It is worth noting that whereas not a single national government has ever been re-elected in Poland since democracy was restored in 1989, local authorities - in particular popular mayors - routinely get re-elected for successive terms. Three-term mayors are not a rarity. This leads to continuity in local government affairs; a good gospodarz (host, householder) delivers the infrastructure, wins respect and popularity by doing so and gets re-elected again and again. In its annual survey of foreign investors in Poland, the state inward investment agency PAIiIZ finds year after year that multinationals setting up in Poland rate the quality of local government as being superior to that of central government. My guess is that it's for this very reason; continuity.

Moving on the the district council election, my children and I have dreamed up a fantastical conceit of how Nasz Ursynów, a local electoral initiative, might turn out in practice. Though its hyper-active website reveals little, our joke is that this party is not so much ultra-nationalist as ultra-localist. Their demands will no doubt insist than non-Ursynauers who cannot a prove a pure Ursynite bloodline be sent back to the Żoliborzes, Mokotóws or Saska Kępas from whence they came; that the gyppos camping out amid Jeziorki boglands in their squalid detached houses be kept out of Ursynów proper by a ghetto-style wall running along the east side of ul. Puławska, and that armed guards inspect passengers' residence permits on the Metro between Służew and Ursynów, turning away anyone who cannot offer proof of being an Ursynauer. Torchlight parades down al. KEN, bricks thrown through windows of shops owned by Radomites or (heavens forfend) even people from outside Mazowsze province and the impounding of all cars not on WN plates (starting with those wretches with WPIs).

Fantastical conceits notwithstanding, I'm not convinced by Nasz Ursynów's arguments, and will despite everything, in the end be voting once again for Civic Platform. Resignedly.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Dream highway home from Dobra

What a shame we couldn't have stayed another day in Dobra; the morning was utterly perfect. The wind had died down, the sky was cloudless. Still, The Road beckons.

Above: The DK 28 leaving Dobra, on the way to Limanowa. From there DW 965 over the hills towards Bochnia. Shortly after leaving Limanowa, the 965 starts climbing steeply over a mountain pass at Rozdziele. From the road here, on a day like today, the Tatras are clearly visible. We pulled over to the side of the highway to catch this spectacular view (below).


Left: Time to get that long lens on for a good look at the familiar ridges of the Tatras on the Polish side of the border. Those peaks are over 60km (40 miles) away!

The road continues hilly with serpentine windings up and down over two passes (one 538m above sea level, the other one 401m) all the way to Bochnia, after which the landscapes flattens out to that to which we are accustomed in Mazowsze.

Above: The 965 between Bochnia and the Vistula takes on an entirely American 1940s/50s air. This I love. Flat land. Straight road. Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Chuck Higgins, Glen Miller, Frank Sinatra on the car stereo.

Is this not the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma borders? That eerie sense of familiarity of somewhere it wasn't.

Early afternoon today +18C. Ain't that nice?


"From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska/
With a sawn-off four-ten on my lap/
Through the badlands of Wyoming/
I killed every thing in my path"


Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Śnieżnica in autumn

Strong sunlight and strong winds howling through the trees. Clouds moving rapidly across the sky. Ideal weather for climbing Śnieżnica (1,006 m above sea level) to the top.

Above: Looking east from the lower slopes of Śnieżnica; to the left the northern flanks of Ćwilin, beyond lies Łopień. Below: In the distance, beyond the slopes of Ćwilin, Mogielica's peak; the observation tower visible at the summit of the highest mountain of the Beskid Wyspowy. (Click on photo to enlarge.) We were up there yesterday in winds even stronger than today.


We reach the top of the chairlifts that take skiers up Śnieżnica from Kasina Wielka in winter, and mountainbikers up on summer weekends. Warm up the top; +15C.

At this time of year the mountain was deserted, just a handful of hikers and a rather sad parade of 4x4 drivers using V8 engines to drag themselves to the top. What a waste of time, petrol and machinery.

Below: view from the very top of Śnieżnica, obscured by a crown of trees. A shame, for on the horizon from here one can see Kraków, 40km/25miles away, its buildings picked out in the distance by strong sunlight.


Right: On the way down, sunshine still with us. Walking conditions most comfortable, footpath not too slippery, trees screening us from the worst of the gales.

Sabina and I were both properly equipped with decent walking boots; Eddie however left home in a pair of branded trainers and yet still managed to set the pace, sure-footed over the rocks.

Gastro heaven or hell?

After coming down off Śnieżnica, Eddie, Sabina and I popped into Bar pod Cyckiem in Gruszowiec for some light refreshments before returning to Dobra. Sabinka spotted these delicacies (below), tucked away in a corner of the menu board above the bar. Apologies for poor quality photo, taken in a dark room without flash. Between 6 and 7 zlotys a bowlful, complete with six slices of bread, these dishes work out at around £1.40 - £1.70. Good value if you can stomach er... stomach, heart, tongue or lung!

This led to a debate about how to translate menus. I am sensitive to cultural as well as linguistic differences (I will never forget zestaw surówek translated as 'set of rawnesses' in the Orbis Hotel, Tychy, in 1989). Literal translation does not work here...
Goulash of Heart
Tongue in Sauce
Lungs, sour-style
Poultry Stomachs
Little Liver
No. None of the above work (or do they?) Maybe we should reach for French culinary designations?
Goulache de coeur
Langue de boeuf en sauce
Poumon en sauce aigre
Estomacs de volaille
Petit foie
But this would entirely deviate from the idea of suggesting hearty Polish mountain fare made from locally-obtained offal.

Anyone care to have a stab? Idea is to convey what the ingredients are, while somehow keeping it sounding appetising...
Incidentally, one of the guests staying at Dobra, Pan Andrzej, remembers Bar pod Cyckiem being called that back in the mid-1960s, when he was a student hitch-hiker travelling the DK28 route. And when Pope John Paul II visited these parts, a local priest decided that the Bar's name may well offend the Pontiff's eye, and so the 'y', 'c' and 'k' were painted over, replaced by dots which are still visible to this day,

Friday, 12 November 2010

Setting sun in the mountains

After descending Mogilica, we drive to Mszana Dolna. I need to buy an SD card reader (I left mine at home, and without it, I cannot upload my pics to the blog). Next door to the computer shop is a Tesco - and yes, they have (or rather had) these excellent Chilean and Australian red wines I've been raving about. At 8.35 and 7.99 złotys a bottle, too good to ignore; I'm stockpiling these bottles, buying them wherever they appear. (Back in Dobra, with our hosts and other guests, we compare these wines and they stand up extremely well against wines costing more than double.)

The drive into Mszana Dolna takes us over the pass at Gruszowiec; we're in for a spectacular sunset. Below: Between Kasina Wielka and Mszana D. A photo that captures the essence of The Road; the DK28. From Gruszowiec, one can put the car into neutral and roll all the way, a full 9 kilometres, into Mszana D on 'Aberdonian overdrive', as British wags put it. (Aberdonians being legendary for their tight wallets.)

Below: returning to Dobra over Gruszowiec pass once again; I pulled over to the side of the highway to catch the klimat.