Monday, 31 October 2011

Manufacturing a city of culture

I was in Łódź over the weekend to speak at the Regional Congress of Culture (how strange that sounds in English!). Taking part in a panel about fostering growth of a creative industries sector and urban regeneration, my role was to present the UK experience in this.

Łódź has a problem with its self-image. It's clearly a second-league city; Warsaw, Poznań, Katowice, Kraków, Wrocław and the Tri-City are fast-growing metropolises with low unemployment (3.5%-5%). But Łódź (10.4% unemployment) - with Lublin (9.2%) and Białystok (11.9%) - are cities lagging behind. I did note a burst of rapid growth around the second half of the last decade in Łódź - but that growth spurt ran out of steam. My most recent visits here left me with a vague sense of disappointment that the city has somehow stopped developing.

One of the problems of the city is its people. As the deputy mayor told yesterday's session of the congress, Łódź has over 250 million zlotys (₤50 million) in unpaid rent from its council tenants. (Private landlords fare no better - a UK investor recently approached the BPCC to see what could be done about tenants not paying him rent.)

Łódź has a run-down feel to it. I stepped out onto Piotrkowska, the main drag - early Saturday evening... the lights were on but the streets were empty. The main shopping street of Poland's second* city, and yet shops shut at four o'clock on a Saturday. Turning off Piotrkowska, unsavoury characters stood menacingly outside alcohol shops filling the air with expletive-filled dialogue. Grafitti lacked any other purpose than marking territory and mindless football preferences. No art, no culture, no humour. The city's art cinema has three shows a week (none at weekends).

Time, then, for a communist-era joke. The Soviet ambassador in Warsaw was puzzled when he received an invite from the Czechoslovak embassy to attend a celebration marking the Czechoslovak Day of the Sea. “But why?” asked the ambassador. “Czechoslovakia has no sea” "Well,” came the reply, “you invited us to the Soviet Day of Culture..."

So is Łódź a City of Culture or not? Is this merely an aspirational slogan, driven by the accidental presence of a world-class film school, the vestiges of a fashion industry and a few software companies? And is this enough to build on?

It's worth turning to the UK experience, the extent to which cities like Liverpool have Glasgow managed to turn around and to shed old stereotypes. To what extent do the city authorities need to pump-prime the turnaround, putting money into refurbishing public buildings, public spaces – will that attract creative people?

The impression I was left with was of a city that's lost its way - that has an idea of where it want to get to, but is clueless as to how to get there. The debate was interesting. Certain notions were agreed by all; Łódź needs to attract and retain talented young people, who will come to study in the city, and will stay there to build their career, start companies, employ others, contribute to local society. The university has pulled itself up - it's now joined Warsaw University, Warsaw University of Technology (Politechnika Warszawska) and the Jagiellonian University in Kraków as Poland's only universities in the global top 500.

So the students come; but how to make the students stay?

Łódź has potential. The streets have atmosphere; crumbling industrial-era tenements, unreconstructed communist-era klimat (the architecture of the TV building being a nice example)... low rents by Warsaw standards - vast swathes of real estate ripe for gentrification, a huge film-set (much like London's Docklands before redevelopment). Yet the deputy mayor shied away from gentrification as an answer (what would happen to the indigenous people squeezed out by yuppie-style property prices?).

And here we reached a certain problem, one that even robustly politically-incorrect Poland doesn't wish to confront. When talking about 'culture' in the sense of high culture - theatre, ambitious cinema, classical music, literature - there will always be large proportions of any population for whom it is simply inaccessible. Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek, standing outside the Żabka store swigging vodka z gwintu and swearing aggressively, are not going to enjoy an Ibsen play no matter how much money the public sector pumps into subsidised theatre.

What to do with these people (who're probably not paying rent either)? Let the market force them out of town? The city authorities don't know... Where are they going to find the money to build social housing into which they have a duty of care towards anyone evicted from council flats in town?

Grafitti, smashed windows, litter, boorish behaviour in the streets do not endear the city to would-be gentrifiers. Tackle these first, and the rest will fall into place. Trendy bars, cafes and eateries will spring up, entrepreneurs will have ideas, people will flock - it can be done. Look at Warsaw's Praga district - Ząbkowska, for example. It's gentrifying at a rapid pace.
To what extent do public authorities have any influence over market forces in terms of which cities are on the ascendant, which ones are stagnant, and which are dying on their feet? What can City Hall do to promote growth - driven by a creative industries sector?

If we’re looking for exemplars – take a look at this. The cult design store, Pan Tu Nie Stał, with its ultra hip and trendy PRL-themed clothing and artefacts. It shows what can be done with an idea.

One of the speakers on the panel was the boss of a local IT firm. He mentioned a sobering fact. His company posted job ads for a junior programmer and for the personal assistant to the head of HR. There were five applications for the programmer's job. Over 500 application for the PA's job. Poland - like many other countries in the developed world - is churning out too many marketing, sociology, philology, media studies and linguistics graduates - and not enough engineers, scientists or biotechnologists. How to address this - at primary school level, I would argue. Every bit as important as imbuing in schoolchildren an love of the arts.

To sum up – far more questions than answers – despite the evident good will of the city authorities and the cultured part of the local population, there’s still no road map for the way forward. How will Łódź look in four years time, when, via Stryków, it becomes accessible my motorway to Warsaw, Poznań and Gdańsk? When Łódź Fabryczna is completed and a rail journey from Warsaw takes less than one hour?

My guess is a Łódź renaissance will slowly get under way, driven by young people getting increasingly wealthy, displaying hipness and trendiness, buying flats in old tenements and doing them up, more trendy bars appearing. But this will happen much more slowly than in Warsaw's Praga. We shall see.

Above: Hipster hangout; Owoce i Warzywa ('Fruit and Vegetables') ul. Traugutta 9. On the window it says KAWA ALKOHOL TWÓRCZOŚĆ ('Coffee alcohol creativity'). In the door, a poster for Bajkonur, a 'creative space' with rehearsal rooms, a stage, a café. In the foreground, bike stands of the correct design, correctly situated with correct signage. And an amsterdamka - lady's framed pushbike. Not as hip as a fixie, but nearly there - and front tyre different from rear tyre...

* Łódź has traditionally been Poland's second city. However, due to depopulation (it's one of Poland's fastest depopulating cities), it has been overtaken by Kraków in terms of numbers of inhabitants. And if you take the Silesian agglomeration as one cities rather than as ten towns clustered together, Łódź is actually Poland's fourth city.

This time last year:
My thousandth post

This time two years ago:
Closure of ul. Poloneza

This time three years ago:
Scenes from a suburban petrol station

This time four years ago:
Red Arrows over Lincolnshire from 30,000 ft

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Wódźew Łidz or Łódź Widzew

The old Łódź Fabryczna is no more, shut down for good, to be knocked down and replaced by a bright, modern underground station in some unforeseeable time in the future. (Three years? Dream on!)

Anyway, if you're coming to Łódź from Warsaw by train (the journey by road being execrable), your train will get no further than Łódź Widzew. To centre of town is another six and half kilometres (four miles). This is akin to closing Warsaw's Central station and having all trains from the west terminate at W-wa Zachodnia, or closing Birmingham New Street and having all trains from London terminate at Stechford. Coming home on Sunday, I paid more for my taxi to the station from my hotel than I paid for my ticket from Łódź Widzew back to Warsaw (my hotel being walking distance from Łódź Fabryczna).

Above: the arrival of the 11:15 train from Warsaw (running time - just under two hours; twice the time of the London Euston to Rugby service in the mid-'70s; same distance). A station in the middle of a field. Serving a destination that likes to be considered as Poland's second city.

Above: There's no underground passage between platforms and only one footbridge. And just as Łódź Widzew becomes the city's main station - the footbridge gets closed. To cross the tracks means having to walk to either end of the 300m-long platform.

The worst thing about all this is that this state of affairs will carry on for years and years. It's not doing the city of Łódź any favours.

A more informative article from the railway point of view over at Behind The Water Tower (Dyzpozytor himself hailing from Łódź and being personally affected by the Fabryczna closure). Maps and links to timetables.

This time two years ago:
A touch of frost in the garden

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Of cycles, economic and human

Nikolai Kondratieff (or Kondratiev), a Soviet economist, had worked out in the 1920s, looking at booms and busts in commidity prices since biblical times, that there is a historical long wave that oscillates between plenty and want that's around 50-60 years long. Kondratieff's work came to Stalin's attention, delighted that the Great Depression affecting the capitalist world was indeed, as Marx had insisted, a historical inevitability. But Kondratieff had the temerity of telling the Brilliant Genius of Humanity that the capitalist world would come out of the Depression as sure as day followed night. This angered the Great Architect of Communism greatly, who had Kondratieff packed off to the Gulag, where he died.

Kondratieff's work came to wider public attention in the west in the 1980s - 50 years after the Great Depression. Kondratieff's thesis was that the intervals between economic downturns was predicated by technology; I would rather posit that it is to do with the human lifespan; people leading a company, a bank or a nation's economy into crisis would have learned their lesson, but would not be around to lead their firms, banks or countries into the next downturn. But the 80s straddled two short-wave downturns - one in late '70s, one in the early '90s.

The '80s (well, at least the period from '83 to '88) were a period of boom. This boom - in the UK at least - was fuelled by Margaret Thatcher's deregulation of Britain's financial services sector - the Big Bang in the City. Scrapping many of the restrictive practices that were said to hold back the market, she opened the door to derivatives trading, day-trading, options and many other forms of purely speculative financial plays that proved to be - ultimately - unsustainable. Economist Roger Bootle (link here), has suggested recently on the BBC Business News website that when markets start buying and selling things as exotic as options on the volatility of the dingbat, a crash is bound to follow.

The Kondratieff cycle has elongated itself - we're living longer. The coming recession is likely to be part of a prolonged downturn (something I suggested here - a downturn lasting around one-eighth of the average human lifespan). It will not be resolved until the Great Absurdities can be fixed. Countries and households living beyond their means - people earning more money than the value they put into their jobs (here I'm thinking about the public sectors in many countries, not least Greece), balanced budgets, and corporations looking at long-term sustainability rather than short-term profits. Investors should be content with lower returns on their savings, in exchange for knowing that their money is being invested in sustainable businesses - not on purely speculative plays.

The global economy will emerge from this downturn (can we call it Great Depression II - abbreviated to GDII?) much the wiser. Voters will (hopefully) be less likely to elect people like Berlusconi or the socalists in Hungary or Greece who play fast and loose with taxpayers' money, racking up huge unsustainable debts (note the recent defeat of tax-and-spend parties in Poland's elections).

As I wrote recently, Poland has not got into similar trouble for a variety of reasons. Whichever politician included into the draft of the Polish Constitution the paragraph that the country's debt should not exceed 60% of GDP (and that emergency measures should kick in on the debt exceeding 55% of GDP) should be immediately given a Polonia Restituta and have streets named after him or her. And Polish banks were either too dimwitted or prudently cautious (delete as appropriate) to go on a wild lending spree or to invest in sub-prime mortgages, junk bonds or risky derivatives.

A final point. Poles (and indeed citizens of all the Soviet bloc countries) have first-hand memories of hyperinflation (1,400% a year in 1990), shortages of most consumer products, 20% unemployment. All this happened within the past 25 years. To Poles, what's going on now is a blip compared to what they lived through. The average Pole TV-viewer, watching the Occupiers of Wall Street, the Indignados of Madrid, the Greeks setting fire to whatever's flammable including themselves, thinks that these are the protests of essentially soft people, mollycoddled for decades, who're finally reaping the economic whirlwind.

Economic long-wave cycles are largely predicated by human memory. German hyperinflation on the 1920s and its effects - Hitler's democratic rise to power - are why the Bundesbank so assiduously protected the Deutchmark from losing value. Unbridled greed, unrestrained by a longer-term view; mindless consumerism - now, the world is paying the price. We can look at the global banking crisis, the 2009 recession, the sovereign debt crisis, the eurozone crisis - and the forthcoming recession - in economic terms. I'd like to look at it from a philosophical and human point of view.

Economic systems cannot tolerate absurdity for very long. Something had to snap. Greed and laziness, soaring property prices, ever-more abstract speculation on our financial markets.

The question Jak żyć?'('how to live'), which was asked by a farmer of premier Donald Tusk during the recent election campaign, became a slogan of the opposition.

It is a fundamentally important question. For my part, saving rather than spending, frugality and financial prudence, using a small, economic car only sparingly - foregoing exotic holidays, not spending big money on consumer electronics and clothes, segregating one's rubbish, yet living in a large, comfortable house in a most agreeable suburb - is my recipe for economic as well as personal success. Working for several companies rather than for one employer that can sack you when things go sour (as has happened to me in the past) allows me to hedge my revenue sources. Looking forward several years rather than just to the end of the month. Jak żyć is about being able to place yourself in a macroeconomic context - your time and place on the planet, economic cycles that ebb and flow.

This time last year:
Why didn't I read this before: Grapes of Wrath

This time two years ago:
Małopolska from the train

This time three years ago:
Grading ul. Poloneza

Friday, 28 October 2011

More hipster mounts

Above: full marks for hitting all the trendy requirements for a fashionable hipster mount - the bike in the foreground; old-school PRL-era Romet track frame perfectly restored (to name a bike 'Super' - how ironic can you get?); rear-facing rear drop-outs (so rare! yet so essential for a well-functioning fixie). No brakes (kids - don't try this unless you know what you're doing). But best of all non-matching wheels; four-spoke carbon fibre aero wheel front (with red-rimmed rubber) and trad rear wheel, white rim, yellow-walled tyre.

two matching fixies... His and hers? His and his? Hers and hers? We don't know. That's the point. One in front is more radical; no brakes, tyres of different colours, drop handlebars, drivetrain accented in blue, rear-facing rear dropouts. One behind has a front brake, flat bars, white hubs.

This time last year:
Welcome to Warsaw

This time two years ago:
Just like the old days

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Classic truck cavalcade

Every now and then, Warsaw yields some interesting classic vehicles. Below: here's one still in use - a Praga V3S with crane. Distinguishable by its snub-nosed appearance (short engine compartment that does not protrude far beyond the front axle), the V3S was in production for 32 years - from 1953 to 1985. Once a common sight in the communist world, now a rarity.

Below: A Dodge WC51 Weapons Carrier, 3/4 Ton. Built in huge numbers during WWII, the WC51 served also thanks to Lend Lease in the Soviet Army, which is probably how this example ended up in Poland.

Below: probably travelling in convoy with the Dodge Weapons Carrier, a GAZ-51 ambulance in the markings of the Polish People's Army. This one's marked 'Zavod im. Molotova' which means it's a pre-1956 model. The GAZ-51 was licence built in Poland as the FSC Lublin-51.

As always, good to see industrial heritage well looked after and on the road. Vehicles half a century old - or older - need to be kept going for future generations to enjoy looking at.

This time last year:
Narrow back-roads clogged with commuters

This time two years ago:
Autumn gold, Łazienkowski Park

This time four years ago:
Of bishops and bands

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Warsaw - Poznań - Warsaw

An early start yesterday - I had the first presentation slot at a conference on public-private partnerships in Poznań and was due on stage at 9:20. Problem: the first train of the day from Warsaw arrives in Poznań at 9:51. Take the earlier one? Well, that arrives at... 2:40. I toyed with the idea of flying (dep. Okęcie 5:50, arr. Poznań 6:45); then I remembered that Martin and Paddy will be driving there, so I cadged a lift.

Leaving Warsaw just after five, it took two hours and ten minutes to cover the 120km to Stryków, where the A2 motorway currently fizzles out in a muddy field. (A sarcastic 'thank you' to the procession of infrastructure ministers who, over the past 20 years, have done so little to provide Poland with infrastructure.) Average speed: around 38 mph.

At Stryków, we join the Modern World. Driving at the (new) legal maximum speed of 140kmh (87mph) - a warning bleeper sounded on Martin's TomTom whenever he exceeded it - we covered the 190 km from Stryków to the turn-off for Poznań in just over an hour and half.

The motorway - a public-private partnership operated by Autostrady Wielkopolskie - was a delight to travel on. Only two lanes in each direction (something that might be regretted by future generations), it cost 90 zł (18 quid) in tolls there and back. But what a contrast with the usual way one gets about Poland! Quite like western Europe, the normal world. At last.

But how just how long can the Polish economy wait for the A2 to connect Warsaw to the German border? And what about tempting all those trucks off the road onto the railways?

In Poznań, I learn that the third panellist in the first session, a lawyer, was on his way from Warsaw... by taxi... because that flight from Warsaw - was cancelled.

This time two years ago:
The clocks go back - but when should they go forward?

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's first Metro line is completed

Monday, 24 October 2011

A slow farewell to Powiśle

We moved to ul. Fabryczna in December 2004; the office was operational in January 2005 with a new chief executive officer. Time now for another move, with a new CEO, from Solec, the southern end of Powiśle, to Śródmieście - to ul. Nowogrodzka (the Pl. Trzech Krzyży end). Below: the old office to the left, looking down ul. Fabryczna.

The office relocation has nothing to do with Mr Palikot and his Movement encamping themselves in the same building as us, but was planned long before they moved in upstairs from us. Below: his campaign trailer, chained to a parking meter. It perplexed the parking wardens; for this was not a car - so how could they give it a ticket? Clamp it for the duration of the campaign? That's exactly what Mr Palikot would have wanted! So, they left it as was...

Anyway, over the past seven (gosh!) years, I've grown very fond of Powiśle, an under-rated part of Warsaw, central (three bus stops from the Central Station), yet very quiet (click label 'Powiśle' below for all posts relating to this part of town).

The new location's great for restaurants, shops, public transport... but I will miss Powiśle. Below: blocks of flats at the Vistula end of ul. Fabryczna

This time last year:
A slow farewell to my Nissan Micra

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Visceral and permanent - part II

His children had settled down; it was quiet upstairs. He'd go for a short walk, around their peaceful suburb of Tapiola. The snow was falling in a more measured way; as he set off, Aarno didn't feel the cold, dressed in a windcheater he'd thrown on hurriedly before leaving the house.

He walked briskly thinking about the events that had unfolded last week. He had such hopes that the Hungarians, rising against the Red Star, would be able to wrest their freedom from the Soviet yoke. Now – with radio reports of hundreds of tanks pouring into Budapest since yesterday morning, he felt those same emotions that had stirred him to fight when he heard of the Red Army invading Finland. Aarno felt a different kind of rage this time, frustrated that he could do nothing. Nothing. His president was a Soviet apologist. Keeping Finland out of trouble by appeasing the Kremlin. What kind of posture was that? Sure, Finland was small, and had hardly any allies, but this was about truth, about honour, about national pride... Aarno had voted against President Kekkonen, but that fellow-traveller had sneaked in to office by just two electoral college votes. Where was that spirit of 1939? The USSR will end up ruling the world because of the cowardice of its neighbours, who will fall under its influence, one by one, until the brutal heel of communism will end up stamping down upon the face of every human being on earth... Where was NATO, where was the USA?

Aarno, beset by pessimism, considered calling in upon his colleague Tor, who used to work with him in the same law firm and now worked for the United Nations' office in Helsinki. Just the man to talk to at a time like this. He'll have some good insider information – and Tor, who lived a few blocks away, has a well-stocked drinks cabinet with excellent alcohols from all around the world. But no. That would not end well, of a Monday night... He thought about his daughters; turned smartly about face, like he used to do in army drills, and headed back home. Time to rest. His wife Alli would be back from Stockholm tomorrow evening; he'd meet her at the airport. She'd help him get over it; his beloved companion; so wise, so intelligent – no doubt the news from Budapest would be discussed by psychiatric doctors from all over Europe at the conference. He could talk it all through with her; the demons would leave him; he just needed her by his side.

His anger abated after the short walk; Aarno approached their house, fumbling in his pockets for his house key – in the aftermath of his rage, he walked out with neither wallet nor keys. He tried the back door but that was locked. Their eldest daughter Sylvi's bedroom looked out onto the street; he picked up a few small stones and began throwing them at the window. After a while, a little face appeared. However, she could not open the double-glazed windows, nor could she hear her father's exasperated shouts. Minutes later, a police patrol car turned into their street. Aarno, now shivering with cold, tried to be calm as he explained his predicament. As soon as he mentioned Budapest, a sympathetic glimmer appeared on the face of the senior officer. He too had fought in the Winter War. He understood Aarno's feelings.

Sylvi's face now showed up at a downstairs window to take a closer look at the flashing blue light of the police car. Aarno spoke to her, but realised that the five year-old probably couldn't reach for the door latch, and even if she could, she wasn't strong enough to turn it. In any case; she should be in bed, asleep; she'd be off to kindergarten in the morning.

The two police officers were good-natured enough and could understand that something needed to be done in this situation; another call was coming in on the short-wave radio. Aarno compared his situation to those Hungarians facing Soviet tanks 1,500 kilometres to the south. He pulled free a loose brick from his garden wall and, asking the older officer to come with him, he walked along the side of the house and smashed the small window to the larder, which he then carefully opened. With the policeman's help, Arno managed to wriggle through the opening, smashing several jars in the process, landing head-first in a mess of fruit preserves and shattered glass. Overnight he could put a piece of cardboard over the window, lock the larder door from the inside, call a glazier in the morning. No harm done, other than some minor cuts to his scalp and hands, jam in his hair and on his jacket. And earlier that evening, he'd been thinking of throwing rocks through the windows of the Soviet Embassy! Aarno put Silvi to bed for the second time that night, reassuring her that all would be well.

Another Scotch before he went to bed, he pondered? No. It won't help. Maybe a prayer to God will. That God may look after his nation, let them be free and live in peace. And may God look after the Hungarians. With that, Aarno went to bed, not entirely satisfied.

This time last year:
Autumn colours, locally

This time two years ago:

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Jeziorki, autumn dusk

It was one of those afternoons when I knew a stroll at twilight would be rewarded by some great images. And so it came to pass...

Above: turn off ul. Karczunkowska, into the fields, fields lying fallow, fields full off mugwort (wrotycz). The owners of the land do not cultivate it, presumably hoping on vast returns when one day they come to sell it to developers.

Above and below: ul. Żmijewska, a Warsaw street (check it on the maps!) looking west, as the sun sets. I walk on.

Below: ul. Karczunkowska, the entrance to the scrapyard and to where one the rampa na kruszywa stood. The developers came, tore it down, then ran out of money to replace it with new housing. Grass triumphs, and I must say I'm rather glad.

On to the railway line. Below: the level crossing keeper's building and Posterunek Odstępowy (post. odst. Jeziorki), the fiery red remains of the sunset reflecting off the windows.

Below: turning back home, along ul. Karczunkowska, the bus loop on my right, the local shop (once called Tomasz, now Bodzio) on my left.

Below: standing outside the local shop, looking up at the twilight sky. Note the vapour trail. It's getting cold - time to get myself home.

,br />This time four years ago:
Autumn sun going out

Friday, 21 October 2011

Twilight, Okęcie

This evening, as the cycling season comes to an end (I don't cycle to work after the clocks go back), I decided to cycle through Pola Mokotowskie, down Żwirki i Wigury, past the airport and down towards Jeziorki the back way. A good decision, as the light was magnificent.

Above: The railway line at the new level crossing built by ul. Czempińska. Not official yet, but on bike, eminently crossable. Below: From the same spot - a town-bound Koleje Mazowieckie train passes by. The combination of catenary wires and clouds, under-lit by a sun that's already set, give the scenes that sublime aesthetic feel.

And all the time, planes are flying over, one after another. Left: A WizzAir Airbus A320 from London Luton about to cross the fence, five minutes ahead of schedule.

: a digger standing idle on the roadworks linking the new S79 to the S2. Will they be ready in time for the Euro 2012? The experts doubt it. The amount of work needed to connect the two roads at Węzeł Lotnisko and at ul. Sasanki is still vast - and winter will be coming soon.

I'm happy that I got some gorgeous photos that click with my spiritual side, that bring that sublime feeling of connection with the eternal.

This time last year:
The hammer of darkness comes down

This time three years ago:
Flying south for the winter

This time four years ago:
London's hidden glories

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Visceral and permanent - a short story

Aarno knew he was about to grapple with his demons again. He'd just put the children to bed (his wife being away on a medical conference in Stockholm), he fried a piece of fillet steak, poured himself a large whisky sour, and switched on the wireless. The newscaster told of Soviet tanks and infantrymen pouring into Budapest. All of a sudden his mood changed. Until that moment, he'd been very content. He'd just driven home from work in his brand new Oldsmobile Holiday 88, having had a successful day at work. The Helsinki court had upheld his pleading on behalf of his corporate client, and a new partner had just joined his law firm, the very lawyer the he'd been trying to recruit for some time. Things were going well – and then the news on the radio.

His three small daughters having settled down in their spacious bedrooms upstairs, Aarno bid their nanny goodnight. He had just settled down to a drink and was looking forward to listening to the new jazz record by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. But what he heard on the news infuriated him.

He knew what the Soviet army looked like; he'd faced that barbarism himself, 17 years earlier, when, as a young man in his final year at law school, he'd been called up to defend his homeland against an invasion from the east. For three months he fought them – hordes of sub-human idiots – forever charging forward through the deep snowdrifts, while he and his comrades would cut them down with machine gun fire. The Soviets were unable to bring artillery or tanks forward to support their infantry because of the thick forests shielding the Finnish positions, and so wave upon wave of infantry attacks was their only tactic. As long as the Finns' ammunition held out, the result was mechanised slaughter.

Aarno remembered it in numbing detail; faces of young men, many Asiatic types, comically distorted with drunken hatred, running forward in slow-motion through the knee-deep powder, encumbered in their khaki coats – how the Finnish machine gunners raked wave after wave of these stupid Bolsheviks – how he despised this cattle sent forth by Stalin and his commissars to take his fatherland by force. More ammunition belts. More charging Soviets. Fire! Watch them die like the sub-human vermin they were. Watch them fall like flies. Watch the 12.7mm bullets rip chunks of flesh, of brain, out them, knocking them over, into pink snow. A few mortar shells fell ineffectually between the Finnish dug-outs. He despised his enemy, utterly.

Finns did not mean harm to any nation. A peaceful people. Yet when this evil horde came to take Finland by force - they would need to be stopped with brutal determination.

Still they came on – driven forward by the NKVD troops at their rear. Onward into their inevitable deaths, piling on top of the dead and wounded from previous waves. Until the Finns' ammunition ran out. And then, clad in their white snow-suits, Aarno and his comrades would silently ski back to prepared positions from which they could continue to fight...

Viipuri finally fell to the Red hordes. Viipuri – where Aarno's mother's family was from. The city bombed and shelled, the civilians forced to flee. Finland's second city lost, a beautiful, historic city that would soon fill with the dim proletariat, shuffling to and from their factories, cheering Stalin – God, how he hated the Soviet Union, the Russians, Communism – he loathed it all. If he were Eisenhower, he'd not hesitate to turn Moscow – that heart of inhuman darkness – into an atomic wasteland. The contrast between the dirt and brutality of Russia and the civilised, agreeable peace of modern Finland was to Aarno too great a gulf to bear.

As he listened to the radio, to descriptions of the Red Army entering Budapest, to impassioned pleas to the world for help from the leaders of the Hungarian Revolution, Aarno found himself shouting at at his wireless set, swearing at it at the top of his voice. His daughters woke up and began to cry. “Why was daddy shouting?” On hearing their distress, blaming no one else other than the Soviet people, he became angrier still. That his baby girls would live to grow up in the shadow of that filthy, backward, brutal, stupid nation! That the USSR should be there – next to their homeland – armed to the teeth and threatening the peace and prosperity of the Western World!

The successful Helsinki lawyer's livid face contorted into the very quintessence of what it is to hate, his eyeballs bulging, his hands shaking in frustrated rage. He'd been in this state before, but then he had had the trigger of a heavy machine gun in his hand, and hundreds of enemy soldiers in the gun sights. But what now? Leave his children, drive to the Soviet Embassy and throw rocks at the windows? What effect would that have? He could say goodbye to his legal career; he'd bring shame upon himself and his family? Aarno turned off the radio. He opened the door to the back garden, and stepped out. The cool of the night air helped calm him down, a few snow flakes fell, touched his face, reminding him of childhood. The anger would not go away; but what could he do?

This time last year:
Crushed velvet dusk in my City of Dreams II

This time two years ago:
Going North, the quick way

This time three years ago:
Glorious autumn dusk

This time four years ago:
Last man voting?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Ballad of Tess and Adam

...Or why no one's occupying the Warsaw Stock Exchange building.

The global protests against the fat cats of banking that have drawn the world into economic crisis have passed largely unnoticed in Poland. A few youngsters protested in Warsaw on Sunday, but this was as nothing to the protests witnessed in Rome, Madrid, Athens, New York or London.


As Jacek Żakowski in yesterday's Gazeta Wyborcza points out, you'd be mightily pissed off if the bank lent you a lot of money on easy terms to buy a dream home, then repossessed it when you lost your job as a result of the economy imploding due to bankers' stupidity. Yet in Poland, he says, the banks would not lend people money in the first place, so they had no homes to repossess, and hence have less anger to vent.

I'd like to mention Tess and Adam, who got married in 2008. When they applied to the bank for a mortgage to buy a flat in Ochota, they faced an almost insurmountable obstacle course to get hold of the money. Despite being two young professional people with excellent job prospects, the banks looked for every reason not to lend them money. But being determined young professional people, they finally managed to borrow the money and bought the flat. Now they have two children, and are working hard to repay the mortgage. Some of their friends were less lucky - cooped up in tiny flats, they feel they can't have that second child they always wanted, and yet no bank would lend them the money to buy a larger flat.

Why are Poland's banks so reticent to put their depositors' money to use? Lack of imagination? Over-bureaucratic approach to lending? Risk aversion? Or good sense and prudent management of depositors' funds?

In hindsight, it's better that Tess and Adam had to go through long and unpleasant formalities to get that flat in an economy that's still moving forward than if they were to have been lent lots of money to buy something dearer and then for Tess to get sacked and Adam's business to grind to a halt and for them - and their two children - to lose the roof over their heads. For this is what has happened across the USA, in the UK and in western Europe. And there, such people are marching.

For another perspective - consider this. The EU Capital Requirements Directive III, implemented in the UK long ago and here in Poland from 1 January 2012, caps bankers' bonuses and redundancy pay-offs. In the UK, it applies to those 'identified staff' in key risk-taking positions in banks and brokerage houses whose bonuses exceed £500,000. In Poland, it will apply to people in those same positions, whose bonuses exceed the equivalent of... €50,000. Twelve times less.

No wonder Poles are not mad at their bankers in the way Brits, Americans, Italians, Greeks or Spaniards are. Neither did Poland's bankers behave in an wildly imprudent manner in the run-up to the crash, nor did they brazenly overpay themselves for failure. The Polish taxpayer has not had to bail out any banks.

Will Poland's economy go into recession? I think not. It's steaming ahead at a strong enough rate for any coming slow-down to be just that - a slow-down of growth, not a dip into economic contraction. 2009 all over again - the Green Island.

This time last year:
Of sausages and drains

This time two years ago:
In search of the Sublime Aesthetic at 36,000 ft

This time three years ago:
Lublin works its charm

This time four years ago:
London from the air

Sunday, 16 October 2011

First frost

It happens around this time of year - the first night during which temperatures fall below freezing. A clear sky, high pressure system, no winds... and I wake up to find szron (frost) on the lawn and on the cars. A lovely day to get out and about. While at two o'clock in the afternoon I'm feeling a bit foolish for inserting the quilted lining into my M-65 field jacket, by sunset I'm regretting not taking a pair of gloves with me.

Still, the light is wonderful; a cloudless sky for much of the day and more to come tomorrow. The sublime mood becomes me - that glorious sense of wonder; a consciousness moving across the surface of the planet, at one with it all.

Above: Jeziorki, ul. Karczunkowska, by the railway crossing, half an hour after sunset.

This time four years ago:
First frost

Saturday, 15 October 2011

What gets eaten, what gets thrown away

An interesting article caught my eye in today's Gazeta Wyborcza: what foods Poles tend to throw away, compared what their British counterparts discard. The graph is here (if you can't read Polish, the graphics are clear enough if viewed in conjunction with this post). The full article is here.

Although the graph looks convincing, it is actually comparing apples and pears (percentage of Poles saying which category of foodstuff they throw away compared to actual tonnage of food Brits throw away, broken down by category), the ranking is most thought provoking.

Nearly half of Poles claim to throw away more bread than any other sort of food disposed of - surprising, given the fact that bread has an almost holy status in Poland (much like rice does in China). In the UK, bread comes third (after vegetables and fruit). Indeed, Brits throw away nearly twice as much vegetable as they do bread.

Discussing this with Moni this morning, we agreed as to why this should be. Polish bread - which is wonderfully tasty, nourishing and generally fabulous - has an 'best by' date measured in hours. Because taste is all-important, flour-enhancers are not used, and so Polish bread goes stale very, very quickly. In Britain however, Mother's Pride, Sunblest and other white-sliced is so stuffed with chemicals that it will last a week and still be OK to smear Robertson's jam over (35% fruit content).

The massive amounts of fruit and veg that Brits chuck out can be put down to the semi-effectiveness of the 'five a day' campaign that the UK government has been promoting for years, getting the average citizen to increase his or her intake of fresh fruit and vegetables. Brits will buy (often out of guilt rather than conviction) large amounts of the stuff, but will then not be bothered to actually peel, squeeze, cut or otherwise prepare it and then eat it. (Am I right?) And so vegetables and fruit become number one and two food products that are wasted. Poles, I think on the whole have a healthier attitude to both money and food, so less gets binned (food accounts for a higher percentage of outgoings in Poland than in the UK).

Brits, says this article, throw away a billion tomatoes a year. Can that be right? That works out at 15 - 16 a year for every man, woman and child in the UK... one tomato every three weeks? Sounds about right... A billion boiled down, and it's not so scandalous. What is, however, is the fact that 39% of food that gets wasted does so at the point of production (crops rotting in the fields, unpicked), and another 19% in transit to the point of purchase.

In these constrained times - should we buy less and consume less? Or does buying more food than we need actually support jobs and businesses from field to table? Wasting food may be ethically wrong, but in economic terms...? Please feel free to discuss!

This time three years ago:
Białystok, rush hour

Friday, 14 October 2011

One Stop Beyond

For some inexplicable reason*, my bus journey to Platan Park this morning was 20 minutes shorter than usual for the time of day. Large numbers of drivers taking an long weekend or what? I decide to travel on an extra stop and walk back. The purpose - see how Poleczki Business Park is coming on, get some exercise, take some snaps.

Modernist simplicity - Mies van der Rohe would have been proud. Building complete, not many tenants as yet. Perhaps getting here is putting off prospective clients. How about PKP building a new station between W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Okęcie and calling it W-wa Wyczółki?

Having said that, ZTM, the urban transport authority, has significantly increased the number of buses coming this way; as well as the established 148, 165 and 306 routes, there's now the rush hours-only 331 that links Wilanowska Metro with this part of Warsaw, while the 575 running between Wilanowska and the airport now calls at intermediate stops rather then ferrying fresh air. And a cycle path (although did planners seriously believe that cyclists would cross ul. Poleczki twice rather than continue along the pavement between ul. Tango and ul. Taneczna?).

Below: a string of buses turning onto Poleczki from ul. Łączyny. Note the hot-water pipes, right foreground.

And on, towards Platan Park, past the site of a new Holiday Inn (due to open in Autumn 2012, after the football finals), close to the airport, convenient for the new south Warsaw business district. Below: looking west towards Poleczki Business Park.

Below: Platan Park looking south - in the distance (click to enlarge), new warehouses are emerging from the soil. And there's Hoover - a familiar name to one who spent so much of his life in the UK living near to the Hoover factory in Perivale...

* Thanks to the Młochów Blog, I discover that today was Teacher's Day, most schools closed. That explains it. Shows how many mummy's boys and girls get driven to school.

This time last year:
Who am I? (Kim ja jestem?)

This time two years ago:
First snow, 2009. Ghastly!

This time three years ago:
Train links to town improving

This time four years ago:
A beautiful Sunday, south of Warsaw

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Sun shines down Al. Jerozolimskie

On sunny late afternoons at this time of year, the sun aligns itself with axis of Al. Jerozolimskie and bounces off the glass façades of the tower blocks that line the street.

Above: the sun reflecting off the Marriott back-lights the street (note shadows falling in both directions). Below: the effect is rather like on a film set. I think that Al. Jerozolimskie could do with another palm tree - several indeed (on Rondo Dmowskiego, Pl. Starynkiewicza and Pl. Zawiczy)

I recently posted more pics from my favourite east-west Warsaw avenue here.

This time last year:
Warsaw Metro vignette

This time two years ago:
The most dangerous word in the English language

This time three years ago:
What a difference a day makes

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Genius of Donald Tusk

So we have a new government - the former Premier Tusk says he will continue with the old government until the end of Poland's Presidency of the EU. All well and good - people and markets like stability and continuity - but what about the Polish president, Bronisław Komorowski?

The goy? Who cares!*

Donald Tusk shows his mastery of the strategic politics. He is saying to erstwhile junior coalition partners PSL (the peasant party, with communist-era roots), "don't get in the way of the reform process, or I'll replace you as junior coalition partner with Palikot's mob". To Palikot and his movement, Tusk is saying: "tone down your populist social liberal stance, or you'll have no chance of being taken in as a replacement for PSL as the junior coalition partner."

Just a brief reminder of the mathematics of Sunday's poll (you will remember the figure of 231 seats needed for a parliamentary majority):

PO [207 seats] and PSL [28 seats] = working coalition [235 seats]

PO [207 seats] and Palikot's movement [40 seats] = stronger working coalition [247 seats]

Bear in mind that PSL is essentially old-school 'jobs-for-the-boys' while Palikot and Co. are successful opportunists who've replicated Samoobrona's feat at the 2001 parliamentary elections, coming third with 10.2% of the vote by offering a radical alternative to established politics.

Palikot's roots are in PO; if he's brought into the coalition as PO's 'attack dog' gunning for all enemies of reform, things may possibly start to move faster in Poland (transport infrastructure, de-bureaucratisation etc.) - as long as his sacrilegious marijuana-smoking trans-gendered gay abortionists don't upset Poland's innate conservatism too much.

Hence a cooling off period. Parliament returns on 27 October; from then it's just two months and four days until the end of Poland's EU Presidency. Long enough for Palikot's hastily assembled crew to show their true colours - either as people who could indeed help reform Poland and move it briskly in the direction of normal countries, or else a circus freak-show.

This time last year:
Massacre on the road, Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą - Remember? Has Poland learned anything?

* Throwaway quote from the end of the Goy's Teeth scene, from the Coen Brother's film A Serious Man.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Moaning about the trains, again.

Hey America! England! Canada! Germany! Are you in the least bit interested in the woes of trying to commute to work via Koleje Mazowieckie? [Resounding chorus of "NO!"]

At the risk of alienating the 58% of my readers who don't live in Poland - and indeed the 24% of my Polish readers who don't live in Mazowsze - let me tell you of my commuting woes from these past two days.

Yesterday: I turn up at W-wa Jeziorki station in good time for my train to town. "Bing-bong! The Koleje Mazowieckie train from Radom to Warszawa Wschodnia is running 20 minutes late. The delay time is subject to change [może ulec zmianie]". I toss a mental coin: take the bus to the metro (30 minutes) or wait for the train? Strategy... Magpies and lab rats are good at this kind of thing. Decision taking. I wait for the train. Sure enough, the train arrives, a mere 19 minutes late. Sardines? Anchovies, more like. I manage to board, using a modicum of sharp elbow. The train departs. Two stops up the line, at Okęcie - it breaks down. Terminally. The guard ushers off all the passengers onto a forlorn platform.

Above: "...the 'hound broke down and left the folks stranded in downtown Birmingham..."

More strategy. Turn left, walk a few hundred metres, catch a rare 148 to the airport and a bus from there? Or turn right, walk a few hundred metres, catch a rare 165 to Galeria Motoków (for the best mokoty in town) and a tram from there? I opt for the second option, arriving at the bus stop four minutes after one's departed and 11 minutes before the next one's due [what's 'due' in Polish?] to arrive. No alternative - I walk. And 15 minutes later I reach the tram stop, just missing a number 17 (the one I want). A long wait for the next one. I take a number 18 tram to the Metro, catch that, finally arriving at my meeting with a British company a mere 15 minutes late. (And Poland's keen to court foreign investment with transport infrastructure like this? And Minister Grabarczyk gets to keep his job?)

Today. Turn up at W-wa Powiśle. Westbound trains suspended due to an ambulance being called for a passenger. OK, it happens. So if the suburban trains aren't working - the double deckers that by-pass Powiśle, Śródmieście and Ochota should still be calling at Centralna. They are, the train's on time. But it stops at W-wa Rakowiec for some 20 minutes. No announcement, explanation, apology...

Finally, I arrive back at Jeziorki. Usual dilemma: walk home (12 mins) or wait for bus? There's a 715 due in three minutes. I wait. Three minutes pass, and I can see its lights in the distance. Just as it reaches the level crossing... the barriers descend, right in front of it. We wait. Five minutes. No train. (I can hear a horn in the distance.) Eight minutes... and a slow coal train (40 wagons long) makes its way past the crossing. The last wagon passes. Barriers up? Not a bit of it. Another coal train (this time on the fast, electrified line) makes its way northbound past Jeziorki. Now, had I had this information a quarter of an hour earlier - I'd have walked. Why did the level crossing attendant lower the barriers a full eight minutes before the first train was due? To annoy the bus passengers no doubt.

And another thing. The timetables shown on the internet ( bear little relation to those displayed at the station. While at W-wa Centralna, the 19:00 departure was shown on the platform indicator as setting off at 19:07 - it left at 19:00. Chaos, indifference - a system falling apart. Rozkład aptly means 'timetable' as well as 'decay', 'decomposition', 'putrefaction'.

After two days of abysmal service on the trains, should I take the bus and metro? This morning I took the bus (209 from Jeziorki). Once it got to ul Puławska, once it ground down into that near stationary morass of out-of-towners struggling to force their way into the nation's capital, progress was so slow that I jumped off the bus at Bogatki and proceeded on foot to the next stop, Żolny, and re-boarded the same bus. For the hell of it. Just to prove it's faster on foot than being bogged down in a vehicle on Puławska.

So. This is the conundrum facing the million-plus Mazovians who needed to get into the city centre from the outer suburbs and exurbs of Warsaw, and it is a public policy challenge for the city authorities. One easy win would be to paint a bus lane down ul. Puławska and send a conveyor-belt of buses, one after the other, a veritable Red Ball Express. [There's an economic war going on. We need to get workers into and out cities quickly to win it.] And damn the one-per-car short-distance commuter. Especially those jamming up the roads in their black SUVs with darkened rear windows. Po cholerę, Panie?

This time last year:
Warsaw streets - Dolna, Polna, Rolna, Smolna, Wolna. Lost?

This time three years ago:
Ditches, landscapes, autumn

This time four years ago:
Golden autumn, Łazienki Park

Monday, 10 October 2011

Hope in heaven

View from the balcony this morning. The sun having risen above Jeziorki, slides into cloud cover, but before it goes, a magnificent display - those small cloudlets illuminated from above and behind, looking like small islands or icebergs at sea... quite a sublime experience. Worth clicking on the photo to enlarge, and then meditating upon it. Connect with the Eternal for a while.

Update, Tuesday 11th October; another day, another sunrise. More spectacular, but somehow less... sublime?

Remember this number - 231. Two-three-one.

Two hundred and thirty one seats - this is how many are needed to form a majority in Sejm (lower house of Poland's parliament). The entire Sejm is composed of 460 seats.

According to the latest communique from the PKW (state electoral commission) issued two hours ago, with some 67% of all the votes counted, PO would have 191 seats, PiS 162, PSL 42 seats, Ruch Palikota 36 seats, and SLD 28 seats. On this basis, compared to last night's exit polls, PSL has come third, and together with PO can form a majority government (233 seats). Now, PO and Ruch Palikota can't (a mere 227 seats).

So it's a 'steady as she goes' government, supported by a like-minded president (unlike the situation four years ago, with the late President Lech Kaczyński tending to veto reforming initiatives). Palikot did not quite make it big enough to get his radical agenda into government, while the big loser of the night was the post-communist SLD, lacking leadership and with much of the fire in its belly appropriated by Palikot.

UPDATE: At 9:04 the PKW gave results on the basis of 93% of votes counted. This nudges PO up to 206 seats as the urban results come in, PiS down to 157. But what's interesting is that Palikot has now overtaken PSL into third place with 40 seats, with the agrarians slipping (heavily) to a mere 30 seats. A PO-PSL coalition still makes sense, but Palikot now has a much stronger argument in any discussions re: forming a government.

LOCAL UPDATE: I'm delighted to be able to report that turnout in our polling station (the school on ul. Sarabandy) was 75.4% (compared to a national turnout of 48.6%).

This time last year:
Touched by greatness

This time two years ago:
Fixed wheeling around Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
One day, this will all be asphalt

This time four years ago:

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Poland's electorate plump for continuity

The exit polls put Platforma Obywatelska (PO - Civic Platform) in first place with 39.6% of the vote (down a touch on 2007's result of 41.51%) clearly beating Prawo i Sprawidliwość (PiS - Law and Justice) into second (30.1% down from from 32.11% in 2007). So PO will stay on in power.

For the first time in 21 years of democracy in Poland, a governing party has come first in elections. This means an unprecedented vote for continuity.

The only question is - with whom? Unable to form a government on their own - will PO have enough seats with current junior coalition partner PSL (who got 8.2% of the vote in the exit poll) to continue in power with them? Or would PO actually prefer to turn to the party of social and economic liberal Janusz Palikot (who gained an amazing 10.2% in the exit poll) to form a majority?

Now this would be interesting. In theory, a PO-Palikot coalition would be a good one, though socially abrasive (Palikot enjoys rubbing up the Church the wrong way). But above all, Palikot in government would put more pressure on a rather inert PO to finally get round to reforming the state. Palikot no doubt won massive support from Poland's entrepreneurs, running micro-businesses in the face of the tyranny of red tape, soulless bureaucracy and poorly thought-through and drafted regulations. PSL have tended to act as a handbrake when it came to reforming KRUS (the social security system for farmers which ended up with self-employed people paying eight times more in social security than well-off farmers), and finding their mates cushy public sector jobs.

Palikot's party is a one-man band (imagine the third largest party in the UK, for example, being called 'The Movement to Support Nick Clegg') without any strength in depth. Palikot, a maverick who split off from PO because it was insufficiently radical for him, is seen by some as PO's attack dog, let off the leash before the elections, to return in coalition with PO as a powerful agent for pushing reform. Palikot also proved useful in knocking the post-communist SLD into fifth place (with a mere 7.7% in the exit poll - this was the first time it failed to win double-digit support - a dramatic collapse from its 13.2% in 2007).

We shall see how the coalition talks conclude. PO is currently talking about keeping the present coalition going. What ever happens, my main emotion right now is relief that PiS are nowhere near power; a return of Jarosław Kaczyński and his crew (Antoni Macierewicz, Anna Fotyga, Zbigniew Ziobro - no thanks!) would have been utterly disastrous for Poland.

Catching the coal train

At W-wa Dawidy, a coal train bound for Siekierki via Konstancin-Jeziorna passes through, double-headed by a Gagar (ST44-324) and a Tamara (SM48-111). Now operated by PKP Cargo (rather than private-sector operators CTL Logistics or PCC Rail).

I jump on a conveniently timed southbound passenger train and take it two stops south to Nowa Iwiczna. And catch this shot of the train as it approaches the station.

Walking back from Nowa Iwiczna to Jeziorki, the two engines return light from the transfer sidings at Konstancin-Jeziorna, from where the full coal trains are taken on to the power station.

Click the coal train label (below) to see more pics from this unique industrial railway line that serves southern Warsaw's coal-fired power station.

This time last year:
Poland's wonderful bread

This time two years ago:
An October Friday in Warsaw

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The gradual passing of old Poland

The suicide two months ago of former deputy premier Andrzej Lepper, leader of Samoobrona, a populist, potato-throwing political party that was once in a government coalition, caused me to reflect on how Poland is marching inexorably in the right direction.

In particular, a reportage in Gazeta Wyborcza about his last days, showed how unsustainable were the old ways of doing things in Poland. The article showed Lepper's business model - borrowing money from dubious sources to fund political campaigns, then paying back the lenders with political favours. It all went wrong when he and his party failed to win re-election in the 2007 parliamentary elections. In increasing desperation, Lepper went around seeking new ways to raise funds. He would say nice things about the Belarusian regime, and then trade his new-found (though illusory) influence in Minsk for introductions which he'd sell to Polish entrepreneurs keen to do business across the border.

Reading the article, I could feel a whiff of that dank staleness (stęchlizna) that once permeated Poland's elites, but is now definitely on the retreat. Poland is modernising; the EU, foreign direct investment, mass migration and the modern media are all helping re-shape the country into something more normal, more similar to the western Europe than to Russian Eurasia.

On Tuesday, I took part in an EU conference on innovation and governance organised as part of Poland's EU presidency by the Ministry of the Economy. There were speakers and participants from all over Europe. Looking at the Polish participants, I could see a clear division between the younger, mainly female ones, confidently - and knowledgeably - speaking to Dutch, French, British or German delegates, and the older ones, mainly male, sprouting non-ironic moustaches, wearing ill-fitting jackets, steering clear of foreigners to avoid betraying their inability to speak anything but Polish. And these men were typically the bosses of the women. In a few years time, when the old geezers retire, Poland's state bureaucracy should function a whole lot better.

Next week, I'll be making a brief presentation to the Polish Association of Rural Municipalities about the UK Bribery Act and the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The purpose - to make it clear to Pan Burmistrz that asking foreign-owned businesses for a 'cash contribution to village festival fund' in exchange for planning permission is just not on. Talking to a representative of a large retailer present in Poland, I was told that attitudes to this kind of thing are markedly more dodgy in rural parts than they are in Poland's cities and larger towns.

On balance, I feel increasingly optimistic about Poland's long-term future; economically, Poland has enough forward momentum to carry it through the expected global recession. Politically - it's cisza wyborcza ('election silence') , so I'm not allowed to agitate on behalf of any party - but I would say to those of my readers who can - get out and make your voice heard. Don't let the country go in the wrong direction because you couldn't be bothered to vote.

This time last year:
A glorious week

This time two years ago:
Trampled Underfoot - Jan III Sobieski and the Turks

This time three years ago:
Proto-park and ride, W-wa Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
Autumnal atmosphere

Thursday, 6 October 2011

"...Which was nice..."

(For Dziadzio and Babcia)

[I'm reminded of those sketches from the catch phrase-ridden BBC comedy Fast Show with that smug guy played by Mark Williams (YouTube clip here).]

The official inauguration of Moni's academic year in Łódź Film School was conducted by the President of the Republic of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski. Which was nice...

(Coverage in Polish here, here, here and here)

What did he say?

"Łódzka filmówka jest prawdopodobnie jedyna w Polsce uczelnia, która jest w stanie konkurować ze światowymi szkołami - mówił w Łodzi prezydent Bronisław Komorowski."

"The Łódź Film School is probably the only higher education institution in Poland that's able to compete globally", said President Bronisław Komorowski in Łódź.

For my non-Polish readers, some info about the film school: (from Wprost24) "This academic year there are 154 full-time and over 250 part-time students beginning their studies, in the following departments: directing, camerawork, animation and special effects, film editing, TV and film production, acting, stills photography and screenwriting. In total there are some 900 people studying at the film school, taught by around 160 lecturers."

Tatuś is so proud!

This time last year:
Leonard Cohen in Katowice

This time two years ago:
Autumn evening, central Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Short-term future of suburban development

This time four years ago:
"You'll look funny when you're fifty"

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Birthday thoughts on a gorgeous morning

On my way back to the office from a conference at the Ministry of the Economy on Pl. Trzech Krzyży. I miss the 171 bus; a 10 minute wait for the next one, or a 12 minute walk? I opt for the latter.

Above: Corner of ul. Książęca and Pl. Trzech Krzyży. A lovely kamienica (Come-yen-EET-suh) - the word 'tenement' does not express the concept well in this particular case.

Left: the Holland Park development by ul. Książęca. Posh, superbly located, some flats still available - and Warsaw property prices some 25% lower than they were in 2008. Today is wonderful. Strong sunlight and a top temperature of 24C - I cannot remember such a temperature on my birthday ever before. One must revel in such days; appreciate the warmth and the beauty.

Right: onwards, down the Vistula Escarpment, through the Śmigły-Rydz park. Here's a Socialist Realist sculpture; as with many communist era statues, it's got red paint on it. Eyes, lips and nipples. Not the red arms painted on Feliks Dzierzyński's statue in communist days (by heroes) or daubs of red paint spattered on Berling's statue, or on that of the Soviet soldiers on Pl. Wileński these days (by vandals)... but red nonetheless.

Below: fountains in Śmigły-Rydz Park. The trees are starting to turn to gold; may this October be as sunny as it was last year.

I'm still feeling 34 (I have 20 years experience of being 34). In my waking consciousness and in my dreams, I am indeed still in my mid-30s, and I get a shock when walking past a mirror and suddenly realise that my exterior apparition is out of kilter with the way I feel about myself.

I get to the office and find a large walnut cream cake and a bottle of South African Pinotage on my desk! Thanks guys!

Still, I have wonderfully fit parents (88 and 84 respectively); genetic factors and lifestyle are both important predictors of one's lifespan. I'm happier within myself than I've ever been - and so, roll on my 55th birthday!

This time last year:
Birthday treat

This time two years ago:
Autumnal bike ride

This time three years ago:
An embarrassment of abundance

This time four years ago:
Upon my 50th birthday (I was right to be optimistic!)