Monday, 30 January 2012

How much education for the nation?

With more and more OECD countries sending over half of their young people to university, I should like to to offer public policy-makers the following challenge: are over half of the jobs in your economy graduate-level?

When I read that 71% of South Korean 18 year-olds are university-bound (and that 100% of South Korean parents want their children to go to university) I was shocked. Where will the future bricklayers, shop assistants, hairdressers, bus drivers, postmen, barmen, chambermaids, street-sweepers,welders, security guards, car-parking attendants, ticket collectors, etc. come from in a country with imploding demographics?

In most advanced economies, there are more graduates than graduate-level jobs. The logical outcome of this situation is graduate unemployment followed by graduates being forced to do work that they consider beneath their potential. The best graduates - those who are demonstrably intelligent and can prove a capacity for hard work - will get the most rewarding jobs. The rest? Well, once you work your way down towards 'average', the job market becomes tougher, before young Spanish, German, British, Japanese or American graduates find that no employer is interested in their qualifications.

And here we are, policy-makers! Where does your nation's youth fit onto this grid? And what policy measures are needed to shunt the average up towards to upper right quartile? And when you get there - then what? A whole lot of over-qualified voters doing jobs that are beneath their potential? Or are you going to export your unemployment (as Poland did from 2004 on)?

Should the state educate more - or less? If more - in what direction? Mediaeval French Poetry? Comparative Cartoon Studies? Or IT, Biotech or Engineering?

Britain has already started rationing education. With annual fees rising to £9,000 a year (47,000 zlotys to Polish parents), potential students are beginning to shun those courses that will not open doors to high-paying jobs. My instinct is, that for an economy, high fees for state universities will lead to better results all round. Those who feel the hurdle is too high (for themselves or their children) will rightly avoid university and settle down to a more suitable job.

In Poland, state universities are still free; the less-gifted who feel (or whose parents feel) that five years at university is a good idea have a wide selection of heavily-advertised private ones to chose from. Britain, by contrast, has one private university, Buckingham. In America, the best universities are private (and very expensive), while the duffers go to state unis. So - no consensus as to how best to educate our youth.

Any thoughts, dear readers?

This time last year:
To the Catch - short story

This time two years ago:
Eternal Warsaw

This time four years ago:
From the family archives

Sunday, 29 January 2012

From Jeziorki to Jeziorki

In today's world, information about anything is infinitely easier to find; online you soon develop your own well-trodden paths towards satisfying your need for knowledge. Yet among our bookmarked our favourite sites, there must be room for serendipity, random fortuitous events, that can bring unexpected information to us.

One heavily-used bookmarked site on my home and work computers is, used to find out train times from Jeziorki to town and back again, and sometimes for longer journeys, for business or recreation. The software is not perfect. Type in a journey from "W-wa Śródmięscie" to "W-wa Centralna"...

And the result offered will be a far more exciting trip from Brussels to Chrzanów Śródmieście.

OK, it's a silly query as the two stations are connected to one another by underground passage, and indeed trains from one don't stop at the other. But my point is that the search software has problems disambiguating stations with similar names.

Now, type in "W-wa Jeziorki". Once again, the search engine cannot grapple with "W-wa" if there's any other station with a similar name in the system.

You get a disambiguation result (below), asking you to select from two stations...

So there are TWO Jeziorki stations?! Show me the other one! Well, it's Jeziorki Wałeckie, in the far north west of Poland, Zachodniopomorskie province. It's in an area so remote (closed line between Wałcz and Kalisz Pomorski. I bet most Poles couldn't accurately place these places on a map of the province) The station is not even open, the 40km line having been shut which means you can't make that journey. Leaving closed stations on the database always gives grounds for hope that one day they'll be re-opened. Indeed, two years ago, PKP published a tender for the restoration of traffic to the line.

But anyway, let's have a closer look at Jeziorki Wałeckie station (closed)...

Above: The station building at 'Jeziorki Wał.' Photo: Ryszard_K

Above: the platform at Jeziorki Wałeckie. Photo: Robert Nowicki.

So then... One day, a journey from Jeziorki to Jeziorki is in order.

This time two years ago:
Launching the General's book

This time three years ago:
A pavement for ul. Karczunkowska?
(For a while there it looked like the city authorities would provide us locals with a pavement so that we could safely walk to the station. Two years later - not a bit of it. Still waiting. A Big Boo to Bufetowa)

This time four years ago:
Taking off over Okęcie

Friday, 27 January 2012

At last - winter's gorgeousness

A big thank-you to fellow-blogger and near neighbour, Student SGH for offering me a lift this morning. We toured the roadworks around the S2 between Węzeł Lotnisko and Węzeł Puławska after which the anonymous blogger dropped me off on ul. Taneczna, I then popped into the local store for food and a paper and then had a refreshing (read: icy cold; it was -11C) stroll down ul. Wodzirejów (below) towards Puławska and Platan Park for my morning meetings. The route was slippery and I did well to avoid getting wet socks breaking through thin ice into freezing puddles.

The sun rose this morning at 7:23, a mere 22 minutes earlier than at Winter Equinox (by contrast, the day's gained 48 minutes on the shortest day in the evenings. A strange asymmetry. Below: Platan Park, on ul Poloneza, my destination.

After two hours at Platan Park, off to town. Another refreshing walk to Puławska (having missed two buses), then on to Wilanowska. And here, along with crowds of late morning commuters, off the 739 and on towards the Metro station. The blue sky makes the scene look quite summery - and yet it's -10C.

This time last year:
New winter wear - my M65 Parka

This time two years ago:
Winter and broken-down trains

This time three years ago:
General Mud claims ul. Poloneza

This time four years ago:
Just when I thought winter was over...

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Warsaw is ready for winter

Proper winter is arriving. The past week has been a thoroughly unpleasant mix of rain and wet snow, temperatures just above zero. Last night the temperature fell to -4C and by tomorrow morning it will be -10C. The temperatura odczuwalna will be -17C. Light snow fell today, no more is expected in the immediate future. But the city is ready. READY - d'you hear me?!

Below: snow ploughs on Pl. Konstytucji, quarter to eight this morning. (Note the row of bollards keeping rogue parkers off the pavement. It's the only language they understand!)

Below: as much attention is being lavished on pavements as on roadways. Ul. Waryńskiego (between Nowowiejska and Pl. Konstytucji). Note the pattern of the swept snow.

Not just in town, but on the fringes - this is ul. Puławska in Grabów (between Jeziorki and Civilisation). A day earlier, at twenty to eight in the morning. Note the light traffic - this is ferie fortnight (Warsaw's school winter holidays).

Warsaw seems well prepared - nevertheless there was a spate of traffic jams and crashes today. The city can do its bit - but crazy drivers will wreck it for everyone.

And getting home in the evening, I spied a sure sign that winter has its costs... the footprints from the gate the gas meter and back. Will the bill for Dec-Jan be lower than last year?

This time two years ago:
Łazienki park, glorious midwinter

This time three years ago:
At the Rampa - work stops

This time four years ago:
Polecamy MROŻONKI - old-school retail

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Get orf my lairnd!

Orjan's comment on my last post (sadly hijacked by the Smolensk issue) raises some valuable points that need further discussion in the ongoing debate about Polish-British cultural differences. His comment was in Polish, so an overview will be needed for the non-Polish speaking majority of my readers...

One interesting question that has yet to surface in British historiography is the influence of deportations to Australia on the long-term crime rate (comedian Alexei Sayle, being asked upon his first visit down-under by Australian immigration officers whether he had a criminal record, answered "Why - do you still need one?"). According to Wikipedia's sources, penal deportations to Australia went on for 82 years from 1786 to 1868 (82 years), depositing 165,000 convicts there. And before the USA won its independence, Britain dumped a further 60,000 convicts in penal colonies across the Atlantic. Whether this sustained onslaught on the nation's ne'er-do-wells left Victorian Britain a safer place for the building of low walls around houses is a moot point.

Now I will take the liberty here to translate the key paragraph from Orjan's comment:

"In Polish culture, there is a much broader concept of personal liberty, and also in its relation to other people's space. Besides someone else's ban on entry, there exists my own need to enter, does there not? Hence, a low wall is not culturally interpreted as 'crossing is forbidden', but as 'please, I'd rather you didn't cross' - in other words: "you're not allowed, but you can". By contrast, higher fencing gives the legal message integrated with a real obstacle: "you're not allowed and you can not".

This brings us back to that greatest of differences between British and Polish culture - common law vs. code-based law. The spirit vs. the letter of the law. The low walls embody the spirit, the high walls the chapter and verse.

But wait - there's another, quite paradoxical, difference between the landscape of Poland and the UK that requires explanation. In Poland, fields are not fenced off. And as long as you don't trample the farmer's crops, there's generally no gripe about you walking along the miedza between two fields. (As long as there are no dogs running loose.) In Britain, fields are enclosed. (See my photos of Derbyshire, here.) By hawthorn bushes and barbed-wire fences in the south, by stone-wall fences in Wales and the North (generally). Walkers must stick to marked (and mapped) public footpaths or bridleways. Failure to do so is regarded as trespassing; landowners take a dim view of people crossing their field and will bellow at them to 'get orf their lairnd'. Failure to do so may well result in a shotgun being fired into the air.

Which - when you think about it - is strange. Crime is far higher in urban Britain than rural Britain, as is unemployment. (Yes, there is livestock rustling going in Britain, something generally unreported in Poland). In general, however, while you are prevented by fencing from stepping foot on someone's agricultural land in Britain (you are not in Poland), you can walk off the pavement on most British streets and step right up to the front door of a house, and even push open the letter-box, without incurring any ill effect.

Where does that leave the British countryside? I believe that's a relic of the Enclosure Act of 1773 (with subsequent amendments), where landowners would use the law to turf peasant share-croppers off their land (that they'd farmed for centuries) and replace them with more profitable sheep.

And there you have it.

This time last year:
A Dream Too Far - part two

This time two years ago:
Electric in the dark

This time four years ago:
Elegant and proper

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

It's a conspiracy!

An incident on the way to work got me thinking. A guy sitting opposite me on the train commented on my US Army parka and fur hat; he told me that he collected militaria and pointed to his 1960s Red Army-issue boots. The man, in his early 30s, dressed like a manual labourer, then went on to talk quite knowledgeably, about his collection of military bits and pieces he'd dug up around Magnuszew, (where the Red Army established a bridgehead on the west bank of the Vistula and fought off a German counter-attacks in 1944).

He told me that he'd had a stash of 160 WWII hand grenades that he'd kept in his basement. When these were found by the police (his neighbours, he said, were always complaining about the explosions he was setting off) he was imprisoned for six and half years. At this stage, I began having doubts as to the veracity of the man's tale.

He then told of how he'd often recruit local drunks from Warka to dig for military remains, paying them 100 złotys for a day's work. “Two of them blew themselves sky-high”, he told me. "Fantasist," I thought. His grandfather was a German, he said, who had fought with the SS on the Eastern Front. “The things he'd seen...” His grandfather, who he said died when he was 12 or 13, said “they should have liquidated all the Jews.” By now, alarm bells started ringing. The guy's not only nuts but quite probably psychopathic. “The Jews are running Poland!” he said, drawing attention from other commuters. “Even this railway is owned by the Jews!” Without saying a word, I stood up and moved to another carriage.

This encounter – most untypical, I must add - got me thinking about the role of Conspiracy in politics. At the weekend, reading KGB – The Inside Story by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky – the link between mental illness, paranoia and conspiracy all fitted together. Poland is still emerging from a dark period in its history – the direct result of the madness that fuelled the minds of two men – Hitler and Stalin.

Both were obsessed with conspiracies – one was convinced of a Jewish plot to run the world. The other – of a capitalist plot to run the world. The mental flexibility that allowed their ill minds to find plots and sub-plots that simply did not exist is staggering. During the Spanish Civil War, when Stalin was supporting the Republican side – his NKVD henchmen spent more energy chasing Trotskyites than they did fighting Fascists – which, ostensibly, was what they were there for.

Both Hitler and Stalin's secret services were in the business of torturing the truth out of innocent people in order to prove the existence of a given conspiracy. Stalin was so much more effective. His secret services effectively spread disinformation, they found useful dupes to do good propaganda for them, they were so much better at getting their victims to volunteer information to them. Hitler's propaganda had no room for shades of grey. Stalin's propaganda could make white look like black.

Destroying the bonds of human trust are a prerequisite for a New Order to step in, replacing centuries-old institutions with The Party. In the 20th C., this happened right across much of the Eurasian continent. It deeply affected the psyches (and indeed mental health) of those who lived through it.

To finally kill off the evil effects of totalitarianism in Poland – and other post-communist countries – what is needed is the rebuilding of social trust. Good must arise out of bad - not sinking back into a world of plots, counter-plots and counter-counter-plots.

One of my students, Marzena, who has just returned from her first trip to the UK, noticed how low the walls surrounding English houses were compared to the elaborate security measures that defend Polish houses. Despite (or because of) this, burglary rates in Warsaw are actually lower than in London. Three times lower, in fact. And yet, fear of crime is far greater here.

Paranoia – the fear that someone's out to get me – is at the heart of many populist political movements. Russia's Putin cannot accept, for example, that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – voluntary bodies set up from the grass roots – can exist or even spring up without the careful planning and support of foreign powers intent on using them to take over Russia.

Populist parties around the world use conspiracy theory to boost support among the disaffected. Those who believe that the fact that life has been less than fair them is the fault of some vast conspiracy. They will vote for anyone who can put their minds at ease by convincing them of that fact.

I'm not going to make any direct references to today's press conference by Antoni Macierewicz; I shall let readers make their own conclusion.

This time last year:
A Dream Too Far - short story

This time two years ago:
Compositions in white, blue and gold

This time three years ago:
Dobra and the road

This time four years ago:
Polish air force plane full of VIPs crashes on landing

Monday, 23 January 2012

Citizen Action Against Rat Runners

Ul. Trombity develops by sprouting spurs off to either side, new houses spring up, next to tumble-down old farm buildings. The spurs tend to follow farm tracks and footpaths. What happens next is that the the tracks get explored by lone four-wheel-drivers, and when they become convinced that this is a potential short-cut that can save them 45 valuable seconds waiting for the lights at Ludwinowska, they start using it on a daily basis.

Except the track is entirely unsuited for motorised traffic. But the Roald Amundsen spirit in our four-wheel-drivers, with their Piaseczno or Pruszków plates, is quite indomitable. There's only one way to stop them: Szlaban. A word not entirely translatable into English (neither 'barrier' or 'gate' do szlaban justice - after all, there's bariera and brama/bramka). It's a loan-word from German Schlagbaum (lit. 'shock-tree'), which means 'turnpike'.

Above: the path that links ul. Trombity to ul. Nawłocka and Karczunkowska beyond, from the Trombity end. A solid piece of work, leaving the 250m of path walkable for local residents and maintaining its semi-rural charm.

Left: "Dogs begin to bark, hounds begin to howl/Watch out strange cat people, little red rooster's on the prowl..." [Little Red Rooster, Willie Dixon]. A corner of rural Oklahoma that's forever Jeziorki? The same path, looking towards ul. Trombity.

Weather today (and at the weekend which I spent mostly in bed) continues to be abysmal; the worst that winter can deliver to the human psyche. Temperatures just above freezing, snow that falls as rain, slush, dampness and general bleahh. This morning, having no lessons, I indulged in the luxury of working from home, setting off for town after the rush hour had completely subsided.

W-wa Jeziorki, not a soul in sight. The train that came (on time, it must be said) was only three carriages long and packed to the gunwales. And around 50 cars parked higgledy-piggledy in the muddy verges around the station. If there were more space, properly organised, and more trains to town, maybe the road chaos between Jeziorki and the city centre would be more bearable during the working week.

This time last year:
Moni at 18 (and 18 months)

This time two years ago:
Building the S79 - Sasanki-Węzeł Lotnisko, midwinter

This time three years ago:
My return to skiing after an eight-year break

This time four years ago:
Moni's 15th birthday

Which reminds me - today is the fifth anniversary of the death (in 2007) of Ryszard Kapuścinski, Poland's greatest journalist. If you've not read any of his works (in Polish or in English) - do so.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Music of the trees

This - is quite something. Slightly unnerving, but most original.

A slice of tree, its rings acting as the grooves of a record. The light, reflected from the patterns upon the surface of the wood, triggers, via a computer, relevant notes on a piano.

YEARS from Bartholomäus Traubeck on Vimeo.

Eddie and Moni both quite amazed. Interesting to see that this short film has been watched 103,000 times in just five days.

This time last year:
Studniówka - a hundred days before the exams

This time two years ago:
It's all in the mind - but where's that?

This time three years ago:
Roztopy - the big melt-down

This time four years ago:
The year's most depressing day

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Reference books are dead.

Enthralled by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy last weekend, I decided to get a better understanding of the espionage struggle at the heart of the Cold War. Finding on my bookshelf the book KGB: the Inside Story by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, I dived into it - the first non-fiction book I've read for several month- and soon found myself hungry for hyperlinks. Every now and then - indeed, several time per page - I felt myself frustrated at not being able to click on a link to uncover more information about a related topic.

This does not happen when reading a novel; here, the author draws the reader into a self-contained world where explanations are provided within the text.

The title of this post is deliberately provocative. They are not dead, but their role is greatly diminished. Had I not had bought Andrew and Gordievsky's book in the early 1990s, I would not not have felt a need to buy a similar book today - there's simply so much information online, verified, cross-referenced, updated, debated on fora, discussed on blogs. And had the book's text been available online and hyperlinked, it would have made it easier to assimilate.

Gazeta Wyborcza has started publishing a regular history supplement on Tuesdays. The first issue carried an account of Operation RYAN, the secret Soviet operation to discover the circumstances of a purported US nuclear first-strike against the USSR. KGB: The Inside Story goes into much detail about RYAN, which it claims, is the second-closest the world got to nuclear Armageddon. And of course, this has prompted me to have a look at the Wikipedia article, to read more about RYAN and Operation Able Archer 83, the NATO exercise that the Soviets believed were the prelude to a pre-emptive nuclear assault. Clicking on that link, (and from it an entire network of subsequent links) I have learned so much more than I could have learned from a magazine article or a book chapter.

Wikipedia (may God bless it, its founders, editors and contributors) has brought about such an unbelievable enhancement to the information that we can access from our home or office computers, from our laptops, tablets and smartphones, that the traditional reference book or encyclopaedia has become a very poor substitute.

Of course, should the book contain a ripping narrative, great prose style, enthralling reportage or original research, or else voice a novel thesis, then yes, it's worth reading and buying. But simply to ground oneself in the basis facts around a subject, then it is indeed Goodbye, Gutenberg.

Having said all this, I've spent today in bed, knocked out by that cold virus that has been creeping up on me. And what could be more conducive to a good read than a day in bed?

But for day-to-day reading, it will be back to literature. And reportage.

This time last year:
Another winter walk to work

This time two years ago:
It's unacceptable.

This time three years ago:
Pieniny in winter

This time four years ago:
Wetlands in a wet winter

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Miserable depths of winter

It's not snow or frost that gets me down - it's weather like today's. Just over zero degrees, with precipitation falling as (very cold) rain rather than as snow. What snow cover we had is melting, pavements are slushy and the damp air feels colder than dry air (just as putting your hand into water at +60C is painful, while being in a dry sauna at +60C feels, well, cool).

Yesterday morning, my bus didn't turn up at all (probably never left the depot). It left me standing, shivering at the bus stop for 17 minutes. And yesterday evening my journey home by Koleje Mazowieckie took 1hr 55mins - double the optimal time. Working days, starting at 8:00am and finishing nine or ten hours later, are in themselves not that tiring. What gets me down at this time of year is leaving home in the dark and coming home in the dark.

This time of year, the second half of January, is depressing. Not an intimation of spring for another two months. Indeed, Blue Monday, that urban-myth-pop-science day that is 'proven' to be the most depressing day of the year (presumably in the northern hemisphere), either fell last Monday or will fall next Monday.

This is also a time of year when immune systems, weakened by cold and lack of sunlight, fall prey to colds and flus. Last year, I fell ill for around 36 hours though a week later. Today I feel that without a sauna and a very early night, I shall get swept away by some vulgar little virus...

This time last year:
From - a short story (Part 1)

This time two years ago:
A month until Lent starts

This time three years ago:
World's biggest airliner over Poland

This time four years ago:
More pre-Lenten thoughts

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Copyright issues - my thoughts

Wikipedia woke me up to this - Wikipedia - that wonderful, free-of-charge condensation of all knowledge about all things ever, without which I cannot effectively work or blog - and its worldwide protest against the American Congress's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Senate's Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Here are my rather disjointed, emotional rather than rational, thoughts on this issue. But also read this article, here.

The guys behind SOPA and PIPA are essentially rich, non-creative people leveraging America's power and global reach to ensure they can remain fat off the creativity of others. They are lawyers, big-shot producers, media moguls, owners of copyrights. They are not writers or musicians or actors or music- or film-lovers. They are, essentially, parasites.

Once upon a time, I'd buy records by James Brown. Lots of them. Then tapes. Then CDs. Then the internet came along. James Brown is dead now. If I spent £17.99 on a rare CD of his early recordings tomorrow - where would the money go? To the record company that bought the record company that bought the record company that bought the record company that once upon a time - more than half a century ago - invested its money to record James Brown and the Famous Flames? To the relatives of Mr Brown, quarrelling over their relative share in his fortune? To the lawyers, servicing record company and heirs?

The copyright issue all clicked with me the day I watched Hugh Grant in the film About a Boy (2002). From IMDB's synopsis of the plot: "38 year-old Will Freeman is a slacker who has lived comfortably off the royalties of a song written by his deceased father, and as such has never had to work a day in his life." The film, coincidentally, appeared just as peer-to-peer music downloading was becoming mainstream.

Paying money to the heirs of dead people to listen to their music is wrong. After all, why shouldn't my children receive royalties for their late grandfather's architectural drawings, still underpinning schools and hospitals across north-west England?

I do not believe for a second that Sir Paul McCartney or Sir Michael Jagger ever had an eye on decades' worth of royalties cascading down upon them, their children and their children's children as they co-wrote, respectively, I Want To Hold Your Hand or (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. They co-wrote and performed their songs for entirely different reasons. Neither do I believe that J.K. Rawling wrote the seven Harry Potter books in order to become Britain's second-richest woman.

I wish Sir Michael Jagger the longest life. Let's say he lives to 100; this would mean he dies in 2043. Copyright law, as it stands, means that for the next 70 years - i.e. until 2113, all royalties on the songs he wrote/co-wrote will pass to his descendants. By then, his youngest offspring Lucas Jagger (born 1999) will be 114. And he will have been able to spend his entire life living off his father's earnings.

The reason that copyright laws exist is to protect the investment of the book publisher, record company, movie production company or software publisher. They must feel confident that the money they invest in bringing a book, song, film or program to market will be recouped. Fair enough. But the cost of doing so (in real terms) has plummeted thanks to technology, while the copyright owners (not necessarily the creators) have, over the years, been extending the protection period for ever-increasing lengths of time. [I can't tell you precisely how long, because Wikipedia's down. But when it's back tomorrow, check for yourselves].

SOPA and PIPA are attempts by big-money people, people who have more money than you or I could ever dream of, to hang on to a handy revenue stream despite the fact that the world is moving on. Technology and globalisation are changing it all. SOPA and PIPA, if passed, would allow America a huge say over who can and who can't access knowledge around this planet. This is just plain wrong.

This time last year:
Waiting for the sun

This time two years ago:
From suburban to inter-city

This time three years ago:
Into the trees

Monday, 16 January 2012

Palace of Culture in Winter

Two views - below; the Palace of Culture and Science looms out of a snowy morning sky as Warsaw hurries to work...

...and below, illuminated in lavender, the Palace of Culture and Science looks down as Warsaw hurries home.
The first photo was taken from the south side, the second from the east side.

Last week, foreign minister Radek Sikorski suggested knocking down the palace (click to watch interview below) on the grounds that it would be a post-communist act of catharsis - much like like the demolition of the orthodox cathedral on (what is today) Pl. Piłsudskiego in 1920. He also says the building is unecological, wasteful of energy and soon in need of a remont that will cost tens or even hundreds of millions of zlotys. In place of the palace, he suggests a park with grass and a pond, where Varsovians can picnic.

I'd be against knocking it down - but then for me, personally, an occasional visitor to communist Poland, it does not stand as a monument to oppression, rather as a historical curiosity; and socialist realist architecture from the Stalinist era is surprisingly rare in this part of Europe. If it give future generations the shudders - well, maybe it should. A reminder of a time when totalitarianism ruled. May it never rule again.

This time two years ago:
Conquering Warsaw's highest snow mounds

This time three years ago:
Flashback on way to Zielona Góra

This time four years ago:
Ursynów, winter, before sunrise

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Tinker, Tailor: why I watch films

Some people go for fast-moving plots and action - car chases, explosions, shoot-outs - not me. I prefer my cinema reflective, well acted and well scripted. Film-going is not just a way of passing an hour and half. It's about usefully increasing the sum of my experience, though in a vicarious manner (indeed, like reading a good book). A good film, then, is one to which I'll be coming back time and time again, quoting quotes from it, and referring to in my writing.

Watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Gary Oldman in the role of George Smiley was a real pleasure; though spy films are not my genre, this film is deeply cerebral with an obsessive focus on accuracy. The period - one which I remember well as a teenager - is beautifully captured; clothes, cars, props (Harp lager, Trebor mints) - but most of all the dingy grandeur of early '70s London.

The moral equivalence between communism and the west seeps out now and then (particularly shocking was the scene of the Christmas party at which the top British secret intelligence service staff were drunkenly singing the Soviet national anthem). By the 1980s, with Reagan having defined the Cold War as one against an Evil Empire, one which 'we must win and they must lose', musings such as 'they're just like us' or 'we're just as bad as them' would have been quite, quite treasonable. Despite the ambiguity (the Soviets were on our side during the 'real' war) there was an awareness that the activities of the West's spies was aimed at preventing World War III.

Nicely portrayed was the analogue-era equipment of spying - film cameras and encrypted telex machines - and everything was on paper, filed in rows upon rows of shelving occupying floors upon floors of office space - stuff that today would fit into a handful of domestic computers. And manual security systems; guards and dockets, turnstiles, no swipe-cards or biometric ID checks.

Use of music to create the right period was neatly, subtly done. Choosing Hurricane Smith's 1971 hit Don't Let It Die - a masterstroke. A song that reached No. 2 in the UK pop charts that summer, was played everywhere - and then promptly forgotten for four decades. And the scene where Peter Guillam is stealing the log book, and Mendel is at the car mechanics ready to make a distracting phone call. On Radio 2 (presumably!) we hear a request for George Formby's Mr Wu's A Windowcleaner Now. The 1939 novelty song in the music hall tradition, at that time the film was set* three and half decades old, is still a hit with the mechanics (tapping their spanners) and the eavesdropping stenographer singing along as she transcribes the intercepted phone call. The way it fits in with the suspense - will Guillam be discovered - makes the scene a great one.

The plot hangs together very well; despite being completely new to John Le Carre and the spy genre, I had no problem following the twists and turns of the story line, and I was genuinely surprised by the ending(s). But given the lukewarm reviews in the Daily Mail and Daily Express I can see that many film goers would prefer to see Tom Cruise being propelled through the air in the wake of a giant fireball while waving his arms and legs.

More films like Tinker, Tailor for me, please!

* 'the film was set'. How do you say that concisely in Polish - as in 'the film is set in 1970s London'?

This time four years ago:
Trundling Tamara

Saturday, 14 January 2012

First snow in the Old Town

As Golden Autumn turned to cold greyness I promised a visit to the Old Town when the first snows started to settle on the cobbled streets. Today, though the temperature was only -1C, the wind was a damp northwesterly, the Old Town was calling.

Below: on the way, the junction of ul. Kozia (left) and Krakowskie Przedmieście (splendidly and tastefully lit, to the right). Fewer people than expected on a Saturday night, even in January. Some hardy souls out and about to capture the atmosphere, but no crowds.

Left: looking down ul. Kozia (notable for the caricature and cartoon museum) towards Krakowskie Przedmieście. In the distance on the corner (click to enlarge), Kino Kultura, a self-confessed art-house cinema run by the Polish Association of Film Makers.

Below: ul. Kanonia in the snowstorm. Howling winds made the evening feel much colder than it was.

Right: looking towards ul. Kanonia from ul. Dziekańska, the walls of Katedra Św. Jana (St John's Cathedral) on the left. With the temperature just below zero, wet patches on the roadway indicate where the hot water pipes are running just below the surface.

Below: view of the Barbakan, the Old Town's mid-16th Century defensive fortifications, from the Old Town walls.

Below: ul. Krzywe Koło (lit. 'Crooked Wheel Street'), with its 90 degree bend.

Below: ul. Piwna, back on the tourist trail, Christmas lighting and small gaggles of foreign-speaking visitors taking in the town.

When the snow starts a' fallin', Warsaw's worth a visit. Ideally, it should be a bit colder, so the snow's not so damp, no wind - or just enough to produce slight swirling; the best time of day? Just after sunset and early evening, before the nightlife kicks off. Annoyingly, my photos of ul. Rycerska didn't come out - too blurred - next time a tripod would come in handy, as the street is not well lit.

This time last year:
Blood on the tracks, again

This time two years ago:
Views from Książęca footbridge - winter and summer

This time three years ago:
The Most Poniatowskiego

This time four years ago:
[What was once] The highest point in Jeziorki

Thursday, 12 January 2012


Happily ensconced in my new office on ul. Nowogrodzka, I am delighting in being so close to so many good places for an inexpensive and tasty lunch. Today for example, we popped round the corner to the Fire'n'Ice Lounge on ul. Parkingowa, a Bollywood bar with a very reasonable lunch menu. For 19 złotys (£3.60), a salad starter with lassi and poppadum, a curry (vegetarian, chicken/meat or fish) and rice or naan. Reasonable quantities, very tasty, nice price.

More often, however, there's the Grill Bar Egipt(open 24h) on the corner of Parkingowa and Nowogrodzka (opposite the Novotel). My dish of choice here is kebab z baraniny na cienkim, podwójne mięso, na ostro (mutton kebab on thin bread with double meat and hot sauce). This kebabsko costs 13 złotys or £2.50 (i.e. UK prices from a quarter of a century ago) and fills you right up; the meat is good and there's plenty of surówka (raw salady things) stuffed in there with the meat to ensure at least one of your five portions of fresh veg. The Egypt gives you a complementary glass of strong tea too. And if you're not too hungry, the standard kebab costs 9 złotys (£1.75).

Given the scandal concerning the kebab meat factory under Dworzec Centralny (long gone!), I'm surprised to find a) myself regularly eating kebab and b) thousands of other Varsovians queuing up for kebab, in preference to American or Vietnamese fast-food. Today, for example, after open day at Eddie's school, I popped into the Amrit Kebab on Pl. Wilsona, for a large mutton kebab. Huge crowds, seven-thirty in the evening. (I notice that Scatts mentions the place in a comment about Żoliborz's answer to Piccadilly Circus.)

To date, I've not had any adverse tummy scenarios after eating kebab in Warsaw. Indeed, I've not had any adverse tummy scenarios after eating anything in Warsaw - which is more than I can say for London (where I lived and worked for 16 years).

Differences between a British and Polish kebab? Mainly the bread. In the UK, you'll get meat and salad stuffed into a smallish pitta pocket. In Poland, a huge circular flat bread (cienkie ciasto) is spread out and filled with grilled meat and salad, the hot sauce added, then the whole thing is carefully folded to avoid drips in a take-away eating-on-the-street situation.

If there's one adverse effect, it's the smell of grilled mutton, which hangs on one's clothing for days after a visit. Or the risk of hearing cheesy Ukrainian pop that plays alternately with far better modern Egyptian music.

Have any of my readers had any bad experiences from kebabs? Any known health risks associated with regular kebab consumption? Recommendations for good ones? (there's a good one on Marszałkowska by Teatr Bajka...)

This time last year:
The day I found a million zlotys

This time two years ago:
Making the most of winter

This time three years ago:
Progress along Ballay Street

This time four years ago:
Shortest, mildest, winter?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

I'm taking a couple of days off... drink

The British Government has always had a nanny-ish instinct, leading the world in Health and Safety best practice etc. The British Government has been actively and effectively encouraging its citizens to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables (the long-running Five a Day campaign) which at least has resulted in fruit and veg being the most widely wasted food among Brits (in Poland its bread - see this post).

Nanny State has been warning Brits of the dangers of alcohol since Victorian times. You're never more than a few days away from a new alcohol scare story in the British media (drunk woman under train video; alcohol abuse rising fastest in over-70s; liver disease epidemic in North-East). The cost of treating alcohol-related illness (and indeed social costs of alcohol-related misbehaviour) is evidently worrying the cash-strapped governments.

Now, a report by a group of Members of Parliament is urging that Brits (and by implication all other human beings with livers) cut out all alcohol consumption for two days of each and every week. (Full report here.)

This is an interesting development, following on from a story that staying off booze for a month in the New Year is futile. (I don't see the science behind this one.)

Given that for the past two decades I've cut out alcohol entirely over the six-and-half-week course of Lent, I read both stories with great interest.

Given that I never binge-drink (disliking the spinning-head sensation), the question in my case is rather one of the daily tipple - typically two or three glasses of red wine. This does put me within the limits set out in the British Government's 1995 guidelines - three to four units of alcohol per day, 21 t0 28 a week, for a man. And quitting for one-eighth of a year, every year, I would argue is eminently healthy.

But the two-days off regimen may be useful towards my long-term goal of keeping happy, healthy and active well into very old age. And so from tonight I shall resolve of avoiding alcohol for two days a week (outside of Lent) and seven days a week (within it).

In essence, this means not opening a bottle of red wine every other day/every third day, so a modest saving of around 100 zlotys a month will accompany the health benefits.

This time last year:
Depopulating Polish cities?

This time two years ago:
Powiśle on a winter's morning

This time three years ago:
Sunny, snowy Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
Eddie's giant soap bubble

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

My enemy's enemy is my... ?

The Przybył case gathers momentum. "Here's that gunshot again, viewers, in case you missed it last night. And again" - Bang! A day later, Col. Przybył's doing fine, conducting media interviews.

I watch with interest what would occur on Toyah's blog, the right-thinking antidote to what you're reading here (written by me, someone incapable of independent thought - brainwashed by years of reading Gazeta Wyborcza and watching TVN news. And growing up in the West.).

[To get my non-Polish readers up to speed on this story, here's the BBC report.]

Instead of lashing out at the System, the one that murdered President Lech Kaczyński, intriguingly, Toyah lashes out at... Artur Zawisza. Readers may associate him with the lighter moments of the PiS-LPR-Samoobrona government (2005-07). Zawisza will primarily be remembered as the politician who wanted to ban the wearing of mini-skirts alongside public highways. And this while his coalition partners from Samoobrona were busy offering jobs for sex.

What has Artur Zawisza done to offend Toyah? He's a splitter. SPLITTER! Along with Marek Jurek (Prawica Rzeczpospolitej), then Adam Bielan, Michał Kamiński, Paweł Poncyliusz and Joanna Kluzik-Rostowska (Polska jest Najważniejsza), and then Zbigniew Ziobro and Jacek Kurski (Solidarna Polska), Zawisza had the temerity to set up a rival right-wing party in opposition to PiS.

OK, Zawisza is a splitter - indeed proto-splitter, because he was one of the very first to break off from Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński. But what did he do to earn Toyah's opprobrium?

The key thing to remember as the Przybył case unfolds is that it is being presented by the media as the result of the conflict between the civilian and military prosecutor. Now, the civilian prosecutor-general, Andrzej Seremet, with whom the military prosecutor is at odds, was appointed by President Lech Kaczyński.

So... Seremet is our friend. Przybył and his boss Krzysztof Parulski, being at odds with him are... So whatever Przybył says is... ? Well? About Smoleńsk, about dodgy public procurement practices in the armed forces? About organised crime? True? Or an insane attempt to discredit Seremet, anointed by the martyred President?

This case will get curiouser and curiouser. Expect some fine conspiracy theories to emerge from all this!

Postscript, Wednesday 11 January: As predicted, we did not have to wait long. Read the comments of Jagoda B. Kidding on Toyah's post from today. Przybył did not shoot himself. (Something to do with the 9mm round in a NATO Parabellum)

This time last year:
Some thoughts upon the Nature of Warfare

This time two years ago:
Snow so deep it needs a plough

This time three years ago:
A fieldfare in midwinter

This time four years ago:
Kraków, a bit of winter sunshine

Monday, 9 January 2012

I understand... nothing

Just when I thought I had Poland well-understood, this happens. Now I'm utterly flummoxed.

Military prosecutor, Colonel Mikołaj Przybył, was holding a press conference about press leaks concerning information about the Smolensk air crash investigation, when he ushered out the media, saying he needed to air the room. There was a sound, which journalists took to be that of a camera crashing to the floor. They dashed in to find Col. Przybył lying on the floor. It looked like he'd taken his life...

Now TVN24 has just inferred that he shot himself through the cheek and he'll be out of hospital tomorrow. True? Or cover-up?

Hang on - a man with a gun and live ammunition is allowed to host a press conference? He was allowed to have a gun because there were threats to his family's life? This is getting weirder and weirder by the minute!

Grounds for conspiracy theorists (who've had a rather tough time over the past few months alleging that President Lech Kaczyński and 95 others were murdered, rather than being the victims of cock-up piled upon cock-up) have suddenly become fertile once more.

Gnash Dziennik has (as of this evening) nothing to say on the matter (lead story about TV Trwam not getting a digital licence).

Col. Przybyl has claimed that attempts were made to scare him - threats to his family, break-ins to his house, attacks on his car - by whom? To what end? "It's like Lenin said. Look for the person who will benefit. And, uh, you know, uh..."

I am the Walrus?

What's going on? Lot of ins, lot of outs, lot of what-have-yous. uh... Right now, I really don't know. I do know, however, that the conspiracy theories, having somewhat run out of steam (Russians filling the valley in front of the runway at Smolensk with helium etc) will resurface.

And with them the division between the "brainwashed" (brainwashed by Tusk, PO, Gazeta Wyborcza and TVN) and the "brainwashed" (brainwashed by Kaczyński, PiS, Gnash Dziennik and TV Trwam) get ever deeper.

This is going to be an interesting story.

I look forward to the regular battle of wits between the usual suspects...

This time last year:
Wetlands winter meltdown

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki rail scenes, winter

This time three years ago:
Winter drivetime, Jeziorki North

This time four years ago:
Disappearing winter

A rare PS: I notice a clear correlation between climate-change deniers and PiS supporters. Am I right?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

It's expensive being rich in Warsaw (or is it?)

The joys of working in the very centre of town include being surrounded by a great many shops. Across the road from my new office is a bespoke tailor, Zaremba. Now, being in need of a new suit, I thought I'd pop in to find out how much a made-to-measure suit would be. Prices, I was told, start at 6,000 złotys. And there's a three-month wait. At today's rate, that's £1,100. GULP! Given that made-to-measure suits at Gieves and Hawkes start at £795 - and many other Savile Row tailors match that price point, one does wonder why wealthy Poles don't fly to London for bespoke suits. Well, it's evidently time plus the fact that one needs to shell out for at least two return airfares.

Warsaw, lacking a Savile Row sector of its own (competition = lower prices + better quality) is a more expensive place to be rich than London. Or is it...? Wandering into the Gucci store in the new vitkAc luxury fashion house (five security guards to every putative customer) and then comparing prices online, I could see effectively no difference between Warsaw and London.

Porsche's website throws more light on whether it's more expensive to be rich in Poland... Look at the UK or German pages and you'll see the prices transparently quoted for each model. On the Polish pages - er... no. In Germany, the bog-standard Cayenne diesel will set you back €61,381. In the UK, £46,338. (So, about 10% cheaper in the UK.) A bit of googling and a Polish price for a Porsche Cayenne with 3.0 litre diesel engine (no extras) is... 341,917 PLN. That's the equivalent of €75,813 or £62,852. [Exchange rates: 1 GBP = 5.44 PLN, 1 EUR = 4.51 PLN]

So... a bespoke suit can be more expensive in Poland because it costs more to buy one in London on account of the travel costs for fittings. Gucci products are more easily transportable, being ready-made. Car prices - after sales service can make the difference. And we are talking about a single European market.

Is it really more expensive being rich in Poland? Well, the single most expensive purchase a wealthy person is likely to make is real estate. And here, Warsaw beats the western European competition. Houses and flats are dramatically cheaper than London. And another expensive thing for Brits - their children's education - is not only cheaper, but on the whole better, in Poland. Plus the top tax rate is 32% (19% for entrepreneurs) and not 50% as it is in the UK.

So all the money that wealthy Poles save on housing, school fees and tax - they can afford to blow on tailor-made suits and luxury sports utility vehicles!

It is a biological imperative to show off one's wealth as soon as one has acquired it. Flaunting it to demonstrate one's position in the pecking order. Neighbour got a Porsche Cayenne? Buy a Porsche Cayenne Turbo (673,617 złotys = over twice the price of the basic petrol-engined model 319,989 złotys). Or better still - spend the surplus 354,000 złotys on buying more land, a bigger house or more luxurious apartment. But no one will see that when you're standing at the lights.

Which suggests some business opportunities...

This time two years:
Winter commuting in colour and black & white

This time three years ago:
Zamienie in winter

This time four years ago:
Really cold (-12C at night)

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Changing the lights at the Presidential Palace

Tuseday evening, after work; here's the Namiestnikowski Palace on Krakowskie Przedmieście (memorable scene of the Smoleńsk cross debacle). The flag is flying, but the President is not in - Bronisław Komorowski lives at the Belweder Palace further down the Trakt Królewski.

And seconds later the colour changes to a more fetching shade of lavender. Elegant or tacky? I shall yet you be the judge!

Lavender? A fashionable shade this Christmas - the Queen was wearing it at Sandringham!

This time last year:
New Year stocktaking

This time two years ago:
A post about... juice

This time three years ago:
That's what I call Winter Vol. 12

This time four years ago:
When the days start getting a little longer...

Sunday, 1 January 2012

New Year's coal train

We bloggers may have little in common with each other subject-wise for 363 days of the year, but we seem to be posting round about now posts summarising years and going for New Year's Day walks. In Warsaw 1 January was a dry, sunny day with a milky blue sky; top temperature +3C; spring feels in the air, yet there's just under three months to wait. Anyway - a good chance to take the camera for a walk.

Nothing I saw today could beat the grandeur of the sight of a pair of TEM-2 diesel locos bringing back a full rake of empty coal wagons from Siekierki power station to the marshalling yards at Okęcie. The train was heading northbound between Nowa Iwiczna and W-wa Jeziorki.

The two electrified tracks in the foreground give a strong impression of the solidity of rail infrastructure, even if the wooden sleepers on the Warsaw-Radom line are in desperate need of replacement, with many having rotted through. The non-electrified coal line, which carried far heavier loads, had the sleepers replaced around the turn of the century.

Other point of note: during our brief stay in England, the lowest-lying bit of ul. Trombity, around nos. 24 A-N, was decently tarmacked over - the work that had started here is now complete. It's beautifully smooth - long may it stay that way!

This time four years ago:
Winter train