Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Another office move

For the tenth time in 15 years working in Poland, I move offices (in the UK I worked 16 years at one address). This will now be the fourth address at which I have worked for the BPCC. On Tuesday we moved to Al. Szucha 3, a far more prestigious address than ul. Nowogrodzka, our headquarters for the past 12 months. For reasons I can't really discuss with you, our stay at Nowogrodzka has been terminated. Now, Nowogrodzka was supremely well located, but somewhat run down. Run down because of the anti-social activities of a tiny handful of its residents. Several will spend each and every day pan-handling for small change to buy alcohol, then proceed to drink themselves into a stupor and flop in any convenient doorway (often ours). Then there's the lady with the big dog that uses the pavements of ul. Nowogrodzka as a doggy toilet; forcing pedestrians to navigate around the huge lumps of canine excrement.

Nowogrodzka itself is exactly analogous to London's Great Marlborough St. If we take Oxford Circus as Rondo Dmowskiego, with Oxford St as Al. Jerozolimskie and Regents St as ul. Marszałkowska, we are looking at the primest of prime locations. Except Nowogrodzka has tenants that the landlord, the City of Warsaw, can neither extract any rent from, nor evict, as by law it must be able to offer alternative accommodation, which it can't afford to build. A street that could have been a beautiful thoroughfare of tastefully restored late 19th C. façades is let down by city authorities that abrogate their social responsibilities. This post from February shows how badly Warsaw is dealing with its tenants.

So. Farewell then, ul. Nowogrodzka. A commuter's dream; by foot, six minutes from the platform of Metro Centrum station, three minutes from bus and tram stops, nine minutes from the platform of W-wa Śródmieście and thence by train to W-wa Jeziorki.

Al. Szucha (above) - not quite so good. Two tram stops from Metro Politechnika, 700m to Pl. Na Rozdrożu, 1.5km on foot through Łazienki Park to the British Embassy. Being 2km nearer my house, it's now a mere 12.5km from home along Puławska (which is not a nice bicycle ride). The alternative, cycle-path-nearly-all-the-way route from home is 16.5km. One day Puławska will a cycle path running its entire length from Piaseczno to Pl. Unii Lubelskiej - we must push the city authorities for such infrastructure!

Despite being a pleasant tree-lined avenue filled with ministries and embassies, Al. Szucha remains notorious as the wartime home of the Gestapo; the basements of the buildings at the eastern end of the thoroughfare witnessed torture and execution on a daily basis throughout the city's occupation. Our new office is located on the sixth and seventh floors; from my desk I can see the twin towers of Pl. Zbawiciela and beyond them, the Palace of Culture. Our new office also has a balcony (view from it above).

This time last year:
Manufacturing a City of Culture

This time two years ago:
My thousandth post

This time three years ago:
Closure of ul. Poloneza
(and guess what - it's still officially closed!) 

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

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

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Thorunium the Gothick

Ah! Toruń! Gothic gem! A city worth seeing (rather like Gdańsk's Gothic Old Town) on an overcast day, rather than when bathed in summer sunshine. The oldest parts of Toruń (Thorunium in Latin) date back 800 years. Partially enclosed by bastions and high walls, the city's ancient buildings are predominantly brick-built, the streets cobbled. Below: Gothic buildings on ul. Podmurna.

Gothic Toruń, like Gdańsk, is about verticals that would make your mediaeval mind boggle. Look at the height and sheer scale of the brickwork of this, the side wall of the 16th C. church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Below: view of the eastern end of the church with its towers. Knowing I'd be snapping some serious architecture, I came equipped with my Nikkor 10-24mm ultra-wide zoom... it came in most handy!

Below: Cathedral Basilica of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, more soaring brickwork; Toruń was a veritable skyscraper city of its day.

Left: the large number of churches requires a stained glass window workshop. Intek-Art, on ul Szewca 8, is open to meet all your stained-glass requirements, sacred or secular. Not only will they turn out saints and angels on request, they also make 3D stained glass; below - a PZL P11c, the Polish air force's principal fighter aircraft of the September 1939 campaign. Intek-Art also had on display an RWD-6 (in which Polish team Żwirko and Wigura beat 23 other crews from across Europe in the 1932 Challenge) and an Ansaldo Balilla from the Bolshevik War of 1920. Not cheap - 1,500 zlotys for the PZL, 4,000 złotys for the Ansaldo.

Below: ul. Bankowa - the street follows the fortified wall; on the other side, a defensive tower - Baszta Gołębnik ('Dovecote Tower'); in the distance, Brama Klasztorna (' Monastery Gate'). The Vistula flows parallel to the wall. Let's take a walk down this street...

Below: further along ul. Bankowa. To the right, a former granary, one of many in Toruń's old town. And what's that in the distance?

An optical defect in my super-wide lens? No - this is Toruń's famous Krzywa Wieża ('Crooked Tower'). It leans 5 degrees off vertical.

Below: back in the centre of town, the Gothic skyline of the Rynek Staromiejski (Old Town Market), with the Town Hall (started in the 13th C.) and the spire of the Church of the Holy Spirit

Right: a doorway on ul. Piekary and ul. Rabiańska, with nine pigeons on the steps. For some, free pets and and disposal point for stale bread, for others a pest and health hazard.

Below: an increasingly common feature in many Polish cities - a humorous brass statue commemorating a famous son. This is Filuś - the dog of cartoon character Profesor Filutek, who appeared in their own strip in Przekrój magazine for over 50 years. Filuś, on the corner of ul. Chełmińska and Szewska is holding his master's bowler hat while his umbrella rests on a street lamp. The cartoon strip was drawn by Zbigniew Lengren, who hailed from Toruń, studying art at the university.

Below: this is the side of Gothic that appeals to me most - pre-industrial architecture that presaged the early modern age - dark and dramatic. Shall we go on? We cross ul. Podmurna and dive down into ul. Ciasna...

Let's take a peek down Ciasna (lit. 'Narrow Street'). Dirty, soot-stained brickwork, damp walls, damp basements - an idea of what life was like in the old days.

Below: a Baroque granary on the corner of ul. Piekary and Rabiańska. Note the abandoned Wartburg in the foreground

Below: a 14th C. tenement on ul. Szczytna, now housing a public library. Note the figures in the windows.

Below: through the arch to Hotel 1231, named after the year in which the building housing it was built (originally a water mill). I stayed here, only one night, then took part in a business meeting with Polish exporters. I can only praise this unique hotel - so full of character, excellent service, architecturally fine. And half the price (I paid 305 zlotys for a single room) of the Holiday Inn in Edinburgh where I stayed a week ago - the very antithesis of character.

Track back through the arch, part of the defensive walls of the castle built by the Teutonic Knights in the mid 13th C. It was captured and partially destroyed by the local population in 1450. The tower, situated over the mill-stream (Gdanisko river) was used for centuries for the town's waste-disposal.

Toruń is a beautiful city, with much to see. It is three hours by train from Warsaw (48 złotys single 2nd class by TLK). Certainly worth a visit.

This time last year:
Łódź Widzew or Widź Łódzew

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

Monday, 29 October 2012

First snow - not so shy this year!

Looking back over the five (soon to be six) Warsaw winters covered by this blog, snow has come as early as 14 October and as late as 4 May. Usually a first snowfall is a fleeting phenomenon, melting within hours. Hence the Polish saying that first snow is shy snow. Not so this year. Snow started falling on Saturday 27 October, greeting me when I returned from the UK on Sunday, and still on the ground, patchily, in Jeziorki, four days later.

Below: the view that greeted me from my bedroom window when I awoke on Monday 29 October. The clocks have just gone back, so sunrise is now back to half past six as it was a month ago.

The morning is so gorgeous, I decide to walk to W-wa Jeziorki station the longer, but prettier way. Below: ul. Trombity, looking across the wetlands.

Below: ul. Nawłocka, although this could be a village road deep inside Russia. Note the footprints of wildlife (mainly hares) in the snow.

Below: snow-shrouded goldenrod (nawłoć) on ul. Nawłocka. The road itself is icy and not pleasant to walk on, with frozen puddles filling the many potholes on the unpaved part. I get my socks wet for the first time this winter (and I dare say not the last).

Below: van with a snowy topping, ul. Achillesa. Note the autumnal colour of the trees in the background.

Below: ul. Kaczunkowska, most trees here still very much in leaf. The main road has been cleared of snow, with no new overnight falls, the rush hour traffic is flowing smoothly.

Below: W-wa Jeziorki station; the 08:46 Koleje Mazowieckie service to town is on time. Railway workers had two whole days to prepare for the first snowy weekday rush hour, so there was no commuter chaos this year. Having just renewed my quarterly karta miejska (urban travel pass), I noted that it will expire on 26 January; three months of likely snow, then another three months of possible snow after that.

As long as the sun shines, and the weather stays frosty, snow is welcome. There's nothing worse than deszcz ze śniegiem - that depressing sleety mixture of rain and snow and +1C to +3C temperature. But days like this are a Godsend.

This time last year:
Of cycles, economic and human

This time two years ago:
Why didn't I read this before: Grapes of Wrath

This time three years ago:
Małopolska from the train

This time four years ago:
Grading ul. Poloneza

Saturday, 27 October 2012

On behalf of the work-shy community

Charles Crawford, former British Ambassador to Warsaw, writes a lively blog and contributes thought-provoking articles of an anti-collectivist slant to a several websites. Here in The Commentator, he contrasts the vibrant hustle of Vietnam to the lugubrious socialists marching in London against the 'cuts', and the work ethic on the streets of Saigon to that which he experienced on return to the UK...
You see the difference as soon as you get off the plane at Heathrow. People working at the airport project a lower order of urgency and purpose. Whereas anyone in Vietnam with a proper job wears an immaculate uniform with pride and works at something like top speed, the ranks of British immigration and other officials come across as indefinably scruffier and usually overweight. They look like people who know all too well that it is next to impossible to sack them for slacking: a general "good enough" 70% effort will suffice, and even a dismal 55% effort is unlikely to provoke any serious sanction. Back in Vietnam if you don’t try hard in your job you get thrown out in favour of someone desperate to succeed. That sort of merciless pressure is, well, merciless. But it keeps up standards and morale and ambition.
The Vietnamese, living a hard-scrabble existence as they race forward as a nation to become wealthier, are portrayed by Charles in a positive light. Without a munificent social safety net, without the protection of health-and-safety regulations, the Vietnamese are rapidly improving their collective standard of living.

Collective. Yes, according to management and organisational researcher Geert Hofstede. On a scale of 1-100, where 100 is pure, full-blooded, rugged individualism and 1 is the human equivalent of the worker ant, Vietnam scores 20, which makes it one of the most collectivist countries on earth. At the other end of the spectrum, America is the world's most individualist society, at 91. Just behind it - is the UK (89). Poland scores 60. [See world map showing individualism-collectivism here.] Is there a correlation between how individualist a country is and how hard its citizens toil to make a living? Clearly, according to Hofstede's criteria - there isn't.
Is there something else going on? The State imposes itself upon people making their own way in life. Ideally, it should educate them, heal them when sick, protect them from crime, foreign aggression, and take care of those citizens unable to do so for themselves. But how much more should it do? Compare the social benefits on offer in the UK and in Poland. To what extent is it the existence of a relatively high level of welfare put people off working? And how much responsibility (a key theme of Charles Crawford's) should fall onto individual citizens for their own lot in life?

Never having been east of Lvov, I can't make any comparison between the hustle of life in Vietnam and the slower pace one witnesses in the UK. I've been in Britain on business since Wednesday, and I can see how Polish migrants have contributed to the British economy. Poles here in the UK are harder-working than the median within British society.

But that's not entirely a fair comparison. It is a comparison between migrants - who by their very nature are more driven, dynamic and entrepreneurial than the stay-at-home types, happier vegetating in their small Polish town or village than seeking a new life in a richer, more open economy.

The work-shy are with us wherever we live; those with 'development opportunities in the scope of personal motivation', the ergophobes, who see little point of expending effort to better themselves, academically, financially or socially. In Poland, the harder-working gravitate towards the big cities or to the recently opened labour markets of western Europe. Those that stay behind, without work, doing the bare minimum to get by, do not live the comparatively easy life of a Brit on benefits. Most long-term unemployed people in Poland receive zero benefits other than being eligible for free healthcare treatment on the state.

Charles Crawford does point out the direct causal link between high social security (including job protection) and a slowing down of an economy. Once people have satisfied their needs, many tend to take their foot off the accelerator and coast; multiply this several million times and whole economies start running out of puff. This happened in Japan in the early 1990s, when a country that had been working flat-out since it pulled itself out of the radioactive rubble of WW2 had reached the top and felt, collectively, that there was little point in busting a gut to keep ahead of the world in terms of productivity. This will happen in South Korea, which has undergone a similar transformation powered by Hard Work. The first symptoms - car factories no longer working night shifts, students questioning the value of youth spent cramming for exams - are already visible.

Britain has been slowing down, gently, since Victorian times. High social benefits have dulled incentive, and large government at national and local level has consumed more tax revenue than the value created by it.

But does it make for an unhappy country? People are born to grow up being different in height, in physical agility and in intellect. Maybe drive - the motivation to continually push forward, in whatever field of human endeavour - is also innate. Maybe the work-shy, the less driven, the motivationally challenged - do have the basic right to a decent living without having to stretch themselves too hard, at the expense of those who are more hard working? To quote Ali G, interviewing Tony Benn, "you talk abou' da right to work - but wha' abou' da right not to work?"

Systems tend towards equilibrium. Too much inequality will push societies towards the introduction of egalitarian checks and balances, much as they did towards the end of the Victorian era. But then too many spongers and slackers living off the taxes of the harder working will also breed discontent, particularly among those who work hard to maintain a standard of living just slightly higher than those comfortably off on an array of benefits.

Having spent four days in Britain, I can see just how much richer it is as a society than Poland. There's really little more to do - new flavours of snack, new online services, new advertising campaigns - a market searching for novelty - so if there's little more to do - why strive? Poland's still got decades of catching up ahead of it. During that time, my guess is that Poles will be working harder.

This time last year:
Classic truck cavalcade

This time two years ago
Narrow back-roads clogged with commuters

This time three years ago:
Autumn gold, Łazienkowski Park

This time five years ago:
Of bishops and bands

Thursday, 25 October 2012

High Victorian Manchester

Still catching up with last week's travel posts. On Thursday I was in Manchester, staying at the Britannia Hotel, a former warehouse that had undergone extensive restoration as a hotel in the 1980s. The Watts Warehouse, built in 1856, was a wholesale drapery warehouse, intended to impress with its grandeur and scale. Looking at the external facade, each story is built in a different architectural style, topped off with huge faux-Gothic circular windows at either end.

But it is inside that the building really bowls one over. The central staircase is magnificent. I was lucky enough to be staying on a day when the mid-morning sunshine shone strong and low in through the windows on the back of the building.

Looking down from the fourth floor: I wish I had taken my 10-24mm super-wide angle zoom; the standard 18mm wide-end on most Nikon DX-format lenses isn't wide enough.

Imagine being here in the late 1850s; no lifts, just these stairs to take buyers from one level to the next in search of merchandise that would sell in their shops. The sumptuous nature of the warehouse interior would be most persuasive.

The day after staying at the Britannia Hotel, I visited my brother in Derbyshire, who showed me a fabulous book about the ruins of post-industrial Detroit (first brought to my attention by AdTheLad). Poring over the pages of derelict factories, warehouses, theatres, hospitals and schools, I am most grateful that Britain has managed to hang on to its more meaningful industrial-era buildings and put them to new uses.

If you are staying or visiting Manchester, the Britannia Hotel is an absolute must-see.

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

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

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Glasgow snapshots

Some photographs from last week's trip to Glasgow, which pressure of time have prevented me from uploading earlier. Below: the concourse on Glasgow Central station - prime Victorian railway heritage nicely preserved and functioning within the needs of modern passenger transport requirements.

Below: frontage of Glasgow Central station on Gordon St, corner of Union St. To my right, an excellent Mexican snack bar, where I could barely make my order understood to the Glaswegian waitresses, nor they their reply to me. The crispy-shelled tacos were fabulous though.

Below: looking down Mitchell St, the east side bathed in strong autumnal afternoon light, highlighting Victorian detail in the sandstone façade. Cobbles survive as the road surface.

Left: an old police box, on the corner of Buchanan St and Royal Bank Place, from the days before officers were equipped with radios. Policemen and citizens alike could put a call through to the main police station through one of these. Glasgow police boxes used to be red - this one is the more usual colour. It is a classic 1929 Mackenzie Trench design.

Below: Gallery of Modern Art on Glasgow's Royal Exchange Square.

Glasgow may not have the instant allure of Edinburgh, but it is certainly a majestic city, resonating with the echoes of its former strength and dignity as the Second City of Empire.

This time last year:
Slow farewell to our Powiśle office

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

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Promoting Poland's autumns

Everyone knows Vermont is the place for a beautiful autumn, or fall as Americans call it. The combination of multi-coloured leaves, on a spectrum from green through yellow and gold to red, set against a clear blue sky, does it. America promotes autumn well. Listen to Sarah Vaughan singing Autumn in New York...

Now, given that Poland enjoys similar weather at this time of year - and that the 'Golden Autumn' that generally occurs from late September through to early November is usually warm, sunny and visually attractive - why can't Poland's tourist authorities start promoting the country as an autumn destination for mini-breaks and longer holidays?

Let me take you for a short walk around Jeziorki at this beautiful time of year. By the railway track, on the footpath north of the station (left and below), with the afternoon sun shining from the west, the trees are ablaze with colour. Birch tree trunks set off the golds and deep blues.

I've uploaded photos as they came out of the camera. The colour saturation, vividness or contrast has not been tampered with in Photoshop. I have used a polarising filter.

Below: further on up the line, the reddest bush in Jeziorki, against a cloudless sky. Today's top temperature was 17C, in shirt and Barbour jacket, I felt uncomfortably warm.

The mood sublime. This needs to be promoted to tourists from the British Isles...

London and South East England

BBC Forecast Summary - This Evening and Tonight

Cloudy with outbreaks of rain, this locally heavy in Kent and Sussex. Rain will clear more western and northern counties by the early hours of the morning, but may linger in Kent and Sussex
Below: ul. Dumki, the the golds of the birch trees splendid against the indigo sky.

At times like this, one should spend every possible moment outside, in the sunshine, topping up on those vitamins. For Polish autumn comes in two halves - the golden autumn, and the grey, dismal, damp and chilly one, which lasts from early November until the first snows set in. And the clocks go back next weekend.

This time last year:
Visceral and permanent - a short story

This time  two years ago:
Crushed Velvet Dusk in my City of Dreams II

Friday, 19 October 2012

Krokowa - former borderlands

Today I was up in Pomorskie, speaking at a conference about public-private partnerships to representatives of the province's local authorities. The event was held at Krokowa, a castle with a most interesting history that offers a broader insight into the geo-politics of Central Europe. The castle was built by the Von Krockow family. Of the sons of Graf Döring Von Krockow, one fought for the Poles in the September campaign, two more fought for the Germans; the surviving son set in train the restitution and restoration of the family property, which today is administered by a foundation promoting German-Polish understanding.

I was surprised by how many people I mentioned Krokowa to had either heard of it or been here. As castles go, it's not the most breathtaking, but it has been thoughtfully restored, and at this time of year, in this weather, it was a beautiful place to spend a day, mixing business and tourism.

Left: the inside of the dining room, where I had breakfast (much needed after a night-train journey from Warsaw to nearby Wejherowo). Note the ceiling - when the Von Krockows' castle was appropriated from them by the Polish communist state, it was turned over to the local collective farm. After its restitution, it was subject to a total refurbishment, during the course of which, original painted ceilings were discovered, that had been panelled over. Kashubian folk art - nothing fancy, but characteristic of the region. 

Below: a footbridge over the moat that surrounds the castle. The colours of the trees against the cloudless blue sky, the deep indigo of the moat water and the white railings make for a sublime image. Am I back in old Kentucky?

Below: but this is Europe, European architecture; going back to the late 18th Century.

Below: the cobbled drive to the main road. Plenty of cycle paths around here, a good place from which to set off for lengthy bike rides - down to the end of the Hel peninsula, for instance.

It's a beautiful Polish autumn. Tuesday's downpour was a one-day event, since then the sky has been clear and the temperature around 15C.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Not beyond repair

A thank-you to Kolin for the tip-off on this story - the attempted destruction by a drunken vandal of the floral rainbow that has stood on Pl. Zbawiciela since before the Euro 2012 football championships.

The 29 year-old opponent of peace, love and understanding was caught red-handed by the police, and was found to be seven times over the drink-drive limit. He set fire to one end of the rainbow, and was apprehended while trying to do likewise to the other side. What his motivation was may become clear during his court appearance. (Drunken prank? Dare? Performance art? Political statement? We'll see.)

Four days after the incident, I popped by to see it for myself. Above: the southern end of the rainbow was seriously damaged. Still, the exposed steel lattice-work structure looks starkly impressive against the background of the church of the Holiest Redeemer.

About half of the 16,000 artificial flowers have burnt away. The artist, Julita Wójcik, has pledged that the rainbow will be rebuilt. Below: the southern end was not so badly affected. Still, I guess that when it comes to replacing the flowers, the existing ones will go, as their colour will not match new ones on account of fading in the sunlight.

It's worth recalling that when I polled readers as to whether the the rainbow should stay as a permanent feature of the Warsaw cityscape, only one-third voted yes. That was back in late June, just three weeks after its unveiling. Time makes us more accepting of the ways things are. Joanna Rajkowska's artificial palm tree on Rondo De Gaulle'a (below) has been there for ten years, and I think Warsaw has taken it to heart.

Big public art has a place in any city. It civilises, it enhances citizens' sense of pride in their home town. It is a sign of a city's imagination and innovative thought.

This time last year:
Why no one is Occupying Warsaw

This two years ago:
Of sausages and drains

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

This time five years ago:
London from the air