Tuesday, 31 December 2013

This year's hellos - from Review of 2013

As years go, not one to match 2012 in terms of progress (measured in things concrete, like roads). The biggest 'hello' of the year goes to the S2 expressway, linking Ursynów to the A2 motorway and thence westwards to Poznań, Berlin and Lisbon. Below: the section of the S2 between the Węzeł Warszawa Południe  and Puławska. The viaduct carrying ul. Poloneza over the S2 is now connected with asphalt to ul. Ludwinowska, putting an end to the beastly muddiness that locals have had to contend with. Next year - asphalt from ul. Krasnowolska to Poleczki, please.

The eastern end of the S2, yesterday

The S2 took over four years to build, and it still fails to do what it was meant to do - namely, to act as Warsaw's southern bypass. By 2020 maybe. Right now the expressway comes to an abrupt end in scrubland south of the King Cross shopping mall (top left of this picture, click to enlarge).

Another partial hello to the sewers on ul. Trombity. The main sewer is now in place, and checked over by MPWiK (the Urban Enterprise of Waterpullings and Canalisation), but our houses have yet to be connected to the lateral sewer that now runs into our estate. A big big thanks to our neighbour Tomek for all his work on making this all happen. The final connection will have to wait until the end of winter (may it be a relatively snow-free one). Once that's done, we can bid farewell to the septic tank lorry that pays us a visit every other week to take away all our waste-water.

A big hello to Czester the orange tomcat, born on 10 May this year, everybody loves Czester. "He's the chief/He's the king/But above everything/He's the most tip-top/Top Cat".

On the food front, the appearance at our local Lidl (and indeed larger Lidls across Warsaw) of decent beefsteak (Beefmaster by Biernacki) at a decent price (85zl a kilo) has made a welcome addition as an occasional treat. If 2013 was the Year of Steak, it was also the Year of Cider and Shandy, both of these beverages, well-known to UK consumers, making a welcome appearance on Warsaw's supermarket shelves. My favourite Polish tipples here - Warka Perry and Cydr Lubelski. I'd drink Cydr Ignaców (the leading high-end Polish cider), but it's not readily available.

Hello also to hipster bars where craft-brewed real ales bring a multiplicity of taste to Polish beer drinking. The days when Lech, Tyskie and Żywiec was the full extent of one's choice are over - hurrah! My favourite Polish artisan beers - Atak Chmielu and King of Hop.

2013 was also the year of the Rubbish Revolution - the Capital City of Warsaw, along with local authorities across Poland - has been tasked with taking responsibility from householders and businesses for waste disposal. The fear was that the whole thing would go off at half-cock - at least here in Jeziorki it's functioning OK (though the road closure necessitated by the building of the sewers meant that no one came to collect the rubbish in November, but the bills came through anyway).

Hullo in Poland to the world's largest ship, the container vessel Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller which sailed in to Gdańsk's Deepwater Container Terminal in August. The Polish port is one of only five in Europe capable of handling the new Triple-E class ships, which can carry up to 18,000 20ft containers.

Warsaw gained another shopping mall, Plac Unii, situated where ul. Marszałkowska (the city's main north-south thoroughfare) meets ul. Puławska (the main southbound artery out of the city centre). Sadly, a bit disappointing - most of the same shops encountered in any other Warsaw mall.

Surviving a no-confidence referendum (too few Varsovians could be bothered to vote on what was clearly a party-politically motivated poll), Warsaw's mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz launched a one-stop website and phone line through which citizens could report urban shortcomings. The new service, Warszawa 19115, worked OK the first time I used it (the mess left on ul. Kórnicka by the builders responsible for the flood-retention ponds) but not the second time (about a road sign warning motorists of a pedestrian crossing by ul. Buszycka that had been knocked over by a car).

From the New Year, Varsovians who live and pay their taxes in the capital, can get a special hologram to affix to their urban travel card, entitling them to lower-priced public transport. Though controversial, this new scheme does mean I can carry on paying just 250 złotys (£50) a quarter for full use of buses, trams, Metro and local rail services within the city limits (roughly the equivalent in area to Postal London, or Zone 3 on TfL). That's less than £4 a week. Superb, eh, Londoners?

And just before Christmas, I got my first smartphone, enabling me to go truly mobile. I've yet to grapple with the new technology, but at first sight it seems ready to revolutionise my travel time. Blogging is difficult with the small keyboard, but tweeting is easy - we'll see how things develop in 2014.

And one farewell I must publish here - the Ikarus buses that have served Warsaw for the past 35 years finally disappear from the streets of Our City this month. Belatedly, since the old buses were slated for obsolescence in time for last year's Euro 2012 football finals in June. (See this post, from a quarter of a decade ago.)

So - all the very best to my readers around the world. This year, 36,385 people have visited my blog, of whom 22,754 are returning visitors, reading on average 1.54 pages per visit. 31% of my readers are from Poland, 18% are from the UK, 14% from the US, 5% from Canada and 4% from Germany.

May 2014 prove to be an interesting year that brings us much new insight and inspiration.

Economic predictions for 2014

Time now to engage in crystal-ball gazing and make public my macroeconomic predictions* for 2014. Given that I was too cautious 12 months ago about the prospects for 2013... I will continue to be so into next year. Optimism bias can be more dangerous than erring on the side of caution, whether you are planning a national budget or a personal one. This time last year, JP Morgan forecast that 2013 would be the first post-crisis year; I begged to differ. JP Morgan was right, I was wrong (although much of the eurozone has continued to shrink).

Poland, then, will continue to see economic growth accelerating, though not enough to make a major dent on the unemployment figures nor to create dangerous inflationary pressure.

Key economic indicators: Poland

2013 (latest data) 2014 (same time this year)
GDP growth 1.9% (Q3 y-o-y)
3.1% (Q3 y-o-y)

Unemployment 13.2% (Nov)
11.0% (Nov)

Inflation 0.6% (Nov)
2.4% (Nov)

I cannot see any great appetite on the part of the Polish government to fix things that are not working too well, rather I predict continued small improvements in the way government works brought about by generation shift. This has been happening at the micro level, but there's still a long way to go before Poland's bureaucrats become civil servants and serve the nation accordingly. Neither left nor right, liberal or statist, can campaign on a platform of poor-quality public services, so let's see the quality of government - and governance - improve further in 2014.

Turning to the UK, its bounce-back has been one of the surprises of 2013. Let us hope that the impetus behind this renewed economic vigour proves to be sustainable, and not just the result of a bubble in one asset class - residential property in South East England. In particular, I'd very much like to see a manufacturing renaissance - George Osborne's 'march of the makers'.

Key economic indicators: UK

2013 (latest data) 2014 (same time this year)
GDP growth 1.5% (Q3, y-o-y)
-0.3% (Q3 y-o-y)

Unemployment 7.6% (Aug for Q2)
6.8% (Aug for Q2)

Inflation 2.1% (Nov)
3.5% (Nov)

The eurozone - increased tomorrow by tiny Latvia - will continue to perform erratically with a soft south and resurgent north. All in all, it will balance out into a positive picture (just), though structural problems will continue largely unresolved in Italy, Spain and Greece. Two years ago, Greece was on the verge of leaving the eurozone - tomorrow it will expand to 18 countries, four of which were once part of the communist bloc (indeed, two were part of the USSR).

Key economic indicators: Eurozone

2013 (latest data) 2014 (same time this year)
GDP growth -0.4% (Q3)
0.8% (Q3)

Unemployment 12.1% (Oct)
10.0% (Oct)

Inflation 0.9% (Nov)
1.8% (Nov)

The zloty continued to demonstrate remarkably stable in 2013. Against the pound, it moved from 5.00 this time last year to 4.98.  Against the euro, the Polish currency it moved from 4.10 to 4.14). The euro to the pound also remained stable this year (from 1.22 to 1.20).

And currencies - on 31 December 2014, barring any major shocks such as Scotland voting to leave the United Kingdom, I predict 1 GBP will be 5.10 PLN, 1 EUR will be 4.25 PLN, and 1 GBP will be 1.20 EUR.

Weatherwise - I predict the weather globally and here in Poland will continue to get stranger and stranger. Here we are - December2013  in Warsaw - and there's only been one day of snowfall... Can't remember that happening before.

* I wrote "macroeconomic predictions" here on purpose. Interestingly, Google's Blogger underlined the word with a green squiggle, helpfully suggesting that I change the word 'predictions' to 'projections'. Thanks Google - but these are mere predictions. Another one is that Google will get cleverer and cleverer (Google Translate is learning to get better each year).

This time last year:
Economic predictions for 2013

This time two years ago:
Economic predictions for 2012

This time three years ago:
Classic cars, West Ealing

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki 2009, another view

This time five years ago:
Jeziorki 2008, another view

This time six years ago:
Final thoughts for 2007

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Our Progress around the Sceptr'd Isle - Part 3

Another beautiful sunny day in England, from dawn to dusk. Time to take camera, lenses and stroll from my parents' house to Pitshanger Park and back.
Looking down Bellevue Road, Horsenden Hill in the distance

Pine tree outside North Ealing Primary School, decorated with old school ties.

Late Victorian decoration above an arcade of shops, Pitshanger Lane
St Barnabas Church, at the eastern end of Pitshanger Lane

The River Brent forms the northern boundary of Pitshanger Lane

Left: St Stephen's Church spire looms over Cleveland Park. The grass is sodden, so walkers keep to the footpaths that cross the park. Surprising, since the River Brent is a long way from flood levels. 

Seven days in England, four of which were gloriously sunny. Warsaw's weather has been similar, even reaching double digits. It's likely that with the exception of two snowy days early on in the month, Warsaw will have had a snow-free December.

This time four years ago:
Miserable, grey, wet London

This time five years ago:
Parrots in Ealing

This time six years ago:
Heathrow to Okęcie

Friday, 27 December 2013

New Yuletide pastime

My brother, Wujek Marek, has come up with an ingenious combination of Scrabble and Monopoly. Scrabopoly is played without dice; instead the number of spaces your counter moves around the Monopoly board is determined by your score on the Scrabble board. The two games are thus connected. Instead of your progress being decided by fate, it's decided by your strategy - you choose where you want to land and find a word that can get you there - or a second-best word if you've not got the right letters. You can, of course, buy, sell or swap letters (and property titles). This is the perfect antidote to boardom caused by over-playing one's favourite board games!

Above, from left: Eddie, Cousin Hoavis and Moni sit around the Scrabopoly boards. Family history in the making.

Wujek Marek also hand-painted a giant Scrabble board on a large piece of cardboard (four times the regular size) using several sets of Scrabble letters, this has also proved popular at this festive time.

Is Britain over-golfed?

My stroll today around Duffield was diverted when I came to this notice, which has not been here in past years. The Chevin golf club has put up signs preventing walkers from crossing its land, though for decades there has been a public right of way. Health and Safety, the new god that must be obeyed - one stray ball, one pedestrian struck in the head (or maybe a near-miss) and the walking public is now barred from this path. What was particularly annoying was that this path was dry, unlike the alternative, which would have involved me getting ankle-deep in mud.


On the plane to England, I read in BA's High Life magazine about how much of England is now covered in golf-course. The English county of Surrey (1,663km2), the article said, is now home to 420 golf courses. (Poland, by contrast, a country of 312,679km2 - the size of 188 Surreys - can boast only 20 full-size golf courses and maybe another ten or so nine-hole ones.)

But Surrey is not the most intensively golfed English county. The record holder here is Merseyside, where over 2.5% of its surface is actually covered in golf course. Although the High Life article did not have access to data from all English counties (Scotland, home of the sport, was not included), the conclusion was that around 1% of England lies under fairway, bunker or green.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Golf courses are well-maintained, their groundsmen stewards of the countryside, ensuring the grassland, hedgerows, coppices, ponds and streams thrive sustainably, buttresses against the onward march of housing, shopping malls, roads and assorted eyesores. Golf courses offer the chance of exercise to large numbers of middle-aged people who'd otherwise be flopped out in front of the telly and thus burden the health service.

On the other hand, golf courses are aesthetically unnatural; they can deprive walkers of access to the countryside, they are haunts of middle-class folk who drive miles in their SUVs around narrow country lanes to enjoy the privilege of knocking a golf-ball about. Badly needed housing cannot be developed because so much land is owned by golf clubs.

On balance then... taking all the above factors into consideration... (and speaking as someone who's obviously not a golfer, who's not swung a club for over 16 years)... a good thing. I would certainly like to see far more golf courses appear across Poland - and not just exclusive clubs, but ones set up and run by local authorities, as in England, where the sport is far less elitist than in Poland.

Before swapping London's suburbia for Warsaw, our house found itself within 5km of no fewer than eight golf courses, public and private, 9- and 18-hole (Perivale Park, Ealing, Brent Valley, West Middlesex, Horsenden Hill, Sudbury, Northolt and Hangar Hill).

If Poland were to have the same saturation of golf courses as Surrey, it would need another 80,000 golf courses. Having said that, half of Surrey's golf courses are under water as I write...

As I turned back into Duffield to walk along urban pavements rather than rural footpaths, a fluorescent-yellow golf ball whizzed past my ear, sailing over the wall of an adjacent house, then rolling down the lawn into the flower bed. I decided not to tell the golfer where his ball had landed and continued with my walk. "You're obviously not a golfer..."

This time two years:
Everybody's out on the road today

This time three years ago:
50% off and nothing to pay till June 2016

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Our Progress around the Sceptr'd Isle - Part 2

Christmas day, after church, and the traditional drive across the Peak District to my brother's house in Derbyshire. A very scenic route, along the A6 all the way. This stretch is certainly one of England's finest roads in terms of the landscapes and towns it passes. Weatherwise, pleasant, dry, sunny intervals. On the north-eastern slopes of the highest of the Peaks, there was a light dusting of snow. And very little traffic.

The A6 snakes its way over the Peaks

A characteristically December sky, Derbyshire

Late Victorian Matlock
Britain has a richness, variety and depth to it which makes it a fascinating place to visit. Acquainting oneself with the texture of reality of this country is richly rewarding.

This time last year:
Out and about in Duffield
Christmas Break

This time two years ago:
Boxing Day walk in Derbyshire

This time three years ago
This time four years ago:
This time five years ago:

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Our Progress around the Sceptr'd Isle - Part 1

The run-up to the celebration of the birth of the Baby Jesus is the most stressful time of year. Many preparations, jostling with the crowds to buy presents that must all be given on precisely one day, hearing Last Christmas and Merry Xmas, War is Over played everywhere for weeks* - but for us, the greatest stress is the known unknown of holiday travel. From seven-hour delays at fog-bound airports to trying to inspect a hire car hidden under three inches of snow, our annual pilgrimage (London-Manchester-Derbyshire-London) is ever a hostage to the elements.

Yesterday, our flight to London was extremely uncomfortable as we came into land, flying directly into a gale that made the plane pitch and roll violently. And outside the airport, waiting for the bus to take us to the car hire depot, sheets of rain lashed horizontally against us. The news on the radio was bad - the M6 was stationary between junctions 11 and 13; there were hardly any trains running north from Euston or south from Victoria. 150,000 homes were without power across the south-west of England. Despite the winds and intense, heavy rain (non-stop for 20 hours in some parts), it was warm, with 10C in London. The bad weather in the UK even made it into the Polish media... (see report here in Polish)

But after a night at my parents in Ealing, we ate a hearty breakfast and set off at the crack of noon towards Babcia Wanda's in Manchester. Departing under leaden skies, by the time we reached Stokenchurch on the M40, the weather front passed and the rest of the journey (with a showery interlude south of Birmingham) took place under the bluest of skies. Below: Eddie's photo of the M40 in Oxfordshire - not a cloud to be seen.

Christmas Eve on a tropical island
Having said that, there were plenty of flooded fields on either side of the motorway, especially in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. And the blue skies and sunshine are temporary - more wind and rain expected on Friday and Saturday.

Motorway services in the UK have poshed up; the one near Warwick has a Waitrose (Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand's Marlborough - a family favourite - £20 for two) and Burger King selling veggie burgers (which are sadly not on the menu in Poland).

So far so good - tomorrow - across the Peak District from Manchester to Duffield.

* It's difficult to imagine no religion, John, when you incessantly remind us to have a very merry Christmas each year.

This time two years ago:
We flew into Manchester that year...

This time last year:

This time four years ago:
Washing the snow away

This time five years ago:

Monday, 23 December 2013

Convenience vs. Privacy

I have moved on from the stationary computer, via the laptop (on which I'm writing this) to the mobile device. Of course, I still have my stationary computer and laptop - the smartphone is merely a new piece of technology that complements the first two. I'm currently sitting at Okęcie airport waiting for our flight to London to board, using the laptop a) to check our inbound flight from Heathrow on FlightRadar24 and b) to blog. The laptop is fine when you are sitting, have time and access to Wi-Fi. But at standing at a bus stop or on the platform of a railway station when it's drizzling, the laptop is not the answer. The smartphone wins out - but on one condition.

It has to know where you are. Google will then helpfully give you information about traffic conditions, weather, the news that Google knows you are interested in. The more information you give Google, the more helpful it becomes. Yesterday, while wandering about Warsaw doing Xmas shopping, Google Cards was my ever-helpful companion, giving me access to much useful information. Google has worked out where I work and where I live, and tells me what traffic conditions are between the two locations. And the Google Chrome browser on my smartphone has remembered the last few searches I was looking for at home... from my laptop. (Photos of the lunar surface, since you ask)

Is this a problem for me? No. On the trade-off between privacy and convenience, the latter wins. Hands down. Being overly obsessed about privacy - deleting cookies, switching off the GPS function from the smartphone - is the top of slippery slope that leads to conspiracy theories about a World Government implanting chips into humans from their black helicopters. And reptilian Illuminati ruling the world from their underground bases in the hollow earth.

Of all corporations listed on any stock exchange around the world, Google has changed my life in the most positive way, and I salute them for it. (Should have bought Google shares when they went public!)

This this last year:
The messy joys of pomegranate eating

This time three years ago:
Yuletide break

This time five years ago:
Washing the snow away (temperature rises by 14C in 12 hours)

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Going mobile

A technological milestone in my life - I've just gone mobile. After a month in the new office without a fixed-line telephone (remember those, dear readers?) it was decided that I'll get a company smartphone instead for all the phone calls I need to make to the UK and when travelling. Just imagine - we have NO FIXED LINE TELEPHONES in our office any more. Fax? Scan a document and e-mail it as an attachment. How far offices have gone... (wobbly flashback effect)

I go back to the winter of 1980-81, when I had an internship at the Coventry Evening Telegraph. Looking back, this was the benchmark of the technological base from which mankind has moved these past 30 or so years. I sat at a desk with a manual, mechanical typewriter. Fed into its rollers were three rolls of different coloured paper, with carbon-paper in between. I'd clack my story away on the typewriter "County court jails five for TV licence evasion," "Earlsdon blaze caused by gas leak" etc, when done, I'd shout "COPY!" and the copy boy would run over to my desk, take the white sheet to the sub-editors' desk, while the yellow sheet was rolled up and put into a pneumatic tube that would shoot around the office and end up in the hot-metal setting department below; the third sheet would be kept for my records. Downstairs, typesetters would copy the sub-edited text using a non-QWERTY keyboard (to keep the profession limited to skilled operators) on a type-casting machine. Molten lead would flow into matrices from which slugs of print that would be formed together to go into the press which would churn out 108,000 copies of the paper each evening. (Not a bad circulation for a city of 300,000.)

But now news input and output is digital and mobile. With more than one third of humanity armed with a mobile phone that has a camera in it, the chances of a UFO landing on the White House lawn and not be recorded by someone has dwindled to zero.

The dissemination of news today, directly to one's mobile device, instantly, without waiting by a radio for an hourly update. I read of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's release from prison over lunch; I roared with laughter at Charles Crawford's splendid Pajamaboy piece on the bus home. Instant access to news is a huge advance. I've had my smartphone - a Samsung Galaxy GT-19300 with Android operating system - for 48 hours, and I've only just started to discover its potential.

I can't easily type on it - the little virtual keyboard is too fiddly, so good for Tweeting rather than blogging. The camera, with 8 megapixels, is an advance on my Nokia 6300 Classic (5mp), but still a long way from the Noka Lumia 1020 (41mp).

More from the new, more mobile me before too long!

This time last year:
The end was meant to end today (remember?)

This time two years ago:
First snow - but proper snow?

The time three years ago:
Dense, wet, rush hour snow

This time four years ago:
Evening photography, Powiśle

This time five years ago:
The shortest day of the year

This time six years ago:
Bye bye borders - Poland joins Schengen

Thursday, 19 December 2013

UK migration - don't blame the Poles

Back from the studios for the third time this week talking about UK tougher stance on intra-EU migration (taking my total of TV and radio interviews up to 63 this year). Typically, I'm asked "Why doesn't premier Cameron like us Poles?"

The current round of anti-migration rhetoric from the UK government is not about Poles - it's about Romanians and Bulgarians and the fear that they will turn up in their hundreds of thousands and sponge off the state. After months of scaremongering from the Daily Wail, the government has come up with some tighter criteria for eligibility for UK benefits. None look particularly off-putting for the hardened benefit tourist (a quick round-up of the obostrzenia here on the BBC website).

The Mail and its ilk have been raising the temperature on the migration issue for years. The fact that Romanian and Bulgarian citizens can now work in the UK without any restrictions from 1 January has got the right-wing press in a lather, despite the fact that all Romanians and Bulgarians could travel without visa restrictions to the UK ever since they joined the EU in 2007.

The new-EU migration story plays well to the British Right because it's never been politically correct to attack migration when it was mainly from south Asia and the Caribbean. Now, they can talk about being 'swamped' on an 'overcrowded island' without automatically being classified as racists. And yet since 2004, for every one migrant from post-communist new EU member states, two have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia or other non-EU countries.

The anti-migration voice in Britain is also an anti-EU voice. The same people wanting an end to unlimited migration to the UK from the EU are also those who want to quit the EU for other, non-migration reasons, such as fear of a European super-state taking control of the UK. "Unelected faceless Brussels bureaucrats trying to run our country".

Economically speaking, those who claim that unfettered migration from Poland has been bad for the UK are wrong. Poles are among the hardest-working group of foreigners in the UK (only South Africans and New Zealanders have a higher proportion in work and a lower proportion on benefits). Generally, EU migrants in the UK compare favourably to native Brits when it comes to contributing to the economy. However, it is migrants from Somalia, Jamaica, Bangladesh and Pakistan that show the lowest propensity to find employment in the UK, and hence are a net burden on the economy.

Although the British middle classes are well disposed to Poles (hard-working, well-educated, not prone to religious fanaticism or terrorism), the working classes see Poles as competition in the workplace, and so are prone to believe wild stories about swan-eating or widespread benefit fraud.

It will be interesting to see whether 1 January 2014 will be an opening of floodgates (rather, as I must say 1 May 2004 was); I doubt it. The Roma issue is quite separate (and harder to resolve) than that of Romanians as a whole. The Daily Mail will undoubtedly be looking for proof that Romanians and Bulgarians are crooks, thieves and swindlers, hell-bent on coming to Britain to live the high life on welfare payments.

With the European parliamentary elections due on 22 May, it is worth remembering that the SECOND LARGEST UK party represented in Brussels is not Labour or the Liberal Democrats - but the UK Independence Party that wants Britain out of the EU. It is also worth remembering that the extreme right-wing British National Party won two seats at the last Euro-election - the same number as Scottish National Party, the biggest party north of the border. The British electorate treats Euro-elections as a chance to let off steam; the outcome of the 2009 vote was a clear signal that many Brits are deeply unhappy about migration - from whatever country.

David Cameron needs to fend off attacks from the right that he's soft on immigration; if enough middle-class voters switch from Tory to UKIP at the 2015 General Election, it may let Labour slip in to take and overall parliamentary majority.

I personally think that there will not be a flood of Romanians and Bulgarians turning up in the UK looking for work; most who wanted out have gone long ago. We shall see. The migration story, however, will not go away; it will certainly be the main issue around which the European Parliamentary elections are fought.

Incidentally, imagine a chap from Liverpool turning up in Radom with his family, trooping into the local Urząd Pracy [labour office] and saying "If you can't find me a job, mate, I demand my jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit, family allowance, income support - ah, and because it's cold in Poland, some Winter Fuel Payment while you're at it, Tomek. You see, I'm entitled because I'm an EU citizen!" He'd be told he's not got all the right papers, then be sent off to room 301, where, after sitting in a queue for an hour he'd be told that this paper's OK but this one's wrong, he'd then be sent down to room 128, where, after sitting in an even longer queue, he'd be referred back up to room 301 again, and so on, until he ceases to want anything from the Polish state ever again.

This time last year:
Biała gorączka, by Jacek Hugo-Bader

This time last year:
The world mourns the death of Kim Jong Il

This time two years ago:
Global warming or climate change?

This time three years ago:
Progress along the S79

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Muddy Karczunkowska - from Review of 2013

At this time of year, it is impossible for me to get to work in clean shoes. Whether I chose to take the bus or the train to the office, I am forced to wade through hundreds of metres of mud. And this is living in Warsaw, capital of the sixth-largest member of the world's wealthiest trading bloc. Indeed, most villages in Świętokrzyskie province are better provided with pavements than Jeziorki, a part of Ursynów, one of Warsaw's more well-to-do suburbs.

Right: "They want... WHAT??! They want PAVEMENTS??!? The impudent, ungrateful VOTERS! Let them WADE up to their ANKLES in FINEST WARSAW MUD!!!" roars the mayor.

Enough of the town hall's excuses - all we want is a pavement running down the length of Karczunkowska, so that pedestrians, and people pushing buggies, or (God help them!) people in wheelchairs can get to the main road or the train station without getting run down by cars or getting their footwear full of muddy water.

My complaint to 19115 was acknowledged, but as of today, I've not had an answer, other than this automated one...

"Zgłoszenie przyjęte w dniu 08-12-2013 o godzinie 09:19:36 zarejestrowano pod nr 127595/13. Jesteśmy do Państwa dyspozycji 24 godziny na dobę przez 7 dni w tygodniu.
Zapraszamy na Portal www.warszawa19115.pl
Dziękujemy za kontakt, Urząd m.st. Warszawy."

Below: and should they be foolhardy enough to chose the dry asphalt, some reckless, feckless nutcase behind the steering wheel will put them back in their place. Note the distance between the car and the edge of the road. Good thing that pedestrian up ahead was out of harm's way at the time...

Below: the road sign warning drivers of a pedestrian crossing has been knocked over by a speeding motorist. It could have been a pedestrian. A case for 19115, I think... [I think not. I spend 10 minutes on the website and I get this...  "Forbidden You don't have permission to access /zgloszenie-awarii-lub-interwencji on this server. Additionally, a 403 Forbidden error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request"... I tried using my Chrome browser, I tried again using my MS Internet Explorer browser with the same result.]

UPDATE Wednesday 18 December, 13:00. 19115 is working, I get confirmation that my notification of the fallen road sign has been accepted by The System. So - let's see how long it takes the city's roads department (ZDM) to get it fixed!

I have written about the dreadful state of affairs on this road earlier this year; a year in which many new infrastructure projects have come to fruition, but Karczunkowska's pavement remains a need unmet. I really don't want to get into politics on this one - Guział vs. Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Ursynów town hall vs. Warsaw city hall. Frankly, they've both let me down. Enough already. Let's have a pavement. Policy before politics.

OR - if the local authority responsible for this road cannot afford pavement - at least slow down traffic to 50kmh with speed bumps if necessary. No more pedestrian deaths or injuries on Karczunkowska, please.

UPDATE: Near-neighbour Marcin Daniecki has taken up the case with the European Commission, asking those responsible for ensuring that EU funds get to where they need to be spent who the relevant authority is in this case. The answer? The Marshal of Mazowieckie Voivodship, Adam Struzik. So there we have it - everyone and no one...

This time two years ago:
Ul. Trombity - a step closer to dry feet?
[Asphalt yes, but still no pavement]

This time three years ago:
Matters of style

This time four years ago:
Real winter hits Warsaw

This time five years ago:
This is not Mazowsze, no?

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Feline football - from Review of 2013

As the year nears its end, it's time to look back at some of the main events in Jeziorki. Domestically, the presence of new cats has done the most to change the way things are. Lila, the stray kitten that Moni brought home from Łódź gave birth to four kittens in May. Sadly, Bonus the Runt died ten days later, but the surviving trio, Czester (orange tom), Feluś (his black-and-white brother, half an hour younger) and Izadora (their black-and-white sister with some tortoiseshell markings) would go on to thrive. Czester is the one we kept; Feluś lives in a flat in central Warsaw, Izadora lives on a farm near Grodzisk Mazowiecki, where she's a champion mouse-catcher.

Anyway, here are the three kittens playing football with a bottle-top on the kitchen floor, aged two months. Lots of fun and feline action. Proof that chasing an object to see who can control it is not just a human instinct; all mammals want to show who's at the head of the pecking order, who's the top dog (or indeed cat). I think this display infinitely more fascinating than watching 22 highly paid men doing something very similar... (Click to watch full-screen, four minutes of fun)


One side-effect of seeing the kittens being born and growing up is that I've started looking at humans in cat terms - seeing mankind as yet another mammalian species - albeit a highly advanced one, yet a species that has much in common with other mammals.

This time last year:
The drainage of Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
The Eurocrisis - what would Jesus do?

This time three years ago:
Orders of magnitude

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

This time five years ago:
Better news on the commuting front

This time six years ago:
I no longer recognise the land where I was born

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Why One Writes - the poet's gift

I've written about the link between scientific genius and the autism spectrum - men (mainly) with an incredible ability to focus on detail, on pursuing a theory until its proved correct; men like Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Albert Einstein or the men who shaped today's world of IT, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Society needs such focused minds, who can apply their minds to seemingly intractable problems. RRBI - repetitive, restricted behaviours and interests - socially not a heap of fun, but when it comes to finding solutions buried deep in the data, it's a gift.

In prehistoric culture, the tribesman who could sit all day knapping the perfect flint, ever honing the sharpness of its cutting edge, would be held in high regard, despite his lack of social skills such as story-telling around the fire. He would be the technologist of the day, his knapped flints a prized tool for killing and then skinning the hunted beasts.

The prehistoric tribe would also hold in high regard the story-teller, passing on and embroidering the tribe's shared narrative. A story-teller with added musical and/or poetic abilities would be considered a bard - his (or indeed her) place in the tribe assured.

It is the gift that makes a poet which I wish to consider, in light of my reading of two contrasting works that lead me to a similar conclusion. Polish gypsy poet Bronisława Weis ('Papusza') and Anglo-Welsh poet Nigel Humphreys, whose latest tome Of Moment, I recently received from its publisher, Jonathan Wood.

Though the language is quite different (Papusza never benefited from a day's formal education), one thing strikes me as linking the two minds - the ability to put a complex sensation into words that resonate with the reader. Reading both books, I have been thinking of the phenomenon of synaesthesia - "a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway".

There are many forms of synaesthesia - some synaesthetes associate certain sounds with specific colours; others can 'taste' letters or numbers. Poets, men and women in equal measure, I think, have a mild and beneficial form of synaesthesia allowing them to conjure words easily from sensations. Synapses fire away, stimulated by a sight, sound, smell, taste or feeling, and convert the sensations into words that the reader instantly appreciates and associates with.

Reading Papusza's experience as a gypsy child in a forest, sensing the water from a stream, falling leaves, the smell of trees in flower, her description of rushing mountain streams - we've all experienced these sensations - yet she felt them with an extraordinary intensity that forced her to write. Despite her lack of learning and the social pressure on her not to, she jotted down her feelings - complex, full of ambiguity and metaphor - and thankfully enough was preserved and translated to give a flavour of her creative mind.

I am getting a similar flavour from the poems of Nigel Humphreys; a mind that can quick-fire a stream of apt words and phrases in response to situations. His eye - indeed all his senses - are there for the reader, waiting to pounce on a set of circumstances, and turn them into words on a page that match the experience of what he saw and felt at the time.

The first condition of poetry is to have this gift - the second is to know how to edit - edit hard so as to trim the off-target perceptions and the words that failed to give truth to a scene. Poetry must be universally applicable to be able to belong to the ages; if a reader can say - "YES! That's exactly what I felt in a similar situation!" - then it works. There are seven billion of us alive today; a handful of us possess the gift of poetry in its truest sense.

My conclusion - please challenge me if you disagree or wish to nuance my assertion - is that poets are born and not made; something very special is going on in their minds that most of us lack or only possess intimations of. It is a gift, an innate ability and desire to convert sensory perceptions into well-selected words which give of themselves the sense of what the author was feeling at the time, words which then resonate in the mind of the reader.

Whether a poet is educated or not - this is my point - he or she uses words to define a complex reality. Education merely expands the vocabulary that poets have at their disposal. This in effect limits the poet's audience. But the reach of good poetry is not limited by time; it belongs to the ages. It is surely better to be read and appreciated by 1% of the population for hundreds of years than to be enjoyed by millions and be forgotten by the end of the year.

Poetry - more nature than nurture.

This time two years ago:
Advertising H&M on Warszawa Centralna station

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

This time six years ago:
Staying Underground: Piccadilly Circus

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

When transportation breaks down

Yesterday, travelling back from Olsztyn to Warsaw by coach, I arrived some 80 minutes late due to a road accident on the S7 south of Mława. The road was unlit, and single carriageway (despite this being the main artery from Gdańsk and Olsztyn to Warsaw). According to the local media report, the accident happened before our bus had even left Olsztyn, yet it carried on, unwarned, into a jam that stayed entirely stationary for at least 90 minutes. During that time, fire engines, police cars and ambulances whizzed by, this way and that, giving the impression of a multiple vehicle pile-up.

To make matters worse, there was no information given to the passengers as to why we were completely stationary (the hostess who had hitherto been busy serving hot drinks disappeared). And the video screens on the coach were playing some dire American disaster movie - just the thing to raise the spirits. Worse - the toilet door came off its hinges. And of course this particular spot happened to be one of many along the route where the bus's wi-fi coverage was zero. So all I could do was to watch this dreadful film, in which people were freezing to death as vital supplies of fuel and food ran out...

Finally, there was movement ahead. We passed the spot where three or four emergency service vehicles were parked up on the field by the side of the road. My colleague Konrad, sat on the other side of the bus, said he could see a large patch of blood on the roadway... The media report said that a 40 year-old man had been hit by a Ford Focus. The 36 year-old driver was on his way back to Lublin, and had not been drinking alcohol, according to the police.

Accidents like this would not happen if there had been a dual carriageway or motorway linking Warsaw and the Baltic coast, nor had the road been lit. Once again, the idea that Poland is a country where anywhere is five hours by road or rail from anywhere else proved to be the case.

Today was little better. Before leaving the office, I checked www.rozklad.pkp.pl to see if my train home was running to time. Ten minutes before it was due at W-wa Śródmieście, there was a row of green ticks suggesting that all was well.

But as I got to the platform, the station announcer said that the 18:46 service to Piaseczno was running ten minutes late... How could that be? It had left W-wa Wschodnia, just three stops east, at 18:37... Soon the delay was 15 minutes, then 20, then 30, then 40... Earlier westbound trains were advertised as running 60, even 70 minutes late...

Had the announcer said "The trains aren't running, go away," I would have taken the Metro. But having waited ten minutes, an extra five, then ten, then another ten would somehow be acceptable... My patience ran out after 43 minutes; just as I was heading for the Metro station the next train heading my way, a mere 12 minutes late, turned up. No reasons given, no proper communication - and yet Gazeta Stołeczna online says that ONE HOUR EARLIER an eastbound train had broken down at W-wa Stadion...
17:32... W związku z awarią pociągu spółki Koleje Mazowieckie na stacji W-wa Stadion występują utrudnienia w kursowaniu pociągów linii S1, S2 oraz KM w kierunku WSCHODNIM. Część pociągów została skierowana torami dalekobieżnymi przez stację W-wa Centralna z pominięciem stacji W-wa Ochota, W-wa Śródmieście, W-wa Powiśle, W-wa Stadion.
17:48... Pociągi już kursują normalnie, ale przez moment było niebezpiecznie. Ludzie wysiadali ze składów uwięzionych w tunelu linii średnicowej i pieszo szli wzdłuż torów.
Obviously the knock-on effect was still making itself felt on the westbound services hours later.

The 17:54 for the airport arrives 72 minutes late. How many missed flights?
In compiling this post, I take my hat off to local online news reporters who ensure that, though the authorities see fit to keep travellers in the dark, if something serious happens, at least it does get noted.

This time two years ago:
Take me back to Tulsa

This time four years ago:
Another book launch

This time five years ago:
Jeziorki in the 16th Century

This time six years ago:
Rotten weather, literally

Sunday, 8 December 2013

On being rich in Poland

An interesting article in the weekend edition of Gazeta Wyborcza, which appears in its entirety here on Wyborcza.biz. An article about Poland's wealthy - a small but rapidly growing segment of the population which offers good opportunities for manufacturers and exporters.

Based on a study by KPMG, the article begins by asserting - somewhat controversially - that to be considered 'well-off' or 'rich' in Poland, it is enough to be earning 85,000 złotys (£17,000) a year. The number of Poles who fall into this category is 786,000. Of a working population of 16 million. This is less than five percent*. However, the numbers of well-off or rich Poles are rising rapidly, and are expected to come up to the million mark by 2016, the report says. Growth of over 20% in three years. At the same time, the rich are expected to get richer, pulling up with them markets for exclusive luxury and premium products, which are also expected to grow by 20% from current levels by 2016, according to KPMG.

All good news for the economy; all that's needed now is some luxury Polish brands. At present, Polish brands are becoming established, though at upper middle-market levels. Krakowski Kredens in food or Vistula in menswear are two examples.

Warsaw has had its own luxury department store, the Likus brothers' Vitkac building on Al. Jerozolimskie for well over a year now; though I must say whenever I look in, the number of security staff and shop assistants outnumber actual shoppers by three to one. And there are not many window-shoppers either, gazing at the discrete arrangements of luxury goods on display. How unlike London's Harrods or Fortnum & Mason's, where shoppers are outnumbered ten to one by sightseers eager to pop in and buy the cheapest trinket so that they can parade around with a bag bearing the shop's logo. Maybe Poles still feel intimidated by such places, where no price tags are on display, where one has to ask how much something costs, fearing the answer will belittle you.

Still, despite the falling inequality in Poland (in part due to EU support for agriculture), the gap between the very rich and the average appears to be growing, partly due to the former's desire to flaunt it. The outcrop of luxury car dealerships in Warsaw is testimony to man's (and indeed woman's) innate need to distinguish oneself from the mass by the trappings of wealth. I have no great problem with the self-made entrepreneur or hard-working manager discretely showing off their wealth (except for Yanukovych-style black SUVs - sign of a lack of imagination and self-confidence) but I am irritated by displays of flauntism from the politicians - from Sławomir Nowak, recently ousted infrastructure minister or 'Agent Tomek' the PiS deputy or indeed Ryszard Kalisz - man of the Left with a love of fine voitures.

* This reminds me of a joke doing the rounds ten or so years ago. President George W. Bush is talking to President Kwaśniewski. Bush: "The average American family has monthly income of $3,000. Of that, $1,000 goes on accommodation and energy, $1,000 goes on food and clothing, and because this is a free country, we never ask how they spend the rest. Kwaśniewski replies: "The average Polish family has a monthly income of 3,000 złotys. Of that, 2,000 złotys goes on accommodation and energy, 2,000 złotys goes on food and clothing, and because this is a free country, we never ask how they earn the rest." Things have changed since then, not least that the tax system is far more watertight than it used to be. 

This time last year:
The link between health and happiness explored

This time two years ago:
The black SUV, the black SUV... (with the darkened rear windows)

This time three years ago:

This time six years ago:
Where I'm from, and why

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Public transport cheaper for Varsovians

The proposition is a controversial one - if you live and pay your taxes within the boundaries of the Capital City of Warsaw, you will be able to benefit from cheaper public transport from the New Year. The price of a quarterly city card (Karta Miejska) goes up on 1 January to 280 złotys from the current 250zł. If you are a Warsaw taxpayer, it stays the same. So 30zł x 4 = 120zł saving in a year = worth doing. If on the other hand, you live just the other side of the city's borders (in Nowa Iwiczna across the fields from Jeziorki, for instance), you will pay full whack. Even if you work in Warsaw, or own a business in Warsaw employing people who live in Warsaw.

Is this fair? Yes - to a point. However, I believe that long-term, Warsaw, along with its nine neighbouring poviats (districts), needs to be broken out of Mazowsze to form a voivodship (province) of its own. This would immediately plunge the rest of Mazowsze into statistical poverty and entitle Radom, Ciechanów, Siedle, Ostołęka and other poor towns of the region to EU schemes to help raise their developmental status. Because these towns are in the same EU region as wealthy Warsaw, Mazowsze's GDP per capita is above the EU average, so no special support for them...

But back to the card. If you contribute financially to the city's upkeep by paying taxes here, you will have additional benefits in the form of travel prices frozen at this year's levels.

Getting this sorted is easy. You go onto ZTM's excellent website, find the relevant page (even in English), fill in the details, and ticking the box in which you give permission to ZTM to approach the tax authorities to check that you are indeed a Warsaw resident and taxpayer. When this has been done, you receive an e-mail or SMS that your hologram is ready. You then go to the ZTM office most conveniently located to you to collect the hologram, which is then applied to your city card. Once you have the hologram, you are entitled to cheaper public transport.


Warsaw's public transport authority, ZTM, has a new full-time boss in place, it was announced last week. He is Wiesław Witek and he replaces Leszek Ruta, a man I believe to have been unfairly relieved of his duties as a political sop to the voters in the run-up to October's referendum to oust the mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. [An appreciation of Leszek Ruta's work at ZTM here.] Speaking to Mr Ruta back in 2011, he assured me that ul. Puławska would have a bus lane running up and down its full length once the junction with the S2 Southern Warsaw Bypass was opened. Well, he's gone so I can't hold him to his promise. But will Mr Witek return to the idea of a bus lane for Puławska? I must say, that since the S2's junction with Al. Jerozolimskie was opened, traffic has loosened along this crucial artery leading into the city centre from the south of Warsaw.

This time last year:
Swans on ice

This time two years ago:

This time three years year:
What's the English for kombinować?

This time four years ago:
The demographics of jazz

This time five years ago:
A day in Poznań

Friday, 6 December 2013

Winter begins in earnest

This morning was the first one this season where I opened my bedroom windows to see snow outside. Yesterday was different - I woke around six am, looked outside, saw white fields, went back to sleep, and when I finally got up around eight am - the snow was gone.

Although the temperature has not formally dipped below zero, the wind-chill factor generated by winds gusting up to 70kmh (45mph) made it feel very cold today. Worse, the unprepared roads and pavements were turned into skating rinks as the meltwater froze and turned to black ice.

The winds are the tail-end of Orkan Ksawery (Hurricane Xaver) which brought mayhem across north-west Europe.

Below: half past six this evening, and a blizzard going on; snow on the roof of the Novotel lobby being blasted around Rondo Dmowskiego. Traffic northbound along ul. Marszałkowska at a standstill as snow ploughs clear the roundabout.

Left: the pavements are treacherous. Szklanka - glass. One has to move with caution. Time to abandon my  smooth-soled Chelsea boots (sztyblety in Polish) for something with more grip. I witnessed an extraordinary sight - a man and his eight or nine year-old son on the pavement by Metro Politechnika station; they were standing quite still, yet they were sliding backward on the smooth ice as the wind pushed hard against them.

Below: chaos at Wilanowska bus station. The bus timetable was randomly distributed about the retail establishment (all over the shop) by this time. After a 20 minute wait for a 709, three of them turn up at once along with a 739. But no sign of the bus I wanted - a 715. This would mean a 1km walk home...

Below: ul. Karczunkowska. Another winter without pavements; up to one's ankles in snow or mud. Time to crank up the campaign - this time using the 19115 phone line and website. Neighbours! Join me and bombard the service with e-mails and phone-calls for something to be done about this situation.

Below: Karczunkowska looking east. Note lack of street lighting (temporary I hope) and the pedestrian's dilemma: walk on the roadway (smooth asphalt, might get hit by a car) or walk by the side of the road (will get wet in puddles, might trip over uneven surface). And with pram or in a wheelchair? This is totally unacceptable.

This is it then - winter proper has set in. For the weekend at least. On Monday, it will all melt as the temperature is forecast to rise above zero, and the snow will turn to rain.

This time last year:
The 2012 Transparency International results (Poland advances again)

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Burn less gas - do Ukraine a favour

At an event I was at this evening, I learnt from an energy specialist working for a well-known oil and gas company that unlike Poland (where less than 50% of households are connected to the gas mains), in Ukraine, nearly all houses and flats are heated by gas. Cheap, subsidised gas that's generally unmetered, where few buildings use thermostats, and where vastly more gas is used to heat homes than is the case in Poland.

So Putin has the Ukrainians by the short and curlies. (And most of Belarus's electricity is generated by burning gas.) Any wayward activities that are contrary to the interests of Greater Russia, and off goes the gas mid-winter. But this winter...?

We shall see what happens this mid-winter in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin's personal pet propaganda project. The sight of Ukrainians freezing as cuddly Olympic mascots frolic about Sochi's ski-jumps and ice-rinks is not one that Putin would wish to see on TV screens around the world.

In the meantime, while Poland waits to see whether there is any commercially viable shale gas under its territory, and as we wait for the Świnioujście LPG port to open, it behoves us to remember where the gas we burn comes from. And act accordingly.

If every Pole turned down the central heating by just two degrees centigrade this winter, it would make a noticeable difference to Poland's balance of trade deficit with Russia. And would show that we are not indifferent to the actions of a bully. So instead of walking around an over-heated house in shirtsleeves this winter, put on a pullover and turn down the thermostat a notch or two.

Czester says: "Oi! Human! Turn down the heating - alright?"
Energy saving is the 'fifth fuel' (the first four being fossil fuels, nuclear, renewables and er... what's the fourth one again?). Saving energy is a lot more efficient than any of the others because you don't have to generate, transmit or distribute the fifth fuel. And in the case of Poland, which is highly dependent on a less-than-friendly neighbour for nearly all of its gas, saving energy is a matter of national security too.

This time three years ago:
Early evening atmosphere

This time five years ago:
Toponyms - how many names has Jeziorki?

This time six years ago:
On the road to Białystok

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Charity across the nations

I took part in an interesting brainstorming meeting this morning on the subject of the charity sector in the UK and in Poland. Along with representatives of a Big Four consultancy and the head of a Polish NGO that supports charities here, we considered the differences between Charity in the two countries.

In the UK, the big picture is very clear - mainly because statistics are kept. "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." In the financial year 2011-12, British citizens donated £9.3 billion to charities, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' most recent report. That's equivalent to 0.6% of the UK's GDP. This includes all donations from individuals in the form of collecting tins, direct debits and standing orders, raffle tickets, charity events, charity shop purchases and payroll donations. It does not include government support, money from the National Lottery, wills, trusts, foundations, endowments, corporate donations or investment income.

Let's take a look at one UK charity in detail - the British Heart Foundation. Income in the financial year 2012-13 was £133.3m, charitable expenditure was £120.2m (£10.1 being the cost of running the charity). Of the income, 55% came from donations and profits from the nationwide chain of 730 BHF charity shops (supported by 20,000 volunteer staff); 45% came from wills and investment income. Looking at how the BHF spent the money, over £90m is spent on research, £30m on prevention of heart disease. £120m is well over half a billion zlotys, dear reader. And this is but ONE UK charity, that ranks number 18 on the list of top 1,000 UK charities.

Between them, the big three cancer charities in the UK, Cancer Research UK, MacMillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie Cancer Care, last year raised over £567m (over 2.8 billion zlotys, or around one-thirtieth of the Polish national health fund's annual budget). Add the smaller cancer charities, plus other one supporting research in areas such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, stroke, etc, and soon you a making a huge contribution to the overall healthcare sector.

Poland lacks such charities. The highest-profile charity is Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy - which, granted, is a once-a-year fund-raising event akin to Children in Need. The latest WOŚP (January 2013) raised 60.7m zlotys (around £12m); the latest Children in Need campaign (November 2013) raised £31m. But then Comic Relief ('Red Nose Day') in March 2013 raised £75m for charity. Poland's nominal GDP per capita may be three times lower than the UK's, but charity giving in Poland is... a mere tenth of that of the UK.

Why is this? I'm minded of the Duchess of Devonshire, answering the wife of a Texan oil millionaire how she keeps the lawns of Chatsworth House so immaculate. "Sow the grass seed, water, fertilise, mow, roll, and continue for several hundred years." The UK has  many charitable institutions that go back to Victorian times. The importance of continuity and familiarity has a great role in building those huge reserves of social trust, without which charity cannot function.

And this makes a huge difference. David Cameron might have forgotten his Big Society pledges, but let's face it, the UK really does have a Big Society already - people rich and poor, companies, foundations, institutions - that dig deep into their pockets, and volunteer their time - to help those in need. And this is happening on an immense scale across the whole of the UK.

Poland's charitable organisations tend to be micro-scale - set up by parents seeking to finance a life-saving operation for their child, or a community looking to support a local project. Some degree of consolidation will occur naturally, but leadership is needed from the top to put Poland's charity sector into an international perspective - and frame legislation accordingly - to encourage people to give less grudgingly of their money and time - and so to build a civil society built of trust.

So - the question for Poland's nation-builders - how can we build a strategic charity sector that replicates the size and effectiveness of the British one without having to wait the centuries it takes for the process to happen spontaneously?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Poland's rapid advance up the education league table

As a professional watcher of the major international rankings, I've been eagerly awaiting the results of the OECD PISA survey, which compares the educational attainments of 15 year-olds in state schools across nations. Unlike Doing Business or the Corruption Perception Index, PISA appears every third year, so the results show stronger trends.

Poland has done staggeringly well in the survey published today. Out of 65 countries surveyed this time round (mainly rich-world OECD nations but others too), Poland came 9th in science, 14th in maths, and 10th in reading literacy. If we go back to the the 2009 PISA survey, Poland came 19th in science, 25th in maths and 15th in reading. So an extremely good result for Polish schoolchildren, their teachers and the educational system, showing huge progress.

But take a look at the overall rankings. It is Asia that rules. In maths, the top seven positions are countries from the Far East, followed by four European states (including Liechtenstein), then Poland with Canada. In reading, six of the ten top positions go to the Far East. Three European countries (including Poland) and Canada make the remainder of the ten. It's the same in science.

The UK and US are both way behind the Asian achievers and the Polish pupils. In reading, the UK makes 23rd place, the US 24th. In maths, it's UK in 26th place, the US in 36th place(!). In science, it's UK 21st place, the US 28th.

I'm sure there will be self-congratulatory pieces in the Polish press tomorrow about this - all good news to be sure, but what's driving this progress?

My own belief is that Polish society has always had a strong appreciation of the importance of education throughout all strata of society; the economic slowdown of the last few years has heightened the sense that you are what you've learned, and that you will not go far in life if you don't push yourself. The Asian countries - from free-market Singapore to communist Vietnam - all share the same conviction that only learning can set one apart from the toiling masses - and the cult of education there is pursued there with relentless vigour, even at the cost of childhood itself.

"Your education today is your economy tomorrow," says Andreas Schleicher of OECD, the man behind the PISA ranking. He is right - of all the lead indicators in economics, here is one that can show five to ten years ahead the quality of the young people entering the labour force.

Britain uses school education as a moat behind which the elite can continue to rise and rule; in Poland its a ladder up which anyone with the drive to climb it can make a better life for themselves.

It is a different story when ranking universities however; here the US and UK rule the roost. But then the majority of undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge were privately educated.

This time last year:
Men's health, Polish-style

This time six years ago:
Son Eddie is 12 today
[which mathematically makes him 18 today! Happy birthday, my Adult Son!]

Poland continues its progress in cleaning up corruption

For the eighth successive year, Poland has been judged by Transparency International to be progressing in terms of cleaning up corruption. In this year's Corruption Perception Index published this morning, Poland is given a score of 60 out of 100, an advance on last year's score of 58. What's more, Poland has leapfrogged Slovenia and is now the second-least corrupt ex-communist country after Estonia.

Poland is ranked 38th out of 175 countries surveyed - last year it came 41st out of 174 countries. This is a huge advance on the nadir year of 2005, when it came 70th out of 158 countries.

Below: Poland's score tracked over the years, since the first Corruption Perception Index was published in 1996. Notice how the situation deteriorated when the former-communist SLD party was in power (it got no better under the AWS government - when its placemen, known at the time by the acronym 'TKM*', got their snouts in the trough).

The fact that Poland has been consistently improving in this regard is probably the biggest single benefit the country has enjoyed since joining the EU - bigger than all the roads and all the farmers' subsidies put together. For it reflects a change in the mindset from homo sovieticus, the shake-down model that's still all-to-evident across Poland's eastern borders, where opaque laws mean that no entrepreneur can possibly stay legal and make a profit. So they conduct business on the basis of kick-backs to ensure they stay in favour with the authorities. This creates a rent-seeking class of parasitical bureaucrats who destroy value and leech the wealth generated by the dynamic and hard-working members of society.

Below: corruption levels compared across countries touched by communism. Note how EU membership (and shorter exposure to communism) plays a difference.

The changed mindset in Poland is evident when talking to people working in government (at whatever level) under the age of 35 or so; there is a commitment to public service and a willingness to get things done that was not there a decade ago. I'm generalising of course, but things are visibly, undeniably better than they were. It's like comparing mid-February to late-March.

There's a long way to go until Poland basks in the standards of transparency enjoyed by countries such as Denmark or New Zealand. Poland must not sit back complacently. Having made it into the Top 40, Poland's citizens, government and businesses alike must continually press for a better ranking.

Looking down the full list of 175 countries, its obvious that corruption = poverty = corruption; clean countries enjoy higher standards of living. No political party, left or right, can deny that.

And which is the most corrupt country in the European Union? No, it's not an ex-communist nation. It is Greece, cradle of democracy.

* TKM - roughly translated as 'now it's our f***ing turn. The party faithful from the various factions that came together to form AWS were rewarded by middle- and senior-ranking posts in government departments and agencies. Rather than smash the old system and replace it with a purely professional, non-party political civil service, AWS meekly perpetuated the bad old ways. As a result, change has come slower than it could have done.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Keep watching Ukraine...

As predicted, the situation is Ukraine is unfolding dynamically, with protests in towns and cities across the country, even in the Russified east. (To make it easier for Brits to understand Ukraine, I liken it to Wales rotated anti-clockwise through 90 degrees. North Wales is like western Ukraine, where people are more nationalist in outlook and speak the national language. South Wales is like eastern Ukraine, where the coal mines and steel mills were planted there in the 19th Century by the big neighbour to the east. Eastern Ukraine is as Russified as South Wales is Anglicised. A difference is that the capital of Wales is in the southern heartland, while Ukraine's capital lies midway from east to west.)

The Ukrainian people are realising that their dreams of rapid economic and civilisational development are being dashed by a kleptocratic ruler and his immediate coterie; the hard times they've had over the past two decades are going to continue indefinitely unless events change course. It is the difference between driving a battered old Lada on a bumpy dirt track and a new Peugeot 208 along a new expressway.

Poland has taken the course of modernity and its GDP has soared since economic transformation; Ukraine is mired in corruption (ranking 144th out of 175 countries surveyed by Transparency International in its 2013 global Corruption Perception Index). With the exception of a rent-seeking class of tax inspectors and senior government officials, plus oligarchs close to the Yanukovich clan, the average Ukrainian cannot see a future for themselves and their children in their own country.

When I was in Lviv in 2005, I asked our Ukrainian guide about a black Audi Q7 SUV with blackened rear - and front windows and indeed windscreen, on which was an official-looking pass (p'yerepustka). "Government, business or mafia?" "All three," he replied.

For Ukrainians, the European Union is a wonderful dream - and bad as things are in Portugal or Greece (or even Bulgaria) - the prospect of one day in the distant future joining it is a vision of hope.

What should the West do now to help? For one, to block travel to the European Economic Area and North America to Yanukovich and his cronies. And freeze their foreign bank accounts. That would hit them where it hurts.

Interestingly, watching events unfold across Ukraine, the most-thorough English-language coverage comes from Russia Today (RT.com). I was surprised at the change in tone since Friday night's clashes at Kiev's Independence Square. Today, I see an intriguingly nuanced view in which the militia violence is being condemned and the people responsible for storming government buildings described as 'provocateurs' rather than as 'pro-EU hooligans'. Does this suggest that the Kremlin is ready to throw Yanukovich to the wolves?

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki, dawn, winter

This time six years ago:
Koyaanisqatsi lokomotywa
(little play on words there!)

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Yet another snow-free November (third in a row)

Nothing too anomalous; snow usually appears in Warsaw towards the end of this month. Other than the briefest flurry last Monday and a brief dip into freezing temperatures on Wednesday morning, this November has not brought much by way of wintery portent. It has been wet and dull this week, weather that does nothing to lift the spirit.

Yesterday in Katowice, the thermometers in the streets showed double-digit temperatures, it's colder up here in central Poland with a daytime high of +4C and steady light rain.

Below: ul. Trombity, Monday morning; a light frost, a few flakes of snow would fall later in the day.

Here in Jeziorki we are keeping our fingers crossed for a winter that's light on snow. The main sewer has been laid in the street outside and into our estate, but now each house has to be connected to it. Work will not commence until after winter; the more snow falls, the more waterlogged the earth will be, and the more complicated (and expensive) it will be to dig the trenches from under each house to lay the waste-water outfall pipes linking our plumbing with the sewer.

Below: late November Warsaw city-centre skyline. Five to four in the afternoon.

The heaviest snowfalls can be expected between mid-December and mid-February. So a snow-free November is meaningless, and predicting future months' weather on the basis of this one is futile.

This time last year:
Another November without snow

This time two years ago:
Snow-free November

This time three years ago:
Krakowskie Przedmieście in the snow

This time four years ago:
Ul. Poloneza closed for the building of the S2
[four years later, the Poloneza is open, the S2 is open]