Sunday, 30 June 2013

Cider - available at last in Poland

Arriving in Poland 16 years ago, I was surprised by the lack of cider. A country that's a European leader in apple production, and turns much of that into apple juice; a country that makes alcoholic spirits out of most forms of plant life, seemed incapable of going that step further with the apple juice and fermenting it to make a beverage of beer-like strength*.

And this at a time when a youthful demographic seeking palatable alcoholic drinks would have seemed like the ideal market for cider. And yet the British manufacturers, who'd regularly dip their toes in the water, would never take the plunge here. Year after year, I'd hear newly-arrived expats wondering where the cider was. Poles returning home after a stint in the UK would also express surprise that no entrepreneurial company was bothering to supply the Polish market with cider.

In the meanwhile, the youthful demographic, with its sweet tooth, was being pandered to by brewers adding sugar, fruit syrups and other ghastly flavourings to their beers to appeal to the burgeoning 15-to-25 year-olds. This was the largest age cohort of the Polish market. Stuff like Redds, FreeQ, Gingers. Dog in the Fog (withdrawn from the market in April 2010). To me - absolutely foul concoctions - but they did wean a generation brought up on Frugo and Hipp into the pleasures of alcohol in more gentle way that knocking back shots of vodka or quaffing litres of bitter-tasting beers.

But still no cider.

Until 2013. This year, the market has been judged to be ready. I'm not talking about Somersby, an apple-flavoured beer from Carlsberg. (45% beer, 55% apple juice; 4.5% alcohol by volume - sounds hideous - diluting a 10% beer with apple juice!).

Earlier this spring, I chanced upon 330ml bottles of a cider called Joker at Auchan; it was there for a week or two then disappeared. Today, in the same shelf, I found Sherwood Apple Cider Taste of Traditional English Cider (4.5% ABV). On putting on my reading glasses and looking at the small print, I discovered that this is made in Estonia from 'fermented apple juice and natural apple flavours. We tried some with lunch, the pear-flavoured variety too, but it tasted perfumed, lacking in vigour or authenticity.

But what's this? Cydr Lubelski. Again, 4.5% ABV (looks like some kind of limit set by excise law), but now, something more authentic. Made by fermenting apples, this is a real cider. Light, refreshing in taste, medium-dry, none to challenging. Not a great cider by the standards of England's West Country, but for Poland, a start. I guess this will be the moment when cider takes off in Poland; by 2030, cider will have become a 'traditional' Polish beverage.

Above, from the left: two bottles of Estonian 'Sherwood' cider; to the right, Cydr Lubelski. At last, a Polish cider, plain and simple, not apple-flavoured beer. Note the excise bands (banderole) over the bottle tops, something that beers don't need to have, even though they're stronger than these ciders.

And shandy's burst onto the scene. Also known as radler, 50/50 mixes of beer and lemonade are freely available from the Big Three brewers. At between 2% and 2.6% ABV, these do not interfere with the head and, served very cold, are beautifully thirst-quenching. Better than the Top Deck Shandy I grew up with!

Below: while on the subject of alcoholic beverages and their marketing - I'm admiring the current ad campaign for Łomża beer. I've said for a long while that it's advertising copywriters that breathe new life into the Polish language. Pastwing bez krowingu. Simply brilliant.

This ad is not aimed at Pan Heniek or Pan Ziutek, whose tipple of choice must be Argus Strong (6.7% ABV, on offer at 3.59 złotys or around 70p for a one-litre bottle this week at Lidl). No, the Łomżing campaign targets the trendy, educated, urban youth market. 'Łomża. Source of Conscious Łomżing'. Łomżing - Lemming? a source of conscious self-irony?

Another current series of billboards that playfully toys with the Polish language is the re-run of last summer's Bardzo mi Milko campaign, blending English into Polish (MoreLove = morelowe = apricot flavour, or WishNiowe = wiśniowe = cherry flavour). Such plays on words reflect the open-minded, intelligent and fun-loving nature of the target group for these milk drinks.

The Polish market for food and drink is becoming increasingly sophisticated and competitive. This is great news for consumers. It's just a shame that British cider manufacturers did not spot this opportunity a few years ago. Maybe now the market has been opened by local players, they will come over.

* There's always been jabol - a sweet fruit wine made from apples and sold for grosze to the lower echelons of the alcoholic community.

Update, 7 July 2013. The following Sunday I'm back at Auchan for my weekly shop. I'm looking for ciders. Guess what - they've disappeared off the shelves again. None. Not one.

Update, 11 July 2013. I'm looking in the wrong shelf! The ciders - all three mentioned above plus the Joker and a few others (eXcite) - are around one-third of the way down the looooong shelf with beers. On the right as you stand with your back to the check-outs. Such good news I buy a Cydr Lubelski.

This time last year:
Despondency on Puławska
[A year later, still no S2 Southern Bypass]

This time two years ago:
Stalking the stork

This time four years ago:
Late June lightning

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Brother and sister

Pure and unashamed attempt to make you go 'ah' once again; while the kittens are cute. Seven weeks old, here's Czester (ginger tom) and his sister Izadora (tortoiseshell tabby female). I could break into the greetings card industry with such images!

The kittens (plus their brother Feluś, who was not available for photography this afternoon) are developing well, getting ever more curious, discovering how to climb onto the piano and the kitchen table, eating solids (Izadora still not too keen) and learning how to use the cat litter.

A whole heap of fun to watch, especially when chasing one another, fighting, scampering about or just looking cute.

This time two years ago:
The Cold Weather Guys - a short story

This time three years ago:
Bike ride along the banks of the Vistula

This time four years ago:
Three hill walks around Dobra

This time five years ago:
90th Anniversary of the Polish Navy

This time five years ago:
Memory and comfort

Friday, 28 June 2013

Cramp in the night

I woke up around three as that familiar feeling of cramp swiftly seizing my lower left leg caught hold. I stretched my left foot and vigorously massaged the calf, and after a while the pain eased and I returned to sleep. Though not the worst attack of cramp I've ever had, it was enough to get me to reflect on those mysterious health issues of 'unknown aetiology' (where doctors don't know the causes).

I can put two and two together, though. I tend to get nocturnal cramp attacks a) always in summer, b) always in my legs, c) generally when I've not drunk enough fluids in the evening, d) generally when its hot and sweaty. One's body loses salts due to sweating brought on by exercise and heat, and the leg muscles become prone to cramp.

The worst attack I had was exactly a year ago; in the wee small hours of 27 June 2012. That day we organised a breakfast meeting with a minister at Warsaw's Sofitel Victoria hotel. I  didn't get back to sleep after the attack; rather I had a shower, massaged the calf, which was painfully sore, then limped to the bus stop, hobbled down the stairs to the Metro at Stokłosy. I had to make my way from Świętokrzyska station to Pl. Piłsudskiego, skirting the bits of Świętokrzyska closed for the building of the second Metro line. It was a long walk, during which the soreness in the calf slowly eased and by the time I reached the hotel, the limp was barely discernible. By the following morning, all discomfort had passed.

Since then, I've had more minor attacks, but that was the worst one I ever experienced in my life.

Cycling can bring on leg cramp. On May Day, 2010, when I covered 135km (Jeziorki-Końskie) I found cramp-style pains building up in my calves, which eased as the rain started falling. Going to sleep after long rides, I also find myself to being woken by a leg cramp attack.

And driving in stop-start traffic gives me cramp in  the soles of my feet; last summer, on our way from Luton Airport to my parents' on the North Circular I was in great discomfort - which in such situations is dangerous, and can result in a rear-end shunt in tight, slow-moving traffic.

Medical science may not know the reason leg-cramps affect us (increasingly as we grow older), but I do know how to avoid it. Taking magnesium tablets helps too. Being aware of such matters is helpful as one grows older.

This time last year:
Football goes home

This time two years ago:
Birds of Omen

This time threeyears ago:
Yes, it does matter who you vote for

This time four years ago:
Poland could do with some more mountains

This time five years ago:
Warmth of the Sun
- the Beach Boys and Noctilucence

This time six years ago:
Polish roads that look like America

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Where's the beef? Here it is (I hope...)

I wrote about this problem in February - the lack of decent beef fillet steak in Warsaw. Alma's rather sad efforts in this area should be avoided (over-priced at 105zł per kilo, and stringy - not something I'd call 'premium beef'). Auchan's fillet is cheaper (90zł/kg) , and better presented (on a tray, so you can see whether there's gristly bits streaking through it or not. But even so, this is not what you'd get in a restaurant. The cuts are meagre, thin. Most butcher shops will get you fillet steak to special order; lesser cuts of beef are readily available, but though they look nice they are very tough unless beaten for hours with a mallet and marinaded for days in something acidic.

But now, to my great surprise, I've found it. The perfect beefsteak. Here in Warsaw. It comes from Lidl (yes!), priced at 80zł/kg, in the chiller cabinet. That's a whole 25zł/kg less than the stuff they sell at Alma! The brand is BeefMaster, (owned by Zakład Przemysłu Mięsnego Biernacki); in a pack for around 30zł (six quid) you get two lovely steaks (nice and thick and juicy) like you'd find at Butchery & Wine or any other quality restaurant in Our City, vacuum packed and gorgeous. They cook well too. Here it is; mmmmmm! (yes, it does look as good as this in real life).

A little Googling and it transpires that Lidl (not a retailer famed for its continuity of supply) is not alone in selling BeefMaster products. Aldi and Kaufland carry their stock too. And indeed, at the weekend, I found in my local Lidl BeefMaster beef for rolade, steak Tatar, whole fillet pieces and others - but no fillet steak. Looking at BeefMaster's product line-up, I note that my local Lidl has but a small fraction of what's on offer.

And while at Lidl, I can also recommend their 250ml bottles of wine, in particular the Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, at a mere 5zł. Decent stuff if you don't want to crack open a whole bottle.

Steak and red wine - the ideal combination (plus, of course, a large salad to go with).

This time last year:
W-wa Zachodnia spruced up for the football, W-wa Stadion reopened

This time two years ago:
Literature and biology

This time five years ago:
Old Nysa van spotted in Grabów

This time six years ago:
The oats in the neighbouring field rise high

Monday, 24 June 2013

Diametrically opposite views of the Palace of Culture

Here it is again - the calling-card of Our City, Stalin's Gift to the People of Poland, the Palace of Culture and Science, the very centre of Warsaw. Two, very different views from two places on either side of the landmark.

Below: on a sunny Friday afternoon; seen from the 13th floor of Warsaw Financial Center. To the left, the Palace of Culture. In the centre, the Intercontinental Hotel, with its characteristic 'leg', cut out to allow sunlight onto the blocks in its shadow. To the right, Daniel Liebeskind's Zlota 44, now approaching completion. Compared to the vigour of contemporary architecture, Stalin's Gift, ash-grey and pallid, looks threatening, alien and invasive.

Below: view from Rondo Dmowskiego, named after the man who invented the rondo ('roundabout'), back in 1910. A thundercloud is brooding overhead. From here, we cannot see the Warsaw Financial Center (165m) on the corner of Świętokrzyska and Emilii Plater. Tall towers from left to right: Skylight (105m, rising above the Złote Tarasy shopping mall), Złota 44 (192m), Rondo ONZ 1 (192m), the Interconti (164m), the Palace of Culture (231m), and the Cosmopolitan building (Twarda 2/4, 157m). Keep on building UP, Warsaw! One day, Stalin's Gift will be surrounded!

This time last year:
Renault's electric urban runabout (now on sale in Poland)

This time four years ago:
On foot to Limanowa

This time five years ago:
Crumbling neo-classicism in Grabów

This time six years ago:
Bike ride into deepest Mazovia

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Midsummer coal trains

In winter the trains are 40 wagons long; in summer a mere 25; and there are fewer of them. The coal trains that keep Siekierki power station supplied with the black stuff. First it comes up from Silesia along electrified tracks, to Okęcie sidings. Then, its taken from Okęcie to Siekierki, via Konstancin-Jeziorna sidings, hauled by diesel.

Above: swinging around W-wa Jeziorki by electrical traction, a coal train bound for Okęcie. Hauled by an ET22 in the livery of PKP Cargo.

Above: diesel-hauled rake of empty coal wagons returning from Siekierki to Okęcie for a refill. Photo taken from the platform of W-wa Jeziorki station.

New views of Jeziorki

The retention ponds on Pozytywki are complete; turf has been planted around their edge, and grass sown above that. The ponds between Trombity and Dumki are ready, but much tidying work is needed before the project is complete - still, there's still four months in which to do it. In the meanwhile, the landscape of Jeziorki has changed for the better, without losing its intrinsic charms. The bird life is still there, the reed beds are (as yet) untouched. A quick view, then of how things look today...

Above: the new retention pond between Dumki and Trombity, looking southward. Once the shores have been tidied, it will be quite wonderful. Ducks and coots here aplenty.

Above: ul. Dumki, no longer impassable as it had been for a couple of years. This stretch of the road should (I hope) be turned into a footpath/cycle path, not asphalted over for motor-vehicle use. We should not lose the rural charm of the place, but make it pleasant for recreational purposes. Banning vehicles would cut down of the amount of rubbish dumped here.

Above: view from one of the gabions creating the retention pond on ul. Kórnicka, looking north towards ul. Baletowa. Note the profusion of black-headed gulls sitting on the further gabions.

Evening, the retention pond on ul. Pozytywki; note the newly-laid turf running down to the water's edge, and the contrasting grass seeded above that. Plenty of ducks around, but the herons have gone.

This time last year:
Motorway finally links (the outskirts of) Łódź and (the outskirts of) Warsaw

This time four years ago:
Kraków Air Museum

This time five years ago:
Quintessential Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Little boxes, Mysiadło

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Baszta - a former legend

Once upon a time, Baszta was the place. A point of reference. Older taxi drivers at the rank on Wilanowska still ask me, when I say I'm heading down Puławska to ul. Trombity: "Is that before or after Baszta?" Once, the only restaurant in this part of the world, it was where the Party people who loved to get down would get on down. The Nomenklatura would party here till broad daylight, discussing their invidious plans for Poland between successive half-litre flaszki of chilled vodka. Jane Fonda and Neil Armstrong dined here too.

After 1989, Baszta's fortunes fell prey to the laws of the free market; the Party dissolved, competition popped up amongst the newly-constructed blocks of Ursynów, and restaurant goers sought something more than schab z przysmażonymi ziemniakami i surówkę mieszaną.

During my first five years in Warsaw, living in Pyry, I'd pop by here now and then, and with one memorable exception I'd be outnumbered by the staff. Walking in, I'd be acknowledged with a surly nod by a balding middle-aged barman in white apron, wiping beer glasses; I'd go up to the cloakroom, where a middle-aged woman with bright orange hair would take my coat in exchange for a numerek; I'd then go downstairs to the one functioning restaurant room, where one of the two middle-aged waitresses would take my order. A long wait would ensue, as the five middle-aged kitchen staff would patiently prepare my supper.

I always wondered whether this was an exercise in money-laundering, but in hindsight it was poor management that led to the inevitable end. No attempt at marketing; no mailbox leaflet campaigns around the neighbourhood like the pizza places do. All those rich expats living within walking distance, forced to eat at home because no one told them what culinary delights Baszta could offer them.

Baszta has been closed for four years - since July 2009. It's still a landmark as you drive south down Puławska towards Sand City, on your left, just before the church in Pyry. The main restaurant building itself actually dates back to the late 19th Century.

Above: the corner of Puławska and Łagiewnicka. The bar, a charming annex, was built in 1959 when the main building was turned into a restaurant. But how to compete for Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek's custom today when Lidl down the road sells litre-bottles of Argus Strong (6.7%) for 3.10 złotys (around 62p)?

The bar, seen from  Puławska. Such a lovely building, echoing the sweeping curves of Mid-Century Moderne, though with a classical touch.

Above: sign on Puławska, in keeping with the guidelines of the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Signs: 'Information signs indicating facilities or services, shall be in black on a white rectangle on a blue ground.'

Above: the main entrance from Puławska; gatehouse built in the same style. Parking for 20 cars inside.

Above: the main building, designed by Władysław Marconi. If those rounded corners remind you of any Warsaw landmarks - Marconi also designed the Hotel Bristol. And the Bulgarian Embassy on Al. Ujazdowskie.

Above: peering in from the side gate on ul. Łagiewnicka at the back of the main building, and some of the outbuildings, including a dovecote. I don't like the faux stonework appliqued onto the white plaster.

What will become of Baszta? I guess market conditions must improve before an investor can see this as a sensible acquisition. In the meantime, it's yet another stop-off on the rounds of the security guards.

This time two years ago:
Downhill all the way to December

This time three years ago:
What do I want for Poland

This time four years ago:
Summer holiday starts drizzly

This time five years ago:
Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 visits Okęcie

Friday, 21 June 2013

The kittens at six weeks

Well, here they are after six weeks. Sadly, Bonus didn't make it; despite three trips to the vet he died of pneumonia. But the rest are hale and hearty, and at that age where playful kittens make everyone go 'ah'.

Above: Czester ('Czestuś'), the first born. Eats more than his siblings, less likely to use his claws on furniture or human hands. The most friendly of the trio.

Above: Feluś, the second born (I actually witnessed his birth). A natural-born scrapper, always in a fight with this brother or his sister, huge fun to watch.

Above: Izadora (born on St. Izadora's Day, Izia for short). The third-born, the only female in the litter, who gives as good as she gets when it comes to tussling with her older brothers. Prefers milk and cheese to meaty kitten-food.

In another six weeks, it will be time to part with Feluś and Izia; they will go together to a good home (if you feel like taking on these lovely kittens and you live in the Warsaw area, do let me know!)

This time two years ago:
And the Lord spake unto the tribe of Hipsters
(I was writing about this only yesterday! The fixie's as hip as it was)

This time three years ago:
Exit polls can get it wrong

This time four years ago:
In search of good Polish beer

This time five years ago:
In the Solstice garden

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Hipster bikes, Warsaw, Summer 2013

The style's still here; the New Orthodoxy for the Fashionably Hip on Two Wheels. How should your bicycle look if you wish to draw admiring glances from the less-trendy? The bikes below look similar at first glance, but here's a guide to distinguish the faux from the hip.

Above: Pink front rim, blue rear rim, matching saddle and grips. The frame is from Pan Heniek's scrapyard; note the forgivingly raked front forks, relaxed angles and the long wheelbase, characterised by the space between crank and rear wheel. The diagonal drop-outs suggest the bike once had dérailleur gears. In other words, the frame's an old-school original, but not one intended for single-speed track-bike use. Lack of visible braking system a desperate attempt at gaining street credibility. As fixie as they come, road-bike pedal straps. A certain charm - but not the real deal.

Above: This is more like it - straight front forks, tighter, rear triangle, rearward facing drop-outs suggest this frame was designed for a fixie. Flip-flop hub is visible (cogs on either side); front and rear brakes a concession towards safety; handlebars are not fashionably narrow. This plus a matching saddle-and-grip combo and matching rims and tyres are a sure sign the rider's a conservative at heart, albeit within a modern aesthetic. Padlock weighs as much as the entire frame.

Above: Here's a nice one! No old-fashioned toe-straps on the pedals, but wide foot straps. Pukka fixie frame (straight front forks, rear-facing drop-outs); brakes front and back. But what marks this bike out from the other two is the colour combination - lime-green saddle, chain (!) and front tyre, orangey-red rear tyre and handlebar grips, matching rims, matching yellow cranks, pedals and padlock (!)

Above: not a fixie (the rider's freewheeling down Al. Szucha); rather, this is a home-built single-speed made from an old racer. Note front and rear brakes, inner chainring (entirely redundant!) and non-matching wheels and rims. Resprayed lime green - and why not!

Above: no compromises in this fixie conversion. A lady's frame (damka), but that doesn't stop the hipster boys from being seen riding such a bike. Note - no brakes, flip-flop hub, no pedal straps, toe-clips or shoe-cleat fastening system. Note purity of colour - white, black, silver. Look at the chainset. And look at the cargo rack on the front. A courier's bike? One way or another, it takes no prisoners!

A thousand miles away. Hipsterism and its attendant fixie-culture is truly global, thanks no doubt to the internet. Behold, below, a fixie I snapped off London's Oxford Street earlier this month.

Very similar. Deep rims, frame-coloured spokes, straight forks, colour-coded tyres and saddle. Short wheelbase and rear-facing forks single this bike out as having left the factory destined to be ridden fixed gear. And note one other thing in common to all six bikes - Warsaw and London - there's no brand, no logo. Very Naomi Klein.

At the start of this season, my local hypermarket Auchan had three fixed-wheel bikes on display, all going for a mere 559 zlotys (£110). Made in China, cheap components, but proper fixie geometry, deep rims, flip-flop hubs, no rear brake... fire-engine red... all for less than the price of the cheapest pair of fixie wheels from a normal bike shop. I passed on this purchase, but all three were sold within a few weeks. To quote Danny the Dealer from Withnail and I: "They're selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man".

This time last year:
On Jarosław Gowin and leadership in Polish politics
[file now under 'history, what-if']

This time two years ago:
Death of a Polish pilot

This time three years ago:
Doesn't anyone want to recycle my rubbish?

This time four years ago:
End of the school year

This time five years ago:
Midsummer scenes, Jeziorki

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

What goes around comes around

Retro is in. Lunching at the newly opened Music Bar on ul. Olkuska (across the way from the well-established Burger Bar, just off Puławska), we are surrounded by hipsters sporting trendy beards, short-back-and-sides haircuts, narrow jeans and looking like... well, hipsters from the early 1960s. The music being played (at a pleasurable volume) was be-bop jazz - Charlie Parker, John Coltrane.

The crowd is dressed the part; the late-40s-early-50s aesthetic has parted to make way for the styles of half a century ago. The 1960s are cool again; it's as though the 1920s were cool in the 1970s - but hang on a second - they were! I remember that wave of beige and brown Oxford Bags, geometric-striped tank-tops and correspondent shoes that hit England's high streets in the wake of the 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby (currently re-made half a century on and once again in the cinemas).

And go back one century further to the 1870s; how the Victorians loved the late Middle Ages! Today, it's hard to imagine that six hundred years separate Westminster Abbey from the Palace of Westminster, the latter built in the same Gothic style.

Retro has always been in. Difficult to think of when it wasn't. Well, the 1960s were actually quite original; the whole Space Race thing and designers like Pierre Cardin using new man-made fabrics; and while hem-lengths were above the knees in the Roaring Twenties, they reached new heights in the Swinging Sixties. Once there, all hems could do was to recede, and then to yo-yo back and forth as fashion designers grasped with increasing desperation for the New and found only the Recycled.

I can't remember an age where so much of the current aesthetic is so obviously a rehash of the past. It's comforting at a time of austerity, to hark back to a more affluent era - the 1960s were all go; supersonic flight, mods on scooters, classlessness, the Death of Deference (the Profumo Affair broke 50 years ago); a new generation of classless lads like David Bailey, David Frost, David Hemming and David Hockney (that's just the Davids) broke the mould and did new things that hadn't been done before in photography, interviewing, acting or painting.

Today, timidly, we reach back for a comfort blanket and laugh at how old-fashioned things were, while all the time realising what massive breakthroughs were being accomplished. A few seasons of Mad Men have influenced contemporary aesthetics - from men's clothing to interior design.

And note the wild success of the Keep Calm and Carry On - the typeface is everywhere as are variations of the slogan (a garden kneeler saying 'Keep Calm and Carry On Weeding', a wide range of Keep Calm greeting cards in Warsaw's EMPiK store). Again - retro comforts.

The 1960s were radically different from what came before. The technology, the popular culture, the attitudes, the mores. I dare say that one day I'll be able to identify with my grandchildren's generation far better than with my parents' generation. By the 2030s what will there be new to grasp on to, style wise? Great Depression chic? Steam-Punk Neo-Victorianism? (penny-farthings on our cycle paths?) Or the 1980s revisited, the New Romantics crossed with Dynasty?  Or the late-Renaissance? Or a cross between the two? Machiavelli meets Adam Ant? A depressing vision.

Given society's track-record in recycling historical aesthetics, I feel it will be unlikely that something entirely new will burst onto the scene in the same, fresh, way that we witnessed in the 1960s. Hendrix's guitar and Mary Quant's hems. Finally a generalisation: is it correct to posit that when economic times are tough, we instinctively, lazily, reach for the aesthetics of yesteryear as a comforting antidote?

This time last year:
Warsaw's southern bypass by this time next year?
[No, it's likely to be the end of 2013]

This time last year:
Stand Easy! - a short story

This time four years ago:
God Save The Queen - I mean it, Ma'am

This time five years ago:
Legoland, Dawidy Poduchowne

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Dzienniki kołymskie by Jacek Hugo-Bader

Sometimes you finish a book and you're thankful it's out of the way. It bored you, it frustrated you (whatever the reason - style, vocabulary, tone), it was over-long, it was self-indulgent... But today I got to the end of Dzienniki kołymskie ('Kołyma Diaries') by Jacek Hugo-Bader and felt a sense of loss. Indeed, the past few days, aware the last page of the book was approaching, like the last day of a wonderful holiday, I felt sad each time I picked it up, knowing my enjoyment of it was coming to an end.

The book, a Christmas present from Moni, has been my travelling companion on my commutes to and from work for the past six weeks. It is the key to understanding the soul of Russia.

Many years ago, my friend Andrzej Poloczek visited Moscow, then still the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Standing in Red Square, he thought to himself that he was indeed in the heart of darkness. Having read Dzienniki kołymskie, I can say that Russia's heart of darkness lies 6,000 miles/10,000km further east - a frozen Golgotha - a land where, for the duration of Stalin's dark reign, humanity ceased to exist. The Gulag system, where the slave labour of Soviet Union's political prisoners, made to work for handfuls of dark bread excavating gold, diamonds, uranium and other precious metals, is where today's Russia is from.

That brutal and unthinking system, that boot stamping down on the face, with its prison hierarchy of vory and blatniy, where the strong exploit the weak to survive, is mirrored in Putin's Russia. Today's Russians, and the peoples of Siberia who are still subjects of Moscow, are the product of those decades of terror.

Jacek Hugo-Bader is the true heir to Ryszard Kapuściński in the journalistic sub-genre of reportage. This is his third book about Russia (the second one, Biała gorączka, I reviewed here). Hugo-Bader is above all a fearless writer, someone willing to put themself into harm's way to get an insightful story for his readers. His stories in Gazeta Wyborcza had always impressed me with the direct questions he'd ask difficult people; here is a man putting his life on the line to tell us the truth.

And the truth about Kolyma is not easy to digest. An inhospitable land, closed off from the Eurasian continent for much of the year; a land rich in natural resources - gold, diamonds, oil, caviar. A land far from the rule of law - if there be any rule of law than the fiat of whatever ruthless, face-stamping megalomaniac is in the Kremlin. Kolyma is a land to which unusual people flee their past; a land from which usual people escape.

Hugo-Bader hitch-hikes over 2,000 kilometres from Magadan, the capital of Kolyma, to Yakutsk, just as merciless winter falls. Travelling by way of Debin, Susuman, Ust-nera and Chadyga, he encounters a memorable procession of characters. Much drinking goes on. Thirty-six days on the road with 19 massive vodka-drinking sessions along the way, without which the window to the Russian soul would have remain tightly shuttered. Each one offers us plentiful insight; on the extraction and trade in gold, that drives the economy of the Russian Far East. On the plight of the Yakut and other native peoples, without a head for alcohol, who are being exterminated slowly by vodka (a main theme in Biała gorączka). On the bottomless corruption, the stupid, venal, primitive, brutal local oligarchs (wealthy beyond comprehension, yet lacking the nous to move to somewhere civilised). And at the heart of it, Stalin's Gulag system that gave this part of the world its infrastructure, its first settlements - penal colonies that would become today's sad, depopulated towns.

I tracked Hugo-Bader's voyage on Google Earth, studying carefully the satellite imagery of Kolyma, the photos on Panoramio, reading the Wikipedia articles about the settlements along the way from Magadan to Yakutsk. Well worth doing. To get an idea of the insane geography of the place; where temperatures can oscillate between -60C and +30C; where permafrost means that normal sanitation is impossible; where people's fatalism is so deeply rooted that there's no future for most of them.

If you live in Kolyma, 'the continent' is the outside world, the normal world - is difficult to reach. Yakutsk, a city of over a quarter of a million people, lacks a bridge between the two banks of the River Lena, and taking a heavy goods vehicle across on a ferry costs €4,000.

There are so many fascinating snippets of knowledge in this book. Twice, Hugo-Bader's interviewees mention the ONTOTs - a chain of Stalin-era tanks buried hull-down into the hillsides overlooking the Amur River and the border with China with just the turrets showing. Red Army soldiers were supposed to man these outposts until death - there was no way out, should the Chinese invade. Then the are the shatun - the man-eating bears that are a constant threat to humans towards the end of hungry winters. The devil-may-care attitude of the paputchniki (truck drivers) of the Trakt Kolymski - that partially-asphalted, slender thread that links Kolyma to the outside world, built by the zeks of the Gulag system. Seldom sober, the paputchniki are friendly, human - but liable to tell the tallest tales, from the very depths of their souls - or somebody else's soul.

Hugo-Bader rarely had to wait long for his next lift. At truck-stops, where drivers would pop in to the store for a couple of half-litre bottles of vodka, he'd catch a ride a dozen, a hundred, a few hundred kilometres further on up the road. Once only he had to pay for his travel - 500 roubles, 50 zlotys, £10, to join five other men on a suicidal journey across the Aldan in a tiny motor-boat, dodging massive ice-floes in a swiftly-moving and broad river.

The people he'd meet - Yezhov's daughter; faith-healers and shamans, gold-diggers, blind-drunk surgeons, nomads, hermits - out here, no one is normal.

The landscape is littered with ghost-towns, where the lights went out after the last of the gold or coal was excavated, where the people left as soon as they could. What will happen to Kolyma? My guess is that Kolyma - and much of the Russian Far East - will become Chinese by the end of this century. The Chinese will buy it or conquer it by force; Moscow has neither the will nor the wherewithal to maintain  this resource-rich but depopulated piece of real estate (see this post).

I hope that Dzienniki kołymskie will make their way into English; this is one of the most significant books about the world we live in I've read in a long while.

This time last year:
Russia-Poland in Warsaw: the worst day of Euro 2012

This time two years ago:
Thirty-one and sixty-three - a short story

This time four years ago:
Warsaw rail circumnavigation

This time five years ago:
Classic Polish vehicles

This time six years ago:
South Warsaw sunsets

Monday, 10 June 2013

Polish doctors in the UK offer new healthcare model

A story that crept into this week's Economist made the front page of Saturday's Daily Wail. It appears that Polish doctors who set up a surgery just off the Hanger Lane gyratory are successfully filling the gap between an over-stretched but free public healthcare system and a grossly over-priced private system. Read the Economist article here. And now compare it to this piece here, which the Daily Mail's website has expanded from Saturday's front-page splash.

So. You're living in London, you or your child feels exceptionally unwell, unwell enough to seek urgent medical attention. You cannot get through: "Two thirds of NHS patients now have to wait 48 hours or more for a GP’s appointment," says the Mail. [GP = general practitioner = lekarz pierwszego kontaktu.] Not being registered with the NFZ in Poland, I don't know from first hand experience whether it's quite that bad here, but from what I gather, it's not. So, rather than risk waiting 48 hours or more, you opt to go private. But private doctors in England charge a fortune. If you can afford it - fine. Health is not something to skimp on. If you can't afford it, you're left with the NHS, England's Glory, Olympics opening ceremony etc - but when the chips are down, it can let you down.

Now, Polish doctors are offering a middle way. Cut-price private. All above-board, approved and trustworthy. Polish doctors, trained up to the same standard as NHS doctors, but willing to be flexible and to sell their services for one-third of what a private doctor typically charges in England. Willing, in other words, to challenge the long-established dominance of a class of professionals that since the late 19th Century has enjoyed privilege, status and wealth above and beyond other professionals in society. A doctor can offer private healthcare at prices that don't factor in his golf club fees, holidays on the Bahamas, Porsche Cayenne CS Turbo, children's schooling and six-bedroom house in Chalfont St. Giles. Doctors in the UK private sector have too long believed that such a lifestyle is their entitlement, and they charge accordingly. A new market entrant can challenge that assumption.

I've heard similar stories in Poland, though lower down the food chain. Young graduates from Lublin's medical academy have set themselves up in private practice, offering a paid-for but instant service for many not-too-ill people in that city who've not got time to faff about with the NFZ system and queues, but just want to be sent off to the nearest apteka with a quickie prescription for a sore throat or tummy bug.

The market will eventually catch up with absurdities, and verify them. The appearance of enterprising, well-trained Polish doctors in England who, rather than fall into the existing system as generations of immigrant doctors have in the past, are challenging it, is entirely welcome.

But if this phenomenon becomes more commonplace in England, it might become less welcome for Poland. These doctors are educated and trained courtesy of the Polish tax-payer, who after a while loses the benefit of the skills in which they have been investing.

Looking the other way - if you are here in Poland, suffering from something which might be food poisoning or might be a food allergy and you just don't know - have a look at the marvellous NHS Direct website. In particular, check your symptoms, here. Poland could well do with having a similar web-based service. I've used the NHS Direct online service twice (both times from Warsaw); both times it resolved the problem, saving a visit to the doctor.

The 21st Century will be one of huge breakthroughs in medicine, primarily through the application of computing power; Big Data, number-crunching genetic codes, vastly improved healthcare management, will all contribute to increased longevity and quality of life. So hats off to the Polish doctors for rocking a complacent boat.

This time three years ago:
The closure of the Góra Kalwaria - Pilawa railway link

This time five years ago:
My blazing bus pic gets on front page of Gazeta Stołeczna

This time six years ago:
Storm clouds rising

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Quality manufacturing after half a century

Returning to my parents' house from central London today, I espied a Morris Cowley MCV pick-up truck, built between 1950 and 1956. At first sight, it may look like a Morris Minor - only bigger. The Cowley (and the passenger version, the Morris Oxford) were styled along the lines of the Minor, but were powered by a 1.5 litre engine rather than the Minor's 848cc power plant.

How quintessentially English, set against the mid-Victorian houses; a sight so splendidly taking me back to my childhood. Classic vehicles are treasures; their owners should receive Arts Council, National Lottery or National Trust support for keeping them roadworthy. I hope this splendid vehicle will still be gracing the roads of England in another sixty years time!

Closer to home, my parents' fridge (below), a Lec Colonial Model P.40, is still in everyday use, as it has been since October 1961, when it was delivered to our house on Croft Gardens. [The fridge was called 'Colonial'. From the word 'colony'. Which implies white British folk living on a tea plantation in Kenya or in a cantonment on a dusty plain in North-West India.]

I still remember the day it was delivered (in a dark-blue Ford Thames 400E pick-up truck with a green canvas tilt). Since that day, the fridge has been keeping the family food chilled for the past 52 years. Built by the Lec Refrigeration Ltd of Bognor Regis, Sussex, England, this wonderfully-styled fridge is fashionable once again. SMEG fridges trade on their retro style. Though not on their reliability, I am informed.
 My brother jokes that over the past half-century, the fridge has consumed tens of thousands of tonnes of coal to generate the electricity needed to power it over the decades. Its tubing is probably full of chemicals that if released into the earth's atmosphere would destroy the ozone layer and raise the temperature on the planet by 12C.

Below: original leaflet, stapled to the delivery note.
The fridge cost 49 and half guineas (a guinea being one pound and one shilling) or  £51.98. Adjusting for inflation, this is £950 in today's money, when fridges of similar size cost £200. Will they still be working in 2055?

Below: badge of pride - Lec's motto, to excel. Fifty two years of continuous service certainly confirms the excellence of this product.

Another purchase made by my parents in the 1960s that's now approaching its half century is their sofa (with two matching chairs), made by G-Plan of High Wycombe. To my great surprise when I googled it, I discovered the very same sofa is still in production (below), though now as part of a vintage range. Very Mad Men! My parents' sofa has two rows of buttons rather than one, and 15 buttons across rather than the nine here, but is otherwise identical, down to the legs.

The invoice (also preserved) from 1965 is for £153 and 15 shillings (£2440 in today's prices adjusting for inflation). Here, my parents are on to a winner; G-Plan currently charges £3,500 for the Fifty Nine sofa plus two matching chairs. Having said that, the sofa itself, which opens up as a double-bed, could do with some new springs. It's good to know then, that they are still in production!

This time last year:
Fans fly in to Warsaw for Euro 2012

This time two years ago:
Cara al Sol - part II

This time three years ago:
Still struggling with the floodwaters

This time four years ago:
European elections - and I buy used D40
[my Nikon D40 still proving utterly reliable]

The time five years ago:
To the Vistula, by bike

This time six years ago:
Poppy profusion

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Preserving our meadows - UK and Poland

I was watching on the BBC a news item about Prince Charles marking the 60th anniversary of his mother coming to the throne with a campaign to promote meadowland in the UK. Across the counties of England, 60 ancient meadows have been selected for their natural biodiversity, wild flowers and plant life. According to the two biologists interviewed, England has lost 97% of its meadows since the 1930s.

What I wanted to know, and what the BBC failed to say, was about the structure of land use and how it's changed over the past 80 years. Today, with arable set-asides paid for from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, farmers have, I understand, financial incentives to leave land fallow and to let formerly cultivated land return to its natural state.

I remember one lovely summer's weekend back in the early 1990s cycling the South Downs Way in Sussex . I returned home to find my legs scored with long blisters where crops growing adjacent to the cycle path had grazed my skin, and the chemicals used on them had reacted this way. England's field, I thought, had turned into one great intensive farm-factory; never mind health or taste, the aim was to maximise crop yields.

Every acre of land has been turned over to some economically fruitful use. Meadows are neither a leisure amenity, nor do they produce marketable crops. But they are essential in holding together the fabric of our landscapes.

When I was a student, Save the Whale was the slogan, today it's Save the Bee (yes, I saw a poster to this effect on the train from Luton Airport into London yesterday). Bees are facing mass colony extinction because of over-use of pesticides, the loss of wild flowers and development.

The situation in Poland is much healthier. Meadowland is plentiful, especially along flood-prone riverbanks, and bee colonies are less threatened. In the local shop round the corner from my office, you can buy single-flower honeys (acacia honey being my particular favourite). This is a niche market not yet filled in the UK (where it's generally either Manuka honey at outrageous prices or ordinary mixed-flower honey for around £6 [30 złotys] per kilo).

Let us hope that Poland does not follow England in dash to intensify farming. Farmers are stewards of our land as well as businessmen running commercial ventures. If the CAP has done anything to benefit Europe, it has been to recognise this by introducing (clumsy, bureaucratic) measures to support local production of artisan food and land set-asides. Although this looks like 'paying the farmer to produce nothing', it does have its upside in terms of rural preservation.

Meanwhile, in London the sun is shining gloriously and I am revelling in the colours of my parents' garden!

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
Cara al Sol - a short story

This time three years ago:
Pumping out the floodwater

This time four years ago:
To Góra Kalwaria and beyond

This time five years ago:
Developments in Warsaw's exurbs

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Warsaw wealthier than most of UK shock!

Just over two months ago, the European Commission published a press release which gave a breakdown of the EU's regions in terms of gross domestic product. It was met with much applause in Poland, (and even in the Financial Times), showing that the GDP per capita of Poland's wealthiest region, Mazowsze (or, if you insist, Mazovia) has exceeded the European average at 102%. Note - this is using purchasing power parity, or purchasing power standards (PPS).

However, few journalists drilled down deeper into Eurostat's data. Mazowsze is Warsaw plus some very disadvantaged towns lying to the capital's south, east, north and west. Radom, for example, a mere 60 miles south of Warsaw, has 23.7% unemployment, compared to Warsaw's 4.9%. Szydłowiec, south of Radom, currently has 38% of its population out of work. Many other districts of Mazowsze have unemployment in excess of 20%, as well as glaring poverty.

Mazowsze, then, is a statistical aberration, and lumping an economically vibrant Warsaw together with all this poverty has the effect of a) understating Warsaw's wealth and b) depriving poor, outlying districts of greater financial support. [I've long held that Warsaw and its outlying powiats should become a voivodship or province in its own right.]

So - let's look at Warsaw on its own. According to calculations by PwC and GUS, Warsaw's GDP per capita were in 2010 (the latest full-year data) between €27,500 and €28,000. And we're not talking PPS, but nominal. I'd err on the side of the lower number, as Warsaw's head-count is notoriously under-stated (many people work here whose officially registered abode is elsewhere). Now - bear in mind that Poland's economy continued to grow by a robust 4.5% in 2011 and by 1.9% in 2012, but that the zloty weakened against the euro - that figure's still about right.

Now - let's compare that €27,500 against the UK in 2010. [Remember the UK's economy grew by 1.0% in 2011 and an anaemic 0.3% last year, and sterling also lost ground against the euro].

As it happens, Eurostat gives the UK's GDP per capita as... €27,500. So which bits of the UK are wealthier (or more accurately, create more wealth) than Warsaw?

From the top then: Inner London (€81,100 - no surprises there). North-Eastern Scotland (€39,900 - that's Aberdeen and the North Sea Oil industry). Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire (€35,300 - the rich Home Counties). Cheshire (€29,100 - home of wealthy Mancunians). Surrey, East and West Sussex (€28,200). Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and the Bristol/Bath area (€28,500). Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire (€27,800). And that's it! These are the ONLY parts of the UK to exceed Warsaw's wealth per capita.

Yorkshire, East and West Midlands, the North-East, Wales, East Anglia, Northern Ireland, as well as Outer London, Essex, Kent, Hampshire, most of Scotland, most of the North-West and South-West - are all POORER than Warsaw!

Warsaw is closer in terms of wealth to the UK than it is to the rest of Poland. The average for Poland (pulled up by Warsaw) is €9,200. The poorest part of Poland is Lubelskie (€6,200). The sad thing is that the gulf between rich Warsaw and the poorer regions is growing each year.

See this map (below, click to expand) to see how Poland's wealth looks across the regions. From yesterday's Gazeta Wyborcza.

The capital city effect is present in both countries. But in terms of living standards, where the costs of housing, school education, food and transport are much lower, Warsaw offers a much quality of life than London. And indeed, if you look at Warsaw's GDP per capita through the prism of purchasing power parity, it comes out looking even better. And this explains why companies catering for the rich can charge higher prices in Warsaw than in London for fancy cars and posh clothes.

The revelation that Warsaw's a wealthier market than most of the UK comes as I'm about to head off for London, promoting Poland as a export opportunity destination to British companies in the food and drink and sports and leisure sectors. UK firms who say 'Poles are poor and can't afford our products' need to take a closer look at Warsaw.

This time last year:
Opening of the railway line to Warsaw's Okęcie airport