Monday, 30 September 2013

Observations from London's West End, W.C.

 "Going up West" for the Cockney, the East Ender born within the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, was always to be a posh occasion; theatres, cinemas, restaurants, clubs, fashionable shopping. Compared to the City of London, the West End has always been livelier, a centre of entertainment rather than finances.

But there's more to the West End than Oxford Street shops, Theatreland and Leicester Square cinemas. You need to look up; look for history and then you will catch the real character. Above: St Giles-in-the-Fields, 'the poets' church'.

Below: 'Established 1830' - James Smith & Sons, Umbrellas on New Oxford St. A most splendid shop, very popular with American and Japanese tourists. Heritage cannot be imitated.

Below: today, a Pizza Express. Back in Edwardian times, the Dairy Supply Company Limited, on Coptic Street (and round the corner on Little Russell Street), London, West Central One.

Below: the Victorian church hall at the rear of St George's, Bloomsbury. A grimy building which reminds me of the state London was in before the sandblasting that restored most of the capital's edifices in the wake of the 1955 Clean Air Act. The church itself, in the background, is nice and clean; back in the 1960s, it was as grimy as the church hall. The sooty sombreness was how the London of my childhood appeared.

Left: Corner of Rose St. and Floral St., London W.C.1. The architecture is something to revel in; exquisite Victorian brickwork paying homage to the Gothic.

Below: Corner of Newton St. and Macklin St., London, W.C.2. St. Joseph's Catholic primary school. The building's rustic low-rise simplicity is at odds with the grandeur of the surroundings, just off Covent Garden.

Edwardian commercial where Monmouth St. (left) runs into leafy Shaftesbury Ave. (right). You are entering Theatreland. The shop on the corner will sell you tickets to the long-running jukebox musicals that seem to make up the bulk of the capital's theatrical fare this millennium.

Below: a benefactor remembered - Marmaduke Langdale provided this drinking fountain (not currently working) on Endell St. This plaque and the fountain below it were saved when the original building it was part of was knocked down.

London has a vast amount of character; but you won't find it unless you look up above eye level, and you actively seek the spirit of what once was the greatest city on earth.

Observations from the City of London

London is two cities in one; the City of Westminster, and to the east of it, the City of London. The latter is a very peculiar institution ruled over by a Corporation, and an annually-appointed Lord Mayor*, and its own police force. Just over one square mile (2.9km²) in area, home to a mere 7,375 people, but it is where 300,000 people work, generating 2.5% of the UK's GDP. If each of the remaining 94,059 square miles of the UK were to generate this amount of GDP, the country would be well over two thousand times wealthier than it currently is.

Below: St Paul's cathedral, seen at the top of Ludgate Hill. To count as a city in Britain, a town needs a diocesan cathedral. Westminster Abbey was given cathedral status by Henry VIII, sparing it from dissolution and turning Westminster into a city. (This is why small towns, such as Wells and Truro are Cities, despite having populations of only 10,000 and 20,000 respectively.) Today, the City of London and the City of Westminster function as two of the 32 boroughs of Greater London.

Street signs in the City (below) sport the coat of arms. If the typeface looks familiar, it's because it's Albertus, beloved of The Prisoner TV series fans. The names are interesting - Pageantmaster Court - the pageantry, ceremony and heritage beloved of the City. Old Fish Street Hill demonstrates the dangers of trying to translate street names into foreign languages (Górka Starej Ulicy Rybnej), and resonates with history. And a finally, a double-take: Greed Lane (apposite) or Creed Lane (historic)?

Left: the College of Arms, which has been in existence since 1484 and present on this spot since 1555, is the authority that grants permissions to use coats of arms, heraldic devices, flags, and other national symbols.

The College of Arms is one of those institutions that maintains Britain's strong traditions as a sovereign monarchy, it dwells on the minutiae of genealogy and aristocratic pedigree, letters patent and precedence at court.

A part of the Royal Household, heralds from the College of Arms take part in royal ceremonies, such as the State Opening of Parliament. The College's location reinforces the link between the Monarch and the City of London. (Scotland has its own equivalent of the College of Arms, the Court of the Lord Lyon).

Below: you need to see the sign to know it's not a joke. The church of Saint Andrew by-the-Wardrobe (Świętego Andrzeja przy garderobie). The wardrobe in question belonged to Edward III, who moved his fine clothes and armour to this part of the City in 1361. William Shakespeare was a member of this parish for 15 years. The original church burnt down in the Great Fire of London (1666), the current building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, destroyed by the Luftwaffe and rebuilt after the war.

Left: a traditional City pub - the Cockpit on St. Andrew's Hill. I was intrigued to see the Courage Brewery logo on this Victorian pub - I'd thought it had long gone for a Burton. But no, the gold cockerell on red background is still proudly there, now owned by the Wells and Youngs Brewery after having been part of Imperial Tobacco, Hanson Trust, Foster's Brewing Group, Grand Metropolitan and Scottish & Newcastle. After all those travails, its good to see the brand has survived, having supped back a bottle of Courage Director's ale in Opole the other week.
Below: one hundred years ago, the underground passages linking Cannon Street and Queen Victoria Street were opened. It is worth noting that the Corporation of the City of London is quite different to any local authority in the UK, with ancient privileges and a unique relationship with the Crown.

The City is steeped in tradition, power and wealth, something reflected in its architecture. I'd like to delve deeper down the passageways and thoroughfares of the Square Mile, to dig up more architectural gems and historical treasures. It is a most fascinating part of London.

* It is important not to confuse the Lord Mayor of the City of London with Boris Johnson, who is the Mayor of London. The Lord Mayor is essentially an unpaid ambassador for the City's financial services industry, who travels the world, delivering hundreds of speeches during his (or indeed her) year-long term of office.

This time last year:
Civilising Jeziorki's wetlands

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's Aleje Jerozolimskie

This time three years ago:
Melancholy autumn mood in Łazienki

This time five years ago:
Autumn gold, Zamienie

This time six years ago:
Flamenco Sketches - Seville

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Ealing Broadway, September 2013

Back from a few days in the UK on business; many observations and photos, so keep clicking for updates. In the meanwhile, before I retire to bed, just one photo and observation.

Take a look at the picture below - Ealing, quintessential London suburb. To the left, the Haven Green Baptist Church. Plenty of trees in leaf, across the green, Ealing Broadway Station. Red buses ply the streets as they have done for the past century, though today they are smarter and less polluting. But take a closer look at the advert on the back of this E9 (click to enlarge).

It's for a Polish chain of supermarkets! And it's all in Polish!! Mieszko Food City is offering Pudliszki, Tschibo and Costa - brands well known here in Poland, now available in Ealing.

Polish economic muscle now in Perivale and Alperton. Polish food retailing in the UK is a tough market; after 2004 a vast amount of stores opened, only to close in the face of cut-throat competition (including the big supermarkets' Polish aisles). The Mini-Biedronka in West Ealing is now closed (meanwhile, I am reliably informed a real Biedronka is being built here in Jeziorki). But the entrepreneur with the eye on a larger market, willing to spend money on advertising, may go further, and worry about other things than merely keeping the wolf from the door, such as expansion strategy, financing growth and marketing.

Having been in London to chair a meeting of Polish entrepreneurs, I can say that those who will disrupt existing patterns of business with game-changing concepts, will grow and prosper. Those who are just 'me-too' alternatives to regular employment will find it harder to stay around.

Not having been to a Mieszko Food City, I cannot vouch for the offering, price or service, but I am impressed by the rozmach of this entrepreneur. But to become a new Tesco or Marks & Spencer, Mieszko will need to strike out beyond the Polish customer, offer innovation as well as well-stocked shelves of Polish products. Remember, that the founders of Tesco and M&S hailed from Poland.

This time last year:
Heritage or high-rise?

This time two years ago:
A glorious month

This time three years ago:
My grandfather

This time four years ago:
My home-made fixie bike

This time five years ago:
Well-shot pheasants

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A new bus for Jeziorki

I was astonished to see a new bus line running through Jeziorki early on Monday morning. Why, it's the 809! Resurrected? Not to the end (nie do końca). Nor indeed to the other. For the old 809 used to run from Metro Wilanowska to Nowy Podolszyn via Jeziorki. The new one runs from Ursynów Północny to Bobrowiec (!) via Jeziorki. The new 809 and the old one shared but ten bus stops in common (from Sójki to PKP Jeziorki). The new one runs south through Zamienie, down through Nowa Wola, past the big Biedronka that straddles the road from Piaseczno to Lesznowola, crossing it to terminate in Bobrowiec, far out into the deep exurbs.

A mere 12 services a day connect Ursynów Płn. with Bobrowiec (during the peaks, that's how many 709s run between Piaseczno and Wilanowska per hour). Off peak, the 809s run one every two hours. It's good to see a bus service like this running, offering an alternative to the car for people who live in the distant sticks, though the frequency adds little to the general quality of public transport. And along the way, the people of Jeziorki will benefit with the addition of several more buses to and from the metro each day.

Once the bus goes beyond Zgorzała bus stop, you are in Zone 2. Here, tickets can become expensive, especially if you need a 24-hour ticket. It is 24 złotys (rather than a mere 15 złotys or three quid that a Zone 1 ticket costs). The 20-minute ticket, good for twenty minutes of travel in either Zone 1 or Zone 2, costing 3.40 złotys, makes good sense for short explorations by bus of Warsaw's Outer Reaches.

I hope the citizens of Bobrowiec will come to use this service in sufficient numbers to merit ZTM increasing the frequency. Bearing in mind that it takes 34 minutes in rush-hour to reach the Metro at Stokłosy, and that from there one needs another 20 minutes or so to reach the city centre, the deep exurbs are starting to look less remote.

A propos of which, the opening of the S2/S79 will surely lead to a surge in property prices to the south and south-west of Warsaw, as people's journey times to work are drastically cut. Keep watching Gazeta Stołeczna's Wednesday real estate section!

S2/S79 post-script: From the taxi pulling away from ul. Trombity to arriving at Warsaw's Okęcie airport was a mere 12 minutes. I remember when the journey took 35 minutes. That's progress.

This time two years ago:
Bunker in Powiśle

This time three years ago:
Sunshine brings out the best in everything

This time four years ago:
There must be a better way (3)

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A car-free day...? Just had six (but not today)

The European Commission settled on 22 September as International Car-Free Day (back in 2000). Here in Warsaw, the city authorities have responded by making public transport entirely free of charge (in both zones, and on Koleje Mazowieckie trains too). In previous years, drivers were encouraged to travel free on this day, as long as they were in possession on their car documents. This rather silly idea (penalising non-car owners) was dropped in favour of a universal free-for-all system.

As it happens, I've had a car-free week, not touching the steering wheel from one Sunday to the next. And today, International Car-Free Day, an idea I completely admire, saw me driving a car. Doing one's weekly shop without a car is not easy. Yesterday, I walked back from our local Lidl carrying over 15 kilo of groceries in a rucksack and in my arms. But then Lidl is just over one kilometre from home. Today I needed to go to Auchan for the heavy stuff - cat food, cat litter, mineral water, tins, washing powder. As Auchan is nearly three kilometres, it becomes difficult, even on a bike fitted with panniers. The real answer is either a Danish-style long-wheelbase carrier bike, or to buy all the heavy, bulky items (six-packs of 1.5l bottles of mineral water etc) online and do the delicatessen shopping in person, without car.

I must say, I was rather surprised at the low number of cars in the Auchan car park this morning; it would be wishful thinking on my part to believe that this was due to car-owners seeing the light and deciding to abandon their vehicles for ideological reasons... but then the economy is coming right, retail sales are up (latest figures: 4.3% up in the year to July), consumer sentiment continues to improve (up 7.3% in the year to September); shoppers are back in action. Maybe... just maybe... a little nudge has shifted behaviour just a little bit?

Ticket validating machines across the Warsaw public transport system were switched off for the day: Praca zakończona, it reads - 'Task completed'. Taken on a 715 between Trombity and PKP Jeziorki.

Next years' International Car-Free Day falls on Monday, 22 September. I hope the build-up to the day will be considerable, and that may car-use addicts will seek alternative ways to commute to work. Nice weather will help too. Let all those who can cast off the shackles of auto-addiction.

This time last year:
Water in the Vistula at a record low level

This time four years ago:
Car-Free Day in Warsaw, 2009-style

This time five years ago:
The official end of summer

This time six years ago:
Potato harvest, Jeziorki

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Summer's end, Jeziorki

After a morning and early afternoon editing texts, it was good to see the clouds drifting away to reveal a clear blue sky for the remainder of the day. Time, then, for a two hour-long stroll around Jeziorki, to catch some sunshine on this, the last day of this year's astronomical summer, which ends tomorrow evening.

Below: Jeziorki has become an even better place to live now that the flood-prevention work has been completed. There's still some tidying to be done (several tonnes of sand could be dumped here to make an attractive beach, for example).

Below: looking at the main pond from the north end. A fine body of water, which is already attracting the anglers. A little cafe selling Radler-style shandy would be nice.

Below: between ul. Kórnicka and its retention ponds and the main lake between ul. Dumki and Trombity, the reed-beds and wetlands have been kept; an important habitat for wildlife has been preserved. Swans have been staying in Jeziorki for the past few summers, the reed-beds are now more secluded than before.

Below: the fields behind ul. Nawłocka lie fallow and are host to the local flowers - goldenrod (nawłoć, after which the street is called) and tansy (wrotycz). In a month's time they will have ceased to bloom.

Another 'this is not America, no?' moment. Sunset on ul. Trombity, perfect blue sky, spanned by cables. Today the sun set at 18:37; sunrise was at 06:20.

A splendid walk, full of promise for a clement autumn.

A little fantasy I've long harboured would be to take off from the Northern Hemisphere on this day (or shortly after) and fly to somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. Chile, Argentina, New Zealand or Australia... and spend the next six months there (working, of course, and blogging), and returning to Poland just as spring starts to bloom...

This time two years ago:
Ząbowska, Praga's newly-hip thoroughfare

This time four years ago:
Catching the klimat

This time six years ago:
Road to Łuków - a road trip into the sublime

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Return of the King

He's back - after ten days away. Czester is alive and well and back home having been looked after by kindly folks across the street. He's significantly bigger than he was when he left home on the afternoon of Tuesday 10 September, testament to the excellent care he received. What was surprising to me was that as a four-month old kitten, he had managed to get around 400 metres from home.

Czester would only be allowed out in the presence of his mum, Lila; the two would go out together and come back together. Last Tuesday week, he didn't return. I ruled out an accident - with the road cut off, there's no traffic on Trombity other than slow-moving construction equipment. I also ruled out predators - I could not detect the smell of carrion in the neighbourhood - something that I often notice in Las Kabacki forest, where decaying corpses of deer, hare or other dead mammals have a distinctive odour.

After Moni's return from Israel last week, she printed some 'Lost Kitten' posters, when she and I put up on lamp posts in our vicinity; these worked and we are very grateful to the people across the way who responded. Rudy kocurek

Mother and child reunion
Lila and Czester spent the evening checking out each other's scent, then chasing one another around the house in joy. It's good to have him back; the house was a sadder place without him. I felt most sorry for Lila; her youngest kitten, Bonus, died at the age of ten days; two of her kittens were given away (Feluś now lives in a flat in town, while Izadora has proved herself to be an excellent mouse-catcher on a farm near Grodzisk Mazowiecki), and then Czester vanished.

Czester, a week old. The white stripe to the left of his nose distinguishes him.
Attention all humans. I am your ruler. I will be obeyed.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

S2 opens to Puławska; sewer's now laid

A landmark day when it comes to infrastructure. On my way to work this morning, I noticed traffic coming off the S2 and onto ul Puławska. More than 15 months late - but hey, time to celebrate. But the new expressway linking Ursynów to Lisbon is a double-edged sword. All that extra traffic being disgorged off the new road onto Puławska has the effect of bunging up what is an already congested thoroughfare.

My journey to Poleczki Business Park, a point-to-point distance of 6km, took one hour and five minutes. The 715 bus took 15 minutes to get from Trombity bus stop to Puławska. And this is on Day One of the S2, before too many motorists knew it was opened. I shall be monitoring the situation closely.

It will still be years before this new bit of road is extended eastward; maybe by 2020? Until then, the road ends here. I hope that as promised by the former head of Warsaw's public transport authority, Leszek Ruta, there will be a bus lane laid down on Puławska, all the way from Piaseczno to Wilanowska.

While on the subject of buses, the shortening of the 306 so that it no longer connects Poleczki Business Park with Puławska and Ursynów leaves the PBP woefully under-served with public transport. And the 319, now down to three return trips a day, is ridiculous; yesterday I was one of only six people to be using the full-length bendy-bus (max. capacity 167 passengers) all the way from Jeziorki to Wilanowska. Running only between 8am and 9am, it's too late for the school run. It should be re-scheduled to connect Jeziorki to the outside world between 6am and 8am - then it would be carrying far more passengers.

Nearly 9am and the 319 is running empty

Coming home this evening I noticed that all the cars on the estate were back inside; the paving stones on the drive have been re-laid. Within the confines of our estate the lateral sewers have been installed, though they've yet to connect our waste-water outfalls with the town drains. Outside on ul. Trombity it's still muddy chaos; around half the planned length of the main sewer running down the road has been laid. Onwards, then, from no. 18 to no. 24. It will still be a few weeks before everything is finished, connected and cleaned up, but as of today the main work in our drive seems to have been completed. There will still be one more visit of the szambo man to empty the septic tank - maybe two, then we shall be able flush the loo and empty the bath without trepidation or uncertainty.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
Push-pull for Mazowsze

This time three years ago:
Okęcie runway repairs are complete

This time five years ago:
I know that painting from somewhere...

This time six years ago:
The March of Progress, ul. Postępu

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The rich, the poor, the entrepreneur - the banker's role

My brother Marek e-mailed me with his observations about my last post, pointing out the importance of the banking sector to the entrepreneur. Indeed - such a valid point that it will make a separate post.

Looking in stereotypes, the British believe the Germans have got it right. Their Landesbanks provide a capital lifeline to small and medium-sized family-owned businesses for generations. They know their clients personally (often having a banker sitting on the firm's supervisory board). When the firm needs money to buy another production line because it's just won a new order in South America, the bank looks at the firm's track record and says "by all means".

In the UK, the banks have done away with personal relationship managers and have outsourced the loan decisions to a call-centre in Bangalore, which mechanically ticks the boxes and says 'no', just in case. Online banking has many positive facets for the consumer, but for the small business it has killed off the personal nature of the banking relationship. "Lend to the man, not to the asset" was the golden rule for Mr Mainwaring and his generation of bank managers, who knew their customers, but this is no longer the case. Today, UK banks talk of 'relationship banking' as if it were a new discovery; the truth is they lost it long ago and are now trying to rebuild it on the basis of call-centres, internet banking and algorithms that replace loan decisions.

Now that the economy is on the rebound, British banks have only got worse in this respect. Want to borrow money to buy a house on a rising market? Why certainly! Mortgage lending is back to 2008 levels. Want to borrow money to expand your small business...? Ooh... That's a bit difficult... We'll need to send someone over to check your business in person, but that costs us money, so we won't bother, so to save time, our answer is no. Bank lending to business is 30%-40% down on 2008 levels (depending on sectors and regions).

What's it like in Poland? Banks have generally tended to say 'no' from the outset (that lack-of-trust issue again), so Polish entrepreneurs have just got used to financing growth out of saved earnings. Over the economic slow-down (no recession here, remember!), Polish entrepreneurs drew in their horns and sat on their cash, tempting politicians to tax it or somehow put it to better use.

Poles, like Brits, look across to Germany's Landesbanks as the ideal model for small- and medium-size businesses, yet another reason (along with apprenticeships, a high social regard for engineers and manufacturing industry) why the German economy weathers the storms well (and can still afford to bail out the lazy southern Europeans).

Ethics in banking? Polish bankers are nowhere nearly as well paid as their British counterparts. The result is that here in Poland, people have no problem inviting bankers to dinner parties, saying 'hello' to them in the street, or generally treating them as fellow human beings.

The Polish banking sector is generally in sound shape, but still has much to learn about working closely with the entrepreneur for the benefit of the economy at large.

This time two years ago:
At the hipsters' ball

This time three years ago:
Cycling through the spirit of place

This time four years ago:
Invaders or liberators?

This time five years ago:
Adlestrop, en route to Kraków

This time six years ago:
Return to Zamienie

Monday, 16 September 2013

The poor, the rich, the entrepreneur

I managed to avoid Warsaw for most of last week (Wrocław, Opole, Radom) while crowds of trade unionists came to protest. They protested in an unfocused way - "What do we want?" "Shorter working hours, higher minimum pay, greater legal protection against redundancy!" When do we wish to realise all of these rather abstract postulates?" "NOW!"

The economically illiterate, bless them, driven by the union organisers whose salaries depend on stirring up vague discontent and a sense of entitlement. "Mnie się więcej należy!" I'm entitled to more. Yes of course. We all deserve more. But at whose expense? Society's? Or the person who really pays the bills?

The entrepreneur, the man or woman with the dream, the drive, the courage, the capacity for endless hard work to make that dream real, has a finite pot out of which his or her workforce can be paid; the size of that pot is determined by the amount of orders for goods or services sold.

If demand for those goods or services shrinks, so the pool of money that the entrepreneur can pay the workforce diminishes. It cannot be enlarged by State raising the minimum wage.

But then on the other hand, if the entrepreneur is a greedy person, exploiting the situation in a small town where his or her business is the only significant local employer, and the entrepreneur treats the workforce with derision, bending the rules wherever possible to ensure the maximum possible profit for him or herself - then that entrepreneur deserves a hard time.

For hard work is only part of the equation. Being born with brains and courage, being smart enough to take the risks that others shun, being born at the right place at the right time - the entrepreneur should be humble enough to recognise that.

I believe the entrepreneur who can make game-changing vision happen, who brings society some real and measurable improvement in the quality of the goods or services that people buy, should be lauded as a hero. It is the percentage of people like this in a given nation that determine how rapidly its economy will flourish.

But the entrepreneur who uses people instrumentally, who cuts corners when it comes to paying the workforce on time, who avoids paying taxes, who takes a slap-dash attitude to health and safety at work, is focused on extracting as much money out of the business as possible in the short term to spend on showing off - that entrepreneur deserves our opprobrium.

Question is - what percentage of Polish entrepreneurs fall into the first category, and what percentage into the latter? My guess is the number in both categories is actually quite small. There's a large grey area in between, entrepreneurs who display both good and bad characteristics at the same time. But in the final analysis, the fact that the entrepreneurs are there, that they create jobs and create wealth, is good for the economy. Yes, they need to be regulated. But that regulation should come from within, not be left to the legislator (elected by the majority, employees rather than employers) to determine.

The wise entrepreneur - taking a long-term view, treating his or her workforce decently, communicating with them - will not drive trade unionists out onto the streets. They will work together in partnership to help the business grow for everybody's good. Win-win-win-win (employer, employee, customer, supplier) rather than an adversarial approach to business.

This time last year:
Food: where's the best place to shop in Poland?

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:
Commuting made easy

This time four years ago:
Work starts on the S79/S2 'Elka' (it will be finished very soon now)

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's accident-filled streets (same as it ever was)

This time six years ago:
ul. Poloneza's pot holes rip off my car's exhaust (the middle section's fixed at least)

Sunday, 15 September 2013

North-east of Warsaw West

Cross the tracks from the passenger platforms at Warszawa Zachodnia (the Clapham Junction of the East, no longer Poland's Worst Railway Station since proper signage was installed last year), and enter another world. Away from the hurly-burly, the mad rush to catch the 17:08 to Łódź Kaliska, you can step into an abandoned space that resonates with the atmosphere of the Zone in Tarkovsky's magical film StalkerBelow: if you've seen the film, all that's needed is a loudspeaker blaring out Beethoven or the Marseillaise.

Below: further on down the track, a rake of wooden-bodied wagons for railway workers to sleep in, complete with chimneys and TV aerials.

Moving forward, towards the city centre. Beyond the trees to the left, the main railway lines between W-wa Zachodnia station and Dworzec Centralny (or 'Shentroo Wailway Shtation' as its called in English on Warsaw's buses and trams). But here, around where I'm standing, empty tracks unused real estate all the way to ul. Towarowa.

As Eddie points out, looking at the 1935 map of Warsaw on Google Earth, based on aerial photos taken by the Polish military, this area is all blacked out for security reasons. This is proof that there's no 'previous title' to this land as there is in much of the capital. Bierut's Decree (dekret Bieruta, the appropriation of private land in Warsaw by the communist state in 1946) ensures that to this day developers can never be sure that there may be a claim against their ownership of the land. According to Wikipedia, Warsaw paid out over 415 million złotys in 2011 and 2012 to recompense the heirs of the former owners who had their property seized, and 8,000 court cases are currently underway in this regard.

So PKP PLK S.A., the administrator of this land, is sitting on one huge parcel of real estate just to the west of the very centre of Warsaw, land that if sold, could make a colossal difference to the financial standing of Poland's railways as they try to shape up for privatisation. But then again, there's so much EU money sloshing around, which PKP is also failing to use, that even if this land were to be sold and put to better use, the money wouldn't be utilised effectively.

Left: on the horizon, the Palace of Culture, flanked by Daniel Liebeskind's Złota 44 to its left, and further off to the right, the Marriott Hotel. This wasteland would once have been the sidings that led up to Warszawa Głowna Towarowa, the goods station. All that's left of it today is the Post Office's siding, accessible from the main line via another track. Warszawa Główna Osobowa, closed as a station in 1997, now serves as Poland's rather forlorn national railway museum. Even if this is left in situ, there is still land a-plenty that can be redeveloped.

I'm sure there are readers who can give some more details as to the current status of the railway museum and this whole area. It is very unusual to see so much neglected land in a capital city lying idle for so long; the atmosphere is unique - an part of Warsaw worth visiting if you're into this klimat of abandonment.

Below: clubhouse of Steel Roses MC, Bar Motocyklowy on ul. Kolejowa. On a quiet Sunday evening, only one bike (a lovely '60s retro-styled cafe racer) parked outside.

This time last year:
Draining Jeziorki - the beginning of major local works

This time two years ago:
Late summer/early autumn moods

This time three years ago:
Battle of Britain, 70 years on

This time four years ago:
Why I don't watch Polish television

This time five years ago:
Warsaw - a city of car crashes
[five years on - little's changed]

This time six years ago:
My favourite tree

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Laying down the sewerage

I rejoice at the sound of the excavators, the inconvenience of the mud-caked drive, the diversions to get the car out onto the main road - they mean that after 11 years and nine months, we shall be free of the tyranny of a septic tank that needs to be emptied fortnightly(at 230 zł a go). Like 99% of Dutch households and 96% of German households, we'll very soon be connected to the town drains

Below: it's all action on our road. The workmen are putting in long days and work weekends too. It may all be over by the end of October or even sooner. Our drive is out of action, so everyone has to leave their cars in the street. And it's safe - even in the middle of the night there are two guys minding the site, checking the pumps at the bottom of the new collectors.

Left: outside our house is a small manhole (vertical pipe) which runs down towards the street. The pipes have yet to be installed, so there remains much digging and a lot of mud will have to be moved. Let's hope the weather will remain generally dry over the coming weeks.

The main engineering feat once the main pipe has been laid running down our drive will be to puncture the septic tanks outside each house and to connect them to the manholes via lateral pipes. I'd guess the septic tanks would have to be filled with concrete up to the level of the lateral pipe, so they'd not collect waste water.

Below: outside on ul. Trombity, the diggers are at work. Note the one on the left is a Zeppelin. These days, Junkers make hot-water boilers, Messerschmitt make luxury yachts.

Sadly, the works meant finally disposing of my Nissan Micra (below), which has stood outside our house for almost two years, acting as a gate-guardian. It was a very good buy, the best money I've ever spent on a car. The Micra, which I bought in May 1993, has 116,000 miles on the clock; I'm sure the engine will go to a good home.

This time last year:
Still awaiting the official opening of viaduct on ul. Poloneza

This time two years ago:
Fixie composition in blue and red

This time three years ago:
What's the Polish for 'guidelines'?

This time four years ago:
Ul. Rosoła's cycle path - new route to work

This time five years ago:
First apple

This time six years ago:
Late summer spider-webs

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Return from Radom

Radom... what a strange town. Just as Opole indicated that not all was right economically with a display of employment agencies offering jobs in Holland and Germany, so Radom suggested something unusual with a series of bureaux de change (kantory) literally one next to the other. Migrant workers changing their pounds and euros into zlotys big-time? And the shops... second-hand clothes, pay-day loans (lombard = pawnbroker) and 'everything for 3zł/4zł/5zł' shops. Precious few restaurants to be seen. This is a town with 23% unemployment (Warsaw's is less than 5%), and it looks it.

I feel sorry for Radom; the city of 220,000 hit a bad patch after the 1976 riots - it was punished by the communist party which switched off investment - and it never recovered. Unlike Łódź, which has been very successful in attracting foreign direct investment, has focused itself on the manufacture of fast-moving consumer goods, household appliances and electronics, and has a world-class film school and thriving creative sector - Radom has little to show for itself and consequently its unemployment rate is double that of Łódź. And five times that of Warsaw.

Anyway, I left Radom by the Koleje Mazowieckie service direct to Jeziorki, and caught a glorious sunny late-summer evening from the train, dreamily watching the sun go down over some lovely rural parts of Our Province...

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day...

...and each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

This time last year:
Up up up with the Cosmopolitan

This time two years ago:
New urban toponyms: "P+R Al. Krakowska" = Okęcie

This time three years ago:
Politics - a change of gear

This time four years ago:
On preference and genetics

This time five years ago:

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Posting on the go... a traveller's tale

It's a busy week - Monday Opole, today Wrocław, tomorrow Radom. Many interesting lessons learned, which I'll share with my loyal readers.

My journey from Opole was somewhat fraught - I turned up at the station in good time to catch the 15:58 service to Katowice, to find that it was running 40 minutes late. Given that according to the timetable, I had 43 minutes at Katowice before the departure of my scheduled train to Warsaw, the chances of catching it were slim. So I boarded a local train from Opole to Gliwice (itself 20 minutes late departing Opole), paying an extra 16 złotys. This old-school clattery elektryczka EN57 got me to Gliwice with ten minutes in hand to cross platforms and catch another local train on to Katowice (5 złotys). This was a new PESA train in Koleje Śląskie colours; it was punctual, clean and crewed by polite and efficient staff. As soon as I was aboard, I felt confident that it would get me to Katowice in good time to catch the connecting train to Warsaw - which I did. A big thanks to Paweł in my office who kindly SMS'd me train times from Gliwice, sparing me uncertainty and anxiety.

In cases like this, a little local knowledge of alternative connections is useful. There are two routes from Opole to Katowice - one via Kędzierzyn Koźle (105km), the other via Strzelce Opolskie (72km). Guess which route the inter-city train (from Wrocław to Kraków) takes? Yes, the long one. It takes two hours to cover that distance - a mere 65 miles. Moral - when travelling by train in Poland, assume nothing, check and re-check timetables, work out alternatives and don't be a passive victim of lengthy delays.

Now I'm writing to you from the to Wrocław. As I've written before, Wrocław may just as well be in another country to Warsaw, as after 68 years, Poland's rulers have failed to connect the city to the capital by road or by rail. Things are not likely to improve much by the end of this decade; still no promise of a direct rail route, or of a motorway link. [Correction: the S8 should offer an expressway linking Warsaw to Wrocław by next spring, thanks for the observant comment, Anon.]

There are only three direct InterCity rail services a day between Warsaw and Wrocław, and three direct rail services a day between Wrocław and Warsaw. The fastest takes 5hrs 11mins, the slowest just under six hours. Cheap rail operator TLK does Warsaw-Wrocław too, (seven services a day) but these go an even slower way, managing to occupy nearly eight hours to get you from A to B.

You can fly. But unless you book weeks ahead, you either end up paying some vast sum (800 zlotys), or find that all the flights have been fully booked.

If you want to go to Wrocław for the day on business (as I'm doing right now), therefore, the options are limited... And then along comes - the game-changer. The journey time is 5hrs 50mins, in other words comparable to InterCity, two hours shorter than TLK. Price-wise, my ticket booked online the day before departure, cost just 62 złotys return (12 quid). This compares to 268 złotys (52 quid) second-class return by InterCity.

How's the journey? The first impressions were entirely positive. Comfortable leather seats, free (though somewhat patchy) Wi-Fi  and power socket by each seat means you can work the whole journey, and, on routes served by the bigger 89-seater double-deckers, a free on-board snack service.'s two Warsaw terminals are both by Metro stations (Młociny and Wilanowska), both of which are (now) very close to the expressway/motorway network. And so minutes after leaving Młociny, the Wrocław-bound bus (which calls at Łódź) was heading south along the A2. Great! One hour and 25 minutes after leaving Młociny... ufffff... we re-join Polish reality at Stryków, turning off the A2 and into dense rush hour traffic heading for Łódź city centre. Leaving Łódź, the road for Wrocław is busy, bumpy, narrow and slow. is a great success story; the firm will have 75 buses in Poland by the end of this year. The new market entrant is shaking up the bus and rail operators, by offering a high quality of service at a low price. As Poland's motorway network improves, journey times between cities will plummet, and road transport will give inter-city railways some fierce competition.

I doubt it's business model leaves much in the way of profit; carrying 60 passengers (100% capacity is 70) each paying 31zł one-way gives a revenue of 1,860zł, from which fuel, crew, bus terminal access, back office,  IT, and all taxes have to be paid. As well as the leasing of the bus. But the growth model is working, and after two years, the big red buses have become an everyday sight on Poland's trunk roads.

Below: beyond Łódź, the roads get... bouncy. The bus goes via Sieradz on the DK14. Here's a tip - don't sit to close to the front of the bus - it goes up and down like the prow of Viking longboat weathering rough swell. This bit of the journey is slow; the road goes through village after village and is busy.

The wi-fi is not all that good. I could not visit my own blog, which was blocked by the server's administrator. Annoying. On the way back to Warsaw, it was working about 40% of the journey (good at the beginning and end, rather rubbish in the middle).

This time last year:
One for the record - hot September day (30C)

This time three years ago:
The half-closed airport

This time four years ago:
Last of the summer bike rides to work?

This time five years ago:
My own Polish Adlestrop

This time six years ago:
Laurie Anderson's chillingly prescient 'O Superman'

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Opole - unknown Polish town

The capitals of Poland's voivodships (provinces) are generally well-known cities - Warsaw, Kraków, Gdańsk, Poznań, Wrocław, Katowice, Łódź, Białystok, Szczecin, Lublin... then there are slightly less-well known Polish towns (Rzeszów, Kielce, Olsztyn); then there are those voivodships that have two capitals (Kujawsko-Pomorskie's Toruń and Bydgoszcz - both well-known - and Lubuskie's Zielona Góra and Gorzów Wielkopolski - not so renowned). And then there's the smallest of all the voivodships - Opolskie; its capital and indeed only significant town is Opole (pop. 125,000).

If I were to redraw the map of Poland, I'd chop up the artificial construct of Lubuskie (or Ziemie Lubuskie); Where should Gorzów Wielkopolski be but in Wielkopolska!?!? Give the top bit to Zachodniopomorskie (capital Szczecin); the bottom bit to Dolnośląskie (capital Wrocław) and the rest (including Gorzów) to Wielkopolska (capital Poznań). And Opolskie... its very raison d'etre is questionable (a cultural separateness caused by its German minority). I'd donate most of this tiddly province to Dolnośląskie where it firmly belongs, with its eastern fringe going to Śląskie.

Having done that, I'd create a new voivodship consisting of Warsaw and the surrounding nine poviats (districts). This super-wealthy (by Polish standards) province could go it alone while the rest of Mazowsze minus the agglomeration would then be eligible for extra EU funds as it is easily as poor as the 'eastern wall' provinces that currently also receive hand-outs from the whole of Mazowsze including all those poor bits. Radom, Ostrołęka, Ciechanów, Siedlce... these are poor towns. [Indeed, my ideal would be to return to the immediate post-war administrative map of Poland to maximise the effectiveness of regional government, though without a separate Łódź and with an expanded Warsaw Agglomeration. And Radom in the same voivodship as Kielce.]

ANYWAY... having assailed you with my plans for reforming Poland's administrative borders, what I really wanted to share with you, dear readers, were my impressions of Opole (Oppeln until 1945).

Like Świdnica that I visited last year, a small German town before the war, with its German railway station (high wooden platform canopies, red-brick building, white-tiled subways), German town hall and German churches, Opole fits into the stereotypical post-German Polish town.

What sets it out from other such towns in the west of Poland is that every second shop front is an employment agency, offering jobs in Germany or Holland. A large number of citizens of Opole work (and have historically worked) in those two countries, mainly as a result of dual nationality, though less than 2.5% of its 125,000 population currently claims to be ethnically German.

Below: Alte Oppeln, a scene little changed from the 1860s, when the sluice was built. An undeniably Germanic klimat.

Below: the town's main post office also smacks of Teutonic solidity, built to house armies of efficient, stamp-wielding clerks, ensuring that vital administrative letters reach their intended recipient.

Below: I like the old town square. The angular town hall is nicely countered by the rounded turret ending the square's north terrace.

And here's the town hall - ratusz or rathaus. Though officially the 1864 tower is neo-renaissance and refers to Florentine architecture, I can sense the Mongol, the Eurasian, the exotic East in this structure. Let us not forget that the Golden Horde had advanced as far as Legnica, over 150km west of here, in 1241.

Below: monument to a region's inferiority complex. The cannon is fashioned after the 13th C. Piast Tower, one of Opole's landmarks, named after the first dynasty of kings that ruled the Polish nation state; the slogan on the pedestal is "Let us defend our Opolskie" (the name of the voivodship). If anything, this sculpture shows the administration's fear that one day, Warsaw might see the absurdity of such as small regional authority has as much reason to exist as the county of Rutland did in its day.

Left: what's this I spy hidden away in an Opole courtyard drive? It's a 1955 four-door Buick Special, no less, in immaculate condition. It was behind a gate, but I managed to push my camera in to get this shot.

A reminder of the time when America's auto industry led the world, when everyone wanted to drive an American car. What a woeful decline since those glory days. Today's Buick Regal is an Opel Insignia with a different badge on the front.

This time last year:
Raise a glass to Powiśle

This time three years ago:
Mud, rain and local elections (Mrs G-W gets a thumbs down)

This time five years ago:
There must be a better way (commuting woes, again)

Saturday, 7 September 2013

What a waste, what a waste...

Here we are then, at the southern stump of the S79. The bit of the contract beyond the turn-off for the S2 and Poznań.

One day, after the next lot of EU funds has been earmarked for specific infrastructure; and those funds have been converted into specific projects; and those projects have been put out to public tender; and the optimum bidder (hopefully the best, no longer the cheapest) has been chosen; and that company finally connects Węzeł W-wa Południe to the next junction to the south... THAT day, dear reader, the lights can be turned on... but that day may well be in eight years' time.

Left: the lightbulbs are all in place. Left to weather eight winters, I doubt many will be in working order when the S79 finally extends southwards.

In the meanwhile, the contractor who completed the S2/S79 (Austrian firm Porr) has installed all the lighting, including the section that will remain unused until the S79 is finally extended southwards.

In total, there must be hundreds of lamps, bulbs and standards, all in rust-free, pristine condition - except there's no need to switch them on for many years. This includes the ones lighting the carriageway from the S2 to the S79 (south); from south of the point where the slip-road from the S79 to the S2 swings off westward (both carriageways); and from the end of the contract along the slip-road onto the S2 (east). All delivered in perfect working order. But will they be in perfect working order when they are actually needed? At the very least, the bulbs should all be taken out and safely stored until that day.

Who insisted that all this work be done now? What were they thinking?

S2-S79 opens - partially

As of Thursday night, motorists driving eastwards along the newly-opened S2 expressway can proceed a further 5km from Al. Krakowska to Węzeł (junction) Warszawa Południe (Warsaw South), and thence make a 90 degree turn northward, to join the S79 which will take them to Mokotów.

The final 2km-long section of the S2, connecting Węzeł W-wa Poludnie to ul. Puławska, is still unfinished, though this stretch is expected to be ready by the end of this month.

The S2, looking east towards Węzeł W-wa Południe, from Złote Łany bridge.
I must confess to being positively surprised by the sudden spurt of activity. What I saw on my bicycle journey along the S2 and S79 on 11 August offered little hope that the new expressways would be opened sooner than November. In particular the huge canyon that was the Kanał Załuski crossing under the S2 seemed to require months of work to complete - and now here it is, ready, with traffic flowing smoothly over it.

So then. Two cheers. When the S2 reaches Puławska (15 months late), it will stop there; and judging by the poor pace of infrastructure development, I'd be surprised if Warsaw's Southern By-Pass (Południowa Obwodnica Warszawy) actually becomes that - a ring-road allowing east-west transit traffic to skirt the city entirely - much before 2020.

The whole S2-S79 development that I've followed on this blog since January 2009 leaves Warsaw with three stumps going nowhere; the S79 at the southern end (terminating abruptly in a muddy field in Dawidy), the S79 at the northern end (terminating abruptly in front of an office development) and the S2 at the eastern end (terminating abruptly in bushes round the back of a shopping centre car park). As of now, there are no planned dates for commencement of work to drive these roads to their intended destinations.

Today's Gazeta Stoleczna has dedicated a whole page to the absurdities that surround the S2-S79 investment, the unfinished stumps, the 650m-long footbridge on ul. Marynarska to a bus stop that won't be functioning for years, the junction on ul. Wirażowa with traffic lights, zebra crossing, road markings... but no road running off from it. And at the other end, the badly-positioned sign posts that confuse drivers, the badly-synchronised traffic lights, the ill-thought-through lane markings... the usual aftermath of a newly (partially) completed road. It will all fall eventually in place, but when it comes to delivering transport infrastructure, Poland as a state still has much to learn.

Fingers crossed, then, that in a couple of weeks the citizens of Ursynów will wake up and be able to drive all the way to Poznań, Berlin and Lisbon from ul. Puławska without encountering any traffic lights.

This time last year:
Warsaw's second Metro line - progress in jeopardy
[a year on it's still years from completion]

This time three years ago:
Let no one send us to Kielce!

This time five years ago:
World's largest helicopter over Jeziorki

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A green light for consumer spending

I once pledged that my first trip to Ikea would also be my last; a beautiful design museum with an ugly warehouse underneath it. You see something you really like, then you learn that you need to go to your nearest forest (map supplied), cut down a tree (axe not supplied) and follow the instructions in the box to construct that kitchen table. I like Ikea's style and design, but believe that furniture should be sold finished, not semi-finished.

Anyway, that was years ago. Eddie said he needs a new mattress for his Ikea bed; the old one had springs poking out of it. Mattresses, I reasoned, don't require self-assembly, so we set off for Janki.

The car park was bursting at the seams, with desperate shoppers parked up on verges and traffic islands. We cruised around for several minutes, waiting for a parking space to become available. Once inside Ikea, we headed for the showrooms upstairs,  jam-packed with families on a Grand Retail Experience.

We'd soon found a suitable mattress, the Bjørdsmaärg. It looked good, Eddie felt comfortable on it, the price was some 200zł less than a comparable mattress at Auchan (!), so we pressed on, past many more 'opportunities to buy', to the warehouse. Here in bay 45.11 we found the mattress - rolled up so tight that it needs 72 hours to straighten out. So it should be ready to sleep on... by Tuesday evening.

We joined a long queue (five trolleys ahead of us) at the check-out. Returning to the car, it took 12 minutes to exit the car park, so heavy was the traffic.

Is it like this every week in Janki? Or is it that Varsovians have collectively felt that the worst is behind us, and that recent releases of macroeconomic data are telling us to spend?

Poland's GDP grew by 0.8% year-on-year in the second quarter of 2013, up from 0.5% in the first quarter. Unemployment is nudging down (13.1% nationally, 4.9% in Warsaw), and Poles are feeling less anxious about their jobs than they have for a long while. Consumer spending in the year to July was up by 4.3%... Happy days are here again?

I worry when I see absurdities in the economy. Growth must be both sustainable and balanced. (Translate that into Polish!) Is it? Or is Poland's economic recovery in the same danger as the UK's - over-dependent on consumer spending?

But here, I'm of an optimistic frame of mind. Poland's exports are rising nicely, as imports are falling (the former up 6.0%, the latter down 2.3% in the first half of 2013 compared to the same period last year). The balance of trade is almost level (a mere half-billion euros in the red). Investment in the private sector could do with a boost, but public sector investment is strong - though driven by EU funds.

Should we rejoice and go out spending willy-nilly? We should spend with reason. I believe that some forms of spending benefit the national economy more than others. Buying land and building on it is the best form of investment a consumer can make in their economy. Once you've built (or even bought) a house or apartment, it needs fitting out. And given that Ikea sources many of its products from Poland, it's as good a place to buy from as any.

I also believe that spending money in restaurants is good for the local economy - most of the ingredients are bought locally, and yet most of your cash goes to pay for service and into supporting local jobs.

Spend your money with thought as to the consequences thereof.

This time last year:
Procrastination - is it the same as laziness?

This time four years ago: This time three years ago:
Remembering the outbreak of WWII