Sunday, 30 November 2014

No 'in-work benefits' for four years? What are 'in-work benefits' anyway?

No sooner had David Cameron finished his speech at the JCB factory about limiting the UK's attractiveness for EU migrant workers than my phone rang - it was TVN24 Biznes i Swiat wanting a comment about what this would mean to Poles headed for the UK. [Full text of Mr Cameron's speech here.]

I must confess to being amazed that EU migrants were eligible for in-work benefits - surely the whole point of tax credits was to incentivise the native British long-term unemployed to get a job. As the spectrum of benefits steadily increased over the decades since the war job-seeker's allowance, child benefits, housing benefits etc, the incentive to find low-paid employment withered away. If you are on 250 quid benefits a week, why bother to go to work for 300 quid a week - a mere £50 pounds for surrendering 40 hours of your time - it works out at £1.25 an hour.

So Tony Blair's government introduced a system of Working Tax Credits in 2002 to ease the way off benefits and into paid employment via a complex system of tapering the credits as pay rises. According to Wikipedia, seven million people in low-paid jobs are entitled to in-work benefits.

Now, Poland has been in the EU for a decade, over a million Poles have at one time or another during that decade worked in the UK, and probably over 600,000 have decided to stay permanently.

I would argue that the existence of Working Tax Credits played no part in any Pole's decision to travel to the UK in search of work. However, once they were in Britain, and working - in a factory, warehouse, hotel, farm etc, and the regular wage packets started coming in, and they got talking to the natives, they realised that Working Tax Credits made it worthwhile to bring over kith and kin - and indeed to start a family in Britain.

Mr Cameron's pledge to only allow EU migrant workers access to in-work benefits and social housing until they have been in the UK for four years will take the shine off Britain's reputation as a welfare paradise - for that tiny proportion of migrants from EU countries that see it that way.

I'm sure that across the UK, few British taxpayers will argue against Mr Cameron's proposals. If you've not paid into the system, why should you be entitled to its benefits after a mere three months?

The problem with the migration debate, UKIP and the UK's possible departure from the EU, is that leaving the EU will not solve the far deeper problem that Britain faces. From the Office of National Statistics' Migration Statistics Quarterly: "The statistically significant increase of 30,000 in immigration of non-EU citizens to 272,000 was in part driven by an increase in immigration to accompany/join others up 19,000 to 54,000."

Look at the graph below:

The rising green line of EU migrants since 2012 has been predicated by the UK's economic turnaround, the moribund state of the eurozone economies, the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU, and a rising number of Poles heading to the UK to work. The vast majority of the green line is in Britain to work. Last week's survey by University College London showing the UK is £20 billion a year better off as a result of EU migration is yet another piece of research which emphatically proves that Britain's economy is in better shape being inside an open EU than out of it.

The orange line is a different story. Yes, it includes Americans, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders etc, in the UK to work. But it also includes 54,000 relatives of non-EU migrants who are coming over from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia and Ghana to join their families.

The graph below shows that EU migrants contribute far more to the UK economy than the larger number of non-EU migrants:

So 1.7 million EU migrants are working in the UK, compared to 1.2 million non-EU migrants. And yet the UK is now home to far more non-EU migrants than EU migrants, who are more likely to contribute into the economy.

I was in Birmingham on Thursday. In the centre of the city, amid the bustling throng of shoppers, there was stand in the pedestrian precinct, from which a couple of heavily-bearded mullahs preaching Islam to the people. Once again, I'd point out that leaving the EU would not make a jot of difference. These people will continue coming to Britain in their hundreds of thousands, whether the UK was to be in the EU or not. But once outside the EU, British employers would not be able to easily find willing hands to work, and the economy would slow to growth rates now associated with the eurozone.

Would British employers find those native workers easier if there was a four-year moratorium on in-work benefits for EU migrants? I very much doubt it. Only if there was a persistent increase in the gap between being on benefits and being in work, and that consisted not of tax credits, but of reduced benefits, and increased National Minimum Wage. But the latter might prove to be an even greater magnet to EU migrants than the nebulous attractions of tax credits.

In Poland, there must be more effort made by the UK government to explain just how sore an issue migration is among Britons, and why that is reflected in the growing strength of Ukip, a one-man, one-policy party. The Polish government, realising how important the UK's membership is for Poland's raison d'etre, must back Mr Cameron in Brussels in allowing him to trim back the generosity of the benefits for EU migrant workers. The prospect of letting Ukip pull the UK out of the EU because of loud criticism from the Polish government is worryingly real. Poland needs to appreciate how Britons feel about immigration, and speak accordingly.

This time last year:
(if you don't count the spoonfuls that fell on 24/25 Nov, this would be the fourth)

This time two years ago:
Another November without snow

This time three years ago:
Snow-free November

This time four years ago:
Krakowskie Przedmieście in the snow

This time five years ago:
Ul. Poloneza closed for the building of the S2

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Ahead of the opening of the second line of Warsaw's Metro

I normally travel to work on the Koleje Mazowieckie service from W-wa Jeziorki to W-wa Śródmieście. A short walk at either end with a 30-minute train ride in between which is (and I hesitate to say this after my last wpadka) relatively reliable. Today, however, I took the 209 bus to Stokłosy ('Stokkers' or 'Hundred Sheaves') and thence by Metro to Centrum and a short walk to work. I was surprised to see new maps in the trains, showing not only the familiar one, north-south line, but also the new, soon-to-be-opened second east-west line. And a second, bigger, more detailed map of Warsaw's public transport network on rails - Metro and trams, and all suburban and mainline rail services - Koleje Mazowieckie, SKM, WKD and indeed InterCity (below). Click to enlarge.

We wait, we wait. At first, Warsaw was promised the Second Line in time for the 2012 UEFA football championships (remember them, dear readers?). This soon proved to be a mere chimera, a phantasm, a will o' the wisp, a fatamorgana (and this is before reaching for the Thesaurus). Ul. Świętokrzyska was dug up for so long I forgot that cars had once been allowed onto it. Last month, the roads above the new Metro line were re-opened, and earlier this month (just before the local elections) the new stations were opened to the public for a one-day-only site visit.

The Second Line (or line M2 as it will be called) was meant to have been opened on 11 November, Poland's national holiday, Independence Day. A good old communist-era tradition of lining up openings (Trasa W-Z, Palace of Culture, Trasa Łazienkowska, Dworzec Centralny) with public holidays of ideological significance (in those days 22 July). But the form-filling and box-ticking continues, with 37 (yes!) different agencies having to pop down to make sure that everything is hunky-dory. Better to make absolutely sure, cover one's backside, than to have a nasty incident later on. Good to see that the local elections did not play a part in the timing of the line's inauguration, with City Hall leaning on the relevant authorities to get it open by polling day or else.

So we wait. Type the seven letters letters "k i e d y  o t" into Polish Google, and it will helpfully autofill "kiedy otwarcie Metra" in the first instance. "When is the Metro opening". Latest answer to the much-asked question, from five hours ago, is... 14 December. So over a month after the last officially-quoted opening date then.

For all my non-Varsovian readers, the seven stations of the new line are as follows:  Rondo Daszyńskiego, Rondo ONZ, Świętokrzyska (the interchange station with line M1), Nowy Świat - Uniwersytet, Centrum Nauki Kopernik, Stadion Narodowy and Dworzec Wileński.

Below: some views of the unopened as yet station at Nowy Świat - Uniwersytet.

Looking west along ul. Świętokrzyska, Ministry of Finance to the right.

Newly reopened to traffic, ul. Świętokrzyska has cycle-lanes (not separated)

Stairs will take commuters down to platform level

Metro entrances on ul. Kubusia Puchatka. Yes, Winnie the Pooh Street.

The first line of the Warsaw Metro opened in April 1995. I visited it then with Moni when she was two years and three months old. Now she's doing postgraduate studies. Time flies, building metro systems is something that takes lifetimes - just look at the London Underground, 152 years old in January.

Let's take a look at how long it took from opening a first line to opening the second line of underground railway systems in the following cities:

  • London  - first line: 1863, second line 1868
  • Paris - first line: 1900, second line 1900
  • Berlin - first line: 1902, second line 1910
  • New York - first line: 1904, second line 1908
  • Buenos Aires - first line: 1913, second line 1930
  • Madrid - first line: 1919, second line 1924
  • Moscow - first line: 1935, second line 1938
  • Stockholm - first line: 1950, second line 1951
  • Beijing - first line: 1969, second line 1984
  • Prague - first line: 1974, second line 1978
  • Warsaw - first line: 1995, second line 2014

So Warsaw's wait of over 19 years for a second line is somewhat of an outlier. (Beijing's 15-year gap was due to the Cultural Revolution.) And I am assuming that line M2 will be opened before April... And a reminder for my Varsovian readers to turn out and vote in the second round of the mayoral elections on Sunday. The result is not an inevitable one, every vote counts.

UPDATE 7 December: The 14 December deadline will not be met. January now. A colleague mentions the continued problems with the opening of Berlin's new Brandenburg Airport - it seems that Warsaw is not alone in this...

This time last year:
Keep an eye on Ukraine...
(Portents of troubles to come)

This time two years ago:
Płock by day, Płock by night

This time three years ago:
Warning ahead of railway timetable change

This time seven years ago:
Some thoughts on recycling

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Poland - it works! revisited

Pride comes before the fall, as Britain's foremost 20th Century metaphysical philosopher, the Reverend W. Awdry oftentimes observed. There I was writing on Sunday about how everything in Poland works properly, and blow me if the very same day, two national IT disasters don't strike at the same time.

The first was the failure of PKP InterCity to anticipate the huge demand for cut-price tickets for the new Pendolino service, which led to its online ticket system (that I'd praised the same day) crashing.

The second was the failure of the PKW (national electoral commission) IT system used for counting the votes in Sunday's local government elections.

It is good to note that the disasters were not just swept under the carpet in a business-as-usual-style cover-up; heads rolled - the deputy head of PKP IC and the head of the PKW. High-profile failure in the public sector is no longer to be tolerated.

While the vote counting continues in many of the regional assembly counts, the mayoral elections have been settled and many will go to a second round - sign of a healthy democratic process.

This morning I woke at five past four to catch the 06:00 train from W-wa Zachodnia to Poznań. Because of the Pendolino debacle I was unable to buy my ticket online, so had to queue up at Zachodnia to buy it. No problem. I ask the lady in Koleje Mazowieckie uniform at the Koleje Mazowieckie ticket office where I could buy an InterCity ticket. She said, "From me." Excellent! "Cash or card, Sir?" Brilliant! The queue was very short, just one person ahead of me, so I set off for Platform 7, where the Warsaw-Berlin express, calling at Poznań, arrived on time. It arrived on time. I found the conference venue on Google Maps (a mere 500m from the station).

The return journey was equally punctual, although my Koleje Mazowieckie train from W-wa Zachodnia to W-wa Jeziorki was 11 minutes late. My only gripes with the return journey were that the free, on-board and much-touted wi-fi couldn't connect with either my laptop or my smartofon, leading me to believe that it didn't, actually, work, and that the Wars restaurant car didn't have any of the ciders it was advertising. The pierogi were good, though the portions (a mere six) were small.

Anyway, I was in Poznań to chair a real estate conference; the keynote speaker was the city's chief architect, who gave a detailed presentation into how the city is developing, how the 'green wedge' policy is working out (a cross of  greenery transecting the city from north to south, from east to west), and a fine balance that avoids diktat on one hand and anarchic free-for-all on the other. The presentation from estate agents CBRE highlighted just how Warsaw-centric the Polish property market is. Apparently there is twice as much office space in Warsaw's Służewiec district as there is in the whole of the city of Kraków.

Apropos of Kraków and Poland working, on Saturday in Kraków I met a Spanish guy who worked in the shared-services centre of a huge American IT corporation. He said that quite a few Spaniards had moved to Poland to escape the hopelessness and unemployment back home. While Spain's GDP per capita on a purchasing-power parity basis may still be some 50% higher than Poland's, that's little comfort if unemployment is nearly three times as high (Spain 24% vs Poland 8.7% according to Eurostat) and the economy is growing at half the pace (Spain 1.6% vs Poland 3.4% year-on-year to Q3 2014).

So major IT disasters notwithstanding, let's be thankful that Poland continues to move in the right direction, even if it often feels like two steps forward, one step back. It's better than the other way around.

This time last year:
Autumn or spring?
[This year, decidedly autumnal. Glum, damp, just above freezing.]

This time two years ago:
Shedding light on unused roads

This time three years ago:
Warsaw to Kraków by train
(an interesting contrast with current rail experiences!)

This time four year:
Warsaw Blogmeet

This time five years ago:
My fixie reconfigured

This time seven years ago:
Not In My Back Yard

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Poland - it works!

I flew into Okęcie on Friday, just before midnight. The WizzAir flight was on time. Outside the terminal, no shortage of taxis. The driver drove me to Jeziorki without having to ask me where it was, and charged me the normal rate (50zł - £9.40 for the 10km/6.2 mile journey).

I woke on Saturday morning to make the journey to Kraków, where I was addressing MBA alumni at the University of Economics. I booked and paid for my ticket online (60zł - £11.30 for the 293km/180 mile journey), printed the ticket off at home, and walked to W-wa Jeziorki to catch the suburban train to W-wa Zachodnia. The train from Radom came on time, I had 10 minutes to change platforms at Zachodnia. The train from Kraków arrived on time, and arrived in Kraków some 7 minutes late (amazing given the amount of work being carried out on the line).

In Kraków I had lunch at Los Compañeros, a Mexican restaurant where the crispy-shell beef tacos were so good, I had a second portion of three tacos. 6zł (94p) per taco (I had six in all!). Street signs from the station to the campus (470m) were also excellent - I didn't need to consult Google Maps on my smartofon to find it.

The event finished in good time for me to catch the 20:05 service back to Warsaw. I bought my ticket home at a ticket machine, paying with my debit card. The train left on time - and most importantly - arrived at W-wa Zachodnia on time, leaving me seven minutes to cross platforms and catch the last train to Radom via W-wa Jeziorki - which also arrived on time.

No stress, everything works. On Thursday morning, heading for Okęcie by bus, I bought my quarterly season ticket on board using by debit card - no problem whatsoever. Things are getting better, more convenient, more sophisticated.

The quality of the country you live in can best be judged by 'does it work'. Health service, roads, public transport, policy, education, state institutions. OK, there's still a lot of work to be done by us nation-builders here in Poland, but there is progress, things are going well given a) the starting point and b) other countries on the same journey.

Why am I writing this post? It is an answer to Russia Today, Sputnik and all the other Russian propaganda outlets that spew out non-stop lies, half-truths and disinformation. The main strategy, aimed at confusing the West is to use moral equivalence - you say Russia is corrupt - well, the West is corrupt too. You say Russia has crumbling infrastructure, vast inequality and an economy in disarray - well, it's just the same in the West. You say Russia is interfering in foreign countries - well, look at Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan.

To counter this cobblers, false argumentation picked up at night classes at Moscow's Institute of Marxism-Leninism, this 'dialectical materialism*', I say - does Russia work? Are things better in everyday life in Russia? Shopping? Trips to the tax office? Encounters with traffic policemen? A feeling that the media is truthful? How punctual are the trains? Can you download Moscow bus timetables on your smartphone? Are Muscovites frustrated by trying to get around their city? Do they have a wealth of choice in reasonably-priced snack-bars and supermarkets?

Russia remains a land of subservience, of convenience bought at the price of freedom. The West has been built on the bedrock of freedom and property rights - I work hard, I save, I invest - the State, the vested interests, crooked politicians - can never take this away from me. Therefore I am motivated to work harder, to save, and to invest.

I remember reading back in the early 1990s about two Russian geologists, academics from the university, who decided to set up a small shop in an underground passage by a Metro station, selling the semi-precious stones they found while on field trips. After a while, the thriving little business attracted the attentions of the mafia. "If you don't give us a cut of your earnings, we will kill you." Reasonably, they considered that a mafia adds no value to their business, and they refused. They were killed. The message to would-be entrepreneurs was 'don't bother'. So there was - and is - comparatively little small and medium-sized business going on in Russia. If you are entrepreneurial, you'll make more money as a tax inspector or traffic policeman.

It is not so in Poland, nor in the West. These are the values that we should be clear about, despite the depressing blandishments of Russia Today insisting that things in Russia are no different to how they are in the West. They are fundamentally different. The West works better than Russia. It's just that simple.

Today Poland went to the polls to elect its local authorities around the country. Turnout higher than in the past (at least at 17:30); certainly when I went to vote, the school on ul. Sarabandy was busy. Tomorrow we will see whether Poles are happy with their gospodarz ('householder' - mayor, village elder etc) or not. Not just a reflection on local affairs, but also a reflection of how satisfied voters are with Premier Kopacz.

This time last year:
Bricktorian Birmingham

This time three years ago:
Fog hits Modlin Airport

This time four years ago:
The local elections and what they mean

This time five years ago:
Synchronicity of shape - Powiśle, Hanger Lane, Mel's Drive-In

This time six years ago:
The last of Jeziorki's noted landmark - the Rampa na kruszywa

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki spared high-density development thanks to airport zoning

Monday, 10 November 2014


Oh what bliss it was to watch TV news on Friday evening! Earlier that day, the story broke that three PiS deputies - Adam Hofman, the party's spokesman, Mariusz Kamiński (not to be confused with the former head of the anti-corruption agency, the CBA) and Adam Rogacki - were caught flying to Madrid on Ryanair when they had all claimed expenses for driving there and back on parliamentary business.

They would have gotten away with it, had it not been for the fact that their wives, travelling with them, were drinking alcohol that they'd brought onto the plane (something forbidden by the airline), and were remonstrating aggressively with cabin staff. The in-flight fracas was brought to the attention of the tabloid press, which led to some investigative digging. This in turn resulted in some interesting facts coming to light.

Firstly, that Hofman had done this fiddle before many times over the years - claiming mileage for driving to foreign destinations on parliamentary business, yet buying tickets on low-cost airlines. The sum of 64,000 zlotys (about £12,000) has been mentioned in media reports. The other two were also discovered to have been doing this. They'd been buying the airline tickets weeks in advance of claiming for travel expenses.

Secondly, that once at his destination, Hofman only voted six times out of the 25 parliamentary deliberations that he had ostensibly gone to attend. He'd sign his name in the register and then slip away. So rather than sticking up for Polish taxpayers' best interests, he'd be off sightseeing, at their expense.

All the glee and schadenfreude at the political end of this slippery trio has come at a particular inauspicious time for PiS - a week before the local and provincial elections.

To his credit, Prezes Kaczyński has terminated the trio with extreme prejudice - they've been expelled from the party earlier today. Oh what bliss it was to watch the TV news this evening! Mr Kaczyński has lost his able spokesman, who always knew how to make his boss look good, just as Poland is about to vote for its mayors and provincial parliaments.

Fun though it may have been watching PiS squirming in extreme discomfort, it is worth putting this Polish MPs expenses scandal into perspective. Do take a minute or two to see the size and scale of the 2009 UK Parliamentary Expenses Scandal. How the mighty have fallen, eh?

I'm sure that PiS deputies were not alone in this form of misbehaviour. It is evident that there were no checks in place to make sure that the money given as an advance (zaliczka) was ever accounted for later. Having worked all my life in the private sector, this is unthinkable. When I return from a business trip, I account for all my bus tickets, taxi receipts, hotel invoices etc - or I don't see my money back. That's fair. I cannot get to grips with an expenses system that's so lax that money is just handed over on trust - and that's the end of the matter.

And the idea of flying to a conference and not taking part is equally scandalous. If the taxpayer is paying these parliamentarians to represent them internationally - that is what they should be doing.

The arrogance and complacency shown by these three deputies should, I hope, result in none of them ever holding public office again. And a thorough investigation needs to be carried out into our parliamentarians' foreign trips - how much they cost and what they accomplished.

It is worth copying the idea of This website gives UK voters all the details about the person who represents them in Parliament. Take a look, for example, at Stephen Pound MP, who represents my parents' constituency, Ealing North. To quote something that three different visitors from the UK have said to me over the past week, 'this is what "good" looks like'. Poland needs to replicate this., anyone?

This time last year:
From the Mersey to the Tyne

This time two years ago
Autumnal Gdańsk

This time three years ago:
What Independence Day means for Poles

This time four years ago:
Words fail me: what's the Polish for 'to fail'?

This time five years ago:
Autumn in Dobra

This time seven years ago:
Autumn ploughing

Friday, 7 November 2014

Defending Poland against hybrid warfare

The situation in Ukraine continues to be uneasy; the truce signed in Minsk in September is regularly being broken. There were reports today of a further 80 Russian vehicles including 32 tanks crossing the border into Ukraine, reports which the Russians of course deny.

It looks like Ukraine has held the line and that Putin will, for the time being, do what he can to swallow parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts and incorporate Crimea into Russia, something the rest of the world will not recognise. So another frozen conflict, more land grabbed by Russia to be run by Mr Putin's unsavoury associates - along with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria - Russia's neo-imperialist appetite has been held in check by international pressure.

In Ukraine, it is clear that Russia has been stopped short of its greater territorial ambitions - a land corridor to Crimea, the whole of the Donbass region, even Odessa and a land corridor to Transnistria. Western sanctions have forced the Kremlin to hold back on further overt military action.

While Putin may be less inclined to pursue traditional means of war to conquer what he calls 'Novorossiya', the Kremlin's policy of hybrid war continues apace. Russian aircraft probe the approaches to NATO airspace on a daily basis. Russian hackers keep up the pressure on Western IT systems, while Russian propaganda is working at full-blast, feeding the usual lies, disinformation and half-truths to distract and confuse Western public opinion.

Russia's targets for mischief include former parts of the USSR such as Estonia and Latvia; meanwhile the Czech Republic has emerged as being a hotbed for Russian spying - much as Austria was during the (first) Cold War. Finland - a part of the Romanov Russian empire for over a century, is also feeling anxious. This BBC feature explains what Russia is up to and what the West is up against.

How should Poland react to the threat of hybrid warfare? The notion of re-creating a Home Army (Armia Krajowa) such as the one set under Nazi occupation is a sound one. Even with a massive rearmament programme, a Polish army would be unable to hold off a full-on Russian military attack based on armour, infantry and airpower. The key would be the willingness of other NATO members to commit to the defence of Poland. Some are notoriously wobbly, both when it comes to political will and military power.

It is realistic for Poland to plan for NATO limited support at the most in the eventuality of a Russian invasion. A large, well-organised citizen army, ready to go underground at a moment's notice, to harass the invaders behind their lines, disrupt their administration and logistics, would have a strategic deterrent effect.

But such a force, embedded into local structures in communities along Poland's north-eastern border with Russia, would also prove useful should the Russians try out hybrid warfare on Polish soil. This would not involve massive armoured thrusts through Ukraine 'reaching Warsaw in a week'. Nor would it involve sending convoys of troops by sea to Kaliningrad, giving NATO advance warning of threats to Poland and/or the Baltic States.

No. It would involve 'little green men' as were seen in Crimea and in Donbass. Deniable, not officially there. Entering Poland via Kaliningrad, they would initially engage in small-scale sabotage and provocation - who knows - pretending to be Lithuanian nationalists or Islamicists, creating some phony narrative to be retransmitted worldwide via RT (Russia Today as it is now branded) and the legions of Russian trolls commenting on the websites of Western news media.

The presence of armed men dispersed locally, who know the lie of the land, who can distinguish neighbour from stranger, would be a strong deterrent to 'little green men'.

The ideal base for such a Home Army would be the fire stations (remizy) of the OSP - voluntary fire service - of which there are over 15,000 scattered around Poland's smaller towns and villages. Embedding platoons of volunteers trained in the use of firearms and military communications alongside the OSPs, cooperating closely with Poland's border guards, the Straż Graniczna.

It would not be unfeasible for a volunteer force of up to 20,000 part-time soldiers, trained at weekends and during periodic military exercises, to be raised and equipped. The costs would be modest compared to equipping the Polish Air Force with F-16s armed with JASSMs and anti-missile systems. A Home Army should never be considered a replacement for conventional armed forces, rather an low-cost, highly effective countermeasure against the type of warfare that the Kremlin is currently engaged in.

The 'AK' brand is Poland enjoys sky-high respect, and young Poles today wishing to honour their grandparents who fought against the Nazi occupier would rally around it.

This article is worth reading.

This time last year:
Another office move

This time three years ago:
PiS splits - Solidarna Polska formed (anyone remember them?)

This time four years ago:
Tesco vs. Auchan

This time seven years ago:
My father's house

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

With weather like this - what's the worry?

What a gorgeous day. November the fifth - Guy Fawkes Night in Britain, a date I associate with damp, drizzle and darkness - and here in Warsaw the top temperature today was 18C on a cloudless, balmy day. A day that stirred my soul from dawn to dusk - then after sunset, my walk home from W-wa Dawidy station along ul. Dumki under an almost full moon - a memory to cherish for years to come. A balmy night.

Cloudless morning in the country: between Nowa Wola and Zgorzała

Cloudless morning in the country: approaching Zgorzała

Cloudless afternoon in the city: Złota 44 from 21st floor of the Lumen Building
Cloudless night in the suburbs: ul. Dumki, from ul. Kórnicka
If today can be like this, why can't it be like this the year round? Mazowsze, a local California or Mediterranean Riviera? What do we need winter for? So that we can pay Mr Putin for his gas to keep us warm?

Weather certainly affects us. Some of us a chronic meteopaths, suffering badly from darkness, low atmospheric pressure and damp. Others will find their spirits lifted by cloudless blue-sky days, especially when those days happen during a time of year when they are a rarity. How does November in Warsaw look? My blog, now in its eighth year, is a fair record. On the last day of November last year I noted that it was the third November in a row during which Warsaw had experienced zero snowfall. It's too early to say yet, but from the perspective of a day like this, winter seems a long way off still.

Local fellow-blogger and weather watcher, Student SGH, e-mailed me to say that the record high for Warsaw for November was 18.9C on 1 November 2001; we are unlikely to break that record, but maybe a monthly average record may fall. September 2014 was noted as the warmest on this planet since records began. Worth bearing in mind that the average daytime high for November in Warsaw is a mere 5.0C. Overnight from Wednesday to Thursday, the temperature did not even dip below double digits.

Cause for concern? After a bumper fruit harvest this year (a curse because Mr Putin isn't buying from Poland), the dry soil has become hard. And where the water-table is a long way beneath the surface, the Mazovian soil is turning to soft sand. At the weekend I noticed that on local off-road trails, some of the soft sand is deeper and finer than ever. If this drought continues into the winter, with minimal snowfalls, next year will be a poor one for agriculture.

The weather is like markets; a good spell is followed by a bad spell (a 'correction'). But whereas markets are the function of human activity (we buy more, or we buy less), weather isn't... Or is it?

The scientific consensus is that anthropogenic climate change is real; the only debates concerns whether it can be reversed as a result of us humans changing our habits when it comes to burning fossil fuels.

Are we now entering a period of runaway global warming, with new records for high temperatures set with alarming regularity? Possibly. What worries me it that there's nothing we can do about it. Even if you and I do all we can to keep the gas turned down low, use public transport or cycle to work, I fear that the collective influence of those who a) care and b) are prepared to do something about it, is limited by those who don't give a flying fig. However, I shall fight my own battle and strive to be low-emission and low-carbon - and in the very least, I shall save money, if not our planet.

Like Pascal's famous wager - if he believes in God, and God does exist, he's OK; if he doesn't believe in God, and God exists, he's damned - but if he believes in God, but God doesn't exist, he's not lost anything. If climate change is not man-made and there's nothing we can do, there's nothing lost by saving energy.

I feel a debate coming on in the comments!

UPDATE 6 November: Top temperature today 18.8C.

This time last year:
Call 19115: Warsaw Fix-my-Street

This time three years ago:
Vapour trails at sunset

This time four years ago:
Autumnal blues

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Kraków tops city-break destinations ranking

If you know Kraków, not really a surprise - this is now officially the European city that most Brits want to fly to for a short break. Coming number one out of 45 destinations in Which? magazine's ranking of city-break destinations within a three-hour flight time of UK airports, Kraków finds itself ahead of Paris, Rome or Barcelona. Also in the Top 50 - at number 37 - is Warsaw. Surprisingly, there's no Gdańsk or Wrocław, cities which I think are even better city-break destinations.

Let's take a quick at the Top Ten:
1. Krakow, Poland 
2. Munich, Germany 

3. Prague, Czech Republic 

4. Berlin, Germany 

5. Valencia, Spain 

6. Barcelona, Spain 

7. Budapest, Hungary 

8. Vienna, Austria

9. Seville, Spain

10. Tallinn, Estonia
Final score then - Spain 3, Germany 2, Central Europe 5. Notable, I think, is the absence in the Top Ten of anywhere in France or Italy - but then surly service and over-priced restaurants and hotels are to blame.

The Which? ranking was based on 4,585 reviews from Consumer Association members in the 12 months to August 2014. Low-cost airlines such as WizzAir, Ryanair and Easyjet have brought the prices of travel to hundreds of European cities to within those of domestic rail or air travel. Proximity of airport to city centre is very important in such a ranking; if you're going anywhere for two or three days, you don't want to spend several hours in transfer from some ridiculously far-flung airport (Paris-Beauvais, Brussels-Charleroi and Frankfurt-Hahn spring to mind). Here, both Kraków-Balice and Warsaw-Okęcie are well located, though Warsaw-Modlin... well, if you've got a spare two hours to kill...

The Daily Mail - not known for its pro-Polish sentiments - covered the story two weeks after a lovely puff-piece evidently paid for Polmos Białystok (which helicoptered the Mail's journalist from Modlin airport to Białowieża, thus sparing her readers any potentially embarrassing descriptions of overland travel between Warsaw and eastern Poland). The result was a glowing review of the national park, hotel, restaurant, and of course Żubrówka bison-grass vodka.

All good PR for Brand Poland, which is clearly on an upswing these past 25 years. As long as the government doesn't start throwing public cash at trying to improve things...

Thanks to Bob for flagging up this monstrous waste of taxpayers' money. It is hopeless. Not least because the English, with their finely tuned ears for accent, will immediately spot that the child brought in to do the voice-over is not a native speaker, thereby destroying the entire premise. Look, it's "fah-thah", not "fudderr".

This time two years ago:
Rzeczpospolita publishes infamous 'trotyl' Smolensk story

This time three years ago:
Wilanowska - south Warsaw transport hub

This time five years ago:
Powiśle on a cold, clear autumn morning

This time six years ago:
Okęcie "to remain Warsaw's only airport"

This time seven years ago:
Searching for autumnal perfection

Saturday, 1 November 2014

For All Saints' Day - Marek Raczkowski

Cartoonist Marek Raczkowski is to my mind the funniest man in Poland - and has been so consistently for as long as I've lived here. His ability to mock the absurdities of Polish life are razor-sharp; his wit pricks pomp and stupidity in equal measure.

The cartoon below, published yesterday in is a lovely example of how Polish humour doesn't travel. To get the joke, you need to know four things:

1) In most Polish cities, members of the alcoholic community helpfully point empty parking places to passing motorists, expecting a small tip in return, which goes towards the cost of the next tin of Warka Pstrąg from the nearest Żabka store.

2) On All Saints' Day, most Poles visit the graves of family members.

3) On All Saints' Day, most Poles go there by car, even if it's a short walk. (Message to others: "We have a car"). The car is a more important means of projecting wealth and status than one's family gravestone.

4) On All Saints' Day, Poland traditionally experiences the largest number of fatal road accidents of any day of the year (combination of the clocks having just gone back and sheer volume of cars). Parking is a huge issue.

Marek Raczkowski is side-splittingly funny. A few years ago, I was at Okęcie airport in the passport queue. I'd picked up an abandoned Przekrój magazine on my way out of the plane. There was a four-panel Raczkowski cartoon near the back; just as I got to the punchline, I was called to the passport desk. I was laughing uncontrollably. The uniformed border guard asked me what was so funny; I passed him the magazine - soon he was helpless with laughter too. Google "Marek Raczkowski" and click on image search if you wish to spend the next half-hour laughing - assuming you know Polish and Polish realities.

His sense of humour bridles the uptight and po-faced; in 2006, he appeared in court accused of defaming the Polish nation in a cartoon which showed a park lawn littered with dog turds, each one having a little Polish flag in it, like a sand castle. Raczkowski was lambasting Poles' general unwillingness to clean up after their dogs, but his accusers took deeper offence ('obrazili się'). The case was dropped, but Raczkowski maintains a certain bad-boy aura.

There are several notable Polish cartoonists - Andrzej Krauze (born round the corner from Jeziorki in Dawidy Bankowe) who's as well-known in the UK, where he draws for the Guardian and New Scientist, as in Poland, where he draws for Rzeczpospolita. There's Andrzej Mleczko too, who has his own gallery on ul. Marszałkowski. Up and coming is Jan Koza, very dry.

Polish humour is rare - few are the people who can really mock with didactic, nation-building intent. Marek Raczkowski is by far the best in this category.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki pond development

This time three years ago:
Captain Wrona's perfect gear-up landing

This time five years ago:
Where's the daylight gone?

This time seven years ago:
All Saints' Day - Wszystkich Świętych