Sunday, 22 October 2017

Real estate, Poland, today

My bet on an asset class that's set to appreciate quickly is Polish real estate. Which is a reason why I'm on the hunt for a działka in South Mazovia.

First - find your działka. Ideally one with a small house on it, one which is inhabitable all year round (brick-built), with electricity and water as a minimum, on a well-sized plot of land (but not too big, as maintenance costs will be high). Most importantly - the surroundings must fit your aesthetic.

Know where it is you want to buy. Visit the area in summer, autumn, winter and spring. Get to know it street by street. And follow the market. I've been looking for three years for a nice plot with investment potential, in a good location, still hunting.

A good place to start is Domiporta.pl, which has a useful map feature, which allows you to focus your search on the area of your choice.

But - it is important to understand how estate agents work in Poland. In the UK, there's such as thing as the law of agency, which essentially stipulates that an agent can only work on the behalf of one party. In Poland, estate agents believe it is their right to extract a fee from both buy and seller (the more advanced ones are now advertising that they don't take a fee from the buyer).

The fact that estate agents can take fees from buyer and seller means that when they suggest something to you, you don't know whether that suggestion is in your best interest - or the best interest of the seller. In the UK, you know - and that helps you make an informed decision.

And in the UK, estate agents tend to work on an exclusivity basis - the seller posts the property with one estate agent who does everything possible to sell it. Here in Poland, the seller will post the property with half a dozen estate agents. This leads both buyer and seller to try to bypass all agents.

The internet was just made to disintermediate agents (of all sorts - travel, commercial etc). Buyer contacts seller directly. Why the middleman? Well, here we are well into the internet's third decade and estate agents are still around - by adding value to the transaction. This I can see in the case of commercial property, but in residential... Unless Polish estate agents up their game, they will become mired, as a profession, in low volumes of low value deals.

Yesterday, I chanced upon a nice prospective purchase, south of Czachówek, close to the Warsaw-Radom railway line. I had set off to look at some land, but a little further up the same road I saw a nice plot in a nice area with a nice little house on it - and a note stuck to the gate saying it was for sale, with a mobile telephone number.

I called. Yes, the house is for sale, and the price is very attractive. We arranged for a viewing next week. Yes, this house is advertised with an estate agent. Only I have not been through the agent, nor did I find it on the agent's website or any multi-listing system. I made direct contact with the seller having been to place myself. I have no obligation to pay any agent anything should this transaction go ahead.

Does the seller have an obligation to pay the estate agent anything in this case?

Estate agents used to go out of their way to disguise the location of a property so that prospective buyers wouldn't be able to find it without calling the agent. The agent would insist on signing a preliminary agreement with the prospective buyer before saying where the property actually was. Today, it's much easier to track it down (as I did yesterday, finding a działka in Ustanówek using Google Earth satellite imagery - across the straight grass track from a house with a red tiled roof and square courtyard). And many real estate portals, such as Domiporta.pl or Otodom.pl, have a map function allowing buyers to see where the property actually is.

Anyway, about the area. I'd been looking locally, then further south, around Czachówek and more recently Ustanówek. I know these areas very well indeed. Yesterday, I took the train a bit further south, to Chynów. This is now outside the Warsaw agglomeration. If you take the DK50 as Warsaw's de facto southern ring-road, this is just outside it. Apple orchards make up the most of the landscape, which is just slightly undulating. And it's 28 minutes by train from W-wa Jeziorki. Two bits of roadwork will make the area more accessible - from the west, the S7 extension from Grójec to Okęcie, and from the east, the Góra Kalwaria bypass (linking the S79 and DK50). The Warsaw-Radom railway modernisation has got as far as Czachówek; once that gets to Chynów journey-times to town will shrink further.

Property prices, which have stayed flat over the past decade, will pick up as Poland's economy gets into full swing (despite, not because of Mr Kaczyński's wilder ideas). GDP and wage growth are both outstripping inflation, employees are harder to recruit and retain. So there will be more disposable income and younger, wealthier Poles will be looking to buy property, while older ones will be starting the move seen in the UK generations ago - leaving the cities to retire to the agreeable countryside.

All I've got to do is to find the right place at the right price - but apart from anything else, it has to click with my aesthetic tastes. The Chinese notion of feng shui is something I can appreciate - the lie of the land, the atmosphere of the surrounding woods and roads have to be right.

So - a brief tour. Below: Chynów station, with its island platform. The line from Czachówek to Radom is being modernised (see new rails on the 'up' line, and in the distance on the right, tidy piles of new concrete sleepers). The new 'down' platform will be staggered so as to be 300m closer to the działka in which I'm interested, and journey times to town will be cut.


Plots similar to this one (5,500m2 for £45,000 or 216,000zł, with access to electricity, running water, sewerage and planning permission to build a house) can be found around Chynów.


Below: gently undulating agricultural land, many fruit farms around.


Below: Most important - asphalt to the station and street lighting.


Far enough from Warsaw to be in genuine countryside rather than exurban sprawl, yet close enough to get to the city centre in under an hour by train. I can see good value here.

This time two years ago:
Ogórek by the Palace of Culture

This time six years ago:
Autumnal dusk, Jeziorki

This time tenyears ago:
Autumn sun going out

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Swans growing up

Every year, the miracle happens.

I observed them as day-old hatchlings, I watched them growing larger through the summer months and the early autumn, until, almost the same size as their parents, they are fully-fledged and begin to take to the air.

Below: just a short flight, from one end of the middle pond to the other. Flying as gracefully as adults, no awkwardness here!


Watching a swan preparing to land makes one realise that birds and aircraft use the same basic principles of aerodynamics; flaps extended, gear down...


...and a perfect landing, those two webbed feet acting like water-skis


A minute later, the two intrepid aviators have taxied back to their parents and siblings. All seven of this year's swan family using their necks to feed on pond vegetation.


And a photo from Thursday, the last warm day from this lovely week. The entire swan family having a beach party. Within weeks, the pond will ice over and the swans will fly north (to the Baltic) to escape the cold (their feet are not as well insulated as ducks' feet are).


A reminder of how they were - just two days old (the clutch hatched on 20 May), swimming competently with dad. Six hatched, five survived.



Bonus shot - to show that swans are equally happy by the Baltic. This one's on the beach at Sopot. Photo below was taken three weeks ago in Sopot.


If all goes as nature intends, the cygnets will leave Jeziorki with their parents. The young ones will meet up with hundreds of other juvenile swans and will pair off, then each pair will find its own pond or lake, and return to it year after year. Given that swans can reach the age of 20, Jeziorki can expect the pair that's been coming here since 2009 to make many more returns, to lay many more clutches of eggs that hatch into fast-growing cygnets.

This time two years ago:
On the eve of Poland's change of government

This time three years ago:
Bilingualism benefits the brain

This time seven years ago:
Crushed velvet dusk in my City of Dreams II

This time eight years ago:
Going North, the quick way

This time nine years ago:
Glorious autumn dusk

This time ten years ago:
Last man voting?

Monday, 16 October 2017

A few words about coincidence

One of my Top Ten Favourite Movies Of All Time Ever is Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984). By 'cult film' I mean one that's dearly loved by the few down the ages. Reputedly, Cox set out intentionally to make a cult film, rather than just shoot something and then see whether it would become one. Anyway, it has, and I've seen it many, many times.

Among the memorable quotes (and a cult film usually has many such quotes), is this one:
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like 'plate' or 'shrimp' or 'plate of shrimp' out of the blue no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."
This line, which I first heard a third of a century ago, has helped shape my worldview. "Web of coincidence" rather than "lattice" in my usage, but typing in that phrase into the search box on my blog yields several meaningful results from the past decade.

So. Today's one. I'm just leaving the office and step up to the windows to admire the view - the sinking autumnal sun illuminates Warsaw... I catch sight of a large crow or raven flying across the sky and find myself singing the line from Roxy Music's Bitters End... "You were the raven of October..."

And as I walk out into the street, I'm still singing Bitters End. Once out of the building, I find myself singing it aloud...

Give now the host his claret cup
And watch Madeira's farewell drink
Note his reaction acid sharp...

Now - to catch the moment, you need to listen to Bitters End and scroll forward to 1:55 - immediately after the words "acid sharp"... that trilling bell, before Bryan Ferry sings the last line of the song.



So here I am, walking across ul. Bagno, singing "Note his reaction acid sharp" - and EXACTLY then, to the beat, I hear this sound:



...Should make the cognoscenti think

Now, it's not exactly the same bell sound, but it came at exactly that same moment. Trams go down Marszałkowska all the time, particularly at rush hour, and the older ones sound their old-style bell as they near the junction with Świętokrzyska, but the timing was extraordinary enough for me to want to write about it as soon as I got home.

It confirms my long-held view that the universe is indeedheld together by a web of coincidence; when we stop noticing coincidences in the world around us - then is the time to start worrying!

Last week, Moni SMSed me, asking why Ian Dury claimed to have been born in Upminister, was actually born in Harrow Weald. I explained the importance of 'street cred' in the days of punk, and thought no more of it - until the next day, when I found that I would be speaking about trends on the Polish jobs market in a conference room in Warsaw's Lumen building called... Upminister.

The great physicist Richard Feynmann once said "“You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight... I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!” In trying to poo-poo the idea that coincidences are somehow seen as metaphysical or supernatural in nature, his glib comment fails to connect. 'ARW 357' would have truly been amazing had it cropped up in another context around the same time, say, on a scratch-card or phone number, and the observer been conscious of both.

Coincidences happen more often to those with greater powers of observations, those who are conscious and aware - and curious.

Below: the Raven of October, as seen from my office window


Don't go into some exaggerated hunt for coincidences, or finding them, seek deeper meaning (or worse) prophesy; just take comfort that our planet spins on around a sun in a galaxy that's moving ever further from the Singularity Event, and that the coincidence you've just experienced is part of the space-time fabric into which we fit. I shall give the final word to David Bowie, a man who to me proves that there is more to human existence than flesh and bone...
Here are we 
One magical moment
Such is the stuff from 
Where dreams are woven
Not quite the final word... these words remind of the first stanza of Poem XXXII from A.E. Housman's cycle of 63 poems, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896.
From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky, 
The stuff of life to knit me 
Blew hither: here am I. 
Did Bowie know Housman's works...? Maybe, maybe not.

This time three years ago:
Hello, pork pie [my week-long pork-pie diet]

This time five years ago:
The meaning of class - in England, in Poland

This time six years ago: 
First frost 

This time ten years ago:
First frost 
[Today, by contrast, the daytime high was 22C]

Sunday, 15 October 2017

To sleep perchance to dream

It's been a busy week with travel (Warsaw-Rzeszów-Warsaw-London-Warsaw) but I'm back, and coping. The key is sleep. My Rzeszów trip required an early start, there's lots of rushing about. But on Friday night at my father's, I went to bed at 8pm London time and slept for nearly 12 hours. I needed that. And last night I clocked a rather more normal eight hours. We all need sleep.

My brother pointed me to a book by Matthew Walker, Sleep, reviewed by most of the British press. How's this for an opening paragraph?
"Imagine if there was a medicine you could take that was guaranteed to make you live longer. A medicine that could help you stay slim, protect you from infection and keep you feeling happy and fulfilled. Interested? Well, listen to this: the medicine in question not only exists, it is already available free of charge in your own home. It's called sleep."
Good stuff. But how much do we need? Six, seven, eight hours of quality sleep a night? Can some of us manage with less? Margaret Thatcher famously burnt the candle at both ends, getting by on four or five hours - and look how she ended up. Indeed, the risk of getting Alzheimer's, along with cancer and heart disease, are - Mr Walker's book says - exacerbated by lack of sleep. "Adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night." Sleep also boosts your immune system; lack of sleep can render you vulnerable to viral, fungal and bacterial infection.

Yet we are either larks or owls, genetics have determined that. Whether we're up at 5am and buzzing, then ready to collapse by half past eight in the evening, or whether we can function perfectly until gone midnight but then find waking up in the morning difficult is down to which variant of the hPER-2 gene we have. But regardless of whether we're larks or owls, we all start work at the same time, 9am (the Polish public sector likes to drag its workers in for 8am).

Flexitime working helps. Before moving to Poland in the 1990s, I had already been working Flexitime for several years (in my case 10am to 6pm), because my employer allowed it. As long as the core hours between 10am and 4pm were covered, you could come in earlier or later, go home earlier or later, as you desired.

This is a good solution that takes those genetic variations into account. Young people in their teens and 20s are notorious owls, but that settles down as they mature.

Shift work - especially night shift work - is particularly bad for health, again, genetics and personal preference should be put to use rather than fought. Owls should never be made to cover the pre-dawn shift - that should be left to larks. Owls should work the late, late shift - then go home to sleep it off. Employers should give employees more power to choose the working hours that suit their biology best.

Sleep hygiene is important. It's hard for us to tear ourselves away from our screens (mobiles, laptops, computer monitors or TV sets), but if you want better sleep, an hour before going to bed, these should be turned off. And waking in the night to go to the toilet - don't check to see what the time is. Leave it - it's only something you might worry about.Over-indulgence in alcohol is bad, because it stops you from going into deep REM (rapid-eye movement, or dream-state) sleep. You may think you've slept the hours, but they're not of good quality.

Most of us who live on the latitude of Poland and the UK are subject to significant fluctuations in daylight length between summer and winter. I for one hate waking up in the dark. I far rather wake up naturally at 4am in midsummer to catch an early flight than having to set my alarm clock for 6:30 in midwinter to get to the office by 9am. My circadian rhythms for the winter months demand more sleep than in summer, where I can get by with an hour or so less.

Sleep is very important - make the most of it, don't ignore it. Plan your day around your sleep.

This time three years ago:
New Google Earth maps show Jeziorki's progress

This time four years ago:
Liverpool's waterfront (a city worth seeing, cheap and easy to get to from Warsaw)

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Times pass, things go, things remain

At the western end of ul. Świętokrzyska, the block of flats is being torn down to be replaced by the 155m-tall PHN/City Tower. Construction begins next year. Communist-era flats are coming down across Warsaw; their presence in the centre of the capital are de facto social housing, a reason why so many elderly people live right in the middle of town (something unthinkable in, say, London). While social diversity may be judged a good thing, these buildings are rigid with asbestos. This particular block was built in the mid-1960s for foreigners, and was home for many Western firms that set up offices in Warsaw in the early 1990s. This view, with the top of Spektrum tower (formerly TPSA Tower) reminds of Marineville from the 1960s children's TV series, Stingray. Photo taken from the bus stop outside Costa Coffee, Rondo 1 on 4 October. All pictures in this post: Nikon CoolPix A.


Below: update, photo taken two weeks later on 18 October. Here's the progress in the demolition for you...


An InterCity locomotive with interesting heritage. This is a retro-liveried EP07 at Warsaw Central station. Most InterCity EP07 locos are painted blue and grey like the carriages, but this one's paint scheme harks back to the 1980s. Back in 1962, Poland bought 20 electric locomotives from English Electric, serving PKP as EU06 (Elektryczna Uniwersalna 6), along with a licence to build more locally. These were the  EU07 series, built from 1963 on. Many were converted to EP07s (Elektryczna Pasażerska 7), with more powerful motors and different gearing appropriate to stop-start passenger work. Originally built in 1987 as EU07-442. it was converted to EP07-442 in 2003.


Rarely does one see a mode of transport that's nearly 140 years old - but here in Warsaw I chanced upon a penny-farthing based on original parts from a 1878 German bicycle.. I stopped and had a chat with the friendly owner, who told me that the Polish for penny-farthing is bicykl, while the Polish for bicycle is rower, from Rover, the British brand that had two wheels of equal size, the rear one chain-driven by pedals. Before Rover became such a language-changing hit in Poland, the word welocyped meant any human-powered two-wheeler without chain drive. So a bicykl is a welocyped, but a rower isn't!


Which reminds me that last week saw the 50th anniversary of the first airing of British TV of the cult series, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGooghan. Shot in Portmeirion, the fictitious village featured in the series had as its logo a penny-farthing.

Left: Finally, the passing of time does not bypass me. Today, for the first time ever, I got a old folk's discount on train travel. All 35% of it. So instead of paying nearly 14zł for the return ticket from W-wa Jeziorki to Ustanówek, I paid 8.80zł. Neither did the conductor on the way out nor the ticket inspector on the way back want to check my ID to ensure that I wasn't lying about my age. Haven't done that since I was 17!

This time last year:
Feels like the U.S.A. again

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's craft ale revolution kicks off

This time six years ago:
Poland's president inaugurates Moni's academic year 

This time eight years ago:
Autumn evening, central Warsaw

This time nine years ago:
Short-term future of suburban development

This time ten years ago:
"You'll look funny when you're fifty"

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Health at 60


For my father - I'm sure that on the day I was born, he never expected to be around when I would reach my sixtieth birthday!

Here we go then - I'm 60. I need to get over it.

Overall - I can't complain healthwise. But time takes its toll, wear and tear is evident. Healthcare vs magic.

Back in June I went to the doctor, I felt a numbness in the big toe of my left foot. A heart thing? Better get checked out. First check was blood pressure. It was through the roof (200/110, something like that). The doctor would not let me out until I'd swallowed a couple of pills and the blood pressure came down to a more normal measure. Next was a whole battery of tests - ECG, USG, blood and urine samples - all were fine.  The doctor told me that were I an obese guy who smoked and did no exercise, she'd know what to prescribe, but in my case... I was told to buy a blood pressure gauge and to measure it for two weeks and come back.

Which I did. Bringing with me a graph which showed a steady day-by-day lowering of my blood pressure, but still it was on the high side (146/102).

The doctor prescribed me some pills for blood pressure. I asked "How long for? A month? Till the end of the packet" "No," she replied. "For the rest of your life."

Gulp.

"Your body is getting older, think of these pills as a pair of reading glasses," she said, asking me to come back in a month's time for a check-up and a repeat prescription.

What happened next is interesting, and I'd be keen to hear your views.

I bought the pills, but didn't even open the packet. I'm not going to take these drugs for the rest of my life just because a doctor says so based on the evidence of two weeks.

I determined to get the blood pressure down naturally. Further improve the diet, intensify the exercise. Meditate on the breathing. Do anything but take these drugs.

And over the weeks, by the time of my next visit, my blood pressure was consistently lower (114/78). Something the doctor ascribed to the medicine. I didn't tell her that I wasn't taking it. What I was taking was the readings; three in the morning and three in the evening, to get an average, to ensure consistency and accuracy. Yesterday's average is fine (116/76, see chart below).

CategorysystolicmmHgdiastolic, mmHg
Hypotension
< 90
< 60
Desired
90–119
60–79
Prehypertension (high normal)
120–139
80–89
Stage 1 hypertension
140–159
90–99
Stage 2 hypertension
160–179
100–109
Hypertensive urgency
≥ 180
≥ 110
Isolated systolic hypertension
≥ 160
< 90

I should still aim to get it lower (ideally 110/70) and keep it there. My father is 94, my mother died at 88 - whose heart have I got? Even if my mother's, with better diet (no cake or biscuits, lots of fruit and veg) and plenty of exercise, the odds of getting to 90 are very good.

What was the cause of the numb toe? Turns out its a skeletal thing. Bits of my bone are growing strangely (think bone spurs). I have these spurs sticking out of both elbows, and the X-ray apparently shows growths in my spine which are pressing on the nerve that goes to my left toe. It's nothing serious, but it's something I should monitor.

Monitoring is all important. Be conscious of the slightest change to how the body feels and responds, but before gulping down pills, consider the matter carefully.

I am blessed with a father who's in remarkably good health, mentally and physically. Yet there are ills that flesh is heir to - like my father, I sometimes find it difficult to swallow certain foods - something that came on after my 40th birthday. Like my father I get leg cramps on summer nights. Like my father, I have itchy skin on my back. Like my father if I'm bending down for any length of time, I find it uncomfortable to stand up straight quickly. And our eyesight has got worse along the same trajectory (weak left eye, right eye needed ever-stronger reading glasses). But these are not major health worries.

When it comes to the blood pressure, I shall be taking it easy. Not arguing about politics with cretins. Just walk away from conflicts. Avoid TV news, avoid people I don't like.

My father worked until he was a few months short of his 70th birthday - a good target to aim for.

This time two years ago:
In search of vectors for migrating consciousness

This time three years ago:
Slipping from late summer to early autumn

This time four years ago:
Turning 56

This time five years ago: 
Turning 55 

This time six years ago:
Turning 54

This time seven years ago:
Turning 53

This time ten years ago:
Turning 50

Monday, 2 October 2017

On the internet, nobody knows you are a dog

All this talk about fake news and Russian trolls, Russian bots and various other state- and non-state actors using the social media to destabilise Western democracies has brought about calls for an end to anonymity in the net.

When the internet got going, back in the early 1990s, there was a cartoon of a dog seated by a computer saying to another dog "On the Internet*, nobody knows you're a dog". It was a comment about how anyone can get a made-up name email account and use this to set up an online profile. At that time (1993), this applied to the various chat- and newsgroups that sprung up long before the advent of Facebook or Twitter. At that time, no one was particularly fussed.

So what? Anonymous nerds can go online and get angry with people who disagreed with them about Star Trek or Dungeons and Dragons or whatever they were into.

Today, online anonymity has the power to fracture society.

Set up enough anonymous accounts, automate the process whereby one account 'likes', 'shares' or 'retweets' posts by others, and the massive echo-chamber that is today's social media takes on the power to change enough minds to swing elections. Or referendums.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Russia has been doing this for some time. Three and half years ago - before Brexit, before Trump, before Catalonia, I wrote about this phenomenon:
The Soviet Union, through its security services, saw fit to meddle in the affairs of other countries using stooges, sympathisers and fellow-travellers to muddy the waters. 
And so, today, the USSR's successor state and the KGB's successor agency are engaged in disinformation practices. Rather than pumping cash into dull ideological rags like the Morning Star or weirdo leftie groups that few took seriously, the Kremlin's disinformation strategy today is more subtle, more modern. 
Each day, an army of English-speaking commentators is scribbling away on the online comments pages of mainstream Western media. Nicknamed the '40-rouble army' (after the sum of money a Kremlin commentator gets paid per comment), you will see their handiwork on many websites from the Economist to the Daily Mail
These people write to order about issues that affect the Kremlin directly or indirectly. They are recognisable by their tone; frequently provocative, insulting, attacking the author (or commentator) personally. They are persistent too, returning to a thread to ensure that they have the last word in any argument. They wield false facts and disinformation. They often use unorthodox English (in particular their misuse of definite and indefinite articles, a giveaway), dropping in the odd Latin word, and displaying a rather pompous style. In contrast to Ukippers, whose comments may well be full of spelling mistakes and punctuation errors - but whose writing at least has a natural, native English flow. 
The 40-rouble army is well versed in the arts of black propaganda. They latch on to populist movements and use divide-and-rule strategies and tactics. The EU and the US are regular targets, so they will attack (for example) the EU using similar rhetoric deployed by anti-EU populists. 
They will wade into arguments supporting Ukippers who use terms like "EUSSR",  stirring up anti-EU sentiment for all its worth. All busy bashing Brussels. The reason is obvious - EU membership has changed the former captive nations of the Soviet bloc from poor dictatorships into rapidly-growing democracies. Putin doesn't want Russians to aspire to this. 
Example (copy-pasted verbatim from a comment under a Daily Telegraph article)
"I am not sure that people are aware of how dangerous the current situation is. We are possibly heading towards a 'Cuban Misslile' crisis in intensity. They are rounding up judges, Senators - anyone with links to the genuine government and charging them with treason and other crimes. They have already imposed the new front central banker. However that is not the serious bit other than for the victims of the new lynch mobs. They are already fomenting strife in the Eastern Ukraine. Attack mobs. Particularly the Crimea. Russia cannot let its naval base go. It is essential to all its strategic defence and it is now clear that the EU/US axis (of pure evil) is planning some sort of confrontation that could lead to outright war. I suggest this is possibly the whole idea. Long in the planning. The west is desperate for war - its economy is in utter ruin from debt. They are warning Putin not to go in. But he has little choice if the East starts to crack. We are entering dangerous times indeed and just remember it was our corrupt and treasonous politicians in the thick of it. Quite happy to jeopardise this country and every person in it. To gamble with the lives of every living thing on the planet. For greed and power. The Russians have done nothing to provoke this crisis - it is Western in concept and so far in its illegal action."
This does not sound like the work of 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells'. This is coming at you from the corridors of the Kremlin. Yet the author claims (I have emphasised the words) to be British. Our corrupt and treasonous politicians..." "...this country..."  
In the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections, those of you who follow the comments on the online media, keep a close eye on who posts what - I'm certain that the Kremlin's 40-rouble army will make its presence felt. A little bit of low-risk, easily-deniable mischief that helps sow discord and discontent among the citizens of the EU. The Kremlin is ready to stoke it for all it's worth to weaken the EU by one large, strong member.
And it did it. The EU is being weakened by the loss of its third-largest member state. The amplification of the UKIP message (a fringe at best) through a bombardment of comments in the media and social media helped tip the balance in favour of Leave. And the Kremlin did it again, by focusing social media advertising that played on key concerns of voters in swing states to tip the balance in favour of Trump.

America is waking up to this. Questions are being asked in Washington. Facebook and Twitter are reluctantly owning up to the role played by targeted advertising in the run-up to last November's election. And the role of anonymous bloggers, and fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, deployed tactically to support the Kremlin's campaigns.

After a quarter of a century during which we have got used to net anonymity, it is time now - for the good of democratic society - to call an end to it.

If you want a postal address, you generally need to prove who you are and where you live. If you want a Twitter account or Facebook profile, it should be in your name, not an untraceable nickname with a phoney avatar. The same goes for email accounts. As a first step, online companies should rate their users from a transparency point of view, certificating those who are honest and transparent about who they are and where they're from.

I don't mind disagreeing with a real-life person whose identity is shared and certified online. But someone named English Patriot_4_Brexit who is also vocal in his hatred of Ukraine and support for Bashir Al-Assad (and of course Vladimir Putin) should not be allowed to voice his views on the social media.

Internet users have a right to know who's a bone fide user and who's a troll furthering ruptures in Western society.

*In 1993, standard usage was Internet and e-mail; today it's internet and email.

This time last year:
Low water mark

This time six years ago:
Łódź to Jeziorki by car in four hours
[See how Poland's road network has improved!]

This time sevenyears ago:
What's new on the manor?

This time eight years ago:
The funeral of Tadeusz Lesisz

This time nine years ago:
Socialist realism in the boardroom

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Two weeks and two days' worth of travel


Below: Wednesday, 13 September: Katowice [Plac Miarki]


Friday/Saturday, 15/16 September: Wrocław [Institute of Education]


Tuesday, 19 September: Warsaw [Mariensztat - Teodozja Majewska's Baths]


Wednesday, 20 September: Opole [Main railway station, built in 1899]


Sunday, 24 September: Łódź [Corner of Narutowicza and Polskiej Organizacji Wojskowej]


Monday, 25 September: Gdańsk [Brama Zielona, the Green Gate]


Tuesday, 26 September: London [London Bridge, the City beyond]


Thursday, 28 September: Sopot [Grand Hotel, Hitler's HQ in September 1939]



Saturday, 30 September 2017

Miedzianka by Filip Springer

Been a while since I reviewed a book here! The book is Miedzianka Historia znikania, (In English: History of a Disappearance: Story of a Forgotten Polish Town), a reportage by Filip Springer. Big thanks to daughter Moni for passing it to me.

If Norman Davis and Roger Moorhouse's history of Breslau/Wrocław was titled Microcosm because it encapsulated an entire region's history by focusing of that one city, Miedzianka could be titled Nanocosm. It tells the story not of Lower Silesia's capital but of a Lower Silesian village - one of thousands, caught in the ebb and flow of history, at the interface between Teuton and Slav - but a village with a very specific nature.

I've been caught up in the story of the Nazi Gold Train in nearby Wałbrzych; Miedzianka tells a similar tale, of dark secrets, tunnels and excavations. But here the element being searched for was not gold - but uranium.

It was in 1948, shortly after Polish communist authorities exerted their control over Lower Silesia in the wake of the Red Army's advance into Nazi Germany, that the Soviets began looking for uranium. All over this region, wrested from the Third Reich, Soviet geologists were hunting for sources of uranium ore that could be refined into atomic weapons. And in Miedzianka, the former German copper-mining village of Kupferberg, they found it.

Since the earliest days of this Silesian settlement in the 14th Century, copper (and some gold, silver and tin) was being extracted from the hills. The village of Kupferberg grew over the centuries, surviving fire, pestilence and war, rebuilding itself after successive disasters. By the end of the 19th Century, the mining had all but disappeared, and the village was a modestly prosperous, attractive resort with a castle, two churches, a brewery and several hostelries and restaurants (below).


While WW1 left Kupferberg unscathed, its aftermath - hyperinflation, social unrest, the coming of the Nazis, hastened its end. Drawing on first-hand accounts and German-language histories of Kupferberg, Springer paints a portrait of a community that, like the whole of Germany, was dragged to its fate by the seductive power of Fascist ideology. The coming of the Nazis had two faces; on one hand the economy was recovering strongly from the Great Depression through public works, on the other, the regimentation of society sowed fear and mistrust among the villagers of Kupferberg (map from 1937 below)


Then came the war; many of its sons were lost on the eastern front. People disappeared. The Hitler Youth terrorised the village's old establishment. As the front line drew ever nearer, waves of refugees passed through Kupferberg fleeing the Red Army rapists and murderers. The village was not spared the trauma. With the Red Army came the communist Poles, ready to administer these lands as part of a new Poland. Kupferberg became Miedziana Góra - and then just Miedzianka.

The German population was deported - not all at once, but in waves (interesting details here - for the first few years after the end of the war, German and Polish children studied side-by-side in Polish schools in the newly acquired territories). By 1948 there were hardly any Germans left. And the Poles in their new homes were obsessed with finding hidden German treasures.

Stalin's breakneck quest for an atomic bomb was helped by information acquired from Nazi scientists, who were also working on such a weapon. They knew where to look for uranium. The Red Army was hot on the trail. When Soviet geologists confirmed the presence of radioactive ores within a mountain that had already been riddled with tunnels since the Middle Ages, the village was rapidly turned into a production centre for the Soviet A-bomb project. It was sealed off from the outside world, guarded by Red Army soldiers and NKVD and UB goons. At the same time, workers were lured to the mines by promised of high pay (the equivalent of around 8,000 zł a month in today's money). They came from all over Poland. Some from the east, lands that had now become incorporated into the USSR. Some were fleeing their partisan past, others were in search of a new life, new adventure, excitement - none knowing what they were letting themselves in for.

Very quickly mine shafts were dug, tunnels extended in the direction shown by clicking Geiger counters, and the radioactive ore brought to the surface and taken by trucks towards secret facilities deep in Russia. There was a heavy cordon of secrecy around the whole project. The cover story was that this was a paper factory. People who spoke too much disappeared; questions were not to be asked. Miners leaving the premises were searched by Geiger counters to ensure they weren't smuggling uranium ore out of the mines to pass onto Western intelligence, which was eager to glean any information about the Soviet A-bomb programme. Polish miners who'd returned to the fatherland from the coal mines of northern France and Belgium were particularly watched. They spoke French among themselves and many, who had had enough of the realities of communism, wanted to return to France, and were in touch with the French embassy.

The UB and NKVD were observing the miners closely for any sign of disloyalty to the communist regime. The book describes how one raucous, vodka-fuelled names-day party turned ugly as the UB waded in, suspecting the miners of shouting political slogans. One miner was beaten to death at the local militia station. Meanwhile, miners were complaining of ill heath due to their exposure to radioactivity. They disappeared. Did they get sent to sanatoria and then to work in far-off parts of Poland? Or were they disposed of by the NKVD? Springer suggests we'll never know.

By 1952, after extracting over 600 tonnes of uranium ore, it was decided to close down the mine. Meanwhile, the hurried way in which this had been done was resulting in holes appearing in fields and roads, buildings collapsing or cracking. Officially, there had been no uranium mining going on. The mine closed, the village of Miedzianka began slowly to die. Over the next two decades, more and more houses yielded to subsidence, inhabitants were moved to nearby villages or to the city of Jelenia Góra. By the early 1970s, a decision was taken to level Miedzianka with the ground and make it disappear. The walls of a few houses and one of the churches remain today (Google Earth satellite map of the place from 2015, below).


[Click to enlarge; opening the images lets you to compare then and now, by toggling between the two.]

Springer approaches the subject in a style similar to that used by legendary Polish journalists Ryszard Kapuściński [see here] and Jacek Hugo-Bader [here and here]. It is a free-flowing text drawing in quotes from different voices, without the quotation marks and attributions that give accuracy but slow down the pace. He lets witnesses (many in their 80s when he interviewed them) give their often-contradictory accounts; some are sensationalist and conspiratorial, others matter-of-fact, others still claiming that nothing much untoward was happening.

It is a great story. The geopolitical shifts at the interfaces of great powers, and the human victims. I was particularly gripped by Springer's depiction of the Nazis' rise, in a small sleepy village known then for its tourism and excellent beer, far from Hitler's power base. It shows how that madness crept up and infected a whole nation - and the price that nation had to pay.

The book is available in English (History of a Disappearance: Story of a Forgetten Polish Town, translated by Sean Bye). There is good precedent - much of Kapuściński's work has been translated, and both of Jacek Hugo-Bader's books I review (see links above) are now available in English - Biała gorączka as White Fever and Dzienniki Kołymskie as Kolyma Diaries. I saw both on sale at Gdańsk Airport last week.

In the meanwhile, a trip to Miedzianka and the surrounding area is definitely in the diary for next year! But first, a download of prewar German maps of the Kupferberg is in order.

This time two years ago:
Out of the third, into the fourth

This time three years ago:
Inverted reflections

This time four years ago:
Observations from London's WC1
and Observations from the City of London

This time five years ago:
Civilising Jeziorki's wetlands

This time six years ago:
Warsaw's Aleje Jerozolimskie

This time seven years ago:
Melancholy autumn mood in Łazienki

This time nine years ago:
Autumn gold, Zamienie

This time ten years ago:
Flamenco Sketches - Seville

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Two weeks, seven cities

My itinerary since Wednesday 13 September:

Warsaw-Katowice-Warsaw-Wroclaw-Warsaw-Opole-Warsaw-Łódź-Gdańsk-London-Gdańsk. Eight if you count Sopot. Photos to follow on my return to Warsaw!

This is the busy season - those 14 weeks between the middle of September and the run-up to Christmas when 40% of all the work in the Northern Hemisphere gets done. Event after event, new faces, business cards, topics, all fascinating. And between them, travel. Travel that deepens my knowledge of Poland and Britain Still to come - Rzeszów and Edinburgh, no doubt a few more destinations before things wind down in mid-December.

I'm back in my hotel room in Gdańsk, which I left early yesterday morning to catch a plane to London. Ryan Air sent me an email suggesting that because of strict border controls, I should turn up at the airport three hours before departure. I turn up two hours before departure. I'm looking around - where are the crowds? No one else is around. I go to passport control and present my ID to the uniformed lady at the desk. "Why did they tell me to turn up three hours early?" I ask. " Today there's only one flight. Yesterday at this time, there were four flights."

Did Ryan Air not know this? Intelligence, artificial or human, should be able to improve the passenger experience by working out the likelihood of long queues at passport control.

Other than this, I must say, flying with Ryan Air was not the horror story I was expecting. Both flights - from Gdańsk to Stansted, and from Stansted to Gdańsk this morning - departed and landed on time. And the stewardess this morning recognised me from yesterday and bid me a special hello.

Stansted Express worked well in both directions - the fact the train station is directly beneath the airport rather than being a ten-minute, £2.10 bus ride away as is the case at Luton is a huge plus in Stansted's favour. As is the fact that you're not flying from a dysfunctional building site. However, the Stansted Express takes a bit longer to get to London (50 minutes one way rather than half-hour to Luton) although both are now the same price (£28 return).

Łódź to Gdańsk was by night train, although this was a couchette rather than proper sleeper, so although I could lie down, I slept clothed. It was a good night's sleep although I felt smelly and rough the next day. Word of warning to pedestrian users of Google Maps and Łódź Widzew station - there is no entrance to the station from the north side. Google Maps showed me a more-or-less straight-line walk from Moni's flat via ul. Narutowicza, Konstytucyjna, Małachowskiego, Czechosłowacka and Wagonowa. However, when I got to the level crossing on Wagonowa - it was closed. Cut off by a new railway depot with high fencing. No way across. I had to walk along a muddy path parallel to the tracks, past the new depot, past the station, until the fencing ceased. Finally, I had to cross the tracks and walk back to the station along the line and scramble up to the platform. All this at half-past one in the morning. 16,000 paces though!

Gdańsk continues to work its charms on me, remaining my favourite Polish city. One could never get bored of living here; the Tri-City has so many attractions from its sandy beaches, its history Old Town, the historic shipyards, the national park in the hills above the city, so much fine architecture. Photos later!

This rushing around hits my sleep and diet. Difficult to find time to eat lots of fresh fruit and veg, though at receptions and hotel breakfasts I cram in as much as I can.

Poland's rapid infrastructure improvements mean that cities that were once five or seven hours apart are now reachable in three; it's easy and quick to buy tickets online, to check train timetables and real-time delays online. This all makes places more accessible and easier, less stressful, to visit.

And in the meantime, I'm reading Miedzianka by Filip Springer - a great piece of reportage full of the atmosphere of Lower Silesia in the post-war years. A full review later too. So much to do, and the day continues to have but 24 hours!

This time last year:
A guide to naming streets in Poland and the UK
(one of my very best posts)

This time six years ago:
A glorious month

This time sevenyears ago:
My grandfather

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

This time nine years ago:
Well-shot pheasants


Sunday, 24 September 2017

Of pipes and pylons

The work on the railway line is continuing. It's gone on so long, and there's no end in sight. The prospect of a viaduct carrying ul. Karczunkowska is as distant today as it was last August; at least the problem has been identified - the fact that there's a collision between where the electricity has to go and where the water and sewerage has to go. At last there's some action going on; there are construction crews on site and the pipes and pylons are being sorted out.

Below: a JCB digger on Karczunkowska, ahead of some pipe-laying. It annoys me that Lord Bamford, second-generation owner of JCB, was such a staunch proponent of Brexit. Maybe it didn't occur to him that EU money, through structural funds being spent across new member states on infrastructure, has bought literally thousands of his machines in recent years.


Below: between W-wa Jeziorki and Nowa Iwiczna, the problem is obvious; trackside drainage is inadequate, and as a result when the rains came, putting up new pylons became problematic.


Below: between W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Jeziorki, two new culverts have been completed, but the drainage ditch parallel to the track has only been completed for one short stretch on the eastern side. The rest is overgrown and liable to flooding. And trackside cabling still needs to be installed. Note the new signal turned 90 degrees to the track - it awaits connection.


Below: cabling work is under way  further south opposite W-wa Jeziorki's down platform. Still a long way to go before this stretches all the way to W-wa Dawidy.


Below: heavy plant and heavy rain have turned the path alongside the eastern edge of the track into a morass. No sign of cabling work going on here, just a hundred metres or so south of the location of the previous photo


Below: a new pylon astride the closed bit of ul. Karczunkowska awaits erection, but first the sewers and water pipes need to be laid... or is it the other way round? Saturday and no one's doing anything.


Below: A day earlier, Friday morning, and crews are at work. It looks like a new temporary footpath is being laid to link W-wa Jeziorki's platforms to the bus stop. This suggests that the old temporary footpath will be closed as work on the pipes begins.


On Thursday morning an excavator was busy removing yet more of the Ballast Mountain, below. At present, about 40% of it is left.


Below: view from the top, while I still can. My favourite spot in Jeziorki, which I can climb to think existential thoughts and take photos from.


This time two years ago:
What's the biggest threat - Putin or ISIS?

This time three years ago:
Scenarios for change in Russia

This time four years ago:
A new bus for Jeziorki - the 809 to Bobrowiec

This time six years ago:
Bunker in Powiśle

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

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