Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Karczunkowska viaduct - work begins in earnest

On Monday the heavy construction equipment moved in - a large vertical drill and a pile driver. Last week, access to the 'up' platform was changed via a new pedestrian level crossing (below).

The drilling is done slowly, the screw turning silently into the soil. The pile driver (below, left), on the other hand, is so loud I could hear it in my triple-glazed bedroom 970m away (in a straight line).

To get this shot of the equipment below, I scrambled up a mound of earth on ul. Karczunkowska between ul. Gogolińska and ul. Kurantów.

As I wrote recently, I totally disbelieve the promises that the viaduct that's being built here will be opened in 12 months' time. Nothing I've ever seen in Polish infrastructure construction would prepare me for such a phenomenon. The sign-off and hand-over process alone, getting the final inspections and paperwork sorted takes longer than 12 months (Google the history of the new viaducts over the S2 on ul. Nowozachodnia, ul. Czysta and ul. Rebusa; and see story on my blog about the footbridge at W-wa Okęcie).

To add to the complexity of this particular job, on top of the viaduct will be two bus stops, serving the two platforms. This means they will need wheelchair lifts. Experience shows that these take the longest to sign off (think W-wa Okęcie again, W-wa Służewiec and Czachówek Płn).

This time two years ago:
Sublime autumn day in Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
CitytoCity, MalltoMall

This time four years ago:
(Internet) Radio Days

This time five years ago:
Another office move

This time six years ago:
Manufacturing a City of Culture

This time seven years ago:
My thousandth post

This time eight years ago:
Closure of ul. Poloneza

This time nine years ago:
Scenes from a suburban petrol station

This time ten years ago:
Red Arrows over Lincolnshire from 30,000 ft

Monday, 30 October 2017

Throwing it all away...

For my father

Office refurbishment and time to clear my desk. I started on Friday afternoon and finished this afternoon - and what a difficult task. Three full bin-bags of rubbish plus several bits and pieces taken home (and some still to take), but final outcome - clear the desk and there's a whole heap less clutter to bog you down in your working day.

Decluttering is a trendy thing, with Japanese and Scandinavian guides to getting rid of your possessions topping the UK bestseller lists. We live lives increasingly cluttered lives, 'stuffocation' I've written about. Physical goods are becoming cheaper and cheaper, even as property prices (especially in London) become unfeasibly expensive. We get an endorphin rush from the act of buying things, and so often end up with stuff we neither need nor want, but it ends up stuffocating us.

It's not just about acquiring new things - it's about getting rid of old things. Even if we live by William Morris's golden precept not to bring anything into one's house that's neither beautiful nor useful, we will still end up, after many decades, to have more stuff than we have room for.

The same in the office. You go to a conference. You get a nice bag, with a report printed on thick glossy paper. And a note pad, and ballpoint pen, and lanyard with your delegate's badge. And a gift, like a leather-bound folder with space for credit cards and paper. And this goes on, year in, year out, and your desk is groaning with the stuff and you cannot bring yourself to chuck it out.

After all, someone's spent money manufacturing these things, so they must have value...

Spending time with the bin-bags and deciding what goes in and what's spared made me realise a few important things.

Don't chuck out:

1) Things that can be useful in future (pens, paper-clips, rubber bands, note-pads, name-badge holders etc) - but don't keep them to yourself. Put them in the stationery cupboard for everyone to share.

2) Things of historical value. Old copies of CBI News that I used to edit from the late 1980s into the late 1990s, one with Lech Wałęsa on the cover, or another with a debate about Europe (below) or a supplement about Poland from 1992. These don't exist any more, all dumped by someone doing what I was doing today. I have three examples, which I'll keep to the end of my days.

3) Things of sentimental value. This is the tricky one. It's easy to say that everything has sentimental value. It doesn't. It's equally easy to say that nothing has any sentimental value. Equally untrue. Consider what you really, really, really want to hang on to. Otherwise, chuck it out.

It's a generational thing. My parents' generation, who went through the deprivations of war, who lost the things that their own parents had worked so hard for, and then, in the austere post-war years, had to work hard to establish themselves in a new country, could easily drift into hoarding. The extreme example was Edmund Trebus, the Polish soldier who ended up in a house in North London surrounded by hoarded junk, and his own BBC documentary.

My father hangs on to things on the basis that a) someone once took the trouble to make them, b) they may come in handy someday, not necessarily for the reason they were made, and c) it costs money to replace them. Hence the large collection of nuts, screws and washers in the garage, stored in old jars.

But the young generation that grew up in an age of plentiful stuff, just disposes of things without thinking. My younger colleagues find it painful watching me deliberating over whether to throw or keep something. I'm somewhere between the two generations, though tending towards my father.

In 1978, my father bought me for my 21st birthday a ghetto-blaster radio/cassette player with big speakers; it cost £118, which in today's terms is £675, enough for a well-specced laptop which will do you a whole lot more than just play music. That old ghetto-blaster is still there, in his room, taking up space... but it still works, and it was my 21st birthday present, and so... it's still there.

Books go into bookcases, and if the bookcase is up against an external wall, it makes for good thermal insulation. Plates and cutlery go in the kitchen - but when is the last time you had a four-course meal for 12 people at your place? Time to let go of much of the stuff in the kitchen, really. Clothes - for me not particularly difficult to get rid (to charity) stuff that's slightly frayed but still useful. And I buy much of my clothing in charity shops in Pitshanger Lane, Ealing, thus doing my bit for the circular economy.

The local authority in Ursynów advertised a garage sale yesterday - turn up and for free! sell your unwanted stuff to people browsing for knick-knacks. The weather yesterday was quite appalling, but no doubt there will be another bring-and-buy (quite a novelty in Poland), but a great initiative.

Being forced to declutter radically every now and end then is, according to Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo, an experience that brings a purgative joy.

My IT meltdown last month, in which I lost two years' worth of data, presentations, articles etc, passed without any major repercussion. If data is valuable, it will have been duplicated (uploaded, emailed to someone else, saved on pendrive etc). If not - no one's missing it, not least me.

Let us strive to live a life without clutter (but not get obsessed about it). Laurence J. Peter's quote, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” (often misattributed to Albert Einstein) is a signal to get the balance right.

This time last year:
Hammer of Darkness falls on us again

This time two years ago:
The working week with the clocks gone back

This time four years:
Slowly on the mend after calf injury

This time fiveyears ago:
Thorunium the Gothick

This time six years ago:
Łódź Widzew or Widź Łódzew 

This time eight years ago:
A touch of frost in the garden

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Recent Jeziorki (and Warsaw) roundup

Lots going on at Jeziorki right now, intensive activity around the station. Below: a new temporary level crossing is being prepared, passengers to town now have to walk a different way to get to the 'up' platform. Workers are busy up and down the line, working on the electricity, signalling and the water and sewers.

Below: corner of Nawłocka and Karczunkowska looking like a war zone with heavy plant digging trenches to re-lay the sewers away from the line of the new viaduct.

The story in local news service, Haloursynów.pl suggests that the viaduct will be ready in 12 months' time. Let me tell you this. Not a chance. Not even in 24 months. Watch this blog. Long-term readers will remember the building of the viaducts over the S2 on ul. Poloneza (now re-named Kujawiaka) and ul. Hołubcowa. It took three years (2009-2012) to build them, plus another year to be finally opened (you know, paperwork, that sort of thing).

Meanwhile on Puławska, I noticed that the new Volvo building has been beautifully illuminated, below.

In town, a bit of sunlight shining through the heavy clouds lights up socialist-realist architecture on ul. Twarda and Emilii Plater, below.

Below: turning south, the Palace of Culture in the autumnal sun.

Below: view of south-west Warsaw from the 32nd floor of Rondo 1, looking along al. Jana Pawła II. A rain cloud passes over south Mazovia.

Well before daybreak, Thursday morning, waiting for the 05:20 train to Kraków at W-wa Zachodnia, a far more civilised place than in pre-remont days when it was my pick for Poland's worst railway station.

Bonus pic, from out of town: Chynów station. I have my eyes on a działka around here!

This time last year:
Autumn in Jeziorki
[far nicer than today - it rained and it rained]

This time two years ago:
A driving ban for developers and architects

This time three years ago:
Do you keep coming back, or do you seek the new?

This time four years ago:
In praise of Retro design

This time five years ago:
First snowfall in Warsaw 

This time six years ago:
Of cycles, economic and human 

This time seven years ago:
Why didn't I read this before? Grapes of Wrath

This time eight years ago:
Małopolska from the train

This time nine years ago:
Grading ul. Poloneza

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Big news for Jeziorki

A big thank you to my regular readers, Bartek, Dr Marcin and Bob, who, in that order, alerted me to the big story that broke this week: a large estate, for up to 8,000 people, is being planned for the land where the old rampa na kruszywa used to be. Below: these fields, initially bought up by Spanish developer Sando Inmobiliera, now belong to the Polish state treasury. As part of the social housing programme, the land has been earmarked for blocks of flats, rather than single-family units. View looking south-west.

Below: another view, looking south-east. Now, this is going to be a huge project. The website of BGK Nieruchomości (the property arm of state-owned bank BGK), says the site's size is 148,260 square metres - up to those trees along the far horizon.

Below: I plot that onto a local satellite map using Google Earth Pro, which lets you measure area as well as distance (and now it's free!). I marked a 148,260 m2 polygon on it, outlined in red. Now, to measure out that area, the golf course will have to go, along with the scrap-metal yard. Click to enlarge.

Last week, BGK Nieruchomości announced an architectural competition to find the best project. The task: to fit 8,000 people into 148,260m2 (works out at 18m2 per person, which suggests blocks several stories high) and to do so in a sustainable, low impact way. Below: from Warsaw city hall's official website showing plots and ownership. Grey = private, yellow = city, pink = state treasury. The guidelines for the competition state that car space provision should be no more than one for every two flats. The idea is that everything that's needed for bringing up young families is to be found within the boundaries marked in yellow, the plot itself marked with a red border.

The terms of the competition (click on link above) give the clearest indication of what the authorities are aiming for. Low-cost social housing, for young families as well as old people, using public transport to get to work, with nearby nurseries for small children.

It will be a crush to put 8,000 people into this space. That is more than the entire populations of poviat towns in Mazowsze such as Białobrzegi (pop. 7,056), Zwoleń (7,940) or Lipsko (5,678). Warsaw's longest block of flats, ul. Kijowska 11 (one building, one address, over half a kilometre long) is home to just 1,200 people. So this will be high-density housing. It will triple the population of Jeziorki Południowe, placing a huge burden on public transport and on the roads, in particular on ul. Karczunkowska, which feeds into the already-choked ul. Puławska.

The architectural competition sets out that there should be a maximum of 138,000m2 of housing space (on a 148,000m2 plot, remember, of which only 35% can be used for housing), with 45% of the flats being one-bedroom, 40% two-bedroom and the remaining 15% three-bedroom. And the buildings should average 20m in height (seven floors), being lower when built adjacent to agricultural land.

Quick calculation then. One third of 148,000 is 50,000m2. To get 138,000m2 of housing on to that footprint means an average of three floors. One car per five (on average) inhabitants still means 1,600 cars; end-to-end with a metre between each one, this is the equivalent of a traffic jam eight kilometres long, should everyone choose to drive out onto Karczunkowska at the same time. This (and not the number of inhabitants) is unsustainable.

Entries must be submitted by the end of November. It will be interesting to see the results - they will have a huge impact on the neighbourhood.

This time last year:
Autumn in Warsaw

This time two years ago:
Inside the Norblin factory 

This time four years ago:
Sadness at the death of Tadeusz Mazowiecki

This time six years ago:
More hipster mounts (Warsaw fixieism)

This time seven years ago:
Welcome to Warsaw

This time eight years ago:
Just like the old days

Friday, 27 October 2017

We are what we read, what we watch, what we listen to

It's hard to eat a portion of humble pie, but I will begin. The other day I was writing about what policies the state should use to change people's (bad) habits - bans and fines, or subtle suggestions. I mentioned that the Polish government was planning to ban the building of detached houses - and was rightly questioned on this in the comments.

I could not remember where I'd read or heard this story - but I know had. Online? On Twitter? Warsaw AM? I recall discussing it at work... I meet many people at work, and cannot remember with whom I'd discussed it. Usually in a tone of outrage that yet again, hard-fought liberties are being chipped away. But chapter and verse... Lazily I wrote the story down as if it were fact, without checking... but I didn't get away with it unchallenged.

Google 'dom' and 'wolnostojący' and 'projekt ustawy', and all you'll get is thousands of results being ads for detached houses and building plans.

So without having a source to draw on, I should not have included that paragraph. I'll leave it up until a new post replaces this one, and then take down the offending paragraph and all references to it.

But this is symptomatic of what's going on in the world - Poland, UK, US - most places. With the rise of social media and 'fake news', political forces of all hues are doing their best to shape the agenda. Whether it's spinning a government proposal to amend building regulations as an assault on freedom or suggesting that British universities are run by a bunch of howling leftie Remainers.

Yesterday, on the train down to Kraków the elderly chap sitting next to me said he got all his foreign news from TV Trwam. He went on to say that the Jews were making the Palestinians stupid by fluoridating their water ("Żydzi walają fluor do wody Palestynczykom aby ich ugłupić"). Alarm bells go off inside of my liberal head. Tin-foil hat territory. I am minded of the dialogue in Dr Strangelove:
Gen. Ripper: Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water?
Gp. Capt. Mandrake: Ah, yes, I have heard of that, Jack. Yes.
Gen. Ripper: Well do you know what it is?
Gp. Capt. Mandrake: No. No, I don't know what it is. No.
Gen Ripper: Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?
[You will remember that General Jack D. Ripper is a 'paranoid ultra-nationalist' convinced that his 'precious bodily fluids' were being polluted by foreign substances...]

At this stage I whip out my mobile phone to prove the fellow wrong. What I discovered (thanks to Wikipedia, Fluoridation by country) intrigued me.

Indeed, Israel had banned the fluoridation of water in 2014, after introducing it in 2002. But in the south of the country, "it is unnecessary to add fluoride because it is found naturally in the water," according to Israel's national water company. So Palestine will be receiving fluoridated water..."Aha! That's what the national water company would say!" counters the conspiracy theorist's mind.

So how to explain that after the 2015 elections, the Israeli government reintroduced fluoridation of water across the entire country?

In any case, the fluoride toxicity is well researched. So what my interlocutor must have heard on TV Trwam was tendentious in the extreme. What worried me further was the fact he was still teaching at two Polish universities, and that he had not fact-checked this assertion 'na Googlach'.

But then I hadn't checked about the Polish government's purported change of planning regulations.

Lesson learned.

We have, over the decades, got used to trusting our most frequently used media sources. This may be changing. This week's New Scientist has an article about how technology is reshaping notions of trust. Fake news is nothing new - just its speed and reach has become greatly magnified by IT.

On the other hand, technology gives us, as it gave me on the train yesterday, the chance to quickly verify a story from trusted sources - as long as you know what to search for.

We should all - whatever our political viewpoints - strive not for neutrality, but for evidence-based arguments in our debates, whether online or in person.

This time four years ago:
Extraordinarily warm autumn

This time five years ago:
On behalf of the work-shy community

This time six years ago:
Classic truck cavalcade

This time seven years ago
Suburban back-roads clogged with commuters

This time eight years ago:
Autumn gold, Łazienkowski Park

This time nine years ago:
Quintessential autumnal Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
Google Earth updates its map of Jeziorki

Thursday, 26 October 2017

More about sleep

Woke up this morning, it was 03:38. This was just seven minutes before my alarms were due to go off (train to catch to town at 04:46 to connect at W-wa Zachodnia for the 05:20 to Kraków).

How did I manage to wake up naturally at this ungodly hour? Well, I went to sleep before 9pm yesterday evening. So I managed a full six and half hours (not quite enough, but reasonable).

I woke up towards the end of a dream in which my father, my brother and I were attending a degree ceremony at an Oxford college - except it wasn't in Oxford - this medieval building with brick staircases and corridors was on Pope's Lane in South Ealing, by Gunnersbury Park. All the students about to get degrees were older than me, and their parents were all older than my father. A lady came up to us and my brother made a clever literary joke about Jane Austen that made her laugh so loud, it woke me...

Here in Warsaw, 21 degrees east, the sun rises and sets earlier than in London, despite the hour's time zone difference. The sun sweeps over our planet at 360 degrees per day, or 15 degrees per hour, so midday in Warsaw (when the sun is overhead) occurs 24 minutes earlier than at the Meridian in Greenwich. So us Varsovians should rise and go to sleep an hour and 24 minutes earlier than Londoners. But whereas the world takes into account the one-hour's time difference between Greenwich Mean Time and Central European Time (which comes into effect when summer time ends this Sunday morning), that 24 minutes is not accounted for. So working nine-to-five in London is equivalent in body-clock terms to working from 08:36 to 16:36 in Warsaw.

One could say, 'suck it up snowflake, get used to it'. But the body clock is not something to be messed with. If you're an owl, with a propensity for late rising and an ability to stay focused well into the evening, it's hard to drag yourself out of bed, especially in the dark months.

Our body clocks are very individual things and we should get to know them, to see what our natural sleep patterns are really like, outside of the rigours of the working week. Weekends and holidays are good times to apply consciousness to sleep and check how we sleep.

It's important to understand the sleep cycle, from shallow to deep (REM) sleep and back again. Average length for adults is 80-120 minutes; a night's sleep is usually made up of four separate sleep cycles, of which the two middle ones are longer than the first and last.  Should you wake in the night to go to the toilet, it's usually at the end of a sleep cycle. My sleep last night was only three cycles long, so on the way back from Kraków I ended up having a 90-minute snooze. Resulted - rested.

Circadian rhythms and body clocks vary with age; teenagers and young adults are generally more owl-like; as one matures, the ability to stay up till 1am every night ceases, but then returns with old age. The important thing is to be aware of your own natural need for sleep, and to adjust your waking life - and entertainment - around that need.

As I wrote a few days ago, ignore the need for good sleep at your peril. And try to arrange your working day so it fits around your natural sleep requirements - and not the other way around.

This time five years ago:
On behalf of the workshy community

This time six years ago:
Classic truck cavalcade

This time seven years ago
Narrow back-roads clogged with commuters

This time eight years ago:
Autumn gold, Łazienkowski Park

This time ten years ago:
Of bishops and bands

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Nudge vs. nakaz

How do governments change the (bad) habits of their nations? Until recently, it was by force of law. The electorate would vote for a government on the basis of policies suggested by competing political parties. The elected legislature would debate issues of concern to the populace, and from that debate laws would be enacted - and enforced.

Example. In 1952, the Great London Smog killed thousands of Londoners. The result was the Clean Air Act of 1956, which put a stop to the practice of burning whatever came to hand in the fireplace. Only smokeless fuels were allowed. The freedom of individual householders to burn what they chose ended where the freedom of every other citizen to breathe clean air began. Good communication (there was a notice on every lamp post in my childhood West London), the threat of fines (£10 for a private household  - around a week's wages then), and public understanding of why burning smoky fuels was socially unacceptable, meant that the number of prosecutions under the Act was very low.

In my lifetime, drivers lost the freedom to drive around without seat-belts, motorcyclists to ride around without helmets - the threat of a hefty fine and losing one's licence being a good incentive to comply.

Yet in recent years, democratic governments have been looking at alternatives to enforced compliance as ways of getting people to change their ways. This has been known as 'nudge theory', and has been practised by the first (and only) British prime minister to be younger than me (David Cameron) and the first (and only) American president to be younger than me (Barack Obama). A sign that we are indeed evolving in the direction of wisdom. [But it's two steps forward, one step back.]

In the UK, the government's Behavioural Insights Team (or 'nudge unit') devised some excellent ideas to get citizens to do what the government would like them to do. Pay more taxes? Make the form simpler to fill in. Leave more money to charity? Ask them what issues they feel passionate about. Insulate their lofts? Realise that most attics are crammed with junk that needs to be moved before the insulation can be laid, and help with that.

Governments that bully are not liked. The current Polish government has just proposed legislation making it illegal to build a detached house. The logic behind this is worthy enough - limit urban sprawl - but it smacks of top-down bullying, and is a clear limitation on personal freedom. It also smacks of populism - "I can only afford to live in a block of flats, so why should that rich family have the right to live in a detached house".

Should such a law come to pass, the effect on the housing market will be immediate - the premium on detached houses (and plots still retaining planning permission for a detached house) will rise, as people will want to buy one simply to have one.

Nudging is better than ordering. Being bossed around, being told what to do, is not something we humans feel comfortable with. We'd much rather think that we're working together to a common purpose. But can we move from the current state to a better one without having to impose sanctions on those who do not want to come along with the rest of us?

I'm thinking air pollution. This evening, on my way home, I passed a house across the way that was belching think black acrid smoke from its chimney. The smoke was pushed to the ground by high air pressure (1,028 hPa). By the time I'd got the few hundred metres home, I reeked of the smoke.

This is how Warsaw's smog is formed - it's a periphery problem caused by people living in old houses, burning bunker fuel, lignite, wood, waste - anything but gas or electricity. It's literally three houses (two on Trombity, one on Karczunkowska) that are responsible for the bulk of the crap in Jeziorki's atmosphere.

How to stop these people? This house is not rich, but they're not poor either (a huge TV set is visible through a window). How to change their behaviour? Would nudge work? Would heftier fines work (as I posted earlier, it costs the local authority 700zł to send out a team to investigate the air quality and to lab-test the results, whereas the maximum fine is 400zł. What if it were 1,000zł - a week's average wages (as was the case in 1950s London)? What if my neighbours and I drew up a respectful  letter to the offending households saying that their behaviour is intolerable?

Does nudge work as well as nakaz in Poland?

This time last year:
Scenes from West Ealing and Hanwell

This time two years ago:
Four years of PiS

This time five years ago:
High Victorian Manchester 

This time eightyears ago:
The clocks go back - but when should they go forward?

This time nine years ago:
Warsaw's first Metro line is completed

Monday, 23 October 2017

West of Warsaw's central axis

I have little reason to wander west of al. Jana Pawła II*, so when I get the chance I do so to cast a fresh eye at the architecture of a part of town that I don't know too well. Below: ul Żelazna ('Iron St'), Mirów, an abandoned tenement remembering Tsarist days awaits its fate. Will it be torn down to be replaced by a steel-and-glass structure - or will old-school brick once more be home to urban families?

Below: another metallicly named street in Mirów - ul. Miedziana ('Copper St'), home to a nondescript 1960s piece of modernism that's well past its prime.

Left: heading south towards parts of Warsaw better known to me - this fin-de-siecle tenement in good condition stands on Al. Jerozolimskie**. The gate was open so I popped into get this snap - very Central European, very Grand Budapest Hotel.

Below: quiz: can anyone tell me where this 1930s bas relief is to be found? Kind of fascistic/masonic in feel with two very masculine-looking women on the right. "Through Self-Goverment and Social Work to a Mighty Poland". After the war, the word 'Ludowej' (as in 'People's Poland') was squeezed unconvincingly into the narrow space at the bottom, only to be removed after the fall of communism.

Below: further west along Al. Jerozolimskie, approaching W-wa Zachodnia station, and in between several new office buildings between the road and the tracks.

Bonus pic, below: two rakes of empty aviation fuel cisterns await being taken away from Okęcie airport, under autumnal skies. This sight will soon become a memory as the railway spur between the airport's avgas terminal and W-wa Okęcie station, running through the backs of działki on its short route will soon be closed and ripped up. In its stead, aviation fuel will be taken by train to a transshipment facility just south of the Poleczki viaduct and then pumped to the airport via a pipeline running under the tracks and under the S79 expressway.

* and ** Note the different style in writing Al. Jerozolimskie and al. Jana Pawła II. Both are correct. This is because Aleje Jerozolimskie are plural, while al. Jana Pawła II is singular.

This time four years ago:
Plac Unii shopping centre opens

This time six years ago:
Visceral and Permanent, Part II 

This time seven years ago:
Autumn colours, locally

This time eight years ago:

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 Upminster, 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... Upminster.

The great physicist Richard Feynman 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. On my way south to do some real-estate scouting - I'm looking for a działka to buy. 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"