Friday, 31 August 2018

The balance between the spiritual and material

"Man shall not live by bread alone," words ascribed to Jesus (Matthew 4:4, Luke 4:4) quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. Let's update this - "human beings cannot live on materialism alone"; we have spiritual needs too. Needs too often overlooked in our headlong rush to acquire more possessions. The extremes can be seen; at one end of the spectrum, multi-billionaires spending money to acquire more power than can be converted into more wealth. On the other hand, the ascetic mendicant Sadhus of Hinduism, who have renounced all worldly goods.

Human beings both.

The need to engage with the spiritual differs greatly from person to person. I have asked the question "how much spirituality do we need"; the stock answer from many observant believers is "once a week is enough", but then even this answer varies greatly from ultra orthodox Jews who won't switch on a lightbulb on Shabbos to Catholics who pop into church for a 45-minute long Sunday mass - and they're done for the week.

The full Matthew 4:4/Luke 4:4/Deuteronomy 8:3 quote is as follows: "Man shall not live by bread alone/but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God". Now, I reject the notion of an anthropomorphic divinity with an oral cavity containing a larynx. Instead, I interpret this Biblical injunction to mean - Listen.

Listen to that inner voice, that comes in periods of meditative calmness, and offers a more universal view of matters. Listen to the inner voice that suggests, guides, consoles. Listen and observe the big picture; that momentary consciousness of the seven thousand trillion trillion atoms that have come together to form you, living on a planet orbiting a star that's one of hundreds of billions in our galaxy, the Milky Way, that in turn is one of a trillion galaxies in the observable universe.

Yet if you were to spend your life obsessively thinking of yourself in terms of your near insignificance in universal terms, you'd never get anything done other than maybe keep body and soul together, the Sadhu's minimum. But forget what you are in a cosmic context, you lose your humility and humanity. Getting this balance right is essential to spiritual well-being; material comfort - lack of money worries - is an important part of piece of mind.

But I am puzzled - and indeed troubled - by the presence among us of the hyper-rich. If you have tens of millions of dollars in assets - why strive to make yet more millions? The news that Trump's education secretary had one of her family's ten yachts set free from its moorings gave me cause for reflection; if you have a $40 million yacht - why do you need another nine? These people seem entirely detached from the spiritual world; zombies almost; living organisms conspiring to secure more wealth - and to what end?

There has to be a moment - a cut-off point - at which a rich person says enough is enough, retreats to a monastery, yeshiva or ashram to meditate on God, consciousness, the unfolding universe and the purpose of human life. I fear however, looking at such people, that maybe there is no spiritual awareness behind those eyes. Their greed distorts our society and holds us back from moving forward along the eternally long road from Zero to One, from barbarism to civilisation, from the bestial to the angelic.

Striking the balance is essential to achieving and maintaining inner peace.

This time last year:
End of August, end of summer?

This time two years ago:
Pavement for Karczunkowska... a bit at least

This time three years ago:
Gold Train update (the hope! the expectations!)

This time four years ago:
Changes to Poland's road traffic laws

This time five years ago:
Poland post the Rubbish Revolution

This time six years ago:
Poland's most beautiful street

This time seven years ago:
Getting to grips with phrasal verbs

This time nine years ago:
What Putin wrote about Molotov-Ribbentrop

This time ten years ago:
Summer Sunday in the city

This time 11 years ago:
Last bike-ride to work of the summer

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Jakubowizna - progress on the działka

To Jakubowizna to see how the work's coming on - the doors arrived yesterday. The big sticking point remains the windows - these are now due in mid-September. Once in, the external walls will be clad in 20cm-thick expanded polystyrene, plastered and painted white. Below: front elevation.


Below: the foundations have been properly damp-proofed and insulated to prevent the heat dissipating into frozen soil in winter.


Left: the new entrance lobby (sień) from inside. Protected from the elements, shoes and overcoats can be removed here. Previously, the front door opened right into the kitchen. A new window will be installed in the space in the wall. The old front door (visible to the right) remains in place until the windows are all installed. Only then will I have access (currently the builders have the key to the old front door).

Below: the front downstairs room. Yellow line shows where the new window will go - it will be 40cm wider and 20cm taller. More useful light. Rest's all done - just need skirting boards, electrical fittings and lights. Furniture, wardrobe space and a fitted bookcase to be added.


Below: up on the upstairs patio at the back, the new door in place.


Below: a peek inside (the parquet flooring has just been varnished).


Left: the foundations on the western side of the house are also being damp-proofed and insulated against the cold. Down there somewhere is the little cellar window - this also needs replacing. The houses in the distance accentuate how long the plot is - the street lies beyond the farther house. And turn the other way - the back of the plot is a similar distance.

Below: a lot of rubbish is being cleared; sheds and an outhouse being demolished.

To my surprise, the green grapes are turning dark pink. There are tens of thousands - wine making beckons!


Patience. It is all coming together; a lot longer than anticipated (but within budget).

This time four years ago:
Changes to Poland's traffic regulations

This time seven years ago:
Teasers in the Polish-English linguistic space

This time eight years ago:
Summer slipping away

This time nine years ago:
To the airport by bike

This time ten years ago:
My translation of Tuwim's Lokomotywa

Sunday, 26 August 2018

No new Nikon mirrorless for me, jednak

The hype has been relentless. Nikon Rumors website has been bashing on about this for a year and half, and finally on Thursday 23 August the swirling rumours were finally confirmed - Nikon is releasing two mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses and a full-size (35mm equivalent) sensors. Before the announcement, leaks, speculations, mock-ups, grainy approximations of the real thing - the Nikon world (that is those of us who are neither Canon nor non-photographers) was alight with heated discussion.

The two Nikons (Z7 with 46 megapixel sensor and Z6 with 25 MP) are intended to compete with a new generation of high-end cameras that dispense with the bulky mirror box of the single-lens reflex design. By doing so, the body is smaller and lighter, and the lens can be brought nearer the focal point. Many professional photographers, weighed down by the inherently large size of a DSLR camera, which is neither discrete nor silent, have been yearning for something smaller. Sony and Fuji have both developed very capable cameras in the mirrorless category that look likely to threaten the duopoly of Nikon and Canon. And so Nikon's response, a long time coming and much heralded.

So now we know more about these cameras - will I buy? Sadly no. As I wrote here six weeks ago, I do want a mirrorless camera with full-size sensor that takes interchangeable Nikon lenses. Below: a comparison of the relative sizes of sensors. The bigger the sensor, the greater the dynamic range (between absolute white - washed-out highlights - and absolute black - and densest shadow - where no more detail can be resolved).


But not one whose body alone weighs more more than twice as much as my current non-interchangeable-lensed, DX-sensored Nikon CoolPix A. Once a lens is added (one that has the same wide-angle coverage as the CoolPix A), the weight becomes over four times as much. (See chart below, click to enlarge).


Not to mention the price; the UK launch price for the Z7 with 24-70mm f4 kit lens will be £4,000, another £100 for the F-mount adaptor that allows the use of most Nikon lenses going back to 1959. (That's the best part of the Nikon system, almost total reverse compatibility.) But the money - it's nearly 20,000 złotys - will be better spent investing in the house on my działka.

However, it's difficult to shake off the camera fever going round the internet right now, so I upgraded the CoolPix A with the addition of an optical viewfinder, which saves me from having to pull out my reading glasses to compose on the camera's back screen. The simple optical viewfinder makes the CoolPix A handier in use, especially for grab-shots. Ah, yes, and a lens hood.

And so, Nikon, I wait. If Leica can make a full-frame mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses and keep the weight down to just over 900g with 35mm f2 lens, why can't you.

This time four years ago:
Short, sharp diet proves I'm allergy-free

This time five years ago:
More photos from Radom Air Show

This time six years ago:
Twilight on ul. Karczunkowska 

This time nine years ago:
First hints of autumn in the air

This time ten years ago:
Slovakia - we were not impressed

This time 11 years ago:
Jeziorki - late August cultivation

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Faith and instinct

Do you believe in a doctrine, carefully constructed  over the centuries by theologians to avoid inconsistencies and contradictions - or is your spirituality guided by instinct?

Let me ask you a question.

Your soul will live forever when you die - true or false?

How will you answer that question - with an instinctive "yes" or "no"? Or are you prompted to reach first for a construct of words from which you can formulate an intellectually coherent answer?

Since early childhood, my answer would always have been in the positive. Not because of anything that Jesus is claimed to have said - but because of what I have always instinctively felt to be true.

Apply thinking to it - an doubt sets in (the devil in in doubt). But strip away the negativity that has come from Newtonian reductionism; forget it. We live in a new era when Newton no longer has all the answers, when science - in its endless quest to explain the universe around us - continues to stumble upon new mysteries faster than it can answer old ones. Nor can the doctrines of established religions fully keep up with the unfolding of our cosmos.

If asked whether you think/feel/believe that your consciousness will live on after the physical demise of your body you need to stop before answering - don't. First answer - quickly. Yes? No?

My answer instinctively is 'yes, but.'

The 'but' being that pronoun 'your'. I believe that consciousness exists outside of the body - but its no longer 'yours' - it belongs to the ages, it belongs to the universe, a return to the Everlasting Entirety - minus your ego. That ego, that baggage that comes from your biology and environment. Mr Shouty won't get to heaven. But the calm, kind, mindful self, bereft of hate, will.

To return to that instinctive, untutored self, free of the pollution of hatred takes an effort; prayer-through-meditation (or meditation in a state of listening) is very helpful. I admit to not doing enough meditating/praying, although I do more than I did, say, ten years ago. Setting aside time (while brushing teeth, falling asleep are the easiest), focusing on breathing and emptying the mind of clutter.

The result is being able to be more open to your most quintessential instincts; the ones that have been in you, with you, since childhood - not of physics, chemistry and biology since every molecule in your childhood body has been replaced several times over - but of pure consciousness.

It is impossible to find someone who's lived their entire life untutored in any religion or without having received basic instruction in science. But do you believe? Yes, but not because of catechism, Sunday school, RE lessons, sermons. Nor from science text books. It has to come from your instinct.

Do I know this? No. I intuit it.

This time last year:
Tunnel (further searches for the Nazi gold train)

This time two years ago:
Planes and trains on pedestals around Poland

This time six years ago:
Twilight, ul. Karczunkowska

This time nine years ago:
First hints of autumn in the air

This time ten years ago:
Slovakia - we were not impressed

This time 11 years ago:
Jeziorki - late August cultivation

Thursday, 23 August 2018

New to Jeziorki

An ultra-local post of little relevance to anyone living outside of this blessed corner of southern Warsaw. On Monday morning I saw from the train into town some work going on by the tracks between W-wa Jeziorki and W-wa Dawidy. [Incidentally, the two station names were initially going to be the other way round, as Dawidy/Dawidy Bankowe/Dawidy Poduchowne lie west of the tracks, while Jeziorki Północne/Jeziorki Południowe lie east of the tracks spanning both stations. Just a little ultra-local aside]. Anyway, my curiosity was piqued by this, so I decided to get ofp the train at Dawidy today on my way home from work to have a look.

Below: what looks like the bed of a new road leading up to where the work is going on, a permanent piece of infrastructure - but what is it? To the left, a culvert under the tracks, essential for drainage. This has just been cleaned up. When dry, you can walk through, head bowed.


Below: from the top of a heap of soil I grab this shot. But what is it? My first thought was - a bridge support. With another one on the other side of the tracks, is a small viaduct or footbridge being built here, where the old level crossing on ul. Kórnicka once was?


Probably not - this is more to do with drainage and sewerage. The white van to the right of the photo below has written on the side zbiorniki żelbetonowe ('reinforced concrete reservoirs).


This looks to be connected with the railway modernisation project; the land here is owned by PKP rather than by the local authority. We shall see.

Below: a new view on ul. Trombity - the joining of two adjacent plots (I'd been interested in buying the one to the left but it was slightly too expensive and the owner didn't want to budge - since then I've bought a flat in Łódź and a działka near Chynów and still have money left over, so not regretting this). Anyway, the plot on the right was totally overgrown, the owner lived by the sea, I expect that both sides will be developed into something more attractive that will add value to the neighbourhood.


Below: another new view - oilseed rape on ul. Trombity - the land that my bedroom overlooks. This year's cereal crop (wheat) was harvested exceptionally early (late June!) as a result of the sunshine that dominated this spring's weather. As soon as the combine harvester was off the field, it was ploughed and sown, and within weeks the field had turned bright yellow. Today, the rape is being ploughed over as a break crop, bringing plentiful nutrients back into the soil. Professor Tofts puts it like this: "To plough once in the winter/Sowing and again in lent/Sowing with as many oxen/Sowing with as many oxen/As he shall have yoked in the plough/Oh yeah."


In the meanwhile, work continues apace on the viaduct taking ul. Karczunkowska over the railway line by W-wa Jeziorki station (which Google Maps had rather unhelpfully shown as being 'closed' - I corrected this mistake). More on that project as it moves into the next phase.

This time three years ago:
Hydrology - droughts, floods and sandbanks

This time five years ago:
Radom air show - Part 1

This time six years ago:
Restricting passenger movement and safety

This time seven years ago:
Seasonal fruit - eat it in bulk, while you can!

This time nine years ago:
Russia-Polish 'unification', 1939-style

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Purpose

It's the catchphrase of human resources consultants de nos jours. In these days of staff shortages, when firms are having to compete with each other for a dwindling pool of employees, the notion of working for something other than money is increasingly important.

To recruit and retain the best, employers have to offer more than just money - there has to be an ulterior reason for people to want to work for them. It's a demographic thing too. There are many stereotypes about the Millennials generation - those who came of age around the turn of the century - some good, some bad. The charitable stereotypes suggest that Millennials want their work to bring about some social and environmental benefit. (The less charitable say that they have a sense of entitlement and are permanently dissatisfied.)

Firms these days publish their mission statements and corporate values; employees are less keen to work for someone whose mission is 'to make more profit for our shareholders' and more keen to work for an employer who wants 'to make a positive difference to mankind'.

The notion of 'bullshit jobs' has come to prominence thanks to a book of this title by Dave Graeber. There is nothing quite as soul destroying in the workplace as coming into the office each day and thinking 'my work literally has no sense, no purpose'.

People seek purpose at work. A worker in construction from bricklayer to project manager - can see a structure rising out of the earth, then filling with people. A healthcare worker can see patients getting better. Manufacturing has purpose - as long as the product is well-designed, well-made and sustainable. In general, we make too much, buy too much and waste too much. But despite stuffocation, we still need to be fed, clothed, housed and entertained. But so much office work - administrative paper-shuffling - has little effect and minimal outcome. It is here that the workers need to be convinced that their work does indeed have a purpose - if not, they will leave. Because in today's economy - they'll find something that does satisfy their higher-order need for a job that offers more than just money.

If purpose is needed in work, it's needed in our broader life too. Here, I have to stray into matters spiritual; whether you are religious or an atheist, your life can equally be meaningful or meaningless. You can dedicate your life to helping others, improving the world in millions of small ways. Satisfaction, joy indeed, from a job well done, a task completed, a smile of gratitude.

But for me - my purpose is to seek the purpose - the purpose for which the universe exists. It seems to me entirely inconceivable that all these rocks, these suns, galaxies, should be hurtling through space without a Purpose. And among all this matter, visible or not - awareness. Consciousness is there with us, as higher-order creatures upon our particular spinning rock, orbiting our particular star, for us to at least begin to attempt to make sense of it.

Everything needs a purpose; everything needs relevance.

This time last year:
Dreamscapy

This time three years ago:
Sad farewell to Lila the cat

This time four years ago:
Your papers are in order, Panie Dembinski!

This time six years ago:
Topiary garden by the Vistula

This time seven years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story


Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Warsaw, towards the end of the summer holidays

Conscious of the waning summer, yet waiting with certain trepidation that moment of mono no aware - the Japanese term for the very first twinges of an impending autumn. In the meanwhile, Warsaw is still in a late summer holiday mood. Below: taken from the back of a number 4 tram, a rather classic photo, if I may say so myself!


Below: the mirror'd canyons of Al. Jana Pawła II, the Q22 building in the foreground, Rondo ONZ 1 in the distance. Manhattan-on-the-Vistula, soon to become even more so as new skyscrapers begin to rise from the earth.


Below: in the far distance - cranes. This is where Varso tower will soon dominate the skyline - by 2020, it will be the highest building in the EU. The building with the Mercedes-Benz logo is the 22-storey Ilmet tower, which currently awaits demolition ahead of the building of something taller.


Left: the entrance to Rondo ONZ station on Line 2 of Warsaw's two-line Metro system. Work is currently underway to extend the line north-eastwards and westwards at the same time. Once extended, Line 2 will have the effect of shifting the centre of gravity of Warsaw's central business district out towards Wola and Praga Północ.

Below: the tree-lined Al. Jana Pawła II, a fine thoroughfare. Trees still very green, despite this year's hot summer.

Below: from this location, on the north-east side of Rondo ONZ, there will be yet another change in the skyline in the next two years - PHN tower will rise in this space, between Q22 (left), Spektrum tower (centre) and the Cosmopolitan building on Twarda 22 (right). PHN tower - also known as City Tower, will be 38 floors high.


Further along ul. Świętokrzyska, outside my office window, the foundations of another skyscraper, the 24-storey high Central Point, are being laid. Again, ready for 2020. Add a plethora of office development around Rondo Daszyńskiego, and it's clear that the next few years will see dramatic changes of Warsaw's skyline.

Below: looking out of my office the other way, towards PASTa - Warsaw's first skyscraper, captured from the Germans during the Warsaw Uprising 74 years ago yesterday, commemorates the event with Home Army national flags.


Left: another building whose image remains linked with the Warsaw Uprising - the Prudential tower, Poland's first modern skyscraper (and home to the Polish-British Chamber of Commerce before WW2), completed in 1933. At the time, Europe's second highest building! Photo also taken from my office window. Currently in the last phase of refurbishment, it will soon be reopened as a luxury hotel.

By early next week, Warsaw will be back at work; schools start in earnest the week after that, so time to make the most of the last days of the summer holiday season. September to mid-December is the busiest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere!

This time four years ago:
Plans for modernising the Warsaw-Radom railway line

This time five years ago:
World's largest ship calls in at Gdańsk

This time seven years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

This time eight years ago: 
Now an urban legend: Kebab factory under W-wa Centralna 

This time nine years ago: 
It was twenty years ago today 

This time 11 years ago: 
By bike to Czachówek again

Monday, 20 August 2018

Two years on: Karczunkowska's still closed



Time to issue another commemorative stamp, marking the second anniversary of the closure of the level crossing on ul. Karczunkowska. The temporary crossing, south of W-wa Jeziorki's 'up' platform is also formally closed (though locals know you can get through in the evenings when the construction crews have finished work and all day at the weekends).

The ramps on either side of the bridge have been raised at a quick tempo (it's 60 days since work on this stage began in earnest), though promises that all will be ready by the end of September is a chimera, a fata morgana, a will o'the wisp, a fantasy. There is a chance of a first layer of asphalt being laid next month, but that's when the fiddly work starts I expect to have another commemorative stamp bearing the image of a nearly-complete viaduct with barriers at either ends preventing cars from using it. Four level-access lifts are required; signing off the paperwork for these takes ages too.

This time last year:
356 days since the closure of Karczunkowska

This time two years ago:
That's it! the level crossing's closed.

This time three years ago:
What happened to Poland's Amish?
[VERY INTERESTING POST]

This time four years ago:
PKP publishes plans for upgrade of Warsaw-Radom line

This time five years ago:
World's largest ship calls in at Gdańsk

This time seven years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

This time eight years ago: 
Now an urban legend: Kebab factory under W-wa Centralna 

This time nine years ago: 
It was twenty years ago today 

This time 11 years ago: 
By bike to Czachówek again

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Down the tracks from Chynów to Krężel

More explorations of the environs of my działka (still in remont - waiting an age for the windows and doors); this time I'm heading south. On leaving Chynów, I walk towards the next station along the Warsaw-Radom line, which is Krężel.

Below: a northbound coal train about to pass through Chynów station. It is hauled by an ET41 (a pair of EU07s semi-permanently coupled to each other with the inner cabs removed). This is ET41-001A and ET41-001B; the first built, now over 40 years old, refurbished two years ago.


Below: the magical foreshortening of the lens zoomed out to 300mm; you can see a Warsaw-bound passenger train standing at Kręzel, 3km to the south. Four minutes later, it will be at Chynów. The walk between the two stations will take me around 45 minutes.



Below: this track leads from Chynów station to the forest, beyond which lies Kręzel. It reminds me of the track between W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Jeziorki, except that there's no forest in Jeziorki!


Below: the path through the forest does not run parallel to the rails, but veers off to the west before joining ul. Spokojna (lit. 'peaceful street'), a dirt road that cuts across the tracks at right angles.


Below: the next crossing to the south is likewise unasphalted, an overgrown farm track not far from Krężel station.


Below: I arrive at the platform from the north end. As can be seen, the station is in a poor state of repair, but all is about to change next month, when the line will be modernised, all the way from Czachówek Południowy (where the current round of modernisation ended) down to Warka. To the left you can see new rails left between the old ones, waiting to be exchanged.


Below: Kręzel is in exactly the same condition as W-wa Dawidy, W-wa Jeziorki and Nowa Iwiczna stations were prior to modernisation; an island platform that forces 'down' trains to slow down significantly to swing round it, if they're not stopping here. Note the state of the platform. All this will change, as it has up the line nearer to Warsaw.


Below: Kręzel (like Sułkowice, between Chynów and Czachówek Południowy) has a covered waiting area to the east of the 'down' line. This building is unlikely to survive the modernisation. All will change; no doubt work will take around 18 months-two years considering at how long work on the W-wa Okęcie to Czachówek Południowy took. Next few weeks will be a last chance to see the line as it was.


Below: since last autumn (if not even earlier) the freight yard at Chynów station has been used as a depot for track ballast, awaiting the start of the modernisation work. This is scheduled to begin with the new railway timetable which goes live on 10 September. There will be fewer trains coming up this way, with single-track working.



Off topic but relevant to the area; the bumper apple harvest. Below: fruit trees, Jakubowizna, groaning with apples. From the orchard next door to my działka, I can hear the occasional sound of ripe apples falling though the foliage and bumping on the ground. Several large boughs have cracked, broken by the weight of fruit on them.


Below: the same spot, 29 November last year. Hard to believe that such an abundance of fruit can grow in just nine months.



Below: 15 tonnes of apples waiting to be taken away for processing. Prices as low as 40gr/kg. This is the punkt skupu (collection/purchase point) in the village of Widok, just south of Jakubowizna.


Summer - and it has been long and glorious this year - feels like it is waning; the sun sets before 8pm, the heatwaves are passing.

This time two years ago:
Herons grey and white

This time six years ago:
A return to Dobra

This time eight years ago:
Kebab factory discovered under Dworzec Centralny

This time nine years ago:
The tail-end of communism - photos you would not believe today!

This time 11 years ago:
By bike to Czachówek again


Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Another Romanesque church dedicated to St Giles

This is how coincidences work - holding the conscious universe together... last week I came across a Romanesque church named for Święty Idzi (St Giles) - and today I came across another. This one is located in the village (former town) of Inowłódź (Moni suggested I pay a visit while exploring the DK48 road). Atop a small hill, a short, sharp eight metres climb from the road, the church is a remarkable building, having survived so many invasions (the Mongol invasion of 1241 saw the destruction of a nearby Benedictine nunnery). The cross in the foreground of the picture below commemorates the parish priest who died in 1911; the cross is pocked with bullet holes.


Below: view of the south-east side of the church, completed no later than 1138, the typical rounded arches of typical of Romanesque (which came before the pointy-arched Gothic style) are visible.


Below: the north-east side, viewed from the cemetery. The church is only open for worship on Sundays in summer. 880-year-old brickwork! If the sight looks familiar to Polish readers, it may be because it has frequently been used as a film set and has appeared in Wajda's Popioły, Hoffman's Pan Wołodyjowski, the comedy Jak rozpętałem drugą wojnę światową and in the 1973 war film Hubal, as well as in episodes of TV series Cztery Pancerni i Pies. There is a sign by the main gate forbidding the use of the church grounds for wedding photos or any other form of commercial photography, so the administration is used to dealing with the creative industries!


Back to last Tuesday - St Giles' Church, (kościół Św. Idziego), Ostrów Tumski, Wrocław. Not quite as old, 1281 is the first mention. 


Giles is an uncommon name in Britain, but Idzi is almost unknown in Poland (I've met a few Gileses in my lifetime, but I've never met an Idzi!).

This time two years ago:
Armed forces day flypast seen from Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
The ground parade part one: 1939

The flypast

This time seven years ago:
Dworzec Zachodni ('West Wailway Shtation') before the remont

This time eight years ago: 
90 years ago today - Bolsheviks stopped at the gates of Warsaw 

This time nine years ago: 
Kestrel 

This time 11 years ago: 
Armed forces day parade in Warsaw

Friday, 10 August 2018

Poland's economy - where next?

The seeds of every economic downturn are clearly visible at the height of each economic boom.

Poland's economy is roaring ahead with year-on-year growth around 5%, inflation at 2% and unemployment at a record low (fourth lowest in EU and lower than in the UK). Żyć i nie umierać!

What could possibly go wrong?

We are midway through a business cycle. Wages and raw materials are pushing up prices much faster than most businesses planned for. Right now, country managers of foreign investors here in Poland are doing what they can to keep a lid on costs, but they're fighting a losing battle. Passing on higher costs to customers? If they can, they will. But their business customers have business plans and budgets too. Eventually, the additional costs of materials and wages will be passed on the end-user, the consumer. It's inevitable. This is most visible in the construction sector. Say you agreed 18 months ago to build a small shop for 1,000,000 złotys. Your general contractor has budgeted for a 10% profit margin taking labour and material costs into consideration. Suddenly, the contractor cannot find workers willing to work for the money allocated in the budget, nor can building materials be bought for the prices assumed when the budget was being drawn up. So corners are cut, deadlines are missed, profits squeezed, shareholders' dividends reduced... and at the end of the day, the building will cost more than the million in the budget. Someone has to pay.

The next round of business plans and budgets will take these new realities into consideration. Up go the prices; Poland is quickly ceasing to be seen as a cheap country. Good - but... if growth is to continue, it must be predicated by something other than low costs. Higher value added is the answer - but how? IT is part of this. Newcomers to the Polish market from the UK, US, Japan and other rich countries are setting up IT hubs, drawn by the high reputation that Poland's programmers enjoy. But there are not enough of them... In 2006, Poland produced 20,000 IT graduates. By 2016, that figure had fallen to 13,000. Demographics is the reason - demographics is a major problem for Poland. The number of young people entering the labour market will continue to fall systematically for the next six years, before a brief respite (the 'echo boom').

Avoiding the middle-income trap.

Poland has grown rapidly thanks to wise macroeconomic policies over the past (nearly) three decades that harnessed low labour costs to an increasingly globalising economy. As wealth spreads out across the Polish population, foreign investors no longer choose Poland as a location because it's cheap. Cheap you want is it? Go elsewhere. But a quality, well-educated, highly motivated labour force? Yes. And still cheaper than Western Europe. But no longer six or seven times cheaper; maybe two or three times cheaper. Poland needs jobs of higher value added; IT, advanced manufacturing, healthcare, not simple contact centres or basic metal-bashing.

Full marks to the Polish government for taking action in this area. Poland has stopped being a low-cost labour market where simple tasks in manufacturing or services are carried out by people happy with a steady job for minimal pay. Technology is coming to the rescue. Robots and algorithms will replace people for high-volume repetitive work. But is this enough?

Immigration: returning home from London on Sunday, I popped into the McDonalds at Okęcie airport, where one of the guys behind the counter was Indian and the other African. Both spoke passible Polish. No big deal in London to see such a scene, but a bit of a culture shock in Warsaw. Later, I was in a Shell petrol station on Puławska, where two Indian guys were behind the counter. Double take. For a second, I was back in the UK - but no, this is Warsaw, 2018. My guess is that Warsaw can accept coloured workers much easier than small-town Poland, where racial integration is harder. The number of young people working in restaurants, shops and bars across Poland with a Ukrainian accent no longer warrants attention - it's become a fact of life; there's little problem here.

But long term, is the answer more migration or more automation? Depends where...

To return to the middle-income trap thread; if your factory is knocking out millions of pieces all the same (or nearly the same), robots are the way. Industry 4.0, internet-of-things (IoT) is the answer. You'll need fewer people, though they'll need to be retrained from mere operators to mechatronics specialists. If your services centre is processing millions of invoices and receipts a year, artificial intelligence will crunch the data faster and more accurately. The question is - will Poland be able to make its own robots and AI solutions, or will it have to import them? If you are making small production runs with a high degree of customisation, robotics and AI will not come to your rescue. You will simply have to pay your people more. Much more. Compare the cost of a haircut in Warsaw and London.

Poles will have much more money in their pockets. What will they spend it on? Fripperies such as foreign holidays and fancy cars - or will they invest in property, upgrading their quality of life with bigger, better equipped kitchens and bathrooms, bigger living rooms, bedrooms...?

Legal reform and foreign investment

Independent courts: This is not a major worry for foreign investors who have come to Poland to make car parts or process food. If the client/customer is in the private sector, cases involving the state are rare. But foreign-owned construction firms - Skanska, Hochtief, Bouygues, Strabag, Ferrovial, Mota Engil - all of whom are heavily engaged in major infrastructure projects for the Polish state - are concerned that court cases between them and the public-sector contractor might not be fairly adjudicated. There is a feeling that courts where the judges take instruction from politicians will be biased against foreign capital; this will dissuade foreign owned companies from taking on public tenders and leaving them to Polish firms. No bad thing per se, but with less competition on the market, the Polish taxpayer will end up paying more for infrastructure projects of lower quality.

Economic patriotism

Subject of an Economist piece this week, the government's overt bias in favour of Polish capital over foreign-owned firms has its pluses as well as its minuses. Although generally an economic liberal, I have long seen the sense of keeping Poland's strategic companies (energy in particular) in Polish hands - for fear of Russia. Gazprom, a gas company with nuclear weapons, is a nasty player and should be dealt with only by Poles who've had the right security training and background checks.

But in the broader economy, the impending lesson that the UK is about to get is that foreign capital is by its nature footloose. The entire UK automotive industry, with the exception of Morgan (production: 1,300 cars a year) is owned by German, Japanese, Indian, French or US capital. Screw up the just-in-time supply chain with a hard Brexit, and BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Vauxhall and Ford will move their factories to mainland Europe. British business owners - shareholders and entrepreneurs alike - have sold off much of what it was that made the UK economy so strong in the past. Cadbury's, BOC, Freightliner, Dulux, Pilkington - formerly British-owned businesses present in Poland, now owned by American, German, Dutch or Japanese capital.

As Poland gets economically more powerful, Polish capital is now making its way abroad in search of higher returns. The acquisition of JDR Cables by TF Kable, or the acquisition of Webster Drives by SKB Drive Tech S.A., Reserved's flagship store on Oxford Street (where British Home Stores used to be), the ever-growing network of Inglot cosmetics shops across the UK gives me a sense of pride; the question is to what extent the government should get involved on this process.

Social transfers, consumption and the labour market

Anecdotal evidence from some employers in some sectors suggests that many younger women have detached themselves from the labour market having a comfortable existence rearing small children (which presumably was the intention of the government's 500+ programme). This exacerbates the labour shortage, bumps up public spending, but boosts consumer spending, which is particularly noticeable in rural- and small-town Poland. The danger of 500+ is the temptation of political parties to use the prospect of increasing it as ballot-box bait. Poland has thus far avoided the creation of a benefits-dependent underclass, but this is how it starts.

Focus on education

Education will be the key to Poland's continued success. OK, there are fewer children at school, but there needs to be more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). As one factory manager in Rzeszów told me earlier this year: "We need graduates in engineering, not theology." Vocation schools need to make a come-back. Not every young person has academic ambitions or abilities, and yet with a solid education in craft skills, they can become far more sought after on the labour market than a graduate with a master's degree in political sciences, history, French literature or indeed theology. Universities that cannot deliver the courses that create useful employees will find it hard to compete as numbers of young people leaving schools continues to fall.

Government needs to join up the work of all the ministries that can make all this happen. Poland needs to become a digital state, replacing paperwork and offices with online forms and smart contracts; taxation can be made so much simpler through digitisation, easier to collect, easier to identify egregious non-payers or abusers of the VAT system. Schools and universities need closer contact with the world of work, with the economy.

I can see inflation letting rip as we move out of one business cycle and into another. Wages, growing at 8% a year, while general price inflation moves ahead at a steady 2%, is not sustainable. Those wages will be chasing a finite number of flats and houses, property prices will rise and not just because of higher material and labour costs. Until the money from the current EU financial perspective is contracted (to the end of 2020) and spent (to the end of 2022 for 'soft' projects and 2023 for infrastructure projects), the construction sector will continue to show signs of overheating.

What next? Depends to an extent on the next EU budget (likely to be without the UK's input), which in any case will be more generous to the poor South rather than on awkward members like Poland and Hungary. Known unknowns? A war with Putin's Russia (invasion of the Baltics? Escalation in Ukraine?) A trade war with the US? Less likely now, but could change with a single presidential tweet.

For the time being, make hay while the sun shines.

This time four years ago:
Eat Polish apples, drink Polish cider

This time five years ago:
Hottest week ever (37C)

This time six years ago:
Progress along the second line of the Warsaw Metro 

This time seven years ago:
Doric arches, ul. Targowa

This time eight years ago:
A place in the country, everyone's ideal

This time 11 years ago:
I must go down to the sea again

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Poland's railways failing in the heat

A busy two days touring factories in Poland (more about this and prospects for the Polish economy later). On Tuesday I woke at 03:45 to catch the 05:13 to W-wa Zachodnia, and from there the 06:05 to Opole. At W-wa Zachodnia I found the Scottish Restaurant closed and my train without a restaurant car. Now, McDonald's advertises itself as open from 4am, and the EIC 1621 Odra is shown on the station timetable as having proper dining facilities. Staff shortages. As soon as the train pulls out, passengers are informed that this particular train doesn't have a dining carriage. Still a man comes with a trolley handing out free water (good) and selling ham rolls and cheese rolls at 6zł (£1.30) each. So I managed to make it to Opole OK, although the air conditioning was a bit fierce until the sun rose high enough to burn. I arrive in Opole on time, so far so good...

Next rail leg was Wrocław to Poznań, the following day. The 10:45 InterCity IC 6501 Heweliusz service, which started its run in Wrocław, left the station 24 minutes late. Not only was there no restaurant car, there was not even a drinks/snacks trolley. Fortunately, I'd eaten a reasonable breakfast. Below: the beautifully refurbished entrance to Wrocław Główny station.


Below: soon the train has left Wrocław and is speeding along through open countryside, which in summer is extremely attractive to look at from the train window. But every now and then, the train switches track and slows down to walking pace...


Refurbishment work is going on up and down the line between Wrocław and Poznań. Below: Rawicz station, in an early phase of remont. This could be somewhere in East Africa, a giant infrastructure project financed by China - but no, we are in southwest Poland.


Single track working continues through Kościan. Below: the station building stands in front of space for two tracks and a platform; holiday-making passengers on the single platform currently in use wait for a southbound service as the northbound train pulls away, headed for Poznań, Bydgoszcz, Gdańsk, Sopot and Gdynia.


The timetable gave me 22 minutes in Poznań to change trains. Unfortunately, the train did not make up much lost time along the way; the combination of this plus change of platform for the service to my destination, Swarzędz, meant I missed it and had to take a taxi from the station to make my meeting on time. Very pricy.

Swarzędz is on the line from Poznań to Konin; a major refurbishment of this line is under way causing InterCity trains to divert via Inowrocław and Gniezno, adding nearly an hour to the normal Warsaw-Poznań journey time. Local trains still use the Konin line. Swarzędz station, below, is complete; tastefully refurbished. However, the booking hall closes at 16:00; no problem - you can buy tickets on the train from the conductor or from a machine that takes cash and credit/debit cards.


I walked from the factory back to Swarzędz station in good time to catch the train back to Warsaw. This arrived from Zielona Góra 15 minutes early, but had to wait for coaches from another train from Gorzów Wielkopolski to be coupled to it. The combined train left 15 minutes late, so I was sat in a stationary train for half an hour bathed in sweat (the air conditioning was turned off). It was only an hour after departure from Poznań that the train became truly comfortable temperature-wise. But not for long; by the time we arrived delayed at Łowicz, the sun had set, the air outside had cooled, but the air-con was still pumping out freezing air. I moved to another carriage in which the air-con hadn't worked at all - the window was left open at speeds of up to 150km/h, which proved effective.

There was a snack trolley - but only in the carriages from Gorzów. I tracked it down and bought some pretzels and water, enough to keep me going until Warsaw.

Back in W-wa Zachodnia with a long wait for my train home (below). This station was partially refurbished; major work still awaits the platforms, which will be totally enclosed.


Frequent delays, many much longer than the ones I experienced, lack of staff (many are holidaying too, just as peak passenger use was expected), over-running construction work, a heatwave and crowded trains mean that train travel is not the pleasure it usually is. But things will get better - they were much, much worse in years gone by!

This time last year:
"Learn from your mystics is my only advice"

This time two years ago:
Out where the pines grow wild and tall

This time five years ago:
Behold and See (part V) - short story

This time six years ago:
Syrenki in Warsaw

This time seven years ago:
What's the Polish for 'impostor'?

This time eight years ago:
Running with the storm on the road to Mamrotowo

This time ten years ago:
St Pancras Station - new gateway to London

This time 11 years ago:
Mountains or sea? North Wales has them both