Friday, 28 December 2012

Travellin Bob's 2012 Review

Well, I suppose on a scale of 1 to 10, this year was no more than a 5. 

OK, the Olympics in London were well worth watching (even if London was clogged up for weeks with visitors and in one of my few overseas trips this year I got well and truly ripped off by a hotel that was blatantly profiteering from the event), and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations seemed to go off pretty well.  Over the past week or so, for the Christmas schedules, the Polish version of BBC Entertainment has run several programs on that theme – a look at Royal Weddings from the Queen Mum to Wills and Kate; a very good three parter presented by Andrew Marr celebrating the Queen’s reign; and the Jubilee Concert outside Buck House that had its high points and its shite points – so I’ve only just caught up with all that went on.  She’s a grand old lady, is Liz 2, and after seeing Marr’s series she has I admit gone up a lot in my estimation…..she is without doubt a tough act to follow for Charles (who will have quite a short reign by the look of it) and William.

We had a couple of good vacations too.  The first, three weeks at the Polish seaside, I only had a couple of days there because of (rare) work commitments, but Ania and the kids enjoyed it.  The most entertaining thing about that trip was the fisticuffs I got involved in with some pillock at the local garage here when I tanked the car immediately before we set off.  Police were called, but no charges were brought, and off we went, me with a badly sprained wrist and the pillock a lovely black eye.  Happy days.

The second vacation was three weeks in Almeria, Spain, staying at my second cousin Don and his wife Heather’s apartment in Roquetas de Mar.  We went in August for three weeks, the weather was perfect (for once in my life it didn’t rain during my vacation – hardly saw a cloud, in fact) and we had a great time.
We also squeezed in a trip to Kiev in at the beginning of May, shortly before Ukraine and Poland hosted a pretty successful Euro 2012 football championship.  Interestingly, the post I did about that trip is by far and away my most read piece – I guess a lot of people looked at it to get a feel for the place before the football but since no-one ever bothers to comment on the Blog I can’t be sure.

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In the wider world, we had the usual list of natural disasters.  This time the biggest story was “Superstorm Sandy” that ripped through the Caribbean in October, devastating parts of poor old Haiti (still recovering desperately slowly from the last two years’ worth of earthquakes and hurricanes), walloping Cuba then running up the eastern seaboard of the US where it eventually came on land and flattened a good part of the Jersey shore and New York City.  Cue much hand-wringing from wealthy Americans who had never suffered anything like it before (they should try being a poor Caribbean islander, acing these events every year) and the inevitable Benefit Concert in Madison Square Gardens, where a pretty good bill included Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi (Jersey boys both) performing together, plus Alicia Keyes, some talentless NY hip hop artists, the Stones (still Rolling along after an amazing 50 years, despite all being around 70 now) and The Who (ditto).  Oh, and Benefit Gig Specialist Sir Paul McCartney, who also headlined the Queen’s Jubilee Concert.  All I can say is thank God for the Beatles’ back catalogue. 

Talking of the Jubilee Concert, was anyone else as embarrassed as I was by Annie Lennox, who I think is a great singer, swanning around in angel’s wings singing a dreadfully plodding version of Must be Looking for an Angel?  Dire.  As was Sir Cliff Richard – still looking about 25 (plastic surgery????) but prancing around stiffly and with a voice that faded by the verse…..another 70 plus artist who really should retire gracefully.  Much as I love The Who (they were one of my favourites back in the day), they never recovered from Moonie’s death (although current drummer Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr, is pretty damn’ good), and the sight of Roger Daltrey’s stiff stage movements and freshly waxed chest and fake tan (when he had the idea of unbuttoning his shirt completely a la Who c.1973), to mention nothing of a somewhat expended waist line, was, not to put too fine a point on it, embarrassing.  His voice is shot too.  Such a shame: I have fond memories of their Charlton Athletic gig with Alex Harvey and others back in 1973, in their pomp, and an equally great show at the Hammersmith Odeon the following year, when the guy could really move and had a voice that blew anyone else (apart from maybe Robert Plant) away.  He also nearly ran me over in his Ferrari Dino once, in Tunbridge Wells, as I was crossing the road by the Pantiles and he came roaring down the Frant Road and skidded to a halt about a foot short of me.  He was listening to what I assume was a rough cut of The Who By Numbers album – not one of their best.  Sorry, Rog – loved you in the past but it’s time so say bye-bye and concentrate on the trout farm.

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What else?  Well, no world class tyrants snuffed it this year: despite the Arab Spring running into a second year (and now rapidly approaching a third) Ahmedinajad and Assad are still hanging on in Iran and Syria respectively.  It is incredible to me that Assad is still merrily slaughtering his own people on a daily basis, still blaming it on them for being “gangsters”, and still being allowed to get away with it.  Next door, Israel continues its efforts at Genocide against Palestinians, ignoring feeble UN complaints and ignoring sanctions, secure in the knowledge that there isn’t a Western politician (shame on you, Messrs Obama and Cameron….) with balls enough to condemn them outright and impose real and swingeing sanctions – if the US and EU were to withdraw military and financial support for Israel it may make a difference, but the chances of it happening are zilch.  It amazes me that a country founded as a result of botched British diplomacy that essentially gave in to the demands of terrorist organizations – people not unlike Hamas, in fact, only better armed and organized – has been able to achieve such “respectability” despite its despicable behaviour over many years.

Obama won a closely fought Election and is now in his second term, but with the GOP still controlling half the legislature he’s in for a rough four years again – as the current “Fiscal Cliff” impasse shows.  Cameron continues to baffle me: he tries to say the right things all the time, but invariably makes a prat of himself and is deeply unpopular.  His policies seems to change with the wind direction, he’s surrounded by politicians in the Coalition who are clearly not up to the job (those on the Opposition benches are no better either) and his fixation with Europe and austerity measures is clearly damaging the country – and yet, the UK is stuck with the bloke for another couple of years, courtesy of his first piece of his legislation guaranteeing a full five year Parliamentary term.  Democracy, I hear you say?  Yeah, right.  I’m glad I’m not living in the UK now, because I have absolutely no bloody idea who I would vote for…..  It’s very sad to see my country going to the dogs in this way.

In Europe, the financial crisis continues.  Remarkably, Greece has managed to avoid a default, as have Spain, Italy,Portugal and Cyprus - but it's been very very close at times.  "Austerity" is still being demanded everywhere, despite wide spread opposition and civil unrest in all the ailing countries, and an increasingly popular view that it's not actually working anyway.  Berlusconi was kicked out and his political obituaries penned - but he's making a comeback, apparently.  Personally, I love the bloke: he's the most corrupt politician in Europe by a country mile, everybody knows it - but he doesn't give a toss.    Merkel is up for re-election in 2013 so continues to bang the drum for austerity (thereby not upsetting the German electorate who don't want to foot the bill for the incompetence of the Greek government, to mention nothing of Spain, Italy etc....).  Sarkozy went, to be replaced by the fervently anti-austerity Socialist Hollande.  He has managed to piss off most of Europe's leadership without changing a thing so far, despite his election promises.  Perhaps he'll have more luck if Merkel gets kicked out next year....

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And what of work?

More like, WHAT work.  2012 is without a doubt the most unproductive year I have EVER had – not only in my present job but going back to my banking days.  Sum total: a week in Florida, three weeks in Cairo, two and a half weeks in London and five weeks in Malta.  And EVERY single trip was basically a waste of time: a political bum on a seat, supporting testing (which means waiting for people to ask me questions).  None of it was particularly taxing or mentally rewarding (forget financially rewarding: the company doesn’t work like that), and unsurprisingly the company eventually called time and delivered in early November via DHL a termination letter – it quite spoiled my breakfast (I was tucking into a bowl of cornflakes at the time) – without the advance warning that everyone else seems to have received.  We’ve fired a lot of very good people this year, and it seems the company is really struggling, despite optimistic predictions coming from senior management.  Nobody takes much notice of them anyway, given that they don’t seem to have a clue what they’re doing.  All very sad: a potentially great company is going to the dogs.  And I hear that more very good people will be following me out of the door very soon.  

So as 2012 draws to close, I have one more month of official employment before I’m cut loose to fend for myself in any way I can.  I know what I’m planning to do, and there are a number of irons in fires that will hopefully come to something in the first few weeks of 2013 – but the uncertainty has meant a very low key Festive period this year.  Still, the kids enjoyed it, despite the chest infections that they and I have been battling against (with only limited success) for a couple of months now.  I will be glad to see the back of this year, and look forward to 2013……difficult to plan much, given the state of my employment and bank balance, but one definite trip to come is the UK in May for my nipper’s wedding – now that we’re all looking forward to!

So I’ll bid you all farewell, hope you had a good 2012, a good Christmas, and wish you all a very VERY Happy New Year. 

And as Schwarzenneger once memorably said....I'll be back.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The changing face of Warsaw

I needed to get out.

Apart from the odd school or shop run, I’d been stuck in the flat for the best part of three weeks.  Part of the time I’d been battling Man Flu (still am, for that matter), and for a bigger part I’d been on babysitting duties as one or both of the kids had been off sick from school with a variety of viruses and colds, while My Beloved had been out and about a lot attending to some pressing family business with her mum.  Daytime tv, especially CBeebies or Disney Junior, does not I’m afraid hold the attention for long, and nor does multiple viewings of Mamma Mia! or Tangled, no matter what my Princess may say.  And as for staring at my laptop screen, waiting for an e-mail or Skype message to pop up telling me I have a job to go to after Christmas – well, after a three week near silence on that front the anticipatory excitement had long faded.  The charms of the BBC, Guardian and Newsweek websites, and very definitely Facebook, had also faded, and even spending time working on the book no longer floated my boat.

No, I needed a change of scenery.

That’s the biggest trouble with this extended gardening leave (or if you prefer, notice period).   After 13 years of more or less constant travelling, averaging two or three flights a week, total mileage in that time getting on for half a million, this constant inactivity, in one place (and don’t get me wrong I love my home!) is driving me up the wall now.  Patience, as my dear old mum used to say, is a virtue – and it is, but now and then I like to see something other than the view of KEN, and the MarcPol supermarket and the apartment blocks across the road. 

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So yesterday, after the school run, I went off on the metro.  I thought perhaps a walk around the city centre might cheer me up a bit, even on a grey winters’ day, with a temperature of minus several.  I armed myself with some reading material and my iPod, selected Hector Berlioz’ Symphanie Fantastique for my opening soundtrack, and off I went.

When I first came to Warsaw, back in 2000, there was a single Metro line running for a dozen stops from Centrum to Kabaty on the southern edge of the city.   A few hundred metres stroll further on from the end of the line and you come to the Las Kabacki forest, with its cycle tracks, footpaths, and picnic areas.  It’s not exactly a wilderness but it’s countryside, and very green and pleasant in summer.  The line northwards was still under construction, but it’s finished now and runs a further dozen or so stops, and is very cheap and efficient and comfortable.  Rush hours, like metro lines the world over, are crowded and unpleasant, but off-peak it’s fine with trains every three minutes or so from about 5 a.m. to about midnight.  Last year construction started on an east to west line, that will pass under the Wisla river.  It seems to be very slow going, and there are no stations opened yet, and massive construction sites in the city centre where existing stations are being extended and new ones added, all of which adds to Warsaw’s chaotic traffic.

The city is quite compact, certainly in comparison with London, but has a wealth of public transport options.  In addition to the Metro, there is a comprehensive bus service, an extensive tram network and more cabs than you can count.  All of them are relatively cheap and efficient and offer good value.  I can hop a Metro from the station outside my block and be in the city centre in 15 minutes.   Recently there have been a number of park-and-ride options added, that allow people to commute in from out of town under their own steam, park cheaply next to certain Metro stations then take advantage of the public transport networks.  By 8 a.m., the park-and-ride by the bus terminus next door to our block is full, and late comers park wherever they can – which means that by 8:30 all the visitors’ spaces in the block’s car park are taken and cars are double parked or dumped on the footpaths outside by the station entrances.  It’s a nightmare, and the traffic on KEN, the main road that runs past the block from Kabaty to pick up the main Niepodleglosci and Pulawska roads into the town centre, about a kilometre past where we live, is always heavy from about 5 a.m. to midnight, every day (weekends included).    The traffic noise is constant, and you get used to it or suffer it, there are no other choices.

So within 20 minutes or so of leaving home, I came up the escalator at Centrum.  There is a forecourt there, below road level, that has always been, and continues to be, a magnet for all kinds of street entertainers and hawkers.  My favourite is a bloke who clearly imagines he’s Keith Moon or Buddy Rich or someone, and spends his days playing a more or less constant ragged drum solo.  But his drum kit is an old wooden dining room chair and his sticks a couple of wooden kitchen spoons.   He was there yesterday, as usual, and the cap on the chair seat, used to collect donations, was empty, as usual.   There was also a tv camera crew setting up, and a big 10 foot square mobile screen playing a speech made by General Jaruzelski, then ruling the country, announcing martial law and a 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew back in December 1981, as he struggled the contain the Solidarity revolution and preserve communist rule (yesterday was the anniversary of this event).   Thankfully, he ultimately failed.

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I strolled from the Metro station towards the main railway station, using the adjoining Srodmiescie entrance.  The station, Dworzec Centralny, has always fascinated me.  Architecturally, it’s a bit of a monstrosity, the main ticket hall being a big grey concrete block rising just next to the old Stalinist Palace of Culture.  The bulk of the station is under ground level, a vast cavern through which runs a series of tracks for both local (suburban) lines and intercity services.   The tracks are on different levels and there is also a huge mall of small shops and restaurants in the maze of tunnels linking the various parts of the station.  There are also exits to various tram and bus stops.  The place is like a sauna in summer and a refrigerator in winter, and in my memory always stank if stale piss and tobacco.   It was a gift from Russia to the Polish people, and was opened on the day Brezhnev paid a state visit back in the 70s – his was the first train (all the way from Moscow, of course) to use the station, and as he and his accompanying party of KGB guards and welcoming Polish minions walked through the halls to the fleet of limousines awaiting them outside, the team of painters and decorators who were still putting the finishing touches to the interior were hustled away and hidden from view, to continue their work after he had gone.
In the past couple of years a lot of work has been done to clean and modernise the place, as far as it’s possible to do so.  A lot of it was done with this year’s Euro 2012 hosting in mind, but the place needed sprucing up anyway.  Most of the corridors have been cleaned and repainted with white or light pastel colours to brighten them up, and they have been scrubbed clean and fumigated – I didn’t catch the old familiar odours at all.  There is new tunnel full of shops and cafes that is very light an airy, with a direct entrance to the relatively new Zlote Tarasy shopping mall.  The platforms too have been cleaned and re-decorated, as has the main ticket hall – as befits what is now an international station.   The intercity section (now with its own lounge for first class passengers, not dissimilar to an airport business lounge) serves not only trains to Krakow and Lublin and Poznan and Gdansk and all the other Polish destinations, but places further afield too.  As I strolled along the corridor, looking down on the platforms, an express service to Poznan and Berlin Hauptbahnhof came in.   Other services to Prague, Moscow, Basle, and Amsterdam were scheduled for the next half an hour…..some journeys there I’d love to make myself!

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I wandered into Zlote Tarasy.  This is the newest mall in central Warsaw, opening maybe three years ago.  It’s not the best mall in town, but the design, featuring a big curvy glass roof over the main atrium, is interesting, and makes the place bright and airy when the sun shines.  All the normal stores and food outlets are there, and it’s surrounded by towering office blocks that have radically changed the skyline since I first came here.  The mall stands on a piece of land between the Central Station and the Holiday Inn hotel, which is where I spent my first couple of months in Warsaw, before the bank placed me in an apartment.    At that time the land was used as a car park, so the front entrance to the hotel was quite bright and open.  With the building of Zlote Tarasy this is no longer the case: the Holiday inn is now surrounded on all sides by tower blocks higher than itself so there can no longer be anything resembling a room with a view.  I do wonder how trade has been affected by this.    When I stayed there, it was a pretty good hotel.  The rooms were very comfortable, and every day I had a complementary International Herald Tribune newspaper delivered and found a king sized Mars or Snickers Bar on my pillow when I got back after work.  There was a decent fitness centre with sauna and Jacuzzi that I used from time to time, and the bar and restaurant were good meeting places for all our projects teams (at the time we had a couple running in Warsaw, so there were getting on for 20 people here).  I remember there was a middle aged hooker in the bar every night, looking for business.  We called her (rather unkindly) Monkey Face.  None of us ever used her services, but one night, after a particularly good evening where more than the usual number of Zywiec beers were put away (I think it was someone’s birthday), my mate decided to have a bit of a laugh.  He invited her to his room, and she agreed with alacrity (she never seemed to do any business to speak of).  In the lift between the Lobby and the fifth floor, where his room was, he managed to haggle her price down from PLN150 to just 10, then as they were leaving the lift, put his arm across in front of her, pressed the Ground Floor button, and said, “No, can’t be bothered.”   Apparently she burst into tears.  Cruel man, that Dan.  To put that money into context: at that time our per diem rate was PLN250 per day, and the exchange rate was over PLN7.50 to the pound.  Everything was very cheap then, and we lived very well on the money – I never came close to spending an entire days’ allowance in one day.  We figured you would need to eat two good meals a day and use taxis everywhere to do that.   Since then, prices have gone up quite a bit and the exchange rate is now just over 5 to the pound.

Anyway, I went to a little coffee bar, called Cawa, on the second floor overlooking the atrium, and settled into an armchair outside with a latte to read my book for a while and watch the world go by.  The coffee was okay, not up to Starbucks standard, but adequate, and came with a free shot of Bailey’s liqueur in a little glass.   You’ve probably seen in some places the servers do a little pattern in the foam – usually it looks like a leaf or something simple.  The guy at Cawa was clearly getting into the festive spirit (the sound system in the mall was playing carols) – he did a really good reindeer head in my foam.  I still can’t figure out how he did it, even with eyes and nostrils…….smart guy.   I stayed there half an hour, reading, while Berlioz gave way to Coldplay’s Left Right Left, a free concert download I picked up a few years ago – really good (I’m sorry, I happen to like Coldplay).   The book is called I, Partridge: We need to talk about Alan.  It’s a spoof autobiography of Steve Coogan’s finest comic creation, and is hilarious.  It’s written in the style of the character, and is illustrated with stills from the various tv series, with the most ridiculously complex captions.  There are also footnotes on virtually every page that illustrate the text, including some that refer to a playlist built from three days solid study of Partridge’s iPod (he writes in the introduction)– all typical of the Great Man’s musical tastes as broadcast on his Radio Norfolk show…. ;-))   I bought it in Malta earlier this year and thoroughly recommend it. 

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After that, I decided to move on, and headed off to catch a tram to another mall, Arkadia, that is one of the biggest in Europe apparently.
Like everything else, the tram service in Warsaw has improved a lot in my time here.  The network is pretty much the same (I don’t think there are any new routes at all) but the cars themselves have improved tremendously.   Back in 2000, all the cars were rickety old things, unheated and with hard, un-upholstered plastic seats, that jerked and lurched slowly along rusty tracks.  They were overcrowded and frequently broke down.  Since joining the EU, a lot of the money from the development funds received by the government has been spent modernizing the entire fleet, and the vast majority of them are now new and comfortable, with padded seating, decent heating systems and instead of tacky advertising posters and stations lists pasted to the windows (thus obscuring the view) there are now flat screen tv’s that carry constantly changing adverts, route listings and news stories.  All very pleasant, and still very cheap to travel on.

Arkadia was crowded with shoppers as the pre-Christmas rush gathers pace.    I spent a while browsing in the American (English language) Bookshop branch there, and spotted half a dozen volumes I’d like to buy at some point, but resisted the temptation to spend anything, then wandered around a Saturn electrical store looking at external hard-drives (I need to buy one for this beast) – again, I kept my hands firmly in my pockets with my wallet.  By this time, my soundtrack had moved on to a Chris Rea compilation, Still So Far To Go and I was getting peckish, so my next stop was Coffee Heaven for a large latte and a turkey, brie and cranberry sandwich (plus another half hour of Alan Partridge).

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By this time, it was early afternoon, and I felt much better for getting away from the flat.  I’d had enough, and my Man Flu was nagging at me, coughing and spluttering like an old man, and struggling not to sneeze more than once every couple of minutes, so I decided to head home.   I caught another tram, down the hill a couple of stops to the Dworzec Gdanski Metro station, and hopped a train home.  It had been a nice couple of hours, and I reflected that Warsaw has changed a lot in my ten years or so living here….and apart from the heavier traffic and higher prices, largely for the better.  Although there is still poverty here, as there is in every major city, by and the large the average Varsovian is financially better off than when I arrived.  Although prices have increased, wages have too.   The workforce is younger and better educated, and increasingly English is spoken (especially in the under 35 age group) in stores and bars and restaurants, almost as a matter of course.  A lot of this is down to changes in the education system where English (and French, German, Spanish and Italian) have replaced Russian as the second language taught.  There are also language schools scattered throughout the city now.  But it’s also because the majority of young Poles who left the country after EU accession to work in the UK and elsewhere have now returned home, better qualified and with language skills honed by the time away.  Although the Polish plumber still exists across the UK, most of them have now come back to work in the booming construction industry here as the country continues to modernise rapidly and new roads and buildings spring up everywhere.

The Warsaw skyline has changed too.  In 2000, the tallest building was still the Palace of Culture in the centre, with the Marriott Hotel opposite a little shorter.  Others were under construction  - the Warsaw Trade Tower, a little to the west of centre, the Bank Austria building behind the Palace and others.  They’re all finished now, and more are mushrooming across the city.  Many are modern office buildings, but many also are new apartment blocks that continue to provide the favoured home here.  Housing, as we would understand it in the UK, neighbourhoods of identical terraced, semi- or detached properties, exist but are few and far between, because there is relatively little available building land, at least in central Warsaw.  So apartment blocks still rule the roost – there is a new one under construction in the centre, 30 floors or so, that is state of the art, and offers penthouses at PLN3million or thereabouts – way out of my league.

Road-works remain more or less constant, as they have done since my arrival.  They are now not only to improve traffic flow in the city itself – like the new road out to the airport from where I live – but to get to Warsaw too.  There are highways (or stretches of motorway standard road) on the way to the coast, from Torun to Gdansk, that reduces the travel time from Warsaw to the seaside by a couple of hours; on the road to Lublin that eases traffic flow to and from Ukraine; between Warsaw and Krakow, Poznan, Wroclaw and the mountains.  Some of them are toll roads, but the tolls are quite cheap and well worth paying for the improved journeys.  Of course, these roads need to link up with the city, so there are many big construction sites doing just that.  Right now, it can be a bit of a nightmare, but in a couple of years it will be much better getting in and out of Warsaw than it currently is getting in and out of say London.

I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather live right now.