Sunday, 26 May 2013

A trip to Dolnośląskie

All the good things have to come to an end… Taking a long-awaited and well-deserved holiday break helped me recharge batteries and forget about most of everyday worries. All the plans, social and sight-seeing-related have been followed out, so with no regrets tomorrow I’m bound to submerge into corpo-world. However, before I brace myself for a head-on collision with the recently upsetting murky corporate reality, let’s share some uncanny pictures and thoughts from the days off…

The Sky Tower in Wroclove, to the right shot from the street level, on its south-west edge. The tallest building in Wrocław was under construction in late summer 2011 when I last visited the city. Construction works were finished in 2012. The edifice built by Mr Leszek Czarnecki, one of the richest Poles, comprises of shopping mall, offices and apartments and there have been ample controversies surrounding the building, its design and whether its fits the rest of Wrocław in terms of architecture.

You may like its design or not, but you can’t fail to discern it. It’s visible from all main roads running to Wrocław from the distance of some 50 kilometres and right away it should strike you that the structure stands out in terms of height – the second tallest building in Wrocław is two times smaller… Its shape – looks like a tube sliced aslant – is a distinguishing mark. Whatever the owner and architects wanted to achieve has been achieved – no matter whether the building’s design falls in with your taste, pretty nobody passes it by indifferently.

To the right – north-eastern entrance to the shopping mall. Lipstick on a big, as I called this peculiar composition – the sculpture “Profile of time” by Salvador Dali was put up outside the building in April 2012 and has sat there since then. To make it clear – I have nothing against placing the piece of craftwork there and find it one of more attention-deserving examples of contemporary art (bringing to mind the timeless picture by Salvador Dali), but who the hell has come up with the ridiculous idea to mar the sculpture with the advertising screen put up just next to it? Does this stand for due respect for art? Or is the craftwork meant to serve the consumerism?

Sky Tower overlooks Wrocław and the further from it you move, the more likely you are to discern the characteristic tube in the distance. To the right, a photo taken from the southern fringes of Wrocław, where Al. Wyścigowa (former national road no. 8) and Al. Karkonoska  (National road no. 5) converge and then run towards A4 motorway. Before motorway bypass of Wrocław was opened this was a place where all the southbound transit traffic would meet…

Between the afore- mentioned streets one can find a cemetery of Soviet Soldiers. Cannons and tanks have been giving a warm welcome to all visitors coming to Wrocław since late 1940s when the necropolis was laid. This is one of many similar places in Poland (including the cemetery in Warsaw by ul. Żwirki i Wigury) commemorating the Soviet soldiers who “sacrificed their lives to liberate Poland”. The inscription to the right literally says: “HERE REST THE SOVIET ARMY SOLDIERS, PARTICIPANTS OF WROCLAW BATTLES WHO HAVE LAID DOWN THEIR LIVES FOR LIBERTY AND INDEPENDENCE OF NATIONS OF POLAND AND THE SOVIET UNION”. Unless you are a hard-line commie, you should at least bridle at this pack of lies. What liberty? What independence? Many lunatics would probably be in cloud nine, if only they could obliterate such places of commemoration and go unpunished. I in turn hold the view such places should be taken care of and stay unharmed to bear testimony for next generations, also to bear testimony of omnipresent lies on which the totalitarian system was founded. Besides, those soldiers who rest there, were also victims of communism, cogs in a machine who were meant to die in order to let the Soviet empire expand westwards… They, as all humans, deserve a place of peaceful rest…

Coming to down-to-earth issues:

The weather was clement until Wednesday afternoon when temperature unexpectedly plunged and fell to mere +5C on Thursday morning. Given that spring came later than usual this year, some northern slopes in Karkonosze were still covered with snow (to the right, view from Kowary).

And two shots from Jelenia Góra – to the right, a pebble from Jelenia Góra, encased in cobblestone in the market square. Long story why it’s been here, every why has a wherefore. If any of the readers bothers to tell the anecdote, I’d be more than grateful…

To the right, again Jelenia Góra – every city must have its focal point, but few have it marked so distinctly. Interestingly, this is an element of a Church property. I won’t dare to speculate whether this is just a coincidence, or if it proves dominance of one specific institution in the Polish secular state ;-)

The trip was eventually in some 70% sponsored by a carefree driver who rear-ended me in Jelenia Góra. The speed at which the rear of my car was hit was low (again, inattention and centimetres lacking to make it a near-miss) and I was lucky not to sustain any neck injury (cervical spine is very sensitive to such accidents) and the damage done to my car was negligible. Upon checking the exhaust system and boot door lock remained intact, the culprit and I agreed on a few hundred PLN compensation for visibly scratched paintwork on the rear bumper. The damage doesn’t diminished the car’s utility value and it earned me some dough…

A propos motoring. After the period of run-up to Euro 2012 when several kilometres of roads were being modernised and built and ordeal drivers had to go through, now we can enjoy much higher standard of expressways and motorways – the wait was worthwhile! This was the first time I drove the newly built almost 100-kilometre long section of S8 (I last was there in September 2012, a month before opening) between Mszczonów and Piotrków Trybunaski and for the first time drove without even having to downshift to 4th gear 102 kilometres from Kostomłoty (junction on A4 motorway west of Wrocław) to Syców, where S8 expressway ends and turns into National Road no. 8, full of big trucks, small towns and numerous speed cameras… The missing section between Piotrków and Syców is under construction, due to be opened in 2015. Fills with hope. Actually driving the decent roads is faster and safer, but not necessarily cheaper. Unless you hold your horses and move excruciatingly slowly (100 kmph in my car is the speed above which fuel consumption begins to soar, from 6 litres of petrol per 100 km when the car does 100 kmph, to 8 litres when speed rises to 130 kmph and some 10 litres if I reach 150 kmph), the journey will set you back more (even more if you go via toll motorways, not the case this time) – but at the end of the day, comfort has its price…

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Poles aged 30 – portrayed, but accurately?

From time to time journalists of (online flank of Agora S.A., one of the most influential, leftist-liberal, media holdings in Poland) come up with series of articles dwelling on social problems. Quite recently two of them encouraged readers of the portal, aged near 30, to share with wider audience how their dwellings looked and what their material status in terms of housing conditions was. I usually keep track of such series with some does of curiosity, but that time I impatiently waited for each consecutive article, then read each of them with bated breath and avidly followed record-long comment threads…

The larger project run in attempt to paint a collective portrait of generation of 30-year-old Poles began by posing a question why people born in early 1980s are reluctant to have children. In the next step journalists resolved to find out where and how those people live and how the finance their housing needs.

The first article is a string of brief stories which paint a bitter-sweet picture…

Kaśka, aged 32, and her husband co-rent a room in a bigger flat. It’s cheaper and more practical, yet at times inconvenient. Their salaries would suffice to rent a tiny flat in a shanty town, but they prefer a 20-metre room in a flat shared with other people. Tensions sometimes appear, but when they are in need, they may count on their flatmates. In the meantime they put aside money to have equity and get mortgage on more favourable conditions. As for now, no bank finds them creditworthy. Purchase of property with cash – out of reach.

Błażej, aged 30, lives with his girlfriend in her 42 sqm flat (probably inherited or bought by her parents, photo suggests it’s located in Służew, part of Mokotów district, Warsaw). Given his girlfriend’s and his earnings, they wouldn’t be capable to service any mortgage debt, nor to rent any flat. Their aspirations have been fulfilled. Probably hadn’t it been for the windfall (his girlfriend’s own flat), they would live with parents…

Agata, aged 31, and her husband live in a mortgaged flat. Shortly after getting married they lived in a rented flat, then when a child’s birth was imminent, they took out a loan. Month by month, they move closer towards “full ownership” of their flat.

Piotrek, aged 30, and his wife, with some support of their parents and bank financing, bought a 70 sqm on city fringes. In his view this was a fair trade-off between location and size. Debt burden is not excessive and the flat would be spacious enough when children are born.

Anka, aged 29, is also one of those better-off. Since she was 20 she lived in flats inherited after family, currently she and her husband live in a house built on a plot donated to them by husband’s parents. She’d be damned if she dared to complain about her housing conditions.

The stories above bring a moderate dose of optimism. All character manage, some better, some worse, but are satisfied with what the have and keep cheerful. When you begin to read next sent in pieces, smile is immediately wiped off you face…

Sferyczna, single woman, aged 30. Lives in Warsaw, but hails from provincial Poland. Worked for a while abroad, but has not managed to save any money. Currently rents a tiny room in a tiny flat and estimates is 5 years will be eligible for a mortgage. Interestingly, she claims to earn more than peanuts and still she declares she can afford very little…

Karolina, aged 31, and Marcin, aged 36, have one child and live in an old flat that could do with a comprehensive refurbishment. Mortgage is a huge burden for them, each unplanned expenditure or a second child would blow over their budget. Loan instalments make up more than half of their income – this speaks for itself…

Next piece contains two contrary opinions. Rafał, aged 31, and his wife wonder whether only grumblers are around. He wants his voice to be audible. Instead of grumbling his wife and he toil away up to 60 hours per week, have built a house and bring up two daughters. Not a word about any mortgage, but he mentions his father who runs a prosperous company. Despite having little spare time, he claims he is happy and encourages to sheer hard work, which, as he believes is a key to the door of financial and personal success.

Marek, aged 27, has co-rented a flat since coming to Warsaw 5 years ago. With his earnings, little more than 2,000 PLN after tax, he can only afford to rent a small flat and pay maintenance charges, this all sets him back some 1,500 PLN – after this he has 600 PLN to spend on food, travels, clothes, entertainment??? He sees future in anything, but bright colours – with his earnings he stands no chance to get a mortgage and own any property…

Need something upbeat, don’t continue reading… A 30-year-old single woman has just bought her own flat. The mortgage and refurbishment loans have both 23-year repayment schedules, but her own flat is a step forward after years of renting and sinking money to landlord’s pocket. Living conditions are pretty dire, but glimmers of hope bring about smile on her face. In a few months the flat will be finished. As for now, she saves on everything, including food and scrapes along, to service debt timely…

Another confession, written by a 29-year-old man. He works in a public sector, is employed for a finite period and earns minimum wage. No chance to move out of parents’ house, even to rent anything. No prospects of becoming self-supporting, of raising family, no feeling of stability. He’s angry with those who stigmatise his peers who keep living with parents. In fact many of them do this not out of fear of taking responsibility for their lives, of facing adulthood, etc., but they stick to their parents for purely financial reasons. When earning 1,500 PLN after tax, attempt to taste independence is like being thrown at the deep end… Hopes for future… None… just prospects of barely getting by…

Not yet miserable? Carry on! A 31-year-old single woman has a single-bedroom mortgaged flat, but she and her daughter live with her parents. The graduate of Polish studies and Journalism, since finishing school changed jobs many times. Each was supposed to have been temporary, before she found something more desirable. In 2010, with support of her parents and a bank she bought a flat. Soon after she was offered a new job, left the previous, well-paid one, and eventually was left out in the cold, because the new employer changed its mind. Never jobless, she had next temporary, poorly-paid jobs which allowed her to pay bills and mortgage instalments. A year after it turned out she was pregnant with a man who turned out to be too irresponsible to fulfil role of a father. To make ends meet, she moved to her parents and lets her flat to repay the mortgage… She wipes every night and slowly is losing hope for a better tomorrow…

Let’s face it – those letters have been picked out of several sent in to’s editorial room. The picture of the generation which emerges is a matter of who and on the basis of what criteria chooses which letters to publish.

More interesting are plentiful comment threads under the articles, counting several hundred entries. Comments can be divided into a few categories…

Predictably, quite a few commentators trot out the “young, educated, from big cities” myth – they argue the depicted misery bears a truthful testimony how in fact the “Green Island” looks like and what the youngsters got from the party they had voted for. How long before people realise politicians’ influence on people’s everyday is much smaller than they claim? Misery of many young people can’t be put down to “feckless rule of losers and traitors”, while if the biggest oppositional party came to power, it wouldn’t turn Poland into a land of milk and honey. Society and economy are driven by actions of millions of individuals, not by decisions and deeds of few politicians. They don’t have power to heal the country and, on the other side, have little power to screw things up. If I were to be malicious, I could say between 2005 and 2007 property prices in Poland soared by almost 100%, hence becoming less affordable.

Some commentators point out those stories do not hold water – why somebody takes out a loan and than changes a job, for a worse-paid one, how some of mortgage instalments calculations match with what somebody has left at their discretion, etc.? Some even claim the stories sound so incredulously that they appear concocted.

The more ruthless advise authors of the letter who take pity on themselves to blame themselves, not the rest of the world. Who made them choose dead-end studies? Who precluded them from working harder? Who told them to change jobs several times?

Other group indicate young Poles have over-inflated expectations regarding consumption and earnings, while it takes time to grow into wealth. The only way to consume more than you can afford to is living beyond means, which means living with a ball and chain in form of debts and praying luck streak doesn’t cease, as then the frail wealth collapses.

For my part – I have no right to complain… I’m better of in comparison to some 99% of my peers. I don’t live in my own flat, but this is only my choice – I can afford to rent or take out a mortgage, but since there’s no pressure to move out I keep living in my parents’ house (and give them little money each month) and put aside some 70% of my salary. I earn very decently and have prospects of even higher earnings, but on the other hand at the back of my hand there’s a seed of uncertainty – my employer knows how to send adrenaline rising and having seen people being fired (with 1-day notice and generous severance packages) I realise no matter how committed I am, one I day I can have an inadvertent slip-up or my employer may change strategy and back out of business segment I work at, resulting in my job contract being terminated. I have job contract for indefinite period and well-above national average salary, but in return am offered no stability. I don’t go mad with the awareness each day might be the last day of my work only because I don’t have to provide for a family and have no debts to settle.

I’m also far from sharing opinions of those telling those unhappy people to blame only themselves. Success, not only financial, is a combination of many factors, including parentage (if your parents are wealthy, you’re better off at the start), skills (many are inborn I believe, you may develop them or not, but if you really lack a specific skill, developing it won’t get you far), hard work (inborn skills without hard work are useless) and luck… Every day I happen to realise where I am now and what I do is just a stroke of fate… Of course I can’t pronounce it’s prudent to take dead-end studies in political sciences, change jobs frequently, or get pregnant with an immature man, but in some cases people are inarguably out of luck and telling them to blame themselves proves only lack of empathy. Not everyone has a chance to be born in the capital city, in well-off family, to have educated parents. Most people have it up-hill and in Poland I can’t honestly say others have it downhill.

I recently calculated, with my above-average earnings and possibility to put aside most of my salary, if I was to start saving from scratch now, I’d have to save for 6 years to buy an average 50 sqm flat in Warsaw, assuming property prices stayed unchanged. Some time ago I read an average Pole would have to save for 11 years their whole salary to buy such flat. Imagine this – live with your parents for 11 years, let them feed you, don’t buy clothes, cosmetics, don’t go out, don’t travel and after 11 years you can buy a flat for cash. If your parents can’t support you financially you can only take out a huge burden on your back and pray nothing goes wrong along the way. How young Poles live is an aftermath of still steep, in comparison to earnings, property prices in Poland. As many market specialist claim, only increased supply of dwellings could help solve this problem – this can be achieved in form of public-private partnerships – local governments building in partnership with property developers council flats for rent. But for this you need a proper legal framework and wise and honest people to run such schemes. Out of reach, just like own flat for an average Pole turning 30…

Apologies in advance for taking a break from blogging next week. I’m holidaying… At last :-)

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Early May long weekend – from sociological standpoint

1 May (Labour Day) and 3 May (Constitution Day) are bank holidays in Poland. This favourable alignment of non-working days almost each year gives an opportunity to extend a weekend preceding or following those days and take longer holidays. The majówka has already become a well-established annual tradition since the Constitution Day was reinstated over 20 years ago, while Labour Day, the paramount festival of the working class in PRL, remained intact as a public holiday.

Customarily, most schools and universities do not hold classes, many offices close, public transport vehicles run according to weekend timetables. In a word, in the first days of May Poland runs into a standstill, or at least is ticking over.

Many people decide to go on holiday at this time, as by taking a few days off they may extend their time off-work for up to 9 days. Many do this because they have no choice, either because they need to look after their children, or because their employer forces them not to come to work. Lucky are those who may voluntarily come to work on working days in the middle of the long weekend. The customary daily routine is that you come slightly later, go for a longer lunch and knock off earlier. Little is going on in the office, nobody pesters you with e-mails, phone calls and at the end of the day it turns out your efficiency rises and within 5 hours your output is equivalent to what you manage to do on a normal 9-hours working day – you can sit back and catch up with overdue tasks. For this reason I hardly ever take days off during long weekends. It simply doesn’t pay off, I even draw a lot of pleasure from going to work on such days. The atmosphere is quite specific and I must say everyone likes this feeling of being laid-back.

If you aren’t at work, there are several popular ways of spending the early May long weekend: going to holiday resorts (seaside, lake district, mountains), spending it in own or friends’ allotments, or on outdoor activities near your dwelling. This year I feel sorry for those who decided to holiday away from home, as the weather, unlike last year, is awful. Temperature below 20C, sparse moments of sunshine, yet rainfalls in abundance. Only today sunshine fought away clouds and Poland was basking in spring pre-heat.

The key outdoor form of entertainment in the last 20 years in Poland is making a barbecue. People from all walks of life keenly indulge in this form of leisure. No matter if you have a big garden, an allotment, a balcony or go to a park, no matter where you live, how much money you have, how old you are, preparing grilled staff and consuming it gives pleasure to almost everyone, except for some neighbours, sick of inhaling accompanying smoke. This year weather has not been conducive, as it settled clement at the end of the weekend, but today I finally bothered to inaugurate the barbecue season…

From what I observed over those days:

1 May 2013 – lots of people working around their houses – painting fences, cleaning cars, tidying up garages, mowing lawns. This is not a Church holiday so nothing holds them back from physical work which is considered inappropriate on Church holidays. Trains run half-empty (I boarded one in Warsaw, after getting sweat during a bike ride – air was very humid and I decided to take a rest and let the train carry myself closer to home). On my way I noticed few people on bikes, those I ran across were usually fathers with children.

On 1 May few people take part in marches staged by leftist organisations. Instead of claiming the rights of the working class, Poles prefer to relax. But if, for ideological reasons, someone would attempt to scrap the Labour Day, they would all in unison stand up for this bank holiday, for their right to have a long spring weekend.

2 May 2013 – traffic is sparse – on my way to work I get fed up with unhurried drivers and… am in a luck not to be caught by a police patrol, or by a speed camera. Having got off the underground I stroll past desolated streets to my office. At half past three I knock off and cadge a lift from my workmate who lives in Ursynów. Thanks to her favour I get to my car within 20 minutes – the traffic is blissfully sparse, although not as sparse as on bank holiday – this indicates shopping generates much of the traffic volume... Then I head for Konstancin and while I’m driving, heavens open. I feel sorry for numerous bedraggled cyclists I spot there.

3 May 2013 – rainfalls cease around midday. In the afternoon I set off to Piaseczno. I pass by few people as I walk to my hometown; traffic on the roads is anything but dense. The humans I come across come basically from two groups – either parents taking their children for a walk, or alcohol addicts on the lookout for a liquid which would quench their thirst. On the market square I observe a patriotic celebration taking place. Runners are getting ready to a Piaseczno – mile race. Most people sticking around are again parents with children. Credit to them – at least they want to familiarise their offspring with the history (40% of Poles don’t know what event we commemorate on 3 May, is unaware of circumstances in which the constitution was passed, or mistakes it for independence day…). The upbeat observation is that almost all cafes and bars are open – if you want to eat out on a national holiday, you won’t have troubles finding an eatery. The downbeat (or, why?) observation is that all off-licence shops are opened and in front of each you can see a gathering of drunkards (I was accosted by one of them, insisting I lent him 2 PLN). Besides – humans almost disappeared, Piaseczno again appears abandoned.

Swimming pool, which I visited three times during the weekend was anything, but full. The better for me, on Saturday morning half of the time of swimming I could enjoy the whole track at my disposal.

Today, while cycling from 10 a.m. until midday, I spotted no more than 20 other bike-riders, including an admirably fit “grandpa”. The man, I estimate no younger than 70, while overtaking me (I cycled some 20 kmph) asked how to get to the [brand] shop with sports stuff and having received instructions accelerated and rushed forward. The chap’s fitness was enviable.

Crowds were somewhere else… The picture which emerges from the jumble of observations above is gloomy. Given that
- an average Pole can’t afford to spend the long weekend away from home, unless at their family’s,
- number of cars parked outside houses and living blocks was no lower than on ordinary weekend,
- few people were out to the streets and traffic was sparse,
- on 1 May and 3 May shops were closed (unless their owners, their families or employees with contracts not governed by the labour code stood behind the counter),
- no crowds could be spotted in the places of leisure,
- half of Poles do not read a single book in a year,
the facts above lead me to a dejecting conclusion that an average Pole spends the long weekend sitting or lying in front of TV (or computer) screen and this gets me down. I’d prefer my nation to be more open-minded and this can be achieved by spending more time outdoors and in places other than supermarkets and shopping malls. I’d prefer my nation to be fitter and without walking, swimming, cycling or working out this can’t be achieved.

Or maybe I’m just picking on. Everyone should rest and relax the way the feel is best for them. Doctors advise people whose lifestyle is sedentary should choose pastime activities involving physical exercises. After spending most of the week behind my desk at work I can’t imagine myself sitting more than I need before my laptop or lying in bed and watching TV (I hardly ever do this). Spring beckons and young body cannot resist it!