Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Go Buy Some Flour

Why you should stock up on flour next time you go shopping.

We've all heard about the rampaging forest fires in Russia this summer.  They blanketed Moscow in dense, poisonous fog (doubling the death rate) and burned millions of acres.  What they also did was burn one third of Russia's wheat crop.  With Russia the fourth-largest producer of wheat in the world, you can bet that come harvest time, the prices are going to rise.  With the rise of wheat prices, naturally comes the rise in flour prices.  Prices are pretty low right now, so you ought to stock up.

Recently, every time I've gone out shopping I have bought a kilo or two of flour (usually tortowa typ 450 (cake flour, at 1.14zl), but luksusowa typ 550 is cheaper (1.03zl).  I now have around seven kilos flour, which will probably last me a month or two.  Due to my baking habits, I generally run through flour faster than most.  But, taking no chances, in order to preserve the extra flour and increase its longevity, I stash a couple of kilos in the freezer (to ward of creepy crawlies and bugs.)

Flour prices will not be the ones to rise; prices for wheat-based products (bread, prepared foods, confections, etc.) will probably rise as well.  As we all know, Poles are pretty passionate about their bread, so they might grumble if the prices rise a little too much.  The problem is that they can't be stored as long as flour can.  The rise in wheat will ripple through the agricultural sector, creating increases of varying sizes in places you might not expect.  It's not unlike an increase in oil prices.  When oil rises, it's not just gasoline and home heating prices that rise, but also things like: paving the roads (asphalt is made of petroleum), flight and bus tickets, food prices (cost of transportation), cosmetics, etc.
Of course, this is all speculation.  I hesitate to actually scream from the rooftops that flour may rise a couple grosze, or expect that anyone would care much.  A strengthening zloty would make up much of the difference (while a weakening zloty would make it worse.)  There might be bumper crops, not only in Poland, but also in Ukraine, the US, China, France, and Turkey.  Together, they might make up the difference and cancel it all out.  But, it doesn't hurt to be prepared.  It's more likely that the prices will rise rather than drop, so shell out a few extra zloty not to grab a couple extra kilos of flour.  It keeps a long time (if stored properly) and we're heading in to cooler weather, which will make storage all the more easier.

I make a mean sourdough out of this stuff.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Adventures in Telecom

A few months ago, I got a new phone and SIM card.  Ever since then, I've been plagued by a series of random phone calls that look not unlike:

I:  Hello?
Caller:  Hallo, Asia?
I:  Co?  Nie ma Asi.  Nie jestem.  Ona ma inny numer.
Caller:  Co?  Asia?  Asia?  Asia?  Co?  Kim jest?
I:  Nie ma Asi.  Nie znam Asię.  You have the wrong number.
Caller:  Co? Co?  [hang up]


I:  Hello?
Caller:  [An old lady babbling jibber-jabber too fast for me to comprehend.]
I:  Co?  Who are you?  Nie rozumiem.
Caller:  [Continues ranting for a moment, then hangs up.]

So, this happens every so often.  Usually the phone rings and I think to myself "Hooray!  Another gig!"  only to have some random person on the other babble on about someone whom I've never heard of or met. They always seem rather annoyed when they hang up.
But, I few days ago, I got a text that read:
Ja bartek a ty odp
(I: Bartek, and you ans[wer])

I duly wrote back:
Oki, Bartku.
(OK, darling Bartosz.)

He replied no too long ago with:
Kim jestes odp
(Who are you?  Ans[wer])  (His grammar is lacking.)

Now, I am waiting for him to reply to my:
Jestem Batmanem.  Co potrzebujesz?
(I am Batman.  What do you need?)

No reply yet.  Let's see how it goes.  It's not unlike this post about a year ago, which was over a similar event.
One of my many avenues of not being understood by the Poles.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Orange Festival: 2009-2010

While the summer is dominated by music festivals like Gdynia's Open'er and Krakow's Coke Live Music Festival, Warsaw's Orange Festival has become a small, semi-respectable music fest.

Last year, The Orange Festival was big, open, music fest with two stages and several worthy acts supported by various lesser ones.  It was two nights of open music in the center of Warsaw.  This year, the Orange Festival moved to the more controllable Sluzewiec Racetrack and ticket prices have been introduced (59zl for the first night and 99zl for the second.)

A year ago, I most maddeningly missed The Crystal Method by fifteen minutes (oooh, I was steamed.)  Instead, I got to see the laughably bad N.E.R.D, whose poorly written, poorly performed music drove me away even before the first song had ended.  Luckily, Calvin Harris was performing on the Young Stage (the second, smaller stage), and gave quite a show.  The respectable MGMT followed, but Calvin Harris really was the highlight of the night.  Ja Confetti played the first night, and I was actually able to enjoy them from across Marszalkowska.

This year's lineup touts both Nelly Furtado and Courtney Love's Hole (both I'm none too crazy about.)  The rest of the lineup is filled with Polish bands, or incredibly minor acts.  It seems that Orange has scaled back this years music fest.  No longer is it in the center and free, but on a racetrack and charging 129zl-tickets for both nights.  Perhaps they lost money last year or at least didn't make as much as they'd hoped.  Granted, Nelly Furtado and Courtney Love are big-name acts with wide recognition; but Courtney Love is fifteen-years past her prime and most of the energy has gone into promoting Furtado.
There was a suggestion that one could enjoy the music by going into the area of the Sluzewiec and one could hear the music wafting on the breeze.  But honestly, it didn't really seem worth it.  None of the bands performing this year piqued my interest.
Open'er 2010 was able to showcase bands and artists like Massive Attack, Nas, Ben Harper, Pearl Jam, Matisyahu, and Cypress Hill.  Coke 2010 had: Muse, Thirty Seconds to Mars, The Chemical Brothers, Panic! At the Disco, (and N.E.R.D).  While many of these artists, in my opinion, suck, they still bring in large crowds and have large, international followings.  It doesn't seem likely that anyone would fly to Warsaw specifically to catch a music festival with Courtney Love & Hole and Nelly Furtado (not to mention the bands The White Lies and Edyta Bartosiewicz.)  Other, more massive, music festivals like: Bonnaroo, Coachachella, Lollapalooza, and Big Day Out, attract top artists at the peak of their careers, plus hundreds of thousands of spectators (including foreigners coming just to see the event.)  The point I'm making is that the Warsaw Orange Festival isn't really worth the $40-tickets.  It ought to revert back to it's open, free-for-all format of yesteryear.  Until they start pulling out the big guns, or at least bands that I would chock up money for, I'll find something else to provide enjoyment (for instance, Roger Water's will be in Lodz next year playing The Wall.  I will definitely try to go.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Poland's Shale Gas: Benefits and Drawbacks

Again on the shale gas issue.

One of the reasons Poland was able to avoid a recession whilst everyone around them contracted was that Poland had an independent currency that happened to be valued lower than both the dollar and the euro.  This low-value currency makes Polish goods and services cheaper (and imports more expensive, which incentives Poles to buy Polish goods), also it makes Poland an attractive place to invest.  Foreign companies are tripping over themselves to set up shop in Poland (Dell, Fiat, GM, and now energy companies.)  The zloty is now being looked at as a cherished pillar of the Polish economy, and skepticism of the euro has grown (especially after seeing what happened recently to Greece.  Many in Greece lamented being tethered, which was relatively strong, and not being able to de-value the currency to give a jump start to Greek exports.  Also, China keeps the yuan pegged lower to the dollar for just this reason: to make Chinese exports more attractive.  Right now, many countries are engaged in a 'race to the bottom' of de-valuing their currencies.)
Huge energy reserves are a mixed blessing, and it is right to fear the onset of Dutch disease.  Dutch disease describes an economic condition where one commodity (usually energy or natural resources) becomes a main engine of the economy and the currency rapidly gains value against other currencies.  It's called a disease because with the rise in the currency, the country no longer becomes a feasible place to manufacture goods and its agricultural exports become more expensive.  Commonly-cited examples are Venezuela (oil), the US (financial services in the '80s and '90s), Russia (oil and gas), and, of course, the Netherlands (the discovery of gas).  When prices are high and everything is humming alone, it's all good; once the price of gas crashes, Poland's economy goes into a tailspin and only recovers when the price of gas does (this recently happened to Russia (the price of oil and steel dropped in 2008) and Venezuela.  It also happened to Ireland and Iceland with the banking crises.)  This can be mitigated by proper investment into wider areas of the economy.
A huge explosion (pardon the pun) of gas exports from Poland would undoubtedly cause the zloty to rise, maybe even overtaking the euro.  If that were to happen, Poland's developing manufacturing and agriculture base would come to a screeching halt.  Foreign companies would move their factories to cheaper countries and Polish-manufactured goods would become quite expensive.
The zloty's rise would, however, coincide with the mandated move to the euro (if the euro still exists around then.  Some think that the euro will be gone within five years, probably because Germany will pull out.  NOTE:  I'm not going to opine whether I think the euro will stick around.  I honestly don't know.)  So, the zloty's rise would be drowned out, because then Poland would enter into the euro area and the currency would depend more on the strength of the area than just that of Poland alone.

Beyond this sudden "doom and gloom" image I painted, the outlook certainly looks good.  Even if the zloty rises, that means that imports, and thus variety, are cheaper (I went shopping today, so I can tell you that I was none too pleased over the choices and variety of foodstuffs.  500 types of pickles, but no tahini: this isn't fair.)  The average salary in Poland, which now stands under $20K, would most certainly rise.  Poland would pour even more money into infrastructure improvements.  Also, it would help mitigate the problem of Poland's aging and shrinking population (another topic to which I will devote a post) by helping to prop up their pension and health programs.
Money is money, and resources are resources.  But Poland will have to be careful how it handles this new-found gas.  If they don't handle it just right, it might come around to bite them in the ass years down the road.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Problem With Russia

It's no secret that not a lot of people like the Russians.  The Poles despise them, the rest of Europe doesn't trust them, and the North Americans view them with a mixture of distrust and misunderstanding.  Places like India and Armenia have warm relations with Russia (party because Armenia is surrounded by enemies and India needs an arms supplier that is not an ally of either Pakistan or China.)  The Serbs adore Russia and Ukraine is split: part of Ukraine wants warmer relations with Russia and the other parts loathes it.  I can also bring in the opinions of the Abkhaz, the Ossetians, the Georgians, the Chechens, the Ingush, and Kyrygz and the rest from Central Asia.
But let's move beyond lists of Russian-Foreign relationships.  Russia remains a center of concern for much of the West.  The 2008 war with Georgia drew widespread alarm (from the Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine) and condemnation.  Don't be fooled, Russia is modernizing its military (the recently flight for the Sukhoi PAK FA T-50, the development of the S-500 missile system, the introduction of the T-90 tank, etc), and it aims to not be the embarrassing mess of the 1990s.  Beyond the military, Russia is trying to regain its sphere of influence (by using grants and loans) and push against US and EU intervention in the near abroad.  But, the biggest thing about Russia; what just gets those in the EU the most, is that it is an energy superpower with a heavy hand.
What is surprising is that Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, has had her nose hilt-deep in Putin's ass.  Or maybe it's not very surprising at all.  Germany, like most of Europe, needs Russia's oil and gas, and Russia is happy to oblige.  It's not that Germany admires Russia, or holds it in any esteem, it just wants easy access to reliable hydrocarbons.  Russia, however, is anything but reliable.  It seems like every winter they get into a tussle with Ukraine over unpaid bills, prices, and accusations of syphoning, and they threaten to turn off the taps, which they have done.  This actually does little to affect most of western Europe, since that gas goes through Belarus and Poland.  It will affect them even less when the Nord Stream pipeline is completed.  There are moves, such as the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey pipeline to curb reliance on Russia, but it's not seen as much.
Beyond the common spats with Ukraine that disrupt supplies, Europe (consequentially NATO and its allies) has a bigger problems.  They can't really criticize or confront Russia very much, for fear that Russia might use energy as a weapon.  Thus, both the EU and NATO are usually bound with one hand behind their backs when dealing with Russia.  Russia throws a tantrum over something, and the rest of Europe is scrambling to think of how to calm it down without angering it too much.  If there was a serious mixup with Russia (politically or militarily), Europe would face a catastrophic shortage of natural gas, and Russia knows it.

Enter Poland and shale gas.  Optimistic forecasts of Poland's new shale gas wealth are extremely high.  Some are even calling Poland the next Qatar (don't pull your pricks out of your pants just yet, lads.  Let's see how much gas there really is in that rock before your start rolling on your rubbers to party.)  Interest in Poland's potential gas wealth has exploded, with big-time US energy companies signing on.  Many an economist and energy trader suffered whiplash from the speed at which they turned their heads to Poland.
Shale gas is becoming quite lucrative in the US, with many companies 'perfecting' its mining.  New wells are being drilled constantly, often without thought of environmental impact.  It's been said that many families in rural Pennsylvania (a top shale gas-producing state) can light their tap water on fire.  It's likely that there will be greater restrictions and discretion in the permit process than currently in the States, which might slow development down a bit, but also might protect the inhabitants and environment a bit more.
But what does massive gas deposits mean for Poland?  Will Poland turn into one of those hydrocarbon-reliant wonderlands where no one pays taxes, the government builds massive phallic buildings, and everyone is rolling around in obscene amounts of petrodollars while getting laid?  Who knows (don't try to predict what will happen; you won't be right.)  The point is, is that Poland stands a lot to gain both economically and geopolitically.  Poland now gets about 70% of its gas from Russia and if Poland could produce enough gas to meet domestic demand (which would inevitably rise), it would be a amazing.  If Poland could export gas to the conveniently-close-and-in-the-European-Union Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Austria, it would a miracle.  Many of these countries are overwhelmingly reliant on Russian gas, and most of them think of Russia as kind of a dick.
The role of Poland in European politics would be immensely bolstered.  Poland would be seen as a stable, reasonable ally that was worth protecting.  Its strategic importance to the EU (and NATO) would expand greatly.  Not only would it be a frontier state, it would be an important source of energy for its allies (this translates into: Europe and NATO would do a shitload to protect Poland from any sort of aggression (just like the US did with Kuwait) because it would be in their (Europe's and NATO's) strategic and economic interest.)  Some might say that Russia would also sight its sights more keenly on Poland, since Poland would be seen as a key state to Europe's security (from an energy standpoint.)  A worry and criticism from Poland, is that the US did not do enough to shield Georgia from Russia; they worried that the US would do the same to them (this is one of the reasons spurring Poland to accept the missile silos, which were downgraded to patriot missiles.  They felt that if Russia was to invade (and the Poles don't put it past the Russians) that the US would only come to their aid because American troops and interests would be directly threatened.)
Poland, meanwhile, is hedging its bets and is in the process of signing a deal with Russia that will last until 2045.  Until the real results can start flowing from Poland's gas fields, Poland and the EU will still be suckling on the metaphoric gas-nipple of Mother Russia.

Currently Poland's top gas producer.

Angela Merkel.  Her boner will be second only to Tusk's in the event that Poland exports gas.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Fluctuations Of The Wisla

For those of you that remember, Poland's 2010 spring was defined by two things: the Presidential Plane Crash, and the Floods.  The floods (which apparently still happen in the notorious 'flash' form) caused billions of dollars in damages and were blamed, in part, on the work of beavers.  Now, Warsaw didn't really experience much of the floods, but there were warnings, especially for the zoo.  Warsaw lies about mid-point of the river, and the river's rise was cause for much spectacle.   (See the previous post here.)
The funny thing with the Vistula, is that these days it seems to rise and drop almost daily.  I visited the banks in spring to see the massive rise (and speed) in the river's flow, but also weeks later to see to subside to a more reasonable level.  Then, I passed over it again and saw that the river had risen again.  Now, going back over it, I can see the drop occurring again.

The river cresting this spring.

The river at more normal level.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Ł

One of the things of having a Polish professor who:  A) studied at MIT, B) speaks Polish, Russian, Slovak, and Yiddish, C) has a keen sense of history and linguistics, is that you learn a lot of interesting things about the language.  For instance, take the Polish letter Ł: it's an L with a slash through it, but pronounced like W, a sound that (I'm pretty sure, please correct me if I am wrong) no other Slavic tongue has.  The thing is, is that Ł used to be pronounced like the Russian Л (transliterated as L.  This L should be pronounced like the L in girl or Polish, not like the L in look or fabulous.)  When reading Old Polish, one should be aware of this to pronounce it correctly.  The problem arising with Ł is that it's a hard phoneme to learn, especially for children.  Gradually, Polish and Poland did away with this guttural sound and replaced it with the more fluid W sound.
Now, if you don't believe me, just ride the subway.  At Stacja Ratusz Arsenał, listen to the announcement, which pronounces it like ArsenaL.  I presume that the name is preserved for historical reasons.

How to Piss off the English
Now, an American like myself has run into quite a bit of resistance to forcing people to adopt the American way of saying things.  (I've had enough of lorry and pronouncing schedule like shed-yoo-all.)  Why not rattle their chains a little?
So, a few years back a Polish girl was pontificating about how British English was superior to American English because it sounded more royal, affluent, and historical.  It was the dialect of Shakespeare, of the Queen, of Hugh Grant.  Except…  it wasn't.  I pointed out firstly that there are many dialects and accents of British English and the best dialect outside of the US was the Irish Brogue followed by the Scottish Brogue.
More importantly, today's British English is NOT the language of Shakespeare (or so say the linguists.)  We have become accustomed to actors in movies speaking with modern British accents and actors on stages fudging with terrible British accents.  But did Shakespeare really speak with a modern British accent?  Probably not.  He probably spoke with an accent closer to the Carolinian accent (much like Stephen Colbert used to.)  The Carolinas (North and South) were colonized about 400 years ago and were buffered from many linguistic influences unlike, say New York or Boston or even Minnesota.  So, to be more historically accurate, those actors should try to emulate Lindsay Graham's way of speech Hugh Grant's.
Also, the English learned how to write from the Irish (ooooh, doesn't that just make their blood boil?!)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Military Year

2010 has been a banner year for Poland, and Warsaw in general. They broke new ground on the MoMA; Chopin is getting a year's-worth of celebration for his 200th birthday; the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald; the 66th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising; and now, the 90th anniversary of the Miracle of the Vistula.
For those of you who did not know what the Miracle of the Vistula was: it was a decisive Polish victory over the Soviet forces in the Polish-Soviet War in 1920.  On an interesting note:  Charles De Gaulle served with distinction in this war (not too many non-Poles, non-De Gaulle fans know this.)  Anyway, it was a huge victory for the Poles and their legendary leader, Jozef Pilsudski.  It was kind of like the Polish Gettysburg, but only kind of.  The greatly defeated Soviets soon sued for peace and the borders of Poland (which, at that time included Lwow and Wilno) remained intact until the German-Soviet invasion of 1939. The battle remains an important date in Polish history, except it happened in a war more forgotten than the Korean War.  During the Communist times of Soviet hegemony, the Polish-Soviet War was covered over and hushed up much like the Warsaw Uprising (ask Norman Davies; he know firsthand of the matter.)
The war is a point of Polish pride in that it was the first major Polish military success in a couple of hundred years (and remains so) and that they defeated a much larger enemy to preserve their independence and freedom.  The war, along with the Winter War (Russo-Finnish War), showed how terrible the Red Army really was.  For those of you who would wonder why Germany would ever invade the Soviet Union, much smaller, much less powerful countries were able to embarrass the Soviets militarily.
Today, there was a commemoration of the battle at, most apt, Plac Pilsudskiego.  There was also a big military fair in the Saxon Park (the Polish military's outreach to the public.)  I stood around for some of the ceremony, involving ranks upon ranks of uniformed soldiers.  Unfortunately, they blocked off Pilsudski Square, so the spectators couldn't really be close (except the VIPs.)  The crowd wasn't that large, and the day was broiling, so I snapped a few film pictures (I don't have a digital camera right now.)  So, I didn't stick around for the speeches, military drills, overtures, or displays, and I don't have any pictures beyond some black-and-white film pictures I took on a Zenit-E (an old Soviet model.)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ghosts of the Uprising

The big topic today is the new 3D movie displaying the ruins of Warsaw after the Uprising.  Miasto Ruin (The City of Ruins) is a digital reconstruction and exploration of the rubble that used to be Warsaw.  Directed by the venerable Baginski (y'all ought to have seen Katedra (Cathedral) by now), it's been unveiled for the 66th anniversary at the Warsaw Uprising Museum.  I'm not at the museum today, so I'll watch it soon and report back on how it was.  The purpose of the film is to show the youth really how Warsaw was decimated; to bring alive the destruction (which should contrast with Warsaw's recent spurt of construction.)

A few months ago, I wrote about the old woman who had passed away.  Her long stretch of life saw the outbreak of World War II, the Warsaw Uprising (plus visits to concentration and work camps), the creation of the Iron Curtain, the fall of Communism, and Poland's entry and integration into a united Europe.  I was tapped with helping to clear out the woman's apartment, which had stood vacant about three months.  She left behind lots of clothes and kitchenware, but also her and her late husband's documents.  Tucked in a small cabinet and stuffed into folders were documents and photos, ranging from certification of passing the Matura, to the Red Cross stating the validity of her claims of being in a work camp, to her husband's paperwork saying he was part of the Armia Krajowa.  (NOTE:  I have been told that he was not actually part of the Home Army, but rather lied to the officials.  Right after the War, members of the AK where hunted down and oppressed.  Years later, there was an amnesty and recognition and those who were members could receive certain benefits; all one needed to prove that he/she was indeed a member of the Home Army were two witnesses to vouch for him/her.  This man apparently found two men to vouch for him to receive the benefits and recognition, but the family has confided that he actually stayed away from any sort of fighting and was never a member of any sort of resistance.  I'm not really an expert to find out the validity of either claims, so I'm just putting the documents up here.)
The front and verse of a medal from the Maximilan-Kolbe-Werke Foundation.

Red Cross documents, verifying the journey to three concentration camps.

These documents show that those who suffered were not forgotten (even if the Home Army and its memory was oppressed and quashed for a few decades.)

The documents and identifications of a fighter in the Home Army