Monday, September 20, 2010

Hookers and Mushrooms

It's fall in Poland, and that means a few things.  One of the most cherished pastimes of the Poles (and other Slavs) is going into the nearby woodlands in the hunt for wild mushrooms.  It's a tradition and as ingrained in Polish culture as trick-or-treating is in American culture.
On a recent drive to the Zegrze Reservoir for some sailing (more on this in a later post), I passed through the woods of northern Warsaw.  The winding road was lined with parked cars whose owners were busy scurrying through the underbrush looking for fungi.  I could see several of them tramping about, holding baskets and peering around the loam.  Also, there were hookers standing alongside the road.

A few parked cars alongside the road.

That's right: hookers.  In the woods.  Remember, this wasn't a street corner in the seedy part of Warsaw, this was a thoroughfare that ran through some deciduous forest-scape.  But there they were: toting bags, wearing short skirts, high-heels, dressed mostly in black with dyed black hair to match.  Some of them were in pairs, others standing by themselves, and others were in small groups.  How they got out there was anyone's guess (their pimp?  Did they carpool?)  (I must apologize, I don't have any pictures of them because A) The car was going to fast to take an adequate picture, B) My camera totally sucks.)

So, if you want a weekend family activity in Warsaw, head into the woods for mushrooms and blowjobs for all.  These ladies-of-the-night are unmistakable, looking exactly like a stereotypical hookers, they just happen to be strutting their stuff ten minutes outside the city on the soft shoulder.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Chechens

As apt as I am in trying to keep up with local (i.e. Polish) news, I ran across some headlines that Chechen exiles would be hosting a conference right outside of Warsaw.
For those of you who don't remember or don't care, Chechnya is a republic in the Northern Caucuses.  It is internationally recognized as sovereign Russian territory, but has been locked in struggle against Russia for independence.  The First Chechen War, fought between 1994 and 1996, ended with nominal Chechen independence; although, it wasn't recognized internationally.  Chechnya, ravaged by war and strife, began a downward spiral into tribal warfare and banditry that made a hard life even more miserable.  Everything that was not destroyed in the first war was leveled in the second.  The re-invaded Chechnya became the shithole that nobody knew or cared about.  Imagine a place a little bit bigger than Connecticut bearing the brunt of a full Russian invasion.  Since then, things have cooled down slightly, but there is still a smoldering violence, and a bitterly oppressive government that is run more like a mafia than an actual mandate from the masses.  This is all boiled down for easy digestion; there's more to the story, but this is the gist of it.
My interest in Chechnya was piqued when I read Arkady Babchenko's One Soldier's War.  It's a harrowing account of Babchenko's two tours of duty (one in the first war as a conscript, one in the second as a professional soldier) in Chechnya.  Seeing the war through a soldier of the Russian Federation's eyes was a bit moving and a bit disturbing.  His recounts of his suffering at the hands of his own comrades are stomach-churning.  Babchenko later went on to become a journalist and now writes for the independent Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper funded in part by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Babchenko's fellow journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, wrote several books on Chechnya, one of which I read, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches From Chechnya.  One Small Corner of Hell really exposed the horrors inflicted upon Chechnya and the Chechen people.  It condemned the Chechen resistance as not looking out for the actual needs of the people, but saved the most condemnation for the Russian military and government for their heinous and willful crimes.  Politkovskaya was a victim of death threats and intimidation, which eventually led to her assassination (as of yet, no one has been convicted.)  Her familiarity with the Chechens and their cause led her to be a negotiator in the Moscow Theater Siege, which didn't end well.  One of her memorable quotes is an angry young terrorist saying, "You live quite well here!  We live in the forest.  But you'll see!"
So, when thinking of a ravaged place seeded with unexploded ordinance, corrupt officials, bandits, environmental harm, and a brewing pot for jihad, think of Chechnya.  It's the place you're not going to go to vacation even if it's all-expenses-paid.  Better spots include: Pakistan's Swat Valley, Pripyat, Monterrey (Mexico), Rio's City of God, and just about anywhere else.

Anyway, the Polish police arrested Akhmed Zakayev in Warsaw the other day.  Zakayev is wanted on an international arrest warrant.  The Poles are letting the courts decide what to do with him for now, i.e. send him to Russia (which Russia is demanding), or let him go.  It's doubtful that he would meet his doom in Russia, but he most likely would be sent to prison for the rest of his life.  Poland did extradite the alleged Israeli spy to Germany to face charges, but I'm not too sure how this one is going to play out.
One interesting thing, so I've heard, is that Russia alleges that Polish GROM MANPADS (Man-Portable Anti-Air Defense Systems) were found in Chechnya.  Poland denies this and claims Russia was just being a dick and placed them there themselves, which I wouldn't put past Russia.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Market Day!

For those of you lucky enough to be within reasonable distance of farmers market, you may want to visit there as often as you can.  There are not just a great selection of fresh vegetables at jaw-dropping prices (1zl for a kilo of potatoes!) there is also a great social experience.  I could go to a farmer's market just to watch the vendors and the shoppers.  It's not like a supermarket where everyone pushes around those metal carts surveying the choices of potato chips and listening to soft hits; here, grizzled farmers with dusty hands the size of dinner plates scoop up potatoes, beets, carrots and dump them into a bag to weigh them.  People mill about the stalls, examining the produce and always looking for the best deals.  Hawkers call out to passersby, sometimes urging to try to taste their superior products.
Shoppers pick up fresh produce at the bazaar.

If you are late in the day (everyone is packing up by 2:30-3:00), sometimes you can haggle over the price of the last remaining cauliflower.  Often, later in the day, you can see where hawkers have scratched out the original prices and marked down their goods just to get them to move.
The farmer market I attended to weekly starts in mid-spring.  I am always eager to buy fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, because the ones in the grocery stores always tasteless.  Fruits and vegetables that are shipped to supermarkets are picked unripe, then exposed ethylene in transit so they ripen just in time to hit the shelves.  The downside of the fruit not ripening naturally is that the flavors are not as complex and rich as those in naturally-ripened fruit.  During the summer and autumn months, many supermarkets try to carry fruits and vegetables from local sources.  This is especially true in Poland because the weak zloty makes imports more expensive, so it's more economical to buy natively anyway.  But, regardless, I like to buy straight from the farmer.
One of the exciting things about the bazaar is that the in-season produce is always changing.  Prices fluctuate week to week, and it's a little game to buy as much of one product when the price dips low.  Some produce, like fava beans, were available for only two weeks.  I missed my opportunity to buy as much as I can to turn into falafel and hummus (chickpeas are expensive and rare here.  So is tahini.)
A few stalls sell things like cured meats, cheeses, preserves, honey, and imported fruits.  From my experience, these can be hit or miss.  I've gotten excellent cheese and kabanosy (small, dried sausages), but have gotten some not-so-great kielbasa as well.  Many vendors have huge barrels full of ogórki malo solny (a type of pickle) and sauerkraut.
Peaches for sale.

Farmers markets don't just offer produce.  Other vendors, ones selling antiques, DVDs, clothes, books, cleaning products, and kitchenware, also set up shop for the day.  Supermarkets like Tesco become irrelevant on the weekends, because one can get almost anything at the bazaar.

Not just produce at the farmers market.

I truly love these markets.  I often spend less than forty zloty and stagger away with tons of fresh fruits and vegetables.  With fall fast approaching and summer's grip withering, I find it's best to buy up as much cheap produce as I can now and preserve as much as I can.  Already, the kitchen is stacked with countless jars of strawberry and plum jam, plum wine brewing (I finished a batch of cherry wine), and I'm in the act of preserving tomatoes, onions, and potatoes.  I love fall, and everything it offers, but it does urge me to fill up my freezer with as much frozen freshness as I can.  Soon, the farmers will put away their stalls for the winter, and we'll all be forced to eat tasteless tomatoes, sad-looking lettuce, and unnaturally crisp apples.  But, the bright side is that all those wonderful tropical fruits will be hitting the shelves.

Wild mushrooms.

Nuts for sale.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Outlook for Poland for the Next Two Years

2010 has been a wild year, especially in the financial and business world.  In the beginning, the markets didn't know what to do with Greece and their pesky financial problems.  The PIIGS shook the world's faith in the EU and the euro; China surpassed Japan in terms of GDP; the US fears of a double-dip recession are ongoing; and the stock market doesn't know what the hell to do.  Most EU states have implement almost-draconian austerity measures to curb debt.  Meanwhile, Sarkozy tries to tweak France's retirement age a little (upping it from sixty to sixty-two) and that causes them to go on strike yet again.  Poland, all the while, has been growing and growing.  Its infrastructure projects and renovations have exploded into a rush to complete everything before 2012.

2012 seems to be a magic year.  Besides the "Mayan prediction" and superstitions, there's a super sun storm that might disrupt electronics on earth; there's the EuroCup 2012; the 2012 Olympics in London; and 2012 may be the year that when investors get cold feet over Poland's debt and stop buying its bonds, forcing major austerity measures.

How it works:
Right now, Poland's economy is growing (let's say, 4%.)  With a rise in its GDP, there is also a rise in its debt, this is natural.  EU money (as well as Norwegian money) is pouring into Poland in enormous amounts.  The rub is when the debt grows faster than economy does (let's say, 5%.)  With Poland's economy growing, Poland looks to be a good place to invest money (buying bonds.  In a month or two, Poland will hike rates, which will make it more attractive to buy Polish bonds.)  When more money is invested, the economy grows, which leads to more investment, which leads to further growth and so on.  This can all come to a head when investors start to doubt Poland's ability to pay back its debt (bonds).  They will pull their money out of Poland, which will cause the economy to shrink, which will cause further doubt about the Polish bonds, which will cause more investment to be pulled out, etc.  Pretty much what happened with Greece.
Now, a little birdy told me (someone who is intimate with the situation) warned that Poland has about two more years until the party is over and the government has to enact difficult-to-swallow reforms.  I should warn that the amount of time is purely circumspect and no one really knows; it could be two years, eighteen months, three years, or any amount of time in the near future.  It's like waiting for a small bomb to go off, not knowing how long the timer is.
Right now, Poland is standing in the middle of the tracks, watching the train rush towards it.  Solving the problem is not so much about knowing what to do—most people know what must be done—but about having the political will to actually do it.  Poland needs reforms in government spending, and it needs it soon.  The recent election might have given PO a stronger grip on power, but the surprisingly strong show for Kaczynski sent a message.  The cutbacks in spending that are needed will not be coming any time soon: PO can't risk it politically to make such unpopular decisions.
Members in the financial community have consulted with ministers of Poland, sharing their pessimistic outlook.  The ministers (Boni in particular.  Boni is the fourth-most powerful minister in Poland) agreed; however, told them point blank that the government cannot risk such a politically dangerous program.  Instead, Poland has resorted to accounting tricks to hide and cover its debt (not unlike Greece.)  These tricks serve as a temporary solution and will make the blowup all the more painful.  The tricks do, however, allow the politicians to make claims and be bullish about the economy and government spending.  So, Poland will stand in front on the train until either the last minute, or until the train runs them over.

When austerity measures come (and they will come), it probably won't be as bad as in Greece.  A few things to look for:
1)  The VAT will rise, but gradually.  It'll be 1% at a time in increments.
2)  The retirement age will rise.  Right now, it stands at sixty years for women and sixty-five years for men.  Expect at least two-year rises in each.  Poland's aging (and shrinking) population will have to work longer and expect less benefits when they retire.
3)  Public salaries will be frozen at the least, cut at the most.  Public-sector jobs will have their raises and benefits trimmed.  Also, layoffs probably will happen.
4)  The construction boom will wind down.  Poland's construction boom, financed with a lot of EU money, might wind down.  That's not to say that it won't go on, just at a slower pace.
5)  An increase in fees.  Fees, fees, fees.  They raise money.  Expect them all over the place, and increases in the current ones.
6)  If Poland hasn't joined the euro area by then, the zloty will be printed en masse and a de-valuation will happen.  When you need to pay debt and you exert control over your own currency: print money.

Sound bleak and depressing?  Kind of is, but it might be necessary.  The thing is, the Polish government has mastered the art of public relations.  Everything is often overstated and in an optimistic light.  Everything from the economic outlook, to foreign relations, to the shale gas that I often yap about.  The government isn't about to admit this coming problem just yet, and will probably deny it until the problem has already broken.  Call it a black swan in the coming.
The crisis probably won't be as bad as Greece's, and these reforms will be able to handle it, but it pays to be prepared.  Poland does have a few weapons to combat it and can also lean on fellow EU members for support.

I'll end this with a big  WHO KNOWS?  Why?  Because a lot can happen in this amount of time.  Poland's shale gas might be just as big as they say it (but probably won't be producing for quite a while.) Poland's economy might outpace its debt; Polish politicians might force the bitter medicine and take reforms; there might be some big global or regional event that will help Poland avoid all these problems. But, all the same, I'll remain bearish in the long-term, but bullish in the near-term.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Bureaucracy, Bureaucracy

Some of the first thoughts that usually cross people's minds when they think of communism are of long lines, empty store shelves, and the occasional purge.  In this day in age, where information is processed and sent in fractions of a second, where people are plugged into the Internet around the clock, and where everything is supposed to be over before it even began, bureaucracy still brings everything to a crawl.

Most people hate places like the nefarious DMV (I never had a bad experience there, just for the record.  I know many people would rather be castrated that going in there again.)  The boredom of sitting in the office for untold amounts of time, counting the ticks of the clock, only to be harassed by some grumpy clerk.  This is the true definition of damnation.

When I was in college, I thought bureaucracy couldn't get worse.  I thought (and still hold the idea) that the entire administration of the school ought to have been fired wholesale and replaced with people who: A) gave a shit, B) didn't defend their worthlessness and prop up their antiquated system.  I was constantly hounded them for not paying fees and was only vindicated by showing them cancelled checks (and then, I was often given an excess check for overpaying.)  The amount of hoops I had to jump through could have supplied several circuses, and everyone there was an asshole to boot.  Form after form was completed, signed by the proper authorities, rejected because of a misunderstanding, re-filled out, re-signed (after haggling to get an appearance), handed in to be mulled over, ended up in a 50% chance of being rejected again.

When I was in Germany, there bureaucratic system was deeply ingrained into everything.  I came away feeling that the Germans loved nothing more than bureaucracy with its stamped and approved forms, meetings to address matters of negligible importance, and the waiting times they entailed.  The Germans, however, were very good at it and everything sped along quite rapidly.  For example, my passport was supplied with a visa in a little over a week.  There were hang-ups (I never did get my student ID), but I did kind of like how they firmly stamped my forms ten times with gusto.

Now, I am in Poland and the bureaucracy here is like nails on a chalkboard.  It's not so much the forms I have to fill out, but the waiting.  Unlike Ned Flanders' description of the post office (where he explains that it's the only thing he hates.  He even had nice things to say about mosquito bites and fluorescent lighting) where everything is rush, rush, rush, the post office here is slower than cold molasses.  Picking up a package will result in a five-minute scrutiny of your documents, then the postman will ever so slowly get up and wander about, shuffling through huge piles of folders and packages, looking for the one that's yours.  Mailing a letter takes even longer and most of it is due to the ant's pace of the workers.
Right now, I happen to be waiting for a work permission, which has taken about three months.  Every so often, I'm notified that I have to collect some other piece of information and have it sent off.  It's next to torture.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Recipe: Knedle

Knedle are traditional potato-dough dumplings, usually filled with an entire plum.  They are incredibly filling and can serve both as a dessert and as a dinner (being so filling.)  They are actually really easy to make and popular with kids and adults alike.

3 lb of potatoes
2 cups of flour
1 egg
3 pounds of plums
Pinch of salt

Peel and boil the potatoes, then drain well.  In a large pot, start boiling some water.  In a bowl, mash the potatoes, and mix in flour, salt, and egg.  If the dough is too sticky, add more flour until a nice consistency is reached.  Pit the plums by butterflying them (slice one side pole-to-pole) and taking out the stone.  Fill the plums' centers with a teaspoon of sugar (sugar cubes are great for this), close them, then wrap the plums in dough.  Drop the knedle into the boiling water and cook until they float.  Remove with a slotted spoon.

You can serve the knedle as they are, or fry them in a slight bit of oil (not unlike pierogi).  You can also serve them in a sweet cream sauce.
In the holiday season, feel free to add a pinch of some spices to the dough (such as cinnamon or nutmeg.)  Knedle keep well when they are frozen, so prepare them when plums are in season, then freeze.  You can serve them all winter and spring, just drop the frozen balls into boiling water.

Freshly-made knedle.