Category Archives: europe

The EU and the Big Hate

Yeah, the EU and Britain. This small island, which thinks it is off the coast of North America is vehemently anti-European, and will do almost everything in its power to leave the grand idea of Europe. The Conservatives, two thirds of the current ruling coalition love to fight themselves into a tizzy about the EU idea. While the other political parties are smart enough to keep shtum about their differences over Europe (and other bits of infighting), the Conservatives have not learned from the 1990’s that while the EU is unpopular in the UK, it really does not matter with regards to my daily life.

So this week, Cameron, yet again, went to an EU summit looking like a spoilt child swinging his mummy’s handbag all over the shop. Embarrassing, even though I really agree with what the PM actually had to say. But he does come across really badly whenever it comes to the EU. And the French, who are really just snivelling self serving imbeciles always come across as slick. Damn those cunning French!

Believe it or not, after all that, I am fairly Pro-European. ‘Fairly’ is the good term to use. To be honest, it does not makes a difference to me whether Brussels, London or Washington is making laws, my taxes are not dropping anytime soon. As a floating voter (and we are dangerous bastards) it is the money in my pocket, not the hue of a flag that swings my vote, if I bother to vote at all. And while I have an opinion on Europe, it will not make my mind up when I go to the polls in 2015. In 2010, I am glad we got a coalition, and despite the cock and bull in the press, I think most of the people who voted then believe it was the right choice for that election. Going into a recession meant that no political party came out with any good ideas to get the UK moving. And it is still the case two years later…

Back to the EU. So, I like it? Yes, but…that is it, the ‘but’ bit. I do appreciate and take advantage of the free trade, travel and movement of people part of the EU. In fact, it is one of the best ideals implemented in modern politics over the past two generations. A lot of Brits (except retirees to Spain) really have not taken advantage of this. Lazy language skills can be blamed for this. But I have. In terms of my personal life, cultural activities and business projects, I take advantage of the EU’s free movement of goods, services and people like crazy. You may have noticed all those visits to Poland over the past couple of years, tak?

That part of me would not have been possible if the EU did not exist. It opened my life in so many ways, probably not envisioned by the grandees who thought up the project in the first place. For that, I am eternally grateful, and if Britain was to withdraw from Europe, it would peeve me off. While my personal life would remain intact (although become more tricky), my working side would become an absolute nightmare, well, I will be blunt, impossible.

And I love my films, get it! (Don’t ask about the rewrite…)

But yes, there are things I do not like about the EU. It is undemocratic, there are a lot of institutions and conventions that the UK never voted to join but were shoehorned into and the corruption levels make duck houses seem like…well, mere duck houses…

The EU will probably never face a proper reformation of its financial order as long as the nations resort to petty squabbling. It is sad, because the big EU contributors are probably more aligned then it seems when it comes to reigning in corruption and budgets. But David Cameron’s wibbly wobbly attitude does not help . The last shameful embarrassment in the EU last year looked like a small man playing to some Middle Englanders rather than a Prime Minister actually leading.

From my own opinion I think it is good for Britain to be a net contributor to the EU. The fact that we have peaceful borders and benign neighbours who are unlikely to attack Britain in the near future is something that cannot be measured by the financial contribution we make (in addition to the extremely successful NATO). So, I would rather see a stable Greece sorting out its tax collection system rather than see a Greece mired in strikes and uncertainty.

In the end, Britain is not going to leave the EU anytime soon. And good. But I do worry about the long term political relationship that the UK is building for itself. I do not want to leave the EU, I want to see a strong, democratic institution that does allow for good business and trade and that keeps the peace on the continent. Both from a personal and professional point of view, I have taken advantage of Europe, and it is something that personally benefits me. I believe if more people in the UK had the attachment via people to the continent that I have, the tide of euroscepticism would be a lot less.

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Lubiąż Abbey – a little walk round

On my last trip to Poland, I happened to visit Lubiąż Abbey, one of the largest Christian Complexes in the world and while today its Holy functions no longer exist, it is still a significant tourist draw in this part of Silesia. Of course, the day I went Siberia had decided to camp out in Poland (although it was still October) meaning that it was…well…cold when I visited the former monastery on the banks of the Odra.

A little history (my usual Wiki-Quote). The first Christian functions on this site were established around 1150. Like many parts of Silesia, its history is intertwined with the political wrangling that this part of Europe has found itself in. Lubiaz Abbey has come under the control of the Prussian States, the Polish, the Bohemians and even the Habsburgs of Austria-Hungary.

But it is during WWII that Lubiaz’s history come closer to the history in the UK. While occupied by Nazi Germany, Lubiaz’s vast underground complex was home to the engine factories for the V1 and V2 rocket bombs. This vast slave labour camp existed until the Red Army invaded. The Abbey itself fell into decay until 1989 and the fall of Communism. Restoration started and it is a process that continues today.

One little titbit about the Abbey was that in 1997 Michael Jackson visited Lubiaz. Rumour has it that his helicopter tour and stop-off was to see if he could buy the Abbey. Well, his offer was rejected. However, according to the guide who took us round, the visit was meant to be kept a secret, but the whole village (and most of the surrounding area) turned out to greet the King of Pop! Given the traditional Polish welcome of bread and salt, Michale Jackson was in Lubiaz Monastery for only 20 minutes. It is reported that he was astounded by the lavish interiors. Yes, I did go inside, but we were not allowed to take photos inside of the Abbey 😦

Yeah, I think you noticed it was snowing like crazy that day. Of all the days to see a top tourist attraction, I had to pick the one day in October where Siberia decided to decamp. Snow was everywhere, but luckily, having been bitten by the famed Polish cold earlier this year, I came fully wrapped up.

One little extra you will see at the abbey is an exhibition on old German trains. I do not exactly understand the reasoning behind it (other than the fact that Lubiaz was a hot tourist spot when it was called ‘Lubies’ and a part of Germany). Although I could not get exactly what everything was about, it was fascinating to see the old cultural links that used to exist between Silesia and its big neighbour to the west (something that is more evident in Wroclaw).

Getting there and away:

One word – car. It maybe only 40 miles or so from Wroclaw, but Lubiaz is a small village and it is difficult to get to. There are local (and infrequent) buses from the two nearest railheads in Glogow and Wroclaw throughout the day, but really, unless you have your own transport (or speak brilliant Polish), it is a pain to get here.

Accommodation here is non existent too, and the restaurant in the Abbey keeps limited opening hours, so plan your trip accordingly…

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Flirting with the Polish Border at Frankfurt am Oder

Last month I was in Poland for the 8th edition of the Quest Europe film festival. Due to its location in Western Poland, Zielona Gora can be a bit of a pain to get to from its nearest Polish cities, but is surprisingly easy to get to from from Berlin across the border in Germany.

This is normally the way I go. Land in Berlin, take the train to the Polish/Germany border, walk across the border then head on a coach to Zielona Gora from the Poland side.

And of course, this being me, I have an illicit fascination with borders. And this point of the German/Polish border is one of the more fascinating parts of Central Europe, as well as one of the prettiest. Well, at least on the German side.

Germany has two Frankfurts. The first one is in Hesse in the west of Germany. Seat of the Euro, centre of the financial power of Europe’s largest economy. Big, brash and flash. The second Frankfurt is right on Germany’s eastern border in the impoverished state of Brandenburg. Frankfurt am Oder is small, shrinking and while rather pretty does not really have much to it. However, it serves as a very useful gateway to Poland, particularly if coming via road or rail. The Autobhan links with the Polish Highway network just outside the city. There are direct trains between Berlin and Warsaw that stop in the town. And, being across the border from the Polish town of SLubice, it is very easy just to take a walk over the Odra river, which also acts as the border in this case.


(Frankfurt Oder from the Polish (Slubice) side of the border)

Before the second world war, Frankfurt Oder covered both sides of the river. But after the border changes of 1945, the eastern portion of Frankfurt Oder became the Polish town of Slubice.

Slubice is, well, interesting. It is an ugly town, but it is very vibrant. People are utilising the border everyday, Germans are coming over all the time for cheaper goods, the Polish (and even some Germans) are crossing the border to work and study. And Slubice is definitely on the up. As soon as you arrive in Poland there are money changing shops, neon lights, bars and restaurants telling you to come over here. It may be the smaller of the two towns, but Slubice definitely has a sense of excitement about its border status, even if there are no longer checkpoints between the two countries.

However, on entering Frankfurt, you do not feel like you are on some border with another country. In fact, it seems like Frankfurt Oder itself decides to purposely ignore Poland as some rather embarrassing friend. If you did not know any better, this would just seem like any other impoverished Eastern German town with a shrinking population and not much else to do in town. It is quiet. And with 60,000 residents, Frankfurt Oder is small. But Frankfurt Oder is surprisingly pretty. Many parts of the town, particularly the area towards the river has been beautifully restored and like everything in Germany, Frankfurt Oder is shockingly clean.

Now while I would not make a beeline for Frankfurt Oder, it is worth spending a few hours here while waiting for a train or vice versa. It is a rather nice place to stop for a cup of coffee and because the town has been so beautifully restored, there are a lot of very nice places to wander through. And if you are in the town centre, there are a few hawker booths that serve cheap fare such as kebabs, pizza or…frankfurters…hehe…

As I said previously, there really is not much to warrant a special trip here. But for those looking for a cheap (and relatively easy) way to and from western Poland, going via Frankfurt Oder and crossing over to Slubice is a pretty good way to do so. If you have the time, the walk is not far. In about one hour you could probably walk through Frankfurt and Slubice and see everything that needs to be seen, or if you take it leisurely, it can be done in three or so hours, including a stop off for a coffee. Really, the two towns are quite small. I have regularly crossed between Germany and Poland this way and will be doing so later this year when I go back to film Great Brytania. And while I have seen all there is to see, I always like venturing back and forth to check out any details I might have missed.

Frankfurt Oder, getting there and away: Trains leave twice an hour from Berlin and take around an hour, costing €9.40. You can also hop on the Berlin/Warsaw express which call at the station. The rail station is around 15 minutes walk from the riverside/centre of town.

Poland/Germany Border: The Friendship Bridge links Frankfurt Oder with Slubice on the Polish side. It basically goes from town centre to town centre, and as there are no border controls, you can walk over it as many times as you like!

Slubice, getting there and away: The rail links to Slubice are terrible, and the only way is by coach. All the major places in Lubuskie are linked by coach including Zielona Gora and Gorzow. If you need to take the train, the town of Rzepin is a few miles away, reachable by taxi, and there are regular rail links all over Poland from here.

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Auf Wiedersehen Schonefeld? Not quite yet…

Well, this airport was not meant to be, but due to the oft delayed Brandenberg Airport project, good old Schonefeld is still operating and I was there last month when I went via Berlin to get to Poland. And even when Berlin’s new airport is opened, Shconefeld will still have a use, as the new airport is basically an extension of this site. A massive extension. New motorways and railway lines as well as a (massively planned) new Terminal building will take over from the funky, almost retro feeling airport that is currently Berlin’s secondary airport.

Berlin Schonefeld, being located just outside the eastern part of Berlin was the old East Berlin Airport. Built before the outbreak of WWII, it was the main airport of the old East Germany. As with everything in Berlin, there has been a hell of a lot of history with it. Also it was the hub for Interflug. Interflug? You know, the old East German airline offering quality flights to Czechoslovakia and Mother Russia! All right, enough old Communist jokes, but honestly, Aeroflot is the only major flag carrier to use Schonefeld. While Tegel is the place for the so called ‘Quality Airlines, Russia has insisted that history remains paramount and that it still uses good old Schonefeld, the airport it commanded for X-amount of years.

However, most of the sane world uses Schonefeld, not for the retro-Commmunist experience, but as it is the place that the ‘no-frills’ airlines use to fly into and out of Berlin. When I first went to Berlin in 2006, I flew in and out of Schonefeld, and it was my first taste of Germany. As I have been (now) a frequent visitor to Poland, I have used Berlin as my gateway to that country, and it is almost always Schonefeld that I fly into. In fact, I have used Schonefeld Airport more than any other European airport outside the UK.

I like Schonefeld. It is a small, simple airport that is very well connected to the city centre. Twenty minutes by the airport express or about 35 mins using two S-Bhan trains. And at €3 for a single ticket, it is relatively painless on the wallet as well. It can be a bit daunting at first, as the airport’s lack of bells and whistles makes for an unusually simple experience, especially when compared to the airports of other European cities. But that is what I like about Schonefeld, the fact that it is understated and simple to navigate. Although it was not really built to any great design, the airport does its job very well, and has handled the recent boom in low-cost European travel relatively well.

So what will happen to Schonefeld airport next year? Well, as Berlin Brandenberg airport will use most of SXF’s facilities, a lot of it will remain open, just transferred to the other side of the site. The old terminal buildings will remain in place for a bit, but they will be eventually knocked down. No loss there unlike the unusual Tegel which, although not practical for today’s travel, surely must rank with some architectural merit.

So that is that. I have to write up some travelogue of my time in Berlin this month, as I went to a couple of really excellent museums, and I have had a great time visiting this city recently. Ah, I must get onto the task!

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Viva Polska! Oh dear, it’s the football again…

And so it begins! Euro 2012 kicked off yesterday with all the hoopla and fanfare it could. The host nation, Poland, drew with Greece (1-1 and it was meant to be thrilling match). But you ask any Polish person worth their salt, this is not the match they care about. Next week is the big one. Poland vs Russia. The ultimate grudge match, it will make Iran vs USA in the World Cup seem like child’s play.

Yep, after the Second World War, and Communism, there are two big rivals when Poland plays internationals. Germany and Russia. Germany is a little more friendly. Being neighbours in the EU and the post-war reconciliation has meant that the games are fiercely contested, but there is rivalry. But with RUssia, it is personal. As one of my colleagues (Polish) told me: It does not matter if we do not win the group or if we do not make it past the group stages. The most important thing is that we beat Russia. And if we loose, then there is no sex for a week, as everyone, even the women will be in mourning. A celibate Poland is definitely not in my interest, so I do hope for Russia’s demolition by the host of Euro 2012. Good luck and Viva!

Poland has certainly been busy for the past year, getting ready for Euro 2012. I have been exceptionally fortunate (or maybe not, depending on your view) to have regularly visited Poznan and Wroclaw, two of the host cities for the Euro 2012 championship. New airports, train stations and traffic jams have been the order of the day as the infrastructure in these cities have been completely rebuilt. Much like the hype for the Olympics in the UK (espcecially London), Poland has been saturated by Euro 2012. As I am not a sports fan in particular (I find the whole thing dull as hell), I do not understand why it takes such pomp and ceremony to do basic improvements to necessary infrastructure. Still, if major sporting events act as catalysts for bribery and infrastructure improvements then who am I to complain?

To be honest, I look at Euro 2012 with bemusement. Being close to Poland, for personal (and now professional reasons) I find the coverage of Euro 2012 more interesting than normal sporting events. I do hope that Poland can do as well as they can, even though my research on the subject leads me to believe that, probably, sadly, Poland will loose when they play Russia next week. I hope not, but still, their fans are the best (I have to say that, otherwise my butt gets whooped by my better half…) and I have really enjoyed watching Poland get ready for their European party. I know there will be racist chanting and probably more. There is a lot of racism in much of Eastern Europe, and much of the area resembles Western Europe 40 years ago in terms of attitudes as well as their social and environmental make-up. Still, for want of a better reason, Viva Polska! But at the same time, oh dear, bloody, boring, football…

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Blogs I admire (and will imitate one off) 3 – Intelligence

The internet is filled with junk. And pornography. I am the source of most of it. The junk, not the pornography. In fact, I wish I was the source of most of the pornography, as I am one kinky boy. But occasionally, there are some bright sparks through the web of deceit that is the internet. And one of them is Mediolana, a London based publisher of educational materials that also serves as a great analytical magnifying lens on the news that is happening around the world. It makes the Economist pale into insignificance with its own fresh and intelligent take on what is happening, wherever and whenever. Click, take a peek, and here is my own homage to Mediolana below…

Denmark hopes to become the worlds first country to generate all its energy needs from non fossil fuel sources by 2050. This is an incredible target that the tiny European nation has set itself, partly as it is so dependent on these fuels. Its transportation and power is still by and large mostly resourced from fossil fuels. And Denmark is one of the cleanest generators of power, with some twenty percent of all its electricity generated by wind alone. But like all western nations, it is still addicted to oil, and the volatile regions which it sources its supply.

For Denmark’s centre right government, its thinking is not inspired by hippy ideals, but cold, hard facts and economic sense. Fossil fuels are becoming increasingly expensive. And in a world where vehicle ownership is set to rise at incredible rates, it does take a truly forward thinking country to realise that the current path of economic dependence on fossil fuels is not sustainable. With oil comfortably sitting over $100 a barrel, a world built for the internal combustion engine is going to be a world that many will not be able to afford. To keep a population mobile and economically active – two of the great gifts of the car – it will need a massive change in the way that people actually make those transportation choices. While India, China and Brazil are looking at plans to copy the American dream, Denmark is trying to find a path that will truly keep its citizens on the move.

And in a world which is seemingly hooked on only one path to economic growth, Denmark’s ambition is truly radical. In the short term, the effect on ordinary Danes are going to be massive. More expensive energy bills as their grids are restructured and current sources of cheap fuels such as coal are not utilised. But in the longer term, `Denmark’s foresight could prove to be a winner for this small European country. As fossil fuels continue their gradual rise in price from epensive to truly unaffordable, the Danes will find themselves in an enviable position where their citizens will be able to actually go to work and where their crops will actually grow. And this is finding a solution that does not involve Nuclear Energy, something that last year’s tragedy at Fukushima proved, is simply another dangerous source of energy.

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Seaside Postcard – Whitstble

A couple of weeks ago, I headed down to the lovely seaside town of Whitstable, out there on the Thames Estuary. Close to the Cathedral City of Canterbury, it is actually quite a charming little spot to take in some of the seaside air and to get a view of life, beyond the great metropolis. And luckily for me, it was a sunny day!

The British seaside has a huge tradition in this country. Starting with the Victorians but persisting to this day, the tradition is as follows: Queue up on a train/in traffic to get to the seaside. Exit said mode of transportation. Walk around the sea, flick some sand at each other, eat some fish and chips, have an ice cream and head back home to bed in the city before 9pm.

And because, really, that is day to the British seaside, I have avoided it at all costs. I have been to more seasides abroad than in this country. Okay, pick a country without a huge coastline like the USA, and I have still seen more seaside over there than in the UK, with its long and easily accessible coastline.

One thing being on the coast (or technically in the Thames Estuary) is that fishing is big business here. Still. You do get Oyster’s served up in buckets (what better way is there to sample such delights?). But for some reason in recent years, the oysters have moved away. The water has got too warm. Some blame the London Array, which is easily visible from all over Whitstable, and some blame added pollution. But whatever, the climate and the seaside is changing. For, this area is the place that will be blighted by Boris Island, should that project ever get off the ground. But for now, that development, should it ever happen, is a generation away. And you bet that the residents will fight tooth and nail to make sure it is not built. After all, Whitstable is famed for being one of the happiest places in this part of the UK. A saunter down any of its streets will reveal families galore. Oh yes, this is where you come to live and raise children, The town is a bohemian hive of activity, with artists and readers of the Observer living here in droves, somehow making (quite a good living) from doing very little work…ah, nothing like a good grant to keep you in pocket…

One thing to mention is the castle that overlooks the town. Now, this castle is a folly. It is not real, in the sense it was not built for any defensive purpose during the turbulent Medieval period. In fact most of it is around 150 years old, built by a rich Victorian gentleman…as a place to keep his mistress…yeah, not exactly a subtle occurrence…imagine the conversation between his wife and himself.

So do take a trip, if you fancy it. I do not venture often to this part of the world, but I thoroughly recommend it. Whitstable is a fantastic little place to while away a day or so, and as trips to the easide goes, it is rather fun…

(sorry for the picture quality, but they were taken on the 3DS – not that great a camera…)

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